Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Mania (1974)

When it comes to the unique definitive Renato Polselli experience of histrionics, eroticism, violence, and sadomasochism, movies like Delirium (1972), The Reincarnation of Isabel (1972), and even The Truth According to Satan (1972) are the best examples of Polselli films that have created a small but loyal fanbase. These have long been some of my favorite cult films, but I also adore the romantic black and white early Italian horror efforts from Polselli The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960) and The Monster of The Opera (1964). The seed for this auteur’s characteristic style of madness and set spectacles was planted in Monster of the Opera, the film itself still planted in the fun dance-meets-classic-monsters gimmick featured in Vampire and the Ballerina, but something wildly unhinged was taking shape. The entertaining delirium, screaming mad characters, and disorienting editing that is Polselli’s signature would essentially be fully realized in Delirium and Reincarnation, but for the longest time there was a missing piece of the filmography that Polselli fans were literally deprived of for many, many years, a once lost film called Mania.

Sanitized by the censors and given a limited theatrical run in 1974, Mania quickly disappeared and was long considered lost until a 35-mm print surfaced in 2007 in a film archive in Rome, Cinema Trevi – Cineteca Nazionale. It was going to be released on DVD by No Shame soon after, but they went out of business before that could happen. Miraculously a crude version of Mania showed up on YouTube without English subtitles back in September of last year. Thankfully, just recently, Terence linked me to a decent version with subs (which is also now on YouTube), and I honestly now feel like a significant void in my life has been filled.

So, is Mania the hitherto missing grand realization of our beloved auteur? Not quite, but it is still very nice to finally be able to experience it. A lot of it is essentially stuff Polselli fans have seen before, all the insanity and nuances we crave, and most of it takes place at the same house where Delirium was filmed. This is something I can’t get enough of, and I’m grateful Mania delivered in a certain respect. And yet I couldn’t help thinking that if the film were somehow stripped of Polselli’s touch, it would probably just be a rather mediocre horror film.

The movie is a composite of ‘60s style gothic horror and sci fi with ‘70s eroticism that really pushes the sleaze envelope. It’s ridiculous and funny but also disturbing and completely insane. With an absurd flow of events, exaggerated emotional outbursts, and overly dramatic character name screaming, it’s completely fitting for the title of Mania.

Following some dark poetry about the subconscious and the unconscious, the movie kicks off on the road in the rain, introducing us to lead character Lisa (Eva Spadaro) and her fiancée Lailo (Isarco Ravaiolo) on a car ride. Lisa is the one driving, and she is in a totally frantic state, fixated on her dead husband, Professor Brecht (Brad Euston), and the time she cheated on him with his twin brother, Germano (also Brad Euston). Professor Brecht died in a fire that started in his B-movie Dr. Frankenstein lab. Germano became disfigured and handicapped after attempting to save his brother from the fire. Lisa feels guilty because she froze during the emergency, even holding the key that could’ve saved her husband’s life. Ever since, she has been on the brink of a mental breakdown, as she feels her deceased husband is with her now more than when he was alive.

Lisa frantically relates this backstory exposition to Lailo while she is driving, and she is really losing it. You see, there’s mad, and there’s “Polselli mad,” and when someone is “Polselli mad,” like Lisa here, they really are in no state to be driving.

I recognize the personality of Spadaro’s character. It is nearly identical to the characters Rita Calderoni plays for Polselli, which means that there is something consistently specific in Polselli’s direction for the female leads in these films. I do admit to not really being as interested in Eva Spadaro initially, but she did end up winning me over as the movie progressed to its climax. At first, I was like, “where’s my Rita Calderoni?” but I honestly ended up loving her performance by the end.

It’s pretty bizarre, during the intro car ride, when Lisa and Lailo get overtaken and menaced by a white car with no driver. The driverless white car obviously signifies Professor Brecht’s ghost haunting and punishing Lisa for cheating on him and for possibly letting him die in the lab fire. Is it real, or is someone screwing with her? It overtakes and stops a few times presumably to cause Lisa and Lailo to crash.

During the backstory exposition, there’s a random attack scene with Professor Brecht strangling the house keeper Erina (Mirella Rossi) with a plastic bag. It’s violent, realistic, and totally screwed up (Polselli filmed a similar scene with Hargitay in the American edit of Delirium). The resulting struggle appears to kill Erina, but she turns up mute and mentally scarred later. Whether this is from the strangulation or traumatization from the lab fire is uncertain. She still roams the mansion at present day. Erina is the innocent, sympathetic servant that Germano abuses, sometimes throwing Erina to the ground to menace her with the wheel of his wheelchair, reminding me of the pitchfork scenes in The Monster of the Opera.

After surviving the car ride, when Lisa and Lailo get home, they find their governess, Katia (Ivana Giordan), in a nearly swooned state. Some troublemaker, I wonder who, came by and dropped off a gift-wrapped present for Lisa, which turned out to be a miniature model of her husband’s casket. It causes Lisa to faint from madness, putting her in the hospital, where her doctor, Dr. Lous (Max Dorian), advises her to return to her old house as a means to overcome her anxiety, stop her from going further than insane, and finally convince herself that her ex-husband is dead and buried. It’s not too much of a spoiler to point out that it does not work out very well.

Lisa returns to her deceased husband’s mansion (which for most viewers is a return to the house from Delirium but with seemingly supernatural happenings and the gothic horror mise-en-scene), and she eventually has Lailo leave, so she can face her past alone. Lailo hangs out around the outskirts of the mansion for almost the entire night, without getting bored.

Instead of using a frequent establishing shot of the mansion exterior, the action sometimes cuts to a colorful, atmospheric shot of windy tree silhouettes, dark clouds, and the moon, which does give this unorthodox film a slight classic horror feel.

Lisa’s mental episodes are illustrated with the power going out in the house. Things abruptly go black and the hallucinatory, turbulent editing takes over (similar to one of Calderoni’s breakdowns in The Truth According to Satan), as the narrative arrests itself to madness, disorientation, sadistic laughter, floating heads, confusing closeups, bursts of light, smoke, and heavy storm sound effects indoors. There is also some fun visual ghost stuff, despite that certain other low budget Italian horrors have foregone showing any kind of ghost manifestations like in Something Creeping in the Dark (1971) or A Whisper in the Dark (1976). And bravo to Spadaro for a couple amusing moments where she theatrically imparts her mania by striking a biting-hand pose that I always look back on and laugh.

At one moment, in voiceover, we hear Lisa read a tender love letter written by Professor Brecht. Despite both brothers being total assholes, Brecht wrote a real impressive romantic love letter to Lisa. As someone who likes to write romantic text messages from time to time, I’m actually kind of envious. The softness of the warm letter is shattered when Lisa immediately sees (or hallucinates) a Fulci-like closeup of Professor Brecht in burned zombie make-up. 

To convince Lisa that Brecht is truly dead, Germano sends Lisa down to the crypt, and she gets decked out in gothic horror attire for the occasion and eventually undergoes a murderous transformation, the point in which she finally flips her top, murdering people Clue style and then, in the next scene, has the audacity to call Germano a monster for tying up Erina. Germano subjects Lisa and Erina to some kind of sci fi torture device where they scream and press their faces against a glass wall for what feels like minutes. It’s not just hilarious; it’s freaking awesome! I like to think of it as Polselli’s most entertaining S&M set-piece, even if it isn’t quite as spectacular as some of the set pieces from The Reincarnation of Isabel. It segues into an epic climax with Lisa running up multiple flights of stairs, up to the roof, just for the dramatic effect, in an unhinged state. I really like the way the ordeal at the mansion seems to take place over the course of an entire night and concludes at dawn for a Grand Guignol of a finale.

Mania has a rather melancholic soundtrack that I couldn’t recall the first time around. There is a pleasant but still kind of sad sounding synth theme frequently used that gives the film a soul. The chill sax music goes well with Lisa’s lonely moments in her room, freaking out over Scooby-Doo footprints that disappear and reappear, and the groovin' progressive rock theme really livens up the part where Lisa has a net thrown over her at random and is attacked by eels. Certain dissonant sounding noises do accompany some of the “ghost” scenes that do succeed at being unsettling.

There’s a lot to analyze and absorb in its trimmed down 82 minutes that makes for a compelling re-watch. It does have quite a small cast, but all of the main actors give it their all, with Spadero and Rossi being surprisingly memorable. It’s safe to say that the movie is a little more about the experience and emotions than the story, especially since the narrative isn’t afraid to occasionally divert to delirious 'shouty' sadomasochistic interludes. 

I hope Mania wasn’t lost for too long or introduced too late in the game to eventually achieve the same classic cult status as Polselli’s best films. It’s been somewhat of a Eurocult urban legend, and its sudden appearance online has given closure to us Polselli fans. Or has it? 

You can read about Polselli’s, still lost, original version of Mania, with Fumetti inserts, on euro fever

© At the Mansion of Madness 



  1. It's such a treat to finally be able to see "Mania", an unforgettable experience. I adore "The Vampire and the Ballerina",too. Polselli's brand of cinematic madness lives on!

    1. I just found out from an interview with Polselli that Brad Euston wrote the script for Mania, which is interesting because Polselli's touch is all over it. Even more interesting, Claudio Fragasso was assistant director.

      I totally agree with everything you say. Even with a smaller filmography by comparison to some of his contemporaries, Polselli's erotic thrillers are second to none.

    2. Wow, I had no idea Fragasso was involved! Fascinating...

  2. Spot on about the madness that is inside the core of this film. I can't even imagine watching the move being shot from the sidelines. It must have been even crazier looking than how it looks on film.

    1. I feel that's part of the fascination, just what filming some of the more frantic parts was like.