Cleansing the lens of cinematic perception... until all the layers are scrubbed off and the screen is a white glaring rectangle

Saturday, May 21, 2011


1973  - Dir. Antonio Margheriti

This international-Italian/French co-production stars yeh-yeh girl Jane Birkin as a plucky ingenue possibly going mad in a mansion full of eccentrics all vying for possession of the elaborate yet crumbling secret passage-ridden ancestral estate; she's like Paulette Goddard in the 1939 CAT AND THE CANARY if the Bob Hope part was played by a brooding Byronic pretty boy chief suspect... and he had a pet gorilla; and she came with her mom, but her mom was murdered and then appeared to her as a vampire ghost with a Hamlet-like demand for vengeance. The score's a bit on the dimestore Morrione cop show side, but that's hardly bad thing. The main benefit here is gorgeous photography lush enough that at times Birkin's luminous hair has the beauty of Sissy Spacek's in BADLANDS, this film  bumps up three stars now that it's not a panned, scanned, washed-out mess. The only remaining flaw is a truly ridiculous gorilla suit, which is anyway a nice souvenir from the age of the old dark house mysteries, which Margheriti clearly loves along with the writing of the godfather of the giallo, Edgar Wallace.

One of the stand-out elements here are the clothes, which 'nod' to an assumed setting of 1930's England, but just nod, keeping the high fashion edge rather than getting bogged down in stuffy details like bowler hats and woolen overcoats. For her mourning wear (above) Birkin is given a beautiful black fur collar and her nightgown's sexy without being tacky (Von Sternberg would have approved). The whole production, aside from lingering close-ups of rats eating the face of victim #1, is very tasteful. The music is the orchestral suspense-generating variety rather than the moody giallo electric guitars of the time, but that's not worth a demerit. Indeed, the only demerit is maybe dubbing Serge Gainsbourg (he's the detective) with a fake Scotch burr, and not letting Jane B. do her own voice in English (She was English, after all, despite singing in French for hubby Serge). I kept thinking, hey! She's Charlotte Gainsbourg's mom! and imagining Charlotte even being conceived during this shoot, though that's maybe a stretch. Still it would fit with Charlotte's career choices, and thus this would be a great double bill with ANTICHRIST! Meee-yow!

1977 - Dir. Lucio Fulci

Italian filmmaker Lucio Fulci may be a fan of cheap-ass gore, pointless gross-outs, nightmare logic, and jarringly placed schlock pop ballads, but THE PSYCHIC (AKA 7 NOTES IN BLACK) proves he can deliver a lovingly lensed 'telekinetic wife searching for her own killer'-style-mystery with giallo elements: there's some Poe motifs and an array of time capsule 70s horror film trends, for there were many telekinesis-bandwagon-jumpers after the success of EXORCIST, CARRIE and THE FURY; Bixio, Frizzi and Tempera's music will rattle the lamps off your table; and the ending is incredibly tense, clever, and torturous without being gory. Truly both Hitchcock and Poe would probably nod to each other from across the balcony. Great use of a musical pocket watch melody (the "Seven Notes" as a gimmick, ala the sing-song la-la-la tape in BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE - but it serves the story rather than just being a bandwagon-chasing gimmick. You'll scream! You'll cry! You'll think Jennifer O'Neill is a goddess. Her facility with mental powers made her ideal to appear in Cronenberg's SCANNERS four years later. Yo--that means for once Fulci set a trend instead of following. Even the dubbing is good.

1970 - Dir. Mario Bava

Movies like this early Bava effort live and die by the score and Pier Umiliani's sleazy, shrill, unmodulated organ and bursts of inappropriate Latin jazz makes you wonder what Ennio might have done with a few electric guitars instead. The macabre irony is heavy-handed but Bava's clearly having a ball oscillating between leering poet Jess Franco and zen-deconstruct-o-fabulous Antonioni in his wandering camera close-ups, and pull focus deep frames, arranging the flow of fabric for lounging Edwige Fenech just so, draping her around the rectangular parameters of the proscenium frame. Outside, people wander the beach and spy on each other behind the rocks; inside we don't get to see any murders occur, but we follow the path of a bunch of silver balls from a fight up the stairs down into a sunken bathtub adorned with another dead beauty. The plot's a typical Ten little Indians thing done up with stylish swingers, the MacGuffin is a scientific formula all the men---sexy titans of industry--are bidding and scheming, for but the blonde young scientist (steel-eyed William Berger) doesn't want to sell. His wife is hot though, so maybe that can be a wedge? As the bodies gather in the meat freezer, the swingers all wonder to the extent they should care about their own safety. "We're the first one to have deep-frozen houseboy" notes George (Teodoro CorrĂ ), 'coldly'.

Since the house is all modern and stark white there's little opportunity for Bava's deep red and purple gel color schemes, but the lighting is still great if you have the Blu-ray or it happens to be on Amazon Prime in HD; the women are all hot, their dresses are pop art at its finest and there are great lines like "death makes you feel dirty." and "houseboys come and go but there's always the bottle." There sure is... (PS - I'm tweaking this after seeing Kino's gorgeous Blu-ray, for I always hated this movie in its past muddy incarnations - 9/15)

There's also the cast, led in spots by Edwige Fenech and Ira Von Furstenberg (Diana's ex sister-in-law), and let's check in with Tenebrous Kate:
These jet-setting millionaires may be a generally oily and unlikable lot, but don't think for a minute that this means they're not incredibly well dressed.  The costumes are drool-worthy, from Edwige's scanty white petal bikini to the slim-cut hep-cat trousers favored by the gents of the cast.  Spangles, gauze, colorful lacey undergarments, and pop art fabrics abound.  The house where much of the action goes down is the seaside equivalent of the Frank Lloyd-Wright-esque mansion at the end of "North  by Northwest," with its cliff-side perch and vast expanses of window." (more here)
Amen. The trick --as Kate shows in her observant details--to digging this film is to admire the crazy clothes and pop art detail. It's the kind of thing even more 'artistically acclaimed' directors, such as Joseph Loesy (as in Boom!, and Modesty Blaise) try and fail to do. They just come out as campy, or so-bad-it's-good, or worse, so embarrassing-yet-boring. Bava is born into it, he doesn't need to outline his mastery of frame to show off, so you have to be paying attention to more than the plot to 'get' his brilliance. Even then, it may take a few viewings... it's worth the effort.

1971 - Dir. Aldo Lado

An ornate title with objectifying noun; Jean Sorel as a soft butch version of Franco Nero; the drab atmosphere of communist Prague; animals in cages, sinister suspects snapping down shades, or lowering their newspapers slowly to just show their eyes, dire warnings to stop investigating and leave matters to the police, conspiracies worthy of Kafka via  David Icke: sounds like a potentially interesting Eastern European giallo knock-off. Aside from a great last ten minutes, however, GLASS DOLLS puts the drag in draggy - with "the oppression of the [Communist] party," in full effect, reporter Sorel is continually under scrutiny for trying to tell the truth, and the more attractive young people mingle with the cold, dead-eyed middle-aged holders of power, the deeper into the conspiracy they tumble. Sorel wants to smuggle Bach out of Prague into West Berlin "don't worry about crossing borders, I've already crossed palms" he assures her. But the palms might have ideas of their own. Even Ennio Morricone's score lists along at half-mast, limiting itself to some screechy panic attack drones, somewhere between Bernard Herrmann and an orchestra tuning up before playing Bartok. Still it's Ennio and it rocks in its draggy way: I had the soundtrack long before seeing the film and used to love to listen to it on my Discman while walking through Prospect Park at night with my dog Inga, every shadow on the stone bridge walls like death incarnate as we walked through the long tunnel from Grand Army Plaza, the Bartok-ish Herrmann-ish avant garde jangles frying my nerves in the most giddy of ways.

But dude, where are the hot clothes? The hot girls? Barbara Bach's sexy lame' dress is left behind in the first ten minutes and there's seldom any swankiness after that. Only Bergman regular Ingrid Thulin as a sex-hungry fellow journalist (and jealous ex-lover of Sorel), gets any color, and then only via headscarves that only make her look older than she already is. At the party she comes onto him pretty intensely and if you're a Bergman fan it's weird to see this crossover, since she's usually such an icy Nordic powerhouse; it's also weird to see this zombified blonde "even chickens in the frying pan are called political suicides here," notes Jacques.

Narrating from a slab on the morgue ala Scared to Death, the disjointed recollection format is confusing (continuity is anticommunist), but we get many pieces of a bizarre puzzle. Some scenes seem to be missing and the overall hanging heavy bureaucracy and corruption. Why is the Texas millionare daughter hanging with Jacques (the great bear of a man Mario Adorf) so much like a zombie at the party, or a sex doll? It's pretty funny that a supposedly keen journalist would go around trying to solve his girl's murder with his conniving ex-lover who desperately wants him back, a kind of L'Aventura in verso but it's hard watching this chump refuse to notice the giant dripping jaws of the bear closing in on him.

Expertly summarizing the film's distinct old vs. young generational conflict as analogous to Eastern European politics is James from Behind the Couch:

The film also serves as a sly allegory addressing the destructive nature of totalitarian governments, like the one in power in Czechoslovakia at the time. The weird socially elitist members of the cult represent overpowering authoritarian systems in which the higher classes literally suck the life out of younger generations, those less well off and anyone else who opposes them. The older generation is depicted as inherently sinister in this film. The disdain and suspicion of the elderly middle class is exhibited clearly in the scene in which Gregory sneaks into the goldsmiths building and into a room full of elderly people in evening dress listening to a classical concert. They sit motionless and look uncannily like the undead ghouls in Carnival of Souls
That sounds creepy all right, but is it any fun? Without the pop art colors, foxy broads in dope clothes, Morricone's dissonance can only do so much. In Eastern Europe, murder of free-acting young people--whether by knives, imprisonment, Satanic cult sacrifice, or just drab industrial Kafkaesque slow soul crushing-- seems almost a mercy.

1971 - Dir. Giuliano Carnimeo

When it comes to soundtracks, Bruno Nicolai is no Ennio Morricone, but he conducted and collaborated on many of Morricone's giallo scores, so sometimes the jazzy musak veers into spy film schmaltz, and sometimes the breathy sing-song creepy stuff from the earlier Argento films crops up again, as if he hopes we won't have just seen Bird with Crystal Plumage. Bruno could never imagine these movies ever getting on TV and video was a decade away, so he can be forgiven for thinking we'd forgotten. Compensating for any inequity is the always provocative Edwige Fenech, here as--what else?--a neurotic under-sexed housewife escaping a bad group marriage ("one flower, one body, with many petals") by moving into a Satanic high rise. Her neighbors are models already in the midst of being knocked-off before she gets there, and some creepy old violinists dish exposition in the foyer. Everyone's a suspect, including Fenech... or is it all her imagination? My money is on the burn victim recluse, the old lady who won't "give them alcohol" or the hot lesbian offspring of one of the taciturn violinsts.  The killer is the official giallo type: androgynous in black stocking mask, raincoat, fedora and gloves. In this instance, alas, the gloves are a sickly looking yellow rubber variety. A real turn-off!

I'm not giving anything away by mentioning the main culprit is Fenech's mysterioso architect boyfriend (the ubiquitous tall dark and effeminately handsome George Hilton) but he goes all fugue state panic at the sight of blood--or wait, is it her jealous ex-husband who's behind it all, the same man  who drew her into the Wildflower Group sex club in the first place ("you're an object and you belong to me!")? Man, this girl's hard to please, but who isn't? An hour after watching this film you won't be able to remember a thing about it, but is that really so bad? Some great scenes of urban alienation, like a stabbing out in public that takes forever for anyone to notice as they hustle past to and fro, bespeak some lofty underpinning to the 'you never know who your neighbors are anymore' modernist eeriness and deep wellsprings of macho vanity, where even the lesbian neighbor responds to Sheila's freak out that someone's trying to kill her by admiring her body and saying "you'd tempt anyone" rather than calling the cops. A black dancer challenges her nightclub audience of leering men to a judo fight, vowing to be their sex slave if they should subdue her inside of three minutes --the kind of stuff an American director would hopefully never dare put in a film (like a love note that tells her leaving a letter that reads "your color is already starting to corrupt me"). Actually the worst coming off is the mincing faux-Woody nebbish alcoholic photographer, and the offensive, clothes-tearing rapist macho of the estranged husband Even her current boyfriend Hilton warns her "wait until I try to make it with you and you'll find out what a bastard I am." at least he's honest.
Ditzy roommate Marilyn (Paola Quattrini) feigns drowning in the tub the day after a girl is killed in i (she gets the best line though "no orgies I get motion sickness!"). But the most offensive bit is the cop's derogatory put-downs of the lesbian neighbor ("try the opposite sex; that's what we're here for.") And even "my son never harmed anyone before; he understands what whores you are!" raves the burn victim's mom after he, too, tries to rape Fenech.

As with all early 70s genre cinema,  Carnimeo sets the tension in elevators, sub-basements, and auto junkyards, and the power keeps going out. Could this film have been seen by Brian De Palma? What's that? You don't care? You can't leave me, Carmen! You're bound to us, do you hear? Bound... body and soul!

Yes, cliche'd dubbing abounds but some parts are pretty kinky-creepy and Fenech is great as always: her tortured puritanical soul battling her corruptive, voluptuous sprawl of a body in a one-woman wrestling match, she's Catholicism's whole trip wrapped up in a languorous cross-bed stretch. And her makeup - alabaster cheeks and perfect delineated black eyelashes over big wide eyes, gorgeously lit, and clothes--especially a long black cape, and a blue, white and red mini dress that evokes nurses and sailors---are perfect


  1. Seven Deaths in the Cat's Eye is one I'll definitely have to get hold of. For my money Antonio Margheriti was one of the most consistently entertaining of Italian genre directors of this era.

  2. Seven Deaths in the Cat's Eye is a great one. I'll be doing a review of it this year for the Italian Horror Blogathon. Also, I love The Psychic; it's one of my favorite Fulci films (definitely a different flavor than most Fulci), and I think it's often forgotten about when people talk about Fulci's best movies. The ending (which you mentioned with musical watch) is brilliant and eerie; it's A+ Italian horror. I remember reading somewhere that it was Tarantino's favorite Fulci film, and that it is was the one film he REALLY wanted to remake. I would love to see Tarantino's take on giallo films.

    I definitely need to see the Aldo film again. It's certainly a different type of Italian horror (and even a different type of giallo), and I don't remember thinking much of The Short Night of the Glass Dolls except for its interesting premise (and opening) and the great, giallo-y title.

    Great reviews, as always, Erich!

  3. Thanks Kevin, and Dfor - Yeah GLASS DOLLS isn't that pretty to look at, not enough Barbara Bach, but the premise is certainly imaginative, and fits well with modern conspiracy theory. SEVEN DEATHS was the real surprise. THE PSYCHIC I'd heard was awesome but I had no idea it would be THAT awesome.

  4. Hell,even if everyone says it now,the Morricone scores are in my library. That is,for the films they pertain to. GDM CDS forever!


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