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.

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One thought on “Five Dolls for an August Moon

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