Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Evil Eye / Malocchio (1975)

Evil Eye is that kind of movie that gracefully tries to do it all but ends up not really knowing what to do with itself afterwards. When looking at the film as a whole, it feels like a nice recap of the enduring motifs of the giallo, occult, gothic horror, and erotica film, and for that it will surely find a place in the hearts of Eurocult fans (it certainly has for me), but it’s hard to tell if it is a work of genius, a mistake of a masterpiece, or just an empty, routine cash-in. Is it great or not-great? I honestly have referred to it as both.
The Spanish, Italian, Mexican co-production Evil Eye (aka Mal de ojo in Spain, Malocchio and Eroticofollia in Italy, and Más allá del exorcismo in Mexico) is directed and co-written by Mario Siciliano. It was also co-written by Spanish writers Julio Buchs and Federico De Urrutia. Interestingly, Buchs and De Urrutia have several co-writing credits together, such as Alta tension (1972) and A Bullet for Sandoval (1969), many of which Buchs directed. Evil Eye seems to be the very last film either writer worked on. Julio Buchs died in 1973 before the film was released.

The leading man is Mexican movie star Jorge Rivero (who, like me, graduated college with a degree in chemical engineering) as nightmare-plagued, wealthy, debauched playboy Peter Crane. Despite my issues with the direction of the story, I thought there was something appealing about Peter and the way Rivero portrayed him with minimal charisma and just the right amount of elegance, without seeming too trashy or unlikable. I thought the opening when Peter wakes up (at 6 pm), after having a nightmare about a terrifying cult that is seemingly menacing him, looking absolutely hungover and partied out, surrounded by other passed out partiers, in his own living room, really captured that hedonistic ‘70s vibe, as does a few other parts of the movie. Peter has to walk over passed-out bodies in order to find his servant, Walter, played by Eduardo Fajardo, who kicks the party guests out by first waking them up with loud music.

Peter actually reminds me a lot of a 1970s Dorian Gray; he lives in excess, hosts parties at his mansion, is wealthy but doesn’t work, lives alone with his servant/major-domo, has a reputation for his not so wholesome lifestyle, and has a certain agelessness, mainly thanks to Jorge Rivero’s weightlifter physique.

Peter is plagued with nightmares of an otherworldly cult, and these nightmares are related to blackouts, where he murders people and remembers it later as a dream. It reminds me of the hypno-killer theme seen in many a Jess Franco film. Peter starts to look more and more disheveled as the body count increases.

When he starts to suspect there might be something wrong with himself, Peter visits and eventually checks into a psychiatric hospital under the care of Dr. Stone (Richard Conte). The film does tease with a loose insinuation that Dr. Stone might somehow be involved with what is happening to Peter. Some of the parts where Peter is in the hospital under observation seem wasted and uninteresting (except for when he’s sneaking out with one of the female doctors, played by Pilar Velázquez), where nothing about Peter’s dilemma seems to really be explored satisfactorily. He does mention to his doctors about the people in his dreams and alludes to a kind of “they made me do it” cult conspiracy. At least while he’s in the hospital, Peter’s friend Robert (Luis La Torre) throws a party (consisting of a lot of extra cast members, including Eva Vanicek), where a very PG attempt at an orgy takes place in his living room. (During the party, a lot of times, you’re just like, “I don’t know who these people are or what’s going on, but I kind of like it.”)

Evil Eye is a film that bleeds a little bit of the occult horror into the giallo but only to a degree to where it feels more like a mild accessory to the proceedings. It’s a minor novelty that could’ve gone a long way given how creepy the occult moments are, but it is too loosely/ambiguously integrated into the main plot. The occult parts are awesome and unnerving, but aside from the photo of Peter Crane used in a ritual, it is almost like they could’ve come from another movie or been easily transferred to another movie to simply be nightmares to antagonize another protagonist. (I really like Johan Melle of euro fever's noticing the vague implication that the delirious and tormented looking nude figures in Peter’s dreams are the souls of murdered victims who are channeling energy to get revenge from beyond through Peter, but like a lot of plot threads here, this is never really expanded on and ultimately discarded. Maybe this is what happens when too many ideas are pushed in to the story; the stronger ideas get watered down.)

One of my favorite parts that I recalled the most when I first watched it was when the movie decides to go on a haunted mansion interlude/side-quest, where Peter decides to go for a long drive, alone, after getting a menacing phone call from someone. His car breaks down in front of a spooky house that is occupied by non-other than Italian low-budget cult movie icon Luciano Pigozzi (it really feels like the movie is unknowingly paying fan-service here). It comes off like a mini-vengeful ghost story. This little segment could be expanded into its own movie. Daniela Giordano occupies the house too and is nearly unrecognizable with bobbed red hair. Of course, the occupants seem to know Peter well, but Peter doesn’t seem to know them. The lady of the house even fondly remembers she and Peter spending a night together. Does he just score so much that he can’t remember everyone, or is something else going on?  

The strange Elizabeth Stephens, who remembers having a passionate night with Peter despite his not remembering her, is played by Daniela Giordano.
For some reason, before I saw Evil Eye, I thought Anthonny Steffen would be in the leading role, but Steffen comes in later as the good-guy side character Inspector Ranieri, who's newly assigned to homicide. With Ranieri, the film takes opportunities to try and further explore the supernatural elements by having unexplained hauntings and visions visit the inspector that ultimately come off as ambiguous and insignificant. I don’t believe Ranieri ever even meets Peter in person. I did still enjoy the haunting incidents the inspector endures, particularly the grinning vanishing woman and the creepy sound effects when he temporarily loses his hearing. Ranieri has a little bit of a side story with his wife who paints an impressive portrait of him. She gives him a keychain-like charm of an eye, which you’d think was the evil eye of the title, but it is actually for his protection. (In Italian superstition, the 'evil eye' is considered a curse, and in order to protect oneself from the evil eye, a ‘horno’ charm pendent that resembles a southwestern chile is worn, so having an eye as a protective charm, as in the film, is kind of an interesting inversion of the legend.)

Spoilers: I’m convinced the writers were not sure how to end the movie, or unsure of which of the many alluded possibilities to use to explain Peter’s nightmares, the hauntings, and the murders, and so they took the easy way out with a throwaway ending that had me in disbelief. Jess Franco films of the same nature do at least give far-fetched explanations. But it is what it is, and I’ve come to accept the framing as a sort of ‘Peter in Gialloland’ take on the genre. There is a certain amount of elasticity to it, so that someone could probably develop their own interpretation. I believe it is also suggested that events will repeat themselves only a bit differently, as it is someone else calling Peter on the phone when he awakens. Perhaps by living his life as a dream first, he can do better the second time around. End Spoilers

One of Peter's more steady girlfriends Tanya is played by Maria Pia Giancaro, although she is often mistakenly thought to have been played by Daniela Giordano.

This doll really has nothing to do with anything aside from aiding in the movie's irresistible giallo aesthetic, and I am so here for it!
It also has to be mentioned that Stelvio Cipriani’s score, which ranges from eerie to romantic, does help give the movie a little more emotional substance and bite. 

To watch Evil Eye is to step outside of your life for an hour and a half and put your problems behind you temporarily and take in the beauty of the moment, savoring a period of sweet, relaxing intoxication. Everything the ‘70s cult horror fan could want is here: cult-conspiracy, mystery, murder, dream sequences, sex parties, mansion hauntings, etc. At times it seems empty, and at other times it seems like such a beautifully woven nightmare. There are a number of good directions that either don’t pan out or are discarded. Despite my ambivalent thoughts on it, I still have a lot of love for this film. It hits the sweet spot so many times while also being an unfortunate mess. Evil Eye isn’t very well written as a whole, yet it has so many well written parts, but unfortunately, in the end, it just doesn't end up amounting to much. 

© At the Mansion of Madness