Seeing Diabolik was — well, to call it life-altering is to be a bit overly dramatic, I think. But it was something like that, and the movie did have a curious influence on me. For years, there had been this certain look and style of movie playing in my head. I knew it existed, but I had no clue where to start looking for it. Keep in mind that this is some years before the widespread adoption of the World Wide Web, DVD, and the rise of digitally remastered two-disc special collectors’ editions of Porno Holocaust. I knew these movies I wanted were very much like James Bond without being James Bond movies — sometimes a little cheaper, often more fanciful and outlandish. But just as in those disconnected days with a dearth of information I was unable to find a manufacturer or store where I could purchase a black, slim-cut three-button suit (I’m quite particular about such things), so too was I at a lost as to where I might find these mythical movies I’d invented in my mind and filled with go-go dancing Eurobabes and dudes in fezzes and sunglasses throwing stiletto daggers at each others’ backs.
Diabolik realized many of these visions, and pointed in the direction I needed to face (Italy) to begin digging up the titles for which I’d been searching (though getting the movies associated with those titles, even in today’s era of widespread easy availability, is still proving difficult). It was the key to unlocking a whole world I’d sort of known was out there but could never get to. In that sense, it was much the same as that fateful (oooh!) night that I, a confused teen in Buckner, Kentucky floundering for a sense of identity, stumbled across a broadcast of the USA Channel’s Night Flight that was focusing on this stuff called punk rock. As corny — or disturbed –as it sounds, there was much in this brightly-colored, fast-paced comic book of a movie that I found worth admiring. I appreciated Diabolik’s amoral hedonism. He wasn’t really a bad guy. He simply disregarded the agreed-upon rules of an over-governed society. He had his own code. And he had a bad-ass pad. The years filed past, and with the spread of the World Wide Web in the latter half of the 1990s, I was able to start digging up bits and pieces of information about Eurospy films, Diabolik, and much to my elation, the many copycats and offshoots that, like me, had been inspired by this diabolical mastermind (I also found the right suit). Among these, and of particular interest to a guy who, even in his older age, still listens to The Misfits, was a cat named Kriminal, and he wore a skeleton suit.
But lets turn the clock back even further, to the era of pulp stories, to where these super-criminals like Diabolik and Kriminal, and lots of other characters who wore cool masks and spelled their names with K’s instead of C’s (Krispy Kreme was among them, and possibly the most salacious — certainly the most delicious), trace their roots. In 1911, France was introduced to the character of Fantomas, a suave master of disguise and, in stark contrast to many of the pulp characters with whom people were familiar (like Edgar Rice Burroughs’ swashbuckling uber-man John Carter, or any number of smilin’ cowboys), a thief. It wasn’t the first case of a traditional villain being recast as a charismatic anti-hero, but it certainly opened the door for a wave of similar lawbreakers and misunderstood vigilantes. During the 1930s, there was an explosion in pulp culture of these mysterious costumed characters and anti-heroes, including The Shadow, The Spider, and Robert Howard’s Conan the Barbarian. When superhero comic books made the scene in the 1930s, American tastes shifted toward brightly costumed do-gooders like Superman, though at least one notable character remained firmly rooted in the darker elements of the pulp stories: The Bat-Man.
Inspired by Zorro and a character from the 1930 film The Bat Whispers, The Bat-Man, as his name was written at the time, is also heavily rooted in the amoral (or at least morally ambiguous) philosophy of pulp anti-heroes, and although Fantomas remains a great influence on the European comic market (and perhaps on The Bat-Man as well — though both Fantomas and Batman seem to owe a debt to Dumas’ Count of Monte Cristo), it’s in the brutal origins of The Bat-Man that we can find many of the traits that would be commonplace among the fumetti stars of the 1960s. The tragic past, the vengeful mindset, the playboy alter ego, a distinct lack of superpowers compensated for by near superhuman levels of discipline and training, the willingness to kill and maim the guilty — these things were in sharp contrast to Superman (though not entirely uncommon in early comic books) but would have been perfectly at home in the Italian comics of the 60s — which is funny, in a way, considering that during the 60s and under pressure from moral watchdogs, DC Comics turned Batman into a smiling boy scout.
Some combination of Batman and Fantomas (who would enjoy his own revival in the 1960s via a series of colorful French productions) cross-pollinated with James Bond beget Diabolik in 1962, the creation of sisters Angela and Luciana Giussani. As many post-war comics, Batman included, became more fantastical and juvenile, Diabolik was a brash return to the seedy days of the pulps. He was an accomplished thief, a master of disguise, and an ace at killing anyone who meddles with his ambitions. Diabolik’s amoral mayhem struck a cord with readers, who quickly catapulted the master thief to the upper limits of pop culture stardom, thus making it obvious that others would follow in Diabolik’s steps, each one trying to be more outrageous and offensive than the last.
Among the many characters inspired by Diabolik was Kriminal, created by Luciano Secchi working under the pseudonym Max Bunker. Kriminal was a master thief from England, most notable for his curious choice in clothing for a grown man: a black and yellow skeleton suit with a creepy skull mask. It’s a difficult look to pull off, but he makes it work. Kriminal — whose alter ego was Anthony Logan — did his best to one-up Diabolik, exhibiting sometimes absurd levels of cruelty and violence, as well a parade of increasingly scantily-clad females that he couldn’t help but menace. I mean, the dude was wearing a skeleton suit. You either have to menace or be laughed at. It was this potent combination of violence and hitherto unheard of levels of near-nudity that got Kriminal in trouble with so many critics and censors — and also made it such a hit with readers. Like Diabolik, Batman, Fantomas, and the Mexican luchadores lead by El Santo, Kriminal had no actual superpowers. He couldn’t fly or run at super-speeds, and if he needed to kill you, he usually did it with a Luger. In time, as with Batman and Diabolik, Kriminal’s sadistic streak was softened, until eventually he really only killed those who were asking for it anyway, though as far as I can tell, he never did get over his need to continually menace a buxom babe whose blouse was falling off.
No worries, though, because another skeleton suit wearing anti-hero was waiting to take up the slack and commit depraved acts of which even Kriminal couldn’t approve. But we’ll come to him in a later review of a different movie.
Although he followed in the footsteps of Diabolik in print, Kriminal beat him to the big screen. In 1966, Kriminal made the jump to movies in a feature film directed by Umberto Lenzi. Among American fans of Italian cult films, Lenzi is probably one of the best known and most misunderstood directors. And in fact he’s most misunderstood because of what he’s best known for. Lenzi’s two best known films in American happen to be his two worst films: 1981’s grubby Make Them Die Slowly (aka Cannibal Ferox), a nonsensical cannibal exploitation film that exists for little more reason than to showcase a carnival of primitive tortures in the half hour; and 1980s City of the Walking Dead (aka Nightmare City), a giddily idiotic, totally incompetent, but highly entertaining zombie film. Judged on the merits of these two movies, Lenzi perhaps would deserve to be placed at the bottom of the barrel. But these are barely his films, and it’s obvious that he was just cashing a paycheck. Lenzi’s true talent was in the crime film, and during the 1970s he directed a string of blistering hits that are brutal, fast-paced, and proof of what a phenomenal director he could be when the material moved him. Alongside Enzo G. Castellari, Lenzi practically created the poliziotteschi genre.
In 1966, Lenzi was already a veteran of the Italian exploitation market, having worked his way through Eurospy films, sword and sandal adventures, and historical hellraisers. Making the shift from Eurospy to comic book super-villain hijinks was no problem, as the fumetti-inspired films of the late 60s were a direct outgrowth of the espionage genre and shared many of the same trappings and stylistic flourishes. His big-screen adaptation of Kriminal looks very much like a big budget Eurospy film, taking the strangely clad anti-hero on a globe-trotting adventure that leads from the gallows of London to Spain, and finally to Istanbul in pursuit of some diamonds. Or something. To be honest, the DVD I have of this movie isn’t subtitled, and I learned enough Italian to get by in the country on a two-week long road trip. So my grasping of some of the nuances of the plot — if indeed Kriminal can be said to have nuances — is tenuous in many spots.
Handsome Dutch actor Rolf Boes (under the pseudonym Glenn Saxson, which is Italian for “Son of Clarence Clemens”) stars as the titular Kriminal, about to be hanged for attempted robbery of the Crown Jewels of England — a fate he escapes by somehow turning out the lights. Look, if you go into a movie about a guy who runs around in a skeleton costume and immediately start complaining about the implausibility of his escape trick, then you’re not going to get anywhere in life. He is pursued by Inspector Milton of Scotland Yard, because all costumed villains need an arch-nemesis at Scotland Yard, where they have a whole division dedicated to opposing garishly costumed super-villains from Italy (like Marco Materazzi). Kriminal then gets involved with a diamond heist, and along the way he romances ladies, kills people, and plants a bomb in the inspector’s office that is specifically designed to blow off the shirts of attractive women (or so it seems when we witness the aftermath of his bomb). Kriminal doesn’t need to steal — he could just market this bomb to anyone who attended college in an 80s teen sex comedy, and he’d rake in millions.
When Lenzi is at his best as director, his films are snappy and crisply paced. Kriminal is one of his best. It never slows down, but it never goes so fast that you can’t stop to luxuriate in all the exotic location work or admire all the swank 60s fashion. It’s a much more down-to-earth film than Danger: Diabolik, which two years later would take the genre to a level of pop-art gorgeousness unmatched even by the mighty Barbarella (herself another saucy comic book character). Being less phantasmagorical than Danger: Diabolik leaves plenty of room for swingin’ style, and Kriminal has it in spades. The skeleton costume looks a bit ludicrous, but even Glenn Danzig could never really pull a skeleton body stocking off. Within the context of the film, set in such a bizarre universe as the one inhabited by all the fumetti anti-heroes, we quickly learn to accept the skeleton costume. Plus, as goofy as it looks, it’s also sort of awesome. I mean, he puts on a skeleton costume, throws daggers at people, steals from the Queen of England, and makes love to gorgeous Italian women. Truly, Kriminal leads THE LIFE.
And Glenn Saxson looks suave and dashing as the lady-killer (among others he kills). Saxson had previously starred in Alberto De Martino’s spaghetti western Django Shoots First (De Martino, incidentally, directed a number of great films, including the top notch Eurospy capers Special Mission Lady Chaplin and Operation Kid Brother starring Neil Connery, as well as the infamous poliziotteschi meets giallo , Blazing Magnum starring Stuart Whitman and John Saxon, Not Saxson). He would go on to star in a follow-up Kriminal film, a couple other actioners, and then a string of saucy 70s erotica with titles like The Hostess Also Likes to Blow the Horn and School of Erotic Enjoyment. He’s perfectly suited for the role of Kriminal, and somehow, he manages not to look completely ludicrous when he’s strutting around with his mask off and the rest of the skeleton suit still on.
Supporting him is a cast of Italian exploitation stalwarts lead by Andrea Bosic as the harried Scotland yard inspector (he would later be a harried bank manager endlessly hassled by Diabolik in that movie). Bosic had appeared previously in Lenzi’s Sandokan the Pirate adventures starring American muscleman and Hercules star Steve Reeves, and he starred in something called Two Mafiosi Against Goldfinger, which sounds like something I really need to see. The bombshell factor is fulfilled by a couple of women whose character names I couldn’t keep straight. German-born Helga Line plays ravishing twin sisters Inge and Trudy, hired to transport jewels so Kriminal won’t know which one to follow (he still figures it out, because he wears a fuckin’ skeleton costume). Line’s been in tons of films where I caught myself admiring her: War Goddesses, Hercules and the Tyrants of Babylon, Mission Bloody Mary, Special Mission Lady Chaplin, Password: Kill Agent Gordon; she was even in another fumetti-inspired comic book adventure, 1968’s Avenger X, as well as a Santo film! She also made a lot of horror films in the 70s, including Vampire’s Night Orgy and some Paul Naschy films where he doesn’t even turn into a werewolf!
Even working with the language barrier, Kriminal is a great movie. Lots of action, lots of wit, sexy ladies, and a guy in a skeleton outfit swimming around in ponds and stuff. It easily proves the equal of even the best espionage and comic book capers, qualifying for such rarefied company as Danger: Diabolik, Deadlier than the Male, the Flint movies, and the Connery Bonds. There wasn’t a minute of the film that didn’t thoroughly delight me, and if I had to drum up any sort of complaint, it would be the cliffhanger ending (Diabolik did the same thing). I know, I know. There’s a sequel, with the lead cast all back in place (and directed by Fernando Cerchio). But I haven’t been able to find that one yet. No matter — Kriminal is incredibly cool and highly recommended, even if you don’t speak a lick of Italian. Hot dames and a guy in a skeleton suit are, after all, an international language we can all understand.
In addition to a sequel, the fact that much of this film was shot in Istanbul inspired Turkish filmmakers to launch their own Kriminal franchise. Kriminal the fumetti character was eventually succeeded by the even more brutal and irredeemable Killing in a series of photonovels — comic books that use still photography of live-action scenes. As outraged as people were by the Kriminal comic books, Killing was even worse. Kriminal had been banned in France and eventually toned down even in Italy, but Killing more than made up for it, with our skeleton-clad evil-doer sometimes crossing the line into outright psychopathic terrorist and serial killer. In love with the Kriminal movie and inspired by the even more absurd Killing photonovels, Turkish producer-director Yilmaz Atadeniz made Kilink Istanbul’da, and our favorite murderous thief in a skeleton suit found a new home in Turkey.
Release Year: 1966 | Country: Italy | Starring: Glenn Saxson, Helga Line, Andrea Bosic, Ivano Staccioli, Esmeralda Ruspoli, Dante Posani, Franco Fantasia, Susan Baker, Armando Calvo, Mary Arden, Rossella Bergamonti | Director: Umberto Lenzi | Writer: Umberto Lenzi and David Moreno | Cinematographer: Angelo Lotti | Music: Romano Mussolini | Producer: Giancarlo Marchetti