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.

 

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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.

The Screaming Minis: V/H/S

The Screaming Minis is an experiment in short (well, shorter) individual reviews, as way for us to talk a little more about the other movies of note we’re watching but without the involved, in-depth discussion delivered as a duo. The name comes from The Screaming Mimi, the 1949 pulp novel by Frederic Brown that inspired Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage.

do not adjust the tracking

V/H/S
Directors: Adam Wingard, David Bruckner, Ti West, Glenn McQuaid, Joe Swanberg, and Radio Silence (Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett, Chad Villella & Justin Martinez)
Released:
2012
Starring: Lane Hughes, Adam Wingard, Hannah Fierman, Joe Swanberg, Kate Lyn Sheil, Jason Yachanin, John Walcutt, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett, Chad Villella
Running time: 116 minutes
Genre: Horror

As a fan of found footage, anthologies, and Ti West (The House of the Devil, The Innkeepers) and Glenn McQuaid (I Sell the Dead) I’d been looking forward to this movie. With its recent release to VOD and a few other outlets, I had to check it out.

A group of hipster thugs that spend most of their time doing crimes, being dicks, and making a buck with sharking videos are hired to steal a VHS tape. They burgle their way into the home of the man in possession of the tape, only to find him dead in front of a mass of screens and a mountain of cassettes. As they split up to search the rest of the house, one member of the group begins reviewing the tapes. In the first, some brosephs try to pick up some drunk girls and secretly record their own personal porn. They’re moderately successful, but probably wish they hadn’t been. The second tape is a travelogue of a young couple second-honeymooning in the American Southwest who picked precisely the wrong motel to stay in. In the third segment, a girl takes a group of new friends on a camping trip. Always a bad idea. Tape number four contains the webcam conversations of a man and his troubled friend who believes her house is haunted. And the final tape shows a group of guys heading out to a Halloween party. They may’ve gotten the address wrong.

I wasn’t sure whether I liked V/H/S or not after first watching it. I knew there were scenes I enjoyed and I liked the overall concept, but I wasn’t sure how I felt about its execution as a whole. It’s flawed: Some of the tapes work better than others. The third segment, “Tuesday the 17th,”  isn’t quite as good as the rest, though it does have its moments. Some of the characters (especially the dudes in the framing sequence and the first tape, “Succubus”) are EXTREMELY annoying. I think “10/31/98” went a little too crazy toward the end. It features a haunted house and with hauntings, subtle is usually better. Think The Haunting (1963) versus The Haunting (1999).  And the second and fourth tapes don’t provide much of explanation and can be a little disorienting.

The day after seeing it, I tried to describe the movie to, shockingly, someone who wasn’t Fisty. (I still feel guilty.) I found that there was a lot that I wanted to mention. There are plenty of freaky little details as well as big payoffs from each segment. That’s when I started to feel that there was more about the movie that affected me than I was immediately aware. Just hearing about the stories from the movie secondhand had that someone interested. She wasn’t just listening to the scenes I was describing, she was reacting.

Fulci said his film The Beyond was “[An] absolute film, with all the horrors of our world. It’s a plotless film: a house, people, and dead men coming from The Beyond. There’s no logic to it, just a succession of images.” I think V/H/S works in the same way. (Not as well as The Beyond. Don’t think I’m praising it THAT highly.) It’s a collection of nightmare clips not designed to flesh out every detail, make perfect sense, or just go from story point A to story point B, but rather to tap into our fears and freakouts. It’s a handful of video equivalencies of the urban legend about the mad man under the bed, pretending to be the family dog, licking the little girl’s hand. This is why just hearing my spoken account of the movie could affect someone. That’s the level V/H/S works on, that Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark level. It does it well and that’s why I’m still thinking about the movie days after watching it. It affected me. It was freaky. It was scary. Bravo.

Also, there was A LOT of nudity … male and female!

V/H/S, while not being great, is still a good found footage anthology whose successes outnumber my nitpicks. Shockingly violent, disturbing, scary, and bizarre, it revels in its own freakiness and the disreputable nature of the genre.

Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion

in which nobody is above suspicion

Le foto proibite di una signora per bene
aka The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion
aka Frauen bis zum Wahnsinn gequält
aka Días de angustia
aka Photo interdite d’une bourgeoise
Director: Luciano Ercoli
Released: 1970
Starring: Dagmar Lassander, Nieves Navarro aka Susan Scott, Pier Paolo Capponi, and Simón Andreu
Running time: 93 min
Genre: giallo

You must surrender your mind–and your body. Confirming my own ideas about the inner monologues of women (this is Bill speaking) Minou (Dagmar Lassander) bathes, dresses, paints her toenails, lounges, naps, drinks, pops pills, and obsessively stares at portraits while spending the whole time thinking about how to please, anger, manipulate and make love to Peter. That’s a capital P, sickos. Peter (Pier Paolo Capponi) is her new entrepreneur husband. He’s been away trying to do some hardcore, capitalistic entrepreneuring and she’s doing her best to pass the time until his return.

Taking a break from her internal Peter obsessing and kinda doped up and buzzing, she goes for a late evening walk on the beach. Alone, with no one to call to, she is first spied upon, then stalked by sinister thug on a motorbike (Simón Andreu). He terrorizes and bullies her, using a nightstick with a switchblade tip. He’s going to make her “beg for his kisses,” and then tells her, “No, I’m not going to use force with you.” Nevertheless, he pushes her to the ground and slowly cuts open her clothes. Rapey stuff and, perhaps, murder are imminent. Then he asks about Peter. Does she know what he’s been up to while he’s been away? He tells her that Peter is a fraud. That he’s a murderer. Then he tells her she’s free to go … for now, and leaves her lying there unharmed and mostly unmolested as he rides off. Shaken, she goes to a nearby bar, calls Peter to come for her, and sits and gets plastered with some bossy card players, but doesn’t call the cops because, “The police only make you fill out forms.” Uh …?

Peter is somewhat dismissive of the assault, since the sex killer didn’t really do anything to her, only held her down and threatened her with a knife and cut her clothes mostly off. Uh …? Besides, even if she had been raped, he informs her, he wouldn’t love her any less. Minou, not at all wondering how a sex maniac knew who she was and who her husband is, protects herself from further victimization by donning a curly blonde Femi Benussi wig and going disco dancing. At the club, she bumps into her good friend, the fabulously gorgeous and sexually adventurous Dominique (Nieves Navarro), a former lover of Peter’s (and current lover of peters–zing!), who tells her of the death–maybe suicide, maybe murder–of a man named Dubois. Dubois was a business associate of Peter’s to whom Peter owed quite a bit of money.

Minou reads about Dubois’ death in the paper–he mysteriously died of the bends, a condition that typically afflicts divers that surface too quickly–and she begins to think … something. She discusses her worries and the attack with Dominique, who would, “adore being violated.” Like Peter, Dominique is mostly dismissive of the assault. She’s way more interested in showing Minou her classy porn slideshows and photos and not-so-subtlety coming onto her. While sorting through the porno snaps, Minou finds a picture of the sex maniac from the beach. Having gotten over her fear of filling out forms, an inspector comes to Peter’s office to take a police report from him and Minou. After, Peter tells her about the new deep diving pressure gauge he’s trying to bring to market and she sees the pressure chamber where it’s tested, a room capable of simulating deep diving conditions.

she can’t help thinking about peter: where he is, who he is with, is he thinking of her, and will he ever return to her someday

like a mammal of some sort

my naked pictures, let me show you them

That night, while alone, she receives a phone call from her attacker. He wants to meet with her. He plays her a recording of Peter apparently discussing the murder of Dubois. She must meet him or he’ll turn the tape over to the police. He does not want money. He cannot be bought.  All he wants is Minou. Minou, Minou, Minou! Is Peter really a murderer? How is Dominique involved? Why is Minou a target? Will she willingly give herself to her blackmailer, mind, spirit, and body, to protect her husband? Is any of it even real or is it all in Minou’s tipsy, pill-munching head? Who cares? I just want to see more of her kick ass shoe-stealing, show-stealing, startle-inducing pet turtle. Man, he’s great!

Everyone has his price–even a maniac. Without many of the markers usually ascribed to the giallo, and with a dearth of blood and titties, Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion has its share of detractors, those who might call it Giallo Lite–or even not a giallo at all. However Ercoli’s eye, Ernesto Gastaldi’s script, and a score by Ennio Morricone would suggest otherwise. Will they be enough? Does FPoaLAS have enough strengths to refute the deniers?

Fisty: Before I say anything, I have to get something off my chest. I FUCKING LOATHE DAGMAR LASSANDER’S CUNTING SPITCURLS. They really, really irritate me. When I see–or think about–them, my hands curl into fists and I have to resist the urge to reach into the screen and set them afire. Or yank them off. And I’ve only ever seen them on Dagmar, so I am now beginning to hate her for subjecting me to them. I also blame Ercoli and whomever was in charge of hair and make-up for giving them a pass. What fucking lunacy inspired those damn things?

Bill: Go easy on poor Dagmar. They aren’t that bad. Why do you hate the spitcurls? Why are you so passionate about hating them? Did spitcurls anally rape your mother while pouring sugar in your gas tank? Superman has one. He’s famous for it. Do you hate Superman, too? How can you hate  Superman? Do you also hate rock and roll and apple pie? Are you now or have you ever been a part of a communist organization? I actually think they’re kind of cute, especially when her hair is pulled back or when she’s wearing that purple hat while she and Navarro’s characters are at lunch. The only time I take issue with them is when her hair is down and she still has them. Then, they make her hair look kind of messy, but not good messy, just … busy.  Also, I hate Superman. I do not hate Dagmar (or her hair) or Navarro or FPoaLAS. (When I type that, it makes me think of Legolas fapping. I don’t hate that either. I’m not gay.)

Fisty: What the hell. I hate them because they’re hideous. And they’re ALWAYS THERE, regardless of hairstyle: up or down, formal or casual, whatever. Except for the disco scene when she dons her platinum blonde Femi Benussi wig–which I found ultra hot. Now I want a Seventies perm.

see the spitcurls. see fisty’s rage. rage, fisty, rage.

$2.99 for the first three minutes, $0.39 each additional minute

le freak, so chic

HOLY SHIT, that was just ridiculous, and I apologize; I came over all catty all of a sudden. Despite my spitcurl phobia, Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion is actually one of my favorite gialli. There is so much to love about Ercoli’s wildly entertaining first giallo (among them being: stunning fashion and interior design, hilarious red herrings, gorgeous and sassy actresses–particularly Nieves Navarro–hilarity inducing lines, and so on), but what I find most striking is how essentially feminine a film it is. And no, not simply because the protagonist is a woman–come on, how common is that in gialli?–but because of how Ercoli makes Minou’s feminine concerns central to the film. Basically, Minou is your textbook Lady with the Problem that Has No Name. Lest we forget, this is 1970, and Betty Friedan had been spraying The Feminine Mystiqueall over EVERYTHING for the past few years, and I’m pretty sure it’d hit Europe. In Italy, there were rumblings of their own nascent women’s movement, which would soon explode into battles over divorce, abortion, and other social and political issues.

Ercoli doesn’t sully his giallo with a whole lot of overt politics or preaching, and you won’t even find a plot device with a political subtext a la What Have You Done to Solange? Instead he neatly turns the conventions of the popular cinema inside out, playing with depictions of women in more customary genre films–or is he playing with the way women are treated in 1970 Italy? The hysterical victim or target common to gialli (*cough*EDWIGE*cough*) isn’t unique to the genre, but sadly not an uncommon trope. (Though often used extravagantly there.) When Minou confesses her troubles to Peter and the police, they suggest that the entire  things is simply a fabrication, a repressed fantasy or cry for attention. You women! Even Dominique’s first response on being told of the seaside assault is to quip, “I would have adored being violated!” Oh, misogyny, you so crazy!

Back to Minou, Ercoli’s Lady with the Problem that Has No Name: She’s a naif little homebody, educated simply to catch a husband and now all wrapped up in her devotion to her him and her role as wife. Yet the empty hours she must while away (though not in housework or childcare because after all, this IS a giallo) leave her wanting … more.  Despite her love for Peter, Minou is neurotic and unhappy, self-medicating with ‘ludes and booze–which she’s quitting, she swears, right after this drink/pill–internalizing her anxieties, and seeking fulfillment (which she sees as Peter’s attention) in insipid little sexual adventures that are simply fabrications meant to inspire jealousy in Peter. (Are the cops and Dominique on to something here?) Minou is simply slathered in feminine mystique; the only thing she’s missing is children or at least a meditation on motherhood.

forbidden foto of a very suspicious floozy

let’s make this dress a little less housewifely, shall we?

is that timothy dalton?

Bill: Why would she need children? She has a turtle! I love that turtle.

I totally get what you’re saying about FPoaLAS’s femininity. Maybe I’m reaching a bit, but I also see Navarro/Scott’s Dominique as a kind of embodiment of the porn fantasy woman. She is all about sex. She’s not just permissive, she’s practically predatory. This is a woman that will order a pizza just so she can jump on the delivery boy. She’s beautiful, freaky, likes taking and showing off naked pictures, down for some girl/girl, and she is up for some violation. She is supremely comfortable with her perviness and doesn’t have to sit around making up stories about non-existent love affairs. Dominique is so OTT sexual that, in one scene she uses the police as her personal escort service. And Minou, who is maybe not completely repressed, but is kind of naive and not as confident, knowing Peter was once a lover of Dominique’s and being just a normal woman (except, this being a movie normal is still sickeningly gorgeous), compares herself to the unreal ideal of Dominique. Trying to judge yourself against other normal standards of beauty and sexual adventurousness is hard enough on your ego, but when you’re judging yourself against a perpetually horned up Susan Scott with a massive collection of Copenhagen porno…? There is no way you’re not going to question your own looks and prowess. Or maybe it’s just standard inhibited versus uninhibited stuff and I’m looking at it from too modern a perspective?

Fisty: I don’t know that I get all that from Dominique. She’s definitely an active person as opposed to Minou’s more passive one, and thus walks around acting upon and externalizing everything Minou internalizes and suppresses. In Dominique, the seductive and worldly female type is amped up to eleven to a degree that would be laughable is Navarro’s insouciance didn’t carry it off delightfully. (Okay, it’s still often laughable, but knowingly so; we laugh along with Ercoli et alia instead of at them. This seems to be his MO.) And that’s essentially how Ercoli plays the entire film. The best red herring of all, the turtle jump scare, is one (glaring) example of how Ercoli toys with the audience’s expectations. The title is another, a joke based on the Academy Award-winning Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion–a satiric crime drama that may have influenced Ercoli elsewhere, I do not know. Has anyone seen it?–and of course both titles recall poor Pompeia: Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion. Much as Minou is, until she becomes embroiled in suspicious circumstances and realizes that all women are under suspicion to men at all times. And oh my god, how not lurid is the movie, with that title? Oh, Ercoli!

bathtub of the dolls

boy george versus guido the killer pimp

she really likes turtles

Bill: So not lurid! That title makes you expect something really saucy, but compared to a lot of other gialli, it’s pretty tame. The majority of the nudity in the movie is in the form of  photos of Dominique which, by the way, I would totally sell my soul to own. What a collectible those would make. And most of the “love-making” scenes are kind of boring and unsexy, restrained. The only scenes (that don’t involve a naked or flirtatious Dominique) that really get hott (with a double T) and give the movie some naughty appeal are (go ahead and call me a creep!) the scenes of The Blackmailer attacking Minou or coercing her into getting freaky with threats. Those are the scenes that are shot with a real lover’s eye. When he has Minou pinned down on the beach, slowing cutting the strings on her dress, it seemed more like foreplay than an assault. And when Minou decides she’s going to give in to his demands, man, she really goes all in. It’s some straight up 50 Shades of Grey shit, but actually good not lame, and Minou never once mentions her inner goddess or says, “Holy crap.”

It’s not very bloody either. The Blackmailer isn’t particularly violent until much later in the film and the body count in the movie is low, at only three. One of those deaths, the first, doesn’t occur onscreen. The character that dies never even appears onscreen. You’re not even certain it’s a murder at all.

Fisty: Yeah, there’s a lot of ambiguity there, which I really enjoy. You might think you’ve got the scenario figured out, but then along comes another red herring to throw a monkey wrench into the thick of it, mixing metaphors and motives like some kind of mixy-matchy thing. One of my favorite ambiguous scenes is one where at a dinner party, Minou flashes back to scenes of sex–or is it lovemaking?–for at first it is unclear with whom she is having the sex. Ercoli layers the scene in such a way as to suggest a great deal about Minou and her repression, as well as that around her.

The bit of sex that we see are mostly suggested–or even demonstrated secondhand (or is it third when a character watched slideshows of photographs of another’s character’s sex life, and then we watch that?). The violence is largely the same; there are no on-screen deaths until the climax. The exclusion of obvious scene of sex and violence has led to allegations that FPoaLAS is not really a giallo, but rather a murder mystery, which is just silly. Yes, there are certain tropes missing or toned down but if we’ve seen nothing else, it’s that few gialli (outside of perhaps some of the most derivative types), particularly the more noteworthy ones, hit every single marker. The best (I say) play with audience expectations and hallmarks of the genre–and again, we cannot underestimate the fluidity between genres. More importantly, FPoaLAS was released in November of 1970, a mere nine months after Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. (Nine months, hmmm?) Though Bird would become the principal map for gialli, these transitions do take a little time, even in the fast-moving world of Italian movie production circa 1970. Before Bird, it was hardly set in stone that a giallo must linger over elaborate, bloody kills, or be concerned with psychosexual problems, i.e. that the giallo in essence was that kind of violent erotic thriller.

giallo patch kid

dig those crazy digs

you should be paranoid–nothing good could come of this

FPoaLAS channels the claustrophobic paranoia of earlier efforts like Mario Bava’s seminal The Girl Who Knew Too Much and Romolo Guerriri’s The Sweet Body of Deborah. Like the latter, and also like Bava’s Blood and Black Lace, Ercoli’s use of sex is less than overt, if not exactly subtle.  That it doesn’t use the iconography of Blood and Black Lace should not matter, since at this point all the threads that would make up a later understanding of giallo had not yet come together. More than anything else, it resemble’s Umberto Lenzi’s loose “trilogy” of sexy thrillers–Orgasmo, So Sweet … So Perverse, and Paranoia–both in style and substance: the kinky eroticism, the jet-set cocktail crowd, the motive, and the amorality of those in question. But seemingly any giallo that doesn’t closely follow the post-Argento style is considered unusual or questionable, though they might simply hearken back to the earlier style. So it really doesn’t matter whether there is a black-gloved killer and their POV shots, or J&B, or a priest to pin it on. FPoaLAS IS a giallo, and a damn fine one at that. It’s also damn fine looking, like a series of postcards from Jacqueline Susann’s world, right down to glugging liquor and dolls in the bath.

Bill: Mostly, I just like blood and titties–blood, blood, titties, titties, blood and titties–so I tend to prefer the post-Bird, Argento-influenced films. I need constant stimulation or I get bored. Lucky, despite the dearth of bbttb&t in FapKoalas, there’s still plenty for me to enjoy. For instance: The Turtle. This flick has the only jump scare turtle I think I have ever seen on film. No yowling cats jumping out of closets for Ercoli. He uses a turtle with a shoe fetish instead. It’s not even a one off thing, either. It’s established much earlier in the film that Minou has a turtle and we’re shown the kinds of things her turtle likes to do, so it makes sense when it’s used it to freak you out later. Yes, I’m rambling about how much I enjoyed a pet turtle with maybe three scenes in the movie, but I can’t help it. I like turtles. I also like the funky interior design all through the movie.

I love those fantastic 60’s/70’s apartments. The space age pad Minou is in at the beginning of the movie is amazing! It’s all smooth white curves and indirect lighting. Shelving, walls, furniture, all connected, flowing together, seemingly all one connected piece with slanting log rafters for a ceiling, shag carpet, and creepy mannequin heads mounted on the walls as art. It’s probably my favorite locale in the movie, though The Blackmailer’s apartment is easily the second. That place is insane, with creepy hands sticking out at odd angles, heavy red drapes, skylight, weird bamboo screens hanging everywhere, and masked pinned to the stairs with stakes through its eyes. It’s like a bizarre, neo-savage, surrealist, Night Gallery version of an African tribal theme. Dominique’s place is very similar to that first apartment where we see Minou. Minou and Peter’s house is gorgeous. I think Peter’s work office is the only setting that disappoints.

a crime waiting to happen

suggestive

we told you nothing good could come of it

Fisty: Well, his IS the dull masculine world of business. And it could be that his office is a (relatively) sterile environment because it’s outside Minou’s concerns. Now, their home is a cozily stylish pad, all light and bright and chock full o’ the most benignly outré bibelots. The juxtaposition of their effulgent and well-ordered nest with The Blackmailer’s dark and sinister den of debauchery is highly dramatic, but it works; the dramatic contrast is an effective way to telegraph the repression inherent mannered world Minou usually inhabits. Note how Ercoli uses light and shadow: Minou’s world is so artificially bright as to have none, while that of The Blackmailer is positively steeped in shadow. In his introductory scene, before he starts the seaside chase, he turns off the headlight shining on Minou, chasing her into the darkness he negotiates without hesitation. Symbolism! And of course, these exaggerated set designs lend that fantastic giallo style to which we are all accustomed.

The main players are equally decorative. Dagmar Lassender is lovely–spitcurls and all–and Nieves Navarro is stunning in the more playful role of Dominique. The two parade through the film in an ever increasing assortment of extravagant ensembles, from Minou’s housewifely minidress and disco pantsuit to Dominique’s sideless evening gown and Muppet-collared coat. (I used to have that coat, but lavender. I am not ashamed to admit it.) Plus, Minou is never once not wearing turquoise eyeshadow. It’s amazing.  The gentlemen are pretty groovy themselves; I was particularly taken with Peter’s velvet blazer. Pier Paolo Capponi himself is not too exciting, though his bland smarminess is perfect for his ambiguous role as a possibly villainous husband. However, Simon Andreu is saturninely handsome as The Blackmailer, and does a wonderful turn in making him both seductive and frightening.

Bill: I thought Andreu was kind of ugly. COULD WE BE ANY MORE DIFFERENT? (Fisty: Ugly hot!) But you’re right about him being frightening. The Blackmailer is sadistic and psychotic and a damn tricky bastard. That one move he pulls … I don’t want to say exactly what it is and spoil it, but I’ll say that it will give the wiggins to anyone like me that worries about having their feet grabbed as they come up the basement stairs or thinks about the hand coming from under the bed whenever their feet are uncovered. And how awesome is his weapon of choice? It’s not long enough to be a cane, definitely more baton-like, highly polished, a handsome orange wood color, with a small hidden switchblade in the tip. It’s definitely not your typical cinematic murder tool. I want one. The Blackmailer is totally a stalker with character. I keep thinking about how awesome a giallo crossover movie would’ve been, with Andreu’s Blackmailer and Antoine St. John’s Killer, from The Killer Must Kill Again, stalking the same victims. If we can get Django, Sartana, and Trinity crossover movies, then why not?

ugly hot on toast

wait, is that andy samberg?

sir knifes-a-lot

I got carried away on a weird tangent there for a moment. I’m sorry. But  I did bring up The Killer Must Kill Again and I guess I can use that to segue into another thing I liked about FPoaLAS. I’m sure you remember all of my bitching about the slow middle of TKMKA (also an unconventional giallo). I don’t have any of those same complaints about Fotos. It never has a chance to feel slow or get boring.  It’s paced well, regularly showing you a new twist or wrinkle to keep you guessing and questioning things. Whenever you think you have it figured, you get a school of red herrings nibbling at your face like mutated piranha. Actually sensible red herrings, too, not the out of nowhere Leader-of-a-Satanic-Sex-Cult, Murderous-Orangutan-That-Looks-Like-a-Burn-Victim-Gorilla, or Secret-Sex-Killer-That-Happens-to-Live-Next-Door varieties. It’s a well constructed mystery, tricky and unusual enough to avoid being too linear or predictable, but not totally bizarre or nonsensical like a French Sex Murders.

Fisty: Fotos works as a tidy little mystery–almost TOO tidy. Dun dun DUN! It does wrap up very quickly, but I found the plotholes pretty small. Nothing you could drive a truck through. The motive and method are pretty traditional for thrillers, hearkening back to some noir plotlines. There’s a definite Woolrichian feel to Ercoli’s work, perhaps more so in Death Walks at Midnight, but I wouldn’t say Fotos is very far from it–the dilemma of I Married a Dead Man’s finale and that of various short stories is very similar to Minou’s first problem with The Blackmailer. Minou, of course, is The Woman in Peril (Above Suspicion), and Dominique gets to play femme fatale, a role I’m sure she’d relish. It’s a fun connexion to ponder. Maybe another time, because we’ve got pills to pop and cocktails to swill.

Speaking of cocktails, these folks like to party! I think someone is drinking in virtually every scene. I’m particularly fond of the scene just following The Blackmailer’s initial appearance, where Minou goes to some seedy bar, quaffs two brandies, then hangs out with some blue-collar types, guzzling Carlsberg beer till Peter arrives. It’s so bizarre.

as long as we’re breathing, let’s have another drink

this will sober her right up

i like turtles

Bill: There is so much alcoholism in FPoaLAS! It starts with Minou saying she won’t drink, then drinking. Then she’s attacked and goes to the bar. Her husband takes her home where they drink. She goes dancing and everyone drinks. Later she meets with a friend and they drink and then look at porn. Every time any character meets up with another, including, at least once, the cops, they say, “Lets have a drink!” Bottles of booze are prominent in several scenes. At one point, Minou wakes up screaming, freaked out, makes Peter check around, and in the middle of the night, after just waking up, he says, “Well, since we’re up, we might as well have a drink,” and they start swilling booze. I picture them getting up to pee in the middle of the night and saying, “Well, since I’m on my feet, I might as well get plastered.” I think The Blackmailer is the only person that isn’t at least tipsy through the entire movie. Even the turtle seems a bit sluggish and unsteady at times.

Why on Earth should I love you less because of a sex fiend? Forbidden Photos of a Woman Above Suspicion is essential for any fan of the genre, though it boasts little blood or sex. But Luciano Ercoli’s debut giallo is hardly lacking, as a strong cast, inimitable style, and all the bons mots (and eau de vie!) one could hope for, making for some highly diverting entertainment. Undoubtedly a giallo of the restrained variety, it is still strongly suggestive of the sexuality and cruelty that would later dominate the genre. Plus, a turtle. All in all, it’s a kitschy, kinky little thriller that understands a woman’s needs.