Three Italian Giallo Films: Death Laid an Egg (1968), Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972) and Deep Red (1975)

I may have lived almost half my life (obviously this is a vague metric, but let’s be optimistic and just assume 40 is a median), much of it as an ardent fan of cinema, yet there are vast swathes of the seventh art which have passed me by. One such blindspot is the horror genre, and of this the so-called giallo films of Italian cinema (the word means “yellow”, from the covers to the pulp crime novels popular in the country at the time) are a particular mystery: for all their exploitational slasher origins, many of them are highly praised by critics for their artistic and narrative playfulness (as much as they are decried for their lapses into misogyny, though this could equally apply to much of slasher horror, surely). Directors like Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci and Mario Bava are frequently cited, the baroque titles of whose opuses have long taken up a small corner of my brain, even as I’ve never seen any of them. Therefore, I thought it only sensible to accept a recent opportunity offered by a horror-cinema-loving friend to visit and watch a number of these films back-to-back, with appropriate food, drink and enthusiastic company.

The pretense for this event was my friend Matthew coming across a film called Death Laid an Egg (1968) deep in Jean-Louis Trintignant’s filmography, and indeed this is the oldest (and perhaps oddest) of the three films we watched. It also has the most bankable stars of the three, with Trintignant and Italian actor (and 50s sex symbol) Gina Lollobrigida both receiving starring roles. In some ways, it seems to fit in more closely with trends in European art cinema, taking its cues as much from Michelangelo Antonioni’s architecturally-framed elliptical modernist narratives on the one hand and trippy, hippy late-60s head films on the other, as much as from traditional horror or crime genre tropes. It also features less overt violence towards women than the other films, though the staging of the opening shots does strongly imply that Trintignant’s poultry farmer Marco has a penchant for murdering prostitutes, which is the motivation for a plot against him and his wife Anna (Lollobrigida) by his cousin Gabri (Ewa Aulin). The idea of Trintignant and Lollobrigida as farmers isn’t in the end as absurd as that may seem, for the film is interested in a more coldly futuristic idea of the role, manipulating genetics and engineering the perfect animal from a lab, rather than mucking out cages or suchlike. The latter stages of the narrative are all set out in a rather maddeningly opaque way, such that it’s easy to miss some of the final revelations, but as a whole the film is nicely controlled.

More traditional, then, is Lucio Fulci’s Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972), another rather oblique title which hints at perversions in its small-town Italian setting. A number of boys have been murdered, and a big-city reporter, Andrea (Tomas Milian), comes to town, with his tight jeans and archetypal 70s moustache, digging into the events. The film offers a number of possible suspects for the murders, including a mysterious witch-like woman (Florinda Bolkan), a hermit, a simpleton and a young priest, amongst others. The film is pretty sharp on indicting religious-based repression and the power of the local church and police authorities to turn local anger into murderous vendettas. It also gets over a good sense of atmosphere for its story, with outbreaks of gory violence to move things along.

However, best of the lot is the now-admired and acknowledged classic Profondo rosso (or Deep Red, 1975) directed by Dario Argento, towards the end of the first classic period of giallo filmmaking. A recent Blu-ray edition captures the beautiful cinematography of this slow-building mood piece, which features recurring sequences languidly panning across mysterious items in extreme close-up, not to mention an unfussy set design with a bar right out of Edward Hopper. The plot has jazz musician Marcus (David Hemmings from Blow-up) investigating a gory murder of a psychic, and his ensuing chase folds in all kinds of supernatural mystery to tinge the horror premise. Indeed, there’s a prominent role for a particularly spooky house which hides dark secrets (as such houses always seem to do). Despite its length, it all moves along without excessive flab, albeit taking its time to build up the eerie atmosphere nicely. It’s one of the few horror films I’ve seen that even I feel would repay multiple viewings, but Argento is clearly well in control of his craft by this time. A high point for Italian cinema of the 1970s.


La morte ha fatto l'uovo (Death Laid an Egg, 1968)

CREDITS
Seen at a friend’s home, Leighton Buzzard, Saturday 27 February 2016.

La morte ha fatto l’uovo (Death Laid an Egg, 1968)
Director Giulio Questi; Writers Franco Arcalli and Questi; Cinematographer Dario Di Palma; Starring Jean-Louis Trintignant, Gina Lollobrigida, Ewa Aulin; Length 90 minutes.

Non si sevizia un paperino (Don’t Torture a Duckling, 1972)
Director Lucio Fulci; Writers Gianfranco Clerici, Fulci and Roberto Gianviti; Cinematographer Sergio D’Offizi; Starring Tomas Milian, Barbara Bouchet, Florinda Bolkan; Length 102 minutes.

Profondo rosso (Deep Red, 1975)
Director Dario Argento; Writers Argento and Bernardino Zapponi; Cinematographer Luigi Kuveiller; Starring David Hemmings, Daria Nicolodi; Length 126 minutes.

Criterion Sunday 28: Blood for Dracula (1974)

Of the two roughly-matched Paul Morrissey Euro-horror films starring Udo Kier and Joe Dallesandro (this and Flesh for Frankenstein), I think I slightly prefer this one, dealing with the Dracula story. Kier, of course, is the titular count, and Dallesandro is Mario, a peasant with socialist principles who works for an aristocratic Italian family. The increasingly sickly Count has come to Italy to seek virgins to replenish his blood, and happens upon the di Fiore family with their four daughters. Of course, despite the protestations of the mother (a delightful Maxime McKendry), it turns out that at least two of them are no longer so thanks to Mario’s charms, and so Dracula finds himself increasingly unsatisfied. Given the provenance and the largely Italian cast (including the family patriarch played by neorealist director Vittorio de Sica), there’s a sort of campy charm that suffuses the whole enterprise with a faint aura of ridiculousness. Kier remains a superbly haughty villain, seeming to channel Gary Numan in his gothic vampiness, while there’s a cameo appearance by Roman Polanski in a tavern scene. Some of the sexual politics are deeply dubious (Mario’s relationship with the youngest daughter is particularly problematic), though given the care Morrissey has taken with the adaptation of both films, one could certainly see this as a critique of certain underpinnings of the original story — though this hardly makes such elements any the more pleasant to watch. However, for those who are well-versed in the Dracula mythos, this certainly does provide an interesting take on it.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Paul Morrissey; Cinematographer Luigi Kuveiller; Starring Udo Kier, Joe Dallesandro, Maxime de la Falaise [as “Maxime McKendry”]; Length 103 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 15 March 2015.

Criterion Sunday 27: Flesh for Frankenstein (aka Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein, 1973)

The Criterion Collection may be a boutique label founded on presenting pristine prints of the classics of world cinema, but it’s also happy to take detours down roads less travelled, and in some ways those can be the most rewarding films. This 1974 camp Euro horror-exploitation film, made in Italy with a northern European cast, seems to embody few of the qualities you’d expect this label to trade in, and yet it’s a little bit more than just an excuse for lots of gore. Though there is, as it happens, lots of gore, as Doctor Frankenstein (an angular Udo Kier) experiments with stitching together his zombie-like creatures. When he decides he needs someone particularly virile, it so happens that oversexed stableboy Nicholas (Joe Dallesandro) is about and would fit the bill precisely, except that due to a confusion, Frankenstein and his assistant Otto grab Nicholas’s sexless friend Sacha instead. The US title is a bit misleading, for though director Paul Morrissey did work with Andy Warhol in the 1960s (notably on The Chelsea Girls), Warhol’s involvement by this point was little more than just marketing. Flesh for Frankenstein (along with next week’s film Blood for Dracula) were Morrissey productions through and through, and betray his interest in messing around with these determinedly European legends. Thus the reimagining here reflects somewhat on contemporary counter-cultural movements, though it would have helped if Dallesandro had the acting chops that Kier exhibits, and his European peasant is somewhat difficult to take.

Criterion Extras: Aside from the brief essay inside the booklet, there are two significant extras here: a photo gallery, which is just an 18 minute video with a musical backing, not an ideal way to see the photos; and a commentary track, mostly critic Maurice Yacowar talking about the film, as well as some additional words from director Paul Morrissey and lead actor Udo Kier.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Paul Morrissey; Cinematographer Luigi Kuveiller; Starring Udo Kier, Joe Dallesandro, Monique van Vooren; Length 95 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 15 March 2015.