Tuesday, July 31, 2018

July Quick Picks and Pans – Giallo Month

Death Walks at Midnight (1972) This nifty thriller from director Luciano Ercoli has enough turns to keep you guessing until the end. Top fashion model Valentina (Nieves Navarro, aka: Susan Scott) takes an experimental hallucinogen for money and has visions of a brutal murder with a spiked gauntlet. As Valentina delves deeper into the mystery, she spots the murderer from her nightmares, which might just lead to her doom. Fearing she will be the next victim, she tries to convince her artist boyfriend and police, but they dismiss it as effects of the drug. Only a lone reporter appears to be her ally. The film features a pair of thugs, including a manic laughing assassin, in a climactic rooftop fight. Spoiler alert: Don’t expect Death to appear at midnight. In the context of the movie, he shows up whenever he pleases.

Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Amazon Prime

The Fifth Cord (1971) Director Luigi Bazzoni’s taut giallo film keeps us engaged throughout, featuring Franco Nero as alcoholic journalist Andrea Bild. As the intrepid reporter gets closer to the truth behind a series of murders, he gets deeper into hot water with the cops and his superiors. As he appears in the film, Andrea isn’t the most sympathetic of characters. He has an abusive streak, and still holds a torch for his ex-wife Helene (Silvia Monti), while spending time with his girlfriend. The Fifth Cord also features another (surprise, surprise) exceptional score from Ennio Morricone (Where would gialli have been without him?).

Rating: ****. Available on DVD

Perversion Story (aka: One on Top of the Other) (1969) This solid suspense movie, set in San Francisco, plays like a classic film noir, albeit with more explicit thrills and a swinging ‘60s vibe. Jean Sorel stars as George, a doctor in a loveless marriage. Marissa Mell stuns in a dual role as George’s asthmatic wife Susan (Marissa Mell) and femme fatale Monica Weston. When Susan suddenly dies from an accidental overdose, all signs point to him as the likely culprit. Monica, a stripper at a nightclub, might be the link he needs to clear his name. Director/co-writer Lucio Fulci’s film is stylish, sexy, and packed with enough crazy plot twists to keep you entranced.  

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD

All the Colors of the Dark (aka: They’re Coming to Get You) (1972) Sergio Martino’s horror/giallo hybrid combines mystery with shocks, in the tale of a woman who becomes mixed up in the affairs of a coven of witches. Edwige Fenech stars as Jane, a woman traumatized by the loss of her unborn baby in a car crash. She repeatedly suffers nightmares of being stabbed by an unknown man, and her constant state of fear begins to forge a rift with her fiancé Richard (George Hilton). The bad dreams become too real when the visions invade her waking hours, and she finds herself pursued by the unknown assailant. Her neighbor proposes a novel approach to her problem, inviting her to a satanic mass. Although it appears to solve her problems with intimacy, it creates new issues. Soon, she’s running for her life from the demonic cult. Martino’s film is unsettling and discombobulating, creating the illusion of a waking dream.

Warning: Pet lovers might consider steering clear, or at least looking away during the animal sacrifice sequence about midway through the film.

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD

Evil Eye (aka: The Girl Who Knew Too Much) (1963) In this fascinating early giallo film from director Mario Bava, Letícia Román plays an American tourist in Rome, Nora Davis, who seems to attract trouble from the moment she steps off the plane. She has a run-in with a drug smuggler, and her aunt dies during the first night in town. Things get worse when she witnesses a murder in the middle of a town square. The local police don’t believe her because she appears to be drunk. Only Dr. Marcello Bassi (played by a youthful John Saxon in a rare romantic role) stands in her corner. Román and Saxon are an appealing couple, who team up to solve the mystery behind a series of murders. Tense and visually gripping (featuring glorious black and white cinematography by Bava), Evil Eye (along with Bava’s Blood and Black Lace from the following year) is an excellent introduction to the genre.

Rating: ***½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Death Laid an Egg (1968) Even in a genre known for oddball titles, this is an oddball title. Sadly director/co-writer Giulio Questi’s thriller doesn’t quite live up to its goofy promise. Anna (Gina Lollobrigida) owns a family estate with an experimental chicken farm, while her husband Marco (Jean-Louis Trintignant) manages operations with the controlling company. His extracurricular activities involve killing prostitutes and lusting after his young secretary, Gabrielle (Ewa Aulin). Death Laid an Egg might not be much of a murder mystery, and moves at a glacial pace, but it might be worth a look for its idiosyncratic touches, including inventive camera angles, funky editing choices, and a batch of headless/boneless chickens created on the farm.

Rating: **½. Available on DVD

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Who Saw Her Die? (aka: Chi L'ha Vista Morire?)

(1972) Directed by Aldo Lado; Written by Aldo Lado and Ruediger von Spies; Starring: George Lazenby, Anita Strindberg, Adolfo Celi, Dominique Boschero, Piero Vida and Nicoletta Elmi; Available on DVD and Amazon Prime

Rating: ***½

“I have always considered that giallo films in particular, though it’s valid for all movies, use the classic elements of mystery and fear. But overall, these kinds of movies communicate with audiences in a less conventional way. They use fictional elements and certain ways of editing to communicate an emotion. Audiences see movies to receive emotions. It may be fear or joy, but one is always looking for emotion.” – Aldo Lado (from featurette, “Death in Venice: Looking Back at Who Saw Her Die?”)

Giallo films are often typified by a shadowy killer, labyrinthine plots, red herrings, a host of colorful characters, stylized violence, and a protagonist who’s forced to take matters into his or her own hands. Guessing the identity of the killer is half the fun; the other half is letting go and allowing yourself to be enveloped by the mystery. A good giallo film is like a haunted house ride, full of twists, detours, shocks and dead ends. It’s also a puzzle with missing pieces. Only after we’ve established the edges can the rest of the picture take shape. Who Saw Her Die, the sophomore effort by director/co-writer Aldo Lado, (who debuted with the fine, albeit underappreciated, Short Night of Glass Dolls), embodies many of these classic aspects of gialli. Filmed in Lado’s native Venice,* innocuous locations take on sinister tones. Although we’re treated to a few scattered “postcard” shots of Venice as the world knows it, this isn’t a travelogue. Lado stated that he enjoyed exploring the parts of the city not overrun by tourists. The back alleys, rough neighborhoods and industrial areas are an ideal setting for intrigue.

* According to Lado, “Venice has many aspects, some joyous. But there is the sense of still waters that give off the smell of dead flowers. In short, it has the scent of death.” (Ibid)

One-time James Bond George Lazenby (voiced by another actor for the English dub) stars as Franco Serpieri, a successful sculptor. Bond enthusiasts, take further note: the film also stars Adolfo Celi (probably best remembered for his role as the villainous Largo in Thunderball), as Serafian, a wealthy art collector with more than a few skeletons in his closet. In the film’s prologue, set in 1968, we observe the murder of a young girl at a French ski resort by an assailant clad in a black dress and veil. The story skips forward four years, as Franco’s young daughter Roberta (Nicoletta Elmi)* arrives in Venice for a visit. Their reunion is brief, however, after her body is discovered, floating in a canal. After Franco’s journalist friend (Piero Vida) discovers a link between her death and the unsolved murder of another red-haired girl (depicted in the prologue) four years ago, the grief-stricken father devotes his time to catching the killer. As he gets closer to the truth, anyone who learns too much, including his wife Elizabeth (Anita Strindberg), becomes a potential victim.

* Fun Fact: Elmi is no stranger to Italian suspense and horror, having distinguished herself in several general films of the ‘70s and ‘80s, notably Deep Red (1975) as a sadistic kid and in Demons (1985) as a theater usher. According to a recent interview, she quit acting to become a speech therapist.

It’s hard to like Franco, as portrayed by Lazenby. He’s self-centered, egotistical, and a negligent parent. He narrowly averts disaster with Roberta by allowing her to wander off alone at night. Instead of learning from his folly, he puts her in harm’s way again (an error that proves to be fatal), so he can have some alone time with his mistress Gabriella (Rosemarie Lindt). His newfound sense of justice and allegiance to his formerly estranged wife are scarcely supported by the previous scenes, but guilt, I suppose, is a powerful motivator.

As in any respectable giallo, the film is full of red herrings to keep you off the trail of the real killer. Lado keeps us guessing with a long line-up of possible suspects, each with possible motives: a fencing instructor and his girlfriend, and a lawyer with some unsavory predilections, all with ties to Serafian. In one tightly edited sequence, Franco is hot on the trail of a clue to Roberta’s murder. The scene cuts between an intruder in the house, with Elizabeth in mortal danger. In an earlier scene, we see a POV shot as the killer converges on Roberta, followed by a jump cut to a butcher shop (thankfully, we never see the murder itself). The POV shot, through the killer’s black veil, repeats throughout the film, heightening the suspense. There’s also an interesting juxtaposition of a sex scene between Franco and his mistress Gabriella (Rosemarie Lindt), with a sequence of Roberta playing in a courtyard while being stalked, implying that sex and death co-exist, hand in hand. But it’s not all gloom and doom, as Lado inserts some little bits of unexpected humor. Franco is drawn into an impromptu ping pong match when he attempts to question a stranger about the first murder. The ensuing back and forth action is an apt metaphor for the games he must play to obtain the truth (I’m especially fond of the line, “If you can’t play ping pong, don’t get mixed up in politics.”).

Who Saw Her Die boasts another superb score by Ennio Morricone (who scored Lado’s previous film), accompanied by a haunting kids chorus that intensifies whenever the killer is lurking about, raising the tension to almost unbearable levels. It has all the genre elements we’ve come to expect, but Lado does much more than tick all the requisite boxes. He takes the story in unexpected and disturbing territory (even the “good” characters seem a little too attentive to Roberta). Unsettling and eminently watchable, Who Saw Her Die should be high on anyone’s list of essential gialli.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

5 Dolls for an August Moon (aka: 5 Bambole per la Luna D'Agosto)

(1970) Directed by Mario Bava; Written by Mario di Nardo; Starring: William Berger, Ira von Fürstenberg, Edwige Fenech, Howard Ross, Helena Ronee, Teodoro Corrà and Ely Galleani; Available on Blu-ray and DVD


“Everyone seems to be waiting for something that’s not happening.” – Trudy (Ira von Fürstenberg)

What were the swinging ‘60s/’70s like? If 5 Dolls for an August Moon is any indication, the days and nights were occupied with swilling ample amounts of J&B, lounging on rotating beds, and trying to avoid being murdered by your groovy companions. Say what you will about this era (at least from a cinematic perspective), but it wasn’t lacking in style. No one ever accused director Mario Bava of lacking in style either, and his giallo offering has a plentiful supply.

Bava shot his low budget murder mystery on location near Anzio, Italy. The ultramodern house featured in the film was a combination of a convincing matte painting (exterior) and sets on a soundstage (interior) in Rome. Millionaire/industrialist George Stark (Teodoro Corrà) invites a group of friends, including two other industrialists, to his remote island estate of for a weekend of debauchery and merriment. The partygoers watch as Marie (Edwige Fenech) shimmies in a skin-tight gold outfit that leaves very little to the imagination, followed by a prank, in which she fakes her own death. But, as the old saying goes, it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt, and greed gets the best of everyone. Each of the three industrialists attempt to woo chemist Gerry Farrell (William Berger), who’s invented a formula for a revolutionary form of resin (who knew resin was so lucrative?). Farrell declines each of their $1 million offers, and the guests start dropping off one by one.

In a genre known for unconventional flourishes, 5 Dolls for an August Moon* further distinguishes itself with inventive camerawork (expect plenty of nutty zooms), splashes of color and plot conventions turned on end. As Bava biographer Tim Lucas points out in his DVD commentary, the film continually subverts our expectations. Of course, this could have been Bava’s way of thumbing his nose at the material (he was reportedly unhappy with the script, a thinly veiled, unauthorized remake of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians). As one character points out, everyone keeps waiting for something that never quite happens. What does happen, however, is an explosion of style and tone.   

* Fun Fact: Although the film underperformed elsewhere, it did well in Turkey, where it was marketed as an Edwige Fenech vehicle, under the (roughly translated) title Revenge of the Woman with the Spirit of the Snake. It might have been a boost for Fenech’s career, but didn’t accurately describe her peripheral role (source: DVD commentary).

One of the movie’s greatest conceits is that everyone has an ulterior motive. It’s a foregone conclusion that everyone is hatching a scheme or stands to profit in some way. The only questions are: Who’s in league with whom, and who will be left alive? The closest we get to a marginally likeable character is Farrell, but he’s emotionally distant, a bit of a killjoy (witness the opening party scene), and his motives seem less than pure. The most enigmatic character is the caretaker’s daughter Isabel (Ely Galleani), who flits about the island with reckless abandon. Her apparent carefree attitude is nothing more than a smokescreen, as we suspect she’s plotting, along with the rest of them. With all of these moody, self-absorbed individuals, there’s no one to connect with on an emotional level, but I suppose that’s not the point of this exercise in deceit and subterfuge. In this movie, everybody clearly has something to hide (except for me and my monkey?)*.

* With all due apologies to Lennon and McCartney.

Piero Umiliani’s* lively jazz score keeps us constantly engaged and amused throughout all of the skullduggery. I like to think this is what the late ‘60s sounded like (if you omitted the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, etc…), at least in my idealized view of that tumultuous decade. The score has an impishly playful quality, especially apparent when the victims’ bodies are stored in a walk-in freezer and unceremoniously hung up like slabs of meat, bobbing on hooks to the strains of carnival music.

* Fun Fact: Umiliani is perhaps best known for the famously (or infamously) infectious song “Mah Nà Mah Nà,” which appeared in the Italian sex film Sweden: Heaven and Hell (1968), and later became a Jim Henson staple on The Muppet Show.

According to Tim Lucas, Bava felt 5 Dolls for an August Moon was his worst movie, but that’s selling it short. There’s much to like, with an attractive cast, engaging visuals and a sense of playfulness. Sure, I wanted to enjoy it more (I couldn’t help feeling distanced from the characters), but I enjoyed the ride while it lasted. Is it worth your time? Even casual Bava fans will surely want to check out this oddball giallo. And if you’re not a Bava fan, you still might be inclined to give it a whirl, if only for the pleasure of watching the upper crust destroy each other.