Friday, August 16, 2013

Meltdown 09: Yellow Days of Summer (Part I)

Summertime: the best time of year to don black gloves and chase fashion models and their boyfriends through the back alleys of Rome. Throughout August I'll be spending my weekends in a whiskey-soaked haze of murder, inheritance scams, psychosexual pleasure, and sex-concealing trench coats as I stalk my way through twenty one fiendish gialli that I've yet to make acquaintance with. These dog days will be decidedly yellow.


French Sex Murders 

(Casa d'appuntamento

(1972) 

dir. Ferdinando Merighi



Of the ten gialli covered for this entry, Ferdinando Merighi's French Sex Murders is easily the most typical of the subgenre, but that doesn't mean it isn't oozing a weirdness all its own. In addition to its familiar spat of black-gloved sex murders we're also witness to its more eccentric bits, like the facts that the killer carries a pair of accusatory eyeballs around in his pocket and that the lead investigator of the crimes is a Humphrey Bogart impersonator. Right from the start we know we're in for something special when we witness a man's unexplained falling from the top of the Eiffel tower, twice. (Editing is credited to the illustrious Bruno Mattei, naturally.) From there things play out in much the same fractured, loopy manner. A hoodlum beats up his prostitute girlfriend for being a "whore" and when she's found dead the police chase after him as the obvious suspect. When he's caught, tried, and sentenced to die by guillotine (!), he curses the assembled onlookers and declares that he'll have his revenge from beyond the grave. (Fun and sort-of-insane fact: France was still guillotining folks all the way up until 1977.) Of course the condemned hoodlum then escapes and dies in a decapitating motorcycle wreck (ironic cosmic justice!), but we have to figure his curse still applies. When assorted prostitutes are murdered in elaborate fashion, Inspector Bogey and his associates must ponder whether the fiend really is a ghost or something more corporeal. Amusingly, Mattei edits all of the film's death scenes to repeat multiple times in quick succession with Bay of Blood (1971) trailer solarization layered over top, making every death look as if it were caused by a Christmas strobe light malfunction. Pretend incest, decapitation by antique sword, and stretch-marked lovemaking round out the events. French Sex Murders is a silly but delectable slab of yellow cheese with an enviable cast of Eurohorror regulars (Rosalba Neri, Anita Ekberg, Barbara Bouchet, Howard Vernon) from a director who sadly put his name to little else.


The Bloodstained Butterfly 

(Una farfalla con le ali insanguinate

(1971) 

dir. Duccio Tessari



Duccio Tessari's The Bloodstained Butterfly sure does look like a giallo (on paper and poster, at least). With its string of suspicious murders and shot of a bottle of J&B within the first few minutes, it feels safe to say that it is a giallo, of course, but it never feels like one. The story is appropriately absurd, but Tessari refrains from presenting it in the giallo's sensational fashion. The cinematography of Carlo Carlini (who had worked with Fellini on I Vitelloni (1953) and Rossellini on Il generale della Rovere (1959) previous to this film) is flat and procedural, observing the action from low angles in close-up, deflating any sense of spectacle that the subject could create (placing the film in contrast to Tessari's later giallo Puzzle (1974), which is all chainsaw-wielding spectacle). The murders occur almost entirely off-screen, preventing the inclusion of any gory set pieces. This means that many of the subgenre's admirers are going to find The Bloodstained Butterfly quite dull, but the lack of bloodshed doesn't significantly detract from the film's sneaky Wrong Man plot and brief flirtation with social critique. (The wealthy and affluent killer-- I won't say who-- must kill so that he can take suspicion off someone else, and the victims he chooses are prostitutes, because the poor and unfortunate aren't people. Right?) But there's no denying that this isn't primarily a police procedural with elements of courtroom drama and sprinkles of melodramatic romance, adultery, and the attempted rape of a minor. It's not totally without sleaze, after all. The film also contains a choice piece of dialogue: one character refers to "the limited amount of blood" she has in the whiskey pumping through her heart.


Mystere 

(Murder Near Perfect

(1983) 

dir. Carlo Vanzina



I'll tell you what's not a mystery: why Mystere isn't well known, even among those stricken with giallo fever. That's not to say that Carlo Vanzina's latter day giallo is either forgettable or a celluloid abomination, but it is rather confused about what exactly it's trying to be. The bulk of Vanzina's work before and after writing and directing Mystere (excepting his other major mid-'80s giallo, Nothing Underneath (1985)) falls under the umbrella of Italian comedy, and there's certainly an element of "humor" here, if your idea of humor is a meat-head detective who is adamant that white women are boring and catty, innuendo-rife repartee between prostitutes and pimps. Even more than a comedy, Mystere resembles a scrappy spy thriller when its giallo killings give way to car chases, explosive money drops, and double crosses. Those early giallo moments are enticing (a killer with a razor sharp cane is stalking and dispatching anyone on his path to recovering a golden cigarette lighter full of incriminating negatives), but they don't endure. The medium-to-low octane action that overtakes the rest of the film isn't on par with that of any of the finer poliziotteschi of the period, and even then we see that its modest fumbling of thrilling set pieces can be chalked up to Vanzina's preference for comedy. (An amusing corpse decoy gag is used twice within five minutes near the film's back end, which just goes to show that there's no respect for the dead in Italian cinema.) 

The film's most obvious appeal is wisely the sole feature printed on its theatrical poster and highlighted by its title: Mystere, played by former Bond girl Carole Bouquet, who had also starred in the films of Luis Bunuel and Ulli Lommel, is a bewitching screen presence. Bouquet is a beautiful woman, obviously, but its her character's striking self-reliance and autonomy that is nearly the film's saving grace. In contrast to far too many female characters in Italian genre cinema, Mystere (at least initially) is an independent woman who, as a prostitute who pimps herself out, utilizes and controls her own sexuality to take monetary advantage of the weaselly males around her. True, this hardly allows her to stand as a progressive feminist icon, but when compared to her contemporaries (who are almost exclusively crazed villainesses or hopeless victims) she stands out. And yet, in a surprising bit of bleak reality, the film also demonstrates that despite her personal strength Mystere is still the victim of blunt, as well as ingrained, patriarchal forces: to maintain her relative independence as a prostitute, she must trade her sexual favors to a local pimp on a monthly basis. The unfortunate message the film slowly reveals is that even a woman with Mystere's self-possession and intelligence can't operate with total autonomy in the film's world. This is reinforced explicitly by the film as it progresses. When Mystere meets the repugnant and aptly named Detective Colt (Phil Coccioletti), she crumbles as both a character and an outlying figure in giallo cinema. Colt beats her, and she crawls into bed with him. He grossly betrays her, and she tracks him down and forgives him with a kiss. The film's humbling and debasement of Mystere over its concluding acts is embarrassing and vaguely infuriating. Why go to the trouble of teasing us with a strong female character like Mystere only to then destroy her? Is her destruction the film's entire misogynistic point, making the absurd claim that even the toughest women give up when courted by a juvenile but manly stallion? What exactly Vanzia and his crew were thinking with this evacuation of any sort of complexity from the film's portrayal of gender relations can be responded to with the same quip Mystere (when she's still herself) snarls at Colt after he asks her the meaning behind her name: "It's a mystery."


The Bloodstained Lawn 

(Il prato macchiato di rosso

(1973) 

dir. Riccardo Ghione



Long before the mad scientist's refrigerator-sized robot begins to suck all nine pints of blood from the body of a prostrate nude woman through use of its unfurled hose claws, we realize that something is off about Riccardo Ghione's The Bloodstained Lawn. This tale of a wealthy couple (Marina Malfatti and Enzo Tarascio) who employ the woman's brother (Claudio Biava) to pick up hitchhikers, gypsies, drunkards, and other undesirables for pampered imprisonment on the grounds of their moddish property in order to further their shadowy and nefarious scheme is certainly not a typical horror tale, though that basic premise is recognizable enough to anyone steeped in too many of these films. See, The Bloodstained Lawn, with its oversize bow-ties, screeching mechanical mannequin heads, and vagina-shaped doors that lead into mirrored rooms perfect for psychedelic orgies, resists being just another giallo. Technically it's not a giallo in any traditional sense, but, then, what the hell else could it be? Is it a... comedy? It's certainly often humorous, but it's difficult to tell if the film itself is aware of this fact. Throughout, the film plays its barefaced satire straight, despite the progressive introduction of increasingly bonkers plot points and situations. It lampoons its pleasure-seeking youths and flamboyant, eccentric wealthy class to an equal extent, with the former being shamed for their shocking dimness and inner vacuity and the latter for their egomania and wanton devaluing of human life for profit. 

Our lead couple of hitchhikers (Daniela Caroli and George Willing) are a pair of barely functioning, free-spirited druggies blissfully unaware of the danger that they're in as long as chemicals are provided to them at regular intervals. Humorously, they discover numerous blatant clues as to their hosts' evil intentions-- including a furnace brimming with human bones and a freezer full of exsanguinated corpses-- yet never display any definite signs of being eager to escape their imprisonment and the fate that awaits them. They sit meekly, groovily by, like lambs to the blood-letting. Their murderous hosts, Dr. Antonio Genovese and his wife Nina, justify their actions with flimsy claims of selfless endgames: Dr. Genovese dreams of creating a race of immortal cyborgs through his experiments while Nina imagines she's helping the poor, needy people of the Orient dealing with war and famine. Both ignore the fact that they're profiting-- exorbitantly and lustfully-- from their black market blood bank. Though they bear no striking resemblance to one another, The Bloodstained Lawn is reminiscent of Sergio Bergonzelli's nearly as strange In the Folds of the Flesh (1970), another sorta-giallo that contains some out-of-nowhere social and political content.


What Have They Done to Your Daughters? 

(Coed MurdersLa polizia chiede aiuto

(1974) 

dir. Massimo Dallamano



What Have They Done To Your Daughters?, Massimo Dallamano's follow-up to his ultra-sleazy, schoolgirl-defiling, Fabio Testi-starring giallo What Have You Done to Solange? (1972), is perhaps not as memorable as that earlier piece of outrageously questionable content, but it is a tighter and more thematically rich effort. A 15-year-old pregnant girl is discovered hanging from the ceiling on the top floor of an abandoned building, and the investigation of her ostensible suicide by a police inspector (Claudio Cassinelli) and an assistant district attorney (Giovanna Ralli) uncovers something far more sinister than one troubled teen's lamentable death: the dead girl had been drugged, raped, and coerced into participating in a secret but far-reaching teenage prostitution ring servicing powerful local interests. To protect the secrecy of the ring, a butcher knife wielding chap decked out in a full-body leather motorcycle outfit and helmet begins to wave his weapon at the fleshy limbs of anyone getting too close to the truth. Dallamano's film has some fantastic chase sequences, well-crafted moments of suspense, and clever cinematography throughout, but I was most endeared with its progressive attitude towards women in the workplace doing "men's work" (Ralli's district attorney is a strong and confident female character, and her strictly professional relationship with Cassinelli's inspector is based on mutual respect and admiration) and its cynical yet ultimately defiant attitude towards corruption in the world (though our heroes solve the case and present damning evidence of the prostitution ring's bigwig clientele to their bosses, they're told that no one will be indicted as the criminals have too much political pull. Disgusted, Cassinelli's Inspector Silvestri speaks for himself and his associates when he tells their superior to "go fuck [himself]"). There are some disappointments to be had within the film (the casting of Mario Adorf and Farley Granger in what amount to pointless cameos is a serious annoyance) but one would have a difficult time denying that this is a satisfyingly yellow mystery.


Slaughter Hotel 

(Cold Blooded BeastLa bestia uccide a sangue freddo

(1971) 

dir. Fernando Di Leo


One measly year after completing Slaughter Hotel, director Fernando Di Leo began to carve his name into the stump that is Italian cinema through his numerous and always excellent entries into the crime genre, including the likes of such breathtakingly crafted films as Caliber 9 (1972), The Italian Connection (1972), and Shoot First, Die Later (1974). But before all that was Slaughter Hotel, Di Leo's sole horror effort and-- as many would likely claim-- an enormous, pus-filled blemish on the director's otherwise largely impeccable filmography. True, there's little if any of Di Leo's unmistakable talent on display here: Slaughter Hotel is crude, artless, brashly exploitative, and about as deep as one of the oily nude massages it displays on screen. The film is rather lacking in most narrative and cinematic aspects and-- worse yet-- it's more often than not quite dull, and yet Di Leo's slapdash effort is still a fascinating and marginally unique example of the giallo. It's the first ever softcore giallo, and that is quite the distinction. After all, the giallo subgenre was founded on the titillating tension that exists between sex and violence, and its films' innumerable instances of beautiful nude women being slashed to pieces before and after copulation deliberately toss viewers back and forth between states of excitement and revulsion. (Despite how it sounds, the juxtaposition of sex and death in the giallo film is often vastly more complicated in its portrayal than that of its blatantly moral North American slasher descendants. In the giallo film-- and in the bulk of European horror generally-- sex is rarely if ever frowned upon as a corrupting force; it is, rather, the denial or perversion of sexual impulses that creates monsters.)

But Slaughter Hotel, with its unabashed crotch closeup a scant five minutes in and many more spread labia to follow, cranks up the giallo's erotic component to a new level of explicitness. One can read the film's plethora of eroticism as an argument that the subgenre should aim to celebrate sexuality in a society and cinematic landscape that often violently suppress it. The film's primary conceit of a prison-like "rest home" for suicidal and sexually active women (whom their husbands and male doctors have deemed to be abnormally sexually active) is the perfect vehicle through which to deliver such an argument. To make a blatant point a little less subtle, Di Leo has the titular rest home-- ostensibly a place of healing-- casually outfitted with a full array of medieval weaponry and torture devices, including an iron maiden. This grim setting, which ensures the loss of personal and sexual liberty, helps to explain the derangement of the female patients within. Eventually, the setting also allows for the creation of a sexually supportive environment between the patients and female nurses that excludes the repressive specter of male dominance (read as: tender lesbian action galore). Di Leo's camera focuses and lingers far more lovingly on the film's many scenes of same-sex and solo softcore (at times nearly hardcore) heavy petting than it does on its infrequent attacks of violence. Di Leo may favor the former as a filmmaker, but the repressive society he has established (and perhaps the regional film industry he's working in) demands that the latter accompany it. Though not adverse to including scenes of murder, the film is also clearly doubtful that the relationship between sex and violence in gialli should be slanted in the direction of murder. Its most significant moment critiquing that relationship comes along with the demise of Rosalbi Neri's nymphomaniac character: cornered by the axe-wielding killer, her death inevitable, she purrs at her assassin and pleads with him to at least have sex with her first. Di Leo is aware that violence is the unavoidable culmination of the giallo plot, but he also knows that violence isn't necessarily where its pleasures lie. To savor only the murder and discard the sleaze would be a bit boring, would it not?


The House of the Yellow Carpet 

(La casa del tappeto giallo

(1983) 

dir. Carlo Lizzani



I'm not certain, but it may be the case that The House of the Yellow Carpet is the only giallo coming to us from an Academy Award Nominee, for whatever that's worth. At the 1951 ceremony, director Carlo Lizzani was nominated for the now-retired Best Story award for his work on Giuseppe De Santis's Bitter Rice (1949). Nearly 35 years later, his work on The House of the Yellow Carpet is less worthy of a Best Story statuette than it is one for Best Old Story Repurposed to Darkly Comical Ends. Adapted from a play by Aldo Selleri, the film is a Gaslight-inspired chamber drama concerning a trio's convoluted and wrongheaded attempt at curing a young married woman of the psychological trauma of being sexually abused by her stepfather as a child. Honestly, this is one of the more bizarre premises I've come across in my exploration of the giallo: annoyed that his wife Franca (Beatrice Romand) keeps moaning the name of her abusive stepfather during her late night dream fantasies instead of his own, Antonio (Vittorio Mezzogiorno) hires a married pair of experimental psychiatrists (Erland Josephson and Milena Vokotic) to cure her through their unconventional method. That astonishing method is to eradicate Franca's past trauma by creating a new, safer trauma for her to fret about. This unscrupulous couple of head shrinkers hope to accomplish this by staging a twisted, elaborate play for Franca, in which Josephson's character poses as a demented doctor who gains entry to Franca's apartment under false carpet-buying pretenses and then proceeds to lock them both in, admit to murdering his wife, and terrorize Franca with a knife to the extent that she will then attempt to turn the tables on her domestic abductor. After Franca believes she's dispatched of her antagonist, Antonio arrives home and begins to plant doubts in her mind about the reality of the day's events-- see, her symbolic murder of a crazed stepfather-like figure and disposal of his body wrapped up in a carpet given to her by that stepfather is certain to stop her from calling out his name during her fits of dream passion, especially if she thinks it all happened only in her own crazy, mixed-up head. Of course

That's one bizarre plot outlined above, but the film doesn't play it without a certain amount of snickering contempt. The film seems to be amused by Antonio's pathetic, insecure reasons for "helping" his wife, and the psychiatrists are painted unambiguously as criminals, perhaps suggesting the film's view of psychiatry in general. Freudian psychology and interpretations of motivation are a staple of the giallo, but usually they're put forth in earnest. That's not the case here. Lizanni's sympathies seem to rest firmly with Franca: she's not portrayed as pea-brained or helpless, and she's pretty quick to point out the likely possibility that her husband and his accomplices are probably just gaslighting her. At one point I jotted down in my notes "Everyone is acting like they're from outer space," and that seems accurate upon reflection: characters and performances are ever-so-slightly askew, like, for example, Josephson's mad doctor, whose hand is deformed and intermittently paralyzed. The hand, he tells Franca, is "in mourning" for the late wife whom he claims to have murdered. Dialogue and pacing are sharp, the plot becomes ever-more ludicrous as it barrels along, and the ironic closing twist is about as devilishly satisfying as they come. Devoid of giallo stalwarts, the film is populated instead with some strong and well-respected European arthouse actors: Josephson is a legendary actor who worked extensively with Bergman and Tarkovsky, Romand was an Eric Rhomer regular, and Milena Vukotic had roles in many of Luis Bunuel's great films. But don't let the film's pedigree fool you: this is a knowingly silly and outrageous ode to clunky meddling of the damaged psyche.

5 comments:

  1. A rather offhand dismissal of 'The Bloodstained Butterfly', Dear Sir. A hybrid of sorts, but nevertheless Adrian Luther-Smith rightly characterises its opening scenes as capturing "the essence of giallo cinema". It's a shame that it didn't click with you - you owe it to Tessari to view it again!

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    1. Oh, I hope I didn't give the impression that I disliked the film! I found it rather enjoyable, if not exactly a typical specimen of the genre. Generally, I prefer a bit more of the outlandish in my gialli, but I don't begrudge The Bloodstained Butterfly for doing what it does (and so well, at that). I also wouldn't deny that the opening sequence is its most giallo-y bit, but even then it's more loosely sampling the "essence" of the subgenre than epitomizing it. An early Argento set piece crime it is not.

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  2. Ah Jeffrey! You said some obscure ones were coming and you did not disappoint! I've seen all these but 2. The Bloodstained Lawn and Mystere. Fun Fact: The House With The Yellow Carpet was the first bootleg I ever bought.

    The Bloodstained Butterfly seemed to me to be a film that was trying (and succeeding in my opinion) to be a sort of giallo plus film. The plus being a social commentary/political thriller. I rather enjoyed it but I agree it is not a typical gialli but a fine film nonetheless. Keep it coming!

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    1. Brad, you simply must see The Bloodstained Lawn. This is your homework assignment.

      Agreed on Bloodstained Butterfly. I think the film seems really weird to me because Puzzle, from only a few years later, is exactly the opposite. That film hasn't the slightest bit of restraint or subtlety.

      Next week is gonna get even obscurer, but flavored with dashes of Lenzi and Lambava.

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  3. I am now looking for a copy!

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