Friday, September 27, 2013

Italian Horror/Giallo Double Dayer - Part I: Black Cats, Devils, Diabolical Art, and The Past Stalks the Present

I've indulged in a few spaghetti flavoured horror-thons between my first one last November and the present day, and I may eventually do write ups of one or two. But to be honest, none of them felt fully satisfying compared to my initial one (though I certainly enjoyed parts), so I'll be re-ordering and re-running most of them in the near future. That's something I've learned so far with these things... organisation really is key and putting together a decent playlist is almost an art-form in itself, so I try to avoid winging it last minute, wherever possible. However, as we'll see in these next two posts, a bit of improvisation/chopping and changing, even in the midst of things, isn't always a bad idea...

Wednesday 11th September 2013

14:00 - The Black Cat (Lucio Fulci, 1981)

The first movie of the day is becoming more of a favourite with every viewing and seems like an ideal starter on this wet and windy Wednesday afternoon. And it feels as warm and cosy as the cup of tea I'm currently drinking. 

It occurs to me during this particular re-watch that this is arguably another supernatural giallo, with the usual black gloves being traded for the similarly shaded eponymous pussy. Admittedly it's not as much of a mystery as is typical for the form, but there are certainly enough other elements for it to qualify (stalking scenes, a reasonable body-count and an amateur sleuth to name a few).

There's plenty of other Italian horror/giallo staples to be enjoyed here too. In terms of cast we have Mimsy Farmer, David Warbeck, Al Cliver, Dagmar Lassander and Daniela Doria, who could have formed some kind of supergroup on the set of this one... I'd sure as shit check that CD out. And there's other wonderfully familiar sights, such as a good old bat attack and those ever ubiquitous reel-to-reel tape recorders. Some of these things will later form part of the check-list for the inevitable drinking game that was calling my name even this early on.

Speaking of drink, there's a line in this movie that I always get a kick out of, which functions as a bit of borderline foreshadowing for what will no doubt take place later in the moviethon: "God knows what you're capable of seeing when you've had a few".   

Finally, a quick shout out to three other crucial cast and crew members. First and foremost, to Patrick Magee (and his sinister eyebrows), who practically steals the movie. Secondly, to Fulci regular Sergio Salvati, who provides some striking cinematography (especially loving those cat-cam POV shots). And last, but by no means least, to Pino Donaggio, who provides a memorable, appropriately sinuous and sometimes sinister score. 

For some more about Fulci's pussy (ahem), click here...

15:33 -  "The Black Cat" (Dario Argento, 1990) from Two Evil Eyes (Argento & George A. Romero) 

I've written about this anthology movie on the blog before, so I'll try and be brief. I originally suspected George A. Romero (who directed the film's other segment) may have been Italian American, but some quick research informed me he's actually the son of "a Cuban-born father of Castilian Spanish parentage and a Lithuanian American mother" (thanks Wikipedia!) so I won't be watching his half today. And to be honest, his bit (while still enjoyable) doesn't have the same lure of compulsive re-watchability to me that Argento's does, so I've no problem at all with skipping it. 

Here's a quick list of stuff I noticed this time around...
  • As in Fulci's film, it seems that cats really don't like having their photo taken, even if the camera is completely imaginary, as it is during one scene here.
  • Speaking of taking pictures, Argento's take on this story also features a photographer as the principal protaganist, though this time he seems to do crime scenes for a living, rather than just as a one off.
  • Finally on the subject of cats and cameras, there's some more great pussy POV shots on display here (so to speak), many of which are technically outstanding.
  • Martin Balsam appears as Harvey Keitel's nosy neighbour Mr. Pym (whose name is one of many nods to Poe in this segment), and has one particularly great bit which is a clever riff on his famous scene in Psycho.
  • And Pino Donaggio reappears, with a slightly more synth-laden score this time around, although like his music for Fulci's flick, it also contains a bit that sounds like it belongs on a PA system at a renaissance fair (and that piece is more appropriately used here, not that it was incongruous in the other film of course). 

That's all for now on that one folks, but seeing as the next item on the playlist serves as such an arguably ideal companion piece, I'll be returning Mr. Keitel and his feline nemesis very soon...

16:46 - "Toby Dammit" (Federico Fellini, 1968) from Spirits of the Dead (Fellini, Louis Malle & Roger Vadim)

In the interest of full disclosure, I'll admit I'm neither hugely familiar with Fellini, nor particularly enamoured with any of the films of his I've seen, though admittedly I've only watched most of them once (with the exception of Amarcord, which I quite enjoyed), so I'm certainly far from sure where I stand on the guy. At the current stage of my ever-continuing film education though, all I'll say is this: if Fellini had only ever made this one mini-movie and then disappeared into the ether for ever, he'd still be a legend in my book. Even though it's barely forty minutes long, I'd say this still beats the pants off most feature length horror films. There's not a single throwaway moment here, and from beginning to end I find it simply mesmerising. Probably my favourite Poe adaptation, it's also easily top ten material as far as Italian horror is concerned. 

As with Two Evil Eyes, the latter part of Spirits of the Dead is really the only essential bit. Roger Vadim's "Metzengerstein" is good bawdy fun and worth and look, but I seem to remember being thoroughly bored by Louis Malle's seemingly pedestrian take on "William Wilson". To be fair though, I've only seen those first two segments once and I'm certainly curious to revisit them. But as those two dudes are French anyway, it matters not for now. And as luck would have it, Argento's "The Black Cat" and Fellini's "Toby Dammit" (based on Poe's "Never Bet the Devil Your Head", which I badly need to read... not that I have an excuse either, seeing as it's included - I think - in the liner notes of Arrow's absolutely gorgeous looking Blu-Ray edition), make for a truly formidable, and frankly more appropriate pairing, as they share some similar subject matter and profound thematic resonances. 

A quick disclaimer before we continue... POSSIBLE SPOILER ALERT... or to put it another way, if you haven't seen this one, please bugger off (in the nicest way possible :)) and come back when you have... but if you are sticking with this and haven't watched it, you're welcome anyway, and I'll try not to give too much away... though I suppose it's fairly obvious where this one's going from almost the opening frames onwards.

For anyone unfamiliar, the story follows almost-rock-star-ish actor Toby Dammit (a magnificent Terence Stamp, who turns in my current favourite performance in an Italian horror film here, period) as he reluctantly travels to Rome to do a gun for hire job, starring in a western re-take on the redemption story, merely so he can claim the Ferrari the producers are paying him with. As we see from very early on, Toby is a tragically hopeless, alcoholic misanthrope, who has already seemingly given up on life and in to his fate. And as a further seeming signifier that he has gone off the deep end (mentally and perhaps even spiritually speaking) he encounters a possible personification of his own personal demons (and maybe even the devil itself) upon arriving at the airport, while he is seeking refuge from a barrage a paparazzi flash bulbs. We don't see what he does until later on, when he's recalling the vision during a TV interview, but when we do, one can almost understand the strangely serene allure that Toby's impending self annihilation seems to promise him. In a blatant nod to Mario Bava's Kill, Baby…Kill!, Dammit sees the devil as a young girl with a white bouncing ball, who's inviting him to come and play... forever...and ever... and ever... sorry, wrong movie, but the point still stands.

I'll say no more regarding the plot. For me, Fellini's take on Poe is endlessly re-watchable for several reasons. Firstly, I find it immensely compelling, as it's alternately funny (the aforementioned TV interview especially), scary and almost heartbreakingly sad. On the latter point, I'd say the part I find most moving is where Toby, who is drunk as a skunk at the Italian Oscars, sees a brief glimpse of his salvation (and maybe even God, if you want to read further into the religious angle here) embodied as a stunningly gorgeous lady dressed in black (a costume choice which may be meant to sign-post her status as the antithesis of his little white devil). In case you haven't seen it, I won't tell you how that one pans out, but from everything else I've said, I'm sure you can probably guess.

This being Italian horror, it goes without saying that this is a feast for the eyes (and ears; kudos to Nino Rota and, in the scene I just mentioned, also Ray Charles), but just one or two brief points on that. The most striking characteristic of "Toby Dammit" is undoubtedly its busy, blink-and-you'll-miss-it production design, which in some ways recalls another (admittedly very different) multi-lingual tale of a stranger in a strange land from the previous year, which is Jacques Tati's sublime Playtime. There's also a slight pop art vibe at play here, the cardboard cut-out people we see dotted around recalling the cover of The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Also, the film's hallucinatory cinematography, courtesy of Giuseppe Rotunno, is an apt visual means of further bringing the audience's perception into line with Toby's delirious way of seeing the world. 

As I suggested earlier, this makes for a brilliant companion piece to Argento's "The Black Cat". Both are essentially cautionary tales about the perils of misanthropy and alcoholism, although Argento's is perhaps arguably more ambiguous, with his wife being almost as much of an antagonist as her adopted cat. Plus, Harvey Keitel's character actually somewhat fights against his fate, where as Terence Stamp, as I said earlier, seems to have almost entirely embraced his oncoming oblivion from the very start. As a final side note, and believe me, I'm really not being facetious here, I wonder what the response would be if they screened these two back to back during an AA meeting...

Brief hiatus: At this point in the movie-thon I had something of a crisis of conscience, if you could call it that. In other words, I really couldn't bring myself to go forward with my original plan, which was to watch the bastardised version of Mario Bava's Lisa and the Devil known as The House of Exorcism, for reasons which will become clear with the movie after this one. I won't go into the details behind that tragic affair as it's been written about extensively elsewhere. But after just re-visiting Fellini's mini-masterpiece, there was no way in hell I could shift gears like that and watch something that ran the risk of making me go red in the face with anger at the injustice of it all (though I will watch it at some point as a curio). So I decided fuck it, after already scaling such giddy heights so early in the 'thon, there's only one place I can go from here....

18:17 - Lisa and the Devil (Mario Bava, 1973)

Now, despite what I just said above, I was still initially a bit uneasy about putting this movie on half way through today's playlist. I mean this is really the sort of film that I'd ideally stick on at the end of a movie-thon and in the wee hours of the morning, but as I haven't seen two of the three films that are following it and the one I have is another arguable masterpiece, I've still got loads to look forward to and can rest easy. Anyway, enough pre-rambling...

As the title sequence starts to roll, any residual doubts I had about re-watching this right now are almost instantly evaporated by Carlo Savina's sublime musical accompaniment. Furthermore, once this has ended and the film has properly begun, I soon spy another encouraging affirmation of my decision to put this movie on. This auspicious omen takes the form of the fresco seen by Lisa (Elke Sommer) during her travels round Toledo. It depicts the devil carrying away the dead (in fact this is something echoed by the film's Spanish title, El diablo se lleva a los muertos, which Wikipedia translates as The Devil Carries The Dead) and provides the first instance of several we'll encounter today of pieces of religious art that seem have to have a destabilising effect upon the film's characters and perhaps even the fabric of time and space itself.

This is one of those movies where any kind of extensive synopsis won't really benefit the uninitiated; the title and what I've said in the above paragraph will probably suffice. Or, to put it another way, like say, Argento's Suspiria (reviewed by yours truly here), this is one of those films that is better experienced than talked about. And like with "Toby Dammit", if you haven't seen this one, you really owe it to yourself to stop reading and seek it out immediately. But as I'll be relatively brief here (and again, hopefully somewhat spoiler free, though I'm not promising anything), if you wish to carry on regardless, I doubt it'll diminish your enjoyment of the film.

As others much more deeply versed in the work of Mario Bava have pointed out (especially Tim Lucas and Stephen Thrower; the latter provides some insightful liner notes to Arrow's Blu-Ray release), Lisa and the Devil functions not only as the director's most personal movie, but also as a summation of his entire career. As a result, if you decided to play a drinking game during this one, taking a shot whenever you spot something distinctively Bava-esque, then you'd probably be on your arse fairly early on. Amongst other things, there are human simulacra galore (in the form of many mannequins), creepy faces at the window, a general feeling a push and pull between worlds old and modern, and, last but not least, that other perennial favourite of Signor Bava's, an obsession with necrophilia.  

The entire cast is excellent, with special mention going to Elke Sommer and Telly Savalas as the eponymous protagonist and antagonist, Alida Valli (whose presence provides another link to Suspiria) and last but not least, Alessio Orano, who plays Maximilian. And as much as I love Telly Savalas in this movie, I'd say it's Orano who is probably my favourite screen presence here. To me, he looks, and even somewhat sounds, like a Italian Bruce Lee who seems to be dressed up to go out to some kind of 19th century disco; and like Patrick Magee's eyebrows in The Black Cat, his shirt collar threatens to steal the entire movie.

On a completely unrelated side note, I started getting hungry during this one (the film's hilarious lines about "chocolate sprinkles" really didn't help), so I got a couple of quick snacks; an apple and a white chocolate rabbit (that I got from work for free as it was out of date Easter stock); and while watching this particular movie, both of them seemed to hold almost ominous portents.

Finally, in an arguable callback/connection to "Toby Dammit", this movie suggests that we should stay far away from planes, as all they seem to promise is a one way trip to hell.  

20:46 - The Night Child aka The Cursed Medallion (Massimo Dallamano, 1975)

This is the first of two movies today that are unseen by yours truly. And as it's fast approaching 9pm, it seems like an ideal time to crack open a beer. The remainder of the moviethon (well, today's instalment at least) will be sponsored (I wish! but if you work for either of these companies, please send me some freebies) by Peroni (specifically Nastro Azzurro) and Birra Moretti. So be warned, these notes might start to go a little bit off the rails...      

Wow, my head is totally spinning from this wonderful movie (and not the booze, honest... I'd don't get drunk that quickly!) and frankly I barely know where to begin. I'll need to re-watch this one before going in depth on it. But I'll share a few thoughts from my initial experience of it.

Without going into too much detail, the plot follows documentary film maker Michael Williams (played by Richard Johnson of The Haunting and Zombie), who is doing research on diabolical art for a current project. His daughter Emily (an amazing Nicoletta Elmi, who I'd say has never been better) is suffering from some kind of post traumatic stress disorder related to her mother's death in a fire. Apart from screaming the house down occasionally, she's also having visions of being pursued by some kind of medieval mob and generally making life difficult for her babysitter (Ida Galli). On that latter point, and in one of the most awesome scenes I've seen all year, it turns out Emily has also taken up smoking!

In the midst of these tough times, Michael has to travel to Italy due to work commitments. It's suggested by Emily's psychiatrist that he should take her along for the journey, as she is understandably quite dependant upon him emotionally.

I'll say no more regarding the story, but needless to say, their trip to the continent is far from plain sailing, as elements such as that eponymous evil artefact, murder and another seemingly mind warping painting begin to effect the already troubled characters.

Apparently written off by some as a mere Exorcist rip-off, Italian style, this actually owes more to our previous movie, with a heavy emphasis on regression into/being doomed or haunted by the past. Regarding this subject, a statement made by one character seems particularly suggestive: "Living here is like living out of time", a quote that could just as easily have come from the Countess or her son in Lisa and the Devil

Featuring a beautiful, appropriately haunting score by Stelvio Cipriani, gorgeous cinematography from Franco Delli Colli and an appearance by a pre-Blade Runner Joanna Cassidy, this is a restrained, relatively violence free affair (and this may go without saying, but neither of those things are criticisms), that still plants itself firmly in the memory, refusing to budge, until you give in to its magnetic allure and watch it again (it was barely more than a few days between my own first two viewings).

And as a complete side note, I really wish I'd picked up some J&B for today's viewing, as the characters go through an almost heroic amount of the stuff in this flick (and on that point alone it's almost an honorary giallo)... on second thoughts though it's probably a good thing I didn't, as if I'd been matching them drink for drink, I probably wouldn't have made it to the end of this one without hitting the deck! 

22:44 - Time for a smoke break. Got a couple of movies left to go and the next one's a doozy. It's frankly mind-bending enough on its own, but surely a bit of psychotropic enhancement can't hurt right? Well, there's only one way to find out....

23:15 - The House with Laughing Windows (Pupi Avati, 1976)

I've written about this film fairly recently in my top ten gialli, so I'll try to be brief. This isn't really going to be too hard though, as I didn't write many notes this time around (having a spliff isn't really conducive to such an activity, especially if you wanna decipher what you've written later), so I'm gonna have to wing this one from memory... this could be interesting...

Calling forward to Fulci's The Beyond, the film opens with a sepia toned sequence of horrific violence (though it's slowed down and somewhat obfuscated here) and also features an artist (only heard instead of seen) who seems to have jumped off the deep end and into deeply disturbing territory. The particularly bizarre thing about all this is that Avati is sort of putting his cards right on the table from the off, and then after this terrifying title sequence, quickly removes them again. As a result, I was, for some reason, totally unprepared for where this film would take me when I first watched it, even though in retrospect I should have seen it all coming. But I'll say no more on that, as I don't want to give too much away... in fact, I think I've said too much already... wait, who's that at the door?... Shit, they've come for me.... aaarrrggghhhh!!!!

For the uninitiated (and if that's you then I advise you to seek this out immediately), the film follows an art restoration expert (played by Lino Capolicchio) who goes to a small village to restore a fresco of the martyred St. Sebastian, painted by a local named Legnani (whose extremely unsettling self-portrait looks, to me, actually a little bit like Dario Argento did around this period, especially the hair), who is often referred to as "The Painter of Agonies". Apparently, the guy died in mysterious circumstances, furthering adding to the ominous aura surrounding his history. As with most gialli (and as I've probably said previously, this one's something of a borderline case), it isn't long before someone who knows too much is murdered and our protagonist is compelled to start his own investigation.

To avoid getting nearly killed off again myself, I'll remain tight lipped regarding any further plot details. Suffice to say though, shifty looks and hostile locals abound and our hero starts to find himself getting dragged in deeper and deeper.

As I suggested earlier, Avati's film can be quite disarming due to the slow burn that makes up much of it's duration, but that's not to say it's boring by any means. Like the last two films, there's a doomed, haunted quality that suffuses the entire thing, from the end of that aforementioned credits sequence onwards. I really don't want to say much more, to obviously avoid ruining anything for those who haven't seen it, but I just want to briefly mention the music by Amedeo Tommasi, which is movingly melancholic and insidiously creepy, in equal measure. The composers motifs are simple, yet highly effective, and his score will easily be going into my top ten Italian horror/gialli soundtrack list when I get round to putting it together.

01:25 - Time for another break me thinks. My eyes are starting to try and escape from my skull so they can toddle off to bed and get some rest it seems. As I'm also getting a little bit tired I decide to stick the kettle on. While it's boiling I nip outside for another smoke and some fresh air to perk me up a bit. I really can't get some of the music from the last movie out of my head, and to keep my mood from cycling too far one way or the other, I'm alternating on my internal jukebox between the scary stuff and the sad bits. The door's open so I soon hear the kettle click announcing it's time for some tea. I finish my cheeky jazz fag and beverage while sitting outside a little longer, allowing my peepers a bit of much needed time off before continuing...

02:00 - Murder Obsession (Riccardo Freda, 1981)

The last movie of the day is the second that I bought sight unseen. And this time it's via several recommendations from those awesome dudes Brad and Richard of 'Hello! This is the Doomed Show' (links to their respective blogs, 'Yellow Razor' and 'Cinema Somnambulist' can be found on the sidebar of this site). And seeing as it's also on Blu-Ray, I'm very very excited.

Now considering the late hour I first watched this, and my somewhat twisted state of consciousness, my memory is admittedly quite hazy upon many of the details (though in the interest of full disclosure I'll tell you I re-watched it a few days later), so while I say this frequently and it's usually bullshit, this time I actually will be quite brief.

In fact, in the interest of brevity and because for the most part I was completely entranced by the film's imagery, here's a random list of some of the main things that stuck out :
  • We've got sleaze aplenty from the first frames and J&B being chugged barely three minutes in.
  • There's some interesting philosophical dialogue from the director character; in fact, he mentions an idea that the painter from The House with Laughing Windows would no doubt concur with.
  • It contains a mesmerising freaky/sleazy extended dream sequence with a hilariously fake spider and bats, some groovy bleeding skulls, more Vaseline on the lens (if that's how they did it) than you can shake a stick at, oh, and lots of exposed boobage.
  • Animal sacrifice?!? I shouldn't be too surprised if I've ordered Italian I suppose...
  • Creepy crusty people who look a bit like their contemporary Dr. Freudstein from the same year's The House by the Cemetery
  • And speaking of 1981, holy crap! I only just realised this and it was totally unintentional, but we've gone full circle and back to where we started in the afternoon (and exactly twelve hours ago, which is also accidental)... that magical, bountiful year of many a horror classic. You're in good company Freda!
  • Black gloves and red herrings abound.
  • Oh and more of that same lovely lady running round with her boobs hanging out.

That's pretty much it for now. I'll be returning to this in more depth at a later date, and once I've got round to checking out the slightly shorter English dubbed version. But generally speaking, I frickin' loved this wonderfully unhinged gothic giallo/slasher thanks to its mix of (among other things) old school atmospherics, unashamed sleaze, blatant artifice, incest and Satanic shennanigans. 

03:44 - The End... well, for today at least... to be continued.....

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