dir. Alberto De Martino
The ultra-sleaze of this early '80s giallo is, well, unexpected. Two years after filming the delightfully insipid, MST3K-lampooned children's superhero film Pumaman (1980), director Albert De Martino returned under the pseudonym "Martin Herbert" to buck expectations by delivering Blood Link, a Michael Moriarty-starring giallo that primarily concerns itself with scenes of rape and exposed breasts. It doesn't reach Giallo A Venezia (1979) levels of sleaze, but one can't help but feel dirty watching Moriarty apply his usual amiable slimeball charm to truly horrific ends. Consequently, Moriarty doesn't shine as often here as he does in any of Larry Cohen's films, but he sure savors every moment he gets to play off himself while starring as a pair of once-siamese identical twins-- one a doctor, the other a psychopathic serial killer-- who have an inexplicable extrasensory ability that allows them to, on occasion, transmit visual images to each other with their minds. (In one scene, while speaking to his other identical half, Moriarty whistles through his grin, "I'm a very flip character.") When one twin, Craig, sees the vile, sexualized murders committed by his estranged brother, Keith, though his own eyes, he decides to travel to Hamburg to track down his long lost blood relative and prevent any more violence. Much confusion of identities follows as the police hassle Craig thinking he's Keith while Keith impersonates Craig in order to give a wobbly Cameron Mitchell a heart attack and rape/murder a woman that Craig was cheating on his girlfriend with in the hope of framing his not-so-goody-two-shoes sibling. It's often very amusing, in part-- Keith's murderous psychosis was caused by, of all things, seeing his parents making out in the garage when he was a child, to which he promptly responded by squishing them with the family automobile-- but on the other hand the bulk of it is downright unseemly. When Craig's girlfriend, Julie (Penelope Milford), is raped by Keith and, seemingly, enjoys it, we catch shades of a similar moment in Straw Dogs (1971). But De Martino is no Peckinpah: this is misguided titillation at its lousiest, where rape is considered a horrifying cinematic spectacle only if someone "gets hurt."
So Sweet, So Perverse
(Così dolce... così perversa)
dir. Umberto Lenzi
Decades before he played a sad old man in Michael Haneke's Amour (2012), Jean-Louis Trintignant snogged and rode jet skis with Carroll Baker, his mysterious upstairs neighbor, because his character in Umberto Lenzi's So Sweet, So Perverse was really bored. Jean Reynaud (Trintignant) is a wealthy businessman suffering from the pangs of ennui that afflict all of those with too much privilege: he's bored with his mundane high-power job; he's bored with his marriage to his beautiful wife, Danielle (Erika Blanc), and no longer even interested in her "slice of cake" that she's been denying him in bed; he's bored with his mistress (Mabille De Lancré herself, Helga Line) who provides him all the slices of cake he could ever desire. "Life is so boring nowadays," he grumbles, so when the noises of his new upstairs neighbor, Nicole (Baker), being beaten and abused by another man (the ever-swarthy Horst Frank) filter down to his apartment below, Jean is quick to jump into the sleazy soap opera drama of her life and aspire to the role of the rescuing white knight. But Nicole is simply a diversion for Jean-- a beautiful image of the tortured woman who requires assistance-- who will in fact rescue him, however temporarily, from his dull, pampered existence. He's not really interested in the particulars of her sad tale: before she relays her story to him and becomes a defined personality, he admits that he's be more content if she remained a mute image for his fascination: "I much prefer your silence." It's this blind, uncritical pursuit of a seeming damsel in distress that leads our pathetic, bored hero into a bramble bush of trouble and murder as the film progresses. In the second half of the film, our attention is focused on Jean's wife Danielle, who attests early on that she's sick of the antiquated Victorian notion of the dominant male and attempts to rebel against it by denying her husband any of her love and carrying on a lesbian affair. Her story, which comprises the remainder of the film, is a little more typical of the subgenre (i.e. gaslighting galore), but her fate is more tragic than usual: we receive the sense that she actually did care for Jean and her guilt over the plot she enacted against him haunts her until her cruel death. The climax of So Sweet, So Perverse is about as delectably bleak and cynical as these things come, but the film's overall story feels diluted by the mid-point twist, which especially leaves Carroll Baker's intriguing storyline (that of a rape victim who remains psychologically attached and sexually aroused by her attacker) by the wayside. It's not Lenzi's finest or most thematically complete, but it does open with a killer track from the great Riz Ortolani, and that counts for something.
Love & Death on the Edge of a Razor
(Giorni d'amore sul filo di una lama)
dir. Giuseppe Pellegrini
I suppose that every movie marathon meltdown needs a dud at its center to remind you of the relative qualities of everything else you've been watching. Love & Death on the Edge of a Razor is that dud. Simply, it is the worst giallo I've yet had the displeasure of encountering. This is the only film directed by Italian screenwriter Giuseppe Pellegrini (who co-wrote Renato Polselli's early days Italian horror flick The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960)), and for this I am glad: I would prefer not to feel obligated to watch another film from this man. Despite possessing the most giallo-rific film title in the subgenre's history, Love & Death on the Edge of the Razor is not a horror-thriller. Nor is it anything else of note, besides a partial cribbing of Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958). Forcing a label, it would have to be called, I suppose, a... romance crime drama? Perhaps, if one can earn that label without being romantic, dramatic, or action-packed. As the choppy editing telegraphs great spans of time between cuts, we are given the story of a boy (Peter Lee Lawrence) who meets a girl (Erika Blanc, or, as the credits amusingly re-dub her, "Blank") and who together fall madly in love until the girl dies in a car crash and the boy gets sad for a while but eventually picks up with another girl (Ivanna Novak), except it turns out that the first girl didn't actually die in a car crash but is now working as a journalist staging shady textile importation deals with gangsters because the boy's wealthy father blackmailed her into faking her own death in order to protect her own slightly corrupt father. This paucity of dramatic interest is approximately all that transpires in the film, except it's stretched out from a single overstuffed sentence into ninety minutes. Thankfully, the film concludes with an uplifting message: the power of love can save the lives of those people we hold dear who have large, gory gunshot wounds in their chests. Ugh. I'd rather have spent this lost time with my eyelids forcibly peeled open in front of The Bloodsucker Leads the Dance (1975) again. At least that one had some severed heads made from paper mache: Love & Death on the Edge of a Razor has reminded me to appreciate the simple pleasures.
The Red Headed Corpse
(La rossa dalla pelle che scotta)
dir. Renzo Russo
A hidden gem of early-'70s Italian gialli, The Red Headed Corpse takes a manic spin on Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" and sprinkles it with the aesthetic content (if not the social critique) of a few earlier troubled-artist-turned-murderer flicks like Corman's A Bucket of Blood (1959) and Lewis's Color Me Blood Red (1965). A slightly wizened Farley Granger plays a drunken, struggling artist named John Ward whose paintings are no longer in demand from the local dealers. He stumbles around town cursing his luck one day and happens to wander into a park full of hippies. He turns down their offer of a joint to smoke ("you like the world as it is?" one of the hippies asks in astonishment), but he does take home an expressionless female mannequin that the lead hippie gifts to him, with the endorsement that it's "better than the real thing: it doesn't talk back." John makes the mannequin his new art project, and he talks to her while he fixes her up into an object that's "lovely, pure, faithful. Everything a woman should be." Of course, he fails to notice that she's also a hunk of plastic, but that's not about to stop his deranged mind, which imagines the mannequin coming to life one evening as a real woman (Krista Nell), who is referred to in the credits as "The Subservient Doll." The term "doll" is appropriate because this animated female becomes John's mute plaything, embodying his notion of the ideal female who is to be seen (to spill champagne on her breasts, mostly) and touched but not heard.
John and his doll's happy co-existence is one day shattered by John's haunting memory of the rampant infidelity of his former wife (Erika Blanc), who is referred to in the credits only as, interestingly, "The Sensuous Doll." The bulk of the film then occurs in flashback, showing us first Blanc's instrumental hand in gaining John some momentary success as a painter of nude figures with her as his model and then her constant betrayals of marriage by getting randy with just about anyone who asks, including a pimply 16-year-old teen boy on the beach. Her selfish actions eventually lead John to murder... or do they? The film is ambiguous on the point of what exactly is reality and what is the delusion of John's mind. How can John have flashbacks to events that he wasn't present for? Are his memories of his wife's infidelities merely the anguished, misogynistic delusions of some male cuckolding fantasy, one in which a women who says "no" always means "yes"? A man haunted by a bleeding sentient mannequin is not quite an authority on empirical events, so we're never sure what to make of the images and memories on screen. What is apparent is that John is a man torn between two false fantasies of women: he's neither satisfied with the faithful but dull subservient doll who "never asks for anything" or the untrustworthy sensuous doll, whose treachery (real or imagined) is as alluring as it is torturous (the film ends on the kooky but somewhat chilling image of Blanc's giant transparent ghost head imposed over a shot of the outside of John's dingy house, laughing at him merrily as he watches wistfully from the rear window of a car in which he's being carted away to the loony bin). One imagines John's position might have improved if he'd only stopped thinking of women as dolls.
The Devil Has Seven Faces
(Il diavolo a sette facce)
dir. Osvaldo Civirani
Osvaldo Civirani tricked me. With a title, poster, and trailer like that bestowed upon his film The Devil Has Seven Faces, is it any fault of mine that I believed I was being set up to watch a Gothic-tinged giallo starring the formidable duo of the ever-present Carroll Baker and that charming rapscallion George Hilton? My brain starts to drool at the very idea of such a movie existing. But Civirani, the lousy scoundrel that he obviously is, tricked me. Barring a pretty cool but aesthetically jarring scene in which Baker descends into a basement with only a lighter for illumination and discovers-- to her horror-- a cobwebbed corpse, The Devil Has Seven Faces is far from what you might expect. Sure, it borrows liberally from the giallo's cabinet of plot curiosities-- we have twins, duplicitous lovers, mistaken identities, concealed identities, frantic chases, wigs, and fakeouts and twists galore-- but there's no obscuring the reality that the film is, at its core, a diamond heist film. On that action-and-intrigue-oriented level, it's a kooky pleasure: I'll watch Carroll Baker climb ladders in tight black short-shorts and smoosh a crazed George Hilton under the wheels of a bulldozer any day. But it's a crap giallo, and yet Civirani, his producers, and his distributors sold it to me as something special. Shame on them. I will, however, give them credit for one thing, for their's is the only film that's allowed me to see Baker's impressive emotive facial acting on display from underwater while her head is being plunged into a tub full of watery torture by some villainous villains. Spoiler.
The Fourth Victim
(Death at the Deep End of the Swimming Pool; La última señora Anderson)
dir. Eugenio Martín
Carroll Baker makes her final flirtatious appearance of the day in Eugenio "Horror Express" Martin's Spanish-Italian co-production, The Fourth Victim. This fine, Lenzi-esque film concerns the unusual occupation of one Mr. Arthur Anderson (Michael Craig), described by a prosecuting attorney as "a professional widower": Mr. Anderson marries women, takes out large life insurance policies against them, and then collects his reward when they inevitably perish in one kind of "accident" or another. This unexpected gender reversal of the old "Black Widow" routine helps Mr. Anderson persuade a jury of his innocence when he's put on trail for the suspected murder of his latest wife. A well-to-do man who would lower himself so far as to kill his wife for the money? Who could imagine such a dishonest way for a man to make his living? That's (clearly) wicked women's work. These thoughts are those that-- ostensibly-- pass through the brain of Julie (Carroll Baker) when she embarks on a love affair and eventual marriage with Mr. Anderson (his fourth) soon after their first encounter during a quick dip she steals in his pool. Julie attests that she harbors no suspicion against Mr. Anderson, a claim which even he's skeptical of: it's only after she presents him with a life insurance policy that she's taken out for him in her own name that he agrees to their marriage. Naturally, Julie hasn't told her new husband absolutely everything about herself, and the arrival of puzzle pieces like secretive late-night phone calls, information about years-long psychiatric hospital stays, and a murder-happy Marina Malfatti serve to further complicate an already fairly loopy plot. Still, the film's most bewildering moment occurs in its denouement when, all deadly secrets and murderous intentions revealed, Mr. Anderson and the latest Mrs. Anderson blissfully decide to stay hitched, having taken out-- together-- a joint life insurance policy. This might be the most sneakily cynical ending of all time: happiness in marriage is always knowing that you can bump off that other lethal crook you call your spouse for fat stacks of cash at a moment's notice. Ah, love.
(Fatal frames: Fotogrammi mortali)
dir. Al Festa
What was all that about gazing into the abyss and it gazing also into you? A bloated vanity project of epic proportions (it's over two hours long), Al Festa's Fatal Frames is both entirely baffling and weirdly satisfying. On the one hand, the film is obviously intended to prop up the career of its leading lady/director's lover/pop star prodigy Stefania Stella, which we can note due to her central presence in the film despite her possessing the acting talent of an exaggerated stuffed animal with googly eyes and her uncanny ability to mimic the sound of a slurred, drunken computer reading the phonetic pronunciation of words whenever she speaks. We also notice this obvious intention of the film during moments in which the action stops dead so that Stefania can flop around in a fountain and record a music video set to her mush-mouthed non-hit "Eternal City." And yet, on the other twisted monkey's paw, Fatal Frames is a loving tribute to the gialli of previous decades (though specifically those of the 1980s). It remains aesthetically consistent with those grimy, glitzed-out films from the likes of Lamberto Bava and Carlo Vanzina by featuring lots of fashion models, the odd seance or two, several male actors who look exactly like Furio from The Sopranos, pit stops for slinky photoshoots, and sleepy performances from a cavalcade of washed up genre vets. (David Warbeck, Alida Valli, Linnea Quigley, Angus Scrimm, and Donald Pleasence all fatally poke their sleepy heads into frame here, though Warbeck gives his performance a bit more energy than you'd expect. Sadly, Fatal Frames would be Pleasence's final film due to his death during production, leaving his performance incomplete. Naturally, Festa wrote him out of the film in the most tasteless of fashions). Fatal Frames should have gone terribly wrong, been insufferable even, but it's reined in enough that it's actually quite watchable and self-indulgent in all the right ways. Think of it as akin to a giallo helmed by Tommy Wiseau, only starring someone with even less of a familiarity with the English language than him. Stefania help me, I actually liked it.