Wednesday 31 January 2007

A few things

First off, apologies to those whose emails I have not answered yet and for the paucity of updates over the past few days; things have been unusually hectic.

Second, and of more interest to those who are not particularly concerned with the ins and outs of my schedule, a couple of recent additions to the library.

The first of these is Bernard Joisten's recently published book on Argento, Crime Designer. I have not got all the way through it and my French is admittedly limited, but there are nevertheless enough names and reference points to make it a worthwhile read for any Argento fan.

While some of the intertextual connections such as the painters De Chirico and Magritte were familiar others, like fashion photographer / fellow “crime designer” Guy Bourdin were new. Maitland McDonagh does refer to Bourdin's Vogue colleague Helmut Newton in passing at one point in reference to an Argento murder scene (“Pics by Helmut Newton.”) but does not really explore the theme as Joisten does. (And Argento did, after all, stage a catwalk show inspired by the opening moments of Suspiria, so the connection is not just the critic angling for obscure reference points; see also some of the Bourdin wallpapers on his website.)


The second is another back issue of the late lamented European Trash Cinema, the interview issue with Steve Bissette Cannibal cover. I got a laugh when I opened this, as it was wrapped in some pages of The Daily Mail. To explain for younger and / or non-UK readers The Daily Mail is the mouthpiece of right-wing little England that was instrumental in mounting the moral panic that led to the banning of Tenebre amongst others and, albeit indirectly, gave the films and the culture around them a significant fillip.

>As far as the magazine itself goes, while the Barbara Bouchet profile covers similar ground to the one in Giallo Pages, it was the first to be published and – an argument I would say also pertains to the interviews with the likes of Antonio Margheriti and Sergio Stivaletti – the more the merrier. Besides the sheer value of the information within them, it is also the way they work as time capsule, whether Margheriti lamenting the state of the Italian film industry or Stivaletti talking about Trauma, then in pre-production.

I am sure I am not alone in wishing there was some way to get all this material back in print, that we lived in a world where an English-language Argento on Argento, Fulci on Fulci or Freda on Freda was viable. Unfortunately as it is we do not even have the full version of Spaghetti Nightmares...

Sunday 28 January 2007

Lang / Reinl / Argento - some observations on The Invisible Dr Mabuse


The theatre featured in German-set The Invisible Dr Mabuse is called the Metropole, allowing Reinl to allude to Lang's Metropolis. On the Argento side of things the re-opened cinema in the Berlin-set Demons is also the Metropole.

This Metropole is currently showing what is described as an “operetta,” set against the backdrop of the French Revolution, though it also involves ballet and “Grand Guignol”, the latter again being explictly referred to within the diegesis.

Here it is worth remembering here how the (Italian) Grand Guignol was an important influence on the development of the horror films of Bava, Freda and company, whilst the French Revolutionary setting allows for a connection to Trauma specifically, through the “moving guillotine” and credit sequence / nursery room imagery.

Compare to the divas in Argento's Opera and Phantom of the Opera

His master's voice – the shadowy but not invisible Dr Mabuse

The star / diva of the show has attracted the attentions of an invisible admirer. While he sneaks into her dressing room to better observe her, significantly he declines to speak or identify him presence. This silence helps establish that he is almost certainly not Mabuse, whose defining qualities, as per Michel Chion's notion of the acousmetre, are the voice we hear coupled with the face and mouth we do not see.

It also distinguishes him from Argento's phantoms of Opera and ... the Opera, where the acousmetric qualities of omnipotence, omnipresence and omniscience are once more foregrounded.

Bobo / Haghi / Mabuse

Among Mabuse's underlings is a clown, Bobo, who seems to function as a way for Reinl to allude to Lang's Spione, whose master spy, Haghi, is a Mabuse in all but name with his plethora of identities and disguises.

Codename EDGAR

The director also has fun when the FBI agent makes contact with the local agents, whose cover is as an opticians – i.e. precisely something concerned with vision; extending to the investigator hero's ability to see through illusion to reality – and identifies himself by (mis)reading the letters off the chart, as EDGAR, as in Wallace.

Curiously the pseudo-scientific explanation behind the film's invisibility device does not seem all that removed from the James Bond film Die Another Day, reminding us of the long pre-history of Bond and the often unacknowledged traditions going all the way back to Fantômas ("who is Fantômas?") and beyond that Bond, Mabuse and countless others tap into.

Saturday 27 January 2007

Rings of Fear / Enigma Rosso

The body of a girl, Angela Russo, from the exclusive St Teresa's School for Girls is found in the river, wrapped in plastic like Twin Peaks' Laura Palmer.

One of many Twin Peaks-isms in the film, others including a secret diary and repeated references to coffee

Detective Di Salvo (Fabio Testi) is assigned the case, but finds the investigation going slowly until the dead girl's younger sister Emily indicates that he should focus his attentions on Angela's friends Franca, Paola and Virginia, the remaining three-quarters of a group collectively known as the Inseparables (“if anybody knows what Angela was up to, it's them”) and gives him the dead girl's purse, containing clues in the form a surprisingly large sum of money and a secret diary in which the Saturdays are marked with a stylised cat.

It is less than clear what the figure means, however, until a convenient roadside billboard reveals it as the logo of brand of designer jeans sold at a boutique in town.

Further investigation soon reveals that the Inseparables were regular visitors to the place and that it is the hub for a schoolgirl prostitution ring. Unfortunately the ringleaders have friends in high places who will do whatever it takes to protect themselves, including murder.

De Salvi meets some of the the staff of St Teresa's School for Girls; comparing this to the equivalent scene in What Have You Done to Solange the influence of Massimo Dallamano is evident

Meanwhile Franca, Paola and Angela find themselves being terrorised by figure identifying themselves only as Nemesis. (“Run towards the black shadow. Death will come to meet you and your deepest desires will then come true. Nemesis.”)

The Inseparables in the shower and under observation, perhaps by Il Gatto dagli occhi di giada?

With no fewer than six writers working on the script for Rings of Fear, it is not surprising that the end results are somewhat confused at times, most notably in the handling of Di Salvo's relationship with his kleptomaniac partner Christina; fed up with his devotion to the job, she announces that if he leaves she will not be there when he returns and follows through on the threat – with no obvious effect upon him or the subsequent narrative.

Nevertheless, anyone who has seen What Have You Done to Solange or What Have They Done to Your Daughters will have no difficulty in picking out the dominant contribution of Massimo Dallamano – whose accidental death in 1976 robbed him the chance to complete the trilogy – through the private Catholic girls' school environs, complete with shower-room peeping tom and line-up of the teachers / suspects; backstreet abortions gone wrong; sex and drug orgies, all the way down to a vague fairground motif as Di Salvo drags one suspect (played by Jess Franco regular Jack Taylor) onto a roller-coaster to facilitate extracting the information he needs.

Il gatto a nove code?

Unfortunately the film also shows a distinct case of diminishing returns, with director Alberto Negrin – whose sole film this seems to have been, the rest of his career having been spent in television – failing to achieve the same degree of critical distance from the exploitative material as did his predecessor. Thus, for instance, while he cuts in close-ups of the shower-room voyeur's eye, the broader theme is not really integrated into the proceedings in a way that makes the viewer think about his own responses to the scene.

Yet another fall from a great height

The casting of Testi as police investigator makes for some fascinating contrasts and comparisons with Solange, the actor having played the amateur investigator / suspect there, with the differences in attitude between the early 1970s giallo-krimi and the late poliziotto-giallo seemingly encapsulated by the poliziotto directness of Di Salvo's approach (“Somebody with a cock this big raped Angela Russo and threw her in the river!”) against the krimi restraint and discretion shown by the Scotland Yard man.

As with Daughters, meanwhile, the film testifies to the widespread sense of social malaise prevalent as the anni di piombo wore on, whether the headmistress of the school – at times perhaps recalling a real-world version of Suspiria's Tanzacademie – who is is most concerned with preserving its reputation, yet does not care about the sometimes dubious family circumstances of her pupils so long as their fees are forthcoming; the consistent thwarting of good cops by their superiors (“Rich, influential men pay well for teenage favours,” indeed); or even such minor details as the boutique shop assistant closely scrutinising the bill used to pay for a pair of jeans.

Friday 26 January 2007

Another site well worth a visit

Italian Soundtracks -

Loads of useful information and cover images from original releases by CAM, Gemelli and company, with listings by label, composer and so on.

So Sweet, So Dead / Rivelazioni di un maniaco sessuale al capo della squadra mobile

A maniac is murdering the unfaithful wives of prominent citizens. He leaves incriminating photographs of the women and their lovers, but removes the men's faces to protect / conceal their identities.

Being naked playing dead - the maniac's first victim

Inspector Capuano (a dubbed Farley Granger) is assigned the case. While pathologist Professor Casali (Chris Avram) offers useful information as to the killer's modus operandi and motivation, Capuano finds his investigations otherwise stalled at every turn by his superiors' insistence that he focus on the usual suspects and take a softly-softly approach in dealing with the lovers and husbands of the victims.

Prof. Casali offers his expert opinion as to the killer's method and motive; note the mirror / distortion

As the killer's depredations continue a number of suspects come to the fore, including a morgue attendant with an unhealthy enthusiasm for his work (Luciano Rossi) and lawyer Paolo Santangeli (Silvano Tranquilli).

A parade of the usual suspects; Capuano knows he is looking in the wrong place with them

“No woman is going to marry a man who works at my job, you see. Sooner or later they find out about the corpses, and it's finished before I can get started. ”

“Poor Serena. She may have lacked discretion but she certainly didn't warrant her awful end.”

“Why should we react like you? He only kills unfaithful wives.”

Though losing its way somewhat as it enters its second act, as Capuano's investigation is temporarily sidelined in favour of that undertaken by Santangeli's teenage daughter Bettina, this 1972 giallo redeems itself somewhat with a memorable final act; unfortunately this also makes it difficult to review without spoiling it for the first-time viewer.

What can be said is that the film as a whole operates at the sleazier and trashier end of the giallo spectrum, with the majority of the female roles, including those of Susan Scott and Femi Benussi, pretty much of the thankless get-naked-then-die variety.

Whether the film is actually misogynistic as often claimed is however debatable. I would tend to argue that, like many of its type, it is really more misanthropic, declining to present anyone in a particularly flattering light.

True, this is unlikely to satisfy anyone who feels that the female is more moral than the male, or that by merely reporting on the existence of a sexual double standard but not overtly critiquing it the film-makers were contributing in their own small way to its continuance.

Here, we have to remember that the social / cultural norm in Italy circa 1972 would have been that a man in a prominent position should have both wife and a mistress, and that if he did not then there was quite possibly something wrong with or suspect about him. The reverse of this, meanwhile, was that the the man could not admit to being cuckolded by his wife being another man's mistress.

Though the most obvious example of this within the film is Susan Scott's husband, a failed suicide who succeeded only in crippling himself instead – a symbolic castration if ever there was one – it also seems worth considering whether the fact that the Capuano's marriage is without issue says something about the Inspector's masculine potency – or lack thereof – and / or if his apparent fidelity marks him out as someone too idealistic for his chosen career. Indeed, by extension, we might question whether he is thus being positioned as someone who has more in common with the moralistic avenger than he might care to acknowledge.

Tellingly both the maniac and the police use the same technologies of surveillance

Besides the killer's archetypal garb, a number of other motifs provide points of interest for students of the genre. At one point, for example, the wives / mistresses of some of the local notables discuss the case at their regular visit to the beauty salon, reminding one of the role played by the same location in The Black Belly of the Tarantula and indeed suggesting an alternate blackmail based version of the same “forbidden photos” type scenario. At another Capuano has one of the victims' funerals caught on camera in the hope that catching some detail that will break the case open. Unlike the ill-educated and naïve populace of the southern village in Don't Torture a Duckling, however, these northern urban sophisticates are too clever – or blasé – to reveal themselves in this way.

Roberto Bianchi Montero's direction is the kind of hit-and-miss thing that might be expected from a 60-something film-maker whose undistinguished career had seen him dabble in a succession of filone over the decades, his suspenseful and stylish handling of a murder on the train negated by the laughably inappropriate use of slow-motion in the murder on the beach.

The black-clad moral avenger

The film's titles foreground archetypal giallo imagery and technology the black gloves, the knife, the telephone etc.

Giorgio Gaslini's score comprises two repeated cues, one playing over the main titles and emotional high points like the funeral aforementioned funeral sequence thereafter and the other accompanying the killer's appearances. While the latter cue uses something similar to the “make a jazz noise here” approach of many of Morricone's contributions to the genre, it arguably functions in a fundamentally different way otherwise, more a leitmotif and less a tension-raising device, precisely because the pervading sense of cynicism prevents us from really caring about the next beautiful woman about to die.

All told, So Sweet, So Dead is a dubiously entertaining giallo whose view of the world might be summed up as through urine-coloured lenses at a half-empty J&B glass.

Thursday 25 January 2007

Die Schlangengrube und das Pende / Castle of the Walking Dead

The obvious question that you might have is why discuss a German horror film in a blog whose masthead proclaims it to be “about the Italian giallo and director Dario Argento in particular". While I am unsure if I can provide a completely satisfactory justification, here are a few points.

First, a case might be made for the film's director, Harald Reinl, as perhaps one of the most important yet unaknowledged figures in Eurocult as a whole, who made important contributions to the western and krimi in particular and, through them, helped lay many of the foundations for the likes of Leone's spaghetti westerns and Argento's gialli.

Second, while Argento has often proclaimed himself more influenced by Lang than Hitchcock, Reinl made his indebtedness to his countryman explicit throughout his ouevre which includes two Dr Mabuse films and a two-part version of Die Nibelungen.

Third, Castle of the Walking Dead itself is heavily indebted to Italian gothics such as Bava's Black Sunday, Ferroni's Mill of the Stone Women and Margheriti's Castle of Blood.

In sum, then, we have a film-maker and a film that intersects with our area of interest in a number of ways.

A storyteller's naive, yet macabre representation of Regula's demise

Mont Elise examines a Bosch-inspired mural

In truth, however, the most important thing is that Die Schlangengrube und das Pende - i.e. the Pit and the Pendulum, though the faithfulness of the film as a Poe adaptation is signalled by the way the English version here describes the short story as a novel - is simply too good a film to ignore, its many virtues coming through even on the Aikman Archive's quite frankly horrible looking Castle of the Walking Dead DVD.

The film opens with an overt nod to Black Sunday as Christopher Lee's Count Regula has a spiked metal mask placed on his face and is sentenced to be quartered for his heinous crimes, too horrible to really describe (at least in this version). He does not seem unduly concerned, however, and instead proclaims that he will have his revenge on the Von Marienberg and Brabant families.

Thirty-five years later Lex Barker's square-jawed hero Roger Mont Elise arrives in town, seeking the whereabouts of Regula's castle and receiving a distinct lack of assistance from the locals in time-honoured gothic horror tradition.

Nevertheless, Roger and a bluff priest manage to determine the location of the castle and even get a coachman, however reluctantly, to take them there.

As the journey continues they take on board Lilian von Brabant (Karin Dor) and her maid Babette, whose own coach has broken down, before things take a distinct turn for the grotesque, with the trees of the mist-enshrouded forest being liberally festooned with human bodies and body parts.

Neither this nor the terrified coachman's demise is sufficient to faze Mont Elise, however, leading him, von Brabant and company directly into the awaiting Regula's trap. For – quelle surpriseMont Elise is actually a von Marienberg and Brabant the 13th virgin the undead Regula needs to complete the ritual interrupted 35 years before...

A selection of images justifying The Torture Chamber of Dr Sadism and Pit and the Pendulum AKAs for the film

While the film is a collection of cliché moments and the top-billed Lee largely confined to the opening and closing moments, the production design and visuals are truly astonishing even here, making one wonder what it must have been like on the big screen. Interested parties are advised to seek out the new German DVD for an approximation; those who already have the likes of Aikman Archive's version will know that it is a film that warrants a double-dip.

The Strangler of Blackmoor Castle

Lucius Clark has just learned that he is to be made a peer of the realm for services to Queen and Country. His joy is short lived, however, as a masked avenger visits and informs that his life will be made into a living hell until he divulges the whereabouts of some stolen diamonds.

With the avenger murdering one of Clark's servants – and branding a letter M into the dead man's forehead – Scotland Yard, in the form of Inspector Jeff Mitchell and his sidekick Watson (sic), are called in to investigate, their arrival coinciding with those of Lucius's journalist niece, Claridge (Karin Dor), and a rival reporter.

To further complicate things Claridge is about to turn 21, and thereby come into a sizeable inheritance. If Lucius cannot present her with the money then, according to her lawyer Tromby – a sinister figure who has plans of his own – the peerage will be forfeit.

Unfortunately for Lucius when he attempts to send one of his servants to sell some freshly cut gems – butler Anthony is actually a gem-cutter; albeit one whose obsessive desire to prevent his precious masterpieces leaving led to jail and disrepute – to his contacts at the Old Scavenger Inn, the strangler is waiting and decapitates the man, then sends his head back in a hatbox.

The only clue to his identity is that he is missing a finger, but this is not much help when just about everyone except the nine-fingered Lucius habitually wears gloves...

The M allows the seemingly Lang-obsessed Reinl the opportunity to pay hommage to his master, Fritz Lang; Reinl also directed a couple of Dr Mabuse films and a two-part version of Der Nibelungen.

Directed by frequent series contributor Harald Reinl from Bryan Edgar rather than Edgar Wallace source material, this 1963 krimi is slightly disadvantaged by the general absence of familiar genre faces – only Reinl's then-wife Dor is really immediately recognisable – but nevertheless otherwise delivers the goods with that reassuring combination of convoluted mystery, quirky characterisation; askew view of London, England; stalwart Scotland Yard investigator; damsel in distress; femme fatale; plentiful red herrings; an old dark house replete with secret passages and hidden chambers, and so on.

Black glove action

Though there is an emphasis on black gloves throughout, their function is a narrative rather than fetish one – whodunnit; who is the nine-fingered man? This in turn indicates a key difference between the typical krimi and giallo, with psychoanalytic approaches fundamentally less appropriate here, where to decapitate is just a convenient murder method, with the strangler also happily using a gun, a knife and even a diamond cutter where convenient, and a cigar – a box of which are used by Lucius in his attempt to transfer the stones – really just a cigar.

This is not, however, to discount that the preponderance of foundlings and illegitimate children and general concern with origins in Edgar Wallace's oeuvre as a whole could be unconsciously related to his own biographical circumstances, nor that in imitating his father's style Bryan Edgar Wallace also perhaps mimicked these subtexts.

The pragmatic Strangler really uses whatever is to hand, including some proto menacing with power tools

Oskar Sala's score is more experimental than those provided by regular krimi composers Martin Bottcher and Peter Thomas elsewhere, foregoing jazzy themes in favour of the weird tonalities of his mixture-trautonium, a synthesiser-type electronic instrument. As with Hitchcock's The Birds, on which Sala also worked around the same time, it is questionable how far one would want to listen to it in its own right but in the context of the film it certainly adds an extra unnerving edge to the proceedings.

The US DVD from Alpha is difficult to recommend, on account of a a washed out, pan and scan and probably cut presentation, evidently prepared for the American market by the reference to a “station wagon” rather than the more British / English term “estate car”.

Sunday 21 January 2007


While out walking Christian Bauman (Robert Hoffman) and his girlfriend Xenia notice a woman's body lying on the beach. Going to investigate, they find the woman, Barbara (Suzy Kendall), had merely passed out from the heat. Then, when their backs are turned she disappears, leaving behind a thermos flask with the word 'Tucania' on it.

Later that evening the couple spot a boat of this name and go on board. Christian finds Barbara again and, with Xenia going home with a (perhaps too convenient) headache, they get talking and wind up (again with remarkable ease) back at her place.

A multitude of broken doll imagery from the start of Spasmo; Hans Bellmer or Trevor Brown might like this film.

Before she will make love to him, Barbara wants Christian to shave. “I'm very suspicious of men with beards,” she explains. While he is doing so a gunman – who we had earlier seen being telephoned about Tucania – sneaks in through the bathroom window and threatens Christian with his silenced pistol. When the gunman is momentarily distracted, Christian manages to disarm him and, in the ensuring struggle, accidentally shoots him, dead.

Barbara suggests that they should flee. Just as they are about to drive off, Barbara's over-possessive friend Alex, from the boat, shows up, announcing that they have something important to talk about. Even more curiously, he seems to know that something is up:

“For God sake Christian what's wrong? You look like you just murdered someone.”
“What the hell do you mean.”
“Exactly what I said”

This makes Christian realise that he has left his distinctive – i.e. incriminating – medallion in Barbara's bathroom and dashes off to retrieve it, only to discover that the body has vanished...
What the hell is going on and what does it have to do with all these mutilated mannequins that are turning up all over the coast...

Some of the compositions re-iterate the theme of being in a world of representations and constructions.

To say much more would likely spoil your enjoyment of this deliberately convoluted and confusing 1974 giallo from Umberto Lenzi.

The key to appreciating it seems to be to recognise it is less “beyond Psycho” as one advertising line claimed as “beyond Vertigo” or “the forerunner to The Game,” as we gradually come to realise – or think we realise – the nature of the “family plot” against Christian who happens to be the major stockholder in his brother Fritz's plastics company; it will perhaps suffice to add that it is all about an inheritance. (As an aside, one wonders if the presence of Caroll Baker in Fincher's film signals his awareness of Lenzi's gialli more generally. Then again, given that Lenzi's self-congratulatory tone in his DVD interviews suggest he would never tire of mentioning this, it is perhaps better that we do not know.)

A blade (or two) in the dark

Understood in this context, as part of the game Lenzi and company are playing, Spasmo's plot contrivances and portentous dialogue emerge as positive strengths. (“You know what? You can keep your lovely beard and leave. It's really a very silly game.” “No in fact it's a beautiful game and I'm not going to leave, even if you kill me.”) One also feels, however, that it is unfortunate that the filmmakers tried to conceal things from us to the extent that they did and that the balance between shock and suspense is weighted too far towards the former, making it harder to really engage with Christian and his predicament (or, for that matter, that of the head of the conspiracy against him).

Stuffed Psycho-style birds are another recurring visual motif in Spasmo

Something similar pertains with regard to Lenzi's direction, where the incessant zooms and close-ups of potentially meaningful details – or, in the case of the dolls, retrospectively meaningful details – serves to overwhelm and tire the viewer when a more subtle and restrained mise-en-scene, allowing for a growing sense of unease / paranoia / horror, would ultimately have been more effective.

This said, the film does look exceptionally good, with nice use of subjective camera; convincing night work contrasted with brightly lit daytime scenes; and even the odd moment of visual poetry, as when Lenzi racks focus from abstracted red shapes against the background of the sea to reveal they are roses. (A moment crucially that is also actually integrated into the whole, in that the key detail within the ensuing sequence revolves around the gardener's scissors as blade / phallic symbol / trigger to memory.)

A rose by any other name; note that the gardening scissors are the same as the bloodied ones above

While not wanting to read too much in, it is this visual that also seems to encapsulates and reiterate the film's failings. What we have with the shift from “red” to “rose” is a situation where there is need for background / foreground contrast to make proper sense of things. But within the film as a whole there is too much that is undifferentiated and pitched at the same level, making it difficult to see the wood for the trees / differentiate signal from noise.

Part of what makes the film worthwhile is thus the impression that Lenzi was actually trying to do too much for a change, not just going through the motions. One suspects the problem is that, with a relative paucity of his stock-in-trade – violence and action – he was concerned whether the story would be enough to hold audience attention and over-compensated in trying to inject more style and visual impact in than was required. A comparison with Fulci's gialli might be instructive in this regard, as he shows an awareness of when to prioritise narrative over visuals and vice-versa and, more importantly, how to bring them together; one can only wonder at what he might have made of Spasmo had he gotten to direct it as originally planned.

The nature of the work obviously makes it difficult to evaluate the performances in conventional terms, as with the exception of Christian – with Hoffmann's role here bearing obvious comparison to the one he played in the La Bambola episode of Door into Darkness – everyone is already playing a role with greater or lesser degrees of conviction and competence and, in a sense, already performing as “the femme fatale”, “the gunman” and so on.

A key moment in this regard, and one which allows for a positive evaluation of Kendall's performances as Barbara, based on her false then true feelings for Christian, is the point when she tells him that she is “not a strong woman” then repeats this same line to herself and the audience after he has left; despite the difficulties we have in figuring our her character at this point, it works at the emotional level and suggests that she was not just a pretty face.

The one aspect of Spasmo that needs no qualification and can be recommended unreservedly its the Ennio Morricone score, in which gentle yet always uneasy listening themes predominate.