Friday, August 23, 2013

Meltdown 09: Yellow Days of Summer (Part II)

Body Puzzle 



dir. Lamberto Bava

They're never the best of the lot, but it feels wrong to ignore a giallo from Lamberto Bava whenever one watches a whole pile of them in a row. Although they were all produced a decade or more after the subgenre had peaked, there's still something quintessential about his giallo films, or at least quintessentially '80s European horror about them, meaning they're cheaper, gorier, frillier, and more colorful and garish than their forefathers. From A Blade in the Dark (1983) to Delirium: Photos of Gioia (987), Lamberto's gialli forgo subtlety and style in favor of big blades and bigger hair. As the great Mario Bava's talent-challenged son, Lamberto chooses to overcompensate for his lack of cinematographic grace in all of his directorial efforts by piling on the decade-specific sleaze and cheese. And as in the cases of the two films mentioned above, this overabundance can be a lot of fun, as his gialli often border on a sensibility close to that of the frenetic insanity of his biggest horror hit, Demons (1985). But I have to suppose that by the early '90s, after several years of cranking out mostly Italian TV features, Bava had begun to mellow out. Body Puzzle, his chief giallo of the period, is an almost restrained effort, barring the inclusion of a few pieces of inspired lunacy (like a toilet bowl cam that watches from underwater as a severed hand plops down into the bowl, or when the snarling killer pops out from the interior of an icebox full of cubes and corpses). Through its restraint alone the film winds up tonally and aesthetically closer to the traditional gialli of the '70s than Bava had ever come before, and the result is a curious change of pace. Following the Columbo formula, we're presented early on with a killer (François Montagut) who listens to classical music through earbuds while he harvests donated organs from his assorted victims for conspicuous placement around the house of the recently widowed Tracy (Joanna Pacula), and it's up to the efforts of a dedicated police inspector (Thomas Arana) to unravel why. Many convoluted revelations concerning identity, sexuality, and vital statistics follow, along with some cameos from nearly unrecognizable older versions of Erika Blanc and Gianni Garko. Its constant, running-length-stretching plot twists and contortions keep the proceedings involving, but it's both amusing and beguiling to watch Lamberto play-- even fleetingly-- at building a classy production. I mean, consider who we're talking about here.

In the Eye of the Hurricane 

(El ojo del huracán


dir. José María Forqué

In the Eye of the Hurricane is a very Jean Sorel sort of film. It's an erotic thriller in the Diabolique mode concerning a handsome playboy who slyly plots the torment and hopeful death of a wealthy woman that he's romantically involved with in order to gain access to her vast funds. So, it's a lot like some of Sorel's other gialli: Parnoia (1970, written about below) and The Sweet Body of Deborah (1968), in particular. As luck would have it, Sorel happens to star in this enthralling Spanish-Italian co-production too (hooray for type-casting!). I won't deny that I'm a sucker for this type of giallo, as I've found that much joy can be wrung out of the games of domestic treachery and double-crosses even when they're not all that creative in their respective approaches or implementations. But In the Eye of the Hurricane, I'll hazard to argue, holds a dagger of originality up to the sub-subgenre's throat and dares it to make a clever move, resulting in a film that's both more suspenseful and ultimately more satisfying than its formal typicality would initially suggest. 

In this type of giallo, the female protagonist is generally beleaguered and hysterical, driven to madness, beset by paranoia, and left without much hope of saving herself from her own predicament without outside aid. In contrast, In the Eye of the Labyrinth's leading lady, Ruth (Analía Gadé), overhears the unambiguous late-night scheming of her envious ex-husband (Tony Kendall) and her sexy yet duplicitous new boypal (Jean Sorel, naturally) about halfway through, and thus she uses this secret knowledge to shape the events that follow. We spend the rest of the movie observing Ruth's emotional waffling between silent heartbreak over her beloved's betrayal and her cool determination to foil the plans against her before her danged brake fluid is tampered with again. (This waffling isn't always graceful, but it is always enjoyable to watch: in one scene, Ruth pretends to lay asleep and bizarrely resigns herself to death while Sorel's character stands behind her and points a gun at her head, unaware of her cognizance of his presence and intention. The editing in this scene hits a fever pitch as it quickly cuts back and forth between extreme close-ups of their anguished faces waiting far too long for something to happen before it finally does: the bedside phone rings.) Our uncertainty about which perspective Ruth will ultimately align herself with (revenge or resignation) makes the last act (which mirrors Carroll Baker's blackmail home imprisonment at the hands of two nymphomaniacal siblings in Umberto Lenzi's Orgasmo (1969)) a riveting watch as Sorel sneers, a crazed Rosanna Yanni snarls, and the sexual torment commences. Without divulging too many details of the wrap-up, it should be noted that Ruth is a complex and capable female protagonist-- independent, strong-willed, and essentially faultless-- and these qualities alone set the film that rises up around her apart from the pack and their parades of tragic or guilty women. All this, plus a scene in which Sorel and Gadé perform an upside Spider-Man kiss on the beach while rubbing each other's tummies. This corpse is exquisite.

Everybody Deceased... Except the Dead 

(Tutti defunti... tranne i morti


dir. Pupi Avati

It's not an arduous task to place myself back into the frame of mind that once thought, "A giallo spoof from the director of one of the subgenre's finest entries (The House with Laughing Windows (1976))? How could this viewing experience possibly go awry?" But, as I was reminded of after watching Everybody Deceased... Except the Dead, one should probably never underestimate the enigma that is 1970s Italian comedy: it will always find new horrendous ways to baffle and repel. We are, after all, speaking of the cinematic output of a country whose horror-thrillers even end, from time to time, on the high note of an anal rape gag (see: Andrea Bianchi's uber-sleazy Strip Nude for Your Killer (1975)). Commercial Italian films of the period were in no way subtle or refined, and the comedies even less so. If you haven't seen any but would like a general idea of how they feel, then imagine the general tasteless tomfoolery of a Screwballs (1983), a Joysticks (1983), or any other lewd and crude American teen sex comedy of the '80s and then skew that exact same content towards a middle-aged audience rather than post-pubescent teens. So, in short: jokes about masturbation, loose women, the mentally-handicapped, little people, homosexuality, cowboys, and... book salesmen. The story concerns just such a bulbous-nosed book salesman (Carlo Delle Piane) who arrives at the Zanotti family mansion on the eve of their patriarch's funeral in order to sell that collected bunch of eccentrics and perverts a reproduction of an old manuscript detailing the finer points of their family curse and a prophecy promising treasure if nine corpses are accumulated over the course of one stormy night. One member of the household, seeing this prophecy, decides to don a fedora and black gloves in the hope of speeding fate along. Hilarity ensues? 

There are certainly some good jokes to be found in-between all the groan-worthy nonsense: I quite liked the exchange between a confused victim and his killer immediately after the latter has stabbed the former in his side: "What's that?" "A nice stab, can't you see?" "(groans, dies.)" The film contains a few of the warm, fuzzy Old Dark House laughs that you'll receive from watching similar yet superior slapstick murder mysteries like Clue (1987) and Murder By Death (1976). For example, when the power is cut by the killer, the perpetually clueless Inspector Martini (Gianni Cavina) shouts at the others assembled, "pay the bills, guys!" (when the lights flicker back on later in the film, he sighs, with relief, "so they paid it!"). The film's most amusing gag occurs when the gathered family members, led by Inspector Martini, attempt to instruct a pair of dogs to follow the killer's scent from one of his victim's severed hands that they've discovered. They toss the bloody hand to the dogs, who then promptly devour it. There's clearly something amusing about the giallo murder mystery ripe for skewering, but  Everybody Deceased... Except the Dead's parody is far from as focused as it ought to be. When's the last time you saw a giallo that featured death-by-electric anti-masturbation machine?

Kill the Fatted Calf and Roast It

(Uccidete il vitello grasso e arrostitelo


dir. Salvatore Samperi

Salvatore Samperi's ultra-rare and ever-so-excellent Kill the Fatted Calf and Roast It deserves a wider audience, for its peculiar cinematic tale would satisfy genre junky and art film connoisseur alike. Far from a straight-razor wielding giallo, the film has as much in common with one of Poe's darkly humorous Gothic family tragedies as it does the more eccentric, atypical products of the subgenre it has been lumped in with due to historical proximity. This sad but inevitable tale of the doomed Merlo family, who are plagued by ancestral madness, Oedipal complexes, incestual lust, and sibling backstabbing, holds artistic pretensions that would place it in line with the demented, sexually-malformed social commentaries of Samperi's compatriot Pier Paolo Pasolini. The film not-so-subtly posits that Italy's rich old families, who have built their vast ancient wealth on the destruction and murder of whole villages of those less fortunate than them, are diseased at the root and fated to poison themselves through desire and aggression turned back on itself now that there's no one left to subjugate. After the unexpected death (or murder?) of the family patriarch, youngest son Enrico (Maurizio Degli Esposti) begins an investigation that places his shady older brother Cesare (Jean Sorel, making his second appearance today) and his dryly seductive cousin Verde (Marilù Tolo) as the primary suspects. At the same time, Enrico also busies himself with creating a creepy shrine for his insane dead mother and carrying on an illicit affair of motherly affection with his cousin Verde, who has sex with him but also dresses in his mother's clothes before offering him her breast to suckle. Sublime, surreal Freudian weirdness runs high throughout: it's the sort of film that inspires one to jot down a note reading "boob/pudding jiggle juxtaposition." Eventually, Enrico wades deep enough into his family's deadly business that he begins to drown, forcibly. The film submits through its title and some internal dialogue that in this way Enrico is like an innocent calf among hungry wolves, but it also becomes clear through Enrico's damaged psyche and the story's grim conclusion that a calf too long among wolves grows sharp teeth.

Death on the Fourposter 

(Sexy PartyDelitto allo specchio


dir. Jean Josipovici

An Italian-French co-production, Death on the Fourposter (also known by the less striking title Sexy Party) arrived in cinemas the same year as Mario Bava's Blood and Black Lace (1964), a film of no small importance to the foundation of the giallo subgenre. Consequently, director Jean Josopovici's film doesn't have an ingrained giallo tradition to draw upon when concocting its own murder mystery, and so instead draws upon elements of the Gothic. And yet, those elements of the Gothic that Death on the Fourposter employs-- seances and mediums, chilly castles, returns from the dead-- would soon become as much a part of the giallo tradition as Bava's fashion models and gloved killer. This observation is not intended to give Death on the Fourposter (which is, after all, a rather obscure film) equal or even a significant amount of credit in the development of the subgenre, but it does make clear that Bava's film didn't appear out of the ether: it, like Jean Josipovici's film, was the product of an evolution of a long and storied tradition of murder mystery and Gothic horror cinema in Italy and throughout Europe. That these and other Euro mystery films were, by the mid-1960s, simultaneously beginning to include scenes of more blatant sexuality and bloody violence than those films of previous decades is a sign of the fast-changing times post-watershed horrors like Psycho (1960) and Peeping Tom (1960).

Through almost entirely deficient on the bloody violence count, Death on the Fourposter's proto-giallo cred certainly shines through in its sultry sexual content. There's none of the explicit sexuality or nudity of the '70s giallo canon, but the film's alternately titular sexy party certainly earns that designation. A band of irritatingly rich young men and women whose names invariably end in either "y" or "ie" descend upon a castle for a weekend get-together (one of them quips, "this is better than your father's castle") and their evening soon devolves into a string of naughty parlor games in which there is much seducing, teasing, partner-swapping, wagering, sexy dancing (set, off-time, to a special guest's new hit party record, entitled, naturally, "Sexy Party"), and shattering of illusions. This first half of the film is quite a lot of steamy fun, thanks in no small part to the bewitching presence of actress Antonella Lualdi as Serena, a sort of devilish socialite with devious charm and sex appeal to spare. Serena puts her fellow party guests on trial through her only ostensibly playful games, revealing the others' various hypocrisies and petty vices while she smiles all the while. Serena is such a strong and alluring presence in the film that the action takes a nosedive in its interest for the viewer after she's knocked off at the midway point. Who killed her? Why? Who's dead next? Where are the stolen rings? Who's going insane? These are all questions that the film spends the rest of its length answering, but I would have preferred to have seen some more of Serena putting chinks in high society's armor of respectability.

Cross Current 

(Un omicidio perfetto a termine di legge


dir. Tonino Ricci

Like In the Eye of the Labyrinth, Tonino Ricci's Cross Current twists and turns endlessly in its trashy attempt to simulate a Diabolique-inspired murder soap opera. (Also like in that film-- released in the same year, by gum-- the lovely Rosanna Yanni pops up here as a scheming sexpot who favors boogieing in miniskirts. No complaints.) Cross Current isn't as clever or as complex as that other film, but it certainly makes up for that lack in plot complexity. Most of the notes I took while watching the film were mostly intended to help me keep the details straight as it barreled along in its tale of boating accidents, gardener blackmail, midnight stranglings and the like. As is usually the case, everyone here has a hidden agenda and more than likely a hidden lover. More than a few of them "die" before popping up very much alive in order to enact some new nefarious plot. The rich plot and scheme, killing each other and themselves, all over measly business interests. This is the standard score, but Ricci and his crew pull an admirable job by maintaining its appeal. It's kind of hard to frown on a film that ends with a character being so scared by some spooky music playing on the record player that she trips, hits her head, and dies after guzzling down some J&B, only to then have it strongly implied that it was all part of the villain's plan. Ludicrously messy murder-plotting all in good fun, with the added benefit of providing our first sighting of the ever-smirking/ever-dashing Ivan Rassimov this month. No complaints at all.


(A Quiet Place to Kill


dir. Umberto Lenzi

Carroll Baker is a race car driver. If you need me to continue, then your eyes must have skimmed past the previous sentence without fully gleaning its import. Paranoia, Umberto Lenzi's third giallo with the inestimable Ms. Baker and the only in which her character stars as a bonafide prizewinning race car driver, has driven a symbolic race car off of a cliff and into my heart. It might not be the best giallo that this power duo concocted together (my vote would still go to Orgasmo), but-- from its solarized, spoiler-filled opening credits to its closing ironic twist that dooms the villainous victors-- it's awfully close. Three years before the action of the film begins, Helen (Carroll Baker) had all of her money spent by her lazy European boyfriend, Maurice (Jean Sorel, again), before he split, forcing her to spend the next few years making drastic career moves (i.e. race car driving) in order to recoup her wealth and get over her heartbreak. When Maurice's new wife, Constance (Anna Proclemer), sends Helen an invitation to stay at their home in Maurice's name, Helen impulsively decides to take up the offer. What she discovers after arriving is that Maurice is still up to old tricks and that Constance wishes to enlist her help to rid him from their lives, preferably by strategically placed harpoon. However, Helen's rekindled passion for all things Maurice makes her decision a difficult one. A murder, a cover-up, and a guilty conscience later, the film reaches an entirely new level of delirious entertainment when Constance's sultry schoolgirl daughter, Susan (Marina Coffa), arrives at the estate and begins to sniff that something foul is afoot. We're then gifted with a parade of wigs, whiskey abuse, and exploding cars to close events out (complimenting the film's earlier parade of a carrier pigeon, bubble disco dancing, and a frumpy green bikini quite nicely).

There are many neat things to be found in Paranoia for the subgenre buff, but the neatest might be the film's pointed inversion of typical gender roles. It is the film's women, rather than its men, who are the providers. Both Helen and Constance are self-made women, using their earned wealth to lead extravagant lifestyles that cater to the whims and tastes of their hunky but penniless arm candy (like the unemployed Maurice). Helen and Constance both make clear that they've cycled through many young live-in playboys due to lust over the years, as if they've been irresistibly tempted by their masculine charms. This sort of domestic and romantic arrangement is totally typical in giallo films if you reverse the sexes, but Paranoia's evacuation of gendered expectations is unique, and, in a way, sort of total: when the car that Helen and Maurice are driving breaks down on the road, it's Helen who takes a peep under the hood and announces the car's failure while Maurice idles by helpless. Carroll Baker is a race car driver.


  1. Another outstanding post! I've seen them all but two: Death On The Four Poster (which I almost watched this week but opted for Love And Death On The Edge Of A Razor instead) and Body Puzzle (which I have.) I'd have to say that Paranoia (A Quiet Place To Kill) is probably my favorite of the Baker/Lenzi gialli, but hell I like them all quite a bit. Carroll Baker Is A Race Car Driver. Priceless.

    1. Thank you, sir!

      Love and Death on the Edge of a Razor is coming up in next Friday's post, in fact. I'm excited. That's also the most descriptive title for a giallo I've ever heard. If I were to ever write a giallo book, no other title would suffice.

  2. I stand ready to buy your giallo book!

  3. Please answer me this: How can I see the Baker/ Lenzi films? More specifically, Orgasmo & Paranoia? The only place I've found the latter was on Youtube-but it was in Italian without subtitles! And I'm sure i was missing some campy/juicy retorts...But I've been looking for them forever. Please help!
    Love your blog and reviews btw!

    1. It's a crime that these films aren't commercially available. In fact, far too many of Lenzi's gialli have been neglected, for whatever reason. (Oh, how I wish Eyeball had a legitimate release!) I acquired both Orgasmo and Paranoia through a certain popular private torrent tracker for esoteric cinema. However, you can also purchase some very decent quality bootlegs of Italian audio versions of both films with English subtitles from the website Cinema de Bizarre.