Sunday, May 24, 2015

5 Dolls for an August Moon (1970)

It’s amazing what Mario Bava could accomplish when he had free creative reign considering films like Lisa and the Devil (1973) and Twitch of the Death Nerve (1971), but with 5 Dolls for an August Moon (5 bambole per la luna d’agosto), we have an example of Mario Bava as a director for hire, being pressured to return to the newly booming giallo genre he helped create with the previous entries Blood and Black Lace (1964) and The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963).

Admittedly, 5 Dolls is a more conventional affair in comparison to Lisa and Twitch and is obviously influenced by Agatha Christie’s seminal Ten Little Indians. I wouldn’t call it an adaptation but more of a self-conscious tribute with several trendy updates and sly nods to the source material. It turns out that Bava didn’t think highly of Ten Little Indians at all. When he was approached with the script, written by Mario di Nardo, and asked to direct the film he mainly accepted the job, despite some apprehension, because he would get paid up front, which disputes a previous notion I had that 5 Dolls was Bava’s own take on Christie’s classic novel. Making an Agatha Christie inspired giallo was the fashionable thing to do at the time, and, not being able to add much to the script, Bava directed a giallo he would end up having very little regard for, which is unfortunate because it’s one of my favorites. It also has one of my favorite soundtracks, by Piero Umiliani.

The story concerns ten characters, five of them women (most likely the titular 5 dolls), on an island. In the spirit of Ten Little Indians, with no way of presently leaving the island, they are killed off one by one by an unknown assassin whom they eventually realize has to be one of them.

The movie opens to one of the five dolls, Isabel (Ely Galleani – her first film), wandering and trotting around the island alone, as the camera has a fixation on her and the complementary island scenery while a kitschy style of music is heard that will seduce certain viewers and might turn off others. Isabel runs through the woods to peer with curiosity into the window of a modern, swanky mansion to view what has to be one of the best mood setting intro party scenes in a giallo. It’s a real eye opener and will hit the spot for fans of the medium, as Mario Bava has the camera zoom in-and-out on a groovy Edwige Fenech dancing at the center of the party, where all of the suspects are lounging around, managing to look suspicious, decadent, and classy. This is probably my favorite Edwige Fenech moment.

Things do slow down after a mock murder scene at the party, as the story takes a more scandalous turn to try and set the stage for a high body-count murder mystery, as it becomes apparent that things are going to get ugly.

Showcasing a bit of adultery, Edwige Fenech’s character Marie has an affair with the ‘houseboy’ (because calling him ‘the butler’ wouldn’t be hip enough for this film) on his yacht. The wives gossip about their husbands, two of them secretly express intimate feelings for each other, and the three seedy looking industrialist characters (Maurice Poli, Howard Ross from Fulci’s The New York Ripper (1982), and Teodoro Corrà – all of whom have exceptional bad guy faces) try to pressure the obstinate scientist (William Berger) to sell them his undisclosed revolutionary formula for a million dollars apiece. (Poli would continue to work with Bava in Twitch of the Death Nerve, Baron Blood (1972), and Rabid Dogs (1974). Corrà would work with Bava again in Roy Colt and Winchester Jack (1970)).

Despite its attempt at building a scandalous setting, the story does seem rather plain, and like Ten Little Indians, most of the murders are aftermaths, which might not cut it for viewers expecting more stalk ‘n’ slash. I kind of like it, because it ends up being confounding with the way characters keep turning up dead like magic and how the killer can do it so efficiently without getting noticed. It almost makes you admire their expertise. This film’s been referred to as a disaster saved only by Bava’s masterful and unique directing style, but I honestly did enjoy the buildup to the climax and the outcome. The ending’s a little confusing; but taken as is, it ends up feeling like a proper unexpected and ironic conclusion for this type of movie. I like the way they finally put vocals to the running musical theme to the soundtrack when it closes out.

Anyone who’s seen this film will most likely not forget the brilliant corpse pileup in the freezer. It is supposed to be one of Bava’s own additions to the film, and with its repetitive use and the witty music, you can almost feel Bava’s sense of humor here. In the book the murdered characters were carried to their rooms and laid out on their beds, and pretty much left to rot, which quickly would’ve resulted in a rotten smelling mansion. 5 Dolls seems to be satirically correcting this lapse in logic by humorously putting each successive murdered character into a deep freeze.

The interior mod art style to the island mansion almost makes you feel like you’re on another planet. In spite of the modern art look there are still the classic gothic candelabras that can be spotted in the background against the walls. They seem out of place but are also welcoming. 

Although it provides an effective visual of a quirky architecture hanging dangerously over a cliff, the exterior of the beach mansion is obviously not real and part of a glass matte setup along with the boat that is sometimes seen docked at the island. It’s been suggested that the mansion is actually a maquette (small scale model) fixed in front of the camera. Before Isabel stands in front of the mansion to shoot an epic backward glance (one of my favorite clichés) you can see her reflection in the glass.

What would 5 Dolls have been like without Mario Bava’s direction? Hard to say, but despite being paid only to direct the film, aesthetically it still feels very much like a Bava film, and story-wise it does bear some similarities to Blood and Black Lace. The rotating bed definitely had me thinking of Danger: Diabolik (1968), and the shoreline reminded me of The Whip and the Body (1963), in fact it was the same beach at Tor Caldara. The style is all there; it’s just that the script is a little more conventional, but it’s not that bad. There are a lot of memorable sequences and characters, and it excels stylistically, as a visual treat, and as a murder mystery (although it's a little messy in that department). 

© At the Mansion of Madness

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Succubus / Necronomicon (1968)

During an interview included on the 2006 Blue Underground release of Succubus, Jess Franco spoke of a sixteenth century book he had come across on a bookshelf entitled Necronomicon that had belonged to a wealthy actor and film producer Pier A. Caminnecci, who had invited Jess over to his house to indulge in his extensive jazz collection, as the two were mutual jazz fans. Jess read a short story from this particular book that was so extraordinary he had to make it into a movie. Of course, this incarnation of the Necronomicon was most likely an imitation since this popular mythical tome came entirely from HP Lovecraft’s imagination in the early twentieth century, but it’s still fun to think that Jess may’ve been influenced by the actual ‘book of the dead’ written by the “Mad Arab” Abdul Alhazred. Jess blended the material from the book with a script for a horror movie he had previously worked on, and the result is one of his most provocative films.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Interrabang (1969)

Considering movies like Barbarella (1968), Top Sensation (1969), and Russ Meyer’s Vixen! (1968), it would seem that the late ‘60s, the peak of the sexual revolution in the western world, was a turning point for erotic movies. Sexually charged films from this era were not only challenging censorship but were also challenging the monolithic wall of puritanical behavior that associated sex solely with marriage, which also mirrored the changing attitudes towards sex during the revolution.

With both “the pill” and penicillin on the market, pregnancy and STDs were less of an issue, and a woman’s sexuality outside of marriage was becoming more widely accepted, unlike before when it was more permissible for unmarried men to have sex, the so called “double standard.” Naturally, sex began to saturate the media, was used to sell products, and became a big part of mainstream culture. In addition, more and more married couples began experimenting with extramarital sex.

After the Hays Code was put to sleep in 1968 sexploitation cinema would really begin to thrive. With hopes of being free from the restraints of censorship, erotica would be used to explore new creative avenues of film making.

Inevitably, a lot of these so called sexploitation movies were taken to court, but a good way erotic filmmakers could get passed this was to not only make their movies sexually explicit but to make them intellectual and artful as well, which was particularly more common in foreign sex movies. On the VH1 documentary Sex the Revolution, John Waters said that in order to win in court you had to prove that a prosecuted sex film was socially redeeming, which would then make it acceptable.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Maniac Mansion (1972)

The Italian-Spanish co-production La mansión de la niebla / Maniac Mansion was the directorial debut of Spanish filmmaker Francisco Lara Polop, who had been previously working as a unit production manager for about ten years. He would also produce the Paul Naschy classics The Hunchback of the Morgue (1973) and Count Dracula’s Great Love (1973).

Made at the height of the Spanish horror boom, Maniac Mansion really is quite the fanciful gothic horror film with enough giallo and murder mystery influences to make it appealing to all Eurocult fans.

The fiery intro credit sequence is hypnotic and a nice mood setter, featuring a killer theme and a couple of chilling evil-witch cackles. The beginning of the story is a lot more grounded in reality with a somewhat unremarkable setup involving numerous shady characters, among which are a few familiar faces including Jess Franco regular Alberto Dalbés, before derailing into a foggy nightmare world, where things get a lot more interesting. Initially, you might start feeling better off just reading an Agatha Christie novel instead, but it does start to get good when all of the characters seemingly enter what feels like Silent Hill all of a sudden.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Man with Icy Eyes (1971)

Although commonly referred to as a giallo, Alberto De Martino’s The Man with Icy Eyes would have to be a rather atypical example of the genre, if not an ostensible one. It is set and filmed in a southwestern desert city called Albuquerque, NM (where I’m from, but we’ll get to that later). It doesn’t follow the violent murder mystery plot set forth by Mario Bava and popularized by Dario Argento, nor does it have any of the attractive gothic horror crossovers with ultramodern psychedelic fashions or drug-induced delirium. If anything, the film is more of a rustic detective story with a smattering of the crime thriller and a climax not entirely unlike that of Lucio Fulci’s One On Top of the Other (1969). Given the film’s mystery element, tense soundtrack, and early ‘70s era, and considering the presence of key players like Antonio Sabato (Seven Blood Stained Orchids 1972) and Barbara Bouchet (Don’t Torture a Duckling 1972), I can still dig the giallo tag. It also flirts with the supernatural, just a little, and there’s a colorful nude photography scene with Bouchet to give the film a minimally erotic edge.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Simona / Passion (1974)

You might not know it from looking at the playful erotic movie posters and DVD covers, but Simona is no sex comedy. Though still playful and sexy in certain parts, Patrick Longchamps’ Fellini-inspired adaptation of the French novel Story of the Eye (1928) is a dark oddity of avant-garde filmmaking, with a heavy undercurrent of social alienation.

At the time the film was released its lead actress Laura Antonelli had recently achieved overnight fame from her award winning role in Salvatore Samperi’s sexy, controversial dark-comedy Malizia (1973). She had made such an impact that moviegoers flocked to see Antonelli in Simona, which was actually shot about a year before Malizia (Simona was shelved for a while before being released).

Simona was unfortunately confiscated in Italy for its explicit content. One-time Belgian filmmaker Longchamps had a friend with connections in the Vatican who organized a private screening of the banned film for four priests, and after finally being approved by the church, Simona was released in Italy, where it made a lot of money (the film was never released in its native country of Belgium). Eventually the original film negatives were acquired by "distributors of ill-repute," and as it currently stands, a properly restored version of Simona, as far as I know, remains unrealized.

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