Thursday, 26 May 2011
Giallo, Krimi, Policier, pt. 1
I'm really into Italian horror movies that work more as hugely visual mood pieces than rational stories. The term Giallo is thrown often to describe this genre but actually it only covers half of the truth. Giallo, which means yellow in Italian, is originally used to describe cheap pulp novels one could get from his local piazza's newsagent. Because of the literature genre, giallo really covers also detective stories, crime and vigilantist thrillers and sexploitation besides horror. In Helsinki tehere was a brilliant retrospective of the genre in the National Film Archives. For this first post of this three-part series, I reflect on some of the thrillers and horror films I saw during the spring.
Death Laid an Egg
(a.k.a. Plucked / La morte ha fatto l'uovo, Italy/France 1968)
Director: Giulio Questi
I put the films to this post in chronological order and it seems that perhaps the most difficult and avant-garde of these films was the first to be produced. I had real trouble comprehending the plot and the content of this movie. I later found out that this was the so-called American cut of the film that is more based on the spiralling madness of a hen-house owner's husband. The Italian cut reportedly has more exposition, consumer critique and comedy. Either way, the film can hardly be said to be straight-forward. It is often psychedelic and scenes seem to have few connections to each other.
So the story seemingly is that the farm owner's husband Marco (Jean-Louis Trintignant) has real jealousy issues towards his wife, Anna (Gina Lollobrigida). He manifests this by brutally murdering prostitutes in a hotel room. Anna, not knowing of this, starts to renovate her farm to become a more efficient meat-producing plant and hiring a beautiful new secretary Gabrielle (Ewa Aulin). But they both are in grave danger when Marco begins to give more and more to his primal emotions.
All of the blood work is contrasted with the modern chicken-house where the life of feeling animals has little value anyway and the efficiency just adds up to the brutality of it all. The mutant chickens without a head or wings sadly predict pretty much where meat-processing has actually lead us to.
The stars for the film comes from me not knowing whether this is utter garbage or real art. It is not an entertaining trash-film, although it has plenty of really weird scenes. I will need to see the different cut of this film to make up my mind. It seems that it at least has a pretty humane message, which of course can balance it a bit more to the art side.
★ or ★★★★★
(A doppia faccia, Germany/Italy 1969)
Director: Riccardo Freda
Klaus Kinski, that old bastard, plays the wealthy John Alexander in his first leading role. Alexander loathes his wife Helen (Margaret Lee). However, when Helen dies in a freak accident, John is devastated. It seems someone murdered her, and John isn't sure whether it was him or not. He comes across a seedy party in Soho, where LSD is consumed and finds out there is a lesbian porn film seemingly starring his late wife. And then it seems Helen also rises from the dead. Has someone decieved him or is he really losing his mind?
Double Face has all the ingredients of an awesome movie. I could watch Kinski even cutting his toenails for an hour and a half and he does very good work here. Us viewers are kept on the edge of our seats about whether he is the film's villain or not. Thus the confusing plot structure also works fine, and the drug-parties in swinging '60s London create a fine point-in-time athmosphere. Yet the plot unravels way too slowly and there are plenty of dragging parts and repetition. There are also problems with the film's limited budget, which results in pretty visible models being used in the car crash in the beginning and the end of the end. The overall plot is a little clumsy and the actors ham it up occasionally, but that's all part of the deal, of course.
Hatchet For the Honeymoon
(Il rosso segno della follia, Italy/Spain 1969)
Director: Mario Bava
Mario Bava's filmmaking is one of the cornerstones of giallo cinema. I'm sad I didn't get a chance to see Blood and Black Lace on the big screen. The other Bava film in the retrospective was a little more modest but still a lot of fun. Bava seems to have created a Patrick Bateman-like character moe than 20 years before the publishing of American Psycho. But Bava also guarentees his anti-hero won't get away with his actions as easily.
A sadistic and narcisstic bridal gown stylist John Harrington (Stephen Forsyth) loathes his wife Mildred (Laura Batti) although she repeatedly tells him that she won't agree to file for a divorce. So, John brutally murders her as that is nothing new to him. He has made a habit of murdering brides-to-be because of a mysterious drama that keeps bugging him. But these traumas multiply by tenfold as Mildred herself still refuses to let John go and haunts him. Harrington also has the trouble of the Colombo-like Inspector Russell (Jesús Puente) always returning to ask him one more question about the death of Mildred.
The film's story is not that special as we've all seen the guilt-bothered murderer crack up a billion times before. But Bava's skills as a filmmaker can't be denied. His way of flying the camera up and down and sometimes focusing on little details, is almost worthy of Kubrick. A well-realized '60s cinematography helps a lot, too. The main actors also pull their roles very well. If the film had more of a subtext beyond its conventional story, this could be a masterpiece. Now it's just a very entertaining giallo film, but that's really all we need.
The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Over Suspicion
(Le foto proibite di una signora per bene, Italy/Spain 1970)
Director: Luciano Ercoli
This film is like a sister-piece to both Double Face and Hatchet for the Honeymoon. It stars the stylish young lady, Minou (Dagmar Lassander), who's just married the wealthy businessman Peter (Pier Paolo Capponi). She gets a blackmailing phone call that tells that Peter has killed a man and unless his demands are met, the info will leak to the police. Believing Peter to have done the deed because he was forced to, Minou tries to meet the demands and agrees to meet the caller. But the caller won't settle for a sum of money, and rapes Minou. He won't even stop calling after this, as his calls get ever more threatening and he blackmails Minou with photographs from the affair. The growing terror of the stalker getting ever more aggressive drives her to the brink of madness. Will it consume her or can she pull herself together to fight her nemesis?
Besides a growing fear and blackmail, this film is all about sex. Even for a film made in the afterglow of the swingin' 60's, it's quite progressive filmmaking. For one, it features a bisexual femme fatale Dominique, who is hinted to having been (and maybe still being) the lover of both Peter and Minou. It's just sad that the film doesn't really do anything interesting about this info but rather keeps it as a mere possibility. The female point-of-view is refreshing, but the film itself threads on a bit too familiar paths for the genre. The villains have schemed a plot that's way too similar to other earlier giallo films. But the style and cinematography as well as the snappy storytelling at least keep this interesting.
Don't Look Now
(a.k.a. Decembre rosso shocking, Italy/UK 1973)
Director: Nicholas Roeg
The most widely acclaimed film of the retrospective is without doubt Nicholas Roeg's magnum opus, which was recently selected as the best british film of all time by Time Out Magazine. Pretty good for a film half made in Italy. Personally, I love the film but don't even consider it to be Roeg's best, let alone the whole country's.
The sorrow of the death of their oldest daughter shadows the trip to Venice of John (Donald Sutherland) and Laura Baxter (Julie Christie). John is in the city for business, as he's restoring a canvas in a church. Laura meets two sweet old ladies who claim to be psychic and tell her they can see their lost daughter. But they don't bring mere happy news from the afterlife, they also have a grave warning for the couple to leave the town. Can they be trusted or why can John also see a familiar-looking little girl running around the town? And who is the mysterious serial killer wreaking havock around the town?
The film uses a lot of little, subtle things to bring out a crushingly bleak athmosphere. John and Laura don't see the beauty of the city, they only see dirt, dark tiles and evidence of death surrounding them. Laura is eager to cling on to any sort of shred of hope as John tries to maintain a rational facade. The couple is drifting apart by this even though they themselves may not realize it. It is also evident in the famous sex scene, which is cross-cut with the couple already dressing up. It is a film that has inspired countless filmmakers from its striking visual world to the thematics (Von Trier's Antichrist reheats many of the themes). Plus, it has a whopper of an ending. a true classic.
The House With The Laughing Windows
(La casa dalle finestre che ridono, Italy 1976)
Director: Pupi Avati
The most perfect giallo experiment from the films of the retrospective was this masterpiece by the Italian director Giuseppe "Pupi" Avati, who is most known for his teen films and screenwriting work. In fact, Avati contributed to the script of the all-round outrageous film Saló, or the 120 Days of Sodom. The same kind of blasphemy and turning conventional and familiar customs to twisted obscenities. The Catholic imagery and ethos in particular is on line to be demolished by Avati's film.
The young art expert Stefano (Lino Capolicchio) is summoned to a small Italian town to restore an old fresco of Saint Sebastian. He is told that the original fresco was the work of a raging lunatic. He most often liked to paint mages of peope in agony or about to die, yet is long dead by this point. Stefano stays at the house of the artist's two sisters. This legend seems to come to life as more and more villagers are brutally killed. Stefano and his girlfriend Francesca (Francesca Marino) must find out the truth before they're next in line.
The film is one of those delirious films that have an imagery that seemingly mixes truth and reality. The athmosphere creeps in slowly and slowly yet keeps the viewer interested enough to be on the edge of his seat for the whole duration of the film. It achieves quite a lot with very little bloody effects or such that other Italian directors spur excessive amounts in their films. The cinematography of House also utilizes the violence in old icons depicting the violent deaths of various saints. However, the film keeps its best surprises to the final moments where the madness really overcomes. Some imagery won't leave the viewer for weeks.
Director: Dario Argento
The works of Dario Argento are of course essential to giallo. This retrospective focused on two pieces from his silver age in the early- to mid-80's. I will look at some of his earlier works in other parts of this series. Tenebre, however should be put in its place at the point in Argento's career, where he's becoming self-conscious about his direction. It is a story about a brutal serial killer running loose in Rome, in which Argento has placed a lot of self-observed viewpoints to his own life and perhaps an alter-ego as well. The killer seemingly bases all of his murders on the works of a popular horror novelist Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa). When Neal arrives in Rome for the publicity tour for his latest novel, the killer begins to taunt him and to pull him into the investigation.
As is appropriate for many of Argento's film, Tenebre is absolutely brutal, yet at the same time gorgeously beatifully shot. The fine film print also emphasizes all the stark color schemes and the terrible imagery. Tenebre is not one of Argento's haunting masterpieces, and doesn't play with mood or expectation as much as it could. Anyway, it is a very good slasher that has a neat enough twist.
The New York Ripper
(Lo squartatore di New York, Italy 1982)
Director: Lucio Fulci
Every good retrospective should have one film by Lucio Fulci, but not one more. His films are not consistent or in any way rational, but unlike Argento or Bava, he really can't create a threat-filled athmosphere but rather likes to play with excessive amounts of gore. New York Ripper is one of his most notorious films.
The film follows Lt. Fred Williams, a burnt-out cop who likes prostitutes. He's facing the challenge of a lifetime as a weird murderer starts offing young girls in New York and making phone calls talking with a Donald Duck voice.
The film's New York is clearly the same as in Taxi Driver, so it's filled with filth and scum. Even the police aren't above this, but are still a million times better than the twisted maniacs that stalk the streets. Fulci does have one or two fine-looking scenes but mostly the film is just dire guessing of who the serial killer might be or nastily violent kills. Only for gorehounds.
Director: Dario Argento
I've had a soft spot in my heart for Phenomena ever since I first saw it on TV years ago. As those were the early days of digital broadcasting, the subtitles didn't work, but I watched the whole thing in Italian anyway. And as many know, in Argento's films the plot or dialogue is often insignificant. And none more than in this, an operatic sendoff to his most prolific and masterful giallo era.
If the plot does interest someone, it involves the young Jennifer (Jennifer Connelly), a new student in a ballet school in Switzerland. Jennifer doesn't get along with her classmates very well and feels more akin to the insect kingdom. She also befriends the wheelchari-bound professor John McGregor (Donald Pleasance) living nearby. McGregor has been assisting the police investigating a series of murders that have happened nearby with his knowledge of the insect larvae. He encourages Jennifer to also look into the mystery as she seems to have a supernatural power of controlling the insects by her will. But will even that be enough to protect her from the murderer?
Phenomena is one of the most dividing films in Argento's career. Most arguments against the film pick up the film's score as a complain. For such an athmospheric mood-piece that even begins with a sole image of the wind gushing in the countryside treetops, Phenomena uses a lot of heavy metal in its soundtrack. Personally, I think it is kind of kick ass, and more often strenghtens the delirious athmosphere, rather than wrecks it. In addition to Iron Maiden and Motörhead, the film also has probably the best theme of all time, by Goblin and Claudio Simonetti:
Nothing makes much sense in Phenomena, but it is a sort of stream of consciousness film. Thus it has such memorable imagery as a chimp wielding a razor blade, a bath with rotting corpses full of maggots, and of course the murderer himself, which I won't spoil here. Suffice to say, some good ideas seem to go round in the giallo circle and come back even more twisted and weird as before. This is a good place to stop and start waiting for the next installment. Pleasant dreams!