Those who may only know him from his terribly cheesy ‘80s outings like NIGHTMARE CITY and GHOSTHOUSE or his violent cannibal jungle adventures, should know that director Umberto Lenzi also directed a number of crime, Eurospy, and giallo films that are considered to be very respectable and accomplished. What I like best are his giallo films from the late ‘60s and early ’70s, and so, if you thought the cannibal movies were too distasteful or that NIGHTMARE CITY was ultra-sucky (not me) and crime films just aren’t your thing, then perhaps what you may’ve been missing all along are some of his terrific gialli, like SEVEN BLOOD STAINED ORCHIDS, KNIFE OF ICE, SPASMO or one I recently enjoyed for the first time, ORGASMO, which sadly, unlike SPASMO, doesn’t include paranoid cries of the enigmatic movie title in its trailer. It was actually released as PARANOIA in America, which adds a good deal of confusion because following the success of the film in America, Lenzi made another movie called PARANOIA in Italy that was released as A QUIET PLACE TO KILL in the US, resulting in two movies called PARANOIA made roughly around the same time. Adding further confusion is the fact that both films star the flamboyant sex icon Carroll Baker as the leading actress. Ah, title confusion… What better way to nerd out on films?
Recently widowed and wealthy Kathryn West (Carroll Baker) has moved from America to a lonely villa in Italy. Detached from her past and looking to live a quiet life of peace and isolation, her only form of contact and company now is her lawyer, a stern housemaid, and a deaf gardener. Kathryn finds herself attracted to a young stranger whose motor happens to breakdown in front of her house one day and is seduced and charmed into letting the young man and his sister stay with her. Once she is hooked in, both brother and sister, and surely some other outside influence, mess with her sanity in cruel and evil ways that drive her mad.
So, she was alright as a witch in BABA YAGA and a distressed dame in SO SWEET… SO PERVERSE, she displayed fairly interesting acting in KNIFE OF ICE without delivering any lines on account of playing a mute character, and she had an Academy Award nominated role in BABY DOLL, but for a while now I’ve usually wondered: what’s so great about Carroll Baker? Well, read on to find out.
|"Well, what do I think of myself? When I think of myself, I want to vomit." --Kathryn/ Carroll Baker|
After seeing ORGASMO, I’ve finally become a Carroll Baker fan. She doesn’t necessarily come off as a great actor when delivering casual lines of dialogue, but when she goes mad in ORGASMO, Baker lets loose at times and gives it her all and the result is attention grabbing, to say the least. She’s also a pretty good screamer, and I can’t help wondering if Lenzi brought it out of her. The conviction in her portrayal of Kathryn’s misery sort of rubbed off on me, as her suffering was very believable and incited a considerable amount of pity and concern. With the help of greenish white makeup and dark lipstick, it starts to really seem like she’s not doing so well after all the mental abuse she endures, which also succeeds in amplifying our emotional disgust in her tormentors.
The acoustic guitar and serenading female voice in the movie’s main theme song, FATE HAD PLANNED IT SO, is very pretty but also haunting in a way and reminded me of the theme music to THE DEVIL’S NIGHTMARE. The vocals in the music yield a feminine presence that gives soul to Baker’s character but with an air of unease, as if something isn’t quite right with the way things are initially unfolding.
Things begin to change for Kathryn when a dreamy James Dean type (just kidding, but he does have a poster in his room), Peter (Lou Castel), happens to breakdown in front of her villa. He’s invasive in a very suspicious way, showing up out of nowhere in need of help and showing up again in the middle of the night, but Kathryn is obviously attracted and can’t seem to resist his allure.
Kathryn’s past marriage has resulted in a particular folly in her decision making skills. While conversing with Peter over wine in the courtyard of her beautiful villa and reflecting on her deceased husband, Kathryn claims that an older man was what she thought she needed, but apparently the only thing he could offer was money. After spending most of her life with her husband and having all of her financial needs well met, there still seemed to be a void in the place of a more youthful lifestyle that’s eluded her over time. The arrival of a much younger man must feel like a refreshing new change, something she surely must have fantasized about for a long time while being constrained in her marriage. And so, it ends up being no surprise when she sexually gives in to Peter.
Shortly after Kathryn develops an attachment to Peter, his sister, Eva (Colette Descombes), arrives late to the party to visit. Eva is the other side of the same coin as Peter, with Peter providing the sexual allusion of youth and Eva bringing the cultural element of youth, like photography, music, and rock ‘n’ roll dancing, resulting in Kathryn remembering what it’s like to party again. It’s not long before she feels very comfortable around these strangers, as if they are her new family.
With an almost surreal display of extortion, Kathryn’s home invasion isn’t necessarily brought on by physical force but more through a domination of willpower and trickery; some of which involves drugs. The film eventually results in an unsettling and claustrophobic feel as Kathryn finds herself prisoner in her own home. By weakening her willpower, Kathryn has difficulty in making it known to others that she needs help, with guests mistakenly thinking her captors are just a couple of good friends. Her misery increases her dependence on the drugs and alcohol Peter and Eva provide her, which in turn only makes her weaker, paler, and more demented. Doesn’t sound pleasant at all, I know, but the film is just so odd, twisted, and well-made that I can’t help but recommend it.
It’s uncomfortable to describe the film as erotic, because the situation is more disturbing than sexy, which is probably why the erotic sounding Italian title of ORGASMO was changed to PARANOIA for the American market. Also, the psychedelic cinematography in the scenes that indicate the effects of the drugs on Kathryn give the movie that delirious giallo feel that, like a drug, helps to keep me addicted and always coming back for more.
A small red herring that I find humorous is when after the house maid (Lilla Brignone) is introduced to Kathryn as Teresa, the maid politely makes it known that she would like to be called Terry, on account of her knowing a little English and staying in London for a short time. The initial response was sort of like “Oh… OK, I’ll be sure to keep that in mind, TERESA!”. For the rest of the movie she’s not once given the honor of being referred to as Terry. This is a very small point in the whole scheme of things and is easily unnoticeable, but it was something that I thought to be peculiar and rather indicative of the snobby nature of Kathryn and her lawyer, Brion, played by Tino Carrar; who some may remember as the Professor Terzi character with the cute daughter in Argento’s THE CAT OF NINE TAILS.
So, a lot of you know that I usually save this spot to rave about the movie’s great ending, but unfortunately there isn’t anything too surprising about it. It’s a pessimistic and very grim conclusion with a montage that is an odd recapping of several key highlights, which I suppose is useful in case you don’t get around to watching it again. It’s still a good movie with a very different home invasion scenario than most are probably accustomed to, unless it’s ripping off some other movie I don’t know about. It was supposedly influenced by WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?, but until I see that I won’t know for sure.
ORGASMO is a new favorite of mine and I am looking forward to exploring more of Baker’s filmography. I haven’t even seen THE SWEET BODY OF DEBORAH yet, her first giallo and supposedly one of the best.