Of all the genres in Weird Movie Village’s universe, the giallo is one of the most compelling and often one of the goofiest. You know the drill…a line-up of semi-clad actresses/models/singers/aerobics instructors waiting to be killed, a murderer whose black-gloved hands clutching a knife are all the audience sees, tough-talking detectives working to solve the crimes and red herrings dangling everywhere. The genre’s heyday was the ’60s and ’70s with maestro Mario Bava kicking things off in 1963 with The Girl Who Knew Too Much.
Anthony Franciosa stars as Peter Neal, an American writer visiting Rome on a promotional tour for his latest book, Tenebrae, when a rash of murders occurs mimicking the deaths in the novel. He is contacted by the police and soon finds himself embroiled in the investigation.
For viewers who have only seen Argento’s “dark” films, Tenebrae may come as a surprise. It’s brightly lit and color-saturated; indeed, there are many daytime scenes including the murder of Neal’s agent (John Saxon). But night does fall, and Argento takes full advantage of the blackness to stage some of the film’s most gruesome killings and suspense sequences. One great scene has a girl trapped between the killer and a vicious guard dog.
There’s a great crane shot as the camera prowls all around a building before the murderer goes inside to kill the lesbian couple within (hilariously calling them “slimy perverts.”) And when another victim gets her arm chopped off by the killer, she staggers around the kitchen a lot as blood sprays everywhere on the walls, creating a kind of sick modern art. And the surprise revelation at the end is truly a surprise. I jumped about ten feet off the couch the first time I saw it.
Tenebrae is Argento’s most coherent and best-acted film, and it’s also well-cast. Franciosa is great as Neal and Saxon provides able support as his tough-talking agent. Argento’s love at the time, Daria Nicolodi, plays his devoted assistant, Anne, and the director even sneaks in fellow Italian horror moviemakers Lamberto Bava and Michele Soavi in cameos.
Speaking of Bava, he’s tried so hard to follow in his father’s footsteps, but he peaked early with 1980’s Macabre, a little number about a woman who keeps her dead lover’s head in the refrigerator. It’s a good movie, reminiscent of Polanski’s Repulsion, but even more twisted.
However, Bava’s resumé has otherwise been spotty. A lot of fans (and I hope readers of WMV) love the Demons series of films. They’re not without their charm, but they’re pretty much murder machines with a lot of special effects makeup, which I must confess is a lot of fun. And Soavi shows up again in a metal-masked cameo.
I bought A Blade in the Dark (1983) on laserdisc on the strength of Bava’s name. It stars Andrea Occhipinti (the quack quack killer in Fulci’s New York Ripper) as a composer who ensconces himself at a Tuscan villa while writing the score for a horror film which may hold the clue to a real killer’s identity. It’s a goofy movie, but not entirely objectionable in a “let’s throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” kind of way. And Soavi appears again as Occhipinti’s agent. It’s been a while since I’ve seen it, but I remember that people kept dropping by his house to swim in the pool. How rude.
Giallo fans often cite Lucio Fulci‘s Lizard in a Woman’s Skin as a favorite, but I like Don’t Torture a Duckling, made in 1972. When a series of child murders breaks out in a small town, the suspects include a simpleton, a gypsy woman, a hermit and a young woman of “easy virtue.” It’s one of Fulci’s most serious-minded films with its themes of religious hypocrisy and criticism of the Catholic church.
The setting for this film is interesting. Giallos are typically urban, but Duckling takes place in one of those little Italian villages whose church forms the center of its community and, like Tenebrae, it’s very sunny.
It’s also quite violent — superstitious villagers accuse the gypsy of being a witch, beating her with chains and leaving her for dead. A scene with a man falling off a cliff features loving close-ups of his face being smashed up on the rocks, a trick Fulci re-used in 1977’s The Psychic. And the director pulls no punches in showing the bodies of the murdered boys.
The very intense Florinda Bolkan plays the gypsy. She was also in Lizard and the bizarre nunsploitationer Flavia the Heretic.
American gialli are a rarity, but Alfred Sole’s 1976 Alice, Sweet Alice fits the category with its mystery killer and gory murders. Paula Sheppard plays Alice, a seemingly unhinged 12-year-old who is accused of murdering her younger sister (a debuting Brooke Shields). Set in 1960s New Jersey, it’s packed with religious symbolism…and religious guilt.
Sole keeps the audience guessing while providing a lot to think about. His compositions are extraordinary, the murders swift and vicious, and the characters suitably bizarre. The landlord in Alice’s building is the disgustingly obese and damp Mr. Alphonso (Alphonso DeNoble), who tries to molest her, and practically all the other adults seem to be out of their minds.
There are some memorably violent setpieces in the film as well. When Alice’s Aunt Annie (Jane Lowry) is on the staircase outside their apartment, the killer below her stabs at her feet and legs. And when a victim is clutching the killer’s St. Christopher medal in his mouth to provide a post-mortem bit of evidence, his teeth are bashed in with a rock to get him to release it. I don’t want to give any spoilers, because this is a slasher worth seeing.
Due to distribution troubles, Alice got thrown into public domain in the early days of home video, and has wrongly earned the reputation of an exploitation cheapie. Nothing could be further from the truth.
And, of course, killers in flesh-colored masks are extra creepy.
Now for the goofy. Today I watched 1972’s The Slasher…is the Sex Maniac! starring a slumming Farley Granger (Hitchcock’s Rope and Strangers on a Train), and I was rewarded with all the cheesy fun one wants in an Italian thriller from the ’70s.
Granger plays a homicide detective in search of a murderer who consistently targets the wives of prominent men who are also involved in extramarital affairs. This sets the rather misogynist tone of the piece. Even Granger’s cop notes about one of the widowers: “The husband is shattered. First the murder, and then he finds out his wife was a whore.”
This being 1972, it’s a big-time boob and butt movie, and almost all of the victims are seen frolicking with their Bee Gees lookalike boyfriends prior to their slaying. And there’s always a knife wound below one of the victim’s breasts so that the camera can linger upon it again and again. The score is a kind of soft jazz with the de regueur female voices singing “oohhh…ahhhh….”
There’s some strange continuity, too. One victim’s boyfriend leaves the house and the killer, dressed all in black with a black stocking hiding his face, appears. She screams and races outside where it’s suddenly day-for-night and she’s running on a beach. And even though the killer stabs at her with up-and-down motions, somehow her throat is neatly slit from ear to ear.
It’s also a really smoky movie — everyone is smoking constantly. And Granger stops to stare thoughtfully at the camera for a long time (while smoking) when something is occurring to him. I don’t recall seeing a film with so many actors that look like wax dummies. but they blink and move, so I guess they must be real. The women all have really elaborate ’70s eye makeup and hairdos, and some of them look like drag queens. And how come when the killer telephones the police to mock them he’s all dressed up in his maniac outfit and mask? It’s not like they can see him!
The literal translation of the original Italian title is even more hilarious than the American title: Revelations of a Sex Maniac to the Head of the Criminal Investigation Division. And the ending is actually quite interesting. There’s supposedly a XXX version with hardcore inserts which would be a very strange experience indeed.