Sunday, January 17, 2016

Spasmo (1974)

I know now that it’s Italian for ‘spasm’ (or a name giallo fans might give their pets), but when I first watched this film’s delirious trailer, I remember thinking: “who or what is Spasmo?” and after I saw the movie, I still didn’t know what Spasmo was. It’s just one of those appealing one word titles that, like Orgasmo, somehow complement the film rather well.

You don’t forget a title and a film like Spasmo. As for the details of the story and characters, that can get a little hazy, not just with time but even upon reflection the following day, since there’s so much to it. Images of assaulted mannequins meld with memories of murdered characters that may or may not have been real from the perspective of the protagonist, who is either losing his mind or is in the worst company ever. It really makes you wonder if Umberto Lenzi’s experimental giallo is either a confusing mess or a labyrinth of mysteries and riddles for the viewer to explore and analyze.

A lot had already been done with the giallo at this point, so you can tell that the filmmakers were trying to shake the genre up a bit by making the film more of a puzzling psychological thriller. There are several screenplay credits, with the core story credited to Pino Boller, but Lenzi’s addition of the stylish mannequin motif gives Spasmo a distinguishable mark that many remember it by. Someone is just leaving stabbed, molested, and hanged latex dolls around in the woods, and that really starts to mess with your mind. Is it a repressed killer acting out fantasies or some sort of depraved artist? Although the whole depraved-sadist-and-his-mannequins thing did bring to mind Bava’s Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1970), it also had me thinking of William Lustig’s Maniac (1980) a teensy bit.

I might as well get it out of the way now; the soundtrack conducted and composed by Ennio Morricone would be another one for the ages if this film were better known. The main theme, first heard over the credits while juxtaposed with disturbing visuals of the aforementioned mannequins, seduces the viewer into its world. It’s a soul moving piece with a soothing acoustic guitar that has something unnerving and haunting about it at the same time.

Lenzi had a tendency to shy away from the gothic, but Spasmo, as far as I can tell, might be the closest Lenzi came to gothic. It revisits the paranoia and mania elements from Lenzi’s previous Orgasmo (1969) but with an interesting twist of schizophrenia that makes the film a little comparable to Robert Altman’s Images (1972).

The order of the day is suspicious, enigmatic characters, including the lead character Christian (Robert Hoffman – dubbed by Frank von Kuegelgen), a playboy and a stockholder in his brother Frit’s (Ivan Rassimov) plastics processing company. His unusual encounters with a mysterious babe, Barbara (Suzy Kendall), lead to even more unusual encounters. Christian first meets her passed out on the beach, thinking she might be dead at first. After she recovers consciousness, Barbara slips away while Christian is distracted by his current lover (Maria Pia Conte), but he manages to later track Barbara down at her lover’s (Mario Erpichini) moored party yacht, called Tucania, thanks to a clue she left behind.

Barbara subtly invites Christian to her motel room for a friendly and mature bout of casual sex, under the odd condition that he shaves his beard first in her bathroom. As she puts it: “I’m very suspicious of men with beards.” (Well it looks like I’d never have a shot with her…) This leads up to the pivotal moment that sets the events in motion when the obvious bad guy (Adolfo Lastretti) comes in through the bathroom window and tries to kill Christian after he shaves his beard. Following a struggle in the bathroom (with a fabulous wall design that so elegantly matches the floor), Christian manages to shoot and apparently kill the man with his own gun. It’s not understood yet why someone tried to kill Christian, and because the door was closed Barbara didn’t notice (the gun had a silencer), nor did she want to look inside the bathroom at the body when Christian tells her: “I’ve killed a man I never saw before,” which makes him sound crazy. Things begin to get fairly twisty when Christian returns a short time later for a gold chain he left behind only to find that the body and gun have disappeared.

Not wanting to involve the police and not being sure if the killer or someone else is now after them, Barbara suggests they hideout at her friend’s house (some sort of lighthouse or watchtower, I believe) for the time being, which happens to be in a scenic location on a hill overlooking the ocean–quite an effective location for most of act two. The owner of the house, a supposed painter friend of Barbara’s who happens to be away, has a passion for birds of prey. Although the birds end up having no relevance (unless you think of their inclusion as foreshadowing that one among them is a predator), they give the interior of the house the distinguishing feature of having fancy cages with several live and stuffed exotic birds on display.

Something unique to a lot of Lenzi’s thrillers is the trope inversion of light over darkness. With most of the daytime shooting in Spasmo, Lenzi wanted to show that mystery can be more frightening in the light than in the more conventional nighttime darkness. The daylight segment when Christian and Barbara first break in to the mansion does have a strange, eerie isolation about it. It’s a little interesting to imagine how the film would’ve fared had it taken place over one unnaturally long day, sort of like with Interrabang (!969).

The ambiance does change fairly quickly when night falls, which feels a little reminiscent of gothic horror since the electricity is off, causing the characters to break out the candles, until the random and abrupt arrival of two new strange characters who happen to live there, Malcolm (Guido Alberti) and Clorinda (Monica Monet – dubbed by Carolyn de Fonseca), that turn on the electricity.

With the arrival of Clorinda, a striking but unusual woman, and her old-enough-to-be-her-grandfather companion, the friendly but still suspicious Malcolm, you can tell that there is something deliberately odd here. Their relation and presence is so unusual and unnatural that something fishy has to be going on.

One of my favorite visual highlights involves Clorinda leading the way for everyone in the darkness, with a lantern (substituting for no good reason the much cooler candelabra) in hand, to the tower where Christian and Barbara will stay the night.

Later that night, Clorinda visits Christian in his room, in a scene that ends up being quite ambient partially on account of the day-for-night window view of the coastline that stuck in my memory for some weird reason long after seeing this. It’s a good segment with an unpleasant ending.

Spasmo consistently relies on the element of uncertainty, as Christian and viewers ponder if potentially threatening characters lurking around outside of the house are real or not. It succeeds at generating a subjective feeling of paranoia and distrust. For a while, it’s uncertain if the killer in the bathroom was hallucination or not. We frequently cut to shots of the same madman, without a scratch on him, roaming around outside the house, set to some creepy dissonant music. But I think it doesn’t really matter if the killer is real or a figment of Christian’s imagination. The brilliance to it is that he is both real and not real, a metaphorical representation of the dark, harmful side inherent in us all that we loosely keep under control. It’s always lurking, and only a minor disturbance can upset the delicate balance of sanity. The madman in question is an actual character in the film named Tatum, but he is also a representation of the unstable psych of one of the characters with a hereditary mental condition.

I like the way the story continues on into the third act with different settings and location shifts, such as a chemical plant, making the story feel, perhaps, a little episodic but also like it’s taking some interesting new developments, especially after feeling a little claustrophobic for a while at the mansion.

Christian’s brother Fritz makes an appearance surprisingly late in the game, but I ended up thinking it was a good choice to reserve an actor like Ivan Rassimov for the story’s more climactic third act.

With the third act, one cannot explain much without giving it away. The more patient fans of mystery and the psychological giallo who don’t mind being left in the dark most of the time will be relieved to find a definitive explanation, considering how suspiciously ambiguous the narrative was most of the time. It also makes more sense on repeat viewings when you know more of the whys.  

Spasmo has its creepy moments, its disturbing moments, and its frustrating moments, but I do like the way everything ties together with a subtle but clever denouement and a memorable closeout that generates a true sense of gravitas. 

© At the Mansion of Madness

We've all noticed and celebrated the prominence of the "J&B" bottle in these films, but has anyone ever wondered about the other recognizable "Punt e Mes" bottle that is usually not far from the J&B? It's Italian vermouth. I'm interested in trying it, but I don't think I've noticed it in any wine or liquor store I've been to. I might have to special order it.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

The Devil of Kreuzberg (2015)

It’s always been interesting to get to know fellow film bloggers through their writing or vlogs. You come across a lot of great writers with a mutual passion for European genre and horror movies, yet some of them have a passion that goes beyond just talking about the movies; they make them too. Now, I confess to knowing nothing about filmmaking and I probably never will, but I can only imagine what kind of intense commitment and passion must go in to making a genre love letter like The Devil of Kreuzberg, a medium-length German gothic horror film from indie filmmaker, and I might point out fellow film blogger, Alexander Bakshaev.

I’ve followed Alex on Trash Film Addict for a few years now, so I was familiar with what kind of films he’s interested in and looking forward to how someone who knows a lot about vintage gothic horror would tackle a low-budget gothic horror film in 2015, and I’ve got to say I was impressed.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Dracula Saga (1973)

Count Dracula seems to have a habit of always being reborn, both within the stories themselves as well as in different incarnations across the board of entertainment media. He’s become so synonymous with horror and Halloween that he will never leave the public consciousness. You can kill him off with a wooden stake or by overexposing him with so many variations, adaptations, tie-ins, or spin-offs, but he’s never going away; he’ll always be reborn. And why shouldn’t he? Like most great ideas, there always seems to be plenty more to explore. I wonder if Bram Stoker knew just how immortal his creation would turn out to be and that killing him off at the end of the novel was only the beginning.

Much like Hammer’s Dracula films, the Spanish horror film The Dracula Saga / La saga de los Drácula is a take that explores further possibilities with The Count. With a stretch of the imagination, it kind of works as an unofficial prequel to Stoker's Dracula, but it’s rather more of an alteration of sorts that disregards the events of the original story and takes liberties to imagine what Dracula’s family would be like, with a story told primarily through Dracula’s estranged granddaughter, Berta (Tina Sáinz – I could’ve easily seen Emma Cohen in this role as well). Although there are narrations from Dracula at the beginning and at the end, telling the story at the end as if it was his story all along, while the English trailer is narrated by Berta, who claims this is her story, so it's a bit of a toss up as to whose story this really is. 

Saturday, October 24, 2015

The Monster of the Opera / Il mostro dell’opera (1964)

Il mostro dell’opera is not quite what you’d call an adaptation but more an experimental variation of The Phantom of the Opera. But it’s unlikely that viewers will come to this side of Eurocult obscurity just to see what replacing The Phantom with a Count Dracula-esque vampire in a beloved and well-known canon would be like; most probably seek this out because of the movie’s co-writer/director Renato Polselli. I know I did.

If you’re a fan of Polselli’s The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960), of which this makes a good double bill with, you are going to love this, and if you’re a fan of Polselli’s delirious S&M fever nightmares from the early ‘70s, you’ll love this too, because Il mostro dell’opera is like a predecessor to Delirium (1972) and Rites, Black Magic and Secret Orgies in the Fourteenth Century (1973) aka The Reincarnation of Isabel – minus the turbulent editing. It builds on everything that made The Vampire and the Ballerina a fun time but is progressive in a sense with certain erotic and expressionistic elements that in contrast to its old-fashioned, classic look makes it feel ahead of its time.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Short Night of Glass Dolls (1971)

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “oh no, he’s reviewing another freaking giallo again,” but this isn’t just another giallo.
Short Night of Glass Dolls, Aldo Lado’s directorial debut, is actually quite the surprise, in that it manages to meet, defy, and exceed expectations right up from its mellow start to its killer climax. It interweaves elements from occult horror and the detective thriller into a nonlinear narrative that has a little bit of a Citizen Kane (1941) format and a plot that’s driven by the interesting mystery of what could’ve befallen its unfortunate protagonist. The explanation is pretty much what you’d expect, but the sheer weirdness and the way it plays out, not to mention the alternate Prague setting, causes Short Night to be refreshingly different from the more common giallo of the early ‘70s and yet still look and feel very much like one.

The success of Rosemary’s Baby (1968) was still freshly permeating its influence around this time, and it’s no surprise that numerous films continued to capitalize on its black magic, occult, and conspiracy themes, and Short Night is no exception, with murders, kidnappings, and sanity breakdowns feeling orchestrated by some sort of secret order, also bringing to mind The Perfume of the Lady in Black (1974).

Monday, August 17, 2015

Les gloutonnes (1973)

With the French productions The Lustful Amazons (1973) and Les gloutonnes, Jess Franco wrote and directed two brazenly erotic takes on Italy’s own Hercules counterpart Maciste, a recurring cinematic hero from the peplum genre with respectable origins dating back to the silent film era, starting with Cabiria (1914). A different character altogether, Franco’s Maciste, played by Wal Davis, is more of a medieval playboy, adventuring to new lands full of sex hungry Amazons, randy mythical queens, and horny Atlanteans, saving the day, satisfying entire tribes, and living to tell about it.
The Lustful Amazons contains some of the most entertaining comedic sex scenes, with top tier Franco babes Alice Arno, Kali Hansa, and Lina Romay, that are quite arousing to watch, and they manage to keep an otherwise underwhelming film lively enough to sit through with a minimal level of enjoyment. On the other hand, the longer sex interludes in Les gloutonnes manage to drag down what is actually an intriguing erotic fantasy/adventure film. The settings for some of the more detached porn scenes, seemingly edited into the film, are dark and surreal (done with Franco’s tendency for up-close body worship) but couldn’t be more unnecessarily drawn out, even in a Jess Franco film, where I’m usually conditioned for such lengthy interludes.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Death Smiles on a Murderer (1973)

Beyond the Darkness (1979) was my first Joe D’Amato experience and one of my earlier Italian horror revelations, and it quickly ramped up my respect for D’Amato, who, for me, at the time was like the ‘other guy’ who seemed like he was going to be my new grimier gore-master alternative to Fulci and Argento.

D’Amato's Anthropophagus (1980), despite its notoriety, didn’t quite measure up to the expectations I had based on what I experienced from Beyond the Darkness. Incidentally, I did end up ultimately enjoying D’Amato’s line of odd, softcore (sometimes hardcore) Emanuelle films, most of which starred the exotic and goddess-like Laura Gemser. Somewhere along the way, I got ahold of D’Amato’s poetic and beautifully gothic Death Smiles on a Murderer / La morte ha sorriso all'assassino, his first horror film as sole director. I didn’t quite connect with it on the first run, but I’ve really come to appreciate it today.

Monday, June 22, 2015

The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960)

I’ll admit that about three years after seeing The Vampire and the Ballerina (L’amante del vampire) the only thing I could seem to remember about it was the dance numbers. The movie had left a good impression on me for some reason, and I don’t think it was just because of the dance scenes, which were surprisingly sexy for 1960. During a recent re-watch the rest of the movie was like viewing it for the first time. It’s a fun, atmospheric Italian vampire piece from the gothic horror golden age, and after seeing a lot of those, they tend to get lost in the memory over time if you don’t re-watch them on occasion.

This one, along with the same year's The Playgirls and the Vampire (1960), does have enough sexy gimmicks to help it standout in the mix; and what might also make it a little more interesting to some is that it is an early effort from Renato Polselli, someone whose particular brand of erotic, expressionistic madness touches my heart. Polselli’s cinematic characteristics seen in films like Delirium (1972) and The Reincarnation of Isabel (1973) aren’t quite as apparent in The Vampire and the Ballerina as they would be in Polselli’s Vampire of the Opera (1964) later on, but it’s still a charming attempt at a gothic horror film, in romantic B&W, that Polselli co-wrote with prolific screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi as well as Giuseppe Pellegrini.

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