A Quiet Place to Kill

2013 italian film culture blogathon

Yes, things look a little different here today. This review is part of The Nitrate Diva’s 2013 Italian Film Culture Blogathon, a celebration of all aspects of Italian film culture. And as such, we’re including a little background information for those readers not accustomed to giallo. Without further ado …

You know, there are directors who achieve fame or notoriety chiefly through a particular work (or even a couple), regardless of how representative it is of their oeuvre. To the general public, Umberto Lenzi likely means nothing, except perhaps, “What gibberish are you talking now?” but to horror fans, Lenzi means Cannibal FeroxNightmare City. Maybe even Eaten Alive! Which are all … decidedly not good. Some might go so far as to call them worthless trash. And that’s a damn shame, because Umberto Lenzi–and he will be the first to tell you this–has made a number of fine films, or at the least, far better ones over the course of his long career. I’d say the majority of his pre-1980 work is better by far, but it’s Lenzi’s curse to be known best as a purveyor of ultraviolent cannibal sleaze.

Lenzi’s strengths lie chiefly in action and exciting set pieces, and accordingly some of his finest work is in the poliziottesco filone–the “tough cop” crime and action flicks of the Seventies inspired by the likes of Dirty HarryLenzi’s poliziotteschi are easily comparable to the best of the filone by acknowledged masters like Di Leo, Dallamano, and Castellari. But before the rise of the poliziottesco, there was the giallo.

For those tyros tuning in Wikipedia can provide a quick background on the giallo; for our purposes, the essentials are that the giallo was a sort of crime thriller popular in the Sixties and Seventies; it was during the latter decade that the genre peaked (about 1972). In 1963′s The Girl Who Knew Too Much and 1966′s Blood and Black Lace Mario Bava laid out the general narrative structures and tropes of the filone (later playing with those same generic conventions in a string of ever more experimental gialli), while Dario Argento’s 1970 debut The Bird with the Crystal Plumage upped the ante with yet more violence and psychosexual drama–and was an international breakthrough hit. (Note that this film and Bird were released simultaneously, AQP2K coming out one day after Bird.) It is Argento’s work (in the vein of Bava) that is synonymous with the current popular conception of the giallo–complete with elaborate violence, kitschy style, and often impenetrable plotting. Most of the gialli popular today are from the “classic” period of 1970-1975, and therefore are considered direct descendants of Bird, and so the relentless discussion among fans and purists of just what does or does not constitute a “proper” giallo works from Bird’s example. And the Sixties gialli (saving Bava’s work, of course–in MOST instances) often fall victim to the “but really, what IS a giallo!?” nitpickers, particularly the type we’re discussing here, the sexy-thriller lenziani.

(Wait, what? That dude we just mentioned, the one largely reviled by anyone other than ardent gorehounds or fans of Eurocrime ? That guy has like, a film genre filone named after him? Yeah, pretty much. And it’s awesome!)

Differing from the Argento-type gialli in that they’re less mystery thrillers than suspense thrillers, i.e., the killer’s identity isn’t usually a mystery,  but rather the mystery lies in whether the killer will get away with their crime–and sometimes (always?) whether there is yet ANOTHER layer of duplicity. Less Agatha Christie than Hitchcock, these Sixties sexy-thrillers lenziani are also more Clouzot’s Les diaboliques than anything elseThink of the sexy-thriller lenziani as a gorgeous detour on the way from Bava to Argento, one that winds its way through sunny Mediterranean locales populated by the rich and glamorous. Carroll Baker and Jean Sorel will be there, looking fine, and there will be more of the beautiful people–and many of them will be nude! There will be scads of booze and pills, women and song, lies and videotape. We’re going to hop into a sporty little roadster and speed down treacherous serpentine roads until we reach the shocking conclusion of the sexy-thriller lenziani.

sex, lies, & super8

sex, lies, & super8

Paranoia
aka A Quiet Place to Kill
aka Os Ambiciosos Insaciáveis
aka Una droga llamada Helen
Director: Umberto Lenzi
Released: 1970
Starring: Carroll Baker, Jean Sorel, Anna Proclemer, Luis Dávila
Running time: 94 min
Genre: giallo

Women are sometimes silent, but never when there’s nothing to say. Lilian Terry, however, has plenty to say. She begins crooning “You,” the title track to Paranoia, over some Umiliani loungey jazz stylings. As the credits roll, we see  … I don’t even know what, but it sure is exciting! It’s all in Glorious Negativecolor, for one. There are zooms on women walking and staring, and cameras rolling–on us! There are reflections and distortions, rack focusing and women appearing, always staring. There’s a gun! And a crash! And a struggle! There’s running, and slapping, and ominous men in suits! And yet more staring, staring, staring! That dratted camera again! And it’s all tremendously exciting with the crooning the reversed colors and the THINGS HAPPENING. Finally, we see–who? Oh, it’s La Baker, and she’s ready for some Formula 1 fun.

And there we are, transported to a racetrack where Helen is a racecar driver, a veritable Maria Andretti. Only she sees (hallucinates? recalls? envisions? prophesies?) a handsome man (Jean Sorel) standing on the track–all we need now is Mary Weiss shrieking “Look out, look out look out!”–a swerve and a crash! The ambulance rushes the driver away, she goes into surgery, and then it’s … some time later, and Helen’s apparently recovered. Oh, all but her nerves, which are shot per the doctor, she’ll never race again. He also warns her against excitement, sex, smoking and drinking. Allowed to choose one but vice, Helen goes with whiskey, jettisoning playboys and fun. It’s not all so bad, however, as she’s also given a lifetime membership to the Valley of the Dolls–as long as she never takes one on an empty stomach!

Leaving the hospital with her erstwhile flunky/manager/paramour/hair model, Helen gets the bad news that she’s on the hook for MILLIONS (of lira, so who cares, it’s not like it’s real money anyways) for her hospital treatment and stay. Also for even more MILLIONS (see above) for the racecar she wrecked. On the plus side, she’s got a telegram from some well wisher! There’s always a silver lining. Turns out that the telegram is from Helen’s ex-husband Maurice, who’s got a villa in Mallorca, and suggests she visit. Playboy von Glamourhair makes a whiskey stop, and while he’s in the shop, Helen absconds with his sporty little car, headed for Mallorca.

helen was a racecar driver

helen was a racecar driver

you give love a bad name

you give love a bad name

when passion's a prison you can't break free

when passion’s a prison you can’t break free

In sunny Mallorca, however, Helen will find that it was actually Maurice’s WIFE (!!!) Constance who sent the telegram. And though she’s hesitant about joining Maurice and Constance for a little menage, their frolicsome fun in the sun life is just irresistible. As is Maurice. He’s just as deliciously seductive as he was when Helen married him (seriously, have you SEEN Jean Sorel!?), and Helen’s just as much under his spell as she ever was. Also under the influence of a drug called Maurice is Constance–but she yearns to break free. She enlists Helen in the founding chapter of Maurice Anonymous, and under her program the first step is murdering Maurice.

Murder is plotted and a murder occurs, but whose? Will the perpetrators convince the authorities of their story? Was the crime caught on tape? And just what is that untrustworthy nymphette Susan up to? It’s all J&B and jetsetters, women and Wess & the Airedales, upskirts and Umiliani until someone gets hurt–or dead.

A typical European male: selfish amoral, and corrupt. Between Bava and Aregnto there was a school of gialli rather unlike those with which we are more familiar. They are the psycho-sexy thrillers lenziani, and, well, guess who was the master? These gialli by way of Hitchcock and Clouzot–often with a noirish touch–are a breed apart from the post-Argento giallo, although their influence shouldn’t be underestimated.

your very first kiss was your first kiss goodbye

your very first kiss was your first kiss goodbye

psycho sexy

psycho sexy, qu’est-ce que c’est?

who's the hypotenuse now!?

who’s the hypotenuse now!?

Fisty: Let’s talk negatives first, specifically, that credits sequence. Maybe I suffer from short-term memory loss, but that was one of THE most exciting credit sequences I have ever seen. The first time I watched Paranoia, I remember being so jazzed within thirty seconds that I was jumping up and down, jizzing, texting, and tweeting. Then I tore my hair out. And started scream-crying, like footage of girls seeing The Beatles or Danny Bonaduce in person for the first time. I’m kind of getting the urge to start doing that again right now, actually. The music! The action! The cutaways! The crazy colors! SO. MUCH. EXCITEMENT.

You know, normally we wouldn’t spend so much time, either in the synopsis or the actual review, discussing a credit sequence, but in this case it’s absolutely warranted. The brilliant (yes, I am applying that adjective to Umberto Lenzi, more on that momentarily) thing about the sequence is not only how (incredibly) exciting it is, but the way it–well, I’ll let you take this one, Billy.

Bill: First, let me explain to the readers (as if we have those–HA!) what the hell you’re talking about, in case we aren’t being clear enough.

For anyone that hasn’t seen Paranoia (which I will now begin calling A Quiet Place to Kill or AQP2K for short–I’ll come back to that in a second,) the entire opening credit sequence is a montage of scenes from the movie with the colors reversed or, say it with me, “in NEG-UH-TIVE.” Now go back and read Fisty’s first sentence and laugh at her, because she’s funny. You can always trust her to bring the wits and class. She really was as excited as she claims about that opening sequence, too. That is not hyperbole. Her excitement was warranted though. It really is a kick ass way to open the movie … and kind of brilliant. You see all this struggle and violence and trippy, fun-looking stuff that foreshadows everything you’re about to see, while still keeping you clueless as to which things will be happening to what characters, since it’s so hard to recognize people in negative. Once you have seen the flick and re-watch that part, knowing exactly what you’re seeing in the intro makes it even cooler. One negative about the negative (I stole that from you, Fisty,) it does also tend to make everyone look a bit like poorly done CGI characters when they move. But there’s no way Lenzi could’ve have known that in 1970.

a quiet place to--oh, whatever

a quiet place to–oh, whatever

i play my part and you play your game

i play my part and you play your game

an ideal place to--oh, goddamnit, lenzi!

an ideal place to–oh, goddamnit, lenzi!

Getting back to the title thing … Umberto Lenzi’s Paranoia came out in 1969, starring Carroll Baker only to be followed by Umberto Lenzi’s Paranoia, which came out in 1970 starring Carroll Baker. SAY WHAT?! The ’69 film, known as Orgasmo in Italy, was retitled to Paranoia for international release. The ’70 film, Paranoia–that’s the one we’re doing now–was given the same name as the U.S. re-title of Orgasmo. So, to avoid confusion, they retitled Paranoia as A Quiet Place to Kill internationally. This attempt to avoid confusion has failed. I got confused just writing this. Seriously, what the hell, man? Is the “ridiculous” in our “ridiculous re-titles” tag even a strong enough word for this tomfoolery, Fisty? Do we need a new tag? Maybe something with curse words in it?

Fisty: Dude, it gets better! The title of Lenzi’s 1971 giallo Un posto ideale per uccidere translates to An Ideal Place to Kill, though it was released in the US as both Oasis of Fear and Dirty Pictures. So after releasing Paranoia with the international title A Quiet Place to Kill he released another film with a similar title. AND, his original intent was for Orgasmo to be titled Paranoia. What with the reuse of Wess & the Airedales’ “Just Tell Me” in both Orgasmo and A Quiet Place to Kill, I think Umberto Lenzi gets a wee bit fixated on motifs now and again.

Bill: You don’t say? Could you call filming with a glass of red liquid ruining your shot twenty-eight different times in one movie a motif he was stuck on? If so, then I agree. He is a better filmmaker than most people that know him only for cheap exploitative thrills would probably realize, but in this instance, I have to wonder what he was thinking. I just don’t get it. I don’t understand why he would intentionally ruin his shot over and over with the glasses. There’s a few other scenes with, like, planters and vases in the foreground that throw you off, too. Is this some cultural thing that I’m not understanding? Just an eccentricity of Lenzi? Was this movie originally meant to be in 3D (with a funky disco cocaine theme song)?

you promise me heaven then put me through hell

you promise me heaven then put me through hell

quit being a bitch and fill one up

quit being a bitch and fill one up

bill is so pissed

bill is so pissed

Fisty: (Inasmuch as disco’s progenitors include funk, lounge, psychedelica, yes. Sort of.) But no. Those shots are hardly “ruin[ed],” Bill. Your use of “intentional” there should clue you in to what Lenzi was playing at with the different compositions –and AQP2K is indeed chockablock with funky yet elegant shots. Lenzi seems a bit experimental, like he’s playing more with different ways of telling the story visually rather than simply through the narrative, and that the tricks aren’t there just to to heighten dramatic impact. That showy rack focusing you find so distracting? Another way for Lenzi to show how the roles of victims and perpetrators become increasingly blurred and overlapping, the ways in which motives are obscured.

Lenzi also throws a lot of mirrored or double compositions and subjective camera shots into the mix, further playing with notions of just who’s doing what to whom here. Some of my favorites involve Helen and Constance, particularly their first scene (featuring a stunning gold crackle mirror tiled fireplace!), in which they’re both wearing green, establishing their jealous natures. Lenzi plays with color quite a bit, clothing Constance–and in one episode, Helen–literally in gold, symbolizing perhaps a deeper motive, and of course the film is practically awash in the red stuff. No, not blood (these Sixties gialli are rarely bloody), but myriad red libations–what are they, aperitifs? Campari or vermouth? I have no idea. Those little red glasses of SOMETHING potent–that’s important, Bill–are some of the worst offenders in those shots you hate. But Lenzi liberally splashes his film with red, the color of passion, anger, and blood.

Bill: I’m down with all the mirrors and the colors and characters dressing as one another and the flashes of memories and imaginings he uses to keep things twisty-turny and have the audience questioning everything. That’s all done very well. But whatever Lenzi was trying to get across by sticking a bunch of blurry crap in our faces, so we can’t even see the actors, he failed. Sure, you can say he hiding the actors behind a mask of colors that  represent their passions to show how those overpowering emotions are occluding their rational selves or whatever bunk you want throw out about it, but really, he could’ve done that in a much less annoying way. I think he did manage the same thing in other films without making me use my rage face. At least I don’t remember it being as jarring in Orgasmo or So Sweet…  So Perverse. I know Fulci has used similar ideas in, for instance, Perversion Story, but it wasn’t as frequent and it came off as cool, instead of … irritating. I don’t want to say this is because Lenzi is a bad filmmaker. Like I said earlier, he’s better than most give him credit for. I like him. But he is kind of eccentric and, I think, has a harder time pulling off ideas like that in a successful way. Or maybe he’s just a genius and he’s too smart for his own audiences. What do I know? I mostly watch these flicks for the sex and violence.

shot through the heart!

shot through the heart!

no one can save me; the damage is done

no one can save me

the damage is done

the damage is done

Mmmmm, violence. But only some! These lenziani tend to be fairly light on violence compared to other gialli, and that’s why they usually aren’t my favs. They do typically make up for it in other ways, however, like adding plenty of salacious kink,  bodacious style, beautiful locales, and vice vice vice! There’s booze and pills and T&A and sexual sadism, like Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion‘s Minou (who would totally be besties with Helen) in her sexy surrender scene in that movie, or the stylistic brilliance of Fulci filming a sex scene from the POV of a bed in Perversion Story. The pop culture hipness of The Sweet Body of Deborah is the big draw for me there, with a comic book themed nightclub and permanent Twister fixtures in the front yard. And Lenzi’s own Orgasmo keeps me rapt with the psycho-sexual torment a cute young couple put Carroll Baker through. AQP2K tries to make up for its lack of a body count by having Helen be naked pretty much every 10-15 minutes or so, which, believe me, I did appreciate. There’s also a fun club scene with a bitchin’ dancin’ girl upskirt (but, ugh, the song almost ruins it,) a fantastically bizarre cavern club, and some crazy, fun other stuff, like Hitchcock nods, Jean Sorel being ridiculously entertaining, and a scene with a stuffed fox monster … thing. And plenty of lovely decor, sets and artsy scenes, not counting those stupid drinking glass in the foreground ones. But, personally, I don’t think it was enough. I liked it and I certainly was never bored, but I don’t think it rises to the level of the other films I mentioned.

Fisty: I know some of his choices irritate you (though you’re TOTALLY wrong), but it’s important to note that Lenzi’s stylistic choices are used consistently and coherently; the style essentially delineates the text.

now part of this complete breakfast

now part of this complete breakfast

paint your smile on your lips

paint your smile on your lips

ohhhhhhh, you're a loaded gun!

ohhhhhhh, you’re a loaded gun!

For me, AQP2K has an elegance, a neatness, a … well, I’m just going to go ahead and quote Margaret Mitchell here: There was a glamor to it, a perfection and a completeness and a symmetry to it like Grecian art. Some–including Bill here–might argue my use of “perfection,” but when we take the concept of perfection back to it’s origins (sup, Aristotle!), we’re talking about something that is not only the best of its kind, but that is a whole, not missing any of its parts, and that it achieves its purpose. Though it might be argued (okay, is argued here) that AQP2K is not the best of its kind, it’s undoubtedly a consummate sexy thriller lenziano, made up of all the requisite parts. And most importantly for this argument, IT DOES WHAT IT SET OUT TO DO. Or rather, what Lenzi set out to do. To it. With it. Or something. Whatever. AQP2K is sexy, thrilling, and entertaining–and that’s exactly what we ask of gialli, be they in the style of Bava or Argento or Lenzi.

And lest we forget, AQP2K is technically excellent in every respect. The cast nails it; they don’t just hit their marks but inhabit their roles–Sorel and La Baker in particular playing signature character types. The psychology of the characters is credible, particularly Helen’s (and to a lesser degree, Constance’s) embodiment of Carlos Fuentes’ statement “Jealousy kills love, but leaves desire intact.” There’s a rococo look to it as well, from the sunny, golden exteriors in Mallorca to the literally glittering interiors–and costumes. And Piero Umiliani’s loungey score repeats the title theme when apropos, and otherwise provides a pleasantly snazzy background.

Bill: I also ask that they not obscure half of the screen with an out of focus drinking glass, but that’s just me.

Fisty: Boor. Swine. Uncultured lout.

ladies and gentlemen

ladies and gentlemen

home movies

home movies

there's something about maurice

there’s something about maurice

Bill: Snob. Are we finished here? Did we get back to how this is a giallo? Because there are a lot of arguments about that.

Fisty: Oh yeah. You’re right, I’ve seen these arguments come up for well, almost every non-classico giallo, it sometimes seems. We’ve touched on it previously with Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion, Luciano Ercoli’s 1970 giallo  la femme (that’s not really a thing), and again with Massimo Dallamano’s 1972 schoolgirl giallo What Have You Done to Solange? Along different lines, Luigi Cozzi’s 1973 genre-bender The Killer Must Kill Again labors under the same accusation for different reasons. Shoots, even a prime example of the classico giallo like Sergio Martino’s All the Colors of the Dark has had such aspersions cast at it–seriously!–which just goes to show, not only are some people plumb crazy, but the definition of giallo is as nebulous, and ambiguous as the films themselves.

A generic definition that can (debatably) encompass such outliers as Argento’s Suspiria and Phenomena or Fulci’s The New York Ripper can certainly include films of a less fantastical or gruesome nature. But it’s not even about what we can stretch the definition to include, but what films make up an integral core of the filone. In that the Sixties gialli–lenziani or no–tend to be along the lines of the sexy inheritance thriller, referencing noir and Hitchcock and Clouzot, Lenzi’s thrillers absolutely typify this approach. While he did not necessarily innovate–Bill’s BFF Romolo Guerreri busted The Sweet Body of Deborah out in 1968, not to mention Bava’s previous contributions–Lenzi absolutely refined and realized the generic potential of these thrillers when he dominated the filone.

This type would flourish mainly in the Sixties, and the beginning of the Seventies, but would continue to affect the filone even after Bird’s excesses. Later gialli that place the emphasis on suspense as opposed to mystery, the inheritance thriller-type giallo, the gaslight giallo, the intimate giallo based on internal concerns–adultery, incest, etc–instead of the eyewitness, these are all related to the sexy thriller lenziani and its success. I dare say that virtually all of Sergio Martino’s classic gialli bear the imprint of the sexy thriller lenziani, and traces are found throughout many post-Argento films such as Forque’s In the Eye of the Hurricane or Picciolo’s The Flower with Petals of Steel.

probably an entire reel of blurry glass footage

probably an entire reel of blurry glass footage

ring ring ring ring ring ring ring giallo phone!

ring ring ring ring ring ring ring giallo phone!

party time, excellent

party time, excellent

Bill: I really did love The Sweet Body of Deborah. And going back to the cast “inhabit[ing] their roles,” you didn’t mention her, but Marina Coffa as Susan is just perfect. She embodies Susan so well that the second she’s on screen, before she’s even had a chance to act, I knew she was trouble. I’ve never seen her in anything else and I kind of wish she’d done more. Now, about the debt Martino owes Lenzi… Yeah. I can’t deny that. And I love Martino. Everything you’ve said about Lenzi and about this movie is true. I’ve been kind of critical of it and it isn’t my favorite lenziani, or even my favorite of the So Sweet… So Perverse/Orgasmo/Paranoia trilogy–I liked Orgasmo better–but I want to reiterate: I LIKE THIS MOVIE. My criticisms are minor, mostly adding up to, “I think this other movie is better,” and, “Blurry cups!” But just because I don’t consider it perfect, doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it. It would definitely surprise anyone that only knows Lenzi from his later films. But maybe it shouldn’t. He adapted to smaller budgets and changing audience desires and his later movies, while maybe not showing quite the technical proficiency he does here, are still precisely what he meant them to be and perfectly typify the times in which he made them. I can’t ever remember being bored while watching a Lenzi movie. Bottom line: He’s better than he gets credit for being.

Don’t worry about me, you’re the one sitting in the death seat. Ultimately, A Quiet Place to Kill is a fine film, a perfectly typical sexy thriller lenziani. With fine characterizations perfectly played by its cast, exotic and glamorous locales, a jazzy score, and a delightfully intricate yet tight storyline. While not as bloodily thrilling as later, post-Argento gialli, AQP2K–and others of its type–create a sensual atmosphere brimming with lasciviousness and intrigue. They are dependent upon not only the looks and attitudes of their characters, but also the psychology; instead of witnessing violent tableaux, we explore the ambiguous relations between the characters. The success of the sexy thrillers lenziani lies in the deliciously trashy spectacle of pretty people doing ugly things to one another in glamorous places.

 

The Screaming Minis: The Bay

crustacean nation

crustacean nation

The Bay
Director: Barry Levinson
Released:
2012
Starring: Kristen Connolly, Jane McNeill, and Christopher Denham
Running time: 84 minutes
Genre: Horror

I saw The Bay as a mystery, pre-release screening at an all night horror movie marathon this past October. The circumstances of that viewing were unusual and not ideal for enjoying the movie. I didn’t know what I was watching until the end credits, so I didn’t know what to expect, and I’d just finished watching Slither,  so I was full up on parasites  for the evening. I didn’t want to be unfair, so I skipped reviewing the movie until its release on disc. After another viewing, sadly, my opinion hasn’t changed.

News coverage of thousands of dead fish floaters and bird corpses, stories that were reported on, precede a close up of one girl, Donna Thompson, who intros herself and speaks forebodingly about the story that wasn’t covered, that was covered up. On an unusually warm Independence Day in the small, bay-side town of Claridge, Maryland, cub reporter Donna was there to cover the crab races, the Crab Eating Spectacular, all the usual festivities, and interview little kids and local celebs. She ends up covering much more. That footage, originally suppressed by the government and now leaked by the whistle-blowing govleaks.org, along with recovered cellphone, security cam, skype calls, etc., make up the bulk of the film. What the government didn’t want you to see, what Donna has to expose, is that, on that July 4th, there was something in the town of Claridge, in the water of the bay, inside the fish, in the water from Claridge’s desalination plant, the water they drank and played in. It was inside the people of Claridge. And that something … was chicken shit.

I love eco horror. I also love Found Footage. You’d think an eco horror mockumentary by an acclaimed filmmaker would be a slam dunk for me, but The Bay is less than the sum of its parts. Levinson is an Oscar-nominated writer, Oscar-winning director, but this does not feel like a movie from an A-list Hollywood director. The performances largely don’t work. The movie’s believability hinges on Kether Donohue’s portrayal of Donna, but she’s just not news reporter material. We’re talking Mark Wahlberg-as-science-teacher level of unbelievability. And the writing is just bad, leading to events that feel contrived. Cops walk alone into dark houses, rush into danger with no back up, flip out and go murderous, shooting healthy people for no reason. A couple strolls through a town full of corpses with their baby, instead of getting back on their boat and keeping the baby safe. I can forgive slips like these in a movie that doesn’t strive to look like reality, but this is supposed to be a documentary.

The “chicken shit” thing damages the credibility, too. Claridge is being eaten alive by mutated isopods (parasites that eat fish tongues–I’m sure you’ve seen the picture). It was chicken shit that caused the mutation, mountains of chicken shit full of steroids from a chicken factory that runs off into the bay. It’s so heavy-handed with the chicken shit eco message that the only thing I can liken the chicken shit to is the Tromaville Nuclear Power Plant looming in the background of every Troma movie. And that is exactly what The Bay calls it … chicken shit. A lot. I don’t know how many times it says “chicken shit,” but it’s enough to make a drinking game. (Drink twice the one time someone calls it chicken excrement!) It also reuses bits of previously shown footage. I guess it’s meant to drive points home, but it’s just repetitive. It feels like unnecessary padding. I don’t need to see the clip of the mayor drinking a glass of water, saying how good that water is three separate times. Once was enough. All this adds to the Troma vibe. My first viewing, as far as a half an hour in, I was still waiting for it to turn into a comedy about hybrid chicken-sharks–that would’ve been great! I can forgive repetitive, silly language in a schlocky film, but The Bay is played straight.

It’s also infested with the already cliche crap that pulls you right out of so many other Found Footage flicks: too much camera glitch, forced curse words injected into the dialog to make it sound real, arguments that don’t seem believable, fights about why someone is continuing to film,  characters explaining to the camera why they’re filming (posterity/show the world!), etc. I forgive these problems when I’m watching a movie made by a few noobs with a handicam and $10,000, but an experienced, acclaimed director/screenwriter with a healthy budget doesn’t get the same leeway.

It’s like Levinson was making a serious movie that he didn’t take seriously, like he was just pumping out product that he didn’t feel was worth a real effort. He was slumming and was fine with tossing out a movie with the same old imperfections we’re used to. That sucks, because The Bay had potential. It can be really gruesome and tense. There’s a few super effective scares and skin-crawly moments, including one scene involving a fish and a hidden isopod that rivals Exorcist III’s gliding-nun-with-shears and Signs alien-walking-past-the-hedges scenes. The rashes and blisters on the infected people are pretty sick. Unfortunately, none of the actors sell the appliances. You never get a sense of it being anything other than make up. I can forgive just about any problem if the gore is crazy enough and some of the gore in The Bay is truly gnarly, but not enough to save it.

It isn’t a terrible movie, but it is a disappointment. Too goofy to be serious, too serious to be fun, it fails as schlock, as a serious message film, and as a mockmumentary. It vacillates between trying to be Piranha and trying to be Outbreak and fails at being either. It’s a mixed up, b-grade, mediocre mess and from an A-List artist, that’s something I can’t forgive.

Screaming Mini: Compliance

not flight of the navigator

not flight of the navigator

Compliance
Director: Craig Zobel
Released: 2012
Starring: Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, Pat Healy,
Running time: 90 minutes
Genre: thriller, crime drama

We’re at a ChickWich in Anywheresville, Ohio. There’s been a freezer accident that left thousands of dollars worth of stock ruined. There’s also the likelihood of a secret shopper visit and an employee who’s called in sick for Sandra to deal with. It’s going to be a busy day, and manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) needs everyone to be on their game.

Cashier Becky (Dreama Walker) jokes with assistant manager Marti about guys texting her, flirts a little with cook Kevin (Phillip Ettinger). Business as usual. Then Sandra takes a call from a man identifying himself as a police officer (Pat Healy). He’s spoken to her regional manager already and they need help from Sandra. One of the employees has stolen money from a customer’s purse. It couldn’t be Becky, Sandra tells him, aghast. The officer asks Sandra to fetch Becky.

Shocked, Becky denies the theft, but Sandra insists that they co-operate with the police, and the officer requests that Sandra detain Becky until another unit can come in. But then the officer asks for little more help, until the other officers arrive. He needs Becky strip searched. He needs her clothes and effects confiscated. He needs them to keep her locked in the back room. And he needs a man to guard her. Just until the other officers arrive, you see. And the situation escalates far past what most of us could imagine.

Compliance is a very rough film to watch but only because of the subject matter. Technically, it’s superb, even flawless. It’s stunning to look at even in its recreation of a fast food joint, down to the fluorescent lighting look. The styling and direction add to the claustrophobia and tension as everything just gets shittier and shittier. And the performances are pitch perfect; Dowd, Walker, and Healy in particular are absolutely convincing. Zobel handles the material so earnestly that it never comes off as exploitative. My only real complaints about it are that Healy is shown too soon–his reveal could have been more effective, while still maintaining the marvelously casual approach he takes, which is all the more chilling–and the epilogue, which turns the last few minutes into a police procedural that really adds nothing to the film.

Compliance was inspired by true events,which Wikipedia unwieldily refers to as “the strip search prank call scam.” I first read about it not too long after the events depicted here, and was totally astounded. Shocked. Sickened. Outraged. All pretty typical responses to the film, which had viewers walking out at screenings. Because after all, it’s unbelievable. Except that it happened. By some estimates, approximately seventy times.

Think about that. SEVENTY TIMES. Some of the cases were very nearly as bad as what happens in Compliance–which is terrible indeed. (This article has more details on other incidents.) Now think about that again. You can break down the Compliance audience into two very basic types: those who find themselves so shocked and appalled that they shout “I CAN’T FUCKING BELIEVE THIS” and “THIS IS STUPID” while watching, and then those who are similarly appalled, but use their imaginations to think about how and why it’s happening as they watch. (No judgement–for the record, my husband fell into the former camp, and I in the latter.) To be fair, I knew what was going on, and what had happened IRL, and perhaps that enhanced my experience. But it’s not wholly responsible;  Zobel must be given credit for the way he subtly sets up his characters–so subtly, in fact, that it might not even consciously register.

From the opening scenes with Sandra, we know that she considers herself a nice person, too nice even, who has to work at not being undermined. Despite a perfunctory protest, she lets a delivery dude berate her, and though she’s trying to handle the situation, she not only fears but expects the same from her boss. It’s entirely reasonable for her both to give in to the police officer’s authority, but also that she’d take a small measure of authority he in turn lends to her throughout the proceedings. Later, we see the way she in turn reproaches Van, making him feel emasculated so that when offered authority, he will grasp it as well. Becky we see rolling her eyes at Sandra’s attempts to relate–but only behind her back. Though she’s naughty enough to take the first parking spot, she still shuts up and does what she’s told when working, and it’s that tendency that comes into play throughout her gradual degradation. Kevin seems like a typically douchey kid, until the moment he’s confronted with the opportunity to exploit Becky, and we watch the workings of his conscience play out over his face; what would most guys do when ordered by a police officer to strip search the naked girl they’ve got the hots for? What would you do if you were Becky? Sandra? Kevin? Van? How far would you go? Compliance is a very good film, and people should see it. But it’s not a movie you like.

Five Dolls for an August Moon

one fanciful title

one fanciful title

5 bambole per la luna d’agosto
aka L’île de l’épouvante
aka Fem lig i fryseren
Director: Mario Bava
Released: 1970
Starring: Ely Galleani, Edwige Fenech, William Berger
Running time: 81 min
Genre: giallo

I’m not a man of thought. I’m a man of action. We open onto a rugged Mediterranean coastline, all sunlight, blue sky, and bluer waters.  The camera follows a blonde nymphet as she prances along, barefoot on the sand, letting wavelets lap at her toes. The sun is setting, and she makes her way over the rocks to a house overlooking a docked yacht. The lighted windows glow in the deepening twilight. Moving into a dark stand of palms, the nymphet tiptoes to the illuminated window for a peep. And the action begins with a record dropping, and segues right into a writhing Edwige Fenech. Sadly, it cuts away almost immediately to a room full of people giving each other mad side-eye, zoom and all. But then she’s back! With the BIGGEST hair! Undulating more madly than ever! She doffs her sequined tunic (the better to display her gold lame bikini top), frugs like a maenad, and then Thurston Howell III ties her up and offers her as a sacrifice to the god Kraal. (Wut.) All the partygoers are handed sharp, stabby implements as he prepares. The lights go out, there’s a scream, and when they come back on–she’s been stabbed! But wait! A shot of soda water, and she’s good as ever! Better, in fact, because now she’s all wet. Funsies!

The next day is a bunch of exposition: Edwige (her character’s name is Marie, but it really doesn’t matter) lolls about on a boat with the houseboy Charles/Jacques; they watch the yacht leave and she exposits about some business meeting. Meanwhile, the other ladies kick it in the kitchen with a truly Lucullan spread; hot redhead Peggy (Helena Ronee) feels a sense of foreboding. Fetching nymphet Isabel pops in to deliver wildflower bouquets to the ladies–and also a prophesy. Even more meanwhile, the gentlemen have cornered Professor Fritz (William Berger), who’s apparently invented some marvelously lucrative formula they all desperately want. It’s very “shut up and take my money!” as they thrust million dollar checks at him. But no! Prof Fritz is a man of SCIENCE! He intends to deliver his formula unto the world, and is not swayed by their filthy lucre.

MEANWHILE … Prof Fritz burns something! Papers!! Of some kind!!! And we learn that Edith and Jill (Ira von Fürstenberg and Edith Meloni, respectively, though it doesn’t really matter) are having a clandestine affair! Because they were lovers!! Lesbian lovers!!! And we see Marie (you’ve already forgotten who that is, haven’t you?) sneaking onto the launch for THEIR clandestine (well, maybe not so much) rendezvous … but Charles/Jacques is DEAD! Stabbed!! With a KNIFE!!! And Marie is off, dashing through the gloaming with yet another doffed tunic clutched to her breasts (boo!). Isabel watches.

villa of bava

villa of bava

why is this not in 3d?

why is this not in 3d?

trudy's choice

trudy’s choice

Concurrently! Several of the guests are sacked out in the lounge, looking for all the world as though they’ve been smoking opium or eating mushrooms, while the camera floats above them as though we were having an out of body experience.

In the meantime! Marie’s husband Nick lolls on the revolving circular bed, smoking and ashing into a giant crystal ashtray, as one does. As Marie washes that man and murder right out of her hair, we learn that: A) Marie is a dirty whore! B) Or a clean one!! C) And sexing houseboys is déclassé!!! D) And that Nick expects to pimps her for their mutual gain!!!! It’s all so very continental.

The houseboy’s body is discovered, traumatizing the Pucci-clad Jill. Of course people immediately begin speculating on who could have done it, but they don’t know yet how murky the mystery will get. When Prof Fritz tries to phone for help, the line is out. That, coupled with there being no boats on the island–because of course, the launch has gone missing–means they’re all stranded there. With a murderer.

You probably think you know what’s going on right now–but you don’t! Because this is the time when they decide to stash Charles/Jacques’ body in the freezer–wrapped in plastic, of course. And as people are picked off one by one, each will end up on ice, dressed like a nightmare version of the housewife dressed in Saran Wrap. Lest you think these people are normal, however, this really doesn’t appear to concern anyone much beyond a little handwringing, and they all largely go back to swilling J&B and vermouth and looking suspicious. Until the finale, the only constants are that you never know who will die next and that Isabel will be flitting about the island peeping at the antics.

pucci wept

pucci wept

the first ever houseboy on ice

the first ever houseboy on ice

a bay of blue

At least now I’ll be a clean whore.  Notoriously disparaged by critics and treated as a joke by Maestro Bava himself, Five Dolls for an August Moon was a quick, commercial affair, one he joined on two days’ notice and shot in just nineteen days. Though some of the seams show, 5D4AAM is still a visual delight and not without darkly comic pleasures.

Fisty: Okay, so it’s essentially pared down Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Ni- Ind- And Then There Were None, but has ATTWN ever been done with such style? Such flair? Has it ever been done with a gold lamé bikini pantsuit (yes, that IS a thing!)–girdling the loins of Edwige Fenech, no less? Or with more zooms than a Mazda commercial? I think not!

Bill: “With such style?” Possibly. “With a gold lamé bikini pantsuit?” Probably not. “With more zooms…?” Oh, hell no, it hasn’t! 5D4aAM packs more zoom-a-zoom-zoom-zoom than you’d find anywhere outside of a Wreckx-N-Effect song. It’s packed with boom-boom, too. Hello, Edwige! How was George the only person responding to her crazy savage jungle-girl in gold lamé mating dance? Could they not see that her hair was gigantic?! She had to have some weave in there, right? Whatever. I don’t even care how it got like that. I just know it was magnificent.

Edwige is one of the few cast members that really stand out in 5D4aAM. She, of course, stands out just by being her. That woman is like a living stereogram. She pops out at you. She’s a 3D woman in a 2D world. And her Marie is obviously the life of every party. Ely Galleani as Isabel can be remembered without stressing over it. I love her. She’s adorable. Teodoro Corrà’s shady millionaire George (aka Thurston Howell III) and the Professor,  the only non-sleazy man on the island and the only blonde man on the island, are the only men in the movie that I could clearly identify from one another. Everyone else might as well be credited as Skeevy Business Partners 1-3 and Wives 1-3. I just can’t tell them all apart. One drinks heavily, one wears red pants, one cries hysterically, one has red hair, one is a creeper, two were gay for each other, but which trait belongs to which person, what their names are, and who they’re married to is kind of difficult to figure out. I still get confused about which one is Jill and which one is Nick and that’s after seeing the movie three times, talking about who these people are, and consulting IMDB. Figuring this all out is like doing one of those kids puzzles where you have to draw a line from a picture in one column to the related picture in another column, only it’s harder, because no one was nice enough to line all the faces up for you. I think that’s part of why the movie is often looked at unfavorably. Aside from just being confusing, it’s kind of hard to give a shit about who lives or dies and why, when you can’t tell any of them apart.

such laughs!

such laughs!

lamé bikini pantsuit inspector!

lamé bikini pantsuit inspector!

how many d's is a shadow?

how many d’s is a shadow?

Fisty: Ohmygod, yes. The Mouseketeer Roll Call of the first scene (wherein people just keep looking at one another amidst zooms) is repeated a couple of times throughout the movie, and never failed to make me laugh. And every single time it happened, it just heightened my confusion as to who was who and doing what to whom with what in the where. Which … kind of made me not care. About the characters, that is. The film as a whole, I enjoy thoroughly. I know it’s considered the Bava film one must make a special case for, but I just don’t care. It’s so kitschy and kicky and fun. It should play on the walls of nightclubs, while people gyrate to Piero Umiliani’s jazzy grooves.

Did we mention the score yet? Because it is AWESOME. It’s super kicky and catchy, so catchy in fact, that you’ll likely find yourself humming it for days after. (Umiliani,by the by, may be better known to some as the originator of “Mah Nà Mah Nà.”) Perhaps it’s that infectious sound that keeps me interested in the film? That, and all the distracting shiny things to look at. It’s really the mirror image of the “old dark house” movie: A new, modern house on a bright, sunny island, with the jet set roaming about in their Puccis and pantsuits, bikinis and boas. By and large, they’re a comely bunch, too.

The house is very nearly a cast member, and should be appreciated as such. Its clean, modern lines stand in stark contrast to the rocky beach and primal ocean. The interior set is a series of labyrinthine passages and chambers, scattered about with a tasteful/less melange of bohemian bibelots–including one (at the very least) rotating, circular bed. If seeing the decor doesn’t make you want shag, frug, and chug, then there is something deeply wrong with you. I mean, 5D4aAM really is just a delightful visual and aural confection; the only problem is taxing one’s brain with the nonsensicalness of it all.

the swingingest

the swingingest

grooviest

grooviest

pad around

pad around

Bill: The house! Fuck yeah! I mean, sure, the movie is confusing as all hell, but I can forgive a lot of that because of how hip it all is. That house actually has a frosted glass shower that borders the head of the bed so that you can lounge about in comfort while you watch Edwige shower. That is some Doc Brown, slipped-and-hit-your-head-on-the-toilet-level brilliance. It has a bedroom with sliding doors that open onto a lovely poolside area. You can get up straight from having sex and go pee in the pool without ever having to get dressed or bump into anyone on the way there. The living/entertaining area has a bar, enough couches for everyone to lie about on and zoom in on each others eyes from, a reel-to-reel tape player, enough table and counter space for all your girl in gold lamé bikini top dancing needs, and just across from the foot of the stairs, your own lovely jacuzzi.

It’s not just the look of the house or the layout that gives it it’s character either. It’s how Bava uses the house. How he travels through it. He lays the place out for you in your head. He uses the location to its fullest. In one scene, a great one, a struggle upstairs overturns some furniture and leads to some decorative glass spheres spilling across the floor. Rather than stick with the fight, which isn’t particularly important, Bava has us follow those spheres as they roll across the floor and bounce down the stairs (all to a whimsical, magic fairy tinkling sound) and across the floor into the jacuzzi, revealing … something that I’m not going to spoil for you. But it’s a great scene, striking! And it’s a perfect example of how, even when he’s phoning it in, Bava is The Man. Given a little time to shoot and some less than stellar material he doesn’t particularly care about, he can still take a cool location and turn it into a movie that, for all its faults, is still a stunner to look at. This movie may, in fact, be proof that, at least if you’re Mario Bava, you can polish a turd.

oh, balls

oh, balls

lipstick by gillian cosmetics

lipstick by gillian cosmetics

meat's meat, and a man's gotta eat

meat’s meat, and a man’s gotta eat

Fisty: The reveal after the glass ball cascade is one of my favorite images in the film. Following this incredibly contrived yet awesome shot, we find Jill in the Jacuzzi, having taken the Roman way out. Above her on the mirror is her suicide note, written in shocking pink lipstick. The juxtaposition between the deed and the playful note is so marvelously irreverent, but it also seems absolutely apropos. It’s a very Jackie Susann moment. Bava displays more of that mordant humor in the freezer scenes, where the camera lingers on the gently swaying bodies as they hang in that cold, artificial environment, features obscured with plastic. Umiliani flippantly punctuates these scenes with a cheeky carousel tune. Of course, Bava sets us up for this from the opening scene and Marie’s “sacrifice”: When the blood is sprayed off with soda water, we know the whole film will be a colossal joke.

After all, the whodunnit plot is frankly tiresome, and the characters–well, they’re awful. Not simply apparently indistinct (for Trudy and Jill, and Nick and Jack are oddly similar in appearance, adding to the aforementioned confusion–though Peggy stands out from the Wives slightly due to her striking red hair, as well as a certain youthfulness that also lends her a sense of naïveté–more-so even than Isabel. Significance!), but indistinguishable in their concerns: shady business deals, crosses and double crosses, and all things venal, mercenary, and amoral. (Despite all the tomfoolery, sexual liaisons really only seem to interest Marie.) They’re a thoroughly unsympathetic and unpleasant bunch, appearances aside, but for the above exceptions. Without Bava’s humorous direction (and style!), watching them squabble and squawk (and die!) would not be half so entertaining.

dolla dolla bill, y’all

deep freeze peepshow

marie o a

Bill: Oh my god! You spoiling spoiler! Just give away everything about Jill’s death, why don’t you! But, yeah, it is probably the best visual in the whole movie, the meat locker thing being the second. I’m also fond of Isabel on the swing set with the zoom-zoom-zoom, but, generally, I’m just fond of Isabel. Ely Galleani is so cute!

We said the carbon copy characters were likely one of the reasons 5DfaAM gets dissed by a lot of its detractors. I wonder if the tone is another. Yes, it’s sort of a big joke and very irreverent, but it’s seldom really LOL funny.  It just isn’t funny enough to be a comedy, but it’s not anything else enough to be anything else. Strip Nude for Your Killer was kind of the same, but it was more overtly humorous and it had an insane amount of raunch to spice it up. 5DfaAM doesn’t even have that. It’s got a little heat, but only a few scenes ever reach full on hott. Bava did what he could with what he had to work with to make it as enjoyable as he could, but the final result is still just … kind of entertaining. It excels only in style and irreverence and that might not be enough for most people. (I think we’re kind of easy.)

I think that’s all there really is to say about this movie. It’s a stylish, tongue-in-cheek, lackluster mystery, with some lovely women, a cool house, a fun score, and a few striking scenes. It’s definitely not Bava’s best, but better than it would’ve been had he not been involved, and just enough to keep us at Peanut Butter & Gialli entertained. Still, I’m not sure I’d recommend it for everyone.

mario bava's

mario bava’s patented

never replicated

never replicated

drunk-o-vision

drunk-o-vision

Fisty: It’s not a laugh riot, by any means, but more of an archly cynical smirkfest. Virtually everyone and everything is so jaded and tawdry and awful! Though, I do think the end twist is pretty funny (in a ironical, but also vaguely optimistic way, another peek at Bava’s fondness for youth). But then, it IS part of Bava’s “Greed Trilogy” (between Blood and Black Lace and Bay of Blood), so the concern with the ugliness of raw avarice as opposed to psychosexual pathology is only to be expected.

If we consider giallo as less a mode of storytelling and more a succession of striking images, then Five Dolls for an August Moons is undoubtedly successful. However, the striking murder set pieces both Bava and gialli were known for are missing because, despite the high body count, the murders take place offscreen. Another joke on us? Or generic deconstruction? In its absolute refusal to start making sense, 5D4aAM presages the preposterous plotting and arbitrary absurdities that would later trademark the genre.

Notwithstanding his stated dislike for the film, Bava went all out and seems to have had fun with it. The result is a farcically silly murder mystery unhampered by logic or convention and slathered with an orgiastic excess of style (sadly, no literal orgies). No, it’s definitely not for everyone. But giallo completists and kitsch connoisseurs will undoubtedly be delighted.