Massimo Dallamano’s Catholic girls’ school psycho-sexual thriller combines elements of German and Italian genre cinemas.
A German-Italian co-production, Massimo Dallamano’s What Have You Done to Solange? is one of several films intended to bridge the gap between the West German Edgar Wallace krimi and the Italian gialli. The relationship between the two subgenres dates back to the late 1960s, when gialli like Antonio Margheriti’s Naked You Die! (1968) were released in Germany in black and white (despite being shot in colour) to resemble the classic Wallace krimi in appearance. At the same time Rialto Film, the primary producer of the Wallace films, were trying to find ways of revitalizing their formula, in response to declining popularity. Their first attempt, Double Face (1968), was certainly equipped for lasting cult appeal, being directed by Italian horror legend Riccardo Freda and co-written by the future ‘godfather of gore’ Lucio Fulci. It also starred Klaus Kinski in a rare leading role, as well as a number of Euro-horror veterans, including Gunther Stoll, Margaret Lee and Annabella Incontrera. Unfortunately, Freda’s star had waned by that point, and despite the efforts of the cast, Double Face is bland and uninvolving.
The film’s commercial failure doused Rialto’s interest in further ventures, and the matter might have rested there, were it not for Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. One of the big European box office hits of 1970, Argento’s debut feature sparked off a wave of similar thrillers, bringing the giallo firmly into the mainstream. In Germany The Bird with the Crystal Plumage was distributed by Artur Brauner’s Central Cinema Company (a.k.a. CCC Films), Rialto’s main competitor in the field of the Wallace krimi. Brauner added a spurious credit to German prints of the film, claiming it was based upon a story by Bryan Edgar Wallace, the son of the famous author whose own works had been adapted by CCC Films. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage was then marketed to German audiences as an authentic krimi.
Having noticed the film’s impressive box office takings, Rialto decided to attempt another krimi-giallo crossover. Although most of the technical aspects of What Have You Done to Solange? were left to the discretion of the Italian crew, Rialto made a number of changes to bring the film closer to their previous Wallace krimi, including setting the film in London. The main detective would be played by Joachim Fuchsberger, Rialto’s most popular leading man, while the German wife would be played by Karin Baal, the star of two earlier Wallace films, including The Dead Eyes of London (1961), arguably the finest example of the form. A single line of dialogue was added to justify the appropriation of the title of a genuine Edgar Wallace story for the film’s German title (The Clue of the Green Pin), despite the two stories having absolutely nothing in common.
Enrico Rosseni (played by Fabio Testi, best known for his role in The Garden of the Finzi-Continis) teaches Italian and gymnastics at a prestigious Catholic school in London. Even though his severe German wife Herta (Karin Baal) teaches at the school as well, Enrico is having an affair with one of his students, Elizabeth Seccles (Christina Galbó, The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue). During one of their meetings, Elizabeth sees a young girl and the flash of a knife, but Enrico angrily dismisses her claim. The following day a girl’s body is discovered in the same location, with the victim another student of the school. Even though Elizabeth is a key witness, Enrico discourages her from contacting the police because of his marriage. When another student is murdered, Enrico realizes that Elizabeth is not just a witness, but a key figure in the events unfolding and a potential victim too.
Despite its hybrid origins, What Have You Done to Solange? is very much a classic example of the 1970s giallo. As usual, the police are present but take a backseat role to the hero’s amateur investigations. Although Enrico himself is not a witness to the crimes like his counterpart in Dario Argento’s thrillers, his girlfriend Elizabeth is, and she experiences the same confusion and progressive revelations as the heroes of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Deep Red (1976). The killer is visible only as a pair of black-gloved hands, although we hear his voice. His motivations are a little more complex. Instead of being a witness to, or a victim of, a traumatic event, he’s taking revenge on behalf of that victim. The incident itself is one of the most unpleasant of its kind and certainly effective, but would perhaps be more appropriate for a Roman Catholic country; the United Kingdom’s laws on the subject make such events largely unnecessary (a similar point applies to Elizabeth’s age; in Italy she would have been over the age of consent). The brutal and sexualised nature of the killings (and their motivation) is sharply at odds with the standards of the Wallace krimi, which rarely featured graphic violence and generally couched any sexual content in a light-hearted tone.
By technical standards, What Have You Done to Solange? is exceptional, especially the cinematography. Although best known as a producer of notorious splatter movies (including the excellent Beyond the Darkness) and hardcore pornography, Aristide Massacessi (a.k.a. Joe D’Amato) is a skilled cinematographer whose framing and shot composition are consistently solid. Director Dallamano is a capable cinematographer himself, having worked on A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and For A Few Dollars More (1965) before moving into direction. Together Dallamano and Massacessi create a stylish, visually interesting film, with a number of memorable and eye-catching moments. Legendary composer Ennio Morricone provided the scores to more than a dozen gialli in the early 1970s, including Argento’s early thrillers. His work on What Have You Done to Solange? relies on many of the same motifs and themes that characterise his other giallo scores: angular, discordant bass figures; wordless child-like singing; high-pitched, screeching strings. Despite this, it’s a strong enough score, and certain passages correspond well to the images they accompany.
Although Dallamano is happy to kill off the girls in a brutal fashion and use them to provide the film’s plentiful nudity, there is something sad about his portrayal of these young women. They are essentially adrift in the world. Their parents are generally absent from the film and when they do appear, they present a rose-tinted, idealised view of their children that shows no awareness of their growing physical and mental maturity. Their Catholic upbringing provides them with plenty of rules and admonitions against sin but offers them no help with their predicament whatsoever. The other adults in their lives are equally hopeless. Their teachers (aside from the priests) include a lecherous hypocrite who ascribes to them every kind of sexual vice but spies on them in the showers. Even Enrico, the one teacher who takes their side in disputes with the school, is having an affair with a girl not yet halfway through her teenage years, and is not above pressurizing his lover to give in to his sexual demands. With no guidance except their own instincts, the girls drift into the clutches of perverts, sleazy photographers and backstreet abortionists.
The execution and genre mechanics make What Have You Done to Solange? an excellent example of its kind, but it possesses an emotional resonance that lifts it above the majority of its contemporaries. It is not a flawless film; Inspector Barth’s assertion that showing the teachers graphic crime scene photos is a ‘necessary formality’ is ridiculous and grotesque, while Enrico’s sudden change of heart is poorly handled and does the character no favours (indeed, none of the film’s characters are anything other than one-dimensional). Despite its shortcomings, What Have You Done to Solange? is a first-rate giallo that deserves this new restoration.
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