Thursday, July 31, 2014

Giallo July - Late Night Double Feature: Hatchet for the Honeymoon (Mario Bava, 1970) & Opera AKA Terror at the Opera (Dario Argento, 1987)


As per usual, I've spent far more time watching movies than writing about them recently, hence the highly sporadic output during this sorry excuse for a theme month. All that aside, I figured I'd try and get one more post in before the month comes to a close.... and seeing as I had something of an impromptu giallo double bill last night, I figured I'd share some brief thoughts I gleaned from re-watching the films...

First up, an atypical example of the genre and one that was pretty much pre-convention (it being contemporary to Argento's Bird with the Crystal Plumage, which itself cemented most of the tropes that would later become cliches)... Hatchet for the Honeymoon...

I watched this (and the next film) the day after a Euro-slasher 'thon (more details to come on that soon) to basically bring myself back round full circle, A Bay of Blood (from '71) being the first movie I'd watched during said marathon... and despite their similar vintage, they're radically different beasts...

A Bay of Blood is essentially the template for the modern bodycount movie, as typified by the American slasher, where as Hatchet for the Honeymoon harkens back to earlier psychological thrillers (and proto-slashers) such as Psycho and Peeping Tom. Other later movies one might compare it to include American Psycho and (getting back to giallo territory) Ruggero Deodato's Phantom of Death. It also calls back to some of Bava's own earlier work, most notably The Whip and the Body.

The tale of a homicidal wedding dress designer who slays brides to be, the film is more complex than such a setup might suggest and for me it took a few viewings to unravel... but even on a first watch it still very much impressed me... in fact that was a surreal experience itself seeing as I was hammered and had just got back from a wedding!

As anyone even passingly familiar with Bava will guess, the film is a feast for the eyes, something aided by the sheer fact that the director was also his own cinematographer. There's lovely music by Santa Maria Romitelli (this was a Spanish co-production it seems), who I'm not familiar with but I'll certainly be on the look out for after this... and uniformly excellent performances from everyone involved and especially leads Stephen Forsyth, Dagmar Lassander and Laura Betti. The latter actress would work again with Bava on A Bay of Blood and frankly steals the movie for me... and apparently Bava wrote the role specifically for her into the screenplay after the story was set, implying he had plenty of respect for her obvious talents.

I'm not sure if I'd recommend this one to newcomers to Bava or the giallo (this being, as I said, very much atypical) but it's as good a place to start as any... and especially if you like psychological thrillers.

Next up, what's generally regarded as Dario Argento's last great movie and is also perhaps, the last great, well-known giallo (discuss!)... Opera

I was in the mood to re-watch this one seeing as Stagefright was the last movie I watched during the aforementioned Euro-slasher 'thon (and that's all I'm giving away r.e. the contents of that for now!) and it's always a good one to watch in close proximity. And aside from sharing a similar setting/setup, they're also contemporaries, both being from '87...

Compared to Bava's movie, Argento's is a much more conventional giallo, featuring a gloved, masked killer, a murder mystery and the accompanying savage, stylish set-pieces one generally expects. Both films (and a few dozen other gialli at least I imagine) have a backstory concerning childhood trauma influencing present crimes but in Opera it seems both peripheral and more of a plot device than anything particularly integral to the characterisation and story... not that I'm complaining.... and I'm not necessarily saying Argento's film is without depth on that level... though to be honest, I'm still figuring a lot of that out...

This had never been one of my favourite Argento films but I've found it's grown on me quite a bit in the last couple of years... and especially since I started watching the Italian cut of it, which seems to fit much better than the American dub. This audio track is also interesting as Betty's internal monologue is done by a man here, where as it was a woman in the English version... not sure if that's meant to mean anything or not but it's mighty curious...

One major issue many have with this movie (and one I sort of shared in the past) is the ending... and while I'll still admit it does feel somewhat separate to the rest of the film, it's also growing on me a lot with repeat viewings... but mainly because it reminds me of another Argento film of a similar vintage, which is Phenomena.

There's loads more we could get into here folks but frankly it's been a long day and brain cells are in short supply! But we'll no doubt return to both of these wonderful films in the future... i.e. when I get my hands on them in high-def!

Friday, July 25, 2014

Giallo July - Five for Friday: Five American Gialli

As I said in the previous post, the Italians aren't the only ones to have made films one could arguably label as gialli. It's well known what a seminal influence this European sub-genre had on American horror cinema and specifically the slasher but for the most part these later films divert from their elder relations enough to be considered their own separate thing. Unsurprisingly though, there are times when these two worlds have overlapped, bringing things, as we'll see, essentially full circle

Before we begin though a quick controversy alert(!)... depending on your definitions, you may or may not consider some or all of these gialli at all... and if you don't, please feel free to hit me up with your two cents in the comments

For your consideration then, here are five "American gialli"....

The Spiral Staircase (Robert Siodmak, 1945)

An appropriate film to start with for a couple of reasons... Firstly, it's very much a Transatlantic affair, having a German born director but being American made. But more importantly, there seems to be a direct line of decent from these old dark house thrillers to Italian gialli. For one thing, we know Argento is a fan as he's openly said so... and even if he hadn't, a murder scene from Tenebre, which is staged in a strikingly similar fashion to one from Siodmak's film, would make it pretty damn obvious.

The plot and trimmings are very much in the giallo vein, with a black gloved killer going around knocking off women who have various afflictions, the usual red herrings hanging about and us getting a psychological explanation for the killer's motivations during the finale. 

The film is a must see for anyone into thrillers, gialli and/or slashers, not only for it's importance in the overall history of these genres but also for its uniformly excellent cast (the stand out being Dorothy McGuire, who gives an amazing, almost silent movie-esque performance as the mute heroine), simply but superlatively staged murder sequences and some dazzling black and white photography which, along with the storm that assaults the old dark house for pretty much the duration, creates the ideal atmosphere for a great, late night movie.

Finally, I wonder if Mario Bava ever saw this prior to Blood and Black Lace? I only ask as there's a telephone seen swinging off the hook in the final shots of both that film and this one...

The Gore Gore Girls (Herschell Gordon Lewis, 1972)

From class to trash, this next movie comes from what might be the greatest year of the giallo, '72 arguably being to that genre what '81 is to the slasher... so it definitely has an appropriate vintage about it. For gore and sleaze though, I think you'd struggle to find an Italian giallo from this era that can compete with the sustained extravaganza of bad taste, black comedy and ultraviolence that Lewis gives us here. 

A typically giallo-esque story about another black gloved maniac, this time knocking off strippers, The Gore Gore Girls is no mere pastiche... in fact it's got its tongue so far in cheek that it's more apt to class it as a parody... as evidenced by certain moments during the murder scenes and some downright bizarre humour strewn throughout.

As anyone familiar with Lewis will expect, no punches are pulled as far as gore goes, and in this film it seems the director pushed it as far as he possibly could. So it goes without saying that if you're squeamish, avoid this one at all costs as despite the humour, it gets seriously nasty.... I mean I'll put it this way... some of the violence in this gives Fulci a run for his money, and nearly ten years before the likes of The Beyond or The New York Ripper.

The last thing to mention, without getting too deep into plot and character here, is our "dashing" dandified private eye protagonist, Abraham Gentry, played by Frank Kress. As anyone familiar with the giallo will know, many of the male leads walk a very thin line between seeming strangely charming and acting like repellent assholes... and Gentry is certainly up there with the "best" of em. Lewis, Kress and writer Alan J. Dachman make it practically impossible to like this guy but despite his questionable conduct (to a modern audience) there's no denying it's quite entertaining watching this walking anachronism go about his business being a grade-A douchebag.

If you've the stomach for it, have a frankly sick sense of humour and are a giallo/slasher junkie, I'd say this is a must see... you certainly won't forget it in a hurry, I can promise you.

Alice, Sweet Alice (Alfred Sole, 1976)

Having only seen this once (as part of a double bill with Formula for a Murder, which is another giallo featuring a rain coat clad killer) I can only really give you my brief impressions on it but from this initial viewing alone I can see why it's lauded so highly by horror enthusiasts. 

Like many American movies of the period, Alice has a rather European vibe about it at times... in fact, if I'd known nothing about the cast or crew behind it before watching it I think I could have been forgiven for thinking it was Italian.

Following the search for the killer of a ten year old girl (Brooke Shields in her screen debut), the film compares favourably to  Aldo Lado's 1972 giallo Who Saw Her Die? with the two films both having moments of slightly trippy terror, a dollop of sleaze and a palpable sense of place. 

I'll say no more for now as I really need to re-watch this before I can really start getting under the surface of it but suffice to say it's essential viewing for fans of gialli and/or 70's American horror cinema.

Dressed to Kill (Brian De Palma, 1980)

Though people more commonly cite Hitchcock as a primary influence upon De Palma (and rightly so), there are others one can point to as well... and I'd be willing to bet he's seen a few gialli in his time, as evidenced by this deliciously entertaining giallo-esque remake of Psycho.

Generally referred to as an erotic thriller/pastiche of the Master of Suspense's classic, Dressed to Kill certainly has enough tropes to be considered part of the yellow canon: a razor wielding killer (I forget if black gloves were worn as it's been a while since I've seen it), amateur investigators (the delightful combo of David Keith and Nancy Allen), indifferent/incompetent police, a psycho-sexual subtext (admittedly borrowed from Hitchcock) and more sleaze than you can shake your dick at.... I mean a stick at... ahem... And further cementing the Italian horror/giallo connection is the luscious score from De Palma regular Pino Donaggio who also composed music for gialli such as Argento's Trauma and Ruggero Deodato's Phantom of Death.

Basically, if you wanted to show someone what a giallo is but fear they may be averse to foreign films then you couldn't really go wrong here.

Friday the 13th (Sean S. Cunningham, 1980)

I did warn y'all it'd get controversial, so here it is... a wildcard if you will... From the same year as De Palma's movie, this is obviously more traditionally known as a slasher and most of the time when talking about it I'd certainly refer to it that way myself... but if you'll indulge me for a moment, I think we can make a case for it being viewed as something of a giallo too...

I'm assuming everyone reading this has seen the film (if not then frankly why are you here?) so I'm not gonna worry about spoilers.

Unlike the rest of the films in the franchise, the first Friday doesn't feature Jason (apart from during the famous shock ending) and instead follows the trajectory of a whodunnit/giallo with an unseen and therefore unknown assailant. And as is almost invariably the case with these things, the murderer is motivated by past trauma to punish those they see as similar to the people who caused their loss.

Admittedly this differs from most gialli in there being pretty much no focus on figuring out who the killer is... so it definitely still leans more towards the slasher side of things... but I think there's enough here to just about classify it as a giallo as well.

Finally, there's one last, slightly tenuous Italian connection to Cunningham's film I want to mention, which is its relationship to Mario Bava's A Bay of Blood. Now I'm not gonna accuse the former of ripping off the latter as frankly every slasher film owes Bava's movie a great debt... plus, it was really Friday the 13th Part II which borrowed more specific elements (i.e. kills) from that Italian classic. But the first Friday is certainly somewhat related by proxy... and as this image from the awesome slasher site Hysteria Lives illustrates, there may have been the odd hand me down in terms of wardrobe between the films to boot.  

There are certainly other movies equally deserving of a mention in discussions of American gialli, such as Silent Night, Bloody Night and Happy Birthday to Me to name just two, but we'll leave it there for now... and if anyone has any issues with any of the above or have some other titles they wanna give a shout out to then by all means drop me a line below.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Giallo July: A Dragonfly for Each Corpse (León Klimovsky, 1974)

As giallo aficionados will well know, Italy wasn't the only country to produce films that can be seen as belonging to the sub-genre.... and without getting into the can of worms that whole area presents (though we may return to it before the month is through), I'll simply say for now that after the Italians, the Spaniards were among the most prolific in terms of producing gialli. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, Spanish horror legend Paul Naschy ended up appearing in a few in his time... and out of the three I've seen, the film we're looking at today is perhaps not the best... but if pressed, I'd say it's probably my current favourite.

The movie's title should tell you all you need to know regarding the set-up but still, a few words regarding the plot... basically, someone (sporting some amazing red pants) is going around killing off assorted local miscreants... drug addicts, strippers (moonlighting as prostitutes), you get the idea. And unlike the straight razor wielding killers typical of many gialli, this maniac likes to mix it up a bit, using both a sword and a spiked umbrella. Also atypically for the genre, the central character we follow through the case is a police inspector this time, as opposed to another of the amateur detectives we normally see in these films...

The cop in question, Paolo Scaporella (played with gusto by Naschy), is having a tough time it seems, having been demoted to dealing with flashers and the like. With a mean looking moustache and a cigar permanently protruding from his lips, you can tell the Inspector means business... even when he's dealing with the cases no-one else wants. But when the aforementioned psycho starts their killing spree, things start looking up for Paolo as a friend higher up in the force wants him for the job.

This is a somewhat routine but highly enjoyable giallo, with the usual abundance of red herrings, colourful characters and stylish set-pieces. It's arguably lifted to being an above par entry by some uniformly excellent performances... and especially those of Naschy and co-star Erika Blanc (of other gialli such as So Sweet... So Perverse and The Night Evelyn Came out of the Grave), who plays the Inspector's wife, Silvana. The two share some great chemistry and their scenes have a real feeling of loving warmth and humour to them. I also like that she essentially plays the Watson to Naschy's Holmes, helping him with the case and often pointing out things he doesn't consider... or picking up his cigar when he carelessly puts it down on a photo pertaining to the case. Another character worth mentioning, and one who also helps with the investigation, is Silvana's gay fashion designer friend (whose name currently escapes me)... mainly as his performance seems relatively restrained and sensitively portrayed for the period and the genre.

I wouldn't say anything really leaped out at me as far as León Klimovsky's direction goes but to be fair the print I saw was far from ideal, so I can't really pass judgement on that properly... but nevertheless I'd say it's competently put together and there are some nice touches to appreciate scattered throughout... for example,  I thought the blood splashing onto a drawing of a naked lady during an early murder set-piece was a novel way of staging the scene.

One final thing I wanted to mention is the music... which is apparently taken from the CAM music library. Some of the cues are unfamiliar to me but there are a few taken from two seminal Mario Bava directed gialli that I most definitely recognise. During a delightful domestic scene, where Erika Blanc comes home and sees Naschy in the kitchen cooking, while sporting a hilariously incongruous apron and cigar ensemble, we get the ending music from A Bay of Blood... and at several other points in the movie, we also get cues from Blood and Black Lace. Now admittedly this does take me out of the film every so slightly but only in the sense that it reminds me of those Bava films and makes me think of them... but as it stands I quite like how these bits of music are reused here.

So in summary, I'd say if you've already been bitten by the giallo bug or are a Naschy fan, you can't go wrong here... and come to think of it, even those unfamiliar with either might well have a good time with this.... I mean, there's a scene where a cross dressing suspect tries to evade the police by getting on a roller coaster for crying out loud, so what more persuasion do you need?   

Monday, July 7, 2014

Giallo July/1984 Turns 30! Murder-Rock: Dancing Death AKA Murderock (Lucio Fulci)

Released in Italian cinemas on 30th April 1984, Murder Rock is perhaps the least well known of Lucio Fulci's gialli and certainly the most maligned. Sure, anyone going in expecting something like Lizard in a Woman's Skin, Don't Torture a Duckling, the infamous New York Ripper (the film of most similar vintage to this) or even the relatively restrained and slightly similar Seven Notes in Black (AKA The Psychic) will probably be left somewhat dissatisfied... but taken on its own merits, this is a stylishly shot, engaging and enjoyable giallo with plenty of points of interest for fans of both the director and, more generally speaking, of this most decadent and deranged of sub-genres... 

Before we continue, a quick note of thanks is due to someone who will (to protect the innocent) remain known as "The Black Gloved Patron"... without your continued generosity and edification, much of this month would have been impossible... you know who you are! And worry not, your secret identity is safe with me! Now on to the film...

How much you enjoy this movie, without even getting into the plot yet, will probably be determined within the first five minutes of watching... Basically, if you have a taste for mid-80's cheese and music video-esque dance numbers, then you're gonna get a kick out of this, regardless of whether you're a giallo aficionado or not... If you lack the palate for that sort of thing though then this movie might be a bit of a harder sell... it's hard to say, everyone's mileage varying and all... but hopefully you'll get a better idea whether this is for you or not as we proceed...

At New York's prestigious Arts for Living Center (which will obviously be in dire need of a name change very soon), a group of dancers are working up a serious sweat trying to perfect a routine in order to impress the higher ups. Overseeing their progress is Candice Norman, played by the first of many familiar faces from Fulci's filmography we'll encounter during the course of the film, Olga Karlatos of Zombie... worry not though, anyone out there averse to images of eyeball related trauma... her peepers are safe this time... but the lady herself... well, that would be telling, wouldn't it? 

Following the rehearsal, one of the dancers is killed in the changing rooms by a black gloved assassin with a hat-pin (of all things)... and as it transpires that the dancers were being potentially head hunted by some big wigs promising fame and fortune and, more crucially, the victim was seen as the most likely candidate, suspicion falls immediately on the other dancers. Overseeing the police investigation is Lieutenant Borges, played by the next of our Fulci repeat offenders, Cosimo Cinieri of New York Ripper and the also underrated Manhattan Baby. I enjoy this guy's performances in all three of these Fulci flicks but probably this one the most... his character seems to almost defy you to either like him or dislike him... it's hard to explain... but at any rate he makes for a wonderfully curmudgeonly copper and has most of the film's best lines. And speaking of The New York Ripper, I find it curious that both it and Murder Rock partner their detectives with academics called Davis... though this time he's a professor as opposed to a doctor and is played by Giuseppe Mannajuolo rather than Paolo Malco. 


As the bodycount increases, so do the list of suspects, especially after Candice has a crazy-ass nightmare where a beardless Ray Lovelock (who will hereafter be referred to as Ray Loverock) tries to stab her with a hat-pin of mindbogglingly indeterminate size. Soon after this she sees the same man on a billboard and it isn't long after that that she's somehow snuck into his hotel room, avoided an altercation with a drunken Loverock but left her handbag there while fleeing and then, despite this slight trauma, still meets up for drinks with this dubious character later on anyway...

I think we can probably leave it there as far as the plot goes. This is nothing earth shattering narratively (and arguably somewhat familiar territory to Fulci fans) but it kept my interest for the duration.... though a lot what kept me engaged is probably more related to my enjoyment of the aforementioned 80's cheese and what the assembled cast and crew brought to the film than anything else...

Which brings us neatly to the other talents from in front of and behind the camera... As far as the former goes, we have quite a few appearances from people who worked within the Italian horror/giallo genre, such as Claudio Cassinelli of What Have They Done to Your Daughters?, Cristian Borromeo of Tenebre and Robert Gligorov of Stagefright... and two more (uncredited) Fulci repeat offenders in the forms of Al Cliver (who is sporting some very studious looking spectacles this time around) and Silvia Collatina of The House by the Cemetery, who plays a creepy, wheel-chair-bound, insect obsessed kid who goes all Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window at one point in the film. And speaking of Hitchcock, there's an obligatory (and all too brief) directorial cameo for fans of Fulci's acting to enjoy.

Regarding behind the scenes, the film was written by Fulci and three others, all of whom had worked with the director before and on many other Italian genre films... and as I said before, there's some delightful dialogue to be savoured. And as far as I can tell, the plot itself is fairly tight... though I'm not someone to trust as far as story goes, my attention usually being focused on other elements of the film. Editor Vincenzo Tomassi returns to work with Fulci again and does a spot on job, especially in splicing together those wonderful music video montages. Regular Fulci cinematographer Sergio Salvati is curiously absent but Giuseppe Pinori does excellent work in his place, excelling especially in the murder set-pieces, dance numbers and the climactic unveiling of the killer.

And last but not least, a few words about the music: Keith Emerson provides the music and lyrics to another New York set giallo (the other being Argento's Inferno, which I know many may not regard as one but that's a debate for another time...) and helps immeasurably with keeping up the 80's kitsch quota. Most of the music from this movie is currently stuck in my head but perhaps no track more so than this little number... I apologise in advance... it's ridiculously catchy.

While admittedly nowhere near as gory as his other films of the period, Murder Rock is still an above par entry as far as Fulci's filmography and gialli of this era go. The cast are consistently compelling, there's plenty of production value to be savoured and overall I found it a lot of fun... so for anyone sold on Fulci and/or the giallo I'd say give it a shot... just don't expect it to be typical of the director or the genre and you'll fare just fine... and for those unversed in either I'd say just lap up the period charm and enjoy!