Hatching a Murderous Plan

Marco (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is a big man in the chicken business. He and his wife Anna (Gina Lollobrigida) live in a home attached to a vast chicken factory complex, its processes almost entirely automated, and the poultry grower’s association that Marco is a part of is branching out into genetic engineering. Marco is tasked by the head of the association with devising a new publicity campaign to convince the public that chicken is tasty and delicious (seems like a bit of an easy sell, but OK), and in aid of this is teamed up with PR professional Mondaini (Jean Sobieski).

Mondaini is a stranger to Marco – but already knows a secret about him. For playing at peeping tom at a hotel, Mondaini witnessed a liaison between Marco and a prostitute – specifically, Marco apparently in the middle of murdering a prostitute, which is his hobby in his spare time. Meanwhile, back at home, tensions mount between Marco, Anna, and Gabrielle (Ewa Aulin), Anna’s cousin who has come to live with them and do some light secretarial work. Both Marco and Anna have some pretty intense feelings about Gabrielle – Anna encourages her to help her learn Marco’s secrets whilst gushing to Marco about how fantastically well-engineered Gabrielle’s body is; Marco, for his part, knows this all too well, since he and Gabrielle are having an affair.

Meanwhile, Mondaini increasingly overshadows Marco and Anna’s social life with strange games at a party they throw, the factory scientist perfects boneless chickens, and Luigi (Renato Romano), a mysterious amnesiac from Marco’s past, comes wandering in and out of the situation. Surely this must all come to a head somehow – but who’s in the driving seat and who’s going to end up with egg on their face?

Death Laid an Egg opens with a bizarre look into the lives of a cross-section of guests at motel and their various dubious business before we hone in on the specific characters of interest, floats between murderous intrigue and the intricacies of the chicken business, and confronts the viewer with motifs like a strange runic scarf in which Marco seems to perceive a threatening message, visions of a terrible car accident as Gabrielle drives Marco down a motorway, shots of couples engaging in everything from eagerly consenting sex to violent rape in a room of truth Mondaini establishes at Marco and Anna’s party.

In short, it’s what happens when the giallo style as initially formulated in the early 1960s goes stumbling into the psychedelic, experimental world of the late 1960s, complete with a tense free jazz soundtrack and a willingness to experiment to an extent which incorporates a near-hallucinatory element into the subgenre. There’s still plenty of hallmarks of the genre, mind – we see a lot of Gabrielle and Anna in various lingerie getups – but the whole concoction is so deliciously odd that nobody would call it a standard giallo.

Originally released in 1968 with some significant cuts, some of the lost material was restored in a so-called “giallo cut” in the 1970s; it’s only recently, thanks to the discovery of some lost prints, that Nucleus Films have been able to piece together a 104 minute director’s cut of the movie to represent Questi’s original vision for the movie.

Most of the restoration was done from the original negatives, but about 14 minutes or so of material had to be incorporated as inserts from an Italian print of the movie, for which no English soundtrack exists, so if you watch with the English soundtrack the movie reverts into Italian at points. This is an interesting exercise, however, because it makes it evident what parts were removed from early versions of the movie.

Most of these are fairly minor cuts which nonetheless give a bit more flesh to some of the subplots and odd little occurrences during the movie when restored, but others are more significant – in particular, almost all the material involving Luigi seems to only exist in the Italian version of the movie, and to be honest this seems the right call since he’s ultimately a bit of a red herring and his plotline doesn’t come to anything.

Indeed, the various tangled strings at the end don’t quite come together into a wholly satisfying conclusion, as is often the way with giallos which get too excited about weaving a web of intrigue to remember you’ve got to actually stop weaving and wrap up at some point. Part of the reason the ending drags is that a major plot twist is telegraphed too much in advance, so that by the time it’s revealed it’s not so much a sudden swerve as it is the narrative finally catching up to the viewer. Whilst this oddity might not be a keeper, it’s certainly worth a watch at least once.

Bido’s No Bava

Giallo is an Italian genre of cinema which can best be described as an arthouse precursor to the good old-fashioned slasher movie, combining a reverence for Agatha Christie and Alfred Hitchcock with brazenly violent and sexual content. To a large extent The Bloodstained Shadow has Antonio Bido working as an acolyte of Dario Argento’s school of giallo, as perfected on Argento’s run from The Bird With the Crystal Plumage to Deep Red. Combine the classic hooded-and-black-gloved killer that’s been a motif of giallo ever since Mario Bava’s genre-defining Blood and Black Lace, a string of murders beginning with the slaying of a medium, a killer motivated by the suppression of information about a long-forgotten crime, a painting that proves to be a crucial clue, a prog rock synthesiser soundtrack, a fakeout ending where the protagonists think they’ve caught the killer when in fact at most they’ve only dispatched an accomplice, a decades-old killing shown at the very beginning which turns out to be the catalyst for all the action, a creepy toy motif, and a recurring emphasis on the artistic, the aesthetic, and the erotic, and you end up with a film in peril of turning into Argento-by-numbers.

Bido almost saves himself; certainly, as far as Argento imitators go he pulls off a really masterful job, producing a piece which for the most part could sneak its way into the grandmaster’s own canon through the back door had it a mind to – were it not for a bungled conclusion that makes the whole thing unravel.

Continue reading “Bido’s No Bava”

What Have You Done To Your Students, Enrico?

Enrico Rosseni (Fabio Testi) teaches Italian and Gynmastics at a swanky London Catholic girls’ school. His marriage with Herta (Karin Baal), the German teacher, is on the rocks, but at least he gets on well with his students – after all, he’s the cool, laid-back teacher who tries to present himself as a peer to the kids. He gets on especially well with final-year student Elizabeth Seccles (Cristina Galbó), who he’s carrying on an affair with behind everyone’s back – though they haven’t consummated it yet, much to his frustration.

One day, as they’re smooching in a boat on the Thames, Elizabeth thinks she sees two figures on the bank, one chasing the other. but it’s only the briefest glimpse, and when the two hop out of the boat to check they don’t see anything untoward. The next morning, though, Enrico catches the morning news and hears that a girl’s body was found in the locale – Hilda Erickson, one of Enrico’s students. As Enrico juggles his curiosity about what happened to Hilda and his desperation to keep his affair with Elizabeth covered up, he ends up looking more and more guilty. Eventually, Enrico, Herta, and police detective Inspector Barth (Joachim Fuchsberger) all end up chasing down leads that find them drawn into the secret lives of the students.

Ultimately, the root of the mystery may be found in something terrible that happened to a mystery girl from another school. The final question our sleuths must resolve might not be “Who killed Hilda?” or “What went on between you and Elizabeth?” but… What Have You Done To Solange?

Continue reading “What Have You Done To Your Students, Enrico?”

It’ll All Come Out In the Wash

Much like the decline and fall of anything which comes out of Italy, the decline and fall of giallo was a long, slow, awkward process. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the genre was established at the hands of the likes of Mario Bava and Dario Argento as an artsier-than-average brand of erotic murder mystery thriller. However, by the 1980s the form had become dragged down – as had much Italian genre cinema – by a combination of diminished budgets, cheap sensationalism, and a glut of inferior examples of the form, with entries like The New York Ripper arguably abandoning the artistry and sophistication of earlier entries in favour of a mean-spirited sort of violent titillation.

Although the 21st Century has seen giallo-loving directors and creators producing a revival of the form through homages like Amer or Berberian Sound Studio, in the 1990s the genre eventually petered out, until only Dario Argento’s less-celebrated late-career works and a few scattered other releases were keeping it alive. Among the entries in this terminal stage of the original giallo canon is The Washing Machine by Ruggero Deodato (whose cinematic notoriety largely rests on Cannibal Holocaust).

Continue reading “It’ll All Come Out In the Wash”

Ferretnibbles 6 – Blood and Black Death

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Sometimes you want to jabber about something on Ferretbrain to an extent which would be unwieldy for a Playpen post, but not necessarily make for a full-blooded article. To encourage contributors to offer up shorter pieces when the mood strikes them, here’s another set of Ferretnibbles – pocket-sized articles about all and sundry.

This time around, I’m taking the opportunity to talk a little about a couple of very different horror movies – a Mario Bava giallo from the 1960s and a German-British historical horror feature from 2010.

Blood and Black Lace

Countess Christina Como (Eva Bartok), recently widowed, has converted her expansive mansion into the hub of a high fashion empire, and is holding a grand salon there displaying her designers’ latest creations. Meanwhile, her designers, models, and other employees are embroiled in all sorts of tangled personal affairs, ranging from the deeply embarrassing to the actively illegal. Thus, when a mysterious masked figure begins a campaign of murder and terror against them, they fail spectacularly to co-operate with the police. The confusion allows the killer to keep things going to a terrifying extent, and as individual members of the salon try their own snooping, it’s hard to say who is truly determined to find the murderer, who is just trying to cover their back, and who has far more malevolent ends in mind.

Though Mario Bava’s preceding The Girl Who Knew Too Much is considered the first giallo film, I’d argue that it’s with Blood and Black Lace that Bava both hit on the archetypal giallo formula (right down to the killer’s garb) and, more importantly, the distinctive giallo atmosphere; The Girl Who Knew Too Much is just slightly too jolly and comedic for me to feel like it’s a true giallo – some of the comedy was, of course, added in the American cut of the movie (Evil Eye), but it was still present in the original. Conversely, Blood and Black Lace has the same mix of aesthetic luxury, eroticism, and horror that is distinctive to giallo and which The Girl Who Knew Too Much didn’t quite hit.

Bava shows a talent for directing truly chilling death sequences – low on gore, but the implications of what is happening are ably communicated to prompt the imagination to fill in the terrible blanks. The sheer violence exhibited by the killer is shocking to behold and renders the killings thoroughly untitillating, and like I said above the classic “raincoat, hat, gloves, mask” getup of the killer created a giallo archetype, and Bava has a great eye to throw in a shot here and there which underscores the terrible nature of what is happening. (See, for instance, a shot of a statue of Zeus chasing after some nymph as the killer drags away the corpse of the first victim, or the obscene tableau established by a suit of armour that has fallen on another victim.)

Bava also breaks from the standard whodunnit formula in a major way by revealing the killer’s identity well before the climax, and showing their planning process from the inside for the final go-around. To be honest, I find the movie comes a little unstuck after that, taking a bit took long to work its way through the final stages of the plot, but the movie is nonetheless still a classic of its subgenre. I particularly liked Thomas Ranier in his role as the disapproving police detective whose efforts to solve the case keep being tripped up by the self-serving lies and chicanery of the main characters.

Black Death

It is the 1300s, and as the title implies the Black Death is sweeping Europe. In a monastery struggling to contain the infection, Brother Osmund (Eddie Redmayne), has been kept quarantined, but is let out to join the prayers for one of his fallen comrades when he shows no symptoms of the plague. The next day, though, we see him stealing food and slipping out into the town to rendezvous with Averill (Kimberly Nixon), a woman that he is carrying on a secret affair with. Witnessing the dead piled up in the streets, Osmund tells Averill to take the supplies he’s obtained and go and hide in the forest until the plague passes; she ponders whether God is punishing the two of them for their sin, and whilst Osmund denies this, he also refuses to come with her, being willing to break his vows but not willing to abandon them entirely.

Osmund’s faith and character will soon undergo sterner tests, however, for he soon takes up a challenge his brothers fear to take: to accompany the Bishop’s envoy Ulric (Sean Bean) and his mercenaries on a mission as a guide and as theological counsel. Rumour has it that a certain village in the marshes close to where Osmund was raised is not only completely untouched by the plague, but is home to a necromancer who can return the dead to life. Ulric and Osmund’s task is to establish the truth of these stories; if the village has turned to Godless and sacrilegious ways to protect them, then they must be discredited and punished less others in their desperation abandon the Church.

A German-British coproduction (the story development and ideas came from the British side of the equation, the funding and locations from the Germans), this was directed by Christopher Smith, who made substantial changes to the conclusion of the film, which as originally scripted by Dario Poloni took the movie down an unambiguously supernatural route. In contrast to this, Smith goes for a more subtle, psychological approach, in keeping with his bid to go for a grimly realistic depiction of the time. You could probably characterise this as a full-blown grimdark piece, in fact, though frankly the Black Death was such a nightmarish period of history in Europe that if you don’t go dark with it you aren’t facing up to just how awful it was. Smith even gets minor historical points right, like remembering that the medieval church as an institution was more concerned with heresy than it was with witchcraft, but that the Black Death saw sentiments against witches becoming substantially more prevalent.

The group’s journey through the plague-ravaged landscape early on not only helps to establish the distinct characters of the various mercenaries, but also helps to drive home just how apocalyptic the Black Death was. Remember, this was a disease where if you say it decimated the population, pedants will point out that if anything you are underplaying just how awful it was, with recent research suggesting that about half the population of medieval Europe died of it. Panicing mobs burning a witch or turning to murderous banditry because they can’t think of anything else to do, entire depopulated villages, the discovery of plague within the party itself – all these incidents play out on the journey and make it obvious that the Bishop’s worries about people turning away from the Church are not mere control freakery. We are watching these people work their way through a disaster of such a magnitude that every certainty in their life has been brushed aside and the entire social order is disintegrating not because of any great revolutionary impulse on the part of anyone but simply because people are dying at too great a pace to keep it together.

The attention to detail extends to the costuming and sets; of the latter, the finely reproduced marshland village that is the destination of Ulric and Osmund’s mission is magnificently realised. As far as the acting goes, everyone does a smashing job; Sean Bean is at his Sean Beaniest and gets an appropriately Sean Beany death, Carice van Houten is great as the villagers’ spooky overlord, and Tim “Lord Percy” McInnerny has a great turn as Hob, the creepily welcoming village spokesman. (In fact, I wouldn’t have believed he could have pulled off such a sinister role had I not previously seen his appearance in Edge of Darkness.)

The ending, in which Osmund finds himself becoming a killer as brutal and merciless as any in Ulric’s band (and he’s murdered at least one person for absolutely no good reason, though he is more than capable of denying this), and in which it becomes apparent that the entire mission has done no good at all beyond murdering a village full of people who just wanted to be left alone, is the final touch of bleakness on what is a decidedly bleak prospect. Although it is possible to see the film as a slam on organised religion in general, to me it comes across more as a condemnation of what happens when religion or irreligion alike take to violence to serve their ends.

The Strange Movie of Mr Martino

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Mrs. Wardh (Edwige Fenech) – Julie to her friends – doesn’t really have that strange a vice by modern standards – just a bit of a submissive and masochistic streak. But it’s the 1970s, and people are less clued-in about such things – and standards of consent and ethics in the community of the sexually adventurous are much less developed than they are today. Take, for instance, Jean (Ivan Rassimov) – her former lover whose sadistic streak ultimately went too far for her comfort. To get away from him, she married Neil Wardh (Alberto de Mendoza), the US ambassador to Austria.

When Julie and Neil return after an extended recall to the States, they find Vienna in the grip of terror – for a serial killer has been preying on local sex workers, using a straight razor to slash them terribly. Julie finds herself bored, and takes to attending wild parties thrown by her sexually liberated friend Carol (Cristina Airoldi). It’s at one of those parties that she meets George Corro (George Hilton), a hitherto-unknown cousin of Carol from Australia who recently discovered the family connection thanks to an inheritance – but she’s also spotted again by Jean. As Julie enters into an extramarital affair with George, she finds herself stalked by Jean, who like a classical abuser tries to persuade her that nobody but him can truly please her. (As one of his notes dramatically states, “your vice is a locked room and only I have the key” – a phrase so dramatic that our director, Sergio Martino, would later re-use it as the title of one of his later collaborations with Fenech.)

Continue reading “The Strange Movie of Mr Martino”

A Gulf of Gore

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Dario Argento might have the more widely-known name, but Mario Bava is arguably the director who laid the foundations of Italian horror cinema. As well as collaborating with Riccardo Freda on I Vampiri – the first Italian horror film to be produced after the Mussolini-era ban was finally lifted – his early 1960s efforts The Girl Who Knew Too Much and Blood and Black Lace set the mould for the “giallo” genre – a peculiar blend of murder mystery and horror film, frequently involving overt or sublimated erotic themes, that was itself a predecessor of the slasher movie.

Still, by the early 1970s the young upstart Argento managed to seize the momentum with works like The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, whose unflinching depictions of violence made earlier works seem positively tame. A Bay of Blood – also known as Twitch of the Death Nerve, Blood Bath, and a host of other alternate titles – seems to have been Bava’s attempt to catch up, with special effects wizard Carlo Rambaldi at hand to depict the murders with such gruesome realism that even old hands like Christopher Lee were revolted by the end result.

Continue reading “A Gulf of Gore”