Friday 31 August 2007

Al tropico del cancro / Tropic of Cancer / Death in Haiti

While vacationing in Haiti with his wife Grace (Anita Strindberg), Fred Wright (Gabriel Tinti) decides to make an impromptu visit on an old friend, Williams (Anthony Steffen), a doctor.

A classic giallo opening as the plane touches down

Fred's motives are not entirely pure, however, with it soon emerging that he is one of various parties interested in a new wonder drug that Williams has developed, some of whom will stop at nothing - including murder - to secure it for themselves. (Genre fans may be reminded of the plot of Bava's Five Dolls for an August Moon in this regard, with the brightly coloured visuals and Piero Umiliani's not dissimilar lounge score reinforcing this intertextual connection.)

The touristic gaze at the exoticised other? Tinti and Strindberg on vacation

The first complication is that the idealistic Williams appears to have no interest in selling the drug, regardless of the price...

The second complication is that the drug, the sample of which has gone missing, may in any case also have potentially fatal side effects for those who take it, with one of Williams's native assistants turning up dead soon afterwards, his blood being almost like water in its appearance and chemical composition...

A zombie?

A representative of corrupt officialdom?

A western capitalist neo-imperialist?

The man in the white suit? Umberto Raho has a small but pivotal role

Although showcasing a number of characteristic giallo themes, being bookended by the arrival and departure of a Pan Am jet and featuring the obligatory unidentified black gloved killer (or killers) working their way through a swathe of victims, the gloves admittedly somewhat incongruous in the tropical setting, Death in Haiti AKA Tropic of Cancer offsets such routine elements thanks to its atypical setting (rum rather than J&B being the drink of choice) and the inclusion of some documentary style footage of cockfighting, a slaughterhouse and voodoo rituals.

Williams: Before I met you, I heard you had a reputation for deep sea fishing. Are you still handy with a rod?
Wright: I thought you were the one handy with a rod - or at least that's what I've heard.
Williams: I wouldn't enter the competition with you Fred
Wright: I thought you already had

A credit at the end identifies this footage as having been taken from reality, with one having no reason to doubt this; if the voodoo footage is deployed as “exotic” backdrop for a thriller, this still accords with that Griersonian definition of documentary as “creative treatment of actuality”.

A shocking discovery in the abbatoir

These elements also transcend the mondo label that they might unthinkingly evoke.

Yes, we can no doubt impute that they express the “civilised” white man's fear of the “primitive” black Other, with that inevitable racist emphasis on the “threat” black male sexuality poses towards the white woman, as the exclusive property of the white man, but the truth is more complex and the film's representational strategies and politics more subtle and intelligent.

In the slaughterhouse sequence the imaginary boundary between white / black, and civilised / primitive is dissolved by the rational, scientific and “humane” organisation of the plant, which Williams is required to inspect as part of his duties, the logic of its operations really no different from those of the Parisian slaughterhouse of Franju's Blood of the Beasts; it should also be noted that the sequence is not completely gratuitous in terms of plot either, insofar as the body of one of a henchman who had earlier beaten up Williams is found hanging from a meathook.

Likewise, whilst one of the voodoo sequences climaxes with the ritual sacrifice and slaugher of an cow, its throat being slit on camera, that the filmmakers also include a voodoo cum Christian wedding ceremony, an unfamiliar rite of passage becoming a familiar one as we transition from the naked bride and groom lying on mats on the ground to entering the church in black suit and white dress with veil, along with some quite extensive discussions from Williams of the origins and nature of voodoo practice, indicating a genuine anthropological interest as much as the wild eye of the stereotypical mondo filmmaker.

We can also note here a well-mounted voodoo-inspired hallucination sequence in which Grace unconsciously attempts to work through / out her contradictory feelings towards her husband, Williams and her present environment. Visually reminiscent of both Polanski's Repulsion and Fulci's Lizard in a Woman's Skin - the latter also coincidentally featuring Strindberg - the dynamic of attraction / repulsion that emerges is one that speaks of both hopes and fears, of repressed desires that return precisely because they can never be entirely eliminated.

In dreams I can rule your life

If it is probably fair to say that the attempt to combine documentary and giallo aesthetics and approaches does not always succeed, the filmmakers certainly deserve credit for trying to do something different. The combination of talent is interesting to note in this regard: Gian Paolo Lomi and Eduardo Mulargia co-directed, while Mulargia and Steffen co-wrote, perhaps suggestive of being both one of the Brazilian lead's more committed projects (generally just an actor, he also co-authored and produced Django the Bastard) and of a distinct division of labour amongst the directors. For while Mulargia can easily be characterised as a run of the mill filone filmmaker - albeit with films like Death in Haiti as a salutory reminder that there is frequently more to the formula film than simply following the formula - Lomi is something of a mystery man, with the IMDB listing only one other credit for him.

Death in Haiti

One of the film's most memorable presences, Alfio Nicolosi, who plays an admittedly rather stereotypically gay figure, would also appear to have only ever appeared in this film, something of a suprise seeing as his corpulent, cherub gone to seed form would seem to have made him a natural for playing decadent figures for Fellini or in the Decamerotics of the time.

Wednesday 29 August 2007

I vizi morbosi di una governante / Crazy Desires of a Murderer

Returning home after a round the world trip, Ileana telephones her elderly, wheelchair-bound father, the Baron de Chablais, to let him know she is safe and is also bringing some friends with her to the family villa. Before he can voice his opinion on the matter, father is surprised by the bloody handed figure who has been creeping through the chambers and passageways of the place.

Even the titles have that something about them

The credits roll, over a mournful Piero Piccioni cue; the rest of the score however sounding like the work of others with a number of cues that sound like things you have heard before somewhere – I think I caught Ennio Morricone's Lizard in a Woman's Skin theme for one.

It's something of a surprise when for us when Ileana and friends arrive and her father is very much alive, if hardly the epitome of health. More significant, however, it also reminds us of how easily we can be led astray by expectations and surface appearances, a theme that recurs as Ileana then explains how she took advantage of connections to smuggle rare art objects back with her; unbeknownst to her new “friends”, Bobby and Pier-Luigi, have also hidden their package of opium in one of these selfsame vases.

A profound commentary on the rapaciousness of western man?

That night another one of the group, Elsa, is stabbed to death and has her eyeballs removed, introducing an unwelcome complication for Bobby, Pier-Luigi and their criminal associates in the form of a police investigation...

More talk is cheap padding

Released on video by Redemption back in the 1990s, I vizi morbosi di una governante / Crazy Desires of a Murderer apparently sold somewhere in the region of 150 copies. It's a figure that not only gives some indication of the obscurity of veteran director Peter Rush / Filippo Walter Ratti's 1977 giallo but also, some would probably contend, an indication of its quality – or lack thereof. For this is the kind of thriller that doesn't really offer much to get excited about, going through the motions with a distinct lack of pace, style or impact.

A classic trauma and an important clue to the identity of the killer?

And yet, it has that strange charm to it, that indefinable quality that keeps you watching regardless. Perhaps it's the horror of the hairstyles and fashions on display, perhaps it's the way in which the lack of action makes it easy to slip into a near-hallucinatory state of mind, but the film does something...

Note the white surgical gloves in lieu of the black leather ones

Classic exploitation moments # 239

Tuesday 28 August 2007

Passi di morte perduti nel buio / Death Steps in the Dark

Of the numerous directors who have made gialli over the years, Maurizio Predeaux is one of the more difficult to get a handle on. His first foray into the filone, 1973's Death Carries a Cane, makes sense as an excursion into a vogueish, if increasingly tired form, but would seem to have done less than spectacularly with critics and audiences alike. As such, it's hard to explain why the director should then have decided to return to the giallo with this 1977 entry, coming as it did at a time when the form's most successful practitioner, Dario Argento, had temporarily shifted his focus to out-and-out fantasy horror with Suspiria.

The abstract, lava-lamp titles recall Lizard in a Woman's Skin, albeit to lesser effect

Whatever the case, Predeaux is nothing if not consistent: both his gialli start off well, with a strong and engaging situation centred around a personable protagonist (Susan Scott in Death Carries a Cane, Leonard Mann here) but then proceed to lose their way on account of some ill-advised attempts at humour coupled with a general lack of aptitude that no amount of enthusiasm in delivering the generic goods can compensate for.

Approximately 2 minutes 30 seconds in and the black gloves make their first appearance

It's sometimes suggested that the writer-director was attempting to spoof the genre, an argument that would make sense were it not for the way in which he serves up plenty of sex and violence without hint of irony or distance.

Strangers on a train, one of whom may be the murderer

Whatever the case, Death Steps in the Dark opens on the train to Athens, where Italian photographer Luciano and Scandinavian model Ingrid are going on assignment.

Suddenly their compartment is plunged into darkness.

When the light returns, one of their fellow passengers, a nervous young woman, is dead, Luciano's pen-knife protruding from her chest.

The police interview Luciano, Ingrid and the other passengers in the compartment, including a suspicious priest – albeit Greek Orthodox rather than Roman Catholic, in accord with the Greek setting – but are unwilling or unable to actually charge any of them, though they do confiscate Luciano's passport much like as in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage.

The fragmentation and fetishisation of the female body

Following some gratuitous lesbian activity – assuming, that is, any scenes of sapphic activity can ever actually be labelled gratuitous when we're speaking of an exploitation cinema targeted at male heterosexual spectators such as this – and the emergence of blackmail and drug-smuggling subplots, there is then another murder, the victim another fellow-passenger from the train.

When the man looks?

The mundane nature of the crimes also serves, however, to undercut the murder scenes, insofar as any fetish element within them, such as the obligatory black gloves and “phallocentric cutlery” employed by the murderer, is exposed as merely playing to convention; that this is what a giallo does.

Blink and you'll miss them inserts of the killer's eye, attempting a Cat o' Nine Tails treatment, but failing

On this occasion, however, circumstantial evidence also points firmly towards Luciano who thus goes on the run, disguising himself as a hooker, and, with the aid of Ingrid and Little Boffo, the youngest and dumbest of a family of good-natured if money grabbing career criminals, seeks out the real culprit, culminating in an unmasking scene that, featuring as it does a monster mask, wouldn't be far out of place in an episode of Scooby Doo...

The fleet is in Man(n) in drag

If nothing else, the film's treatment of the cross-dressing theme, when contrasted with that of the likes of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, confirms a point that has often been made by film theorists in relation to dominant cinematic and cultural norms: men dressing as women equals funny, women dressing as men equals threatening.

A gratuitous shower scene

One saving grace is Riz Ortolani's score, though it surely deserved a better fate than this...