If ever there was a time to order Blu-rays of things you want to see on your desert island after civilization's you-know-what, it's now, for the canon of Luigi "The Italian Ed Wood" Cozzi is nearly all fully available from one label or site or another. I've already blathered praise for his two masterworks Starcrash and Hercules. Now the lunatic eye slash-cum-time warp-devil-dipped and Pleasance-lipped, slippery dippy house bash Paganini Horror (1989) is available on a stunning Blu-ray (via Severin), so the circle is complete (almost). I hope, by the way, you don't think my praise of his crude genius is snide or mean-spirited - quite the opposite. If we can't laugh at Italian versions of our basest music class fears, see them bounced hurly burly into cosmic prisms, live in a universe where time loops are illustrated by giant floating hourglasses and spray-painted physics equations on the walls, we may as well hang shop and close up ourselves.
As threabdare a production as they come, it's clear the money ran out somewhere along the line for Paganini Horror in ways it didn't for his other 1989 masterpiece, The Black Cat. Still, budget be damned, no way is Cozzi going to just give us girls in a rock band disemboweled with a bladed violin. Cozzi has bigger things on his mind. Tell him to make a slasher movie tying in Paganini to get some free associative publicity from a big budget Paganini biopic in the works at the time and he'll give you the universe. No budgetary constraints can stop him from grabbing the cosmic ring.
Maybe you saw the DVD cover, with the skeleton playing violin (left) and drew some cheap late-80s punk-meets-slasher impression from it. Maybe you figured it would be the usual tactless ladle of topless broads and denim-jacketed idiots offed gorily in some house where money for the electric bill grows on trees. Your conclusions couldn't be more wrong. Instead, Busto Arsizio's favorite son delivers all his usual tropes and tics: plenty of strong women with wild hair, planetary shifts, portentous gazes into nowhere; lasers, wild light effects, godawful dubbing, spiritual homage-paying (the spirits of Jack Kirby, Ray Harryhausen, Alex Raymond, and Bernie Krigstein all watch over Cozzi's shoulder in numb surprise)... Man, I am talking myself into watching this all over again.... again?
Bad though it is, in many ways, Paganini Horror is never dull or lacking for color. As in the same year's Black Cat, it reaches a climax at around ten minutes in and just keep building from there until we're too far out in space, riding cosmic hourglasses to the moon, to ever return. Dario Nicolodi gets star billing as Sylvia, the owner of the fabled "House in the Key of G" (where Paganini lived) which she rents out for cash. This week she's hosting a music video shoot for "Paganini Horror" the new song based on the mysterious last piece of written music by our titular virtuoso. Goosing up the atmos, Nicolodi announces Paganini conducted black mass rituals here in the 19th century. He disemboweled his bride and used her intestines as strings for his Stradivarius! That's how he hit those weird notes only he could hit! Lead singer Kate (Jasmin Maimone) exclaims that their House in the Key of G video will be "like Michael Jackson's Thriller!" Bitchy manager Lavinia (Maria Cristina Mastrangeli) hires horror director Mark Singer (Pietro Genuardi, who plays the same character in Black Cat) who decorates the shoot by spray painting the song title onto white sheets on the wall. The best looking girl--the bassist Rita ((Luana Ravegnini) wears a devil mask; there's also all-seeing eye lamp, and candles. There's a mention of substituting mannequins as the band members start to disappear, but there's no time.
The real crime to this movie is that most beautiful bassist in all the world, Rita, is the first to die. Why her? Why not literally anyone else in the cast? It seems very spiteful of our Paganini! Every second with her is precious. The doe-eyed assistant manager boy is next; but if we thought it would be one of those lure-and-slash tales, where everyone is knocked over like dominos, we're soon proven wrong. There's way more going on than just violin stabbings. Holes open up under people's feet; electric energy pulses through those who fall into it.. Albert Einstein looks on, balefully, from a tacked-up poster. Strange electric shocks zap anyone who tries to escape the House... in the Key of G!
As for that final piece of music, the one Paganini supposedly wrote that the doe-eyes assistant pays a fortune for from Donald Pleasance, well, no one ever called the film's composer Vince Tempura a modern Paganini. He does okay with the non-diegetic part of the score, not so much the Paganini-attributed song (If Paganini is the Jimi Page of his era, this would be the theme from Death Wish II).
Paganini himself is really the weakest part of the film: naturally the knife Paganini's spirit uses has a treble clef-shaped handle. Naturally there's a cello case coffin and our heroine winds up locked in it (and it's then set on fire). Not all of the characters die from being stabbed by a steel-hipped Stradivarius: guitarist Elena (Michel Klipstein) gets infected by "a special fungus... like they discovered in the 1800s, on logs... floating along... certain European rivers," notes Lavania, this infected wood "was used to make a special kind of violin, the Stradivarius." Elena becomes a hideous fungus-covered monster; Lavinia says "this is the fungus, for sure... I saw it... magnified... in a TV documentary."
Music is magic. Though parts drag and there are too many stairs, we get way more with Paganini Horror than you might expect.
If an analyst tells you why childhood flashbacks occur in red bathrooms, kill them instantly.
We open on the ominous synth notes dotting along as a strange young girl rides up a foggy Venice canal; we dig the look of satanic royalty in the way she sits, with the violin case in her lap, the gondola like some kind of fast moving sea serpent, snaking through the lonely mist as Vince Tempera's soundtrack pulses like Tangerine Dream. At home, amidst her collection of weird dolls, the music echoes with vocals, the girl picks up a Barbie-sized doll with a brown skull face and long white hair (a ringer for the Paganini spirit to come) and stirs mom's bath with it. A stark red wall is behind them...
After the untimely death of the bassist, the second most unconscionable choice is that Donald Pleasance is dubbed by someone else!! His replacement does an okay enough job - especially in his rant about demons as he climbs up to the top of an under-reconstruction clock tower in Venice and throws all the money he got for the Paganini score to the wind. Watching Pleasance try to keep a straight face while talking to money ("fly away, demons, so the real ones can take your place... so what happens with Paganini will repeat itself.... extracted by the one to whom it belongs, his majesty, Satan!") makes for a pretty well modulated rant, but what's the point of even having the Donald in a film if not for that deliciously silken, fearful but scarily seismographic voice?
All of the dubbing is pretty bad in both the Italian and English versions. English dubs especially have been Cozzi's Achilles' heel - be it the lame Texas accented robot and shrill Stella Starr of Starcrash, or the grating storytelling narrator in Sinbad and the Seven Seas, the result is that kind of lazy mixing where everyone sounds like they're right up on the mic in a quiet sound booth rather than out in the actual environment depicted. One side effect of it all is the hilarious near-constant screaming of Cozzi's nearly all-female cast. There is so much screaming that the actresses seem to be running out of breath; their screams trail off into hysteria, like they're barely trying to keep a straight face, the way a child who's been crying for hours starts to almost riff with their crying voice.
What makes it a true gem is Cozzi's infectious, palpable love and respect for fantasy, for strong women, and movie making. When Ravegnini and the other girl band members gaze into the camera for their music video, you can tell they're feeling happy and part of the Cozzi family pack; they're not taking it very seriously but they love it. There's no vibe of having to fight off pervy producers or rote macho objectification. These girls glow. Franco Lecca's deep yellow and red-accented cinematography makes everyone seem lovely with natural skin color (rather than the ghastly pale or gaudy tan we sometimes get in Italian horror films) and the Venetian architecture hums in burnished oranges and browns.
Too bad when they go outside it's all bad day-for-night that makes everyone look purple and green. Why?
Ugh, why, Paganini, why kill Rita first? Why not get Pleasance to do his own dub? Why the bad day-for-night? Why the bad vibe ending? If it didn't have these things I would have seen it a dozen times already, instead of only twice, and then Cozzi's Starcrash and Hercules and Adventures of Hercules three more times each.
Irregardless, there are still enough gateways to other dimensions and strange doorways and all the other Cozzi trimmings to make six ordinary movies, even if full half the film is just one girl or the other walking up and down stairs and down halls, or screaming. We can't blame the master if some turkey distributor who didn't get the vibe took out all the cosmic cutaways. We sure can wish for a full restored director's cut. Wishing is free.
There's a nice interview with Cozzi at his sci-fi store; and the footage excised by the producer fills in a lot of the blanks (would there was a copy with all the original shots -love the hourglasses floating in space - recycled from Hercules) and an explanation of why that too-trusting kid assistant would shell out a bag of money to some sinister Hobbes Lane type for an alleged authentic Paganini score.
Anyway, Severin has done wonders with what they got (Did the color grading just give out for the exterior shots, or was it supposed to look like that?) All we need now from Severin (here's hoping it's coming soon) is Cozzi's unofficial meta-Suspiria-sequel (recently re-available on Prime), The Black Cat (aka Demons 6: Anus Profundis) from 1990. (PS - they released it this year, 2021).
And while we're on the subject, what about that crazy shot-on-video quasi-autobiographical Blood on Melies' Moon? I saw a clip wherein the great one himself ruminates in his bedroom about coming to terms with being labeled "The Italian Ed Wood." I guess I'm not the first to call him that. But hey Luigi, if you're reading this, know that a lot of us fans love Ed Wood way more than a more highly regarded artist like, say, Fritz Lang. I have a billion theories why that is but the main one might be the Brechtian distancing opening us up to the interplay of our own imagination, like having the curtains around your favorite play suddenly flung open. We get a bit of that in, say, Bergman's Magic Flute or Olivier's Henry V but it's intentional and hence a little pompous compared to the accidental Brechts like Wood and Cozzi (Godard--erasing his auteur footsteps around the sudden exposure of Brechtian mechanics as if Danny Torrance slinking backwards in his own tracks--is the Mr. In-Between.)
Maybe it's all too short with a hyper-ironic, unsatisfying ending that makes all the parts click into perfect place, the way some insane carnival ride turns out to be "Take the A Train" all along in a Charles Mingus composition. Maybe it was trimmed of its cosmic portent, maybe Rita died too soon, maybe Donald doesn't dub himself, but the Cozzi magic is still there and this film must to be treasured for a lifetime of Cozzi binges. Who knows how long that lifetime will be? Einstein on the poster knows! He says, honey, you better pounce while you still have your own teeth.