Posts Tagged ‘giallo’

The Perfume of the Lady in Black (1974)

Giallo horror tends to run the gamut from artistic to exploitative, and often just combines the two into an unholy union that is at once profoundly uncomfortable and deeply enjoyable. One of the stranger works in the wide range of giallo films is The Perfume of the Lady in Black (the greatest title ever), from director Francisco Barilli, starring Mimsy Farmer as a perfumier in Rome who begins to hallucinate (or does she?) images from her childhood that center around a lady in black.

Farmer is Silvia, a talented chemist who enjoys making perfume, going out with her boyfriend Roberto (Maurizio Bonuglio), and hanging out with his friends, including a professor (Jho Jenkins) with an interest in black magic and the occult. But things begin to get weird when she smells a new perfume and begins to hallucinate a woman, all dressed in black. As the hallucinations get more intense, recalling Silvia’s childhood, her deceased father, and her mother’s old lover, she also begins to believe that she’s being stalked by men in dark trench coats. At the behest of her friend Francesca (Donna Jordan), Silvia goes to a blind psychic, who brings up even more past memories, inspiring another flood of hallucinations. What’s real and what’s Silvia’s psychosis become more and more intertwined, exacerbated by the machinations of her strange neighbor, and the mysterious people who may or may not be following her.

Like many giallo horrors, the focus is more on the aesthetic than the actual plot, which telegraphs the solution to its mystery so clearly that it almost isn’t necessary. The garish seventies’ colors and weird character quirks – like a continuous emphasis on hippos that is just confounding – make for the entertainment value here. Rooms painted bright blue, yellow dresses that are just too yellow, pinks that conflict with purples, haunting music that dogs Silvia’s steps—these are the trappings of the weird. There are the usual elements of the occult and psychosis, as Silvia’s belief that she’s being bewitched co-mingles with her hallucinations, which are either repressed memories, are realities being perpetrated against her by some unknown assailant, or are the result of something more supernatural. What’s unnerving about the film is how difficult it is to completely understand what’s going on, or why. The ending is at once predictable and utterly shocking, and I doubt that a rewatch would be able to place it in proper context. It doesn’t make sense, which is half the fun.

In some ways, though, The Perfume of the Lady in Black needed to be more extreme, to indulge its tendencies to excess rather than attempt to tell a coherent story. What sets films by Bava, Argento, or Fulci off is the willingness to go all in on the aesthetics and overwhelm the viewer with imagery such that we almost forget there is a plot. This film doesn’t go far enough—there’s actually very little violence, and the most violent scene (of an attempted rape) comes off as too serious to be particularly enjoyable. The overlapping of reality and psychological horror is well done, but it could be emphasized more. I wanted more hallucinatory images in a film about hallucinations.

The Perfume of the Lady in Black is available to stream on Amazon Prime.

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Phenomena (1985)

Dario Argento’s Phenomena opens with the brutal murder of a schoolgirl, somewhere in Swiss Alps, by a…well, something chained in a room in a remote cabin. Things just get weirder from there. The film mostly follows Jennifer Corvino (Jennifer Connelly), the daughter of a famous actor, who arrives in Switzerland to attend the Richard Wagner Academy for Girls (yes, really), where a bunch of violent murders have been taking place. One night, Jennifer sleepwalks and witnesses a murder, then stumbles onto the home of Professor John McGregor (Donald Pleasence), a disabled etymologist with a chimpanzee helper, with whom she forms a close friendship (both the professor and the chimpanzee). McGregor discovers that Jennifer has a telepathic connection to insects and realizes that this connection might be the key to finding the killer.

Phenomena is a rare Argento film in the sense that it doesn’t spend all that much time dwelling on the visual poetry of murder. While there are the hallmarks of giallo, especially in the opening scene, the film is more interested in exploring the bizarre affinity between Jennifer and the insects than it is in focusing on the quest for the killer. And for that, it’s actually a refreshing experience. There are some excellent set pieces, including one scene where Jennifer summons the help of flies to defend her from bullies, as well as the usual giallo staples of sudden, violent deaths with bright red blood and rolling heads. But Phenomena is less soaked with atmosphere than some of Argento’s more popular works—there is the play of light and dark, but none of the flights of color and fantasy that come into movies like Tenebrae or Inferno. There’s also a heightened emphasis on characterization and dialogue, especially between McGregor, Jennifer and, um, the chimp. The music here is slightly less haunting than Suspiria, though it does emphasize Argento’s style, with bursts of head-banging rock and shrieking chords to underline apparently banal moments.

What is most surprising about Phenomena is how slow-moving and creepy it is, avoiding more explicit acts of violence in favor of building tension and character. Then the third act happens. For experienced Argento viewer, you know that his films tend to get very weird in the third act, with the build-up to the denouement usually more coherent than the actual climax. But Phenomena really does stand by itself, both for artistry and total, batshit insanity. The solution to the mystery is definitely there and it does make sense – kind of – but the sudden plunge into excess is jarring and, in its own way, curiously delightful. It should suffice to say that everything the film has introduced along the way does pay off – including an incongruous scene involving the chimp – and does so in maddest way possible.

Phenomena has been criticized for its rather limited performances and unclear resolution—and certainly Jennifer Connelly became a better actress as she grew up. Pleasence is delightful, however, and has great chemistry with the chimp, herself a very prominent player in the film. And Phenomena is no worse in terms of acting than any other Argento film—giallo is rarely known for great performances, after all.

While Suspiria and Deep Red are works of art, Phenomena feels more intensely personal, as though Argento has dropped any pretense of what’s expected of him and is simply doing what he wants. Phenomena is something like an amusement park ride that sails along pleasantly but uninterestingly, and then drops you fifty feet down. You know it’s coming, but it’s still quite a stomach-churning experience.

Phenomena is available to stream on Shudder

Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1970)

Hatchet for the Honeymoon is an odd entry into Mario Bava’s parade of insanity, not least because it suddenly shifts about halfway through to something far weirder and more supernatural than it initially appears. But that in itself lifts it above the better but messier movies of the giallo canon, giving it a humor and gleeful malevolence all its own.

The film begins with John Harrington (Stephen Forsyth), a devilishly handsome young man who inherited his mother’s upscale bridal boutique. He divides his time between fashion shoots, fittings with brides, arguing with his wife Mildred (Laura Betti), and violently murdering young women on their honeymoons. Rather than concealing Harrington’s psychosis, the film puts it front and center, starting off with a vicious murder and then Harrington’s voiceover, in which he frankly admits that he’s a psychopath. The reason for his need to kill? With every murder, he experiences a flashback to his childhood and the death of his mother, and it is only through killing that the memories get clearer. As time goes on, we begin to understand that Harrington is impotent, and the murders of the brides take on even more psychosexual overtones (as if they needed any).

Bava injects this giallo plot with a hefty dose of humor (in my limited experience with giallo, Bava seems to be the director most aware of the inherent campiness of his work). That humor cuts through some of the more graphic depictions of murder, not to mention Harrington’s underlying misogyny and fear of sexuality. While the camera gleefully captures every lurid detail of the killer’s hatchet work, it also throws in some lovely ironic twists and tricks, focalizing through Harrington’s eyes as he handles his victims and his less victimized wife. Mildred, in fact, begins the film as a vicious harpie and ends it as the same, but her presence is also the saving grace–she despises her husband and plans to torture him for all of eternity, no matter what he does to escape her.

Hatchet for the Honeymoon is far more style than substance, of course, but somehow that doesn’t condemn it. The lurid photography, constant voiceover, and somewhat predictable twists are all part of what makes giallo so very entertaining. Then, without apparent warning, it turns into a ghost story and seems to delight even more in the torture it wreaks on its protagonist than it did on his murder. Where 0ther giallos have a tendency to dwell for so long on the poetry of violence that the humor and sympathy ebb away, Bava instead pays greater attention to the actual psychosis going on beneath the surface. Harrington is searching for an answer to his madness by indulging it, and so is something of a victim himself, but he’s never figured into the hero–he’s the villain, and he’s going to be made to pay the price, in a most delightful and satisfying way.

Bava’s work here closely resembles Roger Corman’s, or the Hammer horror films being made in England around the same time – he even references his own films, when Harrington uses Black Sabbath for an alibi. If Hatchet for the Honeymoon becomes repetitious after a while, it’s worth sticking it out for that shift in the second half of the film, which twists ghosts and ghost stories into a simple but impressive shape. A brilliant film? Hardly. But man is it fun.

Hatchet for the Honeymoon is available to stream on Shudder.

Evil Eye (1963)

*Evil Eye is available to stream on Shudder.

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Continuing my probably unhealthy love affair with the films of Mario Bava: Evil Eye, Bava’s 1963 film that combines psychological horror, sexploitation, and some stylized horror to become the first true giallo. The Italian title is La ragazza che sapeva troppo, or: The Girl Who Knew Too Much, and that actually makes more sense than the American title tacked on, I suppose, to give the film more supernatural horror credentials that it doesn’t really have. The Girl Who Knew Too Much is very much in keeping with the film’s underlying satire on the films of Alfred Hitchcock, who is referenced a few times with tongue quite firmly in cheek.

Evil Eye opens with Nora Davis (Letícia Román) traveling to visit her ailing aunt in Rome. Nora’s obsessed with murder mysteries, turning her life into a romanticized pulp novel. After a rather nightmarish experience at the airport, she arrives at her aunt’s house to find the old lady seriously ill in bed, attended by the good-looking doctor Marcello (John Saxon). During a terrible storm that night, the phone and electricity flickers out just as Nora’s aunt goes into cardiac arrest, leading Nora on a desperate run through the rain down the Spanish steps to contact Marcello at the hospital. She’s mugged and knocked out, and awakens just in time to witness the violent stabbing of a young woman.

Nora spends the next few weeks going in and out of consciousness, attended by the kindly Marcello, who tells her that there was no murder victim: she must have been hallucinating. More or less recovered but still convinced that she witnessed a death, Nora attends her aunt’s funeral, where she runs into Laura Torrani (Valentina Cortese), a friend who lives in the Piazza di Spagna, right where the murder occurred. Rather than cutting Nora’s trip to Italy short, Laura offers to let the young American stay in her house. A series of somewhat confused events prompt Nora to believe that she’s still being pursued by the shadowy murderer she saw the night of the storm. She enlists Marcello’s help in tracking down the killer and possibly saving her life.

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Evil Eye certainly earns its title as the first giallo – not overly bloody, it’s still a bizarre, nightmarish film, full of extreme emotions and stylized cinematography. The imagery emphasizes the psycho-sexual pulp of the details while not being fussed with developing a particularly coherent plot. The film wanders from point to point, introducing weird characters – like a doctor who convinces Nora that she has second sight – who suddenly vanish. Nora’s parade of bizarre experiences have a comedic edge to them, as Bava proves himself aware that this story is really just a ridiculous piece of camp.

The humor is the most unnerving element in Evil Eye. Nora’s hysterical terror is played partially for laughs, as in a scene where she prepares an elaborate trap to catch the killer. She’s also quite right to be scared, as the viewer knows, but Bava punctures some of his own stylization by calling attention to just how silly it all really is. Evil Eye, like Black Sabbath, bears more than passing resemblance to Corman films of the same era, taking the terror seriously while simultaneously allowing the audience to delight in the camp.

Evil Eye is a bit boring spots, especially the transition between Nora witnessing the murder and becoming convinced that she’s actually in danger. The secondary romance with Marcello, while amusing, takes up too much time, as do the pair’s endless investigations into the possibility that Nora actually had a vision of a murder that occurred ten years ago. The meandering, dream-like nature of the film might place it in the giallo tradition (anyone who has watched enough Argento knows that those films aren’t exactly coherent), but unfortunately that doesn’t make it altogether interesting.

I was told that Evil Eye was secondary Bava, and I’ll certainly go along with that assessment. While interesting for those of us who want to trace the foundations of Italian horror traditions, it’s not compelling enough to warrant a second viewing. Still, the combination of humor and the horror is so weird that I found myself giggling about the film long after I’d finished it. That’s as good a recommendation as any.

Evil Eye is streaming on Shudder, so there’s no excuse not to give it a shot.

Opera (1987)

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Dario Argento is one of the true greats in horror. And while his films usually produce mixed reactions, there’s no doubt that they’re disquieting products of a unique mind. Opera is not one of his best, but damn it’s got some fine horror in the middle of the morass.

Following the injury of the leading lady in a production of Verdi’s Macbeth, understudy soprano Betty (Cristina Marsillach) finds herself thrust into the lead role. But almost the second that she takes the stage, a masked man begins murdering the cast and crew, forcing Betty to watch by tying her up and propping her eyelids open with pins. The film interweaves numerous POV shots from the killer’s perspective as he pursues Betty in a lethal game of sadistic voyeurism with an operatic soundtrack.

The setting of an opera is tailor-made for Argento, a chance to indulge in the gaudy giallo that made his films famous. And the film’s murders are appropriately extreme and well-done, horrifying without being off-puttingThe use of the POV shots is especially unnerving, the camera jiggling and jerking and bringing us up close to acts of sadistic violence in a way that no other filmmaker has approximated.

Unfortunately, Opera suffers from a lack of coherent plot. While Argento’s favorite themes of sadism, murder, and repressed childhood memories abound, he can’t seem to bring them all together to a clear conclusion. He wastes the central conceit of the opera-which has so many possibilities-by focusing instead on Betty’s bizarre tendency to not report the crimes she’s seen committed. Where Suspiria gave us a plucky heroine plunged into a surreal nightmare world, Opera gives us a disconnected young woman who takes multiple murders in stride. The final act especially is tacked on, a twisty conclusion that actually reminded me of the breakdown at the end of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. While none of Argento’s films hang together in the perfect narrative sense, this one in particular just lacks any notion of coherency.

That being said, Opera does have a nightmarish quality that makes it an enjoyable, if lesser, example of Argento’s work. The violence is so gaudy that it’s almost funny. Imperfect and a lesser film than many an Argento, Opera has enough surreal, nightmarish horror to make for a delirious indulgence.