Saturday 31 May 2008

Cover Girl Killer

This 1959 British thriller is the kind of film which had it been made fifteen years later in Italy would probably have been a fine trash / sleaze giallo with a black gloved killer and plentiful J&B, pulchritude and stalker-cam. Think Strip Nude for Your Killer without the stripping...

The obvious suspect / red herring

Running just under an hour, the film sees a moralistic serial killer murdering his way through the cover girls of Wow! magazine, luring them with promises of work and leaving them posed in macabre tableaux morte based on the photoshoots.

The police and Wow!'s new proprietor, an archeologist incongruously left the maagzine and the Kasbah nightclub by his uncle, find their investigations hampered by the fact that the killer wears a disguise, his ill-fitting wig and coke-bottle glasses ensuring that everyone who sees him remembers but also has no idea of who he really is.

“She's the showgirl with the most on show,” which by the standards of Britain, 1959 wasn't very much...

The sole exception – and the thing which distinguishes the film from the giallo while helping generate suspense even as it removes the red herring element – is that the viewer knows the killer's identity from the outset. He's played by Harry H. Corbett, best known to the British audience from the long-running TV series Steptoe and Son.

A vital piece of photographic evidence

Unfortunately Corbett is about the only thing the film has going for it, with flat direction, generally poor performances and – as might be expected – little real sleaze content except that inherently attaching to its grimy, low-rent milieux. (“I've got a divorce coming up. If she's dead I've saved myself a lot of money,” remarks one husband whose star-struck wife walked out on him.)

The next victim, again declining to strip nude for her killer...

An amusing self-reflexive element sees the killer pose as a film producer seeking to make a cheap cash-in production based on the selfsame killings, just the sort of thing you can imagine the producers Butchers themselves doing.

Writer-director Terry Bishop (a hypenate combination surely more about economy than auteur aspirations) also made the similar-sounding Model for Murder the same year.

Red Blood Yellow Gold / Professionals for a Massacre

Having just been caught by Captain Richardson (Milo Quesada) and his men selling Confederate arms to the Union, three outlaws, Frank the Preacher (George Hilton), Ramirez the Mexican (George Martin) and Chatanooga Jim (Edd Byrnes) are court martialled and sentenced to death.

One and two halves of the three

Two and a half of the three...

Finally all three in the one shot, apparently about to be shot

Things get more complicated when you add a fourth...

After Frank asks the Lord for a small sign of grace that will stay their execution, the trio receive it from an unexpected source in the form of Sibley's hitherto trustworthy right-hand man Major Lloyd (Gerard Herter) who makes off with a gatling gun and a consignment of Union gold earmarked for buying much needed munitions for the Confederacy.

Reasoning that it takes a thief to catch a thief, General Sibley offers Frank, Ramirez and Jim a full pardon if they can recover the gold and bring in Lloyd, dead or alive. Reasoning that they can't be trusted, Sibley also sends Richardson along with them. He also has his own motive in that Lloyd had accused him of being a union spy.

The four men soon pick up the trail of Lloyd and his men by dint of a characteristic piece of spaghetti western logic. Finding tracks going off in four directions, they split up and take one route each. Three provide evidence of their quarry's passage – bullets, a stirrup and a saddle. The fourth produces no such traces and, as such, is clearly the way to go.

Things become a bit more complicated when, after various incidents, a Mexican bandit clan headed by a wizened old matriarch whose sons all seem to be called after their birth order take the gold off Lloyd and his men...

Red Blood Yellow Gold / Professionals for a Massacre is one of those films which illustrates the distinction between those that work for the critic and those that work for their intended audiences.

Viewed from the mainstream critic's perspective Red Blood, Yellow Gold must seem fairly derivative stuff, with a confusing narrative; stereotypical characters like the sadistic, grotesque Mexican and the honourable “Old South” Confederate, and generally lacklustre direction that springs to life only during the action scenes, the old standbies of brawls, chases and shoot themselves being in lieu of anything more demanding of filmmaker or spectator alike.

Yet, viewed from the perspective of the film's likely audience – so far as I can presume to assume it, of course, given cultural and temporal distance – it is precisely these same features that make the film work.

The confusing narrative and stereotypical characters come to emerge as a comment on the notions of campanellisimo and amoral familism referred to by Christopher Frayling, that one's only loyalties are to family, friends and so on rather than to any wider notions such as nation and class, and that anyone who believes or acts otherwise is a gullible fool whose lack of guile is to be exploited. In these terms, alliances are temporary and strategic and no-one outside the group can be trusted except for to betray or change allegiances when it suits their purposes, it's not something personal, just following of the codes of professional, business and social life.

The action sequences emerge as variant of the “electrocardiogram” model of the audience discussed by Christopher Wagstaff, of giving the terza visione spectator some thrills or other pay off every few minutes to attract his attention away from the social space of the theatre and back to the screen. In such terms it could also be argued that the confused narrative doesn't really matter insofar as this audience weren't necessarily following it and, to the extent that they were, probably had a better intuitive understanding of what was going to happen next and why than the outsider.

The distinction between the good and bad guys can also be drawn in these terms. If the good guys aren't really good by the standards of the American western, they are loyal to one another, have an infectious sense of fun, and don't indulge in quite the same kind of indiscriminate lethal violence as their enemies, who massacre a family of civilians merely to take their clothes. (A further irony sees the sole survivor of the massacre, who was absent at the time, believe that our heroes were responsible for it, leading her to alert the real perpetrators to an ambush.)

The film is on DVD from Wild East; I suspect that it looks a lot better than the old video sourced copy I viewed here, which was panned and scanned and suffers, as the screenshots indicate, from a tendency not to be able to fit everyone in on screen.

Friday 30 May 2008

The missing link?

Is Ubaldo Terzano the missing link between many great gialli - Blood and Black Lace, Lizard in a Woman's Skin and Deep Red all have him as camera operator.

Wednesday 28 May 2008

Carroll Baker

Just noticed from the IMDB link that today is the 77th birthday of one of my favourite giallo divas, Carroll Baker. Hope she has a good one :-)

Ator l'invincibile / Ator the Fighting Eagle

In addition to producing Ator, The Fighting Eagle for his Filmirage company, Joe D'Amato wrote, directed and photographed it, though he conceals these involvements behind his David Hills and Frederick Slonisko pseudonyms.

His contribution as cinematographer is infinitely superior to his direction and writing, with some genuinely impressive lighting effects and compositions, such as the Dutch Master style lighting in the Birth of Ator scene and the sunlight shining through the clouds in the Forest of the Dead.

The Birth of Ator

The Spider King's Temple

In the Forest of the Dead; the play of light here is beautiful

Alas, as these capital plot points and locations indicate, everything else is pretty much by the numbers stuff.

An introductory voice-over sets the scene to stock footage of mountain tops: The Spider King has oppressed the land for a millennia of darkness. There was a hero, Torin, but he failed to defeat the Spider King. This is where Torin's son, Ator, will succeed...

Ator's birth is preceded by various portents, leading the Spider King's high priest, Dakkar (who is conveniently played by Dakkar) to send his Black Knights out to kill any newborn bearing Torin's mark.

Fortunately for the helpless child the mysterious Griba (an unrecognisable Edmund Purdom, wearing a Warrior of Genghis Khan outfit) is on hand to magically conceal the mark and deliver the child to safety in the form of family of farmers who agree to raise him as if he were their own son.

The years pass and Ator (Miles O'Keeffe) has grown up. He's also developed a romantic interest in his adoptive sister, Sunya (Ritza Brown), which she reciprocates. Happily, because they aren't really brother and sister it doesn't get classified as incest, and so their parents happily consent to their marriage. (Thinking back to Anthropology 101, I suppose there's no reason why this couldn't happen in certain cultures; if incest taboos are universal the specifics of who you can and can't marry also vary.)

Sunya and Ator

Ator wielding his sword and staff

Unfortunately Griba has been spotted hanging around the village by one of Dakkar's men, who reports the news to the high priest. He and his men go on a search and destroy mission, interrupting Ator and Sunya's wedding celebrations (including an interpretive dance routine that would be more at home in something sullo stesso filone Flashdance or Fame than Conan the Barbarian), killing their parents and most of the other villagers, and taking Sunya away with them to the temple. They fail, however, to find Griba or realise to who Ator is, leaving him for dead with the others...

Awakening, is understandably annoyed and swears revenge. At this point Griba conveniently shows up once more and begins to reveal Ator's true destiny to him...

Cue encounters with the amazon/valkyrie thief, Roon (Sabrina Siani); a sorceress (Laura Gemser) and the blind warriors of the caves who guard the Shield of Mordor (sic) that Ator needs if he is to fulfill his mission...


The Sorceress

Other 'highlights' include Ator's annoying bear cub, Keog, which has the habit of appearing and disappearing whenever convenient to the plot; Dakkar's assembling his dozen or so Black Knights on the dozen or so steps of the Spider King's temple like some kind of a cut-price Thulsa Doom; Sayna's entrapment in a spider web that looks like a reject from Bloody Pit of Horror; some stock footage of volcanic eruptions; loads of dry ice being all too obvious blown in front of the camera, and a truly awful closing theme.

Carlo Maria Cordio's own music is surprisingly good, getting the Basil Polodouris vibe just right and, as we've already said, whenever you're feeling prone to give up completely D'Amato pulls one of those stunning images out of his bag of tricks. Wonder why the cinematography wasn't credited to Aristide Masaccessi?

All told, good, cheesy fun if taken in the right spirit (or with a large glass of spirits, J&B being the obvious choice, even if the setting precluded the usual product placement).

Tuesday 27 May 2008

Ammazzali tutti e torna solo / Go Kill Everybody and Come Back Alone

We open with a long essentially dialogue free pre-credits sequence in which six “bandits, killers and thieves” infiltrate a Confederate stronghold using a combination of stealth, strength, skill, acrobatics and technological gimmicks, most notably a kind of dynamite firing gun.

It perhaps plays a bit more like a Gianfranco Parolini / Frank Kramer sequence than an Enzo Castellari one, but otherwise very much sets the scene for what is to follow: lots of action and comparatively little talk; adept utilisation of the widescreen Techniscope frame, with some beautiful foreground / background compositions and uses of the arid Spanish landscapes; a rousing Francesco De Masi score and, above all, a strongly masculine world.

Indeed, throughout the film's 90 odd minute running time we see absolutely no female faces whatsoever, never mind any stock types let alone rounded characters.

Rather, as the closing theme states, the thing that “all men desire” is GOLD

The six:

Clyde MacKay, the group's spokesman, de facto leader and brains.

Deker, “the smart one,” “who can do anything with dynamite – anything unpleasant, that is”

Bogard, “strong enough to break a man in two with his bare hands” and “the kind that doesn't need much of a reason” to do so.

Blade, a half-indian, half-Mexican knife specialist who “likes to cut – people mainly”.

Hoagy, “a strange boy – light fingered, especially with a gun. He'll kill if he has to but then he's sorry afterwards”

Kid, who “moves like a monkey” and has “one virtue – he's a pure killer”

Their mission, accepted by Clyde: to penetrate a Union stronghold and steal one million dollars in gold which is intended for use in purchasing armaments. The treasure is located in a munitions store, intermixed with explosives – one spark or stray bullet and the whole lot will be blown sky-high.

It maybe doesn't make a whole lot of sense if you think about it too much, especially when a first complicating factor, from which the film takes its title, is revealed to Clyde alone: to dispose of any survivors amongst his team, should there be any, and make sure he's the only one who returns.

Why exactly? Why don't the confederates wan't the gold for themselves?

It also gets still more improbable when the team is unexpectedly joined by a would-be seventh member in the form of Lynch, the apparently loyal Confederate counter-espionage agent who first discovered the Union's scene and the location of the gold.

Lynch; note that he is the only one of the three characters to be framed in the mirror

Still, how many other spaghetti westerns featured similarly unstable identities and shifting allegiances and required similar leaps of faith to accept their (il)logics at times?

For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly for two, the latter connection further cemented by the importance of a prisoner-of-war camp to the latter part of the proceedings, not to mention Castellari and writer Tito Carpi's other, obvious Leone tribute, Vado... l'ammazzo e torno – i.e. Go Kill and Come Back – with its Stranger, Mexican bandito and three-way corrida finale.

The most obvious difference between the two treasure hunts lies in their cast. Whereas Go Kill and Come Back features three actors and as such relegates its stuntmen to lesser roles, the balance here shifts somewhat towards the latter group, with Ken Wood / Gianfrano Cianfriglia (the subject of a lengthy and informative interview on the Wild East DVD) and Ottaviano Dell'Acqua playing Blade and the Kid respectively. The acting contingent is headed by the perpetually grinning Chuck Connors, the always impressive Frank Wolff and Franco Citti, whose kill and pray role might be an in-jokish reference to frequent collaborator Pier Paolo Pasolini's casting as a radical priest in Requiescant.

Some examples of Castellari's striking compositions, lensed by the reliable Alejando Ulloa

Though Castellari hadn't at this stage in his career quite developed the full expressive vocabulary he would later employ to such great effect on the likes of Keoma, with more zoom and less slow-motion, his grasp of cinema is nevertheless remarkably assured for someone who was barely 30 at the time.

Well worth a look.

Monday 26 May 2008

Die Todesgöttin des Liebescamps / Love Camp

Okay, I know: this isn’t an Italian film. Rather it’s a West German/Greece co-production. But I felt it was worth writing about anyway for two reasons.

First, it could be construed as a borderline Black Emanuelle entry on account of having Laura Gemser and Gabriele Tinti up to their usual tricks.

Second, it’s just so amazingly bad that it’s worth an hour and a half of any Euro trash or cult fan’s time. We’re talking – in line with the film’s milieu and themes – transcendentally awful.

Gemser plays the leader of a vaguely Jim Jones /Children of God styled love cult (and as such the film might form a nice companion piece with Lenzi’s Eaten Alive, if the Italian trash fan needs any other reason for watching it) who takes full material advantage of her gullible young hippie followers.

The rules of the cult are simple: no exclusive relationships; everyone can have sex with everyone else; is expected to hook and recruit for the cult, and is apparently free to leave of their own free will whenever they like.

In fact, however, we soon learn that Gemser will brook no refusals and has her muscle-bound bodyguard and henchman Tanga covertly dispose of any apostates by throwing them down a crevasse.

A visiting US senator’s daughter comes to the attention of Gemser through her chief recruiter, Dorian, played by the film’s writer, director and composer Christian Anders.

Will true love win out, or will a tragedy ensue?

Really, who cares.

It’s all an excuse to showcase lots of nudity; some softcore heterosexual and lesbian fumblings; the odd bit of violence and sadism; some truly atrocious disco tunes and Hair-style production numbers; some free your booty and your mind will follow cod philosophising; a bit of ludicrous kung fu (courtesy of Anders, who also made similarly (non-)sterling contributions to the even more ludicrous sounding Kung Fu Emanuelle) and – most amusing of all – Tanga, permanently oiled and tensed up and looking as if he’s wandered off the set of a peplum.

Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words, so in lieu of any more commentary here’s a few:

Christian Anders, whose fault it all is...

One of the camp followers, playing air guitar; his buddy looks like Tony Levin from King Crimson but unfortunately doesn't play air stick...


And more Tanga...

Gemser thankfully spends more time out of costumes than in them...

La Ragazza del vagone letto / Terror Express!

All aboard the overnight sleaze express...

Where do all the other passengers go once the action gets underway?

Our passenger list includes:

A man and his wife, who is seriously, even terminally, ill.

An outwardly respectable father and husband who has incestuous desires towards his 16-year-old daughter; you may recognise the actor playing the father, Roberto Caporali, from Zombie: Nights of Terror.

A cigar-chomping businessman and his put upon minion, whose first task is buying “all the porno magazines you have” for his boss from the station kiosk.

A bickering couple, Anna and Mike, played by the suitably mismatched pairing of Zora Kerowa and Venantino Venantini.

A by-the-book policeman escorting a prisoner across the border from Italy into Germany; said prisoner is played by another Gabriele Crisanti alumnus, Gianluigi Chirizzi.

A prostitute, played by top-billed Silvia Dioniso, who works the train in exchange for paying the guard for his services as procurer.

And, last but by no means least as catalysts for this Twentieth Century meets Late Night Trains meets Assault on Precinct 13, three young thugs looking for kicks, two of them played by Werner Pochath and Carlo De Mejo.

The guard and the gang

The attraction between Kerova and De Mejo's characters is immediately apparent.

Let's sit back and enjoy the ride...

Objectively, Terror Express! / La Ragazza del vagone letto (i.e. The Girl in the Sleeping Car; a reference to Dioniso's character) is not a very good film.

As is Dioniso's effect on the other passengers

The contrast between the exterior images of the train which repeatedly punctuate the action, and the studio interior recreation of a small subsection of it is somewhat jarring: how come no-one from any of the other carriages ever steps in or wonders where the guard has got to over the course of the entire night?

Late Night Trains worked a lot better in this regard because the second train, the one on which the rape and murder occur, was established as empty save for the smaller central group of five characters who board it, whilst also generally making a more convincing use of the possibilities of the train space.

The obligatory softcore sex and nude scenes are also awkward. Not so much in the sense that they make for uncomfortable viewing – porno rape and a father's incestuous desires towards his adolescent daughter should certainly be awkward viewing – but more because this awkwardness comes through director Ferdinando Baldi's unfortunate tendency to present everything throughout in what he appears to intend as the same an arousing way, complete with dramatic angles and inappropriate music.

The issue is most apparent in the scene where Anna goes off with one of the thugs, Ernie. She's clearly attracted to what he represents in contrast with her older, clearly conservative minded or even reactionary husband. As such, it's appropriate to have that sense of illicit thrill in the mise en scène, as something which is between the two characters: as they fuck, they are also fucking with the system, the man, as represented by the likes of Anna's older husband. But when another thug, Phil, sneaks in to the compartment and joins in, the power dynamics of the encounter change: Anna did not consent to this. Unfortunately Baldi's direction doesn't successfully convey this.

Still on the consensual side of things...

Nor do the violent action scenes quite convince, although the problem here is perhaps as much to with the difficulty of believing in De Mejo and Pochath as anything more than obnoxious bullies. They don't give off the same psychopathic aura as David Hess in Hitch-Hike or House on the Edge of the Park, where you genuinely believe he can back up his threats as and when the need arises.

But, then again, perhaps this actually works in terms of Terror Express!'s own dynamics. Specifically, it might be argued that what we have are three bad boys – emphasis on the boy – out to see how far they can push things, who then don't get pushed back until it is too late and things have gone far further than they had anticipated.

Beyond this, the characterisation is often unsatisfactory and the attempts at social commentary, courtesy of writer George Eastman/Luigi Montifiore, somewhat ham-fisted.

Yet, what saves the film and makes it so interesting and worth watching despite its flaws is the inclusion of this selfsame material, disregarding the way it slows down and complicates the narrative as you try to keep track of everyone, their relationships with one another and, most intriguing of all, to try to figure out where the filmmakers want to you stand regarding them all.

Rather than just class, it's also about gender, generation, political leaning and appearances against reality.

Thus, for example, when first confronted with the gang, the father asks his daughter if her current boyfriend is like that, a “social degenerate” before playing the “I only want what's best for you” card in his defence; a decidedly creepy remark in the light of later revelations.

Likewise, Anna, who had earlier welcomed the gang playing their radio loudly, responds to the quiet arrival of the prisoner and his guard in the dining wagon with the remark that their presence “shows a complete lack of consideration.”

Her husband's equally telling riposte: “Look who's talking, when you condone the outrageous actions of those three punks back there! God, it pisses me off!”

Father: “It's really hot in here”
Daughter: “I wish I could turn off the heating”
Father: “Why don't you take off your nightgown?”

Wednesday 21 May 2008

Cinecocktail Calibro 3 / Cinecocktail 4: The Italian Horror Show

These two new releases from Italy's BEAT Records present an interesting take on the Italian film music compilation CD idea by also including a bonus documentary DVDs.

The selections of tracks on the two CD's are a mixed bag, with the poliziotto disc probably shading it on account of not including the kind of late 80s and 90s electronic and rock guitar driven cues found on the horror one. A case could, however, be made for the poliziotto compilation inherently being the easier to make coherent anyway on account of the filone's shorter lifespan, as primarily a 1970s phenomenon, and the narrower range of styles characteristically utilised by its composers.

Both discs feature a number of previously unreleased tracks, like Lalo Gori's infectious theme for Calling All Police Cars and a different take of Francesco De Masi's 'Fay' from The New York Ripper, along with much-compiled favourites like Franco Micalizzi's 'Folk and Violence' from Violent Naples and Ennio Morricone's 'Lizard in a Woman's Skin' theme from the film of the same name.

Unfortunately while the DVDs while they are certainly a good idea – the more we get to hear the people behind these films speaking for themselves the better, as far as I am concerned – their execution leaves a bit to be desired.

The horror documentary, Hanging Shadows, features interview clips with the likes of Dario Argento, Lamberto Bava, Michele Soavi and Roger Fratter, discussing their theories and practice, and presents a good overview of the genre's rise and fall and place in the wider history of cinema, with other contributors including critics, writers and producers.

The one major omission, however, is that there's not really anything about the role of music in the Italian horror film, nor anything from the composers whose music is featured on the CD.

The disc is also marred by some unnecessarily gimmicky direction and the inclusion of decontextualised clips from recent low-budget straight to video type productions by the likes of Fratter that don't really add terribly much to the experience or our understanding. Though a similar criticism might be made of the extra, a music video featuring Menti Criminali and Acid One, the sheer coolness of hearing three guys rapping in Italian about Fulci, Bava and so on proves highly endearing.

Similar post-production trickery also afflicts the documentary on the poliziotto disc, Il Genere. It's different in that it discusses the filone cinema more generally and has more emphasis on the music, with the interviewees including Alessandro Alessandroni, Francesco De Masi and Edda Dell'Orso alongside directors such as Mario Caiano and Umberto Lenzi, both of whom emphasise how much things have changed for the worse in the Italian cinema along with the fact that the B-films they and others made are now better received than they were on their original releases. These interviews, some taking place in the individuals homes or studios, others in what appears to be the context of a festival or awards ceremony, are intercut with footage of Franco Micalizzi and his Big Bubbling Band performing live.

Another problem is that the interviewees aren't identified on screen, meaning that if you don't already know De Masi as the man with the harmonica, Alessandroni as the whistler or Dell'Orso as the voice you may find it difficult knowing quite where to place them and their contributions at first.

Monday 19 May 2008

Ed ora... raccomanda l'anima a Dio! / And Now... make your peace with God!

This was my first exposure to Demofilo Fidani's western work and on this showing it may well be the last.

The first clue to what we're in for is in the credits. Rather than being produced with one eye on undemanding third world audiences – as distinct from undemanding southern Italian audiences – the film is actually an Italian-Iranian co-production. Co-star Mohamad Ali Fardin was a popular Iranian actor of the time (he subsequently became persona non grata after the 1979 revolution).

The net consequence is a disarming naïvete to the proceedings, whereby everything plays out exactly as you would expect it to, plot point by plot point, with shoot outs and brawls at regular intervals to prevent the target audiences from getting bored.

The story starts with Sanders (Jeff Cameron) and Steven Cooper (Fabio Testi) among those boarding the stage (“Thomy's Western Express”) for Denver City. En route it is held up by bandits, allowing Stanley (Fardin) to make a decisive intervention and Sanders and Cooper to demonstrate their own prowess with their six-shooters. They bond and swap backstories: Sanders is going to Denver to find the man who stole his gold, Cooper those who killed his family. On arrival, they find the town in the midst of an election, with town boss and mayor-to-be Corbett (Amerigo Leoni / Custer Gail!) and his heavy Johnson (Calilsto Calisti / Anthony Stewens) the men they are after...

The predictability of it all wouldn't matter if Fidani had more than a rudimentary grasp of character, pacing, storytelling or direction. But he doesn't, or at least not at this point in his short, if prolific, directorial career.

With this being his second western, I suspect the best strategy for anyone wanting to investigate the remainder may be to watch his first, 1967's Straniero... fatto il segno della croce! (Stranger... Make the Sign of the Cross!; Fidani clearly liked religious references in his titles, even if this one probably didn't work too well for the Iranian market), and last, 1973's Amico mio, frega tu... che frego io! (Anything for a Friend) and see if there's any improvement discernible between them.

Friday 16 May 2008

Latest acquisition

I don't have it yet, but here is it: an original US poster for Blood and Black Lace

I generally prefer the Italian posters, but liked the sheer luridness of this one, its sleazy paperback / pulp ambience, with the artistic license for the spiked glove being held by a skeletal hand etc.

Placing Kill Baby Kill

Where, generically, would you place Kill Baby Kill?

Though it gets discussed in Mikel Koven's La Dolce Morte within the context of the small sub-filone of the giallo-fantastico, I'm not convinced by that reading. Though it has an investigative murder-mystery element, the recourse to a fantastical / supernatural explanation combined with the setting makes it seem fundamentally more like a Gothic horror in my opinion. It comes across as being like a Hound of the Baskervilles in which the phantom hound is ultimately proven to be real, where the impossible cannot be eliminated.

I'd say that The Ghost and Seven Deaths in the Cat's Eye - which Koven, unfortunately, doesn't discuss - are closer to being Gothic type gialli, in that they go from the fantastical to the mundane in their explanations.


Fenomenal e il tesoro di Tutankamen / Phenomenal and the Treasure of Tutankamen

This early outing from Ruggero Deodato is quite frankly a bit of a mess, albeit a sporadically entertaining one.

Inspired by the fumetti neri, especially Diabolik, the first problem is that we're pretty much in the dark about who our titular protagonist, hero and point of identification actually is. We know he's one of the good guys thanks to the opening sequence in which he takes out a boat full of heroin smugglers, but after this he actually drops out of the narrative, such as it is, for close on half an hour; after watching the film I found I wanted to check if the film was actually a sequel and that the audience was expected to know Fenomenal's alter-ego, even if it isn't terribly difficult to guess.

The second is that the film as a whole really isn't that good, with little of the comic book vibe apparent in the general style and mediocre action and set piece sequences. While it was Deodato's official debut, he'd picked up a lot of credits as assistant and second unit director, so couldn't exactly be described as inexperienced.

On the plus side Lucretia Love and Carla Romanelli are easy on the eyes and Bruno Nicolai's catchy score easy on the ears.

The story sees the Mask of Tutankhamun exhibited in a Paris museum; cue lots of location shots of the Eiffel Tower, the Champs Elysee etc.

Various criminal masterminds played by the likes of John Karlsen and Gordon Mitchell want the mask, with a complication provided by the fact that there are not just one but two replicas of it floating around. (Seeing that Karlsen is after the mask because it contains a secret code that reveals the location of an even greater treasure, presumably he would actually have been satisfied with an exact copy, however.)

The action then shifts to Tunisia; cue more location shots with various bewildered inhabitants wondering what's going on.

Fenomenal shows up once more and saves the day.

Sunday 11 May 2008

Reazione a catena / A Bay of Blood

Discounting the more fantastical Shock, A Bay of Blood was to be Bava's final contribution to the giallo. Having established the filone in the early 1960s with The Girl Who Knew too Much (1963), Blood and Black Lace (1964) and 'The Telephone' segment of the Black Sabbath (1963), he had spent the remainder of that decade working in other popular filone.

Though he had scripted Schoolgirl Killer (1968) as a return to the it, the project left his hands and was eventually directed by Antonio Margheriti, this loss of control perhaps especially galling given the professional rivalry between the two men. (This information comes from Tim Lucas's indespensible study of the director, All the Colors of the Dark, to which all subsequent commentary can only be a mere footnote.)

In the late 1960s and early 1970s Bava made three gialli. A Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1969) represents a natural Hitchcockian companion piece to The Girl Who Knew too Much, neatly inverting Psycho by having its schizophrenic killer introduce himself as such while also demonstrating that he would “hurt a fly” and featuring dreamlike waltzes that seem inspired by Shadow of a Doubt.

The opening double murder

Five Dolls for an August Moon and this film meanwhile conclude the so-called “greed trillogy” inaugurated by Blood and Black Lace.

These are high bodycount murder-mysteries in which the crimes are motivated not by psychopathology but by greed, the raw desire to possess. To be sure, a more sophisticated theory could not doubt connect the two, pointing to the psychotic logic of capital accumulation or suchlike – especially given that in Blood and Black Lace the police investigation is fatally led astray by their presumption of psychosexual motivation and aetiology for the crimes.

The second and third films of the trilogy, however, see Bava in increasingly ironic, deconstructive mood.

The keys to both film, I would argue, lie in their opening sequences.

In Five Dolls, we slowly move in on the modernist villa on an isolated island before the mise-en-scene breaks down into a series of shock zooms and fragmented close ups all but guaranteed to offend the aesthetic sensibilites of just about anyone as the idle rich protagonists are introduced. One of their number, mockingly identified as the “virgin of the tribe” is then sacrified to the god Kraal, the playful scene momentarily turning serious as the lights go out and it seems someone has taken the game of murder in the dark too far. Then, however, the fake blood is washed off with a few sprays from the soda siphon and everyone laughs.

Like Marcus Daly's remarks to his student in the opening of Deep Red, as he tells them that their playing is “too formal, too precise; it needs to be more trashy,” Bava is telling his audience to watch out, but unlike Argento he is also telling them that his film is essentially one big joke, not to be taken terribly seriously. (Here we might note the slapstick connotations of the soda siphon.)

The biggest part of this joke is the absence of the traditional murder set-pieces. In this regard the film is like an inverted Blood and Black Lace: we never see the murders, only the discoveries of the victims' bodies, most of which end up being stored in the meat locker to the strains of the same carrilon.

Here, we begin with the flight of a fly over the titular bay and its fatal plunge into the water. Though the bay is later identified by one of those opposing its development as a haven for insects, the ironic message seems to be that this place this is a place which is fundamentally inimical to all life.

The gaze and its objects

Following this, we enter the villa of the wheelchair-bound Countess Federica as, to the romantic-bordering-on-kitsch strains of Stelvio Cipriani's swelling piano and string based theme, she looks longingly over the bay towards her illegimate son Simone's hut.

Suddenly, the moment accompanied by a musical sting slighly reminiscent of Friday the 13th's ka-ka-cha the obligatory black gloved killer strikes, throwing a noose around the Countess's neck and kicking her wheelchair away. Something is immediately wrong, however, as once the Countess has breathed her last the camera pans up her killer as he removes his black gloves, revealing his identity, soon to be confirmed as that of Count Donati, Federica's husband.

A giallo, a murder-mystery, is not supposed to do this.

What is going on, what are the rules Bava is playing by?
The Count deposits a faked suicide note, and, a few moments later is them himself unceremoniously stabbed to death by an unseen assailant. This time, at least, we don't see the murderer. Yet, as the narrative itself starts it soon becomes apparent that no-one is particularly interested in finding out whodunnit compared to taking advantage of the Countess's death.

A week passes. The Countess's death has been adjudged a suicide, while the Count has disappeared.

Architect Franco Ventura (Chris Avram) heads out to the bay expecting to seal the deal that will allow him and his partners to further develop it into a holiday resort. On the way he is passed by four youngsters, two couples, looking for some fun at the bay.

Meanwhile, Renata (Claudine Auger) and her husband Alberto (Luigi Pistilli) and have already arrived. They observe Simone (Claudio Camaso / Volonte) and Signor Fossati (Leopoldo Trieste) from the undergrowth as the two men discuss the Countess's demise, Fossati also making veiled references to murder.

Though their attitudes to life differ, it is also clear that the semi-feral Simone and the harmlessly eccentric insect-obsessed Fossati are alike in one respect: both regard the bay as their home and would be hostile to any more changes.

Renata is more concerned with finding her father, her 'masculine' control over her weak-willed husband evident from the way she takes the binoculars (i.e. the gaze, the phallus) off him.

The four youngsters arrive, break into the night club and apartment, drink, dance, make love and generally behave like their Friday the 13th descendants.

One very giallo difference, however, is that none is marked out as a “final girl” type. Instead, all four are quickly killed off. Though again we could no doubt read something sexual into the death spasms of skinny dipper Brunhilda (Brigitte Skay) and the couple who are impaled by a spear mid-coitus were we so inclined, their deaths are really more the result of territorial transgression than anything moral or sexual: Brunhilda discovers the hitherto submerged body of the Count and thus threatens someone's scheme, so she must die; Brunhilda's friends will soon notice her absence, so they too must die.

Sex and violence, and double penetration splatter style

By this point, the structure of the film has also become clear: an alternation of scenes focusing on violent set-pieces and on narrative and character development. (For the record the murders occur at 5, 7, 32, 34, 36, 56, 58, 68, 73, 77 and 80 minutes, somewhat belying Mikel Koven's 20 / 40 / 20 breakdown of murders / development / murders.)

Despite the duration and number of the former – there are no fewer than seven more murders still to come, the body count totalling more than those of the two previous films in the trilogy combined and surely setting some kind of record for the giallo – each of the main characters is reasonably well defined and personified, albeit with some not quite escaping from the realm of the 'type'; in addition to those already mentioned, we also have the likes of Ventura's opportunistic secretary and lover Laura (Anna Maria Rosati) and Fossati's boozy, tarot-card reading wife Anna (Laura Betti).

We cut from an extreme close up of a victim to the mirror image in the hub cap

The dialogue is also better than might be expected, with some amusing references thrown into the mix. One of the red-blooded Italian males tells the Nordic Brunhilda “hold the culture” as she makes a passing reference to Sibelius, for example, while it the Countess's own reluctance to 'convert' to “modernism” in consenting to her husband and his erstwhile associates' plan to concrete over and develop the bay that precipitates the whole chain of murders.

Bava cuts from the bloody stump of a severed head to a dropped pottery head

Similarly though Bava's direction again foregrounds many of the 'wrong' kind of techniques, most prominently the zoom, its also clear that this is part and parcel of his own modernist formal experimentation, insofar as he also often transitions from one scene to another with a matched cut on a zoom in or a zoom out or pulls focus to create dissolve type effects.

In sum, a film that there is a lot more to than meets the eye.