Tuesday, May 10, 2011


1970 - Dir. Sergio Bergonzelli

While its lighting is a little flat, this Bergonzelli film's got ballsy twists, and the ability to go deep into sordidness without getting depressingly graphic (the severed heads are numerous but humorous). Even if you find yourself with no clue who's-who until the final denouement, it's worth being confused in the middle for a finale that's like having eight Brian De Palma Hitchcock climax wigs coming off at the same time, with lurid flashbacks mixing MARNIE, SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER, THE NIGHT PORTER, THE BEGUILED and Bergman's THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY in a kaleidoscope psychedelic swirl. Pier Angeli is the weird girl in the wig, driven mad via some awful childhood incident, kept on the grounds so her incestuous grooving with her brooding artist brother (Emilio Guttierez Caba). Keeping things lively is a leisurely parade of soon-beheaded would-be blackmailers, freeloaders and worried relatives (of the previously beheaded snoopers) who drop by, leer, sniff, and snoop around the skeleton closets, and attempt to molest whomever's handy before receiving their well-deserved ends. Good thing mom saved a few pucks of Zyclon-B from when the concentration camp she occasionally flashes back to.

What's not to love? Groovy mod clothes, groovy incestuous petting, a groovy pet vulture kept in the front yard who eats the 'ahem' table scraps, Ultramannish paint swirl credits, a score by Jesus Villa Rojo that eerily prefigures SILENCE OF THE LAMBS in places --it all adds up to overcome some of its limitations in other departments. Hell, as long as the lurid topless Auschwitz flashback doesn't get your PC braids in a knot and you dig SPIDER BABY, GIRLY, CUL-DE-SAC and mixing metaphors like you're a student at Freud's psychosexual taboo bartending school whose trying to study for finals during your roommate's orgy--you'll love IN THE FOLDS, for THE FLESH is not weak!


(1972) Dir. Sergio Martino

Jane (Edwige Fenech) is having weird nightmares ever since the accident that killed her unborn child. Is Richard (George Hilton) gaslighting her or is he just a typically sexist Italian male? Who is Richard and why is he dissolving blue pills in her water and refusing to let her see a shrink? Is that strange-looking man (Ivan Rassimov) she keeps running into actually stalking her or is he a hallucination? Maybe he's the shrink? She sounds troubled, so her sexy sister Barbara (Nieves Navarro) brings Jane to get 'actual' psychiatric help. Her sexy neighbor (Marina Malfatti) thinks she just needs to attend a Satanic ritual led by a Robert Downey Jr-esque hippy with long gold fingernails. Once there, Jane thinks 'when in Rome' (though she isn't) and drinks the blood of a puppy from a golden chalice before getting it on with the whole pasty-faced coven--we think. Before we can find out their lips dissolve back into goddamned Richard's again--she's cured! But there's all sorts of obligations she didn't know she was making with that damned cult "Now you are one of us, Jane," Rassimov says. "It's impossible to renounce us." Gulp. Lucky for all concerned, Fenech's big voluptuous body is always willing to get started while the rest of her is still making up her mind...

Credit Martino's ingenious direction that we understand completely Jane's confused mindset and the resultant sort of queasy dread that comes from being stabbed by a hallucination. Is that how death is, your killer just goes from being real to imagined and you just never come back to reality again? Is death just snapping out of a schizophrenic break or snapping forever into one? A lot of filmmakers get the diabolical nature of dreams and hallucinations all wrong --they reverse their importance! The fools! But not Martino -he's a step ahead. And while the 'is there or is there not a guy trying to kill you' angle  recalls another Italy-set film which is almost a near giallo in itself, THE ROMAN SPRING OF MRS. STONE (my review here), as well as Polanski's REPULSION, maybe there's just a lot of phantom killer pretty boy gigolos skulking around London and Rome, or there were in that golden time before, you know, Valium was over-regulated. Anytime you see a blue drug or something that turns the water blue in a giallo, you can bet it's supposed to be Valium. Given away by the bushel "mother's little helper" eased the frazzled edges of the average stay-at-home wife's soul, while at the same time slowly shrank her boundaries in a 'use it or lose it' quid-pro-quo any drug addict knows all too well. Even Satanic mind control sex cults aren't immune! Or did they cause it in the first place? It's impossible to renounce us, Jane. They have the next generation shit, one flight up from the downers, the wild psychedelics and empathy-killing pleasure-enhancing meths.

Back to sex. I'm not smitten or anything, but I respect that Fenech is a sultry icon in some blog circles, I like that she's a large, voluptuous Italian love doll of a thing, limbs all flayed about the room like they're barely connected to her well-laid body, and she does have nice boots, which look good running amidst the fallen autumnal foliage of England where this film was shot. Ah, that's the first mistake for any giallo --the dreary skies and colorless Tudor architecture are a far cry from the chiaroscuro trimmings of Rome where most giallos are lensed. It's like drinking Jameson's instead of J&B --it might still get you drunk, but what's the point? Don't worry, it's J&;B here and the black magic all goes down under a solid Bruno Nicolai score, even if that singsong children's la-la-la business seems largely ripped from the stuff he did a couple years earlier with Ennio Morricone for BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, though that itself was semi-stolen from Krzysztof Komeda in ROSEMARY'S BABY a year or so before that. But stealing is part of the culture in Roma! Make sure your money belt is well-hidden when you visit. On the other hand, this is England!

(1971) Dir Dario Argento 

Argento purists often give CAT the air. Karl Malden and James Franciscus aren't Jessica Harper and David Hemmings, whose slender, elvin vulnerability and fairy tale curiosity made their weird holidays (SUSPIRIA and DEEP RED respectively) in fucked-up continental Argento-ville extra terrifying; their big eyes, weak limbs, and little noses helped give them a helpless aura that burly Malden and Franciscus lacketh. Argento men need to be feminine and the women masculine to suit his melted-down gender aesthetic. His real-life scary-sexy wife Daria Nicolodi (Asia's mom) played Hemmings' love interest in DEEP RED and watching them together was like feeling chaffed, as if you'd skinned your knee and were terrified mom would put iodine on it, with that eerie masochistic lower spine tingle, like when you look down from a very tall structure without a railing. Malden is less iodine and more like oxidized bronze. Franciscus is Heston-painted lead. Neither could in a million years turn out to be women in disguise (at least not believably), and there is no place for overly confident macho gravitas in Argento (except as red herring eccentrics eating cats and visiting coffin conventions).

That said, blind puzzlemaker Malden has a hip little seeing-eye niece who calls him Cookie, a weird relationship reflected perversely in that between a possibly gender-disoriented and certainly automaton-esque suspect Fanciscus sleeps with (Catherine Spaak, below) and her older "father"  and the founder of a sinister genetics institute (villainous eyebrow wearer Tino Carraro). Though that may sound Cronenbergian, with this whole thing about a 'criminal' extra chromosome, it's more De Palma  in practice. Classic little bits of McGuffin clue stashing familiar to fans of old 30s and 40s mysteries abound: there's a clue hidden in a little locket but it's around the neck of someone... who's dead... and entombed in a spooky crypt (we know right away someone will blow out their candle or flashlight and lock them inside - it's been done to everyone from Charlie Chan to the Saint); the cops won't bother to look for the murder victim's car in the parking lot where they were killed, so it won't be an issue to just find it and rummage the back seat, though naturally the killer will be there too -- not looking themselves, mind you, just waiting for you to come look --that sort of thing. It doesn't matter if they're old tropes, it's that Argento knows them so well he riffs on them, the way a jazz trumpeter can't necessarily care whether you know "Take the A-Train" well enough to appreciate how far he's counter-rotating the melody. He's doing it for him, and the two other people who'll get it. The rest, can just groove out.  We can dig it, man, we can also groove to that crazy Morricone mash-up of a score: his repetitions of little drum refrains, flute melodies that cycle around on repeat and sing-song high voices that seem to drift around over thudding bass lines like a cloud of smoke.

While it's minor Argento, CAT holds up well over repeat viewings. It's got a good spritely rhythm and a killer nicely poised on the cusp between sociopath and methodical evidence-coverer, with all sorts of ingenious clues planted for later recovery, with the killer as omnipresent as that funky minimalist Morricone two-note bass line, violently plucking evidence of his/her identity at the last moment (for example a deep cut on the hand would be a dead give away when visiting the suspects, except that we hear a vase break off camera right before the bleeding suspect comes down the stairs - another trope that might be familiar to 40s detective fans, I think it's been used in both Philo Vance and Sherlock Holmes).

Note should be made of gay bar scene, overwrought with the kind of CRUISIN'-style masochistic self-loathing filmmakers presumed was part of the gay lifestyle rather than a sad reflection of the intolerant times (i.e. if I'm disgusted by gay sex, imagine how much more disgusted they are with themselves!) Regularly visited for the sake of tawdry sensationalism, decadent atmosphere, and the further blurring of possible suspects' gender identity, gay bars were invariably thick with cigarettes and poisonous little cocktails, cravats and lipstick, younger gorgeous men and fat old gay millionaires in cheap wigs, the kind of sordid overdoing it (such as they 'tickle palm' gay handshake) imagined as real today only by crazy old preachers and right wing politicians.

Ironically, in today's generally more tolerant climate it's the homophobic Christian zealots that are painted in lurid broad strokes. Now it's the homosexual couple that are happily married with kids and a suburban house with a white picket fence, while the Christians fume in incestuous hypocrisy. Only a few filmmakers, like Howard Hawks, see the virtuous suburban nuclear family unit itself as the real enemy as far back as the 50s-60s (note the almost total lack of moms and kids in Hawks movies). In Argento, if they are there, it's to hold murderous sway over gay, transgender or deformed sons, not unlike MOST of Hitchcock).

I mention Hawks for a reason: aside from the usual Hitchcock references (poisoned glass of milk POV) there's at least two Hawksian references in TAILS: some dialogue that riffs on THE BIG SLEEP (which also had a gay couple of young turk and older sugar daddy) and a telltale blood drip ala RIO BRAVO. But those things are just parenthetical. What counts is that the percussive super-funky Ennio Morricone score is so thumping and rattly that you're bound to get a terrified frisson sooner or later and, if not, there's the idea of being a blind grave robber led through a creepy nighttime cemetery, puzzles and clue trails zipping by with almost no dead air and plenty of nice widescreen wallpaper; the white and magenta color schemes in that Carror's mansion are as sickening to the base of the spine as the aforementioned iodine. All along the way, there's nary a lull even if there's nary a wow.

Franco Nero hunts for clues
(1971) - Dir Luigi Bazzoni

Franco Franco Nero smolders and drinks valiantly against the current of ennui and fatalistic Ennio Morricone music in this fine giallo, an example of how you can dip into the tricks and trappings of the genre, like an Argento paintbox, and create something vivid and cool (the way say BLACK BELLY OF THE TARANTULA is merely imitative, iditoic and as tepid as any second generation derivative).  Partially excavating the deep roots of childish lack of impulse control beneath macho vanity and alcoholism, the handsome sots who've been presuming their macho charm still melts any woman's resolve. If the woman have grown wise to his tricks, they've also grown old enough to have fewer options. Either way, he's too in denial to notice he's not as cool as he think he is, and some cute blonde in his bed agrees, and they have fun wrestling, but is one of them the killer? Though a mere crime reporter, he acts like he's the giallo version of BAD LIEUTENANT. He's Franco Nero, damnit - and he does his own dubbing, and he rocks. He teeters gamely on the edge of Nick Nolte in AFFLICTION, but then again - he's also a murder suspect. He follows clues leading him to murder victims that he knew, and so forth. I've seen it six times and I still can't follow how any of these people are supposed to even know each other. But I don't care, in the best of ways.

modernist international architecture, a drowsy segment of adult movie-making in sihlhouette on a wall shot through glass beads as Nero spies through a window and you wonder if this was as gay as they were allowed to get but wanted it to be two dudes, all with Ennio music so breathy perfect time stops altogether in a fairie bower haze, horoscope related murders ("on a Tuesday, sacred to Mars, favorable to Aires" = gasp (The Zodiac killer!), everyone but the the dead and the cops are suspects.  light through Venetian blinds, the roving camera, crisp sets, good dubbing all elevate this to the top of the giallo food chain, there's also a sense of phoniness inside the souls of the characters that not only excuses phoniness in the film but resembles Antonioni-esque fatalism as much as it does Argento diabolism. Even when the crippled heiress is being terrified, crawling across the floor like a snake towards her distant wheelchair, she's framed beautifully by a  stone lion, dark yellow curtains, and a gray cat, Morricone's organ fugue coordinating her funeral even as she's still alive. The Blue Underground DVD's blacks are so deep she seems like she's crawling out of the letterbox frame into the black bars. And there's a cool use of International style architecture's lines as both prison and protection: every scene is so layered in vertical and horizontal lines and reflections and contrasting vanishing points, psychedelic sexy silhouettes and circular corners that you want to every frame as a still (DP Vittorio Storaro went on to make Apocalypse Now). And then... in the last reel, the lines and bars and frames suddenly aren't there - and the kid, alone at home, is seen framed in a wide expanse of open blackness, he seems suddenly so vulnerable it's crushing to watch and nothing's even happened yet. There's no sound but the slow automatic closing of steel shutters as the kid, alone, walks around the giant house hitting the close shutter buttons, the light gradually receding behind the hatched lines.the dead quit until the diegetic jack in the box tune playing downstairs in another room somewhere..... no Ennio.. nothing.. so we strain into the silence...

As a tall, handsome, debauched, erudite, charming, and delusional alcoholic, I recognize myself in Nero's self-deluding eyes. I like the way he slaps around young hoods in racing suits, but never carries a gun or uses any weapon but his lashing fists. Cops with goofball smiles, typing, lots of smoking, drinking and obscene pitch-shifted phone calls from the killer round out the package. As Michael Mackenzie at Home Cinema notes:
 "That The Fifth Cord (Giornata Nera per l'Ariete, which translates as "Black Day of the Ram") could pass for a film made by the maestro himself is high praise indeed, and it is to the credit of its director, the elusive Luigi Bazzoni, that the film so perfectly captures the mood of Argento's "Animal Trilogy" without ever coming across as a slavish copy."
Debits for the heavy reliance on day-for-night in the stalking/killing sequences, giving them all the impression they occur in some heavy gravity zone of deep blue eternal concrete twilight, where all light sources, tunnel roof lights etc, glow with a deep azure-green halo like you're just watching with very dark sunglasses on.

(1964) Dir Mario Bava 

The film that started it all: the black gloves, the mannequins, the terrified fashion plates, it's all here, and it's the one that should most be on Blu-ray! Oh please VCI, pleeease do a better job or pass it over to a better label. It's sooo pretty and rich with the titular textures and deep red gel lighting that the sleazy misogynist relish of lingering on screaming women's faces, necks, and bodies is almost forgivable. After all, it's not the women's or director Mario Bava's, but Roman Catholic culture's fault. Italy invented the Madonna/Whore complex.

Here's why I think this: the Catholic-Italian suffocating power of a mother's love and guilt trips make her son's sexual desires painfully ungratified while growing up, and meanwhile the moms of girls you love know all-a the tricks. They make sure you're not allowed to get within ten feet of their virginal charges unsupervised (as in Michael Corleone's experience in Italy). Even masturbation is a sin, and your mom makes it impossible to try, banging on the door if you lock it, as if sensing when-a you're doing wrong. The giallo is the result of the curdled venom of semen retentum finally lashing out with a phallic blade at those hydra-like red apron strings projected on the white blouse wall, and there's nothing wrong with that, if it's via artistic sublimation (pretending to kill women for a movie is much better than to kill them in real life, capito?) Now that we know it's wrong, and why, and why we'll never do it again, can we film it?

(PS 8/18- Everyone gets everything he wants - Arrow's gorgeous remaster of this title is one of the best second lives in European horror movies - get the Blu-ray NOW or Hold for your Everpeace.)


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