Saturday, April 14, 2012

Murder Obsession (1981)

I sometimes wonder if evil is inherent in every one of us. Some say that evil does not exist at all, and what we call evil is merely the absence or lack of good. But what is it that compels one to want to do harm to another with a complete disregard for the viewpoint of the victim? Anger, jealously, or possibly just a primal instinct to inflict pain? The wicked and malevolent being that could potentially lurk deep down inside of us is brought to the forefront in MURDER OBSESSION.  

Riccardo Freda’s last directorial feature may be flawed, but it is one beautiful looking movie where familiar and highly significant genre actors such as BLACK SUNDAY’s John Richardson, BLACK EMANUELLE’s Laura Gemser, and giallo favorite Anita Strindberg (her last starring role) come together in a dark and mysterious series of murders, ceremonies, and somnambulant wanderings in a secluded villa. With its modern Gothic setting and indulgently directed sequences, MURDER OBSESSION feels like an exceptional finale from the man who brought the world the pioneering Italian horror effort I VAMPIRI and the unsurpassed and hypnotically psychedelic bloodbath in TRAGIC CEREMONY. The film effectively establishes the right mood by forcing a throwback to candlelight on account of the mansion’s electrical wiring malfunctioning, and along with the rich and vibrant colors as well as the lead character’s hairstyle and mustachio; the overall feeling is like a ‘60s Gothic in an ‘80s movie. Two of my favorite things… 

While playing the role of a killer during the filming of a movie, the lead character, Michael (Stefano Patrizi), is introduced as a movie star and a shady person when he takes the method-acting technique a little too far by nearly strangling his co-star, Beryl (Gemser). Although he might not be the most appealing or likable, the unease brought on by the character of Michael makes for an interesting lead that may or may not have a dormant impulse for murder. This creates one of surprisingly few red herrings in a murder mystery plot with pretty vicious death scenes where everyone dies except for the killer and one other final character, resulting in one of those fun horrific endings that is like Oh my god!  How could you!?  No….  Nooooooooooo!!!!  Roll end credits. 


An unwavering impulse of nostalgia hits Michael after a gust of wind forces open his window, interrupting his singing and guitar playing. As if a spell has been brought over him, Michael immediately walks over to a desk in the hallway and opens a resilient drawer that seems to have not been opened in a long time, revealing photos of his childhood self and his mother, Glenda (Strindberg). The short flashback sequence that results consists of an embrace between mother and son in a lovely green yard with purple trees bathed in natural light outside of a huge villa. This scene is done in a way that succeeds in portraying a seductive past, resulting in a fairly believable motive for Michael’s impulse to return home, setting up the film’s isolated mansion scenario. After the flashback, the unlikability that I previously mentioned about Michael further comes out when he calls up his girlfriend, Deborah (Silvia Dionisio), and instead of asking her, tells her “listen, pack some clothes, we’re going on a trip”.  What a jerk.

After arriving to the mansion shortly thereafter, the rest of the film takes place in Michael’s childhood home, where unresolved issues from long ago are waiting in the dark to catch up to him once again, and a long forgotten past seems to greet him as if no time has passed at all.  Upon arriving, he is greeted by the servant, Oliver (Richardson), whom Michael claims hasn’t changed a bit. Even his supposedly ailing mother hasn’t seemed to have aged a day since her appearance in the flashback scene. One could swear that she appears to be the same age as her son. 

Michael’s impulse to return home was so sudden that even the director, assistant director, and his co-star (Henri Garcin, Martine Brochard, and Gemser, respectively) of the movie that was previously being filmed eventually tag along in order to scout for filming locations. Before the film group arrives, the time spent with Michael and a few others at the villa seemed like enough for a compelling story. The arrival of three additional characters is supposed to be a kind of more-is-merrier approach to moving the story forward, but it ends up causing the movie to be pretty messy from here on out.  However, by packing the mansion with colorful characters, a myriad of multiple directions and outcomes result, such as more murder victims for the killer and Michael cheating on his girlfriend at the side of the lake with BLACK EMANUELLE herself (who can blame him?).  Like Deborah says to Michael when the lights go out at the dinner table, “Why complain? It just adds to the atmosphere”. 


The film contains yet another awkward Oedipal theme between mother and son, with Glenda’s embraces and kisses towards her son feeling a little too intimate in the wrong way. The fact that she says “Oh Michael” the same way and is dubbed with the same voice (the unforgettable and lovely voice of Carolynn De Fonseca) that dubbed the mother (Evelyn) in the zombie camp-fest BURIAL GROUND, made this feel extremely familiar to a certain moment with another Michael in that film. 

More several wonderfully filmed childhood scenes reveal that Michael happens to bear a striking resemblance to his father, William, a music conductor frequently referred to as the maestro. Apparently, when he was only a child, Michael blacked out one night and supposedly killed his father, further suggesting his latent identity as a killer. A shot of the child version of Michael holding up a bloody knife happens to be very reminiscent to a particular scene of another child holding up a bloody knife in Argento’s DEEP RED. 


Richardson seems relatively wooden as the mansion’s expressionless servant/butler, but this works in giving the character a creepy air and what feels like a mental scarring of questionable origin.   

Along with Gemser, Dionisio is utilized as a visually pleasing accessory to the proceedings but is given more depth than Gemser, which is great because Dionisio is a lovely actress, but being an EMANUELLE fan, I would’ve liked to have seen more of a different side to Gemser than the sexually liberated character she usually plays. She does do some scream-queen stuff, but it would have been nice to see her in a nightmare sequence.


Dionisio’s scene where she relates her nightmare to Michael is too long, as it sort of pulls us out of the story for a while, but this ends up being forgivable due to Freda’s way of artistically directing and emphasizing all of the favorable moods and visuals that accompany a dream sequence. It serves very little purpose to the story other than to plant a clue to the killer’s identity, and it adds more of a discomforting air to the mansion, as if the place itself has fed Deborah the nightmare. Another great sequence worth mentioning is the series of creepy occurrences that take place on the first thunder-filled night that all of the characters spend in the mansion together, which is essentially a foreboding and taste of things to come.


Although an assistant to Angelo Mattei, MURDER OBSESSION is the first film that the highly prolific make-up and effects man Sergio Stivaletti worked on, and the inexperience shows at this point in his career, as the gore effects aren’t as terrific as the ones seen in other films produced around the same time, such as THE BEYOND or THE GATES OF HELL.  Nonetheless, the murder scenes still offer an interesting look at one of the SFX greats at the start of his career. 


MURDER OBSESSION was the last feature from a filmmaker that was previously slowing down. This film feels like a final episode of sorts that is true to form and fits the mold of the director’s previous horror films, with recurring themes like the bloody black mass previously used in TRAGIC CEREMONY and the deadly female character in one of my favorite Barbara Steele films, THE GHOST. One could easily say that it is a masterpiece in certain aspects with incredible directing, cinematography, and atmosphere, but it also lacks the ability to keep the audience engaged enough to really care where the story ends up going and doesn’t make up for it with amusing and intense moments like in LISA AND THE DEVIL (at certain times I found myself wishing that the butler in this film was played by Telly Savalas). With the slight exception of Michael and his mother, there really weren’t any interesting characters, however, despite its flaws, I still thought it was an enjoyable viewing experience based on the visually aesthetic and atmospheric strengths of the film and the theme of a hidden evil existing in the inner depths of every human soul.

"It's so nice whenever you find two young people not possessed by sex.  Love must never be a passion which burns out and leaves only ashes, it must be something deep...  Unsurpassable..."  Glenda/ Anita Strindberg

1 comment:

  1. jervaise brooke hamsterMarch 18, 2014 at 12:53 PM

    I want to bugger Laura Gemser (as the bird was in 1968 when the bird was 18, not as the bird is now obviously).