Friday, November 23, 2012

Horror Europa - Giants of Giallo Triple Feature: The Girl Who Knew Too Much (Mario Bava, 1963), Four Flies on Grey Velvet (Dario Argento, 1971) and The New York Ripper (Lucio Fulci, 1982)


Sorry for the post-Halloween hiatus people; I was frankly a bit burnt out by the end of that month long blogathon. I thoroughly enjoyed doing it but the days immediately following its end were slightly depressing for some reason. Perhaps it was not knowing where I could possibly go next after the buzz of seeing Halloween on the big screen on the night itself (see previous post for details). Anyway, enough navel gazing for now...let's crack on with today's movie musings...

This inspiration for the majority of this month's posts (well, what's left of it anyway) came from watching Horror Europa, an excellent documentary on the history of European horror cinema that aired just before Halloween. Hosted by the charming and always informative Mark Gatiss (above and below; an accomplished actor and writer, he's also one half of the writing double team that brought us the thoroughly brilliant Sherlock), it took us on a journey starting at the German silents, through to a variety of French, Italian, Spanish and Belgian classics, and ending with (perhaps somewhat controversially) the films of Guillermo del Toro. If you didn't get chance to see it at the time I'd highly recommend seeking it out. 

Aside from making me aware of some huge gaps in my own knowledge of the genre, which I'll be rectifying in the very near feature (especially Spanish productions; to my utter shame, I've barely seen any of their horror films), I also realised that, with a handful of exceptions, I'd mostly neglected Euro Horror during my Halloween blogging spree. So you could consider the coming series of posts as my attempt to make up for this heinous oversight....

Directed by Mario Bava, the Father of Italian horror's holy trinity (we'll also be encountering the Son and Holy Spirit in due course, although I'm not sure who's who exactly), The Girl Who Knew Too Much is generally considered to be the first film instance of a giallo (which is Italian for yellow and refers to the covers of a series of mystery thriller paperbacks, which were popular enough to eventually make the word into a synonym for such suspense narratives). Considering its seismic influence on the movie world (especially the slasher sub-genre, which owes the giallo a huge debt), it's frankly shocking that this movie isn't better known, although come to think of it, you could say that about Mario Bava in general. 

The plot follows one Nora Davis (played by the stunning Leticia Roman), who travels to Rome to visit her sick aunt. Whilst on the plane she's given a pack of cigarettes by the suspiciously eager gentlemen sitting next to her. Upon their arrival he's accosted by the police, who reveal that said cigarettes (which he has a whole suitcase of) are actually laced with good old Mary Jane. Nora, obviously wishing to evade any trouble with the authorities, attempts to ditch her pack of wacky-tobacco, but is soon handed it back by a stranger who assumes she's dropped it mistakenly. To be honest though, she probably shouldn't worry about getting picked up by anyone but the fashion police; she's sporting a frankly hideous snakeskin jacket.

Clearly the lovely lady is some kind of magnet for trouble, as during Nora's first night in Rome her aunt dies (in a wonderfully staged scene that somewhat prefigures the "Drop of Water" episode from Black Sabbath - reviewed here) and, while en route to the hospital to tell Dr. Marcello Bassi (played by genre great John Saxon), she's mugged and knocked unconscious. And to cap it all off, when she eventually comes to, she sees a man pulling a knife out of the back of a woman lying not far from where she herself is sprawled. Fainting from the accumulated shock of it all, she's awoken the next day by a mysterious figure who revives her with booze and then promptly disappears when the police soon show up. She relates what happened to her, but due to the previous night's rain, the lack of a body, and her apparent drunkenness, the authorities simply believe she's imagined the whole thing. 

I'll resist the urge to say much more about the plot. Suffice to say, Nora (with assistance from Dr. Bassi) soon launches into her own investigation to find the killer. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it isn't long before she becomes a target for this mysterious maniac.

As with most gialli, I personally enjoy the film more for its striking cinematography, potent atmosphere and occasional humour than for its narrative. Which is not to say the story is weak, by any means; I just find myself not particularly affected by it on that level. Although to be fair, I'm getting more and more into it with each viewing, which is something that I've found with most of Bava's films. As it turns out, the director himself thought the plot was preposterous, and as a result focused his talents more on the film's technical aspects. 

Along with Bava's directorial debut, Black Sunday (reviewed here), this movie features some of the most gorgeous and inventive black and white photography I've ever seen. One particular sequence that stands out is the scene where Nora visits an abandoned apartment after receiving a mysterious phone call telling her to go there. The combination of sparse white walls and swinging light bulbs makes the lighting shift constantly, creating an almost kaleidoscopic effect that is both disorienting and downright unnerving. You could also say that the shot below prefigures a similar one in Dario Argento's Inferno (1980), which Bava would contribute special effects work to, in his last ever work on a film, before his death that same year...   

...Which brings us rather neatly to our next film, and what's quite possibly my current favourite giallo, Four Flies on Grey Velvet. The concluding part of Argento's animal trilogy, it was originally meant to be the directors last stab, so to speak, at the sub-genre, and from the swaggering, balls-out audacity that it exudes from beginning to end, you can certainly tell. I can see why Deep Red is more celebrated, and, if I'm honest, it's probably a better film (especially in terms of plotting and characterisation). But personally, I always have a lot more fun watching Four Flies. Come to think of it, I'd say the same about the criminally underrated Cat o' Nine Tails (1971), in comparison to the (understandably) more lauded Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970).     

Roberto Tobias (Michael Brandon) is a drummer in a prog-jazz-rock band. They sound borderline unhinged (especially the singer), but to be fair, this was the early 70s. The film opens with a cheeky drum solo, before kicking into one of their gnarly jam sessions. Roberto's having a hard time concentrating though, seeing as he's being pestered by a persistent fly and also getting spied on by a creepy dude wearing shades who's stood outside. From this opening scene alone, which features some cool POV shots (such as one from inside an acoustic guitar) and cross cutting between the recording session (where Roberto's trying to trap that pesky fly in his hi-hat) and scenes of the drummer getting stalked by his mysterious admirer, Argento shows us that he ain't dicking around. 

After seeing this now seemingly ubiquitous stranger again one night after band practice, Roberto has had enough, and follows him into an empty theatre to find out what the guy wants. After feigning ignorance with regards to accusations of being a stalker, the dude pulls a knife out, leading to a struggle where Roberto ends up stabbing him by accident. Things then take a turn from the extremely unfortunate to the downright bizarre; a spotlight comes on revealing a masked figure who is taking photographs of the incident. 

It isn't long before said photos, and the dead man's identification, appear at Roberto's house, but with no clue as to the masked villain's motives. Do they intend to blackmail him, or simply send him nutty with paranoid speculation? Needless to say, to reveal much more would be giving the game away and spoil the fun for those who haven't seen the film...

Feeling understandably isolated, Roberto soon confides in his wife Nina (played by Italian horror favourite Mimsy Farmer), and his mate Godfrey (Bud Spencer), who's affectionately referred to as God and is introduced with the most unexpected, brief, yet awesome music cue ever; a group of choral singers belt out a couple of rousing "Hallelujah"s before quickly disappearing, never to be heard from again. Can I get an amen? Other wonderful supporting characters include the flamboyant private detective Arrosio (Jean-Pierre Marielle ), who is undoubtedly my favourite of Argento's stereotypical gay characters, and an obviously underpaid postman (Gildo Di Marco), who suffers the indignity of first being chewed out by an angry lady who is being delivered someone else's porno mags, and then later being assaulted by Roberto, who assumes that he's the masked maniac who's harassing him.

The film isn't without its occasional flaws, and there's a couple of scenes and characters I can take or leave, but this is as close to a perfect giallo as I've seen so far (although admittedly I'm far from a connoisseur of the sub-genre; there's still truckloads of them I haven't watched yet), and like the man says, great films are rarely perfect anyway. Nitpicking aside, the movie contains many brilliantly staged set-pieces, including some show-stopping uses of slow-motion photography (in fact you could say that one cheeky shot - no pun intended - almost anticipates The Matrix, 28 years before its release); sublime cinematography from Franco Di Giacomo (I especially like Roberto's trippy, starkly lit, recurring dream sequences, showing a beheading in a Middle-Eastern country; they provide a striking contrast to the moody, almost noirish vibe of the film's many nighttime scenes) and a superlative score from Ennio Morricone, that veers between the operatic and the avant-garde. 

I think it's fair to say that you could probably recommend Four Flies on Grey Velvet to someone who's into mysteries and thrillers but has yet to experience the weird and wonderful world of the giallo, where as I somewhat doubt the same could be said about Lucio Fulci's The New York Ripper. In fact, a good majority of the director's filmography tends to be highly polarising, and as a result, something of an acquired taste; in others words, people tend to either love him or hate him, often with equal fervor. 

I first had the pleasure of encountering this notorious, and frankly misunderstood movie in the wee hours a few years back. I'd just got back from a screening of Sergio Martino's Torso (1973) at the excellent Continental pub in Preston, Lancashire, which is where I'm from. Unfortunately, such events are all too rare in my neck of the woods, as Preston isn't exactly the most cosmopolitan of cities, so I jumped at the chance to attend and check out a film I hadn't yet seen. The screening was hosted by Shameless Screen Entertainment, who are responsible for bringing many gialli and cult Euro gems onto DVD in the UK (you can check out their website here; as a side note, I'd highly recommend their Blu Ray release of Four Flies). That night they were giving away a copy of their then unreleased 'Fulci's Box of Terror', which contained The New York Ripper, The Black Cat and Manhattan Baby (you can see my reviews of the latter two here and here). I was lucky enough to have the winning raffle ticket, so decided to give Fulci's infamous flick a look when I got home late that night, considerably shit-faced. I'd say that watching the also somewhat lurid Torso earlier that evening set me up quite nicely for what I was about to experience...     

Lieutenant Fred Williams (Jack Hedley - above) is a world weary cop hunting a vicious psychopath who has a predilection for stalking unwary ladies before literally tearing them a new one. For some reason (besides obviously trying to mask his identity) he's also adopted a singularly bizarre vocal affectation; that is, he talks like Donald fucking Duck (in a possible reference to Fulci's 1972 masterpiece Don't Torture a Duckling; if memory serves, an identical duck toy appears in both films). He's later assisted by the relatively young, but brilliant psychotherapy professor Dr. Paul Davis (played by Paolo Malco, from what's possibly my favourite Fulci movie, 1981's The House by the Cemetery), whose hobbies include playing chess and perusing the odd gay porno mag; apparently when he's not attempting to expand his brain he's busy stretching other muscles...      

Yet again, I won't say any more than that with regards to the plot, as it's best to let the uninitiated watch it unfold for themselves. The film is extremely well cast, with all of the players providing excellent performances. It's stylishly shot by Luigi Kuveiller (who also did sterling work on Argento's Deep Red) and tightly spliced together by Fulci regular Vincenzo Tomassi, whose taut editing further heightens the visceral punch of the film's graphic violence. The score, by Francesco De Masi, is also pretty cool, featuring jazzy atmospherics, a piece that is almost Morricone-esque in its haunting melancholy, and a downright funky theme tune that makes me think that Lt. Williams and Dr. Davis should really have been given their own TV series, where they go round solving new crimes every week. Fulci himself also shows up in an obligatory cameo as the chief of police, giving our grizzled detective a stern telling off for informing the press about the killer on the loose.  

The film's contents are undeniably shocking and, needless to say, it's not one for the squeamish, but nonetheless, it continues to be unfairly maligned to this day, often by reactionary critics who are either unable, or perhaps simply unwilling, to see past the surface splatter and appreciate the subtleties that lie beneath. Like Bava and Argento, Fulci was a director with a lot going on upstairs, working in a generally ghettoised genre (although all three have produced work in others as well) of a medium which rarely aspires to be much more than entertainment; but all of them were united in their abilities to frequently infuse their films with consistent style, often sly humour, and the kind of challenging, thought provoking sub-textual material more usually associated with more "respectable" (i.e. well-established) mediums such as literature and opera. I'm not saying you need to take any of these three films that seriously to appreciate them, by any means; I just wish to point out that there's more to them than just style and titillation, not that there's anything bad about those things. I mean, what the hell's wrong with entertainment for its own sake anyway? All of which is a very long-winded way of saying that all three of these giallo gems can be enjoyed on multiple levels; so if you haven't seen them, and enjoy your cinematic thrills and spills, then check them out; and if you have, then watch 'em again, or else!