Monday, February 17, 2014

Love and Death in the Garden of the Gods (1972)

Being a conversation heavy drama mystery with a bit of a dreamy languor about it, Love and Death in the Garden of the Gods may require a little focus from viewers if they hope to get absorbed in its compelling story, beautiful scenery, and tragic characters, but it is worth it. The plot is more or less structured to be an exploration of a hazy backstory that slowly crystalizes before eventually catching up with the present.

The film is directed by Sauro Scavolini, a prolific screenwriter (All the Colors of the Dark, amongst many others) with few directing credits. He is the brother of director Romano Scavolini (Nightmares in a Damaged Brain), who also helmed cinematography for Love and Death in the Garden of the Gods.

The story is fed to us in fragmented bits and pieces from an inquisitive Professor of ornithology (Franz von Treuberg), restoring and listening to a heap of tangled audio recording tape he discovered in the forest outside the villa he’s rented to study the non-indigenous birds of the region. As the Professor listens to the tape recordings, the film cuts to flashbacks of the previous inhabitants of the villa, making the place seem haunted by a past that is both alarming and fascinating. While the past is the primary setting of the story, the film still emphases events in the present, particularly the relation between the professor and the seedy estate administrator, Dominici (Vittorio Duse), giving the Professor dimension and making him more than just an avenue of backstory disclosure.

The mystery element to the past storyline seems to stem from trying to find the truth behind, what seems to be, a suicide attempt from the lady of the house, Azzura (Erika Blanc). One of the movie’s most compelling images is of the fiery red headed, nude Erika Blanc with her wrists slit, lying unconscious in a tub of red water. The conversations between Azzura and her psychoanalyst, Dr. Martin (Ezio Marano), regarding her suicide attempt, her past, her marriage to her husband, Timothy (Rosario Borelli), and her incestuous relation with her brother, Manfredi (Peter Lee Lawrence), permeate throughout the course of the backstory, making the movie feel like a Freudian psychoanalysis. There’s sometimes a lot of reverb in the characters’ voices to indicate the discussions happening in the past, or as in a dream.

Azzura’s marriage to Timothy causes her brother heartache, driving him away from the villa, only to turn up a few months later with a photography studio and a new love interest, Viola (Orchidea de Santis), a free-spirited vagabond. Viola is the one who later finds Azzura with her wrists slit in the tub, and, after saving her life, becomes sexually involved with Azzura. It becomes apparent that Azzura has insidiously been the cause of severe torment for her brother. Despite being a highly disagreeable and unsettling character, Manfredi manages to be sympathetic and, one could say, the tragic hero of what does end up feeling like a Shakespearean play. (Lee Lawrence’s life was tragically cut short. There had been a false notion that he committed suicide, but his wife of the time, Cristina Galbo (What Have You Done to Solange?recently confirmed that he died after a battle with brain cancer at the age of thirty.)

The emblematic spooky, disturbing, yet beautiful dream sequences are a Eurocult hallmark and are appreciated very much here on this blog, and Love and Death has a nifty little dream scene of its own, related by Azzura to her psychoanalyst, that’s definitely a highlight. The dinner table setup in a lush beautiful garden reminds me of the Mad Tea Party from Alice in Wonderland, which could probably be called a Mad Fried Chicken Party, in this case.

There’s also a frequent tendency from the director to film Erika Blanc walking or running through long passages and alleyways, sometimes with the camera stationed or following from behind. She’s a phenomenal leading lady here as an actor, but as a visual delight, she shines like a fiery idol and really seems to compliment every stunning backdrop. In addition, there’s a pink lamp in the nicely decorated living room that shows up a lot and matches Blanc’s pants and vest in a couple scenes, a nice way of integrating the leading lady into the foreground, as well.

Despite an absence of anything supernatural, Love and Death still manages to feel eerie, with a moody and atmospheric environment that is wonderfully complimented by the dramatic and haunting classical music, by Giancarlo Chiaramello. There does end up being quite a body count, and the chemistry between Blanc and Lee Lawrence is intense, as their characters together embody the Eros & Thanatos theme so aptly promised by the film’s title. The actress playing Viola, de Santis, is a pleasant new face for me, whose presence in the story, driving the infidelity theme, completes a dysfunctional love square.

Patient viewers who don’t mind a bit of melodrama to go with their thrillers will discover a hidden gem in Love and Death that’s also a reminder of how underrated Erika Blanc is.
© At the Mansion of Madness


  1. I had not heard of this before, but knowing the connection to All the Colors of the Dark makes me want to see it. I like the way you noticed that the lamp sort of drew attention to Blanc; usually I am both impressed with and aghast at the decor in Euro cult films (especially the wallpaper, Lord have mercy) but I may try harder the next time I watch one to see if the interiors have some symbolic purpose.

    1. Hey, Erin! I know what you mean about the décor in these films; I sometimes feel like I’m writing an article for retro home design when taking screen grabs; and yes, I do love the wallpaper. How about that flower wallpaper with the black background used in the psychic’s room from The Perfume of the Lady in Black that was also used as wrapping paper for one of the mysterious packages delivered to Silvia’s flat?

      I don’t think anyone here in the southwest uses wallpaper much, I think; the walls in the homes are more textured. I know when I finally own a house, I’d like to have (‘70s movie style) wallpaper and lavish décor. I’ve always been more of a poster and skull/dragon statue person, but I’m not adverse to change.

    2. Someone should do a Tumblr or Instagram where all they do is post screengrabs of 70s Euro movie decor.

  2. I'm really glad to have found out about this film; I saw it on someone's list of gialli. My initial impression was that this was going to be a psychedelic giallo about hedonistic hippies being murdered in a gothic villa which turned out to be wrong. The more I think of it, I'm not completely sure if Love and Death can be classified as a giallo. There's definitely a mystery element but much of the story is a romantic drama turned tragedy. I suppose it could be argued either way.

    I love how opulent the cinematography is with the rich furniture and I also like how the garden seems to be almost devouring the estate (this can especially be seen in the opening and when Erika is walking to her car and you can see the steps surrounded by plants). The use of classic style of music is actually somewhat refreshing since a lot of Eurocult films tend to use contemporary styles from Morricone/Nicolai/Cipriani etc. (which are still excellent). I kind of want to learn to play the main theme on the piano (but I haven't really touched a piano in 5 years).

    I'm new to the Scavolini brothers and judging from their filmography, they seem well-respected and versatile but I wish they did more films like Love and Death. I haven't seen Nightmares (which looks pretty cheesy) but Spirits of Death is a great Gothic giallo. Very artsy and an excellent cast. I definitely recommend getting the German DVD since it has a nice commentary track (complete with subtitles).

    PS Good catch on the psychic's wallpaper in Perfume! For some reason, I completely failed to notice that it was used on that mysterious (not to mention creepy) package!

    1. Thank you so much for the comment, Terence, and thanks for directing my attention to this movie. I had known about it for a while, but your recommendation finally pushed me towards it, and, as usual, I wasn’t the least bit disappointed.

      Love and Death definitely stands in a league of its own and is strongest in its tragedy-romance drama and is probably not really a giallo but more a giallo by proxy or maybe by association. I usually like to point out Euro thrillers that stand out but still have all the fixins we love: surreal ambiance, beautiful cinematography, Freudean themes, dark family history, provocative actors, erotica, and murder. A romantic-tragic giallo? Lol, this is becoming a classic debate.

      Back in my guitar playing days, I used to try and mimic my favorite movie themes, particularly Suspiria and Dawn of the Dead, but it would never sound right. I usually got the sequencing right but was too tone deaf to get the notes right.

      Nightmares is probably a little cheesy in its excess, but I remember it being pretty gritty, dark, and demented – a far cry from the beautiful Italian thriller.

      I’m looking forward to Spirits of Death, as every recommendation you have has always been ace. I’ve got a desire all of a sudden to want to review Sex of the Witch. I remember enjoying it, but I can’t remember if it really was a good movie. Perhaps a re-watch is in order.

    2. Oh and good call about the plants engulfing the estate :)

  3. I'm always excited to see a new post here. Top notch, as always. Not only do you find movies I've not heard of, but you always manage to do a fine job determining what makes them of interest. Great post.

    1. Hi Brandon! Thanks for the encouraging words. It’s what I usually set out to do.

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