1970, and the transition to the Golden Age Of Giallos begins. Let’s get right to it with Sergio Bergonzelli, assisted by co-writer and future giallo director Mario Caiano, combining some Hitchcock-inspired Freudian hijinks with a little Jess Franco-inspired fever-dream sex-and-violence. Our first film actually opened just a month or two before Dario Argento’s watershed The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, preceding Bava’s Five Dolls For An August Moon and his Hatchet For The Honeymoon. Bergonzelli went on to do more straightforward sex thrillers after this – the man can bring the sleaze – but his one-off giallo is weirdly admirable, and championed by many film geeks. Or, as one wag on IMDB stated “…to paraphrase Hunter S. Thompson, I wouldn’t recommend this kind of unrepentantly sleazy, morally degenerate, sacrilegious trash to anyone, but it’s always worked for me.”
In The Folds Of The Flesh (Nelle Pieghe Della Carne) (Italy / Spain, 1970) opens abruptly on the shot of a decapitated head – … OK, then… – on a bedroom floor, and an observing family; presumably, the mother, Lucille (Eleonora Rossi Drago), her young daughter and younger son. Suddenly we switch to the road pursuit of a prison escapee on a motorcycle (Fernando Sancho). Veering into the family’s estate, on a large lake, to hide, he witnesses Lucille burying the body of the bedroom victim. The fugitive is eventually run down by his pursuers, but we’ll see later that he never forgets seeing her.
Thirteen years later we meet Uncle Michel (Víctor Alcázar) dropping in for a visit with his cousins. An old friend of their late father André, he now finds the children are grown – Falesse (Pier Angeli, as Anna Maria Pierangeli, her real name) the now-gorgeous grown daughter and Colin (Emilio Gutiérrez Caba) the arty younger son – and makes himself a little too familiar. Unbeknownst to him, the family’s comfortably adept at murdering unwelcome snoopers when required. Falesse dispatches him with disturbing lethal ease, and Lucille and Colin find a letter meant to be sent to Michel’s business-partner Derek. They decide to forward Michel’s invitation – if Derek already knows Michel should be here, then let’s have him along, too, and tie up all the loose ends.
But before Derek’s arrival, and before Michel’s finished dissolving in Lucille and Colin’s acid-bath, Alex (Gaetano Imbró )shows up to meet Michel. (Sheesh, homes in the country aren’t nearly as secluded as they once were.) Falesse once again alluringly entertains the guest, but this time the psychedelically-inclined Colin chips in with some of his tape-recorded erotic writings while interpretively ‘dancing’ with his sister. Falesse’s odd manner, and some pretty obvious indications of incest between Falesse and Colin, doesn’t dissuade Alex from having his way with the accommodating Falesse later, and his head predictably rolls as well. But now we’re getting the picture that Dad’s own demise years ago was Falesse’s defense against abuse, both Lucille’s and her own, and her continued acting out of that episode is clearly being put to use for the three of them. The plot thickens…
…and that escaping criminal, Pascal? Heee’s baaack. Having done his homework on exactly whose estate he was pinched in all those years back, he knows all about Papa André and the elaborate criminal blackmailing syndicate he ran (and now we do, too). So the widow must clearly be loaded, right? The film now transitions from an exceedingly lurid serial-murders thriller to an exceedingly lurid sadistic hostage drama. Pascal meets a fitting end, but not without some exceedingly lurid back-history. Excessive sex and violence is one thing, but, unless your last name is Visconti, there are diminishing returns on using concentration camps as an ancillary plot device. It wasn’t a dealbreaker, but it’s in noteworthy bad taste. Gauge your own tolerance accordingly.
Meanwhile, we return to the exceedingly lurid serial-murders thriller already in progress. The father, André, was presumed lost in the lake those years ago – Lucille set the boat alaunch before burying the body, and the boat was found later pilotless. So André is presumed dead, since Lucille’s efforts paid off so well. But, finally Derek arrives, who, honest to God, claims he’s … André! With a surgically-altered face (belonging to Alfredo Mayo), he’s convincingly well-informed about practically every aspect of their lives. Didn’t Lucille bury him? After Falesse murdered him? Well… no, it seems. Lucille is the governess, and Falesse isn’t Colin’s sister! Michel and Alex were André’s men, sent ahead to assess the situation for him. Ooops!
One of the more renowned aspects of In The Folds Of The Flesh is the astonishing number of plot twists, role reversals and characters-appearing-from-nowhere occurring in the final 30 minutes. The above instances only scratch the surface. On first viewing they seem like nonsense, and, of course, they are. But they all make their own sense, and they all follow a tortured but ultimately logical linear path. *Whew!* Ya gotta see it to believe it.
The violence and gore, while narratively convincing, are unfortunately pretty low-budget threadbare, which is a shame, because in many other aspects this is a pretty entertaining movie in pleasingly tawdry fashion. The unconvincing effects tend to pull you out of the otherwise wildly goofy plot. This was the final film for Eleonora Rossi Drago– she retired after Massimo Dallamano’s Dorian Gray (yes, we’ll check it out here!) and this. Pier Angeli, God bless ‘er, after a second divorce and an appearance in the execrable 1971 Octaman, died of a self-administered barbiturate overdose, reportedly terrified of turning forty. She’d had quite a career in the 1950’s, and was James Dean’s devoted girlfriend for a time.
So here’s another interesting guy – Paolo Cavara is probably best known for being one of the three documentarians of Mondo Cane (1962), an artless but pruriently salacious collection of violence-as-culture vignettes featuring bullfighting, dogs prepared as food in Taiwan, manhunting, pet cemeteries, cargo-cult rituals and other “can you believe that…!” human atrocities of varying degrees. Made on a relatively modest budget, the film was very popular and profitable. Cavara made a few more of his own ‘mondo’ style films, but he broke off from Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi as partners. It’s all relative, of course, but Cavara’s docs, reportedly, weren’t nearly as maliciously lurid as Jacopetti and Prosperi’s later efforts. Indeed, Cavara’s debut fiction feature, L’occhio Selvaggio (The Savage Eye) (1967) was a dark and dismal send-up of his former associates, and the expedient cruelty and dismissiveness into which the whole ‘mondo’ genre of filmmaking had devolved.
His Black Belly Of The Tarantula (La Tarantola Dal Ventre Nero) (1971) wastes no time in paying scrupulous homage to both Mario Bava and Dario Argento. There’s a fairly conventional crime plot to move across here, but Cavara’s hip to the Argento formula of emphasizing the sex, violence, stylish visuals and Ennio Morricone musical score to exponentially increase the entertainment value of his film. He also managed to assemble an Italian Dream Cast of exploitation and arthouse pros – Giancarlo Giannini, Stefania Sandrelli, Claudine Auger, Silvano Tranquilli, Barbara Bouchet and Barbara Bach, along with a terrific supporting cast displaying the requisite eccentricities of the genre.
Combining lurid murders with Actual Science™, another Argento touch, we learn that our trench-coated, fedora-wearing, black-gloved homicidal maniac is emulating the tarantula hawk wasp, who paralyzes tarantulas with its stinger and then keeps them alive for further nastiness (the wasp incubates eggs in the tarantula’s stomach, the killer just likes that his female victims are awake and aware of being disemboweled). Our perp here employs acupuncture needles to facilitate his dispatch, and, of course, leaves no trace for the polizia to track down. But there’s no sense in casting Giancarlo Giannini as the intrepid Inspector Tellini if he’s not going to show a sensitive side; he’s endearingly tolerant of his window-dresser wife Anna (Sandrelli), and quite observant about where the list of victims leads, despite the clumsy blundering of his colleagues and his misgivings about being a cop in the first place. The killer turns out to be an enforcer of sorts for a blackmailing ring conducted by the owner/manager of an exclusive spa, but the killer’s actual identity is a nice twist, even if there’s an unnecessary psycho-splanation after the fact. Hard-edged film stocks and inventive angles merge with gauzy-green-and-purple-lit backgrounds and interiors full of looming mannequins – all pretty well done, all pretty effective, even if completely bereft of actual originality. For appearing so soon before the deluge of other giallos to follow, and executing its business in admirable fashion, I’d have to say this one is recommended viewing.
We encountered Romolo Guerrieri as the director of Carroll Baker’s The Sweet Body Of Deborah (Il Dolce Corpo Di Deborah) in 1968; here he once again employs Jean Sorel as yet another morally conflicted pretty boy in The Double (La Controfigura) (Italy, 1971). Guerrero hasn’t acquired any more directorial proficiency in those three years, and this decided non-giallo isn’t nearly as interesting as Sorel’s earlier work in Damiano Damiani’s Moravia adaptation A Rather Complicated Girl, or even the aforementioned Carroll Baker film. Sorel is Giovanni, an aspiring architect in love with Lucia (Ewa Aulin). But his midlife insecurities result in his forcing himself onto Lucia’s attractive mother, Nora (Lucia Bosé). He then covers up a murder he thinks she’s committed, but no… It’s pretty convoluted, and far more soap opera than actual giallo. Disappointing.
Also underwhelming is The Weekend Murders (Concerto Per Pistola Solista), an Agatha Christie homage set in provincial England featuring opera diva Anna Moffo (who holds her own in a non-singing dramatic role) and giallo veteran Evelyn Stewart. It’s yet another variation on Ten Little Indians, but Italian director Michele Lupo is fond of incorporating Sergio Leone-like close-ups and dramatic zooms, all to surprisingly little effect. There’s a nice thread of sly parody just below the surface, but it’s not nearly enough to make this genuinely interesting.
Tonino Valerii is best known for directing Italian spaghetti westerns, but his one foray into giallo, My Dear Killer (Mio Caro Assassino) (Italy, 1971), is very good, if a bit prosaic. Vincenzo Paradisi has rented the services of an industrial excavator to dredge something up in a rural lagoon. Unfortunately, the operator extracts Mr. Paradisi’s head from his body instead. A former insurance investigator, Paradisi was following clues concerning a nasty case of his from a year back, a child kidnapping that led to two murders. Now Inspector Luca Peretti (reliable pro George Hilton) must pick up where Paradisi left off, only to discover that his witnesses are murdered as soon as he finds them. Valerii knows how to keep the nuts and bolts of his fairly elaborate narrative in good order, he’s aided by a superb Ennio Morricone soundtrack, and there’s a well-executed killer’s-eye-view sequence where it feels like you’re the one searching for a lethal weapon in an apartment. (Of course, you find one.) There’s a nice undercurrent of dark deep familial weirdness and transgression, all culminating in a Thin Man – style group interrogation. Good, not great, but worth checking out if you run across it.
While flailing away at the actual giallo formula, a number of these Italian films simply escalated the standard murder mystery elements – both the murders and the sex became more explicit (but no more interesting or inventive). Of the films we’ve seen, Sergio Martino’s seem to be the best at that particular giallo combination of sexual frisson, slow-building suspense, surprising and creative coups de grâce and elaborate visual stylization, all accompanied by excellent music from Ennio Morricone, Riz Ortolani, Stelvio Cipriani or Bruno Nicolai. Our next film would be the antithesis of that.
Best known as Slaughter Hotel, but also marketed as Cold Blooded Beast or The Beast Kills in Cold Blood (La Bestia Uccide A Sangue Freddo, its original Italian title), as well as Asylum Erotica and, my favorite, Les Insatisfaites Poupées Èrotiques Du Docteur Hitchcock, it’s a total failure as a giallo but train-wreck-fascinating as pruriently lurid and sleazy softcore Eurotrash. Prolific journeyman writer and director Fernando Di Leo mainly did poliziotteschis (police/crime thrillers) – this is his only giallo, and it’s a mess.
A medieval castle has been converted into a posh rural asylum ‘rest home’ for troubled wealthy women, including a stressed-out CEO (Margaret Lee), an insecure actress (Gioia Desideri), a relentless nymphomaniac (Rosalba Neri) and an agoraphobic (Jane Garret). But it never occurred to the doctor / proprietors (John Karlsen and Klaus Kinski) to remove the torture devices and weapons when turning the place into a spa and clinic. So when a stocking-hooded caped serial killer starts going after the patients at night he simply window-shops the common areas and corridors for swords, knives, hatchets, axes, maces or whatever else his homicidal self might fancy. After the initial set-up is established, we follow Dr. Francis Clay (Kinski), who has taken a liking to Cheryl, the CEO, and wants to keep her around even though she’s probably cured. The agoraphobic, Mara, befriends one of the young nurses, Helen (Monica Strebel), and familiarities ensue. And the staff has no chance of keeping up with Anne’s (Neri) appetites, whether with the gardener, the orderlies or alone in her room.
The murder mystery just becomes filler for Neri’s nude hijinks and Garret and Strebel’s extended bath, dancing and make-out sessions. The murders aren’t particularly convincing until near the end, when the killer, revealed, goes on an almost comically excessive rampage, only to be mowed down by an equally excessive amount of police bullets. Even as just a softcore sex film, giallo trouper and veteran scene-stealer Rosalba Neri is the only one acting remotely interested – Garret and Strebel not-so-much. Even with some cheesy body-double Penthouse-type insert shots, things get pretty disheartening pretty quickly. If you’re a trash-cinema aficionado, knock yourself out. But this is by no means an actual good film.