A European Vampire in Japan

On Diabolique, I review Nobuo Nakagawa’s LADY VAMPIRE.

Whatever shortcomings Lady Vampire may have is not enough to counter its chaotic appeal. It may be less gory than Nobuo Nakagawa’s next two films, and big parts of it may make no sense, but it’s possessed of an enthusiastic willingness to be weird. Even at his most careless, Nobuo Nakagawa assembles an interesting film, and the pastiche of influences — he cribs an eerie scene of dead brides in suspended animation from Universal’s Black Cat (1932) and an old school transformation effect from Paramount’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) — makes for a film that is as entertaining as it is schizophrenic.

Full article: A European Vampire in Japan: Japanese Vampire Fiction and Nobuo Nakagawa’s Lady Vampire

All the Colors of the Dark

Sergio Martino worked in every genre, as just about every Italian director of the 1970s and ’80s did, drifting from one to the next depending on what was popular at the time. His films were generally a cut or two above the rest. A little more care put into the script. A little more attention paid to the details of framing and pacing. They also tended to bring something a little more outré to the table. 2019: After the fall of New York, for instance, could have been just another Escape from New York rip-off. For much of its running time, it is (albeit a pretty good one). Then, out of nowhere, the last act goes into batshit insane territory.

Similarly, Martino’s 1972 giallo All the Colors of the Dark works within the confines of the genre (which was still relatively new in 1972 but, given the fecundity of the Italian film market, already contained quite a few films, established tropes, and expectations), but it takes the genre further afield than had previously been explored, resulting in a dizzying psychedelic combination of straight-forward stalker/murder mystery (the giallo’s stock in trade), hallucinogenic psycho-sexual experiment, and occult horror. It remains one of the best and most unique films to come from a genre that often managed to be at once utterly cookie cutter and totally unpredictable.

It was one of four giallo made by Martino between 1971 and 1972, three of which (The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh, All the Colors of the Dark, Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key) starred Edwige Fenech, perhaps the most iconic of all giallo regulars; and three of which (The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh, All the Colors of the Dark, and The Case of the Scorpion’s Tale) starred steely-eyed George Hilton. All of them were written by Ernesto Gastaldi (along with several other people, as was the style when it came to awarding screenwriting credits in Italian films), who also wrote the screenplay for Martino’s first film, the late-cycle spaghetti western Arizona Colt Returns. Which means despite Martino not beginning his feature film directing career until 1970, by the time he was making All the Colors of the Dark he already had what amounted to a stable of regulars who knew him and knew each other, which brings a level of plot and character development to the film that is often missing in giallo, where scripts are hastily written and characterization and logic takes a back seat to shocks and style.

Not that All the Colors of the Dark doesn’t contain the usual amount of inconceivably stupid decisions made “because the script demands them” (like narrowing escaping an ax murderer and not bothering to report it to anyone), but many of those decisions can be written off because the film is about someone who is going/has already gone insane and thus can’t be depended upon to make the most cogent calls. The movie also avoids the common pitfall of filling the film with nothing but despicable characters. For the most part, the good guys are decent (if a bit dense) people, though George Hilton’s Richard still exhibits the sort of unthinking callousness found in most giallo leading men. The most common expression of said callousness is knowing that his wife is either hallucinating being stalked by a murderer or is actually being stalked by a murderer, yet still Richard leaves her alone all the time and refuses to get her any help. He seems to behave that way out of sheer stupidity rather than active malice, but it still makes him easy to dislike. In the role of Richard, George Hilton gives his standard reasonably competent performance. But honestly, no one watches All the Colors of the Dark for George Hilton. Edwige Fenech is the main event.

Fenech was a seasoned pro by the time she started showing up in giallo, having previously starred in a number of sex comedies before appearing in Mario Bava’s kitschy murder mystery 5 Dolls for an August Moon. A year later, she starred in the first of her three Sergio Martino giallo, The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh, and quickly became one of the best known and most prolific genre actresses in the 1970s. She starred in several more murder movies and continued to work in the seemingly inexhaustible (and largely exhausting) sex comedy genre. Her easy charisma, natural likability, and to be honest, incredible beauty made her one of the most popular stars, and she remains to this day and much beloved genre film icon. All the Colors of the Dark is her best work, gracing her with her a character that does all the required screaming and fleeing but adds a layer or two on top of it that allows Fenech to flex a little acting muscle as her character becomes an increasingly unreliable narrator.

She plays Jane Harrison, who along with her boyfriend Richard (George Hilton) lives in a creepy apartment building in London (Maritno is not shy about admitting the influence of Rosemary’s Baby on both the location work and the occult plot). Although the couple is in love, she suffers from a double dose of trauma (one from her childhood, another more recent) that keeps her aloof in bed and prone to occasional bouts of hallucination. Her sister Barbara (Nieves Navarro, better known as Susan Scott and like Fenech a veteran of Italian cult cinema) urges Jane to see a doctor, but Richard has an aversion to psychotherapy, which he thinks is designed not to help people, but to make make sure the psychiatrist makes money. Against his wishes, Jane visits a doctor anyway, but doesn’t help. In fact, her hallucinations become more dangerous and more real than ever. That might be because they are real. Or are they? Whatever the case, a sinister guy with striking blue eyes (Ivan Rassimov) is following her everywhere and even tries to murder her with a hatchet. One would think the remnants of a mad hatchet attack outside a lawyer’s office would be easy to prove (he leaves quite a few marks in the woodwork), but Jane never bothers to report the incident to the police, and no one seems all that concerned.

With psychiatry apparently having accomplished nothing, Jane falls under the spell of her neighbor, Mary Weil (Marina Malfatti, another giallo pro), who suggests  where science fails, perhaps a nightmarish Satanic Black Mass and gang bang could succeed. Jane, already a proven fan of dumb decisions (or perhaps just wanting to impress her cool new friend), agrees. The ritual takes place in a big Victorian manor on the outskirts of town, and although Jane isn’t entirely enthusiastic, she comes back a second time. Only it turns out that Satanic sex cults aren’t as carefree as she thought, and soon she’s being urged to sacrifice Mary while also discovering that the man with blue eyes is part of the coven. It’s at this point that what little grasp Jane had on reality begins to slip away entirely, even as she discovers the source of a freakish nightmare she’s been having and uncovers a family secret that links her to this bizarre cult of cavorting devil worshipers.

With Jane’s notion of reality thusly done away with, Sergio Martino is free to go all in on the insanity, packing the remainder of the film with hallucinations, flashbacks, and nightmares without bothering to provide much in the way of clues as to when something is real and when it’s not, better reflecting Jane’s deteriorating state of mind (the 1968 British film If…. did the same thing — putting fantasies next to actual events without giving the audience any clue as to where one stopped and the other began). At some point, Martino just says “Oh, what the hell?” and throws precognition and ESP into the mix. The resulting film is a phantasmagoric blend of supernatural horror and straight-forward giallo thrills delivered with an abundance of style. The illogical behavior of many characters is easily dismissed given the nature of the narrative. Even failing to call the police when any normal human would seems forgivable given that the film establishes a world in which the police don’t seem to exist (at least until the very end, arriving to clean up rather than solve the mess). Red herrings are an integral part of any murder mystery, but here the killer is unmasked and likes to stare at people. It’s no mystery who the killer is, and so why he’s killing becomes the film’s central puzzle (or even if he’s killing or Jane is imaging the whole thing).

What Martino accomplishes with All the Colors of the Dark is a a film that delivers all the requisite elements of a giallo and then some. Concurrent with the popularity of giallo was the rise of devil worship and witchcraft movies thanks to the success of Rosemary’s Baby and the wave of “Satanic Panic” that followed in the wake of the Manson murders. Italy and Spain both produced a lot of devil cult films around this time, but Martino was one of the first to reckon that the two great tastes would taste great together. Having worked together multiple times, the team of Martino, Fenech, Hilton, and Gastaldi fire on all cylinders. Well, Martino, Gastaldi, and Fenech fire on all cylinders while George Hilton appears as a suitable slab of of beef.

Given a psychologically complex character, Fenech gets to do a lot, and she’s surrounded by fellow great ladies of giallo Susan Scott and Marina Malfatti. Woven through it all is a score by Bruno Nicolai that manages to be as sensual and soothing as it is disturbing. Given how nebulous the definition of giallo can be, and given that pretty much every director also directed other types of genre film, it wasn’t unusual for giallo to blend a few different genres (though usually that other genre was the closely related Eurocrime film). Nor was it all that uncommon for the narrative to be fractured, to be based upon the idea that human perception is flawed. All the Colors of the Dark, however, does it very well; does perhaps better than any other film in the genre. It’s not the most violent giallo. It’s not even the weirdest. But it’s certainly one of the best.

Death Walks on High Heels

Few directors who plied their trade in the torrid world of the giallo were as adept as Luciano Ercoli at melding the sundry fetishes that defined the movement. Nudity, violence, overly elaborate striptease numbers, quirky camera work, exquisite living rooms, and dazzling outfits all hit their crescendo under the steady guidance of a man who seems to treat every film as a fashion shoot. Ercoli made the scene in 1970 with The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion and followed it up in 1971 with Death Walks On High Heels. These two films, along with Ercoli’s Death Walks at Midnight (1972), form a trilogy that, while unconnected narratively, share an overarching sense of style, set of obsessions, and an infatuation with Nieves Navarro (aka Susan Scott, one of the greats of the giallo) that binds them together in a way that is more important than a shared narrative. It’s likely that no matter how much you search, you’ll not find a film in the genre more adept than the aptly named Death Walks on High Heels (La morte cammina con i tacchi alti) at lingering lovingly over sexy go-go boots, nor will you find one that so sensuously films two people cramming oily hunks of fish into their mouths accompanied by sexy lounge music. Rarely has a giallo film taken “red herring” quite so literally.

The aforementioned fish-eating is indicative, it would seem, of what Ercoli is attempting to accomplish in general, which is a subversion of certain expectations. If one accepts that, despite tracing its roots back to the 1960s (and even further if you want to grant a more expansive definition of the genre), giallo comes into its own with Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage in 1970, then it’s remarkable that just a year later, dozens of films had been produced that fit beneath the giallo umbrella and, with them, a set of conventions had been established in a very short amount of time. Granted, many of these conventions were lifted from older formats: Edgar Wallace mysteries, “old dark house” films, Agatha Christie thrillers, and of course the works of Alfred Hitchcock. But just as “film noir” was a certain look, attitude, and style fitted onto the existing framework of gritty crime films, so giallo was a set of thematic and stylistic decisions that added a peculiar veneer to the genres upon which it was built.

That style, those thematic preoccupations, were abundant and codified only a year after giallo stepped into the limelight. Which means, by 1971, Ercoli already had a set of things with which he could toy in order to keep fans of such films off-balance. Red herrings, a plot that bounces unapologetically between genres, characters who bear a confusingly close resemblance to one another, and of course, filming the unattractive act of eating greasy fish as if you were filming a pornographic sex scene in loving close-up. This transformation of the beautiful into the grotesque and vice versa became one of the favorite tricks of many giallo directors, who would find a stunning number of ways to render sex between two attractive people sort of repulsive. I don’t even want to get into Malocchio‘s “French kissing while brushing our teeth in the shower” scene. We have strayed a long way from the fried chicken picnic between Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief.

Beneath Ercoli’s tweaks of the nose is a typically giallo approach to storytelling, which is to take a relatively straight-forward story and relay it in the most convoluted, difficult to follow fashion as one can muster. Navarro/Scott (who appeared in Ercoli’s two other giallo, as well as Sergio Martino’s superb All the Colors of the Dark) plays Nicole, a Parisian stripper being menaced by a mysterious assailant demanding the location of some diamonds. It turns out that Nicole is the daughter of a jewel thief murdered during the opening credits of the film. When the diamonds the killer expected to find aren’t there, the razor-wielding maniac with icy blue eyes assumes that the thief must have told Nicole their location. Alas for Nicole, she has no idea where the diamonds are nor possesses any knowledge pertaining to her deceased father’s career as a burglar. Of course that’s not going to deter the killer, who whiles away his time making threatening phone calls and, as often happens in giallo, sneaking into Nicole’s apartment to menace her and cut off her clothing with a straight razor.

Of very little help to Nicole is her deadbeat boyfriend Michel (Simón Andreu, who here plays a scummy boyfriend but played an even scummier husband in The Blood Spattered Bride, Spanish director Vicente Aranda’s grimy, hateful 1972 adaptation of Sheridan Le Fanu’s classic vampire novella Carmilla). Michel reacts to Nicole’s plight in the usual way giallo characters do: by ridiculing her, insulting her, and occasionally attempting to terrify her as a joke. When she discovers a pair of icy blue contact lenses in Michel’s apartment, the viewer knows such an obvious clue is there simply to act as misdirection. Still, one can’t help but look at the brilliant azure lenses and wish that Michel was indeed the killer so that we might see him get some sort of comeuppance for being such an oaf. Nicole, upon discovering what is, by her reckoning, confirmation that her own boyfriend is her stalker, does what any reasonable person would do: she neglects calling the police and instead runs into the arms of stranger Dr. Matthews (spaghetti western regular Frank Wolff), an obsessed fan from the strip club in which she performs, allowing the older man to whisk her off to his remote love shack somewhere along the English coast. Letting a guy she barely knows from the strip club spirit her to an isolated location goes about as well for her as anyone but, apparently, she could anticipate.

With this shift in location, the film begins to pile on one twist after another. Some of them make sense, others come totally out of left field, and some seem to have nothing whatsoever to do with the plot but screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi figured what the hell. Gastaldi was one of the more talented screenwriters toiling away in the oft-thankless world of Italian cult cinema, where scripts were often treated as an afterthought. Even when he’s piling coincidence on top of improbability on top of shock, his writing and Ercoli’s direction manage to stay interesting even when things become difficult to follow. Gastaldi’s parade of screenwriting credits could serve as the basis for a book. Like pretty much everyone working at the time, he had a hand in crafting films for any genre that happened to be popular. What set him apart is how many of those films were good, or if not exactly good, at least interesting. Before entering the giallo arena, he wrote some solid sword and sandal adventures, a slew of pirate films, several James Bond-esque spy thrillers, and a number of horror movies, including a couple with some of the best titles ever: The Vampire and the Ballerina and Werewolf in a Girl’s Dormitory. He worked on several Gothic horrors, including Mario Bava’s The Whip and the Body and Antonio Margheriti’s Horror Castle and Long Hair of Death.

In 1968, got his first taste of giallo as a screenwriter on The Sweet Body of Deborah, directed by Romolo Guerrieri, and a year later worked on the screenplay for Umberto Lenzi’s So Sweet…So Perverse, a veritable who’s who of 1960s giallo icons, including Carroll Baker, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Erika Blanc, and Helga Liné. In 1970 and 1971 respectively, he entered into two of his most fruitful collaborations, first with Luciano Ercoli on The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion, and then with Sergio Martino on The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh. He continued his relationship with both directors, writing Death Walks on High Heels and Death Walks at Midnight for Ercoli and All the Colors of the DarkThe Case of the Scorpion’s TailYour Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key, and Torso for Martino. A staggering number of popular exploitation pictures from the 1970s and ’80s engaged Gastaldi’s talents. While he has not attained the level of popularity or fan adoration as some the key stars and directors, it’s abundantly clear from his filmography that the wild world of Italian cult cinema would not have been what it was without Ernesto Gastaldi.

Death Walks on High Heels doesn’t find Gastaldi firing on all cylinders, but enough of them are chugging along that between his labyrinthine writing and Ercoli’s slick direction the result is an entertaining film that balances high glamor and elegance with crass sleaze, fetishism, and leering prurience. And really, isn’t that what we want and expect from giallo? Nieves Navarro/Susan Scott was one of the ablest and most willing stars of the genre, and since Ercoli was obsessed with her (the two married in 1972 and remained so until Ercoli’s death in 2015), he shoots her exquisitely, attiring her in an array of moddish miniskirts and tight thigh-high boots. She also gets several scenes that give her more to do than just stand around and look alluring and/or terrified (though she’s great at both of those things). She’s able to deliver emotional heft when it’s demanded of her, and though her character makes the usual dumb decisions everyone in giallo makes, she never becomes petty or unlikable… though her “African” striptease is ill-advised even for a film in 1971.

Joining her about halfway through the film (Ercoli pulls a Hitchcock a la Psycho in that regard, introducing a main character after half the film is finished) is Claudie Lange. Lange was never a major player in the Italian film business, though she did appear in a few high-profile roles, including one alongside Roger Moore in the 1969 British spy caper Crossplot and another in John Huston’s ill-fated disaster The Bible: In the Beginning…. She also appeared in a few spaghetti westerns and Eurospy films, but her only giallo work was with Ercoli and Navarro in Death Walks On High Heels and Death Walks at Midnight, her penultimate film before retiring from the business. She’s good in Death Walks On High Heels as the endlessly put-upon wife of Frank Wolff’s philandering  Dr. Matthews, who suddenly finds herself thrust into a twisted plot involving sex and stolen diamonds that, by the time she arrives in the film, everything is already good and tangled. That she lacks the presence of Nieves Navarro probably has less to do with Lange’s capabilities as an actress and more with the fact that Ercoli was in love with Navarro.

And indeed Navarro is a peach. She remained active throughout the 1970s, appearing in a number of genre films of varying repute, including a trio of “Emanuelle” films (Emanuelle e LolitaVelluto nero, and the infamous Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals) and Joe D’Amato’s dull, tasteless Orgasmo Nero. Conversely, her husband Luciano Ercoli was not long for this cinematic coil. He directed only two more movies before inheriting a fortune and deciding that directing movies was less fun than just sitting around, being rich with his beautiful wife. His direction here is good, and despite moments in which the film loses focus (narratively, not technically, though amazingly the fish-eating scene ends up having sort of a point), he keeps things interesting and moving along. Cinematographer Fernando Arribas brings a polished, fashion show look to everything. The murders are neither graphic nor numerous but are stylishly mounted. The supporting cast is able, even Nicole’s creepy boyfriend Michel, who shows up in the back half of the film to try to redeem himself while in the position of most likely suspect. Stelvio Cipriani, who was one of the best composers working in Italian genre film, turns in an appropriately loungy score full of breathy wordless singing, tribal percussion, and baroque harpsichord. What it lacks in tension it makes up for by being jazzy and lush, the kind of soundtrack you want playing as you drive a convertible along the Amalfi Coast.

Ironically, for a movie that has so much to do with eyes, and features close-ups of eyes so prominently, this is one of the rare giallo that doesn’t dwell very long on the subjectiveness of human perception, though voyeurism is certainly one of the major fetishes explored in this film. But then, voyeurism is probably the go-to kink for just about all giallo, since it plays so well with the concept of being stalked and menaced. Clocking in at 105 minutes, Death Walks On High Heels is about ten minutes longer than it should be, and that extra ten minutes can test the patience of less determined fans of giallo, especially when it’s spent on filler and close-ups of people sex-eating fish while revelations important to the plot are crammed into shorter scenes and sprayed at the viewer out of a firehose. However, for those willing to forgive the film its meandering moments, there’s a lot to enjoy in this sordid, stylish tale, especially if you like sexy boots — or fried fish.

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage

In the wake of Mario Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Much (1963) and Blood and Black Lace (1964), the two films that are rightfully credit with launching the giallo genre or style (however you may define it), several movies were made that more or less fit within the giallo wheelhouse, either by conforming to the formula established by Bava or by adding some additional key piece to the puzzle that would eventually form the complete giallo picture. For many, the final piece of that puzzle was placed into the now complete picture in 1970 when screenwriter Dario Argento settled into the director’s chair for the first time. His debut film, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo), is the Goldfinger of giallo. Goldfinger wasn’t the first James Bond movie, but it was the one that synthesized all the elements into what was recognizable as the iconic “James Bond film.” It became and, in fact, remains, the template for subsequent Bond adventures and for what people stereotypically think of when they think of a James Bond film. In much the same way, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is the film in which all of the raw material pioneered during the 1960s was forged into the finished formula that would define giallo throughout the 1970s and beyond.

Tony Musante (from the Frank Sinatra film The Detective, the saucy Argento-scripted Metti, una sera a cena, and the superior spaghetti western The Mercenary) stars as Sam Dalmas, an American writer living a quasi-Bohemian lifestyle in Rome with his girlfriend Julia (Suzy Kendall, also in the Eurospy spoof The Liquidator , the excellent British horror film Circus of Fear, and two more giallo: Sergio Martino’s Torso and Umberto Lenzi’s Spasmo). They’re prepping to leave their current apartment when, on his way home one night, Sam passes by a brightly lit art gallery and stumbles upon an attempted murder in progress. Unlike many people in later giallo, he attempts to help, but the gallery’s security doors won’t allow him to enter. In fact, he becomes trapped in a little alcove between the inner and outer doors, unable to physically intercede in the struggle between a figure in a black trench coat and the desperate young woman (Eva Renzi, Funeral in Berlin) while also unable to run for help. With nothing else to do, he bangs helplessly on the glass until the trench coat-clad figure flees, leaving Renzi’s Monica wounded but alive.

When police are finally summoned, they quickly dismiss the idea of Sam as a suspect but want him to stick around since he’s the only eye-witness. Sam agrees, but he’s not as confident in his eyes as he would like to be. He can’t shake the feeling that he witnessed something, some small detail in the scene, that is of importance. But try as he might, he can’t conjure up what it might have been, no matter how often he replays the scene in his head. Hoping to jostle free the elusive detail, Sam launches his own investigation parallel to the official inquiry by the police. His sleuthing begins with a disturbing painting connected to the murder of another young woman whose death might be connected to what Sam witnessed that night at the art gallery. No sooner has Sam started digging into the case than he and Julia are getting threatening phone calls and, as he refuses to let go of finding that one detail that could unlock the entire case, actual attempts on their lives.

The idea that human perception of events is often faulty, or at least incomplete, is a core concept of many giallo films, including a few others by Dario Argento, who uses it to great effect here as well as in his later, highly regarded giallo masterpiece Profondo Rosso (Deep Red). At times, “things are not what they seem” is something of a cheat for the director, but even when that’s the case, it’s not terribly important. It’s the core concept that is important, and anyone whose heard a story about a particular event told by different people, all of whom were present, knows how common it is for the details to differ in sometimes dramatic fashion, or for someone to be convinced utterly they saw or experienced something they did not. Science, both pop and real, is full of experiments that reveal how easy it is to get the human brain to conspire against itself, for senses, perception, and memory to be out of sync. And for anyone who has been aggravated by having something “on the tip of their tongue” — which is probably just about everyone — yet stubbornly impossible to force into remembrance, Sam’s predicament makes him an easy character with which to sympathize, especially since he genuinely wants to help but finds himself stymied by his own particular brand of lethologica.

Sam’s inability to worry that detail from his memory is symptomatic of the film’s greater subversion of the classic male hero and the “man of action” archetype. In a country and a time when machismo was treasured, Sam is a man who leaps into action and proves incapable of getting the job done. His attempts to be the hero are undercut at every step by Argento, beginning with Sam witnessing a crime he is impotent to prevent. From there, his frustration continues, bordering on the sexual, as he struggles and fails to remember that elusive something from the gallery. When he does finally recall it, the release comes far too late and barely even matters. Even during Sam’s final showdown with the killer, he is rendered helpless, pinned under a sculpture and only amble wriggle around in distress. Conversely, the film’s two most prominent women, rendered powerless by traditional socially enforced gender roles, who prove much more effective. Two women, Julia and Monica, who have been marginalized and preyed upon accomplish what the men in the film — Sam, the police, Monica’s husband — fail to do.

Despite, or perhaps because of, his inefficacy as a macho hero, Sam is a reasonably likable lead, his occasional flashes of arrogance and sexism tempered by the fact that he rarely succeeds at what his male hero status has him attempt. He’s like a sidekick who wandered into the lead role by accident and is doing his best to play the part. Even when a man does contribute something significant to the plot — solving the film’s most important clue, and the one that lends the film its ornate title —  it’s not Sam or the police, but a superfluous buddy of Sam’s. However ineffectual they may be, however, Argento never stoops to the level of making us feel contempt for  Sam or the police. They’re not malicious and incompetent the way they would be in many later giallo. They genuinely want to help, and they’re written as well-meaning and sympathetic; but they are locked into a certain way of thinking, a certain set of assumptions, that prevent them from doing so.

Tony Musante is good in the role of Sam, a giallo-typical foreign artist thrust into a bizarre situation full of strange characters (including, most outrageously, an eccentric artists who eats cats and, most offensively, a cartoonishly flamboyant gay art dealer who, at least, isn’t portrayed as a pervert or scumbag). It was common for giallo to feature British or American leads (the better to sell the film overseas). It was common in Italian film in general, since the popularity of filming at Cinecitta meant there were always Hollywood stars hanging around Rome, and since many US distributors (as well as Italian producers) wanted an internationally recognizable name and face. It didn’t even matter if you ended up with a cast that spoke half a dozen different languages. Italian films were rarely shot with synchronized sound, so you could have, for example, Jessica Harper speaking English while someone else spoke German and someone else spoke Italian, and by the time it was complete, it would all be dubbed into whatever language was needed (sometimes by the same cast, but often by a crew of voice actors, lending an additionally surreal layer to many films).

Argento excelled at picking talent that maybe wasn’t at the apex of their career but still had marquee value and skill (Musante in this; David Hemmings in Deep Red; Tony Franciosa is Tenebre). He surrounds Musante with a solid supporting cast, with British actress Suzy Kendall as Sam’s put-upon and preyed-upon girlfriend Julia. Her big scene, and perhaps the film’s most memorable outside of the gallery murder, demands a lot from her emotionally as she finds herself stranded in an apartment alone, with no power and no phone, as the killer chips away at the cheap front door with a knife. She is required to be both resourceful and hysterical, verging on the edge of collapse but still able to defend herself as the audience screams for her (perhaps unreasonably) to pull herself together. The viewer is thus rendered an impotent spectator yelling at the movie screen, a reflection of Sam trapped behind the glass in the beginning of the film.

It’s one of the few instances in which a giallo succeeds not just because it’s shocking, but because it’s gotten the viewer emotionally invested. This tense scene again illustrates the basic failure of both Sam (who is out of town on a fact-finding mission, leaving Julia alone despite knowing they are both being stalked) and the police (who are dutifully standing guard downstairs but still fail to prevent the killer from gaining entry and fail to hear Julia’s screams for help). When Sam does sort of save the day, it’s purely by accident.

Argento would go on to direct bolder, more visually dynamic films, including Deep Red and Tenebre, and arguably reaching his candy-colored crescendo with the supernatural chiller Suspiria, but he would rarely achieve the same level of empathy as he does in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. Visually, the film is nothing to dismiss despite not possessing the same degree of flamboyance as some of his later work. It lacks the psychedelic excess of Suspiria but is still an inventive film, looking much of the time like and using the same stark color palate with splashes of vibrant color as Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist, also released in 1970.

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is a remarkably assured directorial debut. Argento was no cinema neophyte, having worked on scripts for Sergio Leone among others, but first-time directors, especially ones coming to the job with a specific cinematic vision and budding visual flair, can tend to overdo it on their first outing, overindulging to the point where their visual language overwhelms the film rather than serving it. Argento, however, exercises an impressive degree of self-discipline, allowing his film to flourish without succumbing to excess (when he did finally go overboard, in Suspiria, it was still in the service of the film and, within that context, made perfect sense). The Bird with the Crystal Plumage might not have been the first giallo, but it is one of the most completely realized and best executed. It’s position as the template, as the face that launched the fleet, is rightfully earned. It remains to this day a highly regarded classic, and rightfully so. Decades after it’s release, and decades after legions of imitators, it still feels fresh, inventive, and shocking.

I, The Jury

When people who don’t have much first-hand experience with reading hardboiled detective fiction imitate the “so I socked that chump in the jaw, then I socked his dame in the jaw, too, just ’cause she looked like she was asking for it and might like it” style, they’re imitating Mickey Spillane. When it comes to elevating tough-guy talk to sublime and absurd levels, it’s hard to beat Spillane. Every sentence is boiling over with hate and disgust. Every thought is of violence. Motivation for his signature creation, private detective Mike Hammer, ranges from vengeance to rage to hate with not much in between. Spillane’s prose is punchy, abrupt, and maybe not that good — but that doesn’t mean it isn’t effective. Immersing oneself in the world of Mike Hammer is to come out needing a shower, filled slightly with loathing. But for some reason, you’ll go back. Mike Hammer is a gruesome accident you can’t help but glance at, a blister on the inside of your mouth you bite just to spite yourself. He is hate incarnate. And he’s the hero.

With a back story that couldn’t have been more perfect if it had been fiction, Mickey Spillane was the born-in-Brooklyn, raised-in-Jersey son of an Irish bartender. He worked as a lifeguard in Queens, a salesman in Gimbels department store, and somehow fell into a job as a trampoline artist for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus before joining the Army Air Corps on December 8, 1941. He wrote for comic books and, in 1945, when he and his wife were trying to finance a new home, figured he might as well give novel-writing a go. The result was I, the Jury, which he reportedly dashed off in 19 days, leveraging a character he’d previously developed for a “Mike Danger” comic book that never got off the ground. I, the Jury was poorly received by critics, to say the least. It also sold millions of copies, as these things have a way of doing. As Spillane once said, “You can sell a lot more peanuts than caviar.”

In I, the Jury, Mike Danger became Mike Hammer, a war veteran and ex-cop (like every detective of the era) with a chip on his shoulder and a grudge against pretty much everyone and everything in the world, except maybe his secretary/love interest, Velda. As the novels opens, Hammer is called to the scene of a murder, but not just any murder. The victim is an old war buddy of his, Jack Williams, who lost an arm saving Hammer’s ass on some godforsaken island in the Pacific. And he wasn’t just murdered; he was shot in the gut and then left to bleed out, a particularly cruel, painful, slow way to die. Hammer, whose default setting is one of teeth-grinding rage, vows to track down the killer and kill them in the same way.

Naturally, there’s a list of suspects that grows as Hammer pries into the murky past of the man who sacrificed an arm to save a life. First and foremost is Williams’ wife, Myrna, a pretty, fragile young thing with a history of suicide attempts and addiction. And then there’s the lovely Bellamy twins, one of whom is a nymphomaniac. Or maybe it was Hal Kines, a shady student of psychiatrist Charlotte Manning, who happened to be treating Myrna. Or the shifty lawyer, Harmon Wilder, and his assistant. Or maybe it’s someone else entirely. Whoever it is, rest assured that Hammer’s neck veins will throb with white-hot hatred as he works his way through the list of suspects, fantasizing about how he will torture, brutalize, and eventually kill whoever’s responsible for Jack’s death.

Raymond Chandler wrote detective fiction that was heavy with a world-weary sense of existential loneliness, communicated in haunting, poetic prose that was shockingly beautiful. He used it to guide his own detective, Philip Marlowe, through a maze of seedy, surreal California locations and subcultures, often entangling Marlowe with some family of ultra-wealthy lunatics. Spillane does much the same thing with Mike Hammer, only instead of world-weariness there’s wrath, and instead of poetry there’s terse, journalistic writing born from Spillane’s background in comics, where you have a very limited amount of space to do your job. It’s a style that, while obviously not as lyrical or contemplative as Chandler’s, is no less effective within context. There’s no time for waxing poetic. It’s a perfect match for the seething cauldron of fury that is Mike Hammer.

Post-War America was a stew of optimism, exhaustion, trauma, hope, and uncertainty. The war so big and so devastating that we can barely conceive of its scale was support it all out, make the world a better, safer, brighter place. Instead, everything came out fractured and damaged. That darkness lurking beneath the shiny things is where Mike Hammer exists. Where Philip Marlowe was a warrior with a broken heart, who fought the hopeless good fight because somewhere, beneath it all, he still believed there was good in the world, Mike Hammer is a warrior with no heart, hollowed out (whether it was the author’s intention or not) by the violence and unable to see the light in which Marlowe has faith. Like Marlowe, the case takes Hammer on an odyssey through some truly bizarre places, including a sun-dappled retreat for the filthy rich, and crosses his path with all sorts of crazy people. Some he’ll have sex with, some he’ll sock in the jaw, and some he’ll do both to. For Hammer, there is only ugliness, and the only way to meet it is with even uglier ugliness.

Spillane isn’t presenting him as an anti-hero, however, or even as particularly damaged. As far Spillane is concerned, this violent, out-of-control detective is a righteous crusader in a world of evil and filth, a white knight even though his every thought is about how he can hurt someone. For Hammer, due process and civil rights were just liberal commie nonsense that the weak and the wicked wielded to abuse right-living, right-thinking American men and women. Every act of violence against those who transgressed against Mike Hammer and the morals he championed was, as far as he and the author were concerned, justified. He’s not a guy you are going to like, but that doesn’t stop him from being an interesting character.

Lots of old detective fiction requires the more socially conscious modern reader to roll with some distasteful words and attitudes here and there. This one…even more so — and this is Mickey Spillane on his best behavior! For all that one may find offensive, if one so chooses, there is just as much that is thrilling, if at times in a sick sort of way. Spillane was no poet, but he certainly knew how to write an engaging potboiler. Spillane only wants to deliver fast-paced sex and violence with a gut-punch style. It’s blunt, ugly stuff, but it’s possessed of a visceral appeal that has made it the de facto “voice” to imitate when writing hardboiled pulp fiction. It certainly struck a chord with readers, who turned it into one of the best-selling books of the era despite the eye-rolling of critics. I, the Jury is the kind of slim pulp paperback you can polish off in a day, a single commute if the trains are delayed (and they are). Afterward, you might feel a bit dirty and disgusted, but sometimes it’s good to feel dirty and disgusting.

Slaughter Hotel

Working in the tough-as-nails poliziotteschi genre that sprung into action in the early 1970s, Fernando Di Leo directed several very good films and at least one great film, possibly more. He cut his teeth during the 1960s as a screenwriter, collaborating with a team of scripters — as was common for Italian films — on a posse of spaghetti westerns, including Sergio Leone’s landmark Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More starring American actor Clint Eastwood as well as Sergio Corbucci’s influential classic Django starring Italian idol Franco Nero. In 1964 Di Leo co-directed a film called Gli eroi di ieri… oggi… domani, and in 1968 got his first solo directing job on the WWII adventure Rose rosse per il führer (aka Red Roses for the Führer and Code Name, Red Roses). He toiled away for another few years until, in 1972, he wrote and directed Caliber 9, rightfully considered one of the best crime films of the 1970s. He followed up with The Italian Connection that same year, then The Boss in 1973. Like Caliber 9, they are considered high water marks in global crime cinema. But in 1971, he still had to pay some dues, and Slaughter Hotel extracts a high fee indeed.

It’s Di Leo’s only giallo (unless you count Naked Violence, which walked the line between giallo and poliziotteschi), but not his only sex film. And make no mistake about it: despite the title and the poster art, Slaughter Hotel is a sex film. In its final few minutes, Slaughter Hotel decides to be a murder thriller, but that last-minute shift in tone is an afterthought. It plays for the most part like one of Jess Franco’s lesser efforts, or something that would have come out much later from bottom-of-the-bucket production house Eurocine. Despite coming out in 1971 — a banner year for giallo — it has more in common with late-cycle entries like The Sister of Ursula, Play Motel, and Giallo in Venice that focused on sex rather than thrills or style.

By Di Leo’s own admission in interviews, he considered the entire thing trash from the very beginning. The script, on which he worked with Nino Latino (who had previously collaborated with Di Leo on Naked Violence and A Wrong Way to Love) was absurd, set in a mental hospital bristling with unsecured medieval weapons and implements of torture. Di Leo admitted he knew nothing about mental hospitals and had no desire to learn for a film this silly, but it seems like even someone with almost no knowledge whatsoever of such places would guess that they didn’t leave halberds and iron maidens and crossbows lying around in the rec room. Seriously, it’s like this asylum doubles as Vincent Price’s castle from The Pit and the Pendulum. You half expect the killer walking up the stairs to bump into Price on his way down, lisping “Oh, good! I see you found the halberd!” Having saddled himself with a script this ridiculous, Di Leo figured he might as well take the whole thing over-the-top. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have a knack for absurdism. Rather than exploiting the innate ludicrous nature of the film and turning into satire, he turns in a flat, listless film padded out to feature-length by endless, repetitive masturbation scenes.

The film begins with a fake-out, as we follow a madman who, for some reason, is wearing a cape (as if anyone needs a reason to don a dashing cape) as he stalks the grounds of the sinister-looking Gothic mansion that serves as the sanatorium. Somehow, despite having well-lit halls (the lighting throughout the film is indifferent and bright, which is a plus for seeing things, a minus for mood), no one notices this armed intruder clomping up and down the stairs. He pauses to spy on a beautiful woman — British-born Eurocult mainstay Margaret Lee (whose eye make-up in this film is exquisite) — writhing around in the nude. Lee was a Eurospy staple during the 1960s, appearing in, among others, From the Orient with Fury, Le Tigre se parfume à la dynamite, Secret Agent Super Dragon, and the divinely daft Dick Smart 2.007. Ever the working actor, she also racked up a number of krimi, giallo, and horror credits from both Europe and the UK, including Double Face, Jess Franco’s Venus in Furs and The Bloody Judge, and Psycho-Circus alongside Christopher Lee. She wasn’t as well-known for sex films, though she did appear in a film with the enticing title Excuse Me, Padre, Are You Horny? Unfortunately Slaughter Hotel, while willingly exposing her flesh, gives her little else to do besides stand to the side looking aghast. For much of the film, she simply vanishes despite the fact that she is, ostensibly, the main character…in a film, mind you, that can’t be bothered to actually have a main character.

The killer’s voyeuristic prowl-about is interrupted when Lee, in the throes of self-administered ecstasy, accidentally hits the “summon nurse” button, forcing the nefarious fiend to flee less he be found. And that is the last you will see of the killer or any element of giallo until the final few minutes of the film. From here on, the film introduces a procession of beautiful women who will get naked and lie around, pawing themselves for the leering camera at such length that one, incredulously, finds oneself urging it to move along. Rendering such scenes tedious is a talent of sorts, but not one of which I’d consider myself an admirer. Among the women inhabiting this most curious of sanatoriums are: Mara (Jane Garret), a woman on the verge of recovering from agoraphobia; Ruth (Gioia Desideri), a woman prone to the occasional murderous outburst; Margaret Lee’s aforementioned Cheryl Hume, nearly cured of suicidal tendencies and just waiting around for her release papers; and because this is a sleazy Italian film, a nymphomaniac played by the glorious, irrepressible Rosalba Neri. All of these women, from the harmless to the horny to the homicidal are allowed to roam freely, without supervision, and are, as mentioned, afforded full access to the hospital’s impressive store of maces, axes, and swords.

Speaking of full access, the hospital’s staff affords themselves full access to the patients in their charge, which has to be at least as egregious a violation of basic sanatorium regulations as is the unsecured armory. Wild-maned doctor Francis Clay (a disappointingly subdued Klaus Kinski) is carrying on an affair with Margaret Lee’s Cheryl. Nurse Helen (Monica Strebel) is similarly carrying on a tryst with her patient Mara. Ironically, Rosalba Neri’s nymphomaniac is the only one not getting laid, despite how hard she tries. Among Slaughter Hotel‘s sundry baffling accomplishments is making one ask, “Will no one make love to Rosalba Neri???” Also, what fun is it to cast Klaus Kinski in your film and then have him be well-behaved? By Di Leo’s account, despite Kinski’s reputation, the famously insane actor was mild and easy to work with, which might be the problem. Sane Kinski is sad Kinski. Granted, he’s a prime suspect to be the killer, but only because he’s Klaus Kinski — which is almost a cheat. If you are making a “whodunnit,” putting Kinski in the film means you get an automatic red herring without putting effort into it. He is a suspect in any perverse crime simply by dint of being Klaus Kinski. Not that the whodunnit aspect of Slaughter Hotel is the focus of the film.

Neri’s quest for sex takes up the bulk of the film’s middle section. As long-winded as this part of the movie may be, it’s hard to work up much anger at Rosalba Neri frequently appearing on-screen to remove her clothes and roll around. She tries unsuccessfully to seduce her own brother when he pops around for a visit. When confronted by a doctor who is disappointed by her empowered female libido, she boldly proclaims that she’s not crazy; she just enjoys making love and thinks the taboo against promiscuity is absurd. He advises her to take a cold shower, because as should be obvious by their willingness to sleep with their patients, this mental hospital is staffed by the very finest. She has better luck with the scythe-wielding gardener, but even he is worn out by her insatiable appetite. Trying the old “slap the woman into submission” only earns him a wallop upside his head. When two beefy orderlies arrive to subdue her, she tries to make love to them as well. Rosalba Neri is the only one giving her all in this film that doesn’t really deserve her talents.

Neri was and remains one of the great icons of Eurocult film, on the Mount Rushmore of leading ladies alongside Edwige Fenech, Barbara Bouchet, and for some reason Teddy Roosevelt. She started at a young age and appeared frequently throughout the 1960s in sword and sandal films, including a few lavish “Hollywood on the Tiber” productions, including Esther and the King directed by Raoul Walsh (with an assist from Mario Bava) and El Cid starring Charlton Heston. Sure, they were small roles, but they helped her build a career. When Italians started taking advantage of all the expensive ancient world props Americans left lying around after one of their films, Neri moved into femme fatale, princess, and queen roles in pepla. Later, she made appearances in Eurospy films including SuperSeven Calling Cairo, The Spy with Ten Faces, and Password: Kill Agent Gordon.

Following the career trajectory of pretty much everyone in European cult cinema, she then moved into spaghetti westerns and, in 1969, made her first high-profile appearance in a sex film when she starred in Jess Franco’s women in captivity opus 99 Women. From there, she split her time between sex romps and horror, including Top Sensation (alongside Edwige Fenech), Amuck with Barbara Bouchet, Jess Franco’s Marquis de Sade’s Justine, and Lady Frankenstein. Neri’s involvement in Slaughter Hotel, and her willingness to put energy into a role that no one would have blamed her for phoning in, goes a long way to making the film tolerable. As it was with Fernando Di Leo, this is not one of Rosalba’s better films. Unlike Di Leo, however, she still brings her “A” game, throwing herself into her role with a gusto and can-do attitude lacking in just about everyone else (though the more explicit, um, let’s call them “gynecological” shots use a body —or part of a body — double).

When we’re not hanging out with the frustrated Neri or watching nurses and patients play what might liberally be referred to as croquet (but is mostly just women trotting around swatting wooden balls at random; Di Leo apparently knew as much about croquet as he did asylums), we’re watching the courtship dance between Nurse Helen and Mara. This involves a lot of caressing, kissing, ass massage, and Slaughter Hotel being what it is, masturbation. Which, admittedly, is not a bad way to spend an evening, but only if you are a participant. Watching from afar has appeal for a while, but eventually it becomes a bit like listening to someone telling you about a lurid dream they had, rather than having the lurid dream yourself. That said, there is a surprising amount of tenderness in the relationship — unprofessional though it may be — between the two women. Di Leo, even when he’s just going through the motions, stumbles upon moments of competency. Along with Neri’s fiery performance, the film’s interludes with Mara and Helen elevate it above similar sex thrillers like the aforementioned The Sister of Ursula. Jane Garret didn’t have much of a career. In fact, she apparently didn’t have any career beyond Slaughter Hotel. Monica Strebel put together a few more cult film credits but never rose to the rank of a Rosalba Neri. A shame. She has the look of a gorgeously haunted 1920s heroine who would be kidnapped and carried across an expressionistic set by Conrad Veidt.

Still, let’s not overstate the appeal of Slaughter Hotel. The sex scenes go on far longer than they should, and for the most part the film has no interest in developing a plot, tension, or any reason to progress from one scene tot he next beyond some minimum duration Di Leo determined for each scene. It staggers from one sex scene to the next, punctuating them with scenes of Klaus Kinski smoking or standing around in a hall — which, again, would be scary if you discovered him doing that in your hall at home, but here’s it’s just more filler. Eventually the killer has had enough and finally shows up to propel this meandering slice of sleaze into the realm of the giallo, more or less (less). In true giallo fashion, the black-gloved killer is revealed to be someone who was basically absent from the entire movie until the very end. rather than bringing his own implements of annihilation, he greedily paws through the hospital’s collection, selecting one (and showing it lovingly to the camera, to kill a few more minutes; far more minutes are killed in this film than people), using it, then considerately returning it to its rightful shelf. Despite that fact that dozens of people seem to be up and about and all the lights are on, no one stumbles across the killer as he ponders his options.

After a couple brutal but not at all graphic murders, someone eventually screams, which brings the staff running. Now alert to the fact that someone has foiled their security measures (which were, of course, no security measures), Kinski, the other doctors, and the local cops devise exactly the sort of plan you’d expect this bunch of yardbirds to come up with. Cheryl will stand around in the rec room of medieval weapons while everyone else hides in the hall. When the killer comes for her — which he will inevitably do since she is one of the last characters with a name — they’ll all leap out and yell “gotcha!”

The plan goes off well except for the small detail that the room full of cops and doctors can’t seem to block the passage of a single guy. The killer hauls ass around the hospital, swinging a mace wildly and brutalizing a dorm room full of nurses, which is really going to put a damper on the morrow’s croquet game. This single shot, ludicrous in the extreme, lasts a few seconds and accounts for the bulk of Slaughter Hotel‘s slaughter. All things considered, it was far less shocking than watching poor Margaret Lee try to run her fingers through Kinski’s unkempt, strawlike nest of hair.

Perhaps the most un-giallo thing about Slaughter Hotel is that, despite how hastily sketched the characters are, none of them are unlikable. There is no sniping, no unbridled venom being slug between the characters. There’s empathy (though not from that “take a cold shower” doctor), even if its expression violates the spirit of most doctor-patient relationships. Even the woman prone to occasionally trying to hit people with sticks isn’t the sort of spiteful, irredeemable monster we would come to expect from people populating a giallo film. Sure, the killer is a fiend, but that’s the killer for you. Everyone else is, within the confines of this admittedly ridiculous and illogical world, relatively decent. This means that when certain characters meet their violent demise in the final act, it packs a little more emotional punch than if we were just watching a parade of vile scumbags getting offed. It’s an odd and unexpected accomplishment for a film that is, in almost every other regard, a bit of a chore.

By 1971, filmmakers who had labored under decades of oppressive censorship laws suddenly found themselves with undreamt of levels of leeway when it came to sex and violence. Once Ralph Bates and Ollie Reed knocked the door open while wrestling nude, there was no putting the genie back in its clothes. As often happens with newfound freedoms and Totino’s Pizza Rolls, some folks over-indulged just a bit. Divorced from the expectation that it will be a stylish giallo like many others that were released in 1971, Slaughter Hotel manages to be at once tiresome and mesmerizing. Di Leo’s direction showcases none of the flare that would emerge in his work just a year later. He manages to point the camera, turn on some lights, and keep things in focus, but that’s about it.

To call the film slow-paced would imply that it has any sort of pace at all. Instead, it’s more of a sex scene highlight reel with no cohesive narrative, no mitigating sense of logique fantastique. It just sort of is. And yet, despite the mind-numbing nature of the film’s parade of flesh and masturbation, despite the overall sordid nature of the whole affair…there is something about Slaughter Hotel that keeps me from dismissing it out of hand. Like those Totino’s Pizza Rolls, it may be a bit over-indulgent in its excesses, but I’d rather have the Pizza Rolls than not.

The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave

Giallo often treat logic as a secondary consideration at best. Although inspired by the likes of Alfred Hitchcock and falling generally into the realm of the whodunnit, solving or even having given to you a satisfactory explanation for the crimes (usually murder) in a giallo film isn’t the point. If you think it is, then you’ll inevitably be disappointed when the killer is revealed to be some ancillary character who barely shows up in the rest of the film. Instead, what matters most to giallo is the presentation. The trip you take to the final revelation rather than the revelation itself. As such, assuring that the revelation makes sense is not high on the list of priorities for most of these films. However, they usually do attempt, at the very least, to entertain some vestige of logic, even if that logic is uniquely giallo and applicable only to a world in which everyone is a fashion model, stripper, or photographer and no one reacts with anything approaching even a semblance of how an actual human being might react. It is a world in which almost everyone is callous, cruel, cynical, and sadistic.

That said, Emilio P. Miraglia’s The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave is nonsensical even within the forgiving confines of giallo logic.

First and foremost is the fact that the film establishes its protagonist Alan (Anthony Steffen) is a serial killer who enjoys nothing so much as taking hookers and strippers back to his crumbling manor house, where he proceeds to terrorize, choke, and ultimately murder them, but not before making them put on sexy boots while he dons the soutane of a Catholic priest. While we quickly learn that Alan possesses a host of mental issues relating to past trauma, absolutely nothing in his past ever ends up being related to religion, priests, strangulation, or sexy boots. This isn’t even spoiler territory; the first thing he does in the film is pick up a prostitute and murder her.

One could be forgiven, then, for assuming that this movie will be about a woman who finds herself in the clutches of this murderous sex fiend, or about a world-weary inspector (or, this being giallo, a photographer or composer of minor concertos, since people like that tend to have better luck solving these mysteries than do the local gendarmes) racing against time to save a woman Alan has been menacing. Once could be forgiven, but one would also be wrong. Because Alan, it turns out, is the film’s protagonist, and the audience is meant to root for him during the coming mystery — a mystery in which his side gig as a serial killer is almost totally forgotten, or at least forgiven.

When the movie loses interest in Lord Alan Cunningham, serial killer, it focuses on Lord Alan Cunningham, melancholy swingin’ playboy whose wife, Evelyn, passed away some years ago and has left the colorful neckwear aficionado in a funk that can only be alleviated by attending orgiastic soirées thrown by his decadent relative George (Enzo Tarascio). It’s George who suggests Alan pop on down to the Kit Kat Club (because it is always the Kit Kat Club) to see their stunning new dancer Susan (Erika Blanc), who being a slinky redhead, George knows is just Alan’s type. The night goes about as one would expect when one of the participants is a murderous nutcase who is driven into a red rage by sexy redheads and the other participant is a sexy redhead. Unfortunately for Alan, Susan has more fight and flight in her than he was counting on, and she leads him on a merry nude foot chase throughout the castle and its surrounding woods, though it seems in the end Alan gets the better of her and, in his psychotic haze, disposes of her body by feeding it to his kennel of foxes.

Later, at one of George’s hedonistic fêtes, Alan meets Gladys (Marina Malfatti) and decides then and there to wed her, hoping that marriage to a nice woman he met at one of George’s pagan bacchanales will be the cure for his homicidal episodes and a way to forget poor, dead Evelyn (who, it is later revealed, died during a miscarriage). It seems like Gladys very well might be the cure to what ails Alan, and she seems incredibly tolerant of his eccentric affectations, like keeping a portrait of Evelyn prominently displayed in their living room and occasionally attempting to murder Gladys when she dons a red wig for no reason. But other than those few minor bumps in the road, life is improving. Alan’s paraplegic aunt Agatha (Joan C. Davis, who looks half the age of the man playing her nephew) moves in, as does sleazy good time guy George. They fix up the old schloss and hire a staff of blondes so as to avoid triggering Alan’s mania. Sure, Evelyn’s creepy brother is still slinking around in the woods, but you have to account for weird relatives even in a jolly life, right? Domestic bliss is interrupted however when the apparent specter of Evelyn starts lurking around the old castle, driving Alan to the brink of insanity while those around him are murdered.

Anthony Steffen is a bit of a slab in the role of Alan, but there are moments when his seeming disinterest and confusion augment the character. But it’s really the two women, Erika Blanc’s Susan and Marina Malfatti’s Gladys, and Enzo Tarascio’s leering lounge lizard George who carry the weight of the film. While Steffen struggles to make faces of anguish and confusion into the camera, his supporting cast go at things with gusto and are more than able to carry him through the tough spots. In Steffen’s defense, although he he’s not much of an actor, he does look resplendent in all those velvet jackets and colorful silk cravats. He may be a murderous lunatic, but he has lovely personal style.

Marina Malfatti is the film’s anchor, a woman thrust into a dangerous and bizarre situation where, at best, her husband is a psychotic murderer and, at worst, so is the ghost of his dead wife. This was one of her first giallo, but she became a staple in the genre, appearing in films like Umberto Lenzi’s Seven Blood-Stained Orchids, The Red Queen Kills Seven Times (also directed by Emilio P. Miraglia), and Sergio Martino’s excellent All the Colors of the Dark, another film that combines the giallo with the supernatural (or at least the supernatural seeming). Erika Blanc has a smaller role in Evelyn than Malfatti, but she was no less a genre pro, having cut her teeth as an extra in Eurospy films before bursting into the horror scene in Mario Bava’s exquisite Gothic chiller Kill, Baby…Kill! She did additional time in spaghetti westerns and, in the 1970s, settled into a solid horror and giallo groove with roles in films such as The Devil’s Nightmare, Human Cobras, The Red-Headed Corpse, and So Sweet… So Perverse.

Giallo trade in awful characters doing awful things to one another, and rarely do they serve up much in the way of sympathetic protagonists. But usually, no matter how big a creep, the nominal hero of the story has on his or her side, at the least, the fact that they aren’t slitting anyone’s throat, which makes them a little more acceptable than whatever black-gloved and raincoated killer us running amok. Not so in The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave, where the hero of the story murders about the same number of people as the murderer. In fact, the film’s only decent and sympathetic character is the hooker Alan assaults in the beginning of the film, so he might even be marginally worse than the mysterious murderous ghost.

One can’t help but wonder if this isn’t Emilio Miraglia toying with the conventions of the genre (which, even in 1971, were already solidifying), taking its cynicism to a somewhat illogical extreme. What’s even odder about the decision is that it kind of works. Eventually the film does convince you to rally behind Alan, at least until the movie is over and you remember that he’s a murderer himself. In a way, it’s a bit like the film itself. It seems like it shouldn’t be very good, and it has a lot of problems, but somehow at the end of things, one is mildly satisfied — provided one is already inured to the peculiarities of Italian horror in general and giallo in particular. This isn’t the sort of movie one shows to someone to initiate them into the cult of giallo.

Miraglia shoots for a combined ambiance, one part creaky Gothic castle and one part pop art modernism. Most of the time it succeeds, resulting in a film that has one foot in the cobweb-covered world of supernatural horror and the other in the decidedly secular, trendy setting of giallo — a bit like the old Dark Shadows television show, where men in Inverness coats and frilled shirts could rub elbows with women in go-go boots and miniskirts. Unfortunately, at times the film undermines its phantasmagorical mood by brightly lighting almost every scene, so that frantic chases through the mouldering labyrinth of dark castle chambers happens in a scene that looks like it’s taking place in a well-lit room. The only hint that the scene is meant to be taking place in the dark is the fact that one character wields a flashlight and they both stand directly in front of each other without “seeing” one another. On the one hand, it’s all a bit silly, like going to a strip club with all the lights turned on; on the other hand, given how strange the film is, it almost works. People stumbling around in brightly lit rooms as if they were pitch black is just one more nutty thing that defines the world of The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave.

Miraglia also seems to be playing with the concept of the red herring, turning it in on itself and, although there are numerous twists (so many, in fact, that the film can’t even be bothered to explain many of them), eventually revealing that the most obvious suspect is, in fact, the most obvious suspect, and the only reason one thinks it can’t possibly be that character is because it would be so glaringly obvious for it to be that character. Layered on top of that twist-by-not-twisting are plenty of other swerves and contrivances, at least one of which, involving wheelchair-bound Aunt Agatha, seems like it was about to take the movie toward an entirely different conclusion before Miraglia lost interest or just forgot or something and never bothers to follow up on the revelation.

There’s also a murder committed at a time when everyone revealed to be responsible for the film’s murders is otherwise occupied and accounted for, but the movie never bothers to try to explain that, either. It’s likely Miraglia didn’t even realize or remember it was a loose thread, or just didn’t care. Sometimes though, sloppy writing can lend a surreal quality to a film, and that’s the case here. The film assumes if it just keeps piling one eccentric thing after another, as well as a liberal dollop of nudity and typically awkward-looking giallo lovemaking, the desire for some sort of sensical outcome will be crushed. The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave is so interested in being bizarre that it hardly matters when it falls apart.

Dark Purpose

During the 1950s and ’60s, when Rome was the glamorous center of the world, there was a healthy exchange program between the Italian and American film industries that became known as “Hollywood on the Tiber.” Hollywood, keen to take advantage of lower costs for skilled labor (and circumvent the various craftsmen’s unions in the United States), would take advantage of the abundance of facilities, striking locations, costumes, sets, and legions of willing extras (the Italian economy was only just beginning to recover from the war) and laborers available to the in Italy. Italian productions were then able to recycle sets and costumes for their own films that had been paid for with Hollywood money as well as hire American (and British) stars who were in town anyway, either for an American production or simply because they wanted to make the Via Veneto scene, the be-all end-all of chic “see and be seen” location, immortalized (for better and worse) in Federico Fellini’s masterpiece La Dolce Vita.

When Hollywood was in town, they usually brought their own crew, refusing to trust camera work and other important tasks to the locals, though this changed as Italians proved themselves adept and dependable (and producers watching the bottom line realized how much money could be saved by not flying over an entire crew) as more than set and costume makers. It was common for an Italian director to be assigned to one of these productions as a second to the American (or British) director, usually fulfilling the role of glorified translator and go-between for the core English speaking cast and crew and the Italian speaking crew, supporting cast, and extras. It was in this capacity that Vittorio Sala found himself assigned to shadow American director George Marshall during the making of Dark Purpose (L’intrigo), a film very much in the vein of Mario Bava’s 1963 “an American in peril” thriller The Girl Who Knew Too Much.

Marshall was about as old a hand as cinema could have. He directed his first short in 1916 and worked with Fatty Arbuckle and Laurel and Hardy, among others. During the talkie era, he made both B-picture programmers and high-profile features, including Destry Rides Again starring Jimmy Stewart and Marlene Dietrich, Ghost Breakers with Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard, and the noir classic The Blue Dahlia featuring Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake. By the time he found himself in Italy making Dark Purpose, he’d made hundreds of films and shorts (and would go on to work extensively in television before retiring in 1972 with an estimated 400 directing jobs to his credit). By contrast Vittorio Sala, despite getting his start in the 1930s, had directed mostly documentary shorts. His debut feature film was 1956’s A Woman Alone (Donne sole). He dipped his toe into the world of genre filmmaking in 1960, when he directed the reasonably fun sword and sandal comedy Colossus and the Amazon Queen starring American bodybuilder Ed Fury and square-jawed Australian idol Rod Taylor.

Unlike many Italian directors though, Sala didn’t commit himself to genre pictures. In fact, he barely committed himself to directing. At a time when Italian filmmakers would often make a couple films a year, Sala would drop off the scene for a year or so, or return to documentaries. In 1962, he directed eventual James Bond villain Curd Jürgens and Mrs. Roger Vadim Annette Stroyberg in I don giovanni della Costa Azzurra (Beach Casanova). Shortly thereafter, he joined Dark Purpose, presumably to bridge the language gap between director George Marshall and stars George Sanders (British) and Shirley Jones (American, and before she became a household name for her role on The Partridge Family), and the rest of the cast, which included Italian leading man Rossano Brazzi, supporting actress Giorgia Moll, and the largely Italian crew.

George Sanders (who seems to just be playing Noel Coward) and Shirley Jones are an art assessor and his assistant who have come to the villa of Italian nobleman Count Paolo Barbarelli (Rossano Brazzi, whose long list of credits includes Hollywood-on-the-Tiber productions Three Coins in the Fountain and The Barefoot Contessa) to take stock of his art collection. While at his secluded estate outside of Salerno, they discover that aside from the count and his housekeeper, who speaks no English, there’s an excessively aggressive German Shepard and a damaged young woman named Cora (Giorgina Moll, whose dark good looks saw her often cast as an Asian, Arab, or some manner of wild warrior woman). Cora, Jones’ Karen Williams discovers, is Paolo’s daughter, suffering from amnesia, anxiety, and a host of other disorders since suffering a skiing accident. Cora doesn’t take kindly to the pretty young foreigner who has suddenly attracted so much of Paolo’s attention. Karen also discovers that Paolo lives an odd life, mostly secluded, disinterested in people who know him (including denying they’ve ever even met), and prone to fits of fiery temperament. But he’s also kind and interesting, so Karen chalks up his peculiarities to his Italian-ness and decides to fall in love. This being a thriller, the romance goes poorly.

So, too, does much of the film go rather poorly, though at least a portion of these can probably be chalked up to the dreadful condition of most existing prints, which are ragged, discolored, and severely cropped, rendering the gorgeous location work and Gábor Pogány’s potentially interesting cinematography less effective than they actually are. The audio is also often so muddled that it’s extremely difficult to make out what’s being said, especially when George Sanders is slinging rapid-fire bon mots and charming insults. This makes the film’s middle third something of a slog, but even if it was in pristine condition, there’s still be an awful lot of time spent meandering in circles and wasting time. It’s never offensively boring, but a film that relies this much on scenery and travelogue filler should be more adept at presenting that filler. I’m more than happy to go on a tour provided it’s well-conducted, but George Marshall’s direction isn’t snappy enough to keep the eye entertained when the brain isn’t. It spends too much time in Paolo’s mansion, lingering in just a couple sets that become overly familiar. It’s more like a middle-of-the-road Gothic soap opera that a jet-setty murder mystery a la The Girl Who Knew Too Much, rarely taking advantage of the surrounding city or exploiting the fashionable glamor of Italy. Even when they do venture into town, the film is mostly shot in close-ups that crop everything but Paolo, Karen, and the ass of the carriage driver.

Shirley Jones is charming enough and  attired in a colorful array of gorgeous dresses (costume designer Tina Grani worked almost exclusively on Mario Bava films, including his fashion house giallo Blood and Black Lace as well as The Girl Who Knew Too Much), but for much of the film she’s given little to do but putter around some well-decorated living rooms and make a concerned face when Cora shows up from time to time to rant at her. Much like scenery, nice mid-century attire can go a long way in distracting me from the fact that a film is otherwise a tad on the tedious side. But even cocktail dresses and ascots only go so far before I start checking my pocket watch. Neither George Marshall nor Vittorio Sala are Mario Bava, after all, who could film a boring man sitting in an empty room and somehow make it visually dynamic and exciting. Veteran George Sanders, ever the trooper, tries to liven things up with his “snooty Brit” shtick, but he leaves the film partway through, not to return again until the end, leaving the viewer with little with which to occupy one’s attention.

As the film enters its final half-hour, things pick up considerably and the aspects of the story that get Dark Purpose loosely classified as giallo or “giallo-lite” finally kick in. There’s a murder, madness, secret passages, desperate flights, and a really mean dog. Jones makes for a capable and fun “damsel in distress” of the variety that has no one to swoop in and save her and so much make due with her own wits and wiles. Rossano Brazzi is an equally engaging counter as his shifts between gregarious and secretive, kind and menacing, become less and less subtle. The script by David P. Harmon is fairly straight-forward in a genre that, provided you accept Dark Purpose as a giallo (and it is, at least in the broader definition of the style) would become known for mind-bending convolution. Harmon worked almost entirely in television (including writing that episode of Star Trek where they travel to the “see here wise guy, mnyeh” planet of 1920s gangsters, as well as the one where Kirk turns into an old man). His inability to develop a consistently engaging story for a feature-length film is obvious here.

Had Dark Purpose been an hour long episode of a TV show, he would have delivered. But forced to come up with, roughly, three half-hour acts, Harmon can’t sustain the momentum and Shirley Jones, while perfectly acceptable, just isn’t dynamic enough to make us forget nothing much is going on. Looking back from a vantage point decades later, there’s little in Dark Purpose that is surprising. Actually, based on reviews from 1964, there’s little from the vantage point of 1964 that was surprising. The world was well into Hitchcock’s career revival by then, and like The Girl Who Knew Too Much, Dark Purpose is little more than attempt to mimic the tone of Hitch’s breezier output from the era. We know who the villain is going to be. We know why the villain is up to his villainy. The trick, in these cases, is to execute the formula well, and Dark Purposes doesn’t quite do that despite becoming a much better movie right about the point someone takes a mysterious tumble off a cliff.

The Red Queen Kills Seven Times

The more gialli I watch, the more two things become apparent: 1) I have no idea, when importing the term into English, when to use “giallo” (singular) and “gialli” (plural), even though it should be simple; and 2) there’s really no such thing as a typical giallo. It’s so broad that giallo is more of a concept or a set of traits than it is a genre. The simplest comparison is to film noir, which is either a genre, a style, a cinematic philosophy, or a movement, depending on who you ask; and which has, since it was coined, come to refer to everything from a very specific set of films to every crime film ever that was shot in black and white, to every crime film ever as long as someone emerges from some shadows at some point. Giallo is like a flashy set of cool clothes that can dress up an otherwise humdrum murder mystery, and those clothes fit a variety of film types. For a genre — or a style — of films that are often defined by wildly convoluted, difficult to explain plots and a frequent reliance on the theme of the fallibility of human perception, it’s fitting that the definition of giallo itself is to some degree personal and subjective, that it falls into the category of “I don’t know what it is, but I know it when I see it.”

In Spain, director Jess Franco’s 1963 film Rififi en la Ciudad brings overt elements of the style, in the form of a mysterious trench coat-clad murderer, into the realm of the otherwise down-to-earth noir-inspired crime film. Nothing in film occurs in a vacuum, so it’s no surprise, really, when you take a close look at a film like, for instance, Orson Welles’ 1957 B-film masterpiece Touch of Evil and find very giallo-esque elements years before the idea of giallo as a cinematic movement had been launched. The films trace their lineage and their name back to a series of mystery novels, after all, and “mystery” encompasses vast and sundry types of stories. Hell, you can even find traces of giallo in the novels of Raymond Chandler (or would it be traces of Chandler in giallo), who hardboiled detective fiction is rife with the same sort of quirky, sinister characters, hopelessly labyrinthine plots, and mysterious murders that would later populate giallo.

Rising to prominence just a couple of years before the modern giallo, and largely from the same source (Mario Bava, who kicked off the giallo crazy with The Girl Who Knew Too Much and the Gothic horror craze with Black Sunday), Gothic horror films enjoyed a similar arc as giallo, beginning with classic, old-fashioned chillers and, during the 1970s, growing sleazier and more violent. Given that they shared many traits, not to mention writers and directors, it’s not surprising that the Gothic and the giallo crossed paths from time to time, much to the consternation of people who insist on films falling into clearly defined categories. One of the first films to muddy the waters came, fitting, from Mario Bava. His 1966 film Kill, Baby, Kill most closely identifies with the tradition of the supernatural Gothic chiller, but it also contains definite elements of giallo. One of the first films to reverse the ratio, a giallo with Gothic horror trappings, was Emilio Miraglia’s The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave. A year later, with his second (and final) giallo, The Red Queen Kills Seven Times, Miraglia once again plays with the porous boundary between giallo and Gothic, blending together the modern of the one and the musty of the other.

As with his previous film, Miraglia takes the modern setting integral to the spirit of gialli and dresses it up in a bit of old-fashioned Gothic spookiness by, once again, setting a portion of it (much less than in Evelyn) in a moody Gothic estate full of dark secret passages and dungeon chambers. Also once again, Miraglia loads his movie with blondes, in this case Marina Malfatti (returning after her role in Evelyn), genre powerhouse Barbara Bouchet, and in a smaller role, future queen of American direct-to-video fare Sybil Danning, no stranger to Italian movies but surprisingly light on giallo credits (her only other one was Eye in the Labyrinth, also 1972). Bouchet and Malfatti play sisters Kitty and Franziska Wildenbrück, doomed to be in one of those family’s that carries the burden of a terrible curse, the kind of nightmare story that, in these films, is usually jovially relayed to a small child by some cackling old relative. The legend is about two sisters, known as the Black and Red Queens, who hated each other so intensely that the Black Queen murdered the Red. Things like this being what they are, the Red Queen would then return every one hundred years to wreak her vengeance from beyond the grave my murdering seven members of the family or, if they aren’t handy, whoever else happens to be around. As the film begins, guess how long it’s been since the lat reported visit from the Red Queen?

Because no family living in a sprawling Gothic mansion can settle for just one horrible family curse and/or secret, the Wildenbrücks have been carting around another in reserve. Young Kitty, tormented endlessly by her abusive sister, Evelyn (Emilio P. Miraglia really likes that name), got into a fight with her that resulted in Evelyn falling off a walkway, bashing her head against a rock, and dying. It was an accident, but Kitty is distraught, and rather than go to the police, Franziska helps Kitty hide the body, clean up the blood, and concoct a story about their sister jetting off to America to live the wild life. Amazingly, it works, but Kitty has been left with a crippling guilt for years which bubbles back to the surface when their father is murdered — by a mysterious woman in red, no less — and the will stipulates that the inheritance can be doled out only if all three sisters are present. The obstacle of getting in touch with their sister in America who is actually a mummy in the cellars is challenging enough for the sisters. But things get worse when it appears that the Red Queen has once again manifested and started murdering people — and that the Queen may very well be Evelyn, despite the verified presence of her corpse in the dungeon.

Just as it flirts with the Gothic, so too does The Red Queen Kills Seven Times flirt with the supernatural, something Miraglia also did in Evelyn, when a dead woman was once again apparently out and about and murdering people. Despite their common threads, Red Queen and Evelyn are different in just as many ways as they are similar. First, where as Evelyn was a dark, brooding film set mostly at night and in the confines of a crumbling castle, Red Queen is bright, takes place mostly during the daytime, and interacts much more with the modern world, giving it a more stylish, cosmopolitan, and giallo atmosphere. Barbara Bouchet’s Kitty works at a fashion magazine, as about 80% of all people in gialli seem to, so there is a much more modern feel to the film, where as Evelyn was set in the 1970s but could, with minimal tweaks, also be set in the 1870s, as it deals primarily with isolated locations and gatherings of the idle rich. Finally, the biggest difference between the two is that Evelyn asks us to root for and sympathize with a serial killer who himself becomes prey, while Red Queen gives us a much more agreeable protagonist in Barbara Bouchet. Kitty might have killed her sister (might have), but it was an accident, and even covering it up seems a pretty mild crime compared to torturing and slicing up prostitutes.

A more relatable lead makes for a more relatable (relatively speaking, mind you) and thus more enjoyable movie, and Red Queen is enjoyable despite how incredibly, at times ludicrously, convoluted it becomes. No plot twist comes without itself being twisted, and secrets are piled up so high that the whole thing threatens to collapse under their weight. The fact that a possible supernatural and/or back from the grave killer is on the loose is secondary to the fact that everyone is sneaking around, being suspicious, scheming, and generally behaving in some sinister way. Kitty, who may or may not herself be a murderer, is the innocent compared to those around her, doing her best to navigate a pit of vipers, blackmailers, and murderous ghosts in striking red capes.

Barbara Bouchet goes through the film with the same look of bewildered shock that the viewer has, as perplexed by the plot as any of us. She, like us, can’t believe that a relatively straight-forward story becomes this confusing, as everyone revealed to be something weren’t thought to be is then further revealed to be something else they weren’t thought to be. In the end, it’s really only the final revelation that ends up being confusing, though one has felt off-balance for much of the film. It creates a sense of delirium, and much of the film’s effectiveness is generated by the frustration that something so simple should be so difficult to penetrate.

Part of the fun of watching gialli is getting utterly lost in the often needlessly convoluted, labyrinthine twists of the plot, sometimes becoming so hopelessly disoriented that one simply has to throw up one’s hands and surrender to the madness, trusting that the lurid displays of sex, violence, and style will see you through to the end. Peel away the layers and the fractured narrative structures and the obfuscation, and the stories are usually pretty straight-forward tales relayed in a purposefully disorienting fashion meant to alienate, to some degree, the viewer, or at least keep them not so much guessing at the identity of a killer — the revelation of which is often to big shock in a giallo — but to simply keep them off-balance and unnerved, a reflection of the mental state of most gialli protagonists. Which is to say, if you find The Red Queen Kills Seven Times has an impenetrable plot that is, nevertheless, simple at its core, don’t worry. Just come along for the ride, and you can puzzle it all out, if you feel the need to make sense of it, at the end.

It’s nice seeing Bouchet and Marina Malfatti carrying the film. Gialli, like their descendants, the slasher films with their “final girls,” have a curious relationship with women. It’s almost always women who exist under the threat of constant violence (though, to be sure, a few unlucky men will fall victim as well) and who are the focus of a leering camera that revels in their gratuitous nudity; but they are also often the ones to shoulder the film’s central mystery, to see things through to the final showdown with whoever the killer ends up being, even if a man shows up at the last second to flex a little muscle and dump someone down a stairwell or off the side of a building (a few of the more popular ways to dispatch a giallo killer). What’s more, when a “final girl,” whether in a giallo or a slasher, bests the killer/monster, it’s almost always by using brains and determination to overcome seemingly unbeatable foe.

Born Barbara Gutscher in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia in 1944, the girl who eventually grew up to be Barbara Bouchet and her family immigrated after the war to California. As a teenager, she got a gig as a dancer on a San Francisco “top of the pops” type show, and eventually transitioned into modeling and, ultimately acting. Despite some roles in high-profile films, including the role of Miss Moneypenny in the farcical 1967 James Bond send-up, Casino Royale, Bouchet couldn’t catch a break, so like many Hollywood actors in a similar situation, she sought greener pastures in Italy. She found them, and her “anything goes” attitude and energy made her a genre staple throughout the 1970s. Henry Silva, in particular, who shared some grim, harrowing scenes with Bouchet in the 1974 Eurocrime film Cry of a Prostitute, still praises her gung-ho attitude.

Marina Malfatti was not as high-profile an Italian cult cinema figure as Barbara Bouchet (who, along with Edwige Fenech and Rosalba Neri, belongs on some sort of Mt. Rushmore of Eurocult film). she split her time between the stage and the screen, and always considered life theater her true calling. Still, that didn’t stop her from appearing in some fun genre fare, including Red Queen, Evelyn, All the Colors of the Dark, and Umberto Lenzi’s Seven Blood-Stained Orchids. Ethereal where Bouchet was down to earth, reserved where Bouchet was emotional, the two work well together.

The real star however, as is often the case with giallo, is the cinematography by Alberto Spagnoli. There are some gorgeous, haunting shots, and he knows how to make not-so-subtle splashes of color pop. This is one, of his first films, if not the first, and he didn’t go on to work in many films of great acclaim, which is too bad. His camera drifts effortlessly between the foreboding Gothic setting of the Wildenbrück estate and the pop-art modernism of assorted apartments and fashion shoots, somehow making the two disparate seeming styles click together.

Director Emilio Miraglia had a similarly short, low profile career. There’s a great deal of growth as a director between Evelyn and Red Queen, but he only had one more film in him after this, the spaghetti western Joe Dakota starring genre titan Richard Harrison. Evelyn is interesting despite its faults, and Red Queen goes a long way to rectifying the mistakes made on his previous films. It would have been interesting to see where he went within the world of giallo had he stuck around, but sadly that wasn’t to be. At least the two he left us are both unique and, in the case of Red Queen, pretty good.

The Girl Who Knew Too Much

Judging Mario Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much (La ragazza che sapeva troppo, 1963) from its first scene, it would be reasonable to assume one was watching a Fellini movie, or at least a reasonable imitation of Fellini. The opening shot of a TWA plane in flight toward Rome, the bustling capital of high style, suggests the dawn of the age of the jet set, as does the introduction of the film’s main character, stylish, naive American Nora Davis (Leticia Román, Russ Meyer’s Fanny Hill and the Elvis film G.I. Blues) who is being pestered by her Lothario seat-mate — while she is trying to read a giallo novel, which is also the first indication that something a little more sinister might lurk beneath the fashionable good times.

The plane touches down at Rome’s Fiumicino airport, opened just a short time earlier in 1961 and meant to herald the golden age of jet travel and Rome’s post-war position as the focal point of global glamor and cool. Bava’s camera captures all this emerging elegance, even dipping into a Fellini-esque sequence in which Nora discovers her pushy fellow passenger is attempting to smuggle cigarettes full of marijuana into the country (and had loaned her a pack, which she discreetly tries to drop before going through customs). All that’s missing is Marcello Mastroianni waiting in an Alfa Romeo outside to whisk her away to a cafe on the Via Veneto.

Well, she doesn’t get Marcello Mastroianni, but she does get John Saxon, and his character is named Marcello. Marcello awaits her at the home of an elderly relative with whom Nora will be staying during her magical time in the Eternal City. Which is about when this movie stops looking like a Fellini film and starts to more closely resemble the Gothic chillers for which Bava would later be known (and was already known somewhat, having directed the be-all end-all of the genre, Black Sunday, in 1960 and the strange, psychedelic sword and sandal by way of Gothic horror film Hercules in the Haunted World in 1961). Nora’s relative has fallen ill, and despite the reassuring presence of Saxon’s young doctor Bassi , Nora finds the whole situation a bit eerie, especially since the apartment at which she has arrived is bathed in sinister shadows and antique accoutrements.

It gets worse for Nora later that night during a thunderstorm. The elderly Ethel suffers a heart attack as thunder and lightning rages outside. Unable to get a reliable phone connection to the hospital, Nora ventures out onto unfamiliar streets and is soon disoriented — which, it turns out, is the least of her worries. Almost immediately, she is set upon by a purse snatcher. In the ensuing struggle, she falls and is knocked unconscious. When she comes to a few minutes later, she is horrified to see a woman staggering toward her. The woman collapses, revealing a knife in her back. Seconds later, a man Nora cannot clearly see arrives and carries away the body. Overwhelmed by it all, Nora passes out again. Bava shoots this sequence like one of his Gothic horror films, with harsh shadows cloaking streets and faces. This film is often considered Bava’s most overt Hitchcock film, and while there’s little denying the influence of Hitchcock (right down to the title of the film), it’s more reminiscent of the noir-horrors director Jacques Tourneur made at RKO for producer Val Lewton, though Bava’s moody visual approach is never quite in tune with the tone of the script, which is considerably less brooding than the average Lewton production.

Nora is discovered the next morning by a passerby who tries to revive her with a slug of liquor, and then by a police officer who, confronted by her boozy breath and hysterics as she awakens, assumes she a crazy drunk. In the hospital, she hardly helps herself by continuing to rant about murder. Luckily, Dr. Bassi sees her and extracts her from this predicament. Everyone chalks the murder up to a combination of disorientation, grief, and the fact that she was mugged and took a concrete pillar to the head. Nora, however, is certain that she did not just hallucinate the whole thing. And perhaps she didn’t; because now, a mysterious man has taken to following her around. She meets a kind woman who lives near where Nora saw the murder, and the woman (played by the legendary Valentina Cortese from Antonioni’s Le Amiche, Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits, and the Orson Welles vehicle Black Magic) invites her to stay in the apartment…then promptly leaves town. It’s going to be a struggle to convince the authorities she’s something more than a hysterical woman (it’s notable that everyone called in to judge her from a position of authority is a man and instantly dismissive of her claims) while also being stalked. Sure of her own sanity, she turns to her beloved mystery novels for guidance, invoking the spirits of Edgar Wallace and Agatha Christie to assist her in devising defenses against whatever shadows menace her at midnight.

Upon completion of the historical epic Erik the Conqueror, Mario Bava was cool on the idea of continuing his career as a director. A special effects man, maybe, but not a director. So he took some time off, most of which he spent reading horror and mystery thrillers. Producers Samuel Arkoff and Jim Nicholson, who had recently started dubbing and importing Italian genre films into the US under the banner of their American International Productions (AIP), convinced Bava to give it another go. The result was The Girl Who Knew Too Much, a film that everyone from Bava to John Saxon to most critics both in the 1960s and today consider, at best, a footnote in Bava’s career, a trifle in between his moments of greatness. Bava dismissed the story& as silly, too light to be taken seriously. Critics searching for something nice to say praised Bava’s technical achievements, his use of shadow and canted camera angles — excusing the director while waving away the film itself. John Saxon, who turns in a credible performance in a bland role, joked that he ended up in the film because he and& Leticia Román were friends and she asked if he wanted a free trip to Rome to make a horror film, which Saxon misheard as an “art film.”

Even today, no one seems to have much good to say about the film beyond the occasional “mostly harmless.” It is a bit of a trifle, but sometimes trifles can be enjoyable. Even Hitchcock had a sense of humor, after all, and some of his own films are considered light by people looking for more visceral thrills. Perhaps that’s the problem The Girl Who Knew Too Much has suffered. People come to it looking for Bava, looking for Black Sunday and Blood and Black Lace. Or they’ve heard it’s an homage to Hitchcock and they think Psycho, but what they get is something much more akin to To Catch a Thief. Perhaps framing the film as the first giallo sets certain expectations the film doesn’t meet. It’s not particularly violent (there are other murders, but we don’t see any of them happen; just the corpse afterward).

It’s not mean-spirited. It has a spring in its step, but descriptions of it as light and frothy are overstating things. It isn’t grim, and it does have a certain spirit to it, but it also dabbles in tense Gothic atmosphere. If the primary accomplishment of The Girl Who Knew Too Much is its visual style, that’s still an accomplishment, and Bava has indeed composed a stylishly shot and attractively framed film that exists somewhere between his own taste for the noirish and Gothic and the dominant trend of the day to depict the urban and ancient Rome as a place of wonder, excitement, and occasional danger. Bava indulges in a spot of Roman travelogue footage since he knew the film’s primary audience might be found in the United States, where the sites and sounds of Rome would still be exotic and thrilling to many moviegoers. It’s a bit like Roman Holiday if Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn got caught up in a murder mystery.

In the somewhat fluffy script (the writing of which involved a ridiculous number of people) one finds just about all the ingredients that would be further refined by Bava a year later in Blood and Black Lace, then cooked to perfection by Dario Argento in 1970’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. Román is the quintessential giallo protagonist: a foreign outsider swept up in sinister Italian intrigue. She becomes obsessed with solving her own case (which most people aren’t even sure is a case) and is surrounded by nothing but red herrings, sinister strangers, and people telling her she’s crazy. Her histrionics can be, at times, a bit much, but by and large she’s a companionable and sympathetic enough person with which to spend the movie. The strain of cynicism and misanthropy that would come to define the giallo of the 1970s (and indeed, Bava’s own Blood and Black Lace a year later) is not present here. For the most part, it’s about as innocent as murder can be, and perhaps that’s why it disappoints so many. Judged on its own merits, it’s a spry little thriller with gorgeous photography and a couple of game leads (even though both of them end up dubbed).

When they imported it to the United States, AIP retitled the film Evil Eye, chopped it up, and changed chunks of the plot by dubbing in new dialogue and adding additional scenes. In both its original Italian and altered American editions, it failed to accomplish anything at the box office, being relegated almost immediately to the dustbin of genre movie history. Had not Bava gone on to become a legendary name, it’s likely almost no one would remember The Girl Who Knew Too Much or think to place it in its rightful place in the history of giallo. Perhaps one is better disposed to enjoy the film if it is measured not against Bava’s masterworks or the giallo of later years, but instead is placed in the context of less somber affairs. It’s neither bad nor boring. It’s briskly paced, stylishly appointed, and artfully shot. It’s a lightweight, but so was Sugar Ray Robinson. It might be something considerably less than “La Dolce Vida with murder,” but if you happen to have a fascination with Rome and Italian filmmaking at a time when Rome was the center of the art and fashion world, then Mario Bava is a reasonable guide and The Girl Who Knew Too Much is a fun tour.

No Place in Space

On Cultural Gutter, we’re taking a trip to the future to discover that there’s No Place in Space as we explore the Soviet science fiction film To the Stars By Hard Ways.

The movie begins with a group of cosmonauts on a routine mission. They happen across a derelict spaceship filled with what appear to be a group of genetically engineered humanoids — all dead except for one. The one is a young, androgynous woman, Niya, regarded by those who discover her alternately as a tragic case and as a potential threat to international security. No one is exactly sure what she is — including Niya herself, as she suffers from memory gaps — but when she exhibits powers such as super speed and teleportation, it’s clear that she was created for some purpose of a potentially military nature.

Full article: No Place in Space

Kim

Private detective Rod Striker has a problem. That problem was named Kim Rumshaw, and Kim Rumshaw has a problem named Eddie Tarino. And everyone has a problem named Nick Markos. For Striker, the trouble started when Kim’s wealthy aunt approached him with an offer: get this love-struck guy named Eddie off her niece’s back using the quickest, most violent solution possible. It seems ol’ Eddie-boy has been hiring goons to make threats against the aunt and Kim’s fiance, a square-jawed hunk of wood, in order to pressure Kim into going out with him. Rod isn’t in the muscle-for-hire business, but he does agree to take care of the problem in a less two-fisted fashion—though that commitment to doing things the polite way goes out the window pretty fast as soon as the lead starts flying. Eddie maintains he has nothing to do with the threat, and that Kim is a willing companion. Striker doesn’t buy it, and before too long he and his partner, Myra, are up to their eyeballs in a plot involving…well, Rod’s not sure, but he’s damn well gonna find out.

Kim is the sort of lean, no-nonsense hardboiled detective formula that, by the 1960s, the pulp paperback industry could produce in its sleep. That’s not a criticism. Well-executed formula can be highly entertaining, and Robert Colby knows how to deliver. He keeps Kim short and packed with twists which, while maybe not surprising, are fun nevertheless. His prose is cut from the same flannel as Mickey Spillane’s, only with considerably less of a deep-seated hatred for all mankind. Colby’s Rod Striker — yes, that’s his name — is your typical tough-talking shamus, but he doesn’t skulk around with a chip on his shoulder, and in a change of pace, he’s not shabby in appearance or profession. The Miami agency he runs with former police woman Myra Baily is a posh outfit catering to well-heeled clients, and neither he nor Myra harbor romantic notions of the “warrior with a broken heart” that defined the quintessential gumshoe, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. “We were in the PI racket not because we loved the work and wanted to use our knowledge to relieve suffering humanity of its burden of evil,” Striker confesses, “but because we wanted to relieve the customers of as much goddamn money as the traffic would bear.”

So, no knights errant are Myra and Rod, but they’re still committed to their clients, especially when those clients serve up a dish as tempting as Kim Rumshaw. Kim seems like a reasonable young women who, faced with marriage to a well-meaning slab of dullsville, indulges in a fling with flashy hustler Eddie Tarino, not realizing that Eddie would think of it as more than a one-and-done deal. To get Eddie out of the Rumshaws’ hair, Rod plays the tough guy while Myra infiltrates Tarino’s strip club, either to dazzle Eddie and make him forget about Kim or to amass enough evidence of crime that they can serve Eddie up to the cops. Needless to say, neither plan goes smoothly, and when a sinister character named Nick Markos shows up from Chicago, it clues the PIs in to something much bigger than Eddie’s infatuation with Kim and casual threats of violence against her loved ones.

Kim is too short to be slow-paced. Colby peppers the story with enough fist-fights, shoot-outs, and sex to keep the slim volume well-packed with exactly what you expect from such a story. He switches things up, shifting the narrative from Rod’s point of view to Myra’s for a few chapters as she works her way into Tarino’s operation. Colby may not sparkle at writing from a woman’s point of view, but certainly there have been worse attempts. Myra remains a capable, resourceful operative who never falls victim to the age-old mistake of a male author devoting a paragraph to how tough and smart a female is, then immediately undermining that assertion by writing her as a bumbling damsel in distress. Instead, Myra finds herself in a heck of a pickle and, rather than Rod riding to her rescue, finds he’s not at home, leaving her to think (and judo chop) her way out of danger. Sure, there’s some eyeroll-worthy pining for Rod on Myra’s part, but the same is true in the other direction, so all’s fair in love and detective work.

As is the case with many paperback authors of the time, teasing out the details of Robert Colby’s career requires a little bit of detective work, provided you think of using Google as detective work. He achieved a certain degree of acclaim with the hard-hitting revenge novel, The Captain Must Die (1959) and worked  for crime fiction magazines, including Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and Mike Shayne. He wrote a Hawaiian Eye novel that was adapted into an episode of the series, and he like many was involved with the long-running and voluminous Nick Carter, aka Killmaster, series, co-authoring The Death’s Head Conspiracy with Gary Brandner. Although he never achieved the fame and respect of a writer like Donald Hamilton, Colby proved time and again he was a capable wordsmith who could deliver action-packed pulp.

Published in 1962, after many of the major obscenity battles had been won, Colby gets to make Kim a little spicier than was common in the previous decade. It’s not hardcore by any stretch, but Kim doesn’t shy away from some steamy nonsense. It’s just sleazy enough, and you damn well know with a character named Rod Striker, there’s not much that isn’t out on the table, including the time-honored squeezing of the upper thigh that leads to a woman saying, “Gosh, you are a lot of man.” That said, he makes for a decent enough lead, and Myra is a suitable partner, even if her point-of-view is just an aside.

Tarino doesn’t show up a lot in the story, but when he does, he makes for a somewhat interesting foil because he’s not a thoroughly cartoonish villain. He’s pretty low-key and prefers to play it easy rather than cracking skulls. The key to his success is in keeping as clean as you can running a strip club with a side business in promising prostitution but rarely delivering — only going far enough to fleece an easy mark for as much dough as he’s got. Nick Markos is the real heavy, and he’s the impetus for the only bit where the sleaze gets a little rougher.

Rod gets to bed just about every woman described as nubile, except for a secretary he describes as having an ass that waved goodbye to you as she walked away. There are indeed a number of choice pulp detectivisms of that nature, and as is demanded by the genre, Colby comes up with some admirably ludicrous ways to describe women’s breasts, the best being one about having a lot on her balcony. Look, pal, you don’t come to these stories expecting good behavior. Most of the time, his prose is lean, mean, and effective. It’s all good fun, provided you are willing to roll with the usual ass-slapping, stocking glimpsing, and clunky come-ons.

Availability: Kim (Prologue Books)