Cleansing the lens of cinematic perception... until the screen is a white glaring rectangle

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Giallo Reviews II: THE PSYCHIC, 7 DEATHS IN A CAT'S EYE, 5 DOLLS OF AN AUGUST MOON, SHORT NIGHT OF GLASS DOLLS, CASE OF THE BLOODY IRIS

SEVEN DEATHS IN A CAT'S EYE
1973  - Dir. Antonio Margheriti
***1/2

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!

SEVEN NOTES IN BLACK
(AKA THE PSYCHIC)
1977 - Dir. Lucio Fulci
***1/2

Italian filmmaker Lucio Fulci may have a weakness for 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 'psychic wife searching for her own killer'-style-mystery with giallo elements, too. Here Poe motifs mingle with an array of time capsule 70s horror film trends, for there were many ESP-bandwagon-jumpers after the success of EXORCIST, CARRIE and THE FURY and that PSYCHIC is one is nothing for it to be ashamed of. It's so well done you'll forget how entrenched it is in its moment: Bixio, Frizzi and Tempera's music will rattle the lamps off your table but only via such a slow build-up from a gentle refrain (the "Seven Notes" of its alternate title) -- as haunting as the best of Ennio.  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 over it.


Jennifer O'Neill is excellent in the lead, devoted to the truth of her visions with such single-minded resonance you can see why her character has so ably blended into the fathomless wealth of her hood-eyed husband (Gianni "Sartana" Garko). Even if she never even takes off her coat or sweater let alone disrobes for some obligatory love scene (indeed, love has nothing to do with this film), her eyes still smolder, perfectly holding the vast amount of black eyeliner, her Brazilian ex-Cover Girl model skin comfortable with a duskiness that goes with her rich autumnal color patterns. First accusing, then working to clear, her husband of a five year-old murder, she sets about following her instincts and drives with enough keen resolve we never even notice when they begin to give way to uninhibited horror. An extended cat and mouse chase through a rich old art dealer's mansion and an under-construction nearby gallery museum provides a great centerpiece of horror, it goes on so long it's still working by the climax and end of the film! Add the decayed unused mansion that Garko seldom uses but ONeill is thinking about refurbishing (she's neither a mother nor employed, though--as she tells the cops--she's a decorator) where the bulk of the action takes place, and you have a movie that breathes a rarefied, rich air. The cars are all gorgeous; when Garko flies he takes his own private plane and we wave goodbye from the landing strip before driving off in her swanky ass roadster. O'Neill doesn't bat an eye over any of it, as if to the manner born, which is refreshing, allowing us to quickly focus on the mystery at hand; her resolve to track down leads turns it almost more into a 40s B-mystery than a standard giallo. For all that she's not afraid to grab pick axe and hack through a spot in the wall her vision tells us hides a body, even while alone in a huge spooky mansion.  Evelyn Stewart plays her sister in-law, a strong-willed, very-cool cigarette-smoking Germanic lady who helps her decode the clues; Gabriele Ferzetti (!) is one of the suspects - but he had a beard in the vision! OMG, he shaved it off! And Marc Porel is her 'para-psychologist' doctor and ex-lover, who records her descriptions of her visions for later use and backs her up on her endless investigations, though as he points out, she may be seeing into the future as well as the past, gulp!

All in all, it's a big hit, artistically, and O'Neill's facility with mental powers made her ideal to appear in Cronenberg's SCANNERS four years later showing an ability to seem very resilient, assertive and self-confident while at the same time deeply affected by the weird and horrific (2). Even the dubbing is good. And as it builds and builds in intensity the score starts to straddle the line between Ennio and Goblin as if the two were really one and the same all along. The photography is nice and dusky, the frame often encompassing the entirety of a room from above, allowing us to soak up the centuries in the ancient plaster like some crystal energy-sucking ghost. All in all, not to be missed.

FIVE DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON
1970 - Dir. Mario Bava
**1/2

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. When things start off with blasts of shrill unmodulated organ like some Fellini movie fell off its tracks and smashed into a roller rink DJ booth, and Bava's indulging in his lazy zoom shots, we know we're not in Black Sabbath country anymore.  We're at a weekend getaway of the jet-set rich and famous, out at a swanky summer pad on a remote island where all the men are jostling for a mcguffin formula for rubber or something, trying to outbid each other and steal each other's wives (or give theirs away) while they're at it. As friends and enemies and lovers all sashays around like they're trying for La Dolce Vita via Ten little Indians. 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'. Adolpho Celli is one of the more boisterous swingers, ever trying to Shark Tank  a deal together with one or more of these cagey investors. Helena Ronee, Edith Meloni, and Ely Ganalle are some of the dolls, though the real standout doll is Edwige Fenech. Always. Though here she has little to do except look languidly oversexed. 

The macabre irony is heavy-handed but Bava's clearly having a ball oscillating between the leering zoom poetry of Jess Franco, the glittery decadence of Fellini, and the frisson of Antonioni. Wandering camera close-ups and pull focus deep frames arrange the flow of fabric for lounging Fenech just so, draping her around the rectangular parameters of the proscenium arch as she rotates around on her circular bed, waiting for some other husband to make a move. 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.

So many people die so fast you may wonder what bloody well is the point. 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 rather than expecting to be riveted by the narrative. Apparently Bava was hired on at the last minute and refused permission to deviate from the script, so clearly didn't give much of an A-game damn, but still he delivers with some great shot composition - 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, but just barely, now that the HD version lets us see around the corners, and count the luxuriant strands of Fenech's hair.


SHORT NIGHT OF GLASS DOLLS
1971 - Dir. Aldo Lado
**1/2

An ornate title with an objectifying noun (girls as breakable objects) + a high-ranking international journalist (Jean Sorel as a soft butch version of Franco Nero) sulking through the drab atmosphere of communist Prague thinking he'll ever get to the bottom of anything (as a reporter he's not very observant of the political zeitgeist or he wouldn't push his luck so pointlessly) as sinister suspects snap down shades, or lower their newspapers slowly to peer malevolently, a dark secret that's like Kafka via David Icke; and the one cute girl vanishes almost immediately, never to be seen alive again = that's what we get in Aldo Lado's dreary film to let us know it's some nice strawberry giallo. Alas, aside from a great last ten minutes, 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, which is that attractive young people should never look too attractive to the cold, dead-eyed middle-aged elite, for no good ever comes of it.

Case in point: Sorel wants to smuggle his lady friend (Barbara 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 and when he shows her off looking ravishing in a shimmering cocktail dress, her famous long brown hair a perfect silky band offsetting the silvery grey, every old heavy power broking set of lips starts moistening like an cobwebbed, crypt vampires catching wind of a far off spelunker's period. She's gone by the end of the night, and didn't bring her passport so where... what?

It's hard to care when the setting is this oppressive. The key to the giallo is it exists in a post-Antonioni Blow-Up world, where the youth rule the scene and beauty is its own tyranny and anyone who cares to don black gloves and wield a razor can become king. Here there's no chance - the deck is so stacked the only mood viewing can be ennui. Even Ennio Morricone's score lists along at half-mast, limiting itself to some screeches that sound like an orchestra tuning up before playing a program of Bartok as conducted by Bernard Herrmann having a panic attack. 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 alive with pareidolic menace as we walked through the long tunnel from Grand Army Plaza, the Bartok-by-Herrmann-ish avant garde jangles frying my nerves in the most giddy and pleasurable of ways.

But dude, where are the stylish clothes? The hot girls? Once Bach is gone, only Bergman regular Ingrid Thulin's sex-starved journalist (and Sorel's ex), gets any color, and then only via headscarves that only make her look older than she already was. 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, aloof and imperious (or if horny, openly vampiric, like her Veronica Vogler in Hour of the Wolf); 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.

CASE OF THE BLOODY IRIS
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 his score of jazzy musak for Bloody Iris veers out of the usual spy film schmaltz and into the breathy sing-song creepy stuff from the earlier Argento films like 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 the eerie melody. 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, as we learn from some creepy old violinists dishing 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 old eccentrics. 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 (Ben Carra), 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!")? 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. Even the lesbian neighbor (Annabella Incontrera) responds to Sheila's freak out that a neighbor's burn victim son just tried to rape her by admiring her body and saying "you'd tempt anyone" rather than offering sympathy or help 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 ("your color is already starting to corrupt me" notes the club's pervy owner). A ditzy roommate Marilyn (Paola Quattrini) feigns drowning in the tub for a joke, the day after a girl is killed in it (she gets the best line though "No orgies: I get motion sickness!"). Then there's the mom of the burn victim: "my son never harmed anyone before; he understands what whores you are!" Even 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. 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!")

As with all early 70s genre cinema set in old or new apartment buildings,  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, Jennifer! 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 looks great as always. Her tortured puritanical soul battling her corruptive, voluptuous sprawl of a body in a one-woman wrestling match, she's latent 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 (like limpid pools - gorgeously lit), and clothes--especially a long black cape, and a blue, white and red mini dress that evokes nurses and sailors---are perfect.

NOTES:
2. If you want to read a disturbingly-TMI mini-biography check it out on Imdb.  

4 comments:

  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.

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  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!

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  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.

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  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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