Lisa, Lisa

lisa lisa axe frederick r friedel leslie lee california axe massacre video nasty

mostly accurate

Lisa, Lisa
aka Axe
aka The Virgin Slaughter
aka California Axe Massacre
Director: Frederick R. Friedel
Released: 1977 (filmed 1974)
Starring: Leslie Lee, Jack Canon, Frederick R. Friedel, Ray Green, Douglas Powers
Running time: 65 min
Genre: exploitation, horror, rape & revenge

Get me a glass of water, then drink it yourself, it’ll give you something to do. Dusk. A slim girl in the distance (It’s totally Lisa!) walks swiftly across a lawn and enters a creepy-looking, rural farmhouse with a big scary tree in front of it.

Later that evening, in the big bad city, three graduates (or possibly drop-outs) of the Tarantino Academy of Criminality are powerwalking through the lobby of an apartment building in their best business/crime suits. Feet. Feet. Feet. Chandelier. Chandelier. Chandelier. Elevator. One, two, three, four, ninth floor. Steele (Canon) and his large, dim-witted associate, Lomax (Green), looking so much like wannabe Jules and Vincents, step out of the elevator followed by their sloppy, Bob Ross-lookin’, ‘fro-master understudy, Nice Guy Billy (Friedel). Seems another associate of theirs, a gentleman named Aubrey, has messed up, crossed them in some way. Perhaps he missed a payment or slighted someone he shouldn’t have? (No1curr!) They break into Aubrey’s apartment and wait for him to return, Billy watching from the window as Lomax, who seems oddly fascinated and possibly aroused by all sorts of different fabrics, plays with one of  Aubrey’s blouses. They catch him slippin’ and get the drop on him as he comes in with his lover Harold. Nice Guy Billy stays at the window, keeping a lookout for any happy little policemen as Lomax and Steele torture, humiliate and beat Aubrey. Harold covers his eyes and I think he cries a little. Not satisfied with the thorough thrashing he’s just handed out, Steele whips out his straight razor to Mr. Blonde Aubrey’s nose off, but Billy intervenes. Aubrey is already dead. With the window clear and seeing what happened to his man and expecting the same, Harold, not really being the stoic sort, saves himself the torture by jumping out the window to the pavement twelve nine floors below. With two deaths worth of heat on them now, the trio head out to the country to find a nice place to lay low, have some fresh fruit, and wait for all of this to blow over.

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cue “little green bag”

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marvin, vincent, and jules

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only the first unspeakable shirt

Back at the creepy farmhouse, a pretty, if sad and tired-looking young Lisa rolls her paralyzed granddad through the house and checks the fridge for breakfast fixings.

On the road, the Criminals Three stop off at a small, rural, roadside gas and grocery. Not having much  of an appetite after an evening of murder and whining about not knowing there was going to be murder, Billy stays in the car and asks for just some nuts. There’s nuts alright. Steele, completely missing the point of going out to the country to lay low, flips shit when his fruit isn’t fresh enough and chucks it at the poor, timid cashier. She tries to avoid trouble by offering to give him some of the fruit. Sensing her fear and being a Grade A psychopath, he pounces. With help from Lomax, he terrorizes the poor checkout girl with the really ugly shirt. They toss some fruit and shoot the place up. Apple. Bang. Apple. Bang. Apple. Bang. Melon. Clumsy double entendre about melons. They force her to remove her unfathomably ugly blouse. Humiliation. Abuse. Catsup and cola bukkake. Billy gets his nuts (which he doesn’t even eat after all of that trouble) and they’re back on the road.

Lisa, meanwhile, is gathering up the day’s food. Eggs for breakfast. A freshly beheaded chicken bleeding all over the sink for later. She takes gramps up a raw egg for breakfast. Washes him. Prepares to shave him, but never quite gets around to it, due to the Reservoir Dunces pulling up outside. They snoop around a bit and force their way inside. A secluded farmhouse, defended only by one small girl and a quadriplegic old man makes for a perfect place to hide out for a few days. Not given much of a choice, Lisa accommodates them the best that she can, cooking for them, making up rooms. Nice Guy Billy, sickened by the brutality of his companions, wants to help their new hostages, keep them safe, but a late night fabric groping session cranks Lomax’ perv dial to eleven and he sneaks into Lisa’s room for a sickening sexual assault. There’s more to Lisa than they know, however, and she will only tolerate so much before she decides to take action … WITH AN AXE! Well no, actually with a straight razor. BUT THERE WILL BE AN AXE. Eventually.

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a little casual humiliation

lisa lisa axe frederick r friedel jack canon california axe massacre video nasty carol miller

cashier wept

lisa lisa axe frederick r friedel jack canon california axe massacre video nasty

say “what” one more time

The sharp edge of suspense slams hard into fear. Written as well as directed (and starred in) by Friedel and distributed by trashy exploitation peddler Harry Novak, Lisa, Lisa is a short (barely feature length), and decidedly un-exploitative exploitation film, with advertising far more lurid than the actual movie. Filmed in just eleven days on a shoestring budget, supposedly without the option of retakes, it overcomes its limitations to be an interesting and somber little flick that hints at more than it shows, but somehow still found itself lumped in with the real Video Nasties on the British Board of Film Censorship’s list of banned movies.

Fisty: I must confess: I have a particular fondness for little regional exploitation or horror flicks like this. And that makes me pretty un-objective, but then again, all of these reviews are pretty fucking subjective anyway. But yeah, this went way better than expected. I was actually a bit disinterested in it based on the title and it being a Video Nasty. Yawn, I though, another one. But the reality of Lisa, Lisa  was entirely unexpected.

Bill: It really isn’t what you expect it to be. It has one of those awesome trailers that make you think you’re about to see the most violent and perverse movie ever filmed, but that’s really all misleading hype. I don’t think it was ever meant to be the sleazy slaughterfest they sold it as. It’s more reserved than you’d think it would be, based on re-titles like California Axe Massacre as well as its Video Nasty status. There’s really no extended, uncomfortable assault scenes, like in Night Train Murders or Last House on the Left.

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medium cool

lisa lisa axe frederick r friedel leslie lee california axe massacre video nasty

things can only get worse from here

lisa lisa axe frederick r friedel leslie lee california axe massacre video nasty

premonition, memory, fantasy?

Fisty: Yet more evidence for the Video Nasty craze being so much hype! That isn’t to say, however, that there isn’t some genuinely weird and perverse stuff going on here. It’s just that much of it is–dare I say it?–understated.

Bill: … or we’re just jaded and desensitized. They do show the sawing of razor on flesh after a simulated rape, or at least attempted rape. It doesn’t look to me like Lomax was all that successful. I’m not sure if you were meant to believe he was and it actually happened or if  it only almost happened. Regardless, there was that razor/flesh moment. The grocery store scene was pretty rough. I mean, they didn’t make her pee her pants, stab her to death, or play with her guts, but they did still terrorize and humiliate the girl. And the murder of Aubrey was pretty violent, with lit cigars stuffed in dude’s mouth and all, and his nose almost coming off. I’ve been thinking about it and I’m wondering if maybe the movie has a sharper edge than it initially seemed to me. It may not be I Spit on Your Grave or Maniac, but maybe it is a little rougher than I was initially giving it credit for. Maybe it’s only understated when compared to other movies of the type? I mean, there was definitely more blood in this than you ever see in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

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the big bads

lisa lisa axe frederick r friedel leslie lee jack canon ray green california axe massacre video nasty

the many faces of lisa

lisa lisa axe frederick r friedel leslie lee california axe massacre video nasty

see any happy little trees up there?

Fisty: Slow down there, turbo! I never said it WASN’T rough. I was genuinely on edge during a lot of the movie, because it was so understated in many ways, yet the vicious perversity of the opening scene informs us right off the bat that these dudes are capable of anything. During the market scene I was convinced that there was no way the poor clerk was getting out alive, and that all the indignities heaped upon her were merely a precursor to an ignominious death. (Is that a spoiler? Is Bill going to yell at me now?) And once the Original Tripso Trio arrived at The Farm (Tangent: I’m going to go ahead and proper just about all the nouns in this here joint because Lisa, Lisa is some metaphorical-allegorical shit, yo.), I removed myself from the couch to my tenter and settled in on the hooks because SOMETHING WAS SURE TO HAPPEN.

And eventually, it did. But first I had to wait –on tenterhooks!–while Lisa drifted about in her ivory dress, tending chickens, collecting eggs, killing them, preparing meals, shaving her grandfather, staring at eggs, watching chicken blood drip (still more exciting that watching paint dry!), and so on. Do not get me wrong–all of this builds tension (and confusion) admirably. And it also serves to make us all a little uneasy. Who is Lisa, really? And her grandfather? Where are her parents? What happened to Gramps? Is he afraid of her? What happened to Lisa? Did anything happen to her, or is she just … that way? None of those questions are ever answered, but Friedel gives us just enough–a mere taste, really–to speculate.

lisa lisa axe frederick r friedel leslie lee california axe massacre video nasty

fore-something or other

lisa lisa axe frederick r friedel leslie lee california axe massacre video nasty

small pleasures

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only the lonely

Bill: Okay. That’s good. I was just worried that we were underselling the brutality of the movie and making it sound like a particularly boring Lifetime drama.  Also, stop spoiling things.

I love that so much is left unexplained. I feel like most movies, especially modern movies, have a tendency to over-explain things, spoon-feeding you a bunch of unnecessary background info. What did Aubrey do to deserve his beating? Where are Lisa’s parents? Where did that clerk get such an ugly blouse? What is the ideal tomato soup/blood ratio to keep someone from realizing they’re eating blood? Who cares? This is the story of  Lisa and the Three Thugs and you get only what you need to understand what happens when they meet. All the other details are left to you to ponder and that vagueness and ambiguity is good. They keep you thinking and wondering long after you’ve finished watching.

I’ve gone back and forth wondering if gramps was trying stuff with Lisa and that’s how he ended up in that chair to begin with. She does tend to go for the neck (at least she did with Lomax and the chicken) and that would support the idea of her injuring him in a way that could cause his paralysis. And this would also provide some insight into why Lisa seems so emotionally stunted. But it also could’ve been a disease or accident that left him like he is and Lisa might just be … that way. Concerning the scene in which grandpa sees Lisa in action and gets a faceful of blood spatter: I saw him shaking and thought that meant he was terrified, terrified of Lisa and what she was capable of, but you had a different interpretation, that that was an excited glee in gramps. This was maybe the most excitement he’s seen since he’s been in that chair and he’s loving the carnage. It’s just like the war! The great thing about Lisa, Lisa is that both views are valid. It could be either and you can easily make a case for both.

lisa lisa axe frederick r friedel leslie lee ray green california axe massacre video nasty

look…

lisa lisa axe frederick r friedel leslie lee ray green california axe massacre video nasty

i’m just not okay

lisa lisa axe frederick r friedel leslie lee ray green california axe massacre video nasty

being flippant right now

But I really do think he was scared. Lisa is just a scary person. She doesn’t seem to realize that people aren’t eggs. She breaks an egg … oh well! She kicks some dirt over it to cover up her accident and goes on her way. She kills a man … oh well! She hacks him up and sticks his pieces in a trunk to hide her crime.  No difference. Actually, even adding the “oh well” is wrong, because she never has so much as an “oops” look on her face. No matter what she is doing, being attacked, struggling, cooking dinner, eating a cookie or killing someone, her expression never changes. She’s empty. Michael Myers emotes more than this girl. And it’s more than just the way she deals with the crimes with no emotion, it’s also how she cares for her grandpa. She doesn’t seem to recognize him as a human being either. She never speaks a single word to the man. She never reassures him or defends him or tells him what she’s about to do or why. There’s no, “Good morning, grandpa,” or, “I’m going to go get started on breakfast now.” He is completely helpless as scary strangers are loose in his house and she never even acknowledges that this could be traumatic for him. He’s not a person she cares for, he’s just a list of things she needs to do each day. The only time you get a hint at any kind of inner feelings is in a brief moment where she contemplates suicide and you see how lonely she might be feeling. But even then, her face is blank. Ending herself would just be another chore. It’s sad, sure, but even more so, it’s chilling

Fisty: Even when she’s disposing of the first body, it seems to be a vague sort of nod to the etiquette of dealing with houseguests (Never leave a corpse where a guest will find it!) rather than an impulse born of of fear. I’m not sure whether I’d consider self-preservation to even be one of her motives in disposing of the first corpse, as her suicidal gestures and cavalier chicken & egg consumption seem to indicate someone with a decidedly laissez-faire attitude toward life and its preservation.

Whatever the reason is for Lisa’s (apparent) impassivity and quiescence, we’ll never know it. That she waits until Lomax’s rape attempt to strike may hint at a history of sexual abuse. Perhaps it was Gramps, and that is the reason she cares for him with her casual cruelty. Perhaps it was before that, with one of her missing parents–could that be why they’re AWOL? It may have not been familial at all, but a My Sweet Audrina moment under a golden raintree. Or perhaps she’s simply schizophrenic, or even brain damaged somehow, whether via birth defect or neglect. Maybe it’s solipsism syndrome, which would explain how Lisa treats everyone else in the film as though they were things without meaning. I CAN DO THIS ALL NIGHT, FOLKS! Maddening as it is, we can only speculate.

lisa lisa axe frederick r friedel leslie lee ray green california axe massacre video nasty

aftermath

lisa lisa axe frederick r friedel leslie lee ray green california axe massacre video nasty

lomax could be a real drag

lisa lisa axe frederick r friedel leslie lee ray green california axe massacre video nasty

here’s lisa

However, Lisa only APPEARS to be entirely passive until the attempted rape. Though her protests at the presence of the Not-Quite-Ready-for-Tarantino Gang appear to have no force behind them, and though she meekly acquiesces to their home invasion, the lady doth in fact protest. She subsides again into her apparent apathy, perhaps feeling like it’s best to ride the storm out and have them on their way–but not before contemplating suicide as an out, that is how much she dislikes or fears their presence. But it is at that moment there before us in the mirror that she suffers an existential crisis, undergoing a seachange into something rich and strange–and not a little violent. Blink, and you might miss it, but the violation of her person by Lomax is a moment Lisa prepares for, and her actions then are not at all impulsive. It is the invasion, not the attack, that is the wellspring for all her further actions. Or… I’m full of shit and she was always that solipsistic monster.

Bill: I’m not sure her suicide contemplation was really as transformative a moment as you think it was. I think she probably has the same moment in the mirror everyday.  She has nothing to live for. She feels no love, has no wants, no desire for or prospects at romance, no goals. If gramps is just a chore, she is just a chore-doing machine. She has nothing that gives her any kind of joy, except maybe, MAYBE, she gets a little from her cookies, if she is even capable of feeling joy. She does seem lonely and, I guess, trapped in her non-life, but when Bob Ross showed interest in her, I never got the sense that she ever even considered him as a way out. But she did seem to let him think he might be her savior, maybe just to protect herself or–I think more likely–as a way of biding time and waiting for her moment. Maybe Lomax’s attack triggered her violent turn, but she was a bit empty even before that. I think she probably already was that “solipsistic monster” and Lomax’s rape play just forced her to move up the timetable on what was possibly already something she was considering. I’m not so sure these are her first victims. I have no concrete reason for thinking it, but I think she has killed other people that came to the house before. Maybe just some dumb kids traveling the country or, more likely, a traveling salesman or drifter farmhand that sought to take advantage of her situation.

lisa lisa axe frederick r friedel leslie lee california axe massacre video nasty

who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him

lisa lisa axe frederick r friedel leslie lee california axe massacre video nasty

this my hand will rather the multitudinous seas incarnadine

lisa lisa axe frederick r friedel leslie lee california axe massacre video nasty

axe-ing for it

And I’m sure that I’d know all of this for sure if I could only figure out what all the broken eggs mean. They have to mean something! There has to be some symbolism to the fucking eggs! It’s maddening. I can’t stop thinking about the eggs and what they could mean. There’s some secret code that I’m just not figuring out. Lisa is actually easier to find some message in. Lisa could represent, especially through her murder of the guys and how it equates with her casual killing of the chicken, rural folks’ more realistic views of life and nature. City people don’t kill their own chickens. They don’t deal with death daily. So we city peeps can see the country people as being harsh or unfeeling, like Lisa. And that freaks us out. But those damn eggs…

Fisty: I’m convinced the eggs and chickens are just symbolic of how indifferent Lisa is to all other people, or the world, really. They’re irrelevant to her, just things as carelessly dropped or killed and eaten as cared for. Which maybe tells us all we need to know about her background and upbringing.

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out, damn spot

lisa lisa axe frederick r friedel leslie lee douglas powers california axe massacre video nasty

hell is murky . and also lisa.

lisa lisa axe frederick r friedel leslie lee california axe massacre video nasty

RIFE WITH MEANING

What you mentioned about the gang’s perception of Lisa (and ours as well) as city dwellers looking askance at country folk plays into my Big Theory about the film, namely that it’s a riff on “The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse.” You remember that one, right? The fable where the city mouse visits the country mouse and scoffs at his simple pleasure, then the country mouse visits the city mouse where they dine like kings but end up chased off by some dogs? That’s Lisa, Lisa! But like, there’s murder instead! The big, bad city gents come rolling into the bleak countryside looking for a cozy little mousehole, and maybe a little humiliation of the weak to boot. While they think the country is a gentle, quiet place populated by rube and bumpkins, to be used and abused as they please, they find instead that it is a place far more savage than they can handle. They are not, however, the bumbling but civilized middle class victims of films like The Hills Have Eyes or Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Steele’s gang are thugs, violent and murderous, but they’re also fish out of water in the country, and when in Lisa’s milieu, they find that her mute and dispassionate brutality easily triumphs over their machinations; they’re as fragile as the eggs she casually and ruthlessly crushes. Aesop concludes his fable with the moral that it is better to live in peace than in continual fear, and Steele’s gang undoubtedly wish they’d never fled the city they understand for the inexplicable terrors of the empty countryside.

In most horror hixploitation films the rural inhabitants are depicted as grim or manic bogeymen, inbred or even mutated, and with all manner of undesirable behaviors and perverse desires. Lisa, Lisa is then a contradiction, for Lisa and her grandfather are eerily silent and seemingly placid. Here it is the city dwellers who swagger and boast; when they transgress they do it knowingly, purposefully. In punishing them for their misdeeds, Lisa recalls John and Estelle Collingwood in Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left. It’s impossible to not draw parallels, for both films feature criminals on the run taking refuge in the country and a sexually assaulted young girl, with revenge taken for the crime. Obviously, Lisa survives the (attempted?) rape and exacts her own revenge, and neither does her revenge feature the same torment as that of the Collingwoods’ descent into savagery, but like LHotL, Lisa, Lisa too is a deeply sad film.

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meat’s meat, and a man’s gotta eat

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axe

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ME TIE DOUGHTY WALKER

Stay away from Lisa! In Lisa, Lisa we have perhaps one of the finest examples of what a bizarre and convoluted mess the whole Video Nasties uproar really was, as well as a stellar example of a once thriving regional movie scene. While brutally violent and often deeply uncomfortable, Lisa, Lisa is hardly the immoral or obscene bogey of the Video Nasties craze. Lisa herself is amoral as an animal, and both she and Friedel come down hard on the depravities of the gang…with Lisa’s own depravities. Yet for all the violence and startling grotesquerie, Lisa, Lisa is an often quiet, suspenseful (dig that jarring, atonal score!), even thoughtful meditation on mental illness and family, in the form of a horror/exploitation film. A wonderful remnant of a cheap, fly by night & the seat of the pants era of regional filmmaking, don’t miss this slice of Americana.

Note: A recent interview of Frederick R. Friedel by Shock Til You Drop dropped a bomb about a remake of Lisa, Lisa being in the works, perhaps within the next year! Let’s hope whomever helms this one doesn’t take the Zombie approach of cramming in exposition… 

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stevie wayne ain’t got nothin’ on fisty

The good folks over at The Six and a Half Feet Under Podcast invited Fisty and I (Bill) to join them (X and James Branscome) in a discussion of all things giallo in their latest episode, Giallo 201. So if you want to hear X rhapsodize eloquently about the massive wooden dildo murders of  The Sister of Ursula… If you’re dying to hear the sweet sound of Fisty’s auditory gushing for Femi Benussi… If you’re intrigued by the mystery of James’ mid-show disappearance and our Bewitched-like ability to just go on and pretend like it didn’t happen… Or if you want to hear me embarrass myself completely by crediting (or dissing, as the case may be) the wrong special effects guy… THEN HERE IS YOUR CHANCE!

We also manage to namecheck The Sweet Body of Deborah, Strip Nude for Your Killer, Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key, Trauma, Death in Venice, What Have You Done to Solange?, All the Colors of the Dark, Who Saw Her Die?, A Blade in the Dark, One on Top of the Other, Orgasmo/Paranoia, A Quiet Place to Kill/Orgasmo, So Sweet So Dead, Hatchet for the Honeymoon,
The Killer Must Kill Again, Tenebrae, Short Night of Glass Dolls, and maybe even a couple more!.

And be sure to swing on over to the 6.5 Feet Under page on podomatic HERE and give them a like and subscribe and take a listen to their other episodes. Even the ones without PB&G are good!

Comment and let us know if you liked the show and if this is something you’d enjoy more of.

And, lastly, WE HAVE NOT FORGOTTEN YOU! We have a few new reviews in the works and we promise not to make you wait months for them. Ciao!

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.

 

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.