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 the canon of Luigi "The Italian Ed Wood" Cozzi, which is now all available from one label or another. I've already blathered praise for his two masterworks Starcrash and Hercules. And 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). In our terrifying times, don't we need to laugh at Italian versions of our basest music class fears, to see them bounced hurly burly into cosmic prisms? Shan't we a universe where time loops are illustrated by giant floating hourglasses and spray-painted equations a-go? It's about time, literally, figuratively and obsessively. Now let the music play.
Maybe you saw the cover for this weird Italian gem, with the skeleton playing violin (left) and drew some cheap late-80s punk (the late-80s Italian kind, ala Ghosthouse -which Cozzi almost directed)-meets-slasher opinion about 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. Busto Arsizio's favorite son delivers all his usual tropes and tics: plenty of strong women in spandex and wild hair, planetary shifts, portentous gazes that lead to nothing; lasers and 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? Hmmm?
Bad in many ways but never dull or unpleasant or lacking for color, it reaches a climax at around three minutes in and just keep building from there until we're out in space, riding cosmic hourglasses to the moon. Dario Nicolodi gets star billing as Sylvia, the owner of the fabled "House in the Key of G", which she rents out for--in this case--a music video shoot for "Paganini Horror" the new song based on the mysterious last piece of written music by our titular virtuoso. Nicolodi announces Paganini conducted black mass rituals there back in the 19th century; he disemboweled his bride and used her intestines as strings for his Stradivarius. And that's how he hit those weird notes only he could hit. Now we know! Lead singer Kate (Jasmin Maimone) exclaims that this will be "like Michael Jackson's Thriller!"Manager Lavinia (Maria Cristina Mastrangeli) hires Argento-style horror maven Mark Singer (Pietro Genuardi) who hangs white sheets around, spray paints the words "Paganini Horror" and puts the hot bassist Rita in a devil mask. And did I mention the All-seeing eye lamp, and the candles? There's a mention of mannequins, but we don't see near enough.
Alas, the most beautiful bassist in all the world, Rita (Luana Ravegnini), is the first to die, and that's my biggest issue with this film. Why her? Why not literally anyone else? It seems very spiteful of our murdering Paganini. The doe-eyed assistant manager is next. And 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. Holes opening up under people's feet, electric energy pulses through those who fall into it.. Albert Einstein looks on, balefully, from a tacked-up poster; electric shocks zap anyone who tries to escape the house... of Paganini! As for that final piece of music, well, no one ever called composer Vince Tempura a modern Paganini to his face; he does okay with the non-diegetic part of the score, not so much the Paganini-attributed song the band plays (If Paganini is the Jimi Page of his era, it would be the theme from Death Wish II).
Naturally the knife his spirit uses has to off the band has a treble clef-shaped handle. It's Cozzi! Naturally there's a cello case coffin and our heroine burns up in it. 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, "wood that 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 from such a simple and familiar set-up.
If a film professor tells you that when childhood flashbacks occur in red bathrooms
it symbolizes the uterus, kill them instantly.
We open on the ominous synth notes dotting along as a strange young girl rides up a foggy Venice canal, her violin in her hand and the look of satanic royalty in the way she sits, centered with the violin case in her lap and an evil confident look on her face, the prow of the boat like the tip of 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 with the best hair, performance, form, grace and make-up of the bunch, the 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 when 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 him in a film if not for that deliciously silkenly seismographic voice?
The dubbing is pretty bad in both versions. Dubbig seems to be Cozzi's Achilles' heel. He seems to have no interest in it, being too busy down the hall painting laser effects onto the celluloid. 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. Oh well, that's just part of the Cozzi effect. One side effect of it all is the hilarious near-constant screaming of his nearly all-female cast. There is so much that the actresses seem to be running out of breath, their screams trail off, like they're barely trying to keep a straight face, both in the dubbing and the image, running out of wind, the way a child whose been crying for hours starts to almost riff with their crying voice. Is Cozzi making them laugh too much or have they just lost interest?
But what a journey to get to that point! What saves it all and makes it a true gem is the real palpable love and respect for the genre, for strong women characters, and for movie making. It translates to the screen. When Ravegnini and the other girl band members gaze into the camera for their music video, you can tell they're feeling safe and part of the pack, they're not taking it very seriously but they love it. 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 Spanish style architecture captured 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 end?
Irregardless, there are still enough gateways to other dimensions and strange doorways and all the other 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. The insane dialogue, terrible dubbing and wacky insanity is all there. We can't blame the master if some turkey who didn't get it 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 we don't get and would there was a copy with all the original shots (love the hourglasses floating in space) and an explanation of why that kid 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? Am I quibbling) 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. The Prime copy is full frame and from video, but there must be a better source!
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 he should know: we 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, allowing us to see all the man behind the curtain. 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 racing ahead of his crazed insatiable audience in the Overlook maze--is the Mr. In-Between.)
Maybe it's all too short with a hyper-ironic, if 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 like he should, but the Cozzi magic is still there and this film is meant to be treasured for a lifetime of Cozzi binges. Who knows how long that lifetime will be? Einstein on the poster looking wryly your way knows: honey, you better pounce.