Thursday, March 2, 2023

Zelda (1974)

“You came to watch this movie just to see two naked women… You have a colonialist mentality.” – Alberto Cavallone on the ending to Le salamandre*  

“I would like, as I said, for the lover’s place to be in the middle of the couple.” – Emmanuelle Arsan**    

Alberto Cavallone’s films are not fun. I can’t think of one I’ve seen that does not have a depressing ending. Whether or not they are entertaining might depend on the viewer’s mindset, but they are almost always enthralling in a way. You might think you’re being lured in for an erotically fun time, with films like Le salamandre (1969) and Blow Job (1980), or a film with a notorious reputation that precedes it like Blue Movie (1978), but that’s just to get you in front of the screen so the film can put a mirror in front of you, whether or not you realize it, and call you a colonizer or a degenerate (who Cavallone referred to as the “raincoat crowd”), crudely interrupting your titillation. Basically, if the film upsets or antagonizes you, then it was made for you. What’s fascinating is that the films nevertheless did well with the audiences Cavallone was hoping to annoy.  

Cavallone dismissed his own erotic thriller Zelda as a commercial effort, lacking the sociopolitical content of his previous films. On the surface, the movie does have an erotic pull to it, with the promise of interracial lesbian scenes, in a manner similar to Le salamandre. Like Le salamandre, the erotic pull ends up not being the main point of the movie, and with Zelda, Cavallone is critical, or at least dreadfully pessimistic, of the loose sex lives of married couples and the en vogue erotic film of the era while also making his film look very much like one.


Zelda is largely a flashback story, with the narrative focusing on events taking place before and after the apparent double murder of two characters: paralyzed ex-racecar champion Henry Davis (Nude for Satan’s James Harris - born Giuseppe Mattei) and his supposed mistress Clarissa (Halina Kim). The dead bodies are discovered next to one another by the horrified servant, Alfonsina (Giovanna Mainardi), one morning in Henry’s mansion. A news broadcaster announces the murder and mentions that the police are investigating. Fortunately, this film isn’t heavy on police procedural at all, as it instead explores the life of Henry and all the individuals who were involved with his life during the time leading up to his murder. The film’s story is also done partially in whodunnit fashion, but the mystery element is downplayed a bit in favor of sexual drama, lots of stock footage, and the psychological games played by Henry’s wife Zelda (who is played by Cavollane’s wife Maria Pia Luzi, credited under her acting name Jane Avril).


The character Zelda has the appealing look of the gothic horror heroine, and that’s not just because she is introduced dressed in black for her husband’s funeral. 

"Don't you think it's ridiculous, dressing in this way?" asks Zelda's daughter Ingrid (Franca Gonella).

"People expect widows to be dressed in black," Zelda replies. 

Ingrid reminds her mother what she already knows, "but you couldn't care less about Dad's death." 

"Sometimes appearances are important," Zelda states indifferently. 

Either this is a strange way for Zelda to cope, or there was obviously no love lost between the couple, but after we get to know Henry and Zelda more, through backstory, it starts to become apparent that Henry may not be entirely to blame for Zelda’s coldness.

The cast of main characters, who also include Henry’s racing buddy Christian (Debebe Eshetu) and another mistress Ursula (Margaret Rose Keil), gather together during Henry’s and Clarissa’s funeral before the film flashes back, before their demises, to the racetracks.


As for a pro-polyamory film, my personal gold-standard is Emmanuelle Arsan’s Laure (1976), starring Al Cliver and Annie Belle, which depicts erotic relationships in a spiritually and philosophically healthy way. Zelda is on the exact opposite end, as it does not have good things to say about polyamorous relationships. Viewers might think they are in for some hot and steamy menage a trois, but what unfolds is a bad faith cautionary tale. Being an erotic thriller, this is fair enough, but the hazards that seem to come with the sexual freedom of certain characters in Zelda is a depressing reminder of the myth of free love, right in the middle of the ‘70s when the dream was so beautiful, too.


My favorite erotic philosopher Emmanuelle Arsan (Louis-Jacques Rollet-Andriane) believed we as humans, in order to escape the “childhood of humanity,” must begin to fully embrace the possibilities of eroticism. To quote the character Jean from the book Emmanuelle 2, when he is referring to his wife Emmanuelle’s lovers, “they are only expressing their love, and they aren’t my rivals, they are my allies.” In the philosophy book L’hypothese D’Eros, Rollet-Andriane argues (among many erotic arguments) that a third person in a relationship is beneficial in preserving it and can even help couples find greater happiness, particularly in the chapter titled Six Feet on Earth. Here in Zelda, it’s almost like the movie is saying, ‘you’re deluding yourself if you believe that.’ This sort of transgression takes its toll on Henry mentally, causing him to want to disappear, but Henry has a hard time resisting the temptation of that third beautiful lover his wife continues introducing into their marriage.


The sinful trap of libertinage is represented by the insatiable Zelda, who seems to be the driving force in maintaining the threesomes between her, her husband, and an extra woman. We’re not sure how long this has been going on, but the first woman in the story to be brought to bed with them is the coquettish Ursula. While initially welcome into the bed of the married couple, the third partner in the threesome is ultimately seen as an intruder to be shamefully sent away, as soon as Henry starts to express a desire to return to normalcy (not to mention the shame he feels for the effect it must be having on his daughter Ingrid, who is privy to her parents’ deviant sex life). After briefly escaping his perceived debauchery by throwing Ursula out, so he can be alone with his wife, as he puts it, Henry makes a brief return to tradition where he can be more in his element. Henry is kind of the “competent man” stock character; he hunts, he finances race car drivers, he drives race cars, he scuba dives, and he can pilot a glider plane.


It isn’t long after Ursula is ousted that Zelda fully recruits Clarissa, Christian’s wife, into their love life. Henry can’t help but continue to return to the decadent threesome with his wife, almost like an addict, and this makes him ominously foreshadow his own demise. “At a certain point you have to have the courage to go away forever…” Could this perceived toll that libertinage has on Henry be deliberate? 

Henry’s survival from his suicide attempt that leaves him paralyzed is farfetched. While piloting a glider plane by himself, in mid-flight, he shoots himself in the head and later wakes up in the hospital with the lower half of his body paralyzed. Zelda still maintains a third lover in Henry’s continued misery as the film moves along towards its lowkey and dark denouement.


Zelda has an absolutely evocative close out scene, with the camera slowly roving over what appears to be nude bodies in an orgy, with unfamiliar actors, but no one looks like they are having fun. Rather they look like they are suffering. The tired gazes and lethargic motion of the entwined lovers almost suggest that eroticism is ultimately empty and like a prison or almost like one of the seven circles of hell instead of a place of sexual bliss and freedom. It also looks really cool (and reminds me a little of the sexual dystopian artwork of Serpieri) and kind of gives the closeout a little more of a punch with the help of the synth and percussion heavy Henry Theme by Marcello Giombini. Zelda Theme is also an ethereal piece that works really well with the filtered stock footage of galloping horses in the film.


There’s more going on than just Henry’s threesome depressions, as Zelda is a bit complex, with a whole lot of stock footage; apparently over 30% of the film is stock footage, which pads it of course but didn’t seem to drag it down too much for me. I did sometimes get confused as to whether the narrative was supposed to be in the present or the past at certain times, and I had trouble keeping up with all of the characters too at first. It does take more than one viewing to resolve and figure out what’s going on and take in the movie’s themes, which made me happy to decide to review it, because there’s a surprising amount of depth to it. 

As an eroticism enthusiast, I’ve come to realize that I’m part of the target audience Alberto Cavallone was hoping to annoy with a film like Zelda. And weirdly enough, it’s become one of my favorite movies. 

© At the Mansion of Madness  

* Curti, R., (2018). Mavericks of Italian Cinema: Eight Unorthodox Filmmakers, 1940s – 2000s. McFarland & Company, Inc. 

** Arsan, E., (1974). L’hypothese d’Eros. Editions Filipacchi.


Sunday, December 4, 2022

Bloody Pit of Horror / Il boia scarlatto (1965)

Fun is only partially the name of the game with a film like Bloody Pit of Horror. With its comic book style influence, there’s lots of fun to be had, but it’s got a mean side too, as sadism is also the name of the game. The mix of fun and dark in the film is an influence from a style of Italian adult-oriented superhero, crime, and erotic comics known as Fumetti Neri, which consists, among many others, of flamboyant masked super heroes/villains: Diabolik, Kriminal, Mister-X, and Satanik. The antagonist in Bloody Pit of Horror could’ve easily come out of this subgenre, but he’s no fantastic masked superman. He’s a fantastically cruel masked super-sadistic-madman, the Crimson Executioner, played with love, enthusiasm, and high energy by a chiseled Mickey Hargitay.

Thursday, September 8, 2022

Marquis (1989)

Only Marquis’ literature can give me a taste for living.” –Justine (Isabelle Wolfe

Marquis is quite the creation. I never knew of its existence until recently. It’s a little like the movie Quills (2000) but with anthropomorphic characters who look like they’ve escaped from Alice in Wonderland. It is set in 1789, shortly before the Storming of the Bastille, in Paris France. The lead character (Francois Marthouret) is an inmate of the Bastille, who is referred to as Marquis and is a talented writer of erotic, violent, and depraved manuscripts. He is not necessarily alone, for his sizeable member who goes by Colin (Valerie Kling) is his close companion, consultant, and conversationalist. In between writing various pieces of salacious stories, Marquis finds himself participating in a ploy to help free a political prisoner, Lupino (Roger Crouzet), for the sake of the Revolution. Another imprisoned woman, Justine (Isabelle Wolfe), who was raped and impregnated by the king, is eventually thrown into the same cell as the Marquis, as a corrupt priest, Dom Pompero (Vicky Messica), intends to divert the blame on to him and cover up the king’s misdeed, but Justine instead finds the Marquis to be a gentleman and an enthralling storyteller. 

Sunday, June 12, 2022

Blue Eyes of the Broken Doll / Los ojos azules de la muñeca rota (1974)

The sadistic and awesome poster art is certainly deceptive, but the US title House of Psychotic Women isn’t too far off. Perhaps it should be, ‘house of sisters who probably should learn to communicate better’? Can’t say it doesn’t really sell the film though. Oddly enough, I was sold on the movie’s original title Blue Eyes of the Broken Doll, which works for the film as well, so feel free to pick your favorite title for this Spanish thriller, written by and starring Paul Naschy, and directed by Carlos Aured. It was also known as House of Doom for US television. 

Carlos Aured originally knew Paul Naschy from working as assistant director for Leon Klimovsky. Aured would be hired on to direct Naschy in Horror Rises from the Tomb (1973). They would collaborate in the ‘70s on three more films, with Naschy starring and Aured directing: Curse of the Devil (1973), Blue Eyes of the Broken Doll, and The Mummy’s Revenge (1975). 

Blue Eyes of the Broken Doll was pivotal in my becoming a Paul Naschy fan. It was my second Paul Naschy film. My initial interest in it being that it looked and sounded like a giallo, and I certainly wanted it for my giallo collection that at the time was just starting to grow beyond Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci. I had also remembered Paul Naschy from a previous film I saw as a teenager, the aforementioned Horror Rises from the Tomb, which at the time disappointed me, so I was feeling slightly dubious. After watching Blue Eyes of the Broken Doll, I had a much better time with it, and I loved Naschy’s character in the film, Gilles, which resulted in my eventually collecting many more Paul Naschy movies and becoming an ardent fan of his. Plus, I would end up realizing a new love and fondness for Horror Rises from the Tomb as well.

Sunday, April 3, 2022

The Devil’s Lover / L’amante del demonio (1972)

Now I have you with me, under my power. Our love grows stronger now with every hour. Look into my eyes, you will see who I am. My name is Lucifer, please take my hand.” – Black Sabbath 

When Satan comes to town, he sets his sights on the biggest catch in The Devil’s Lover, or my personal favorite alternate title Lucifera: Demonlover

I don’t know why, but it’s taken me many years to revisit this Italian gothic horror. The last time I watched it was in 2009 when I picked up the pan-and-scan Mya DVD. Despite the poor picture quality, I was happy to have it, as I probably wouldn’t have ended up knowing about it otherwise, but I am surprised the film never had an upgrade since. As far as I can tell, the only way to see it in 2022 is still as a censored and murky full screen film. 

Even though it was restrained, my fondest memory of this film was the grand love scene between a nude Rosalba Neri and a clothed, caped Devil figure, played by Edmund Purdom. I was in awe at the visual of Rosalba’s sideways lying profile figure that was partially shrouded by the devil’s cape as he embraced her. It certainly has the same kind of energy as the classic reclining nude paintings, such as La Grande Odalisque by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1814) or The Rokeby Venus (1647-1651) by Diego Velázquez.

Saturday, January 15, 2022

Justine and the Whip (1979)

Around the late ‘70s, Joe D’Amato got his paws on three Jess Franco films and, with editing help from Bruno Mattei, combined separate footage from each film into a single film called Justine and the Whip, starring Lina Romay, with Alice Arno receiving top billing. The dialogue from the original films was changed and redubbed in Italian, and the soundtrack was reworked. 

The reasons for why a patchwork movie like Justine and the Whip exists aren’t clear. Some have said that it was because D’Amato was salvaging an unfinished film from Franco that was originally intended to be another version of De Sade’s Justine. But I read in Stephen Thrower’s The Delirious Cinema of Jesus Franco: Volume Two that the original film was called Julietta 69 and was completed and actually had a 1976 French cinema release before becoming inaccessible. It’s speculated that Jess Franco sold Julietta 69 to an Italian production company, and D’Amato and Mattei were eventually commissioned by Franco Gaudenzi to make the mashup Justine and the Whip. Thrower also points out that D’Amato claimed in an interview from Joe D'Amato Totally Uncut (1999) that they were trying to make Franco’s films more “usable”, but the result here is an incoherent mess that seems quite unusable, at least by comparison to what the completed Julietta 69 must have been like. Maybe by “usable” D’Amato meant more commercially appealing for the time by possibly increasing the number and frequency of love scenes in the film.

Friday, October 29, 2021

Nude for Satan / Nuda per Satana (1974)

“Think of nothing but the fact that you are marrying me, and are promising to love and obey me forever, past death, into eternity!” – Vincent, Lord Satan (Louisa Bronte)

A movie called Nude for Satan already sounds pretty good without even knowing the plot. The notion of satanic panic combined with Italian exploitation resulted in an impulse buy for me. When I looked the DVD case over, I was like, “yes, please!” Plus, it’s from the same director, Luigi Batzella, of The Devil’s Wedding Night (1973) and The Beast in Heat (1977). And, it stars one of the most amazing Italian scream queens, Rita Calderoni. There’s lots of promise here. 

If you are watching the Dutch Sodemented DVD version of this film, there will be p#rn, as in hardcore inserts of other actors and body-doubles legitimately bumping uglies. If you think that will take you out of the movie, I would recommend one of the DVDs released by Redemption instead, or check it out on Redemption TV.

Friday, August 6, 2021

Demons 5: The Devil's Veil / La maschera del demonio (1989)

Lamberto Bava’s made for television Demons 5: The Devil’s Veil really took me by surprise when I first saw it. Historically, it’s been pretty rare, so, years ago, when a friend pointed out to me that the film had been uploaded to their YouTube page, I initially watched it as a curiosity (always going the extra mile when it comes to Italian horror). Being somewhat forgotten and without much praise and recommendation to go off of, I was expecting a mediocre ‘80s horror film, but the experience was really quite technically impressive and entertaining, with several memorable horror sequences. Story wise, I’ll admit, it was a little hard to stay invested the entire time, but I loved Sergio Stivaletti’s creature effects, and I really appreciated the sometimes subtle and sometimes startling approach the movie took to demonic possession. There’s just a number of really nice touches in how peculiar the characters act when it’s apparent some kind of demonic force is acting on them, a similar kind of peculiarity that I appreciated in The Church (1989) from Michele Soavi, who also stars in this.