It is logical, and it seemed easy enough, to begin a discussion of The Cat and the Canary with a discussion of the history of “old dark house” mysteries — those movies where a disparate and largely shifty group of people convene upon a mysterious old mansion and find themselves embroiled in — and probably accused of — either a murder or a theft. Lots of skulking, staring, and clutching hands appearing from behind curtains or the doors of hidden passages ensues. From the silent era to the end of the 1930s, there was a dizzying number of “old dark house” films produced. They were cheap to make, easy to write, and demanded little from the production company or the audience. At their worst, old dark house mysteries were harmlessly entertaining. Often they were much better than that. The formula was so adaptable that it could be grafted onto pretty much any type of movie. Even established series like the Bulldog Drummond and Charlie Chan movies fell back from time to time on the old dark house motif. From horror to comedy to crime to thriller, it was easy to crank out an old dark house version of the genre and keep everyone at least moderately satisfied.
I’m going to have to cram a bunch of history up front in this review, so if you already know most of it, please forgive me. I feel it sets the stage properly for those among you who aren’t nerdy enough to have a vast and swelling knowledge of the ins and outs of British censorship efforts, Italian slasher-thriller movies, and the joyous day those two tastes were plunged together into a scrummy treat known as the “Video Nasties” list. Let me first take back to a time when Samantha Fox was still a fox (maybe she still is; I haven’t seen her in years) and the world was just beginning to discover the pleasure of home video systems. England has always had a somewhat contentious relationship with cinema censorship, and certain types who like to get upset over idiotic things were worried about the fact that the rules governing the rating, licensing, and editing of films for release to British theaters had not been written in a language that would allow them to be applied equally to films distributed on video. This little lapse in the foresight of censorship laws to anticipate the invention and subsequent wildfire-like spread of VCRs meant that films previously cut or banned could be legally (more or less) distributed in uncut format on videotape. It seems like they could have solved this dilemma by simply adding “and videos, too” in biro at the end of the book of law, but that’s not how England does things.
Phenomena is often regarded as a turning point in the career of Italian thriller director Dario Argento. Unfortunately for him, the direction it is most often cited as turning is down. After Phenomena, the influential director had one more good film in him – the mean-spirited and sadistic Opera — and then it was all downhill from there. In many ways, Argento’s career seemed to reflect that of another highly creative, important director: Tsui Hark. Both men revolutionized film making in their respective countries and inspired (and continue to inspire) countless other writers and directors. Both men brought a highly stylized vision to the screen. And both men have spent the better portion of the last decade trying to live up to their own reputations.
When innovative Shaw Bros. studio director Chor Yuen teamed up with martial arts novelist Lung Ku and the Shaw’s top kungfu film star, Ti Lung, they made beautiful music together. In 1977 the trio collaborated to create two of the best martial arts films ever made, Clans of Intrigue and Magic Blade. The success of the films, as well as their recognition as some of the greatest looking films to come from the martial arts genre in decades, made it a pretty simple decision to keep a good thing going. Less than a year after audiences were dazzled with the complexly tangled web of swordplay, sex, and suaveness that made up Clans of Intrigue, the trio got together for a sequel called Legend of the Bat. Legend of the Bat is about Ti Lung smirking and stabbing people and trying to unravel a mysterious plot chocked full of secret identities, ulterior motives, and booby trapped lairs. In other words, it’s more of the same, and the same is worth getting more of when it’s as cool as Clans of Intrigue.
Love and Murder is a rough-edged, fast paced and ever-so-slightly sleazy little Bollywood B thriller that satisfyingly combines noirish stylistic flourishes with elements of the James Bond movies. If you’re going to crib, you might as well do it from the best, and Love and Murder certainly cribs well, also pilfering here and there from the German Krimi thrillers and even Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques. The addition of a classic femme fatale turn by Helen and an appearance by a mysterious killer in a skeleton suit almost compensates for the fact that the print from which the M.H. One VCD was made looks like it spent a good deal of time marinating on the bed of a stagnant lake.
The German-made animated feature Felidae has, at least at first glance, the slick commercial look of the type of Hollywood productions we’re used to seeing from the likes of Disney and Don Bluth. If you’re anything like me, that might prove to be a bit of a stumbling block, because, being that I’m no big fan of mainstream animation, that’s not the type of cinematic experience I tend to seek out. And indeed, during its first few minutes I had some serious doubts about whether I was going to enjoy Felidae. Then came the moment when the film’s protagonist, a feline detective by the name of Francis, stumbles across his first horribly mutilated kitty corpse, and I quickly realized that there were quite a few shades of difference between Felidae and Fievel Goes West.
Based on the first of a series of novels by author Akif Pirincci, Felidae starts out like an especially grue-spattered boys’ adventure (but with cats) and quickly turns into a bleak apocalyptic noir along the lines of Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (again, but with cats). In the service of this dark vision, the filmmakers pile on the extreme gore and nightmarish imagery, still managing all the while to deliver a complex and compelling mystery. Needless to say, this isn’t one to show the kids, and I would hesitate to recommend it to the more sensitive cat lovers out there. However, feline enthusiasts of a bit more two-fisted nature might find much to like, especially in the obvious respect and care that the filmmakers bring to the task of representing their titular creatures (“Felidae” being the name for the biological family to which cats belong).
Both Pirincci (who scripted) and the animators charged with bringing his words to life do a pretty good job of providing their furry cast with feelings and motivations recognizable to humans without simply turning them into humans in cat drag. While these cats speak to each other in complete sentences and have an awareness of human doings far beyond what one might expect, there is no doubt that theirs is a world entirely “other” from the one that their oblivious owners inhabit. There’s also been an effort not to sentimentalize the beasts; these tabbies, for all their anthropomorphic antics, are just as likely to casually display their buttholes, gulp down a passing fly, eat garbage and piss wherever they please as your own little Whiskers or Tigger. Oh, and they also screw — and, as in life, it’s no candlelight-and-Barry-White-on-the-stereo affair, but rather the same brutal spectacle of hissing, biting and forced penetration that plays out every day in suburban backyards from here to Munich and beyond.
Felidae begins with Francis, who is gifted with an inquisitive temperament beyond that of the typical house cat, moving into a new neighborhood where a feline serial killer appears to be on the loose. While his newfound friend, a battle-scarred and foul-mouthed tom by the name of Bluebeard, shares the belief of the other cats in the neighborhood that the bloody murders are the work of a human, Francis thinks that the evidence points to another cat, and sets out to sniff out the culprit. His search brings him in contact with a messianic cat cult who worship a perhaps mythical super-feline martyred at the hands of a sadistic human scientist (and who express their worship through a ritual of mass self-electrocution); and later leads him to discover that the very house he and his owner have moved into may have been the site of the fabled atrocities — which in reality go way beyond what anyone could previously have imagined.
Francis is guided in his search by a series of vivid dreams which make up some of Felidae‘s most memorable — and horrifying — moments. I challenge anyone who has seen this film to forget the mentally scarring spectacle of a gigantic Gregor Mendel rising up from a vast feline killing field to wield hundreds of mangled cat corpses as marionettes. Another indelibly disturbing image occurs when Francis and Bluebeard stumble upon an underground catacomb filled with decomposing and skeletal cat remains — at which point they realize that, contrary to what they thought, the killer they’ve been tracking is responsible for the murder of, not just several, but hundreds of their brothers and sisters.
Images of mass graves and genocide abound in Felidae, as do references to eugenics and racial purity, and it is one of its flaws that its approach to allegory is just a bit too on-the-nose. (And, seriously, all you Germans who are far too young to have had any direct involvement in the Holocaust? We forgive you. Honestly.) Another for me is that, for a noir protagonist, Francis comes off as just a bit too bland and innocent — bushy-tailed, if you will. An over-dependence on catnip might have been a nice touch in this regard, and in lieu of that, we might have at least got a better sense of the effect that Francis’ descent into darkness has had on him. He appears to be less cynical about humans than the other cats in his new neighborhood (he is at first unfamiliar with the local term “can opener”, which refers to humans in terms of what the cats see as their only useful function), and while he appears troubled by the human cruelty he witnesses, we don’t really get much of a sense of him wrestling with any dissonance between his old and new perceptions.
Still, these are all minor complaints in light of what Felidae accomplishes. Given both its concept and execution, its novelty value is guaranteed. But that it goes beyond that to deliver such a solid and involving mystery, rife with powerful moments and some nasty shocks, is something to be celebrated. One might think that having cartoon kitty-cats prancing across the screen would work against the consistent atmosphere of oppressive dread this story calls for (even if those kitty-cats are doing some pretty awful things), but the finished product proves otherwise. Furthermore, on a technical level, Felidae is — if a little slick at times for my taste — gorgeous. A glance at the various credits of the large, international crew of animators who worked on the film indicates that they were among the most accomplished professionals in the business at the time. In addition to the solid character design and studied believability of the movements, the backgrounds are beautiful without exception — rich with color and lush detail to an extent that they sometimes threaten to upstage the foreground action.
Given that high level of technical artistry, I’m glad that Felidae was made in 1994 — rather than today, when it would undoubtedly have been done with CGI. CGI is to me intrinsically post-modern, always seeming to be about nothing so much as itself — constantly, by way of its very resemblance to live action, calling attention to the trick that it’s pulling on the audience as it’s doing it. As such, it might be fine for films that are just an episodic series of gags, but in service of a sustained narrative — especially one that requires the attention to detail that Felidae‘s does — it’s just a distraction. Drawn animation is definitely the ideal medium for creating the kind of enclosed reality that’s needed for us to invest ourselves in a vision as quirky as Felidae‘s. Given that, this film should stand as a testament to the viability of that medium in the face of the increasingly indistinguishable CGI features that hog our theater screens each holiday season.
Felidae, though in German (the original voice cast includes a number of noted German actors, including Klaus Maria Brandauer), oddly features an English language theme song sung by Boy George. There also exists a perfectly acceptable English language dub, which can be found on the German DVD release (which, sadly, doesn’t include English subtitles for the German language version). All of this indicates that it was made with an eye toward an overseas release, which is not surprising given the obviously high financial investment that went into it. Yet chances are that you have never even heard of it, much less seen it.
That it never received a theatrical release in America is a no-brainer; distributors would undoubtedly have hit a mental logjam trying to market a movie that looks on the surface like a family film but plays out like an angst-ridden version of The Aristocats as imagined by Eli Roth. But surely there are enough people here in the states who would love this orphaned little cinematic tabby — who would take it into their homes, let it curl up in front on the fire, and then rip their throats out — to merit it’s release on domestic DVD.
If memory serves, the thing that first brought me to Teleport City was a Google search I did for the Hong Kong director Chor Yuen. At the time I was in the early stages of a now full-blown obsession with Chor, specifically with the adaptations of Ku Long’s wuxia novels that he filmed for Shaw Brothers during the late seventies and early eighties. Given that obsession, you might think — now that I’m living the dream and actually writing for Teleport City — I would have gotten around to covering one of those films. But, the truth is that I’ve been a little intimidated by the prospect. You see, I enjoy those films on such a pre-verbal level that I fear words will fail me in communicating just what it is that I love about them so much. Fortunately, Keith has already done a lot of the heavy lifting for me by covering some of Chor’s better known, more revered films like Clans of Intrigue and The Magic Blade, which affords me the opportunity to turn my attention to one of the lesser-known, perhaps not quite as accomplished, but none-the-less thoroughly enjoyable films from this chapter in his career. You see? Baby steps.
The Moonstone marks our first real foray into a universe in which we will be spending a lot of time: the Poverty Row thriller. An understanding of what Poverty Row was — if not an actual appreciation for its product — is an important part of any cult film education (and given the way you kids are allowed to make up any damn thing and call it a college major these days, you can probably go PhD in Cult Film Studies or some such nonsense, when you should be spending your time in college learning about Hammurabi, thermodynamics, and beer funnels), because Poverty Row is where the b-movie was born. So let’s set the stage.
The more popular movies became, the more demand there was for something — sometimes, anything — to fill the marquee. There was only so much the big studios could produce, and the hunger for cinematic entertainment was fast starting to outpace production schedules. When the studio system — by which certain production studios were allowed to own and operate their own theaters, showing only their own movies — was broken up, it opened the door for a number of prospective upstart studios to step in and both fill the void with their own product as well as find a screen on which to play it. Newly independent theater owners often paired these films of lesser prestige with a film from one of the big studios — the b-picture to the a-picture main event.
The b-movies were often produced very quickly and on the cheap, usually with a cast of unknowns, though sometimes they’d score a star whose name had some marquee value during the silent era. Most of the major studios eventually started their own b-movie production machines, and these films benefited from access to recognizable contract players from the studio as well as all the sets, props, and costumes that had been used in other, bigger budget productions. This is why b-movies like the Mister Moto series look far more lavish and expensive than they actually were. They had access to all the stuff that was lying around for the bigger budget Charlie Chan films.
But the bulk of the b-movies and programming filler was produced by smaller studios. Among these studios, few were as prolific and respectable (relatively speaking) as Monogram. So successful was Monogram, in fact, that it soon took on the appearance of a “little major,” with it’s own stable of contract players, directors, writers, and sets. Monograms and the studios like them were dubbed “Poverty Row,” as much a reference to the budgets they had to work with as it was a reference to less cultured hoi polloi who flocked to see the cheapies. This was truly the cinema of the people, giving the unwashed masses like you and me exactly what we wanted. And what we wanted, at least at the time, was westerns and thrillers. It’s the thrillers that concern us today, and The Moonstone is a perfect place to begin.
In 1868, an author by the name of Wilkie Collins had published a story called The Moonstone which is generally considered the first English-language mystery novel. Of course, as soon as something is proclaimed to be the first of anything, someone else is going to show up with ample evidence why some other work deserves the honor being considered the first. Look at attempts to pin down the first slasher film. For a while, everyone agreed that it was Halloween, but then some smartie pants started maintaining that it was actually Mario Bava’s Bay of Blood, and then it was Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace, and now I think it’s gotten to the point where the world’s first slasher film is actually attributed to Sophocles.
So whether or not The Moonstone is the world’s first English language detective and mystery novel, instead of the C. Auguste Dupin stories of Edgar Allen Poe, the fact remains that T.S. Eliot called it the first English detective novel, and who’s going to argue with T.S. Eliot? W.B. Yeats? Please. Whatever the case, Collins’ story sets the template for the many, many detective thrillers that would follow. There’s the isolated British manor house, the large group of suspects brought together in a common location, copious red herrings, amateur sleuthing by one or two people who are also among the gathered cast of characters, and of course, the gruff inspector from Scotland Yard. In particular, The Moonstone deals with the theft of a precious stone from a young British heiress.
The movie sticks to the original novel in some basic respects, but for the most part it varies quite remarkably. One of the the elements that made the novel such a success was its references to drug use. That aspect of the novel’s script is excised entirely from the plot of the film, seeing as such open depiction of drug use and abuse was strictly taboo in 1934 — the very same year that the Hayes Code enacted in 1930 was put into heavy enforcement. Monogram certainly wasn’t in a financial position to take on the United States government and defend their picture, so the easier route was simply to write around the opium. Additionally, the novel takes place over the course of many, many months. In the movie, everything takes place in the course of twenty-four hours. Where as three mysterious jugglers from India play a major role in the novel — the moonstone was originally stolen by a British officer in India, and disciples of the god from whose forehead it was stolen have sworn to get it back, no matter how many generations it takes — in the movie, there is only a single Indian, a servant, who has very little to do other than show up for some questioning. In fact,the movie, while entertaining, the whole movie plays like an adaptation of the novel done by someone who sort of read the novel a long time ago and is now doing their best to remember what they can.
On the night of her birthday, young Ann Verinder (Phyllis Barry) receives the gift of the Moonstone, though how good a gift it is remains dubious. Although obviously precious, the stone has a bloody past and carries a curse. Originally stolen by a shifty British officer in India (as in the novel), the Moonstone has since been the object of spookiness, with various Indians swearing revenge on the family of the man who stole it and to return it to its rightful home, whatever the cost. On top of the oogy boogy factor, Ann seems to only know people who would have some sinister reason for wanting to steal the jewel. Her own father is in dire financial straights, and the Moonstone could save him from ruin. A moneylender to whom her father owes most of the money is keen on the stone as well. The family’s young maid is a former thief. A cousin’s servant happens to be Indian. The assistant doctor that works with Ann’s father has a terrible secret about his past.
Not surprisingly, amid all these potential thieves, the Moonstone ends up being stolen — from right under Ann’s pillow, no less. I’ve always wondered about people who put precious items under their pillow for safekeeping — that includes guns. Now I guess if you are one of those people who lies perfectly still, on your back, with your hands folded across your chest in angelic repose, then putting valuable sunder your pillow would be fine. But seriously, how many of you sleep like that? And how many of you sleep in two dozen different positions over the course of a night, including ones where you wake up and find your knee against your chin and your pillow shoved between your knees, with a second pillow somehow ending up on the floor clear on the other side of the room? If I went to sleep with a Moonstone under my pillow, there’s a good chance that I would wake up and find the thing under the dresser, stuck between my butt cheeks, or possibly in the fridge, since I tend to get up in the middle of the night and sleepily make myself bowls of cereal.
And especially if I knew my house was full of people who might want to steal the jewel, I’d find somewhere safer than under my pillow. First, why would you be friends with nothing but people who want to steal your cursed birthday present? Second, if you are a well-to-do heiress, even one who doesn’t know her father has secretly blown the family fortune, you still have your big British manor house, and I’m pretty sure there must be a secure place for such things as cursed moonstones. I mean, even if the attempt to steal the stone woke you up, what’s to stop the thief from wearing a mask and punching you in the face? So really, I guess what I’m saying is, if your security system is to put your valuables under a pillow then lie a wispy British heiress on top of it, you deserve to have your moonstone stolen.
Complicating the case is the fact that a number of odd things happened at conveniently inconvenient times: the arrival of the moneylender, the departure of Ann’s father int he middle of the night to deliver a baby, and the arrival of a storm so violent that no one could possibly leave the house. Also on hand is Inspector Cuff of Scotland Yard (Charles Irwin), dispatched upon hearing about Ann’s inheritance because Scotland Yard expected such a young and naive owner would be the victim of treachery. One by one, Cuff grills the inhabitants of the house, airing their dirty laundry and conveniently explaining for the audience what the motivation for theft would be. As Cuff goes about his business, Ann’s father falls ill with pneumonia contracted whilst mucking about in the storm, delivering babies, and a number of people decide to solve the mystery themselves. The only real clue is a smudge left on the door by a careless thief — a very careless thief, because the smudge is gigantic.
And then, just as the mystery is getting good and mysterious, everything is wrapped up in like three minutes with a minimum of fuss, and the movie ends.
According to some sources, this movie’s original running time was a little over an hour, as was customary for cheap films of this period. But all the existing copies that have been released on DVD run just under fifty minutes. So somewhere there are ten to fifteen minutes of this film lying around that are not included in the version I watched. While that still makes for a brisk movie, it would explain a number of plot threads that are introduced and never really picked up again. It would also make for a little more suspense than we get with the movie in its current state, which although it is wrapped up in more or less the same way as the novel, comes very abruptly and without any sense of a big reveal.
But first, let’s talk about the good. For an early thriller based on an early thriller, and with a minimal budget, The Moonstone is pretty entertaining. It confines itself to two locations — or only one, if you discount the opening scene in a Scotland Yard office — and a small cast, with the whole thing feeling a bit like a stage production, but the movie never looks or feels as cheap as it is, even if the exterior of the mansion is just a model. Monogram obviously put some time and effort into the production, and that extra care translates into a more impressive end product that Poverty Row often gave us. On top of that, there’s no real weak link in the cast. Most of them were experienced hands, if not well-known actors. Phyllis Barry was a bit player in all sorts of films, including the Errol Flynn epic The Prince and the Pauper and one of the Bulldog Drummond films. She was usually relegated to roles like “Barmaid” and “Housekeeper,” but given something a little more substantial, she acquits herself nicely.
John Davidson gets to parade around in a turban, making menacing intense eyes as Yandoo, the Indian servant who may or may not be part of a cult dedicated to retrieving the Moonstone. Davidson had been in movies for almost twenty years by the time he appeared in The Moonstone, starting his career way back in 1915 — not quite the dawn of the feature film, but awful close. His experience with silent film is most likely the reason Davidson is able to do so much with only a few lines of dialog. It’s too bad that his role is relegated to something relatively unimportant in the movie, because the Indians in the novel apparently had more to do.
The most recognizable face for cult film fans is probably David Manners, best known for inhabiting the role of Jonathan Harker in Todd Browning’s 1931 production of Dracula. Manning went on to appear in Universal’s The Mummy, as well. In fact, very few members of the cast of The Moonstone could be considered inexperienced, and their adeptness at the craft is evident. Poverty Row features sometimes saddled the audiences with remarkably wooden actors, but that’s not the case here.
Similarly, director Reginald Barker was an old hand, having begun his directing career in 1912. The Moonstone actually comes to us at the end of his career — just as the novel came at the end of Wilkie Collins’ career — and it’s obvious that, even if this is a B production, it’s being helmed by a man who knows what he’s doing. As with director Michael Curtiz, who made Captain Blood just one year later, and as with many of the directors working at the time, Barker’s experience with silent films translates into an effective use of things like light and shadow and the facial expressions of the actors — the tools you had to use in a film when dialog couldn’t do the talking for you. Barker’s direction and little flourishes keep the film from feeling static, even though this is a movie comprised almost entirely of people sitting around.
In fact, if there’s a weak component to this film besides the rushed ending, it’s the dialog, which is bland but relatively harmless. However, in a movie in which there is almost no action at all, it needs to make up for that with cracking good dialog, and The Moonstone falters in this regard. Scriptwriter Adele Buffington wrote about seventy-five billion Poverty Row westerns, and the screenplay for The Moonstone smacks of what I would call “rushed competence.” It’s a perfectly serviceable script, but it takes the easiest route and avoids dealing with any of the complicated affairs that made the novel more engrossing. The drug references are dropped almost entirely, with the final solution coming in the guise of a medicine considerably less controversial that laudanum.
Wilkie Collins was, himself, an addict, and drew on his own experiences with laudanum for the story. However, drug references would hardly fly under the new Hayes Code, so Buffington more or less drops it. He also does considerably less with the thief-turned-maid character than does the original novel, and she, like Yandoo and a number of the suspects, more or less disappears after she has her interview with Inspector Cuff. But like I said, this is “rushed competence.” Buffington has an hour to tell the story, instead of a novel. Subplots and extraneous digressions, interesting though they may have been, had to be cut. Buffington’s final product is perfectly serviceable, but one can’t help but notice that inside this good movie is a great movie that was never quite made.
The Moonstone lacks the spark of the better films of the time, and even of the better Poverty Row productions. The Mister Moto films didn’t just enjoy access to the props from the Charlie Chan movies; they also benefited from snappier dialog and pacing. And when compared to other low budget thrillers, like the Bulldog Drummond films, the short-comings of The Moonstone become more obvious. Luckily, since it clocks in at about three-quarters of an hour, the movie never affords itself the chance to get dull. Still, acceptable but uninspired dialog is what prevents The Moonstone from being a must-see on entertainment terms instead of just historical importance terms.
Still, The Moonstone makes for a fun, if brief, way to spend some time. Well shot, well acted, and at least adequately written. In terms of Poverty Row productions from an independent like Monogram, it represents the top of the heap, though I wouldn’t say it’s the best. But films like this are where it all began. In the conventions a movie like The Moonstone establishes, we see the bits and pieces that will become everything from horror films to giallo. Even Hitchcock did much of his best work in the same confines defined by the Moonstone novel. If you’re interested in where modern cult films come from, The Moonstone should be on your list of things to watch. Heck, even if you don’t like it as much as I did (and I liked it enough, though it’s not a film I’d run through the streets singing the merits of — I save that honor for Howling II), it took you less than an hour to watch it.
Release Year: 1934 | Country: United States | Starring: David Manners, Phyllis Barry, Gustav von Seyffertitz, Jameson Thomas, Herbert Bunston, Charles Irwin, Elspeth Dudgeon, John Davidson, Claude King, Olaf Hytten, Evalyn Bostock, Fred Walton | Screenplay: Adele Buffington | Director: Reginald Barker | Cinematographer: Robert Planck | Music: Abe Meyer | Producer: Paul Malvern
You wouldn’t think that a movie with a title like Strip Nude for Your Killer would turn out to be among the sleazier, trashier, less redeemable Italian thrillers — or giallo — but what do you know! Strip Nude for Your Killer turns out to be among the sleazier, trashier, less redeemable Italian thrillers, and if you know anything about gialli, you know that sleaze, trash, and irredeemability are practically requisites for the genre. Strip Nude for Your Killer is also probably not the best film to use as a primer on the tropes and history of gialli, but at the same time, perhaps the fact that it slavishly caters to the lowest common denominator expectations of giallo films and never exhibits much in the way of style or ambition beyond fulfilling the base formula requirements make it the perfect, if not respectable, candidate for the following brief — and possibly wildly inaccurate in spots — history of what fans loving refer to giallo.
Giallo is, like pulp fiction in America, a loaded and often misrepresented concept that takes on various attributes and boundaries depending on who is doing the defining. Pulp, for example, was used to cover everything from romance to cowboy to crime to sci-fi and horror stories, though in time it became more specifically identified with crime and fantastic literature. And then, in the 90s, pulp started being used as a description of outrageous action cinema from the 70s, applied interchangeably with “cult film,” “drive-in movie,” and most recently, “grindhouse.” Pulp thus became an adaptive term, and even though it no longer meant what it used to mean, just as “drive-in movie” could have been any movie (I saw Jaws and Star Wars at the drive-in in the 70s, after all) but now has a very specific exploitation-oriented definition, “pulp” has an agreed-upon (more or less) pop culture definition that most people live with.
The history and evolution of giallo in Italy is very similar. Giallo originally referred to a series of pulp novels published by a company called Mondadori. The name “giallo” arose from the bright yellow covers that identified books as part of the series. As with American pulps of the same era (the first giallo was printed in 1929), the subject matter of giallo varied wildly, but in time they seemed to settle down into a steady pattern relying predominantly on murder mysteries, horror, and lurid tales of wanton sauciness. From time to time, the stories of well-established and well-respected mystery authors like Edgar Wallace and Agathie Christie showed up as part of the giallo series. Thus, like pulp, giallo became a much more specific phrase, irritating some (as does the abuse and rampant application of the descriptor “pulp”).
Making any claim regarding which film was “the first” of any type of film is pretty silly. No matter what you pick, someone is going to find an earlier film that fulfills the same basic requirements of whatever genre you’ve chosen, and then they’ll start claiming that movie was the first. Sort of like, “who was the first punk rocker,” a debate that includes everyone from Iggy Pop to Joey Ramone to the MC5 to Mozart. Or, to relate it to film, there’s the endless debate over “the first slasher film.” With “first” being nigh impossible to nail down, what becomes more important is the first film to act as a major cultural touchstone. So, while nailing down “the first slasher film” may be almost impossible, nailing down “the film that inspired the slasher movie boom of the 80s and defined the tropes of that trend” is much easier.
The exact same problem exists in determining “the first giallo movie.” Considering that Edgar Wallace and Agathie Christie books were part of the giallo series, you could reasonably argue that one of the movies based on those was the first giallo. What is more pertinent, again, and at least for our purposes here, is to define the film where the giallo trend really arrived, and the film that served as the template for the movies that would follow this trend. Regarding this, most people agree that it’s Mario Bava’s 1963 thriller The Girl Who Knew Too Much (which even features the lead character reading a giallo novel), with a major assist from Bava’s Blood and Black Lace in 1964. It is in these two movies that we see most of the “rules” of the genre established, sort of like how George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead certainly wasn’t the first zombie film, but it was the zombie film, and it set forth a template that is followed to this very day. Bava’s two early murder mysteries laid the foundation for what would come after them. And of course, just to dirty the martini further, from that start point forward, you can spend plenty of time endlessly debating which films are or are not gialli, or which films are or are not zombie films. So on and so forth. After all, us film nerds gotta debate something, and some of us are tired of arguing about whether or not Star Wars was awesome or sucked.
Bava’s two movies give us the framework and the common themes that define giallo: the unreliable eye witness and the general unreliability and subjectivity of observation, the international jet set flavor (including frequent use of American and British leads), the obsession with fashion and photography (another form of observation) and the industries that exist around each, prolonged and often fantastically complex murder sequences, highly stylized lighting and cinematography, and perhaps most famous of all, the black-gloved killer.
Giallo simmered through the 60s, but it was in 1970 that things really exploded. That year, a former scriptwriter and assistant director named Dario Argento made the film The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. Here, what started with Bava became crystal clear and fully realized. From 1970 on, the always zealous Italian exploitation market began cranking out all sorts of films that fit the giallo bill, more or less. Adding a dose of 1970s libertinism to the Bava formula, the giallo directors of the 70s were able to heap on more gore, nudity, and general sleaze. The films also showcased an increasingly cynical viewpoint of the morality of man, often featuring victim characters who were only marginally less rotten than the mysterious killer. Some of these films were incredibly good. Some wallowed in their own filth. A few were just plain awful, but most were enjoyable in a wild Grand Guignol fashion that demanded you abandon logic, accept often wildly improbably plot twists and resolutions, and concentrate instead on the imaginative style and outlandish setpieces. In other words, if you are going to be upset about disappointing revelations and idiotic, illogical behavior on behalf of the victims, giallo is not the genre for you to play in, and you will find little, even in the best films, that will convince you otherwise. These films take place in a world that appears similar to ours and involves characters who resemble humans, but ultimately, the world of the giallo film and the people who inhabit it resemble humans and the human world only superficially. Gialli operate under their own set of rules, and dealing with it can often be irritating — especially since that leads to the age-old battle over when something is an intentional artistic vision and when something is just incompetent crap.
In the case of Strip Nude for Your Killer, the debate is pretty one-sided. This movie is definitely incompetent crap. It’s largely unimaginative, always seedy and mean-spirited, and laughable in its attempt to build the central mystery. That said, it’s also horribly fun in a way you should be maybe just a little bit ashamed of, and it stars the queen of 70s giallo and one the most perfect and beautiful women to ever walk the planet, French Algerian actress Edwige Fenech.
To be fair, Strip Nude for Your Killer may be scummy, but it wastes no time letting you know exactly where you stand, as the first shot is a full frontal nude shot of a woman in a doctor’s office, legs up in medical stirrups, with a doctor’s face firmly planted between her legs. If this image — and keep in mind that it is quickly revealed she’s in the middle of an abortion — offends or insults you, then it’s best to just skip ahead to some other movie. I recommend Dario Argento’s Deep Red. It’s really good, and as far as gialli goes, it’s pretty clean. At least it doesn’t start off with a close-up of a chick getting an abortion. From this auspicious opening salvo, Strip Nude for Your Killer has the woman suffer a heart attack, causing the doctor and his pal to bring the woman back to her home and leave her in the bathtub in hopes that the police will just chalk it up to a heart attack without noticing the abortion thing.
From there, the film picks up at a photography studio staffed primarily by snide, condescending people who all seem to hate each other. Among them are star photographers Carlo (Nino Castelnuovo) and Magda (Edwige Fenech), who are involved with each other though Carlo is by no means a one-lady man. The other cast members all have names too, but there’s not much point in remembering them since, 1) they’re all basically the same character, and 2) they’re all going to die anyway. And sure enough, it doesn’t take too long before someone is stalking the employees of the studio and killing them off. Signature murders include the stabbing of a woman who, upon realizing a prowler may be in the house and all her co-workers are getting murdered, investigates while completely nude except for a pair of clunky platform clogs; and then there’s the one where, after charmingly attempting to rape a co-worker before going impotent, we get ample shots of an enormously fat man in his sagging tighty whities and black dress socks, clutching a deflated blow-up doll in one hand and a kitchen knife in the other while he cries uncontrollably. Tasteful!
Eventually, the cast is whittled down to a few potential suspects, including Carlo, Magda. Carlo and Magda take it upon themselves to investigate the murder, though it’s possible on of them is actually the culprit, and for some reason, any time they turn up a clue, they make a big fuss about how they couldn’t possibly go to the police with it, even though there’s no actual reason they couldn’t go to the police beyond the fact that the giallo film depends on the concept of the amateur sleuth, and writer-director Andrea Bianchi sort of blows at writing stories. When the killer is finally revealed…well it’s best for this movie and for many gialli to master the use of the phrase, “Oh, come on!” Strip Nude for Your Killer isn’t quite so bad as to have the killer be someone that hasn’t been in the movie until the point they are revealed to be the killer (“Why, it was his brother we’ve never seen all along!”), but it’s really close. And there’s plenty more “Oh, come on!” moments to keep your eyes rolling. Like the part where Magda goes to retrieve film from Carlo’s studio that presumably has pictures of the killer on it. While there, the lights go out, and Magda hears someone else sneaking around. So, knowing that everyone who works at your studio is being murdered, knowing that you have a piece of evidence that could reveal the killer, and knowing that the killer knows you have this and also knows where it is, when you are in this place, and the lights go out all of a sudden, do you instantly think, “Goodness, it is entirely likely this killer who has been stalking us has now arrived here!” Or do you think, “Aw, it must be a blown fuse!”
In fact, there are three distinct points at which you will need to master the use of “Oh, come on!” if you are ever going to get very far into the world of Italian murder mystery horror fun. The first is used pleadingly and comes when you engage in the following exchange with a friend:
You: Let’s watch Strip Nude for Your Killer.
Your Friend: That looks like crap.
You: Oh, come on!
You will also find the phrase handy to use in a sort of “just roll with it” use. For example:
Your Friend: Wait! Why can’t they go to the police? Man this movie is idiotic.
You: Oh, come on!
And finally, there is the point at which you and your friend can finally agree on the proper application of the phrase. This comes at the end, when the killer is revealed to be someone you can’t even remember if they were in the movie before. It is here that you can both roll your eyes and exclaim, “Oh, come on!”
Strip Nude for Your Killer definitely requires a healthy sense of humor to get through. Director Andrea Bianchi does not possess the stylistic flourishes that make many other bad gialli worth watching even when their plots are of dubious merit. What Bianchi lacks in terms of inventive direction he attempts to make up for with sleaze, and at least on that level, he’s a Viking. Before you even start the movie, you can guess what sort of ride you’re in for. And while some titles may make lascivious promises the movie can’t keep, Strip Nude for Your Killer definitely is not one of them. I mean, here’s a film that plays a botched abortion for cheap titillation and ends with a joke about a guy strangling his girlfriend and sodomizing her against her will. Oh, the hilarity! In between, you get near frequent male and female nudity (often in the form of people you never wanted to see nude), plenty of slasher gore (usually in the form of the aftermath of a murder), and an all-around level of scumminess that becomes so thick it takes on the properties of camp excess. I’m sure John Waters would appreciate the ludicrousness of it all. It’s that gleeful willingness to reel about in the muck with such reckless disregard for even the most frayed threads of decent taste that keep Strip Nude for Your Killer from being offensive. It’s far too idiotic to be taken with that degree of seriousness. This movie is like stumbling upon a hobo jerking off behind a dumpster. Sure you can get offended, but honestly, what’s the point?
One of the fun things about gialli is that they actively invite psychoanalysis. Regardless of how shoddy and shallow the product may be, if it just follows the template close enough, it can piggyback on the psychological groundwork of Bava, who himself was nodding to Hitchcock. It’s like buying meaning wholesale, or shopping at Hot Topic instead of making your own punk clothes. For example, I have no doubt that Bianchi had absolutely nothing to say with Strip Nude for Your Killer. He wanted to make a sleazy murder mystery and get Edwige Fenech naked as often as possible, plus show a fat guy in saggy underpants. And that’s exactly what he did. But because, by 1975, so many gialli had been made and the cliches of the genre were so well established, he didn’t have to put any thought at all into having things us film nerds could pick up on in our never-ending quest to artistically justify even the basest and greediest of crap. Strip Nude for Your Killer is rife with the standard giallo themes, the most obvious of which is the deceptive nature of observation. You could even justify the tasteless opening by saying that Bianchi is intentionally duping the audience into thinking they’re getting a bit of cheesecake right off the bat, only to spoil it by introducing a dramatic and tragic revelation regarding the nature of the nudity we are observing. You would, I think, be full of shit if you did this, but it’s still fun.
Later in the film, the roll of film with the killer’s identity is brought into play, under the assumption that a photograph of a murder in progress is irrefutable proof. Once again, however, very little is what it appears to be. Edwige spends much of the movie poring over photographs of the victim, an old magnifying glass plastered to her face as a visual homage to the dime store detective novels from which the giallo film grew (and also as a fine example of how magnifying glasses aren’t designed work). In Strip Nude for Your Killer as in many other far superior gialli (specifically Dario Argento’s Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Deep Red), the protagonist spends a great deal of time examining and re-examining something that seems perfectly clear but is later revealed to hold a significance no one recognized. Bird with the Crystal Plumage is one of the most obvious indictments of the notion of eye witness, but Deep Red is my favorite for playing off the lead actor, David Hemmings, and his role as a photographer obsessed with the grainy, minute detail of a photo in Anonioni’s Blow Up. In the case of Strip Nude for Your Killer, Bianchi is obviously just copying what he’s seen before, but it’s still kind of fun and one of the reasons bad gialli are often still enjoyable to dissect.
Bianchi is no stranger to sleazy thrillers. His filmography includes Cry of the Prostitute, The Malicious Whore, and Burial Ground, infamous for casting an obviously older midget as a child, and then having him bite off his mom’s breast while she lovingly breast-feeds him. I ain’t talking no Harry Earles looking guy, either, where you could almost believe the illusion that he was a little kid (still way too old to be breast feeding though, at least off his mom). No, this was more like a cross between Dustin Hoffman and Chris Kattan. Anyway, Bianchi isn’t much of a director, and whatever style exists in Strip Nude for Your Killer is most likely the product of Bianchi aping those who came before. The direction is competent and professional, but not much else.
Of course, for most viewers, there is one big reason, at least above the simple blanket “because it’s Italian giallo,” to watch Strip Nude for Your Killer, and that’s the appearance, usually nude or in little more than panties and an unbuttoned men’s dress shirt, of Edwige Fenech. Fenech was a staple of both Italian sex comedies and the giallo film, and she brought to the game a wicked combination of actual acting talent, comedic timing, a willingness to drop her robe for pretty much no reason, and some of the most devastating good looks I’ve ever seen. She split her time evenly between exceptionally great gialli like All the Colors of the Dark and other films with director Sergio Martino, and dodgy nonsense like this and The Case of the Bloody Iris. She was always game, though, and never looked to be half-assing it, even when her primary role was to show half her ass. In Strip Nude for Your Killer, she’s about as close as you’re going to get to a likable character, even though she’s kind of condescending and nasty to people. But when you’re surrounded by the likes of mean-spirited S&M lesbians, a guy who thinks anal rape is hilarious, a fat crying guy who also thinks rape is the way to a woman’s heart, and someone who is killing a bunch of people — well, it’s not hard to look like the good guy.
If you are looking for a good and proper introduction to the world of Italian murder mysteries, Strip Nude for Your Killer is not your movie. You want to be watching Deep Red or Blood and Black Lace or All the Colors of the Dark. Still, if you are already prepared for the peculiarities of sloppy Italian filmmaking, Strip Nude for Your Killer is surprisingly enjoyable. Even though it’s poorly written, even though it’s relentlessly tasteless (actually, because it’s relentlessly tasteless), even though it has very few points you could single out as being good other than Edwige, and even though it’s packed full of gratuitously seedy garbage (once again, what I mean is because it’s packed full of gratuitous, seedy garbage), it ultimately comes across as harmless.
I think it’s because you never get an opportunity to take the thing seriously for even a minute. Compare it to, for instance, Lucio Fulci’s New York Ripper, a film that is marginally less sleazy, almost as absurd, but a whole lot meaner. The hatred for mankind is palpable in that film, and if you make it through to the end, all you really want to do is take a shower. Conversely, Strip Nude for Your Killer comes across as little more than a bunch of drunk Italians wanting to make a movie with a lot of nudity in it. If you go to the shower after watching it, you’re doing something, but it’s not because you feel grimy and depressed. Sure, the film is mean, but it never seems serious about it or committed to its misanthropy. This could just be my perception as a horribly twisted and dark individual, but Strip Nude for Your Killer just doesn’t have that visceral kick you would need to really be offended. It was preposterous anyway, and I was having too much fun reveling in the filth alongside it to worry about the many faults.
It’s no secret that since the tail-end of the 1990s the Hong Kong film industry has had a rough time. After being gutted by gangsters for decades and plagued by the most rampant video piracy in the world resulting in films being available on bootleg VCD before they even opened in theaters, Hong Kong’s once illustrious cinematic juggernaut found itself on thin financial ice. Big stars were either getting to old to perform as they once had or were simply packing up and heading for the greener pastures of America. The new generation of stars, culled primarily from the ranks of teen models and pop idols, did little to spark interest in the new generation of films.