Sunday, November 27, 2016
‘Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared’ is a six part internet series that plays like David Lynch meets ‘Sesame Street’. The aesthetic embraces old-school puppetry (you can sometimes see the strings), stop-motion, CGI and live action. The emotional register runs the gamut from laugh-at-loud amusement at the safe and comfy end of the spectrum to a deep sickening sense of dread at the other. Which is not to say that it makes the journey gradually, through varying stages: the stock-in-trade of ‘Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared’ is the way it suddenly and often terrifyingly lurches into absolute nightmare.
At base level, the series is a cynically brilliant pastiche of children’s television: there is a familiar, cosy location (the main characters’ house) which is occasionally ventured outside of; a small handful of characters with simple names and really only one defining characteristic each; the anthropomorphism of inanimate objects as arbiters of gently improving moral lessons; and bouncy repetitive songs as delivery systems for said lessons. In virtually every episode, though, the moral lesson becomes contradictory or spirals into self-looping nonsense; the imagery correspondingly takes a turn for the grotesque and the editing becomes frenzied.
The first episode, ‘Get Creative’, is a case in point. There’s a series of static shots of an orderly interior decorated in primary colours; a clock ticks. This accounts for almost thirty seconds of the episode’s three minute running time. Our three protagonists – Yellow Guy, Red Guy and Duck Guy – are sitting round a table. A notebook comes to life and starts singing a song, the first line of which is “what’s your favourite idea?” The gang protest that they don’t have any and are initially resistant to Notebook’s exhortations to think creatively. However, when they’re encouraged to discern shapes in the clouds outside, they participate enthusiastically. “I see a hat, I see a cat / I see a man with a baseball bat” – the cloud morphing into a threatening shape, looking for all the world like it’s about to concuss the very sky it’s floating in, is the episode’s first indication that something a little bit wrong is going on here. Subversiveness comes thick and fast: Yellow Guy paints a picture of a clown, Notebook pours black paint over it; Yellow Guy picks green as his favourite colour, Notebook pooh-poohs his choice (“green is not a creative colour”); Notebook tells them the rule to creativity is to “listen to your heart, listen to the rain / listen to the voices in your brain”, the gang respond by coating a human heart in glitter and paper streamers, doing weird tribal dances, baking the cake into a pie, hallucinating the heart’s escape into a mousehole and spelling out “DEATH” in fridge magnet letters. The song by now has given way to psychedelic music that sounds like the Velvet Underground doing a try out for the ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’ theme. Notebook evaluates their efforts: “now let’s all agree never to be creative again”. Notebook self-closes and falls back onto the table as if dead. The screen goes black.
‘Get Creative’ is happiest and least disturbing episode of ‘Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared’.
The other episodes are on the themes of time, love, technology, healthy eating and dreams. If there’s a passive-aggressive and slightly spiteful quality to Notebook in episode one, the objects that spring to life through these next five instalments are veritable antagonists. The clock in episode two responds to Duck Guy’s suggestion that time is merely a construct of human invention by sounding his alarm so loudly that Yellow Guy’s ears bleed, an act he follows up – notwithstanding his earlier assertion that the future does not exist – by advancing time at such a rate that the gang age hideously within seconds, flesh peeling back from their fingers, their faces distorting. In episode three, Yellow Guy – already well-established as the most child-like of the three – is upset at Red Guy killing an insect during a picnic and goes to sit in a tree. Here, a butterfly serenades him, promising to teach him about love. Cue floating clouds and the kind of rainbow-saturated dreamscape that the cast of ‘My Little Pony’ might find too saccharine. All of this is in the service of grooming Yellow Guy for induction into a cult whose leader is immolated ‘Wicker Man’-stylee during the end credits.
For most shows, this would probably be its most close-to-the-knuckle moment, but the world of ‘Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared’ – and directors Becky Sloan and Joseph Pelling do an astounding job of creating an entire universe around their characters in what probably only amounts, if you watch the entire six episodes back to back, to about 35 minutes – has even darker places to which it’s ready to usher the audience. The schizoid computer in episode four whisks the gang into a digital interior with a cheerful malevolence that makes HAL9000 seem well-adjusted; the big musical set-piece plays out like ‘Tron’ got into a dance-off with ‘Evilspeak’ and things turned nasty. Episode five has Red Guy missing, possibly kidnapped, and Yellow Guy and Duck Guy slowly realising that something is very wrong – a piece of snail-like deduction that is hampered by a raw steak, a refrigerator and a can of peas coming to life and hectoring them about healthy eating. Turns out the threesome have their own dietary requirements and the inevitable lurch into outright horror might leave you feeling like you’d prefer to skip your next couple of meals.
At eight minutes, and featuring a substantial live-action sequence, the final episode is almost devoid of laughs. It starts with Yellow Guy, alone, crying himself to sleep because he misses Red Guy and Duck Guy. His bedside lamp sings to him about dreams, but proves about as reassuring in this respect as Freddie Krueger on a gallon of espresso and a half a hundredweight of crack cocaine. Symbolism, musical cues and characters from previous episodes intruder, the universe of ‘Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared’ seeming to collapse in on itself. The whole thing concludes with a terrible sense of inevitably, yet in a manner that leaves the episode – indeed the series itself – endlessly open to debate and interpretation.
While each episode is a nightmarish masterpiece in miniature, balancing pitch-perfect satire with existential terror, taken as a whole ‘Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared’ is far more than the sum of its parts. Functioning on a higher level than the puppets-doing-vulgar-things remit of, say, ‘Meet the Feebles’ or ‘Marquis’, what Sloan and Pelling have created is clever, disconcerting and quite unique.
Tuesday, November 22, 2016
There’s a bit of a tradition on The Agitation of the Mind, when discussing anything directed by Dario Argento in the last three decades, to identify ‘Opera’ (1987) as his last great work as director and everything that followed as something of a rollercoaster where the upswings can best be described as mildly disappointing and the plummeting descents are outright visits to Shitsville. And, Christ, isn’t it depressing to ruminate that the man who gave us ‘Deep Red’, ‘Suspiria’, ‘Tenebrae’ and half a dozen other great genre movies has – with the exceptions of two episodes of ‘Masters of Horror’ and the almost-there ‘Stendhal Syndrome’ – spent almost thirty years in a tailspin of negative quality control?
He followed the aforementioned ‘Stendhal Syndrome’ with what is reckoned to be his career nadir, ‘The Phantom of the Opera’, before making a bit of a box-office comeback (in his native Italy at least) with ‘Sleepless’, a rather studied throwback to the classic gialli of old. Three years later, he went back to the giallo well for ‘The Card Player’. It’s a curious piece, which in some places feels like Argento’s attempt to do ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ but also contains a stultifying number of scenes of cops standing around in institutional and brutally utilitarian interiors looking moody and spouting exposition, for all the world as if Argento were putting together a showreel for the producers of ‘CSI’.
Elsewhere, though, shadows of Argento the demented visual stylist and master of the set piece are visible, particularly in the scene where a home invasion is preceded by the creepy reflection of a masked intruder on the convex surface of a glass bowl … But I’m getting ahead of myself.
‘The Card Player’ starts with brittle cop Inspector Anna Mari (Stefania Rocca) fending off the ingratiating advances of colleague Inspector Morgani (Mario Opinato) while trying to find a tourist – a young woman – who has gone missing in room. She quickly gets a lead: an email from the abductor inviting the police to play an online poker game with the girl’s life as the prize. When Police Commissioner Marini (Adalberto Maria Merli) forbids participation, abductor turns killer, knifing his victim to death on camera. Later, Marini’s daughter Lucia (Fiore Argento) falls into the psycho’s hands.
Meanwhile, Anna finds herself working with – and falling for – alcoholic Irish cop John Brennan (Liam Cunningham), on secondment to the British embassy in Rome after an armed response fiasco back in the UK which saw a minor dead and Brennan made the scapegoat. Brennan strides into the movie, all piss and vinegar, and within seconds gets in a fight with one of Anna’s colleagues after dismissing said individual’s deductive prowess as “bollocks”. Inbetween knocking back the hard stuff from a hipflask and drunkenly crashing at Anna’s pad after belting out a tone deaf rendition of ‘Danny Boy’ (cliché alert!), Brennan proves himself a forensics expert and tenacious as all hell when he becomes obsessed by an almost overlooked detail that – in true giallo fashion – he can’t quite put his finger on.
Thus it is, that after twenty minutes or so of bland procedural narrative and dull cinematography, ‘The Card Player’ suddenly gets its funk on and things start to move. Anna and Brennan recruit wunderkind poker player Remo (Silvio Muccino). The killer ups the ante by snatching Marini’s daughter. Anna is targeted in her own home and proves highly proficient in responding to the threat. Remo is played for a fool by a honeytrap and finds himself in a game where he has no control over the odds. Brennan finally cracks the crucial clue and, unadvisedly, goes haring off without any back-up. These scenes move the action out of the insipid interiors and into a cityscape that is soulless, graffiti’d and either awash with flat harsh light in the daytime or a symphony of shadows at night.
Granted, there’s none of the bravura camerawork or prowling POV shots that define Argento’s best work, but it has a modicum of visual style and narrative focus. For a while, at least. Its middle third is ‘The Card Player’ at its best and, unfortunately, when it stops being pretty good, it doesn’t just slope off to not that good or even mediocre. Nope, it degenerates like a time-lapse fast-forward of a putrefying corpse. The twist isn’t something you just see coming. Nope, it flies over the DVD rental store in a biplane with a fifty-foot banner behind on which is printed in heavy capital letters the phrase “obvious from the fucking outset”. The ending isn’t just clichéd and hackneyed (the damsel in distress is shackled to the fucking railway tracks, for fuck’s fucking sake”). Nope, it’s actually profoundly embarrassing. And then there’s the out-of-nowhere final scene that is, presumably, meant to be life-affirming, about which I can only say: Dario, we don’t come to you for affirmation, mate; we come to you for rococo set design and operatic death scenes.
‘The Card Player’ was originally conceived as a sequel to ‘The Stendhal Syndrome’, with Asia Argento reprising her role of Detective Anna Manni – though how that would have worked given the ending of ‘The Stendhal Syndrome’, I have no idea – and the find-and-replace retrofitting of Anna Manni to Anna Mari is indicative of the laziness that blights the script. Ditto the character of John Brennan. John Russo in the first draft, with Matthieu Kassovitz set to star. When he dropped out and was replaced by Cunningham, one perfunctory scene was scribbled down to account for an Irish cop having any form of jurisdiction in Rome. Curiously, a big deal is made of his twenty-year residency in London only for said piece of information to have absolutely no bearing on the rest of the film. Likewise Anna’s emotional backstory – she’s still coming to terms with her father’s suicide – proves to be nothing but the set-up for the ludicrous finale.
‘The Card Player’ exists in that mid-to-late period of the Argento filmography where considered critical analysis is replaced by a trade-off against the other films: it’s not quite as good as the not-as-good-as-they-could-be ‘Stendhal Syndrome’ or ‘Sleepless’, but neither is it the abject train wreck of ‘Phantom of the Opera’ or ‘Mother of Tears’, and at the very least it’s more coherent than ‘Giallo’. It’s a poor way to evaluate a film’s worth, but you work with what you’ve got.
Friday, November 18, 2016
Between ‘Death Occurred Last Night’ and today’s offering, I think if we were to ask the question “when is a giallo not a giallo?”, we could offer “when it’s directed by Duccio Tessari” as a fairly comprehensive answer.
Where ‘Death Occurred Last Night’ switches gears between police procedural and vigilante thriller whilst retaining just enough of the giallo in its overall aesthetic, ‘The Bloodstained Butterfly’ is an out-and-out giallo – it boasts more flamboyant cinematography and sustained set-pieces than its predecessor (‘DOLN’ was made in 1970, ‘TBB’ in 1971), and has a more obviously giallo title – albeit one that falls into three distinct acts, each one characterised by its dependence on other genres.
The film begins with an extended sequence that sets up several characters, whose interrelationships will gradually be revealed, and several locations, the whole montage scored to a bizarre medley where Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 gives way to lounge jazz. The scene shifts to a park; two children are playing; they discover a corpse. The police are summoned; someone flees the scene; the viewpoints of several witnesses are established. The next twenty minutes or so are a strict procedural; had Tessari continued in this vein, there would have been no way you could have hung the giallo on ‘The Bloodstained Butterfly’.
Where the procedural takes us narratively is: the aforementioned corpse is that of young French student Françoise Pigaut (Carole André), whose best friend at the Italian university they attended was Sarah (Wendy d’Olive), the daughter of TV personality Alessandro Marchi (Giancarlo Sbragia). Inspector Berardi (Silvano Tranquilli) and his much put-upon assistant (Peter Shepherd) – I don’t recall him having a name and IMDb goes with “the inspector’s assistant” – launch an investigation, contending with foul weather that turns their crime scene into a quagmire and the presence of TV reporters whose coverage is cynical. Nonetheless, they rigorously apply forensic techniques and try to determine the killer’s motive and identity. Then a witness turns up at Berardi’s office saying she recognised the killer from the TV programme …
And ‘The Bloodstained Butterfly’ promptly tosses aside the procedural playbook, leaps forward in time (I’m guessing several months at least; it isn’t made clear), and gets its courtroom drama funk on for the next half hour. Marchi’s in the dock, his ice-queen wife Maria (Evelyn Stewart) is becoming increasingly distant, and Sarah is devastated. The prosecutor (Wolfgang Preiss) is building a pretty damning case, but Marchi’s lawyer Guilio Cordaro (Günther Stoll) has a few cards up his sleeve. Much depends, though, on whether Marchi will publically trash his marriage and reputation by ’fessing up to being with his mistress Marta Clerici (Lorella De Luca) at the time of the murder. While all of this is going on, Sarah’s relationship with entitled music student Giorgio (Helmut Berger) is fragmenting and suspicion surrounds a certain bit of evidence that Giorgio gave under oath in Marchi’s favour …
And no sooner has the courtroom drama wrapped up in dour fashion than the film gets its psycho-sexual funk on: two more murders occur, Maria’s dalliance with one of her husband’s associates gives her an ulterior motive as regards the convenience of his incarceration, and Sarah distances herself from Giorgio as his behaviour lurches from sexual cruelty to self-hate.
After a trio of not-particularly-graphic murders and only two set-pieces (the original killing and the perpetrator’s flight from the park, and the cat ‘n’ mouse scene that culminates in the third murder), Tessari goes for broke in the last third: from the tensions brokered between Maria and Sarah by the former’s lover to Marchi’s homophobic beat-down on a cellmate, from Giorgio’s spectacular meltdown to an urgent chase scene after Berardi and his men finally figure it out (or at least think they do), ‘The Bloodstained Butterfly’ does so much pick up the pace as strap a rocket to itself. Everything comes down to a stand-off in an abandoned and part-demolished factory building where motives are clarified and the moral waters muddied at one and the same time. Tessari delivers a finale that dabbles in the shared guilt considerations of, say, Argento’s ‘Deep Red’ or ‘Tenebrae’ while coming on all histrionically melodramatic, like a homoerotic version of King Vidor’s ‘Duel in the Sun’.
‘The Bloodstained Butterfly’ is a divisive film amongst giallo fans. Some find it muddled and far too talky. For others, it’s a fascinating oddity. I’m definitely in the latter camp. It isn’t entirely free of problems – not least in its two sex scenes, which are supposed to be edgy and guilt-ridden but just seem awkward – but it’s certainly never dull.
Thursday, November 17, 2016
Duccio Tessari’s 1970 giallo ‘Death Occurred Last Night’ is something of a hybrid, combining elements of the procedural, the vigilante thriller and one of the sleazier tropes of the giallo itself – the prostitution ring. But unlike ‘What Have They Done to Solange’ and ‘What Have They Done to Your Daughters’, the two immediate genre touchstones that deal in said scenario, ‘Death Occurred Last Night’ plays out as a missing person drama for a good chunk of its running time, before revealing what happened to the unfortunate Donatella (Gillian Bray).
Donatella is a tall, attractive 25-year-old whose over-protective father Amanzio Berzaghi (Raf Vallone) is over-protective for a damn good reason: Donatella has the mental age of a child of three. Her innocence is such that she’s an easy target for predatory men – to her, flashing her knickers or behaving playfully is just that: playfulness. Berzaghi, working mornings as a transport officer at a trucking company, has an intricate locking system on his apartment door and grilles fitted to the windows. Donatella’s vulnerability preys on him, but his love for and commitment to her is total.
‘Death Occurred Last Night’ begins in media res with Berzaghi, fobbed off by police at the precinct nearest to him, blagging his way into Captain Duca Lamberti (Frank Wolff)’s office, and pouring his heart out re: his daughter’s recent disappearance. Lamberti is something of a journeyman copper, his career overshadowed by the achievements of his younger wife (Eva Renzi), a photojournalist whose first book is about to be published. During a rare argument, she accuses him of getting too old to make a difference. On another occasion, she (rightly) dismisses as bullshit his reasoning for not having a minor surgical procedure that would improve his quality of life (workload; responsibility; the unlikelihood of the city’s criminal contingent desisting from their efforts during his recuperation); “You’re not the only policeman,” she reminds him. Responding to Berzaghi’s plight – a regular guy who’s lost everything that gave his life some meaning – Lamberti throws himself into tracking down Donatella.
Intuiting that a mentally incapacitated young woman who has disappeared from a stable home was probably deliberately targeted for the sex trade, Lamberti and junior officer Mascaranti (Gabriele Tinti) brace pimp turned car salesman Salvatore (Gigi Rizi). Initially unwilling to assist in assuaging their access to the various brothels where Donatella might have ended up, Lamberti arranges for a few kilos of coke to be planted at Salvatore’s showroom, whereupon he promptly u-turns as regards assisting them with their enquiries.
What follows is the weirdest sequence in the film, Lamberti and Mascaranti happily traipsing from cat-house to cat-house, dallying with some of the most unprepossessing hookers that exploitation cinema has ever presented to the viewing public, and tossing around money like confetti (“you can claim anything on expenses as long as you know how to fill the forms in,” Lamberti declares, suggesting that he missed his calling as an accountant). Mascaranti in particular seems to take to this avenue of investigation rather too enthusiastically. But then again, he gives every impression of being Italy’s Dirty Harry in waiting, at one point tendering his resignation to Lamberti so that he can beat the shit out of a pimp without risking a formal complaint. Beating complete and information extracted, Lamberti casually reinstates him.
Still, Lamberti and Mascaranti buck the giallo trend of useless coppers and it’s entertaining spend the first half of the film in their company as they do their best to track down the missing girl. Then – and this is only a minor spoiler – the discovery of a severely burned corpse changes the perameters of their investigation. At which point Berzaghi takes centre stage again.
What follows is a dual narrative with Lamberti and Mascaranti closing in on the perpetrators by means of dogged procedural detective work, while the grieving Berzaghi stumbles upon a clue (more by luck than judgement) which categorically establishes that at least one of the guilty parties is resident in his apartment block. Vigilantism with a dash of ‘Rear Window’.
‘Death Occurred Last Night’ uses many well-worn narrative devices, from the generation gap bickering between Lamberti and Mascaranti – I was reminded of the Commissioner and his Deputy in ‘Milano Calibro 9’ (another Frank Wolff starrer) but without the politics – to Berzaghi’s ‘Virgin Spring’-like transition from loving father to stone-cold avenging killer. The parallel investigations are join-the-dots affairs rather than a showcase for any great deductive leaps and there’s none of the overlooked-detail-proving-vitally-important that’s one of the giallo’s stock-in-trades.
Indeed, Lamberti’s first significant break comes as a result of a conversation his wife has with alcoholic prostitute Herrero (Beryl Cunningham). An actress who appeared in a couple of dozen exploitationers between the early Sixties and early Eighties, Cunningham is a striking presence in this film, alternately taunting Lamberti for being no better than the pimps and johns who define her life (they all want something from her, the only difference is Lamberti wants information) and lapsing into self-anaesthetism when the mask of her defiance slips and the reality of her life catches up with her. Two other performances match it: Bray’s as the emotionally retarded Donatella – a nothing role on paper that she imbues with such winsomeness and fragility that her few brief scenes are heartbreaking – and Vallone, no stranger to good solid performances but who is revelatory here.
The quality of performances, aligned with Tessari’s pacy but unobtrusive direction, are what make ‘Death Occurred Last Night’ such a taut and compelling piece of work. They transcend the almost total lack of action – there are two foot chases, neither of which last more than a minute, and both of which occur significantly past the hour mark – and bootstrap the movie above the boilerplate genre beats of its narrative. Nor are there any of the overt stylisations or grand guignol set-pieces traditionally associated with the giallo*. And while these leave a lot of boxes on the Agitation of the Mind giallo checklist unticked, they benefit the film immeasurably in terms of its dramatic impact.
*Having said that, the film still has its moments of what-the-fuckery, including a mortuary scene where the corpse is apparently identified by its feet, and Lamberti taking time out from the investigation to strum his guitar and make up a little song about his sinusitis. Plus there’s a continuity error that the filmmakers blithely overlook in order to ram the title into a line of dialogue.
Tuesday, November 15, 2016
Fernando di Leo’s B-movie masterpiece ‘Milano Calibro 9’ opens with a six-minute pre-credits sequence of cynically bravura brilliance. A parcel switch operation whereby a cache of money makes its way across Milan via three cut-outs is overseen by two hoods, the oily Pasquale (Mario Novelli) and the bristly Rocco (Mario Adorf). When the parcel finally arrives in their hands, they realise they’ve been conned. They quickly work their way through the chain of operatives, all of whom deny they were involved. This trio of luckless individuals are tied up in a cave outside the city and … well, we’ll let the following screengrabs tell the story.
Three years later and with the $300,000 still missing and the mob boss it should have gone to – The Americano (Lionel Stander) – still, how shall we say, curious as to its whereabouts, Rocco and his boys pick up the only name left on their list of suspects: Ugo Piazzi (Gastone Moschin), newly released from jail. Ugo, it turns out, was arrested the same day as the money went walkabouts, which The Americano and Rocco take as proof positive that he nicked it.
The police take an equally non-procedural approach to the case, with the Commissioner (Frank Wolff) and his Deputy (Luigi Pistilli) sitting around arguing about politics instead of, oh I don’t know, following clues, analysis forensic reports or tailing suspects. ‘Milano Calibro 9’ was based on a novel by Giorgio Scerbanenco, and the Commissioner, eternally railing against the Deputy’s passion for social justice and browbeating him with the fact that there’s a pecking order for a reason, is the mouthpiece for Scerbanenco’s rabid anti-communism. I’m guessing the Deputy gets fairly short shrift in the novel, whereas di Leo – writing as well as directing – has him score a few points off his stuck-up boss, even if he does get transferred to some shitty backwater by the end of the film.
No such polemics drive the interaction between Ugo and Rocco, however. Rocco first tries smarming the location of the money out of Ugo, then beating it out of them, then threatening on pain of death that Ugo had better present himself to The Americano.
In doing so, Rocco gets on the wrong side Ugo’s buddy Chino (Philippe Leroy), an assassin of some infamy and companion to former mob boss Don Vincenzo (Ivo Garrani). When Ugo keeps his appointment with The Americano, the latter – to Rocco’s consternation – orders Ugo to work with Rocco. A classic example of keeping your enemies closer.
So, with The Americano and Rocco watching him like a hawk, still convinced he’s the thief, and the police dimly aware of him while still sitting around the station disputing the socio-political narrative of early ’70s Italy, Ugo reluctantly commences his lowly duties in The Americano’s organisation, while turning his fuller attentions to rekindling an old romance with exotic dancer Nelly Bordon (Barbara Bouchet).
After its rip-roaring opening, and several tense scenes that edge Ugo ever closer to The Americano’s orbit, ‘Milano Calibro 9’ daringly takes its foot off the pedal in terms of narrative and tension – daringly because, for all the craftsmanship involved, it’s still an exploitationer and the cardinal sin of any exploitation movie is to be dull – and structures its mid-section as an enquiry into the lives of career criminals and those who hunt them, and the divisions that exist in both camps. The Americano and Don Vincenzo represent the old school, but where Vincenzo visibly exhibits a weariness that suggests he’s haunted by the life he led, The Americano is devoid of self-awareness. Ugo and Chino are mid-level players, both cautious and taciturn but capable of cold and unhesitating brutality when the moment is ripe. Rocco and sundry others are the muscle – thugs who are in the game for kicks, easy money and fast women. The nature of the criminal underworld is changing. Don Vincenzo eulogises at one point that there’s no real Mafia any more, just gangs killing each other.
Then, just as the pace threatens to subside into inertia, di Leo cranks things up: The Americano descends into paranoia; his low-level operatives start dying all over the place, usually as a result of incendiary devices; a mysterious individual starts cropping up in the background; and Chino crosses paths with Rocco again, with cataclysmic results. And all of this is merely set up for the final reel which is basically one rug-pull after another and I wouldn’t dream of spoiling it for you.
‘Milano Calibro 9’ is a very different beast from, say, Umberto Lenzi’s ‘Almost Human’ or Lucio Fulci’s ‘Contraband’. In its close observation of how a specific criminal enterprise operates, it’s probably closer to Enzo G. Castellari’s ‘The Heroin Busters’, while Moschin’s existentially cool loner – played with such ruthless minimalism he makes Clint Eastwood look like Noel Coward – is worthy of comparison to Alain Delon in Melville’s ‘Le Samourai’. On the other end of the scale, Adorf goes for broke in his portrayal of a total nutjob, tearing into a final scene that would prove the blueprint for every edgy movie psycho up to Joe Pesci’s Tommy DeVito in ‘Goodfellas’ and beyond. It’s a performance that almost verges into pantomime, but the terrible ferocity of his final scene ensures his – and the movie’s – place in cinema history.
Sunday, November 13, 2016
Architecture porn is as integral to the giallo as operatic death scenes, bottles of J&B and winsome brunettes in peril, and just to make sure he’s got our attention from the off director Mario Caiano doubles down on the architecture porn in the opening sequence as psychiatrist Luca (Horst Frank) flees a knife-wielding assailant through the stark angles of a deserted building constructed in the brutalist style. His escape attempt fails. A knife rises and falls. Red gushes.
Turns out it’s a dream from which Luca’s girlfriend Julie (Rosemary Dexter) – Caiano doubles down on the winsome brunette factor, as well – awakes in a state of agitation. She gets even more agitated when she realises he’s disappeared. Enquiries at his clinic end with a deranged patient shouting a single word over and over. Cross-referencing it with a note in Luca’s appointments diary, Julie realises it’s the name of a small town and takes off to find him.
Arriving at said village, she’s coolly appraised by ex-pat American Frank (Adolfo Celli), and almost lured to her death by a manipulative local who directs her to a dangerously unstable building. If the opening sequence was giallo 101 architecture fetishism, then Julie’s hesitant exploration of the ruined house is the diametric opposite. It is to David Hemming’s 15-minute interrogation of a supposedly empty villa in ‘Deep Red’ what a three-minute punk single is to grand Italian opera.
Not that Julie seems to be doing herself any favours, engaging with all manner of dubious characters seemingly on a whim, and allowing herself to be led from situation to situation in wide-eyed complicity. Her attempt at amateur sleuthing is as if Nancy Drew were ten years older with a massive reduction in both IQ and the length of her skirts.
Eventually, she finds herself at the house of stern eccentric Gerda (Alida Valli), who seems to have some history with Frank. Gerda is playing host to a group of oddballs including gigolo Louis (Michael Maien), photographer Toni (Sybil Danning), actor Thomas (Gigi Rizzi), nervous and shifty Eugene (Franco Ressel) and mentally deficient teenager Saro (Benjamin Lev) who enjoys spying on pretty girls and painting weird canvases. Repeated close-ups of his latest opus and Frank’s clunky exposition that Saro has no imagination and can only paint what he sees point to a big clue. Or is it a red herring?
The coastal setting of ‘Eye in the Labryinth’ is apposite: entire shoals of red herring drift through the film. From the weird townspeople who are basically just there to wrongfoot you until Julie gets to Gerda’s villa, to the cat and mouse shenanigans at the villa itself, the narrative is less an exercise in plotting than an extended shell game. Indeed, the focus almost imperceptibly shifts from Julie to Frank as the amateur sleuth, the latter furthering his own agenda as he probes information from Gerda’s house guests.
Not that Frank ever becomes the default hero. When he’s not busy saving Julie from assassination attempts, he’s unsubtly trying to force himself on her. Nor does anyone else on the guest list emerge as even remotely sympathetic, particularly when it comes to light that Luca was known to them and all of them had good reason to wish him ill. Revelations about Luca quickly reveal him as a total bastard, at which point the film makes a sharp swerve from Agatha-Christie-with-topless-sunbathing and goes careering off in the direction of Roeg/Cammell style psychological head-fuckery. All of it accompanied by the most out of place lounge jazz soundtrack this side of the filmography of Jess Franco.
Caiano isn’t a name readily associated with gialli – he’s probably better known for a run of polizia in the vein of Fernando di Leo and the grubby exploitationer ‘Nazi Love Camp 27’ – but he does sterling work here, maintaining an excellent pace and getting the most out of the location work. ‘Eye of the Labyrinth’ is an incongruously sun-dappled example of the genre, and this as much as anything contributes to the film’s woozy and slightly disconnected aesthetic. An aesthetic that’s entirely in the service of the final reel.
Thursday, November 10, 2016
Hello, boys and girls. Welcome back to Uncle Neil’s Movie Club. Now, before we watch tonight’s film, can anybody tell me the title of the most notorious, controversial, affront-to-good-taste cannibal movie ever made?
Well done, little Jimmy: it is ‘Cannibal Holocaust’. And can anybody tell me who directed ‘Cannibal Holocaust’?
That’s right, Melanie, it was Ruggero Deodato, and he upset a lot of people with that film, didn’t he? But it wasn’t Uncle Ruggero’s first cannibal movie, kiddies. Can anybody tell me what his first incursion into the green inferno was called?
Correct, Mikey: it was ‘Last Cannibal World’, a.k.a. ‘The Last Survivor’, a.k.a. ‘Jungle Holocaust’ (the latter a retro-fitted title post-‘Cannibal Holocaust’). And guess what, boys and girls? It’s ‘Last Cannibal World’ that we’ll be watching tonight.
(And this is why I don’t have children.)
‘Last Cannibal World’ was made in 1977, the year after Deodato had given us ‘Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man’, which in turn had succeeded ‘Waves of Lust’, and just three years before the Deodato annus mirabilis of 1980 and his two exploitation masterpieces ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ and ‘The House on the Edge of the Park’. You’d be forgiven for thinking that, circa 1977, Deodato was on a roll.
Actually, it’s quite the opposite. Following ‘Live Like a Cop…’, Deodato experienced a three year funk of which the pedestrian ‘Last Cannibal World’ is, for what it’s worth, the high point. His next two films were ‘Last Feelings’, a pitiful attempt at inspirational feel-good fare, and ‘Concorde Affaire ‘79’, a bargain basement ‘Airport’ rip off. Just how engaged or otherwise the director was with these three projects is a matter for Deodato scholars and biographers to determine, but I am aware that ‘Last Cannibal World’ was an inherited project – it had originally been developed as a sequel to Umberto Lenzi’s ‘The Man from Deep River’ which would reunite that film’s headliners Ivan Rassimov and Me Me Lai. Lenzi, however, demanded a bigger fee than the producers were willing to kick out, and the cameras eventually rolled on ‘Last Cannibal World’ with Deodato in the director’s chair and a rejigged script that made no reference to ‘The Man from Deep River’.
The plot – an exercise in simplicity – is thus: oil prospectors Robert (Massimo Foschi) and Rolf (Rassimov) conduct an aerial reconnaissance of the jungle accompanied by alcoholic pilot Charlie (Sheikh Razak Shikur) and token attractive female Swan (Judy Rosly). Charlie sets the plane down by an encampment but muffs the touchdown and the single-engine light aircraft throws a wheel. Robert and Rolf find the camp deserted … oh, no, wait; there’s everyone – they’ve been eaten by cannibals. By the time Charlie has completed the repairs, night is falling and they decide to wait until morning to fly out. Swan, needing to relieve herself, wanders off into the dark and, with a blood-curdling scream, promptly disappears. Come morning, rather than flying out of there, prospectors and pilot go wandering further into the jungle looking for the by-now fairly definitely dead Swan.
Let’s pause here to ask a few questions. Oil in the jungle? Prospected for by means of flying over the treeline? Who is Swan anyway? How does a drunkard aviator reattach a wheel to a light aircraft without, at the very least, a block and tackle to winch the fucking thing up? Since when is flying at night the more dangerous option compared to sitting around waiting for the cannibals to show up? Is taking a piss really all that desirable when getting eaten is the likely outcome? And why bother mounting a search mission for someone who’s almost certainly dead when it involves abandoning your means of escape?
Or am I just being cynical?
So: Robert, Rolf and Charlie go haring off into the jungle. Charlie is killed when he triggers a booby trap and what looks like an organic wrecking ball slams into him, bamboo spikes graphically aerating him. Rolf is injured and separated from Robert. Robert plunges on through the wilderness, sustaining himself on plants that make him (a) hallucinate, (b) puke, and (c) pass out. He drifts back into consciousness to find himself the prisoner of a cannibal tribe. Over the course of the next forty minutes, he’s denuded, pissed on, pelted with rocks and has his member roughly manhandled by both sexes. He has to fight a bird with a beak like a pair of secateurs for scraps of raw meat, and bears witness to the cannibal tribe doing pretty horrible things to outcasts and animals alike. As is the norm with these kind of films, the animal kingdom takes a battering: snakes, lizards, crocodiles and birds all buy the farm in the name of a quick buck at the box office.
Predictably, the prettiest village girl (Lai) takes an interest in him, which Robert exploits when he makes his escape. But there’s a price to be paid for betraying the tribe …
The best cannibal films hitch their particular wagon to another touchstone, be it specifically political, cultural or sociological. Therefore ‘The Man from Deep River’ is a cash-in on/response to ‘A Man Called Horse’ where the stakes are higher in that the natives Rassimov has to prove himself to won’t just take his scalp if he pussies out – they’ll straight-up fucking eat him; ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ is a j’accuse of both audience and media; and Lenzi’s ‘Eaten Alive’ composites cannibalism and religious cults (it was made shortly after Jonestown). ‘Last Cannibal World’, though, doesn’t function on any level other than “hey, folks, check out these crazy cannibals, by the way here’s a sick bag and we hope none of you are ophidiophobes”.
Deodato’s trademark craftsmanship and ability to build tension are poorly evidenced here. There isn’t a single set-piece that hasn’t been done better in another movie. The performances are neither here nor there. The overuse of stock footage is tedious. But still there are dark grace notes, little moments in which Deodato’s bitterly cynical approach to the material points towards ‘Cannibal Holocaust’. And when ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ is an indicator that one’s filmography has seen out its low stretch and things are getting back on track … well, kiddies, that’s why Uncle Neil set up the Movie Club in the first place.
Tuesday, November 08, 2016
It’s a subject that’s been covered in these pages several times before: Italian exploitation movies and their multiplicity of alternative titles. But in the case of Roberto Montero’s ‘So Sweet, So Dead’, it’s worth revisiting. The indigenous title is ‘Rivelazioni di un maniaco sessuale al capo della squadra mobile’, which even the non-linguist should automatically be able to intuit as definitely not translating to ‘So Sweet, So Dead’ based on nothing more than the sheer amount of words in the original title.
Known in Britain as ‘So Sweet, So Dead’ and in America as, variously, ‘Bad Girls’, ‘Penetration’ (a heavily re-edited hardcore version) and ‘The Slasher … is the Sex Maniac’, its original title translates as ‘Revelations of a Sex Maniac to the Head of the Criminal Investigation Division’. Which is not only magnificently unwieldy (it’s up there with ‘What Are These Strange Drops of Blood Doing on the Body of Jennifer’ and ‘The Corpses Presented Traces of Carnal Violence’) but a spoiler of the highest order, happily giving away what should have been an out-of-the-blue final act rug-pull where Inspector Capuana (Farley Granger), having embarked on a risky strategy to flush out the killer, receives a phone call from said nutjob and discovers that … But I’m getting ahead of myself.
‘So Sweet, So Dead’ opens in lurid fashion with a police photographer taking his time snapping the dead body of a naked woman whose throat has been cut (this on top of the multiple stab wounds). Snapshots of a compromising nature were left at the scene. Capuana tries to get a handle on the case: jealous husband, impotent psychotic, voyeur? Is the murder connected to the woman’s husband, a senior army officer? Forensic psychologist Professor Casali (Chris Avram) posits that the murderer is gay, though no real reason is expounded on; besides, Capuana is more concerned about Casali’s protégé Gastone (Luciano Rossi), a mortician whose interest in corpses seems a little unhealthy.
Further killings occur, always of society women, all of whom are conducting affairs. Always the slashed throat and stab wounds; always the photographs. Always the closing of ranks by the elite so that Capuana’s investigation never gains traction. His superiors demand results but are quick to upbraid him when he ruffles feathers. At home, he bitches about the job to long-suffering wife Barbara (Sylva Koscina) but refuses the easy way out of a job with her father’s manufacturing firm.
Dario Argento once famously remarked, when quizzed about the incipient misogyny of gialli, that it’s more aesthetically pleasing to watch a beautiful woman menaced by a killer than a man – an argument that’s as intellectually facile as defending the use of the word “fuck” in front of a group of five-year-olds by dint of it being marginally less offensive than saying “cunt”. Let’s consider the Argento protocol at a slightly – and I mean nanometrically – deeper level: it’s okay to be misogynistic about your choice of victim because women are nicer to look at. So much face; so much palm.
If ever there was a film that bowed, curtsied, fellated and generally loved Argento’s dictum long-time (even more so, I hasten to add, than ‘Strip Nude for Your Killer’ or ‘The Sister of Ursula’) then that film is ‘So Sweet, So Dead’. It doesn’t just want its share of eye candy – the female cast extends beyond the frankly gorgeous Koscina to include Femi Benussi, Annabelle Incontrera, Krista Nell and Susan Scott – but paints them as shameless adulteresses and engineers their death scenes to incorporate as much gratuitous nudity as possible.
Not only is the lack of a proactive heroine frustrating – the film flirts with lawyer’s daughter Bettina (Angela Covello) as witness to the killing and therefore potential amateur sleuth or next victim, only to completely abandon either narrative possibility – but to stuff a movie this full of genre icons and not give Benussi or Scott or Koscina or Incontrera a single fucking interesting thing to do is just criminal.
So, with the ladies of the cast devalued, the film’s giallo credentials rest on two things: the efficacy of Capuana’s investigation and the film’s effectiveness as a mystery. The former can’t be overstated: gialli are rife with fucking useless coppers. Any giallo drinking game would perforce include: number in the title, colour in the title, eyeball searing interior decoration, architecture porn, amateur sleuth, all-important clue that said amateur sleuth just can’t quite put their finger on, bottle of J&B, killer who favours black gloves and fedora, useless fucking copper. Capuana isn’t necessarily a useless copper, just an unengaging one. Farley, either a scenery-chewer par excellence or a somnambulist of the highest order, is on sleep-walk mode here. (Granted, I’d rather have a subdued Farley performance than one in which he mistakes the interior design for a mixed grill.)
As a mystery, ‘So Sweet, So Dead’ sucks donkey balls. In fact it sucks the balls of those depraved enough to suck donkey balls. I’d even go so far as to say it sucks donkey balls while reading The Daily Mail and listening to Justin Bieber. As a mystery, it’s fucking pathetic and hinges on Capuana’s final reel recollection of something that surely to God he’d have reflected was significant waaaay earlier in the movie; something, moreover, that hasn’t even been referenced by the lazy-assed script. The resolution of ‘So Sweet, So Dead’ hinges on a shoehorned-in series of flashbacks utterly uncontextualised by anything that has gone before. It’s like reading Conan Doyle’s ‘The Final Problem’ and only having one reference to Moriarty in a footnote appended to the last sentence. It’s not a twist, it’s a toss off.
Sunday, November 06, 2016
On any list of maverick cops, Inspectors Harry Callaghan and Jack Regan are bound to feature highly. Fred and Tony – the, ahem, heroes of Ruggero Deodato’s ‘Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man’ – are the kind of guys who make Callaghan and Regan look like Jessica Fletcher and Jane Marple respectively … or they would be if they weren’t played by Marc Porel and Ray Lovelock.
On paper, Fred and Tony are little more than licensed vigilantes, whose “means justify the end” work ethic reveals them as no better – perhaps even worse – than the crooks they pursue. On screen, however, Porel man-pouts with such moody determination that I rather suspect Robert Pattison used the film as a training video in order to perfect his characterisation for ‘Twilight’, while Lovelock struts and poses as if he were in some weird commercial for men’s fashions where a pistol is 1976’s must-have accessory and the best way to show off the cut of a sweater is to have the wearer beat up a suspect.
Still, for the purposes of this review let’s suspend disbelief (actually, let’s just expel the fucking thing – it’s quicker) and allow that Fred and Tony are hard, edgy characters with no moral code and not an ounce of human pity between them. As the film opens, they’ve just been transferred to a special squad under the command of Adolfo Celi. I can’t remember his character being given a name and IMDb bills Celi as “the Captain”. Anyway, Fred and Tony have been transferred to a special squad – it’s literally called the Special Squad – with the remit of stopping crimes before they’ve even been committed.
You see, the Special Squad have been given unlimited resources in the form of a very expensive computer that can predict crime (I kid you not: that’s the full extent of the exposition and Celi manages to deliver it without laughing). Now, exactly how nicking someone for a bank robbery before they’ve robbed it works in judicial terms, I’m not qualified to say. But surely it’s just intent at that point and the wannabe robbers would be back out on the streets within a few months.
Maybe that’s why Fred and Tony simply shoot everyone at the scene and leave the local beat cops to clean up with some vague promise of making sure their report clarifies everything. Not that there was even a single scene of them doing paperwork. There are plenty of scenes, however, of Fred and Tony behaving like due process never existed, and despite Porel and Lovelock’s inability to convince as hard-ass bad boys, it’s this tireless parade of unethical behaviour that ensures the film cracks along nicely, requiring no padding to reach its 100 minute running time. But desist with the technical details, I hear you cry; bugger the running time and don’t even think about boring us with aspect ratios and film stocks. Tell us about the unethical behaviour.
Well, it’s like this: Fred and Tony join the Special Squad and promptly go after gang boss Pasquini (Renato Salvatori), unaware that his inside man Daniele Dublino (again, I don’t recall the character having a name, and IMDb just goes with “corrupt cop”) is about to reveal their identities; and since that’s really all there is by way of narrative, Deodato and his three screenwriters (including ‘Milano Calibro 9’ helmer Fernando di Leo) basically ensure that Fred and Tony randomly get involved in any and all occurrences of mayhem on their way to the boatyard shoot-out that ends the film, be it pursuing a couple of snatch-and-grab artists in a six-minute motorcycle chase, crashing into a hostage situation, or gunning down the would-be perpetrators of an armoured truck heist for merely pulling on their balaclavas and looking at the truck.
And even when our boys are actually concentrating on the Pasquini plot, their modus operandi eschews such staples of policework as detection, forensics and evidence gathering in favour of arson, gunplay, duffing up the mobster’s associates and taking turns shagging his nympho sister Lina (Sofia Dionisio). If the surname’s familiar, that’s because she’s the younger sister of Silvia Dionisio, star of Deodato’s earlier ‘Waves of Lust’ and the director’s wife at the time. Sofia Dionisio has a nude scene in ‘Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man’ that can only be described as sleazy. True, shooting a sleazy sex scene featuring your sister-in-law isn’t quite in the same league of ickiness as some of the stuff Dario Argento has cast his daughter in, but still …
While we’re speaking of the Dionisios, remember Silvia’s J&B scene in ‘Waves of Lust’? Well, Deodato breaks out the blended whisky for narratively redundant bit of iconography featuring Pasquini’s moll:
And while we’re discussing the film’s reductive treatment of its female cast, Silvia Dionisio plays Adolfo Celi’s secretary, to whom Fred and Tony behave in a manner that would make even Sid James in a ‘Carry On’ film break character and tell them off for being chauvinist pigs. Granted, the script gives Dionisio a few zingers to fire back at them, but she’s one of only three female characters who aren’t there to be a vamp or a victim (the other two are elderly housemaids incorporated for comedy value). And yes, casual misogyny isn’t exactly a hidden agenda in the film industry as a whole and 70s Italian exploitation pictures in particular, but even your most disreputable of gialli and sexploitation opuses give their actresses a bit more to do.
So what does ‘Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man’ have to recommend it? Why splurge over 1000 words on it? Because, basically, it’s entertaining as all hell. That six-minute motorcycle chase? It kicks off literally moments after the opening credits, hurling the viewer full-tilt into Fred and Tony’s renegade way of doing things, and the pace doesn’t let up from there. There’s an action set-piece every ten minutes or so, the execution of which are generally pretty damn good – the bike chase is a stand-out; ditto a bit of cat ‘n’ mouse in a quarry, and a mob hit on one of Fred and Tony’s colleagues. Deodato’s craftsmanship is effective: he has a knack of establishing the dynamic of any given scene very economically, often using specific visual details to define location or character interrelationships. The editing is focused and rigorous, driving things forward all the time.
Also – and it would be remiss of me not to admit this – Porel and Lovelock make for an unforced double-act, creating a kind of bland chemistry that suggests they’ve worked together for so long that they don’t even bother playing off each other any more. It’s just a shame that they come across as moderately less dangerous than Bert and Ernie during a particularly well-behaved episode of ‘Sesame Street’.
Friday, November 04, 2016
Hello, kiddies, and welcome to Uncle Neil’s film club. Now, can anyone answer this question: what’s the sleaziest giallo ever made?
What’s that? ‘The French Sex Murders’? Good choice, but I think we can find something sleazier.
‘Strip Nude for Your Killer’? Very good choice. Extra points for referencing a film that stars Edwige Fenech and Femi Benussi. But we can still hoist ourselves a few more rungs up the ladder of sleaze.
‘Amuck’, you say? With its slow-mo Rosalba Neri/Barbara Bouchet scene? Oh, well played. Well played indeed. But is it quite as sleazy as …
… drum roll, please …
… ‘The Sister of Ursula’? Let’s find out. But before we do, let’s consider the circumstances under which the film came to be made. It’s a far more interesting story than the tawdry narrative we’ll be deconstructing in a couple of paragraphs’ time.
First-time director Enzo Milioni had ambitions to make an art-house film starring Dirk Bogarde; his producer encouraged him to make something commercial, with the intention of securing financing for the Bogarde film on the back of it. Said project never came to fruition, and what we’re left with – the first of only five features Milioni would ever direct – is ‘The Sister of Ursula’, a piece of work whose own director admits is hack-work and which most of the cast look uncomfortable, if not outright embarrassed, to be a part of.
Let’s meet the cast and see what part they play in the whole sordid mess. We have the eponymous siblings Ursula (Barbara Magnolfi) and Dagmar Beyne (Stefania D’Amario), who as the film opens check into a coastal hotel run by the oleaginous Roberto Delleri (Vanni Materassi). Roberto’s wife Vanessa (Anna Zinnemann) actually owns the establishment and would rather Roberto were out of the way so she could take up permanent residence with her lover Jenny (Antiniska Nemour), while Roberto would rather Vanessa were out of the way so he could play hide the salami with improbably named nightclub singer Stella Shining (Yvonne Harlow). Meanwhile, man-pout specialist Filippo Andrei (Marc Porel) moons over Stella while pursuing his own ambiguous agenda.
Wending our way back to Ursula and Dagmar, they’re residing at Roberto’s hotel while they track down their estranged mother in order to make over to her a share of their late father’s estate. Beyne mère, it turns out, was a successful actress who left Beyne père for her career and the attention of numerous admirers. Quite why Ursula and Dagmar don’t establish contact with her via her agent is left unexplained.
Oh, and did I mention that Ursula has some kind of psychic gift that vacillates between precognition and telepathy depending on the requirements of the plot? Or that said gift is explained away by the hotel’s resident doctor (Giancarlo Zanetti) along the lines of “oh, something traumatic happened to her so it brought out the supernatural”?
For a film in which sod all happens apart from extended naked writhings, ‘The Sister of Ursula’ sure is heavy on backstory!
What’s that? You would like to hear more of these naked writhings of which I speak? Are you sure? Okay. Let us take as our text the old adage that if a movie features nudity with its first five minutes, it isn’t a skin flick. Because, heaven help us, even pornography has the decency to build up to the old in-out-in-out. Milioni manages three and a half minutes before Ursula and Dagmar get up to their hotel room and the latter casually disrobes. Hereafter, at intervals of roughly ten minutes, nubile subsidiary characters get nekkid and roll around on top of each other for a while, after which the female participant is brutally murdered.
Ladies and gentlemen, ‘The Sister of Ursula’.
The only surprise is that neither of the titular siblings get an honest-to-God sex scene. Dagmar almost instigates a relationship with Filippo, but then he goes chasing after Stella so Dagmar consoles herself by masturbating with a chunky necklace (which isn’t a sentence I’d ever imagined myself typing, but hey that’s gialli for you); elsewhere, she simply sashays naked around the hotel room. Barbara Magnolfi as Ursula must have had a one boob only clause in the contract because she occasionally comes awake from a nightmare only for one strap of her nightdress to slide off and one … well, you get the picture. Everyone else in the cast lets it all hang out (there’s even a glimpse of semi-tumescence from one of the gentlemen), even though none of them seem to be enjoying the proceedings in the slightest. Particularly the two teenage runaways who buy the farm after they get turned away from the hotel and seek shelter instead in a strange old folly decorated with weird sculptures: their make-out session is noted by him trying to get to the end of the scene as quickly as possible before his mum finds out what kind of film he’s making and her responding as if his technique were a guaranteed cure for insomnia. Shame really, as they’re rudely interrupted soon enough.
So. Yeah. Erm. What was I saying about Ursula having nightmares? Yes, that was it: Ursula has nightmares about her deceased father and intimates to Dagmar that she keeps seeing his ghost. None of this adds up to much narratively so in order to pad things out Filippo plods around the resort town acting suspiciously while Roberto and Vanessa have dramatic moments as if they were in a telenovela and Stella turns out to be something more than the world’s worst nightclub singer. Meanwhile a certain decorative wood carving is put to an improper use.
Ladies and gentlemen, ‘The Sister of Ursula’.
But let’s be honest, Milioni and his creative team are so obsessed with phallocentricity that even the hotel’s verandah is decked out with miniature cannons angled so rampantly that you’d think they were on the verge of spunking up over the coastline. (Didn’t imagine myself typing that sentence either.)
Is it the sleaziest giallo ever made? Quite possibly. Is it one of the worst? Indubitably? This is a film in which everyone involved gave up trying about thirty seconds before Milioni called “action” on the first day of shooting. This is a film where the killer’s eyes are always in a penumbra of shadow even when it’s broad fucking daylight. This is a film where they pull that old routine where the victim looks up startled, breathes a sigh of relief as she mutters “oh, it’s you”, then screams her lungs out as she realises that she is in danger after all … only for you to realise as the end credits roll that at no fucking previous fucking point in the fucking proceedings did she ever fucking meet the killer. This is a film in which Magnolfi – a striking presence in Argento’s ‘Suspiria’ – tries to play Ursula as moody and troubled but just ends up with film-long resting bitch face.
This is a film whose last ten minutes aren’t so much a narrative train-wreck as an out-and-out holocaust against the very concept of rail travel. A film whose producers tried to claim that the actress who played Stella Shining – Stella (as in Latin for star) fucking Shining, for fuck’s sake – was the granddaughter of Jean Harlow. Actually, given the denouement the script tries to sell the audience, that particular chunk of BS is credible plus VAT by comparison!
Wednesday, November 02, 2016
A few things about the giallo that we can probably all agree on:
1. The golden age for gialli was, give or take a year or two either side, 1967 to 1977.
2. No decade suited the eyeball-searing aesthetic of the genre and its obsession with architecture porn and set design fetishism more than the 1970s.
3. Italians owned the giallo in the same way they own grand opera, pasta dishes and spaghetti westerns.
4. Police officers in gialli are way fucking ineffectual and generally consigned to supporting roles.
Which puts us in awkward territory with ‘Amsterdamned’, which was made in 1988, preserves time-capsule-stylee everything that was hideous about said decade, was helmed by a Dutch director and features a tenacious and proficient policeman as its protagonist. Conventional wisdom would have it that ‘Amsterdamned’ is on a hiding to nothing from the outset. Let’s face it, not only is it called ‘Amsterdamned’ (which is a fucking horrible title), it’s directed by Dick Maas, the talent behind some dodgy Golden Earring videos and the ‘Flodder’ trilogy.
Well, slap me with psychedelic tulip if ‘Amsterdamned’ didn’t turn out to be a cracking thriller, properly lurid in the right places, and with a propulsive narrative that even the least convincing romantic giallo subplot this side of ‘Blood Stained Shadow’ can’t derail.
The film begins with a synth-heavy score, some heavy breathing and an extended POV sequence as someone or something navigates Amsterad’s canal system, occasionally surfacing and then slipping back into the murky waters: someone or something exploring, spying, looking for a victim. Said victim eventually suggests herself in the form of a sex worker who’s just been kicked out of a taxi for refusing to service the driver. She’s later discovered, suspended from a bridge, when a tour boat literally bumps into her corpse.
Single parent and inveterate ladies’ man Inspector Eric Visser (Huub Stapel) is given the case and does his best to proceed from one lead: a bag-lady who witnessed the killing and describes the perpetrator as “a monster”. Not much to go on, there. Another attack swiftly follows: two environmentalists clandestinely doing water tests near a sewage plant are viciously despatched. Suddenly Visser’s boss, under pressure from the mayor (himself shitting a brick at the potential negative impact on tourism), is demanding immediate results, and Visser finds himself teamed with River Police diver John van Meegeren.
Meegeren used to be involved with Visser’s wife before she upped and left him for someone else, also walking out on their teenage daughter Anneke (Tatum Dagelet). Why this backstory is so laboriously introduced is anyone’s guess, since Visser and Meegeren proceed to work together in a professional and productive manner. Indeed, it’s Meegeren who intuits that the killer is a diver himself, a deduction that sends Visser on a whistlestop tour of the city’s diving clubs. Which is how he meets Laura (Monique van de Ven).
Laura’s coping with the death of her husband via therapy from Dr Martin Ruysdael (Hidde Maas), who also serves as her consort. Ruysdael, it turns out, was a former member of this particular diving club but gave up the sport several years earlier after a diving accident that befell a close friend of his, and if that bit of information doesn’t make you prick up your ears then you haven’t seen anywhere near enough crime movies, let alone gialli.
Dick Maas establishes a good pace for the film’s procedural elements, keeping things on the boil for the first forty minutes or so (the film clocks in at just under two hours), then ups the ante with the first of a series of full-tilt and genuinely exciting chases. As ‘Amsterdamned’ progresses, Maas moves from foot chases to car/bike chases before finally cutting loose with his big set-piece: a seven-minute speedboat chase that puts the opening sequence of ‘The World is Not Enough’ utterly to shame.
And when that bit of business concludes, he immediately propels Visser into a tense bit of cat-and-mouse in the sewers, before pulling an effective (if somewhat obvious) false reveal and steering Laura into an obligatory woman-in-peril scenario. But even here, Maas has Laura make the wrong decision based on what little information she has at that point, rather than just behaving in bimbo scream-queen fashion purely because that’s what the script demands.
Indeed, Maas seems authentically engaged with character dynamics – in particular, the scenes between Visser and Anneke, all spiky back-and-forth that masks their familial affection, are a joy – and has the confidence to incorporate them without drifting into mawkishness or holding up the plot.
‘Amsterdamned’ may not offer any real surprises – there’s no earth-shaking denouement that forces a reappraisal of the film entire a la ‘Deep Red’, no melding of sleaze and dark psychology a la ‘The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh’, and no immersion in off-the-wall iconography a la ‘Footprints’ – but it remains a gripping and well-constructed example of its kind. It lays a claim to being the best giallo of the 80s, and it wouldn’t be till 2004 and Eros Puglielli’s ‘Eyes of Crystal’ that the genre hit a similar high point.