Format: Cinema Director: Stefan Ruzowitzky Writer: Martin Ambrosch Cast: Violetta Schurawlow, Tobias Moretti, Sammy Sheik, Friedrich von Thun, Verena Altenberger, Robert Palfrader Original tile: Die Hölle
Austria, Germany 2017
Giallo comes to Austria in this super creepy, densely layered and politically/sociologically charged film.
After a long, hard night driving hack on the meaner streets of Vienna, Özge (Violetta Schurawlow) is greeted by a foul odour wafting through her apartment. It’s not like she has an overly sensitive olfactory system, but rather, the stench involves burning flesh, chemicals and plenty of spilled, boiled blood. Yes, she is witness to an especially brutal murder. And the handsome killer (Sammy Sheik) knows she’s seen his face. He knows who she is and he wants her dead. But when he eventually slaughters someone near and dear to our heroine, the tables will turn. Özge, a deadly, rage-infused kickboxer (I kid you not!) wants him dead.
Death Walks on High Heels Writers: Ernesto Gastaldi, Mahnahén Velasco (as May Flood), Dino Verde
Cast: Frank Wolff, Nieves Navarro, Simón Andreu
Original Title:La morte cammina con i tacchi alti
Italy, Spain 1971
Death Walks at Midnight Writers: Sergio Corbucci, Ernesto Gastaldi, Guido Leoni, Mahnahén Velasco (as May Flood)
Cast: Nieves Navarro, Simón Andreu, Pietro Martellanza
Original Title:La morte cammina con i tacchi alti
Italy, Spain 1972
Hallucinations, deadly mediaeval gloves and make-up fetish are the marks of Luciano Ercoli’s entertaining giallo double bill.
This typically lavish Arrow BluRay/DVD box set collects two gialli from director Luciano Ercoli, following up his genre debut, Le foto proibite di una signora per bene (The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion, 1970) with a matched pair of mysteries built around leading lady Susan Scott (aka Nieves Navarro) and more or less the same supporting cast (though the heroine has a different duplicitous love interest in each film).
In La morte cammina con i tacchi alti (Death Walks on High Heels, 1971), Paris-based stripper Nicole (Scott) suspects her useless layabout lover Michel (Simón Andreu) has donned blue contact lenses and a black ski-mask to terrorise her with a straight razor in an attempt to get his hands on some diamonds everyone thinks her murdered jewel thief father left with her. Nicole hooks up with eye surgeon Dr Robert Matthews (Frank Wolff), a fan-cum-stalker who whisks her off to a strange version of the British seaside with pub gossips (including a one-handed handyman with a secret fetish), an ice-delivering fish vendor (crucial plot point), voyeur neighbours and more murderous attacks.
In La morte accarezza a mezzanotte (Death Walks at Midnight/Cry Out in Terror, 1972), Milan-based model Valentina (Scott), duped into taking hallucinogen HDS by her sleazy photojourno pal Gio (Andreu), has a vision of a girl being murdered with a spiked mediaeval glove in the surreally empty apartment across the way. Later, it turns out she’s described a six-month-old crime which has already been solved. The heroine’s alternately sensitive and vicious sculptor boyfriend (Pietro Martellanza/Peter Martell), a desperate widow (Claudie Lange), another sinister doctor (Ivano Staccioli), some hippies and a pair of nasty drug dealers cloud the issue, and Valentina is further imperilled. In both films, Carlo Gentili plays an affably unconcerned police inspector who turns up after every violent outbreak to puzzle things out – though Ercoli prefers to resolve mysteries with shock revelations, sudden attacks, punch-ups (sound effects make fist-blows sound like planks of wood snapping) and rooftop chases.
As in many gialli, the bizarre trappings – weird weaponry, hallucinations, masked heavy-breathers, burbling lounge music, fabulously garish fashions and decors, bursts of ultra-violence – litter plots which turn out to be indecently fixated on money rather than mania. It’s all about the stolen diamonds… or the smuggled drugs. Except, of course, it’s not: these films are memorable because of everything else, and resemble fractured mash-ups of Edgar Wallace Presents programmers with post-Blow-Up swinging psychedelia. Some of the extraordinary frills are so ludicrous as to be almost transgressive – like Nicole’s black-face stripping act in High Heels, which prompts a fetish sex scene as her boyfriend is turned on by wiping off her body make-up.
The vision of a soulless, exploitative modern world revolving around poor, abused Navarro/Scott is cartoonish. Seemingly every man in these films is useless or evil, and both movies eventually despair of masculinity so much that the guy we initially take to be the most repulsive (played by Andreu) is positioned by default as the hero. The scripts – by Ernesto Gastaldi and May Flood from stories by Dino Verde and Sergio Corbucci – feel like several drafts patched together by collaborators who never met (High Heels has a mid-film twist that At Midnight acknowledges as a misstep by not repeating) but Ercoli ringmasters the material for maximum entertainment. Odd funny touches and lines (‘Inspector, he’s a bit less fuddled now’) alleviate the sourness of the genre’s habitual cynicism – so these are among the jolliest, least downerific gialli. When Bava or Argento batter or slice victims’ faces in close-up, you flinch… when Ercoli does it, you can tell he doesn’t mean any harm, really.
Cast: Helmut Berger, Giancarlo Sbragia, Ida Galli, Silvano Tranquilli, Wendy D’Olive, Gunther Stoll, Carole André
Original title:Una farfalla con le ali insanguinate
Duccio Tessari’s stylish murder-mystery is a forgotten, unusually complex gem of giallo cinema.
A most unusual entry in the giallo cannon of explicit murder-mystery thrillers, this very fine courtroom whodunit – delivered in its entirety for this glorious restoration – boasts a breakout turn from German import Helmut Berger, here cast as a wealthy businessman’s son with women on the mind.
The action begins in classic giallo fashion: a girl is murdered while out walking by an unseen assailant with a knife. Witnesses soon identify the apparent killer: well-known sports TV personality Alessandro Marchi (Giancarlo Sbragia). But the trial soon throws up more questions than it answers, particularly when we see that the accused and his legal team know more than they are willing to let on. Before long, the murders resume, and the accused is out on bail.
Tessari’s handsomely photographed film – the framing and texture of the Bergamo locations is exquisite – shies away from gratuitous violence (very little blood is actually spilt) and the trademark giallo eroticism, despite some soft-focus nudity. Even the requisite animal, a butterfly, of all things, is modest by giallo standards.
The wealthy are typically up to no good, of course (two lecherous middle-aged men salivating over teenagers being a case in point), with the ever-diligent police always a few steps behind. A running gag about undrinkable coffee (from a machine!) is a nice touch. A generous amount of detail over police forensics, quaint by modern standards, adds some gravity to proceedings. The opening sequence (cut from the original in several territories) introduces a fine cast with colourful precision.
Some typically Italian flourishes will inevitably raise eyebrows, particularly the access a television crew appears to have to the crime scene (filming right next to the victim’s body, no less). The director’s cameos, complete with carnations, and his wife’s casting as a key player complete a series of in-the-know gags.
Casting well-known Italian faces and a clutch of German imports, Tessari finds time to pass comment on the ethics of money in sports, while all around the faint hangover of the 1960s lingers in the air. These characters are far too nattily dressed to be leaning towards counterculture (we are near Milan, after all), but there is sufficient subversive content to keep our minds engaged. The recent Blow-Up was an obvious influence on Tessari. Interesting, too, to note some brightly coloured macs early on, which predate Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now by a year or more.
A forgotten, unusually complex gem of giallo cinema, this welcome reissue by Arrow Video comes complete with interviews with some of the key cast, essays on the film, a pair of commentaries and photo galleries.
Cast: William Berger, Ira von Fürstenberg, Edwige Fenech
Original title:5 bambole per la luna d’agosto
A stylish but minor entry in the Mario Bava oeuvre with an Agatha Christie-type set-up.
Following a week long Mario Bava marathon, I approached Five Dolls for an August Moon with some trepidation for two reasons. First of all the cost that I and my family personally paid for the marathon had been brutal and bloody. Secondly Mario Bava himself hated the film, considering it one of his worst movies. For a director to be so forceful in his objections makes the potential viewer pause, but it must be done.
The premise is something out of Agatha Christie. On a remote island businessman George Stark (Teodor Corrà) has gathered a group of people together for a weekend of business and pleasure. Professor Gerry Farrell (William Berger) is a scientist whose new formula is the secret motive for the gathering and who will inveighed upon to sell it to George or perhaps his treacherous partner Nick (Maurice Poli from Rabid Dogs). Adding to the industrial intrigue, there’s also sexual shenanigans afoot as Farrell and Stark’s wives, Trudy (Ira von Fürstenberg) and Jill (Edith Meloni) are having an affair. Nick’s wife Marie (Edwige Fenech) is openly dallying with the manservant Charles (Mauro Bosco). Among this bohemian mélange only Jack (Renato Rossini) and his wife Peggy (Helene Ronee) are on an even keel, but the ingénue Isabelle (Justine Gall) stalks the house, a wide-eyed voyeur to the goings-on.
Following a jokey satanic ritual – only Bava would attempt such a red herring – the killings begin at a fair clip. There’s nothing particularly inventive about the kills – quite a few of the victims just get shot! – and the pace of the film doesn’t allow for much in the way of atmosphere. With Antonio Rinaldi’s brightly lit camerawork Bava replaces his mist-laced Gothic piles with postmodern kitsch and a swingy careless ease. The blistering rock soundtrack that punctuates proceedings with blaring guitars lends the film a great 70s feel but does little to promote dread in the viewer. If there were a few jokes, the film could almost be taken as a parody of the giallo genre that Bava inadvertently launched. The plot twists in a way that is so confusing as to be not so much surprising as dumbfounding, and some of the production feels genuinely rushed and slapdash. Bloodless bullet wounds and smokeless gunshots, fiendish plots that make very little sense, a title that seems utterly irrelevant and characters who are barely set up before being summarily dispatched. On the plus side, it is short at just over 80 minutes and an occasional shot will impress – glass balls cascade down a staircase like a pram down the Odessa Steps in one particularly well taken sequence. However, if you’ve never seen a Mario Bava film before I would point you towards several other films before arriving at this self-confessedly minor work.
A rambling title is often a reflection of a rambling narrative; it can indicate either ambition or indecisiveness. There is a reason these long-winded titles proliferated in the late 60s and early 70s – things like William Klein’s Who Are You, Polly Magoo? (1966), Peter Whitehead’s Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London (1967), Anthony Newley’s Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? (1969), Ulu Grosbard’s Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things about Me? (1971) and Paul Williams’s Dealing: Or the Berkeley-to-Boston Forty-Brick Lost-Bag Blues (1972), not to mention a slew of Italian giallo films. All of these films have a zig-zagging sense of aimlessness and leisure, a cultural urge to ‘be here now’ that can be alternately transcendent or masturbatory, depending on the film (or the viewer). Underground and commercial cinema alike at this time were quilted with countercultural concerns, sensibilities, techniques and aesthetics – the writing of the Beats, the mobilization of protest movements, the ubiquity of pop stars, the street use of LSD, Timothy Leary’s urge to tune in, turn on, drop out (it’s also telling that many of these film titles come in the form of a question). The mainstream increasingly appropriated the signifiers of the avant-garde in an attempt to woo an exploding youth market (as well as that demographic keen to hang on to their youth for dear life), and in this climate, a title like Microscopic Liquid Subway to Oblivion was likely enough to sell a producer on a project. By the 1970s, when even squares lined up to see Deep Throat in the cinema, it was often hard to tell who was the real deal and who was exploiting the convenience of a double standard. As J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum said in their book Midnight Movies (1983), ‘the counterculture cash-in peaked in 1970’, and the Italian production Microscopic Liquid Subway to Oblivion is one of many films to tap into that zeitgeist.
But for a film whose title references a narcotic trip, it is surprisingly bereft of any real lysergic sensibility; the opening credits (cropped as they were, from a Greek-subtitled ETC bootleg) are among its few moments of visual experimentation, with psychedelic colour splashes, jarring sonic shifts and fish-eyed shots of Eurotrash starlet Ewa Aulin grooving in slow motion to the tone-deaf eponymous theme tune, sung by Ronnie Jones and penned by director John Shadow – a mysterious figure in the cult film pantheon.
Repeated use of oppressive lighting underscores the predatory nature of John, a tenured college professor (Alex Rebar, later to star in The Incredible Melting Man) who feels his school’s reputation is threatened by rampant drug use among its students, namely the delinquent heroin addict Billy (Italian horror staple Carlo De Mejo, almost unrecognizable without his beard). After a fellow teacher leaps to his death, supposedly under the influence of drugs, John enlists the help of nerdy student Henry (Eugene Pomeroy) to lure Billy into isolation at the professor’s Italian villa with a plan to dry him out. John’s young, subservient wife Elizabeth (Ewa Aulin) is not too keen on sharing her vacation with a heroin addict, but the professor reprimands her for being selfish when ‘that boy’s under the grip of a deadly neurosis!’ John relishes his privileged position as the boy’s saviour, to such an extent that he’s willing to subject his impressionable wife to the druggie’s charms; it only has to be merely suggested to her that she try a shot, and she’s immediately a sweaty, shivering addict. So now John and Henry have two addicts on their hands.
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The professor uses every opportunity to torment Billy, and also manipulates Henry, appealing to his loyalty by referring to him as ‘a peer’. But eventually the tables are turned on John as the doped-up Billy mocks his masculinity: ‘Elizabeth, have you ever seen your husband’s penis?’ Under the influence of freshly administered heroin, Elizabeth is liberated, theatrical and aggressive. But while in her stateside breakout film Candy (1968) Aulin’s vacuity was perfectly suited to the part of angelic naïf, here it just seems an embarrassing put-on. The stoic professor’s motto – ‘no emotion!’ – will be tested throughout the film as his experiment veers out of control.
Microscopic Liquid Subway to Oblivion posits itself as a counterculture film, thinking that its parade of non-sequiturs somehow aligns it with the existential kookiness of Bob Rafelson’s Head (1968), the swingin’ free love space-out of Joe Massot’s Wonderwall (1968), the inverted suspense of Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) and Volker Schlöndorff’s A Degree of Murder (1967) as well as various AIP youth-in-revolt and drug films. Unfortunately it succeeds at assimilating none of the qualities that make these films stand out, and instead seems a schizophrenic, somewhat inept cadavre exquis. There is a great sense of temporal dislocation (which is not helped by an unexplored subplot involving some hippies camped out nearby). But as Jonny Redman of cult film site lovelockandload.com has suggested, there is the distinct impression that the film was unfinished.
Aside from its tongue-twisting title, one thing that keeps Microscopic Liquid Subway to Oblivion in the history books is the ongoing mystery about who directed it, and where (and if) it was ever widely released. Although it is credited to John W. Shadow on screen, some have maintained that this is a pseudonym of producer Roberto Loyola, whose eclectic roster also included Sergio Corbucci’s goofy Western Sonny and Jed, Mario Bava’s claustrophobic crime film Rabid Dogs, and the Decamerotic sex comedy Canterbury No 2. The latter (which also stars Microscopic Liquid Subway to Oblivion’s Alex Rebar) is credited to director John Shadow, but it has been argued that the name was a pseudonym for Aristide Massacesi, best known as Joe D’Amato. The name John Shadow resurfaces again as the screenwriter of Juan Piquer Simón’s Pieces, also long assumed to be Joe D’Amato.
But a look through the newspapers surrounding Ewa Aulin’s brief fling with fame following the sensational Candy reveals John Shadow to be not only a real person, but married to Aulin from approximately 1968 to 1972. Actor Eugene Pomeroy, one of many young British expats working in Italian cinema at the time, remembers calling the director ‘John’ on set, although he too was confused about whether this John Shadow and producer Roberto Loyola were the same person . Without being able to pinpoint who John Shadow was, it is difficult to discern what may have happened to the film – which appears to have only ever been released on Greek video – and why the narrative’s many tangents are left dangling.
Despite featuring no murder set-pieces, the film nevertheless wound up in the giallo files by association; the giallo tended to be a playpen for all manner of visual and moral excess, and not only was drug abuse one of its staples, but Aulin had appeared in Giulio Questi’s head-scratching 1968 art-giallo Death Laid an Egg (and would later appear in Romolo Guerrieri’s 1971 The Double). Ultimately, the film defies categorization, living on only through its superficial ties to other various sensational subgenres, refusing to follow through on any single element – drugs, music, sexual liberation – that would make its content live up to the countercultural promise of its spectacular title.
(who adores interminable sentences and whose catalogue boasts a convoluted title of its own: House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films (FAB Press, 2012). For more information and to pre-order a special limited edition hardback published in May 2014, visit the Fab press website.
Cast: Heather Page, Bill Douglas, Joanna David, Nickolas Grace
It’s 1984, and somewhere in England there is a rain-lashed, crumbling house called Albion where the Britains live. Marion (Heather Page) and Alex (Bill Douglas) are a pair of siblings whose already fractious relationship is clearly tested further by the power cuts, leakages and broken windows inflicted on their inherited property. They are visited by the Paradises, Angela (Joanna David) and Richard (Nickolas Grace); he’s an utterly appalling yuppie type given to cracking AIDS gags, she’s a bit of a doormat enduring his hot-and-cold running abuse. Richard and the ineffectual, leftish Alex take an instant dislike to each other and so follows an excruciating drunken evening of unbridled hostility and resentment, with Marion taking the opportunity to aim various digs at her brother (‘he’s not a writer, he’s a translator… writers have style’), also revealing that he once tried to strangle her in his sleep. After an uncomfortable meal at a restaurant, the quartet return to Albion where relations deteriorate further. They all go to bed. And then things get nasty…
Saxon Logan’s Sleepwalker (1984) is genuinely odd, and remains so after repeat viewings. A 50-minute-long state of the nation, four-hander play whose genes have been spliced with a stylised giallo slasher. It’s full of overt symbology, the characters are clearly archetypes, the performances are exaggerated, and given this, one might expect Sleepwalker to hit its viewers over the head with a well telegraphed message, but it’s a bit slippier than that. The doomy synth chords and Bava/Argento gel shots (and blimey, there’s a lot of blue here) suggest one type of cinema; the intricate emotional dynamics, political wrangling and oneiric imagery suggest another. The result is disquieting and elusive. A card at the end of the credits reads ‘this film is dedicated to imperfect cinema’, which seems accurate. There’s something not quite right about Sleepwalker, which, as I write this, makes me want to see it again
The BFI disc of Saxon Logan’s film is part of its Flipside line, a treasure trove of vintage British weirdness. It comes with a lengthy, and ultimately moving, interview with the director, plus the two short films he made before Sleepwalker, which are witty and visually inventive, and suggest, once again, that Britain tends to squander and ignore its singular talents. Logan had the good fortune to work as Lindsay Anderson’s assistant on O Lucky Man!, and the bad luck to emerge as a filmmaker just as the UK industry entered one of its most barren and moribund phases. He recounts in the interview a painful screening of Sleepwalker for Rank distribution executives, in which his film, which had been received with enthusiasm and a Special Jury Prize at the Berlin Film Festival, was met with disapproving bafflement. He moved into documentaries. And it looks like we missed out on some idiosyncratic cinema.
Also on the disc is Rodney Giesler’s The Insomniac, a delightful 45-minute curiosity from 1971, wherein an everyday working stiff (Morris Perry) achieves a kind of freedom in a sunlit, nocturnal dreamworld, including some X-certificate loving with Carry On starlet Valerie Van Ost, before reality rears its ugly head. Great stuff.
Writers: Mario Bava, Alberto Bevilacqua, Marcello Fondato (screenplay)
Based on short stories by: F.G. Snyder, Ivan Chekhov, and A.K. Tolstoy
Original title:I tre volti della paura
Cast: Michèle Mercier, Lidia Alfonsi, Boris Karloff, Mark Damon
Italy, UK, France 1963
Arrow Video has been steadily building an impressive collection of genre restorations, including maestro Mario Bava’s most successful film, Baron Blood (1972), as well as his earlier anthology film Black Sabbath, which is made up of three short stories, each one showcasing a different subgenre of horror. In the first episode, The Telephone, a young prostitute is terrorised by some nasty phone calls, while supernatural terror hounds the conscience of a nurse who steals a piece of jewellery from the corpse of her employers in A Drop of Water. The final part, The Wurdalak, is a beautiful piece of gothic horror, starring Boris Karloff as a father who, upon his return to his family, may be more than what he seems.
The joy of seeing Black Sabbath in such a beautiful condition is unparalleled: it is one of the director’s most visually alluring films and the gorgeous colours in eye-popping Technicolor really bring forth the quality of Bava’s imagination. Although the stories can seem uneven, he demonstrates a technical deftness that shines throughout. It’s also incredibly entertaining to see the master skilfully switching styles: comparing the gothic horrors of The Wurdalak with the giallo sleaze of The Telephone shows how versatile a director Bava was.
Presented here in two different restored versions, the original Italian cut and the AIP version, it has to be said that the Italian cut is the better looking of the two. The print is struck with solid rich colours, as vibrant as Bava would have arranged them, with fantastic definition throughout. Although there’s some heavy grain in some of the uncontrolled exterior shots, this is far preferable to hideous digital fixing which seems to plague a lot of the current crop of releases. There’s also some minor print damage apparent as well as some film movement – however, again, this would have looked far worse had Arrow tried to fix that digitally. In fact, these are minor complaints in what is otherwise a gorgeous looking print that’s incredibly respectful of what Bava would have probably desired for the overall look of the film. In contrast, the AIP version of the film has a lighter tone – with the score re-mixed and featuring alternate introductions from Karloff, it serves more as an interesting historical viewpoint: an alternative angle through which to examine the film.
The extras are also compelling: Twice The Fear is a comparative featurette that covers the difference between the two versions of the film in split screen – informative and well presented, it is a terrific addition to the disc. The interview with Mark Damon sheds light on the career of the actor and especially his time with Bava, though finding out more on his involvement with Roger Corman on the Poe adaptations also makes for interesting and engaging material. The trailers, TV and radio spots, albeit slight, certainly enhance the overall experience. It’s a joy to be able to view these materials so long after the release of the film, while Alan Jones’s introduction is informative and well-presented, giving the viewer a sense of what to come. All in all, this is a must-purchase release that should be on the shopping list of most film lovers.
Writers: Mario Bava, Alberto Cittini, Alfredo Leone, Giorgio Maulini, Romano Migiorini, Roberto Natale, Francesca Rusishka
Original title:Lisa e il diavolo
Cast: Telly Savalas, Elke Sommer, Alessio Orano, Alida Valli
In all of Mario Bava’s weird career, there may be nothing as peculiar as Lisa and the Devil, his 1974 fantasy starring Elke Sommer and Telly Savalas, and the project’s history is as bizarre as the experience of watching it.
Bava had bounced back from late-career doldrums with the Gothic hit Baron Blood (1972) and that film’s producer, Alfredo Leone, offered him the chance to do whatever he wanted: a poisoned chalice few filmmakers can resist. Bava knew enough to stick to the horror genre: his recent sex comedy (Four Times That Night, 1972) and Western (Roy Colt and Winchester Jack, 1970) had been interesting divertissements, but didn’t really allow him room for the full-on delirium of his best work.
Bava’s recent work in the giallo field he practically invented, the wonderfully titled Five Dolls for an August Moon (1970), had shown less interest in inventive and bloody homicide, and more in chic interiors and glamour. Hatchet for the Honeymoon, the same year, was nastier, but impressed mainly by the sheer craziness of its plot, which leaves the audience bewildered and frustrated almost to the last frame. Lisa would be an attempt to take that derangement even further…
Essentially a dream-film, it plucks its tourist heroine, Sommer, from her Spanish package holiday and strands her at an eerily out-of-time villa, where Telly Savalas may be Satan, collecting the souls of the dead, and both necrophilia and serial murder may be part of the evening’s entertainment. Though it features a hammer attack so vicious that it was trimmed in Italy (the only country where the film saw release), the movie is far less interested in killing than in disorientation, kitsch surrealist beauty, off-kilter humour and throwing together a lot of weird elements. At times it’s as if Bava had set himself the game of confusing matters so thoroughly that no coherent outcome is possible; then he manages a last-minute expository splurge that more or less tidies away the more radiant red herrings; and then he decides he has a few minutes left and uses them to gleefully screw the whole affair up beyond all chance of recovery.
The necrophilia subplot leads to one of the strangest scenes not only in Bava’s scrambled oeuvre, but in all of cinema, as badly listing dreamboat Alessio Orano tries to molest a drugged Sommer, his decomposing former love arranged in rotting fragments on an adjacent bed. Finally, despite the plangent musical accompaniment, he screams at the deceased, ‘I can’t, while you’re there!’ One can see his point, though perhaps shovelling up the remains before attempting date-rape would have improved the odds of carrying the whole thing off without a hitch.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Bava’s oneiric labyrinth of severed plotlines struggled to find distribution: The Exorcist had just come out, and the market was not hungry for a mixture of Alice in Wonderland and The Exterminating Angel. Leone took desperate measures, re-titling the film House of Exorcism and adding an embarrassment of new footage in which Sommer vomited pea soup at guest star Robert Alda.
Happily, Lisa and the Devil is now appreciated for the demented, soft-focus, Spanish-guitar-inflected masterpiece it is, and Leone’s commercially minded revision is reduced to the status of extra on Arrow Film’s new Blu-ray. It’s a welcome addition: devoid of artistic merit in its own right, the garbled re-edit adds yet another layer of weirdness to a truly odd film: it’s like an alternative pathway through Bava’s world, where one minute we’re in his Gothic hallucination, and then we round a corner and find a whole different scene that was never there before. It’s like walking through an idiot’s dream about a genius’s dream.
Writers: Ennio De Concini, Mario Serandrei, Mario Bava, Marcello Coscia
Based on the short story ‘Viy’ by: Nikolaj Gogol
Original title:La maschera del demonio
Cast: Barbara Steele, John Richardson, Andrea Checchi
Mario Bava was not only a clever genre specialist, but one who helped kick-start nearly every commercial genre in Italy in the 50s and 60s with the exceptions of the Spaghetti Western and the sex comedy, though he eventually did those too. He photographed (and part directed) I Vampiri, the first real Italian horror film, and Caltiki the Immortal Monster, a science fiction monster movie. He also shot Hercules, the first of the mythic muscleman epics of its day. His Blood and Black Lace (aka Six Women for the Murderer) is arguably the first true giallo movie, or at least the one that crystallised the various elements of the genre into a single film. And Black Sunday, aka The Mask of Satan, began the tradition of supernatural Gothic horror than ran luridly amuck over Italian, and then international screens throughout the 60s.
Following the success of Hammer’s Dracula, Bava (working as director and cinematographer) took a less famous literary source, Nikolai Gogol’s ‘Viy’, which he and his screenwriters adapted pretty freely, slathering it in morbid and sadistic imagery. Filming in black and white, Bava pays more attention to grotty or dribbly textures than his English precursors, with bubbling fluids around a freshly branded letter S in leading lady Barbara Steele’s back, the waxy, eyeless visage of her corpse, crawling with tiny scorpions, and the pale, viscous blood/paint that slowly drops from a glinting shard of glass…
Steele is the film’s star twice over, playing the innocent heroine and her vampiric ancestor. A graduate of art college and the Rank Charm School, she spent the early 60s filming in Italy, her native land having proved incapable of recognising the potential of her porcelain features and huge heavy-lidded eyes. The most important eyes in horror cinema since Karloff’s – augmented by Bava with lighting tricks and special effects, even replaced at one point by a pair of poached eggs!
As a jobbing filmmaker, Bava could make good use of available locations, but he excelled at studio work where he could absolutely control the lighting and create wholly artificial worlds. Black Sunday’s Moldavian countryside is almost entirely artificial, alternating between spacious, ornate interiors and exteriors that sometimes barely exist apart from foreground twigs and dry ice fumes – and Bava’s atmospheric lighting.
Though not notably sophisticated as a piece of screenwriting – his films generally rely more on lighting, composition, movement, sound and design, rather than dialogue or acting – Bava’s first movie as sole director shows his wide cinematic knowledge, visually quoting everything from White Zombie to David Lean’s Oliver Twist and Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (crossed with Jacques Tourneur’s The Leopard Man). He also layers the film with visual motifs and rhymes, deploying eyes, windows, reflections, and long, tense right-to-left pans, which sometimes come full circle to their point of origin, Bava’s crew presumably crouching on the floor to stay out of shot, or else trotting around the camera ahead of the advancing lens.
While Bava’s films don’t usually scare me much, the wandering corpse in Black Sabbath, popping up everywhere like Droopy, frightens the blue Jesus out of me, and there’s a sudden transformation from child to zombie in his last film, Shock, accomplished without any special effects, which caused me to leave fingerprints in the cat. Black Sunday strikes me as more pleasurably Halloweeny, spooky and fun and gorgeously eerie, with just enough sheer nastiness to give it a slight edge.
Arrow’s sumptuous Blu-ray comes with intros, interviews, commentary by Bava scholar Tim Lucas, and a whole movie as extra: the aforementioned I Vampiri, a testing ground for some of the tricks Bava perfected in Black Sunday. It’s quite a package.
Cast: Axel Jodorowsky, Blanca Guerra, Guy Stockwell
Largely vanished from the cinema scene after his late-night classics El Topo and The Holy Mountain, Alejandro Jodorowsky made a surprise return in 1989 that attempted to marry the director’s visionary, Felliniesque excess to the dying giallo genre (Claudio Argento, brother of Dario, was producer and co-writer).
The director’s son, Axel (it’s a family affair), plays Fenix, son of circus artistes who, in childhood (where he’s played by Adan, another Jodorowsky offspring) witnesses a horrific incident in which his knife-thrower father, cheating on mum with the tattooed lady, is castrated with a bottle of acid and takes bloody revenge, hacking off her arms before cutting his own throat.
Confined to an insane asylum until he reaches adulthood (he thinks he’s a bird so they kindly provide him with a perch), Fenix is released to the care of his armless mother, and forms a symbiotic relationship with her, becoming her arms not only in the mime act they perform (based on an old routine originally developed for Marcel Marceau), but also in private life. When this extends to murdering any woman who threatens the maternal bond, the stage is set for either tragedy or redemption, since Fenix is motivated not just by twisted mother-love and misogyny but by finer feelings too, notably his childhood love for a mute girl, Alma.
Promoted with the apt slogan ‘Forget everything you have ever seen’, Jodorowsky’s film takes no prisoners, except maybe for purposes of torture. The circus scenes eat up much of the narrative, so that when the psycho-thriller action begins it feels like a new movie erupting from the ashes of the old, but this allows the Chilean maniac to serve up set-pieces like the elephant’s funeral (with black-clad clowns squirting tears) and wallow in his own perversity to considerable impact.
Overheated performances, with almost everyone speaking heavily-accented English, combine with some ridiculous moments to make this a film that doesn’t walk any consistent line tonally. Entranced by a sexy strongwoman (in reality a he-man with plastic bosoms), Fenix finds himself wrestling a python. The python is his penis, get it? Operatic emotion bashes against Cocteau-esque fantasy and blood-drenched violence, with bursts of tinted lighting evoking Bava or Argento. If you simply surrender to the ride, this needn’t be a problem.
What might trouble you more is the director’s love for decorating the action with physical oddities: the fat lady and the one-eared man are particularly gratuitous, but merely the tip of a malformed iceberg. Fellini is certainly an influence, but no doubt Jodorowsky comes by his obsessions honestly. The only question is, is he exploiting his subjects like a carnival showman, or collaborating with them as artists? Probably both.
The film is about misogyny, on one level. Jodorowsky cheerfully confesses to this disease, and says the film cured him of it. Again, one can doubt whether the movie is at all times an examination of the vice or an indulgence of it. One spectacular showpiece murder, scored with upbeat Latin rhythms, certainly veers into very murky, blood-slicked terrain, and the victim is portrayed variously as a malevolent harridan, temptress and collection of obscene poses and body parts, so the film has some furious back-pedalling to do to avoid simply coming across as hate-porn.
But for all that, it does something practically no giallo delivers: an interrogation of the psychology behind the films of woman murder. Often giallos reveal a female killer at the end, as if to derail examination of the filmmaker’s motives: ‘This isn’t about my misogyny, it’s about women’s.’ Despite knifing fictional women for decades in his films, Dario Argento still seems disinclined to consider why he is so drawn to such imagery. Not that I necessarily want to condemn it, but I’d like to understand it.
Well, Santa Sangre at first blames a castrating, woman-hating woman for the murders it so gleefully depicts. But the ending, which I won’t spoil, deepens and complicates the discourse. Jodorowsky, though he’s a sucker for a big splashy image or cheap shock effect, has nevertheless genuinely considered who is really moving those murderous arms, and why. The hand that rocked the cradle does not wield the blade.
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