Wednesday 28 November 2007

Ferdinando Baldi

I was saddened to discover that Ferdinando Baldi, the director of a number of interesting spaghetti westerns such as Blindman and Il Pistolero dell'Ave Maria along with the Five Dolls for an August Moon-esque Agatha Christie inspired giallo Nove ospiti per un delitto died a couple of weeks ago.

It's not been a good year for Euro-cult people, but unfortunately things are only going to get worse given the average age of the surving personnel (Baldi was born in 1917) and the moribund nature of the popular film industry in most countries.

Video Mania: Guida alle VHS rare e collezione

This 2005 book from Nocturno and Kultvideo presents an overview of the early years of Italian language home video, showcasing a selection of the rarest and most interesting genre releases, with gialli, horror, westerns, erotics and poliziotto well-represented.

Curated by Mario Degiovanni and Davide Pulici, it's strongly reminiscent of an Italian version of the likes of FAB Press's Shock Horror, with the authors doing for Italian language product what Marc Morris and company have done for British pre-certs in providing an archeological overview and field guide for the collector.

Indeed, anyone familiar with the UK scene may find some surprises in the labels included, with Cinehollywood well represented within the 120 tapes profiled, while Fletcher Home Video, it turns out, operated in Italy as Techno.

Given the preponderance of Italian product in the British video nasty listings, it's also fascinating to see how things went the other way, with films like Anthony Balch's Horror Hospital and James Kenelm Clarke's Expose (as La Casa sulla collina di paglia) sitting alongside the work of Fulci, Bava and Franco – the difference being the absence of something like the Video Recordings Act to condemn some tapes to obscurity and elevate others to cult status.

There appear to be a few factual errors – Lemora, a Child's Tale of the Supernatural is credited as a British film from 1963 – but these pale into insignificance against the wealth of information and trivia included within, even if the chances of seeing many of the films profiled, such as Renato Polselli's Oscenita or Demofilo Fidani's porno Burning Lips, probably lie somewhere in the range of slim to none.

Tuesday 27 November 2007

Vacanze per un massacro / Vacation for a Massacre

Convicted killer Gio Brezzi (Joe Dallesandro) escapes from prison and, having stolen a car and casually committed another murder, makes a beeline for the isolated farmhouse in the country where he cached the loot from a previous job. Asking a local, he learns that the place is used as a weekend home by some Romans – not what he wanted to hear considering it is late Friday afternoon. Climbing in through a window he discovers that the fireplace has been bricked over, necessitating a spot of digging to uncover the money. But with a car pulling up outside, there is hardly time to get a pickaxe, never mind excavate.

The sisters and vital supplies for the weekend, although the J&B box doesn't contain bottles of whiskey as it turns out

Inside the car are Sergio (Gianni Macchia), his wife Liliana (Patrizia Behn) and her younger sister Paola (Lorraine De Selle). Lurking outside and observing the trio, Gio learns that Sergio plans to go hunting the next morning, while Liliana will be going into town for supplies. Paola, meanwhile, is not happy that Sergio is going hunting, as she had only come along on the basis of having a chance to be with Sergio, with whom she is having an affair, while her sister was out of the away; as her sister and Sergio retire to their room and make love, Paola masturbates in frustration.

The next morning, with Sergio and Liliana having left, Gio sneaks up on the sunbathing Paola, knocks her out, takes her inside and starts digging up the fireplace.

Paola makes an unsuccessful bid for freedom

After awakening, Paola makes an attempt to escape, so Gio knocks her unconscious again. This time Gio wakes Paola and demands that she make him coffee. She does, and then proceeds flirts with him. If Paola's intention was to get Gio to lower his guard it doesn't seem to work, save to raise the tension and unease, insofar as his response is to tell her to start digging. She does and after a while stops, asserting that she is too tired to continue. She also confesses to being “all sweaty” and proceeds to flirt with him again.

Gio tries to make sense of Paola's signals

Decidedly uncomfortable no-means-yes sex ensues, with Paola telling Gio post-coitus that he's “a good lover” before making yet another escape attempt, again unsuccessful, which prompts Gio to tie up and gag her.

As does the audience

At this point Liliana returns and is promptly given the same treatment. Sergio arrives shortly afterwards and, also taken by surprise, fares little better, losing his shotgun to Gio in the process. Yet another unsuccessful escape attempt ensues, prompting Gio to let Liliana know that her husband and sister are having an affair...

It would be unfair to say anything more at this point except that Vacanze per un massacro / Vacation for a Massacre has a lot to recommend it.

Obviously the film is yet another of those sullo stesso filone Last House on the Left in which the boundaries between the ordinary bourgeois and the psychopath are progressively blurred.

Though it became increasingly difficult to put a new spin on such subject matter with the procession of Late Night Trains, La Settima Donna, Fight for Your Life, Hitch-Hike, House on the Edge of the Park and so forth, director and co-writer Fernando Di Leo, working from a story by spaghetti western specialist Mario Gariazzio / Roy Garrett, succeeds in stamping his own identity on the proceedings.

The first key to this is the way he uses Luis Enrique Bacalov and Osanna's music, the majority of which had previously seen service in Milan Calibre 9, to drive and comment upon the the action, most notably with an ironic lyrical quotation from Hamlet (“to sleep, to dream”) in the build up to the devastating final act.

The second is the sense of intelligence that pervades the film, as when the familiar device of having the radio broadcast be interrupted to announce the escaped killer in the vicinity is not done in the usual perfunctory and functional way, whereby someone switches on the radio and immediately hears the relevant information, instead being seamlessly and believably integrated: in the farmhouse Paola listens to the radio, an advert for Fernet Branca and then yet another pop song, before a visual cut to Liliana in the car heading into town establishes the temporal unity of the images, shortly after which the broadcast is interrupted.

Oh Bondage, Up Yours

The same thoughfulness is apparent in the handling of the always problematic seduction and sex scenes.

If it is difficult for Gio and the audience alike to unequivocally read the signals Paola is giving off in particular, this is surely the intention given her evident sexual frustrations, current predicament and the general way she has been established as someone who is paradoxically both unconscious of her body and supremely aware of its power, her nude displays thereby oscillating between documentary style anthropological factual display and exploitation film attraction.

Does Paola have sex with Gio because she wants to, because it affords the opportunity to escape, because she considers it a preferable alternative to an inevitable more forced rape, because of masochistic or nymphomaniac tendencies, as means of getting at Sergio, or some confused combination of all these?

Given the presence of De Selle, Di Leo's accomplishments fall into sharper relief when we contrast his film with Ruggero Deodato's House on the Edge of the Park, the comparison gaining further relevance from the way in which Deodato’s cannibal films exhibit that same kind of anthropological / exploitation combination.

Whereas character and situation in House on the Edge of the Park come across as heavily contrived, only making a vague retrospective sense in relation to the poorly integrated shock ending that unsatisfactorily explains why Annie Belle’s and De Selle’s characters have acted the way they did in going along with – or at least appearing to go along with – their attackers, here Paola and Liliana’s actions feel credible throughout.

The brave performances from De Selle and Patrizia Behn contribute immeasurably here, the former’s willingness to bare all in the name of art in marked contrast to the surprising reticence she displayed in Lenzi’s Cannibal Ferox and, as such, perhaps further indicating the difference in accomplishment between Di Leo here and many of his peers.

Another classic Dallesandro expression

Though Dallesandro’s flesh isn’t on display to anything like the same extent as De Selle’s – a possible double standard, one has to admit – his characteristic non-acting proves curiously effective in relation to the whole, precisely because it renders Gio and his understandings of the developing situation that bit more difficult to read, allowing for a greater degree of sympathy for a character who could easily have been a two-dimensional cartoon monster.

Or, to put it another way, he’s more Ricky or Junior than Alex or Krug if we’re making comparisons with Last House on the Left and House on the Edge of the Park respectively.

As such, it’s perhaps Sergio who is the real villain of the piece on account of his duplicity and selfishness; a positioning that perhaps corresponds with the milieu presented in Di Leo’s films as a whole if we think of his frequent emphasis on the small time criminal as anti-hero in positive opposition to the faceless crime-as-routine business model.

While the low budget nature of the film is apparent in its rough-and-ready aesthetic, the small cast and one location set up, Di Leo again turns these limitations to his advantage, the interior sequences having an improvisatory, fly on the wall you are there rawness and the over-exposed exteriors conveying a sense of oppressiveness.

“Come away with me. Please come with me. Come on” are the final lines spoken. The question is who is asking who and what prompts them.

The film is available on DVD from Raro

Monday 26 November 2007

E Tanta Paura / Plot of Fear

Two murders, those of well-known sexual deviant Mattia Grandi and a middle-aged woman, Laura Falconieri, occur on the same night in Milan, a connection between them established through what is soon to become the killer's calling card: illustrations from Pierino Porcospino / Shock Headed Peter, a tale by E T A Hoffmann.

Mattia's apartment

Complete with a representation of lion, subtly introducing a plot point

The man with the worst anglicised pseudonym, Franco Fumigalli alias Frank Smokecocks

Lieutenant Lomenzo (Michele Placido), a progressive-minded Neapolitan cop transferred up to Milan and determined to do his best to disprove Northern Italian stereotypes of their Southern countrymen is assigned the case.

One of the killer's calling cards

His investigations soon reveal that both victims were members of a group known as the Wildlife Friends. Though their name sounds innocent, their activities were decidedly less so, involving orgies at the Villa Hoffmann. Then again, immorality and illegality are not the same thing – unless you happen to be of a more conservative mindset than Lomenzo who, when asked why he doesn't arrest a couple making love in public, replies that he's “on their side.” More importantly, the group split up years ago, however, following the death of its founder and the villa's owner, Hoffmann (John Steiner) himself.

An example of the film's pervasive wit

As the “cartoon killer” continues to murder, Lomenzo makes the acquaintance of Jeanne (Corrine Clery), an associate of his girlfriend Ruth, who provides some futher clues in the case.

The first encounter between Lomenzo and Jeanne, in the lift

She confesses to Lomenzo that she was present at the Villa Hoffman on the night a prostitute, Rosa Catena, died of a heart attack at one of the Wildlife Friends' orgies after the Friends acted as if they were going to feed the girl to a tiger.

Riccio expounds his philosophy

A number of things do not make sense, however. Isn't it somewhat out of character for Rosa's former pimp, Agostino, to be seeking revenge on the remaining members of the Wildlife Friends as Jeanne contends – especially after four years have passed since her death. Wouldn't a tiger have been sent from Asia and not Africa, to which it is not a native species? Why should a vagrant glimpsed on the grounds of the villa be wearing nearly new, obviously expensive shoes? What motivates the enigmatic private investigator Pietro Riccio (Eli Wallach), who seems to have just about everyone of importance in the city – including the killers' victims – under surveillance, in providing advice and assistance to Lomenzo? Is Jeanne implicated in more than she lets on – and, if so, will the clearly infauated Lomenzo be able to separate out his professonial and the personal involments with her?

The Biancaneve style sexy cartoon

E Tanta Paura / Plot of Fear's Writer-director Paulo Cavara only made two gialli, this and the earlier Black Belly of the Tarantula, but they are enough to mark him out as someone with a distinctive take on the form. While he foregrounds the official police investigator above the conventional amateur sleuth here, this cannot entirely be explained away as a consession to the poliziotto audience insofar as the earlier film, made at the height of the post-Bird with the Crystal Plumage, used the same device.

In both cases, moreover, the cop and the mystery he investigates retain a distance from the polziotto act first, think later approach. It is not that Michele Placido or Giancarlo Giannini are incapable of doing the action man thing when required, as envinced here by the lengthy chase and fight that leads to the apprehension of Agostini, more that Cavara seems to prefer more sensitive, introspective and downright quirky cop figures above one dimensional displays of crowd-pleasing macho bullheadedness.

Put another way, it's hard to imagine Maurizio Merli entertaining the thought of eating macrobiotic food in preference to spaghetti and sugo or referencing positivist criminologist Cesare Lombroso by way of criticising his partners' common-sense approach to policework as Placido does here.

Politics and mirrors

Although such moments lighten the mood they are never allowed to dominate, with the audience constantly being reminded of the deadly serious nature of the game: No sooner have we been introduced to Grandi in his garishly decorated apartment and Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club band reject outfit and his particular sexual peccadilloes (“Did you ever have him?” “No, I'm in the lesbian department. He hung out at the S&M fetish area in Porta Volta”) than he is strangled to death. The Amuck-like pornographic cartoon that plays in Jeanne's account of activities at the Villa Hoffmann likewise raises a smile, but were's soon dragged back down to reality as the luckless, soon to be dead, Rosa is called upon to service one of the guests with a blow-job under the table while the others attempt to guess who the lucky man is from the expression on his face. Then there's the moment when one of the rapidly dwindling number of Wildlife Friends, having decided to get out of Milan before it is too late, gives the finger to a hitchhiker on the autostrada only for his own car to break down and the driver of the passing lorry he tries to flag down give him the same treatment, after which he is then run down by the next vehicle...

The film was co-scripted by frequent Fellini collabotor and Deep Red co-writer Bernardino Zapponi, with a sense of connection to the Argento film through the haunted house, children's story and return of the past motifs. At the same time, however, one also wonders if Argento was thinking of Plot of Fear's use of Hoffman when he made Sleepless, with its nursery-rhyme killer also leaving distinctive calling cards with each victim.

Steiner is amusingly typecast, with his character at one point admitting to having a father in the SS. While obviously cast for her physical assets and willingness to display them, Clery again impresses by making something more enigmatic of her character, making you wonder whether she is expressing her genuine feelings or putting on a very good performance. Placido and Wallach are even better, the former trying too hard to live up to an impossible ideal and the latter by turns impish, deadly earnest and simply enigmatic, someone who may be a Mabuse but not necessarily an entirely malign one.

If the film has a weakness, it is that it raises more questions than it can hope to answer on the incommensurability of law and order and the fixedness versus changeability of human nature, with the ambiguous denoument being likely to disappoint more mainstream audiences wanting to see something more traditional and unequivocal by which the bad guy(s) are unmasked and punished and the good guy(s) triumphant. It does work out that way, but only in an approximate, so-so way at best...

More reflections

Cavara's direction is effective, drawing us in to the mystery and providing enough hints as to what might be going on without being so obvious as to overdo things. Thus, for example, while the climax foregrounds the role of mirrors, their deploymenpt through the course of the narrative is more subtle, seen in the likes of repeated shots of the Placido and company driving around, the streets above them frequently reflected on their windscreens, or in opening a shot with an image on a surface. Vision, or its obscuring, are pivotal.

Men are pigs?

When he goes for the jugular he can also provide effective shocks as well, as when a pan along a row of gutted pigs in a slaughterhouse ends with one of cartoon killer's victims on a meathook, or the burning alive of another, “Joan of Arc” style.

Daniele Patucchi's music is less satisfactory, though the fuzz guitar driven main theme is endearingly trashy and very catchy. The suspense cues could be better, however.

The film is available on R0 DVD from Raro.

Sunday 25 November 2007

Suor Omicidi / Killer Nun

Sister Gertrude (Anita Ekberg) was recently treated for a brain tumour. Though the operation was officially declared a success, her doubts remain – as does the iatrogenic morphine habit she acquired – now that she is back in the convent hospital. The experience has done nothing to alter Gertrude's approach, as she continues to treat the patients in a decidedly stern fashion, more martinet than matron, even going so far as to take one old woman's false teeth and angrily crush them underfoot after the woman's had had the incidental temerity to dare interrupt the less than life-affirming story of a martyr's suffering – “….they pulled her teeth out and filled the bleeding sockets with boiling oil….pierced her tongue with a red-hot needle….slit her cheeks with sharp blades….” – that accompanies the day's meal of the customary thin, gruel-like, perhaps diarrhoea-inducing soup.

The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God?

The incident, coupled with an earlier moment of hestitation in changing another patient's drip that almost resulted in her death, leads to Sister Gertrude to being disciplined by the Mother Superior (Alida Valli) and Dr Poirret (Massimo Serato).

The hands of the killer

The hands of the killer?

The eyes of the killer?

It also leads the traumatised old woman to the hospital, where she later dies. At this point Sister Gertude steals the woman's ring and, having sold it at a jewellers in town, goes to a bar / restaurant to pick up a man in a sequence interesting for its foregrounding of active female desire – albeit in a way that, through Getrude's pathology probably wouldn't exactly please mainstream feminist commentators – and which is curiously reminiscent of Angie Dickinson's brief encounter in Dressed to Kill.

The obligatory prospect of lesbian titillation

But Sister Gertrude really wants a man

Unlike Dickinson's character, however, Ekberg's isn't killed for these transgressions. She is definitely punished however, beginning with her own inevitable pangs of guilt and a plunge into ever deeper despair.

The question is whether she has gone so far as to have actually also committed murder then arises as another of the patients, Jannot, is bludgeoned to death, his body being defenestrated into the courtyard by the unidentified assailant.

While Gertrude – who is first on the scene moments later – and the the official report prepared by the Mother Superior suggest suicide, someone voices their belief that they suspect otherwise during a game of truth, although it is not clear whether Peter, who asks the question, is speaking for himself, someone else, or a collective that has become increasingly dissatisfied with their treatment – especially given the over anti-clerical and left-wing sentiments voiced by some of their number.

Classic dark passage suspense

Sister Mathieu, who had earlier confessed her desire for Sister Gertrude, meanwhile confides that she found her veil, covered in Jannot's blood. Jannot's face was certainly swathed in something as his body was dragged to the window, but what happened to this after his fell is less than clear – as is, for that matter, exactly what is real and in Gertrude's mind by this juncture.

A person...

... a dummy

... and back to a person again

Worse still follows as another patient, confined to a wheelchair, is found dead after Gertrude had either seen or imagined him having sex with a local prostitute. Dr Roland (Joe Dallesandro), recently arrived as replacement for Dr Poirret (Massimo Serato) following Sister Gertrude's him-or-me ultimatum, also notices certain discrepancies in the drugs store and that his predecessor's diagnoses were entirely sound...

Is Sister Gertrude going insane and / or is someone persecuting her? Was the voice we heard in the confessional at the start of the film hers or that of another?

An image that, no matter how you read it, cannot be good

Inspired by a headline seen by producer Enzo Gallo whose involvement in the production, according to director Giulio Berruti, went about as far as registering the title Suor Omicidi. The case on which the film is based was that of a Belgian nun who murdered a number of elderly patients and stole their valuables, which she kept, although of necessity Berruti and fellow writer Alberto Tarallo added in other elements like lesbianism and drug abuse to spice things up.

One of the patients, clearly more interested in the flesh than the word...

According to Berruti, however, they didn't do this with exploitation entirely in mind, instead seeking to draw high-minded parallels between the need for drugs and the need for God. How well such messages actually made it to the screen is however debatable, with Berruti's remarks about the need for subterfuge when shooting the film in an actual working convent somewhat indicative of compromise - even even before the finished film was marketed in true exploitation style as coming “From the secret files of the Vatican,” at which point the director apparently all but abandoned it to its fate.

Pink gloves?

As a giallo Suor Omicici / Killer Nun is a decidedle borderline, the murder mystery element of the killer's identify, represented metonmyically through pink surgical gloves, being being something of a non-starter insofar as there is only really one other suspect besides Gertrude herself. Like The Stendhal Syndrome and a number of Almodovar's films, however, the film is really more one that happens to use the thriller format as a route into to explore character, situation and a number of other decidedly more weighty matters.

The issue, again, is how well the filmmakers manage to crossover the underlying prima / terza visione or art / trash divide, encapsulated here by whether the presences of Dallesandro, Ekberg and Castel invokes thoughts of the likes of Trash, La Dolce Vita and In the Name of the Father or of Last House on the Beach, The Screaming Mimi and Orgasmo – or, for that matter, whether the ease with which these performers could move between ostensibly different types of production serves to indicate the fundamental irrelevance of cinematic class distinctions if the resulting films work in their own terms.

Here, though he doesn't neglect to deliver the exploitation goods, with the set-pieces such as the grotesquely rendered sex scene in a storm and the murders themselves particularly well executed, Berutti's approach evinces more artistry than the casual viewer expecting nothing but nunsploitation trash might anticipate.

One notes, for instance, the beautiful construction of the opening sequence and the questions and ideas it introduces in relation to the film as a whole: an overhead God's eye view shot of the nuns filtering into the chapel dehumanises them and suggests ritual in its precise choreography, before a more individuated shot shows the faces of otherwise anonymous supporting character type nuns in the foreground whilst in the background, her face obscured by the omnipresent veil (a detail that also grants a certain strangeness to otherwise conventional two shots throughout the film), another makes an unrepentant confession that, as the father confessor warns, entails losing any state of grace she might have possessed. What we have, in other words, are two potential acousmetric figures, voices heard without their source being identified. One, that of God, remains all too silent and thus, for the doubter, absent throughout. The other, that of the killer, is all too real and present, the question that of whom they will ultimately be visualised – or unveiled – as being; if anyone doubts the relevance of this concept to an obscure Italian oddity, it's worth remembering that the two ultimate acousmetric figures for the concept's exponent, Michel Chion, are God the father and, anterior – or superior, one is tempted to say – before him, the mother.

Elsewhere serendipity plays more of a part. The swathing of Jannot's face proves vaguely reminiscent of one of De Chirico's mannequin figures, for example, such that the plummeting dummy that follows, cloth limbs flopping in all directions curiously ends up strengthening the effectiveness of the sequence by foregrounding the entire issue of what within it is real and, beyond it, what we even mean by reality.

In this he is aided by cinematographer Antonio Maccoppi, equally at home with functional and expressive lightings and mise-en-scene and thereby giving editor Mario Giaccio, whose contributions are likewise sterling, plenty to work with.

The normally reliable Alessandro Alessandroni's score is not one of his better efforts, however. The choral themes work well enough to convey the milieu, but the easy listening and suspense cues heard elsewhere have too much obvious mickey mousing to them at times, as when a wobble board and “out of tune” sitar type tonalities are used to convey Sister Gertrude's mental trauma atop the nightmare montages.

Dallesandro's expression says it all?

While the dubbing means that Dallesandro's doctor doesn't speak with his Noo Yawk accent, his performance again has that recognisable non-actorly quality to it, contrasting with the professionalism of Serato, Valli and the rest of the predominantly Italian cast. This doesn't matter too much, however, insofar the real focus of the film is Ekberg, who impressively channels 20-odd years of life experience, marked her own transition from la dolce vita to a middle age which, if not quite itself leading to a yearning for la dolce morte, must surely have been a been difficult one, into the role.

Neither the most artistic and thought-provoking giallo or nunsploitation film, nor the trashiest, in the end Killer Nun emerges as being of interest for fans of both filone precisely because of its crossover position not only between them but also in its own execution.

This former “video nasty” has recently been released by Shameless in the UK, but has been out on DVD since 2004 on the Blue Underground release, from which these screen captures come; it was formerly also on video from Redemption.

A nice review of the film can be
found at