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 candelabrum) 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.


  1. Interesting convoluted story with a surprising ending. Great music by Morricone.