A fashion institute becomes a charnel house of death when a masked madman stalks a sextette of glamorous models, each of whom has come in contact with a diary containing a secret that the killer must – at any cost – keep from prying eyes…
It’s time for a 50th Anniversary Podcast celebration of Mario Bava’s BLOOD AND BLACK LACE (a.k.a., Sei Donne per L’Assassino – i.e., “Six Women for the Assassin”). This horrifying 1964 thriller, which sets violent murder in a world of high-fashion glamour, set the template for the Italian genre known as Giallo, which would percolate throughout the cinematic bloodstream for decades to come, offering violent murder-mysteries populated by beautiful victims and masked, black-gloved psycho-killers. Yet Bava’s original stands above the rest, all these decades later, thanks to the director’s genius for stylization – ranking among the best efforts ever in the horror genre.
With two-thirds of the regular Cinefantastique podcasting crew on hiatus, Steve Biodrowski hosts guests Keith Hennessey Brown (Giallo Fever) and Roderick Heath (This Island Rod) in a detailed discussion of what makes BLOOD AND BLACK LACE stand the test of time.
According to The Hollywood Reporter , Adrien Brody (KING KONG) has won an injunction against the producers of Dario Argento’s GIALLO, essentially barring the film from being sold, marketed or distributed in the United States.
After discovering the filmmakers were short of funds and had not placed his salary in escrow during filming, the actor consented to stay on the production, signing a legal agreement to defer his payment. This was done with the condition granted that he had the “absolute right to withhold consent to the use of his likeness in the Picture” until and unless he was paid in full.
This means the filmmakers can not use his face in advertising, and technically any scenes that showed him in the film—which would make distributing GIALLO next to impossible, barring massive and unlikely re-shoots. The film was released in other parts of the world in 2009.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, a lawsuit brought by star Adrien Brody may prevent Dario Argento’s horror-thriller GIALLO from being released on DVD.
The reason: the actor alleges he was never paid the $640,000 he was due for his work on the film. He claims he signed an agreement with the producers to stay on the film after he discovered they had failed to pay his salary into an escrow account. This allegedly gave him full control over the use of his likeness in the film — which would prevent its release without his consent.
He’s suing for his salary and $2 Million in damages.
For those not familiar with the term, Giallo is Italian for yellow, and it refers to a popular genre of crime thrillers that often feature elements of horror, torture and some sexual content, often all mixed together.
The covers of the best known publications all featured a trademark yellow cover scheme, originally called The Yellow Library ( I Libri Gialli) by Italian publisher Arnoldo Mondadori Editore.
Many of these were translations of American pulp thrillers and murder mysteries, though British writer Edgar Wallace, whose novels’ film adaptions launched the German “Krimi” genre was also featured. Even sedate authors such as Agatha Christie and Earl Stanely Gardner (Perry Mason) were published in the yellow paperbacks.
After a passionate discussion of SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD, Dan Persons and Steve Biodrowski leave the recorder running as they delve deeply into the minutia of horror, fantasy, and science fiction. This week focuses on films that recycle plots and/or footage to create alternate versions and/or whole new movies:
THE EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING and DOMINION: PREQUEL TO THE EXORCIST
Digging for GOLD, the 1934 German science-fiction film cannibalized for the final act of the low-budget 1953 sci-fi flick THE MAGNETIC MONSTER
SUPERMAN II: The Donner Cut on DVD
Also, the RiffTrax version of CARNIVAL OF SOULS, Cinematic Titanic, and listener mail on the joys of Mario Bava and the wisdom of target release dates .
This morning we posted three reviews by Keith Brown, who runs the excellent Giallo Fever website (whose motto is “Taking Eurotrash seriously…but not too seriously”). The proximate cause for this excursion into horrifyingly violent crime thrillers of the Italian variety (known as gialli in their native land) is the recent DVD release of BLADE OF THE RIPPER. Also, we have long been wanting to review Dario Argento’s latest effort – which, not coincidentally, is titled GIALLO (2009). And we decided to throw in Lamberto Bava’s A BLADE IN THE DARK (1983) for good measure.
Although Cinefantastique is focused on keeping up with what’s new in the genres of horror, fantasy, and science fiction, we do occasionally like to look back on classic and cult films of yesteryear, offering the occasional “theme” days when we shine a light on a particular director, era, or star – just because it’s worthy of attention. Italy’s giallo genre has always been a bit on the fringe for American viewers, but it is of interest to our readers (who probably know that the word is Italian for “yellow,” a reference to the lurid yellow covers of murder-mystery novels in that country).
This particular theme day has a slightly deeper significance for me, because it underlines a question about the nature of Cinefantastique Online as we move into the future: namely, exactly how much are we supposed to cover – and in how much depth? There are various genres that one could use to analyze this question, but the gialli drive home for me, perhaps because they emerged in full force at the same time Cinefantastique magazine was born. In fact, the very first issue of Cinefantastique contains a review of Argento’s THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (1970), which launched the trend.
Back then, these films (if they were lucky enough to get released in the U.S.) did not merit much attention in the press. Local papers might review them when they showed up at the drive-in, and the Hollywood trade papers would usually give them a mention. But in terms of a nationwide consumer publication, Cinefantastique was about the only one that bothered to keep track of work by the likes of Argento and Mario Bava.
However, due to the space limitations of a print publication, that attention was often limited to capsule reviews, squeezed into back pages. It may have been possible to be proud of this minimal coverage when there was little if any other alternative; however, in today’s Internet world, it is sobering to note that there exist websites like Giallo Fever, which cover sub-genres in such depth that simply posting the occasional capsule review is a bit like dribbling a few water droplets on the dry sand, when merely a click away there is an entire ocean available. Realistically speaking, where do you expect the tourists to go for a swim?
In this virtual landscape, doing the bare minimum is hardly enough. We want to offer our audience the best there is, not merely a few scraps. But how much can you do before the sheer mass of information overwhelms the senses of those simply seeking the latest sci-fi film review or news of when their favorite show is coming back on the air?
I suspect our future will involve dividing Cinefantastique into separate websites for horror, fantasy, and science fiction, possibly with sub-sites that focus on particular franchises or sub-genres. Ideally, the casual fan would be able to visit some central hub and find those items that interest him or or her, while the hardcore fanatic would be able to dig deeper, finding every microscopic detail on the topic of Japanese giant monsters, or Italian zombies, romantic vampires, or the relative merits of hobbits in Middle Earth versus young wizards in Hogwarts.
How we achieve this remains to be seen (something along the lines of the Huffington Post, perhaps, or maybe a main site with a series of sub-domains). Whatever the case, we hope you follow along with your Sense of Wonder intact as we march into the future. REVIEWS:
Marked by unpleasant violence and quesitonable humor, Argento’s latest thriller sees the director following his own dark muse, regardless of whether the audience tags along.
Dario Argento’s films have always divided critical and audience opinions. To his supporters, he’s one of the cinema’s supreme visual stylists, his work further marked by a constant willingness to experiment with new technologies and techniques. To his detractors, there’s little substance to his films, which are also commonly accused of being badly written and acted and marred by gratuitous violence. Since around the time of PHENOMENA (1985) the detractors have assumed the upper hand, with even many of the director’s avowed fans asserting that his work just isn’t what it used to be.
They are right, but whether this represents an actual decline or the continuing creative evolution of Argento’s filmmaking is another matter. Much of the reason Trauma (1993), The Stendhal Syndrome (1995), The Phantom of the Opera (1998) and The Card Player (2004) do not appeal to fans weaned on the likes of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), Deep Red (1975) and Suspiria (1977) is that they do not conform to the expectations established by these early works. Take The Card Player: Amongst other things, it is deliberately, even excessively, restrained. The violent set piece, a main stock in trade of the director, is avoided to concentrate our attentions on the consequences of violence instead. GIALLO (2009) is not going to settle these debates one way or the other. It does, however, fit with their general pattern – the main exceptions being the latter day crowd-pleaser Sleepless (2001) and would-be crowd-pleaser The Third Mother (2007) – by seeing Argento take his own dark path without paying much heed whether an audience is following.
The first thing about the film that must be addressed is its title. As is well-known, Giallo means “yellow” in Italian and has come to refer generically to a particular kind of horror-thriller, of which Argento’s earliest films established him as the leading practitioner. Given this and the highly self-referential approach taken by later works like Tenebre (1982), Opera (1987) and Do You Like Hitchcock (2005), we might expect GIALLO to offer more in the way of comment on the form than it does, perhaps even being prefaced by an explanatory definition of what giallo is in the manner of Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Instead, GIALLO is the nickname of the obligatory maniac. The name derives from his disfiguring skin condition, one that has left him fuelled with a hatred for beautiful young women. His modus operandi is to abduct them in his taxi, take them to his lair, and slowly mutilate them to death.
The other key dramatis personae are Celine (Elsa Pataky), Linda (Emmanuelle Seigner) and Inspector Enzo Avolfi (Adrien Brody). Celine is Yellow’s latest victim, Linda her sister. Avolfi is the enigmatic Manhunter-type figure assigned the case on a kind of ‘it takes one to know one’ or ‘poacher turned gamekeeper’ basis; the Thomas Harris reference seems appropriate given that the production company behind GIALLO is Hannibal [as in Lektor] Film. GIALLO’s key traits are violence and unpleasantness (arguably bordering upon the ‘torture porn’ variety), and humour. It is a rather uneasy combination, especially since it is not always particularly well signalled whether we are supposed to be laughing. In general, I feel that we are, that the film is intended as something of a self-parody. But even if this is the case, it is clear that Argento’s failure to make this crystal clear is detrimental to GIALLO’s overall effectiveness.
Two points of comparison come immediately to mind. The first is the aforementioned Phantom of the Opera, notable for Julian Sands’ mask-less, “rock star” Phantom and the general hostility it invoked among fans and non-fans alike. The second, suggested by Seigner’s presence, is Roman Polanski’s Bitter Moon (1992) – another of those “Is it intentionally ‘bad’, or just bad?” films.
There is some evidence for the ‘in-quotes’ position, though the fact that we have to look for it again points to the more fundamental problem. In particular, Brody’s ‘bad’ work has to be considered in the light of his Oscar-winning performance on Polanski’s The Pianist (2002), as a strong indication that he is one of the more capable actors Argento has collaborated with. And collaboration is the operative term here. Amongst Brody’s other roles was that of Executive Producer on GIALLO. As such, he and Argento had to have agreed upon the seemingly paradoxical over-the-top yet dead-pan way he was going to play things, for better or worse.
If a returning-the-favour reference to Juno is a throwaway, those to Japanese culture (a pre-Celine tourist victim; the hentai-type manga used by Yellow to fuel his perverse imaginings, and the more up-market volume of Araki art-or-porn photography purchased by Avolfi) may point to Argento’s growing interest here, as previously seen in the J-Horror, Gothic Lolita witch of The Three Mothers (2008). Or these references may be a way of trying to ensure distribution for GIALLO in Japan, traditionally an important marketplace for the director. Again, it’s up to the viewer to interpret, positively or negatively.
Visually, the film is middling Argento, more imaginative and stylish than most directors but hardly comparable to a Suspiria, Inferno (1980) or Opera. Aurally, it is less distinguished, with Marco Werba’s score lacking the memorable qualities of Ennio Morricone, Goblin or Claudio Simonetti’s work.
In sum, GIALLO is very much of a piece with the majority of Argento’s films of the later 1980s, 1990s and 2000s in its personal, take-it-or-leave-it nature. I took to it, but you may not. Whatever the case, hopefully you are at least in a position to make a better informed decision than a few hundred words ago.
Hired to score a low-budget horror movie, Bruno (Andrea Occhipinti – from Fulci’s THE NEW YORK RIPPER) rents an isolated luxury villa for the month. The atmosphere of the place soon gets to him. Going to investigate a noise, he finds a young woman, Katya, who leaps out of the closet at him, frightened (she claims) by a spider. Acting strangely, Katya asks if Bruno is a friend of the previous tenant, Linda, then makes her exit as Bruno answers a phone call from landlord Tony (Michele Soavi – previously seen in director Lamberto Bava’s DEMONS). Intrigued, Bruno searches and finds Katya’s diary, containing cyptic references to Linda and her “fascinating” secret, in the closet.
Going back to work, Bruno is oblivious to the mayhem outside as an unseen figure attacks Katya with a knife, trapping and dispatching her in the basement. Playing back a tape, Bruno then notices a voice, which he soon isolates as that of Linda. Another noise draws him outside, only for another telephone call to draws him back inside again – just as he was about to find Katya’s corpse. Picking up the phone, there is no answer from the other end.
Noticing bloodstains on his trousers, Bruno goes outside again and discovers others in the undergrowth; by this time Katya’s body has been removed. Bruno’s search of the grounds thus reveals nothing other than the absence of the caretaker from his quarters (later to be found furtively moving a heavy bag of rubbish from the basement and collecting crime clippings from newspapers), along with more telltale marks in the basement. The sound of his music draws Bruno back to the studio room, where he finds his tapes mangled.
Bruno’s girlfriend, Giulia, then shows up. Giulia explains that she had tried to phone, but the line went dead. She asks whether Bruno has noticed the strange smell emanating from the pool. He hadn’t, but when recounting his encounter with Katya, finds Giulia takes it as a confession of infidelity and angrily departs almost as soon as she had arrived.
Conducting a more thorough search of the house, Bruno finds a locked door in the basement. At this point Tony shows up. He explains that the room contains some of Linda’s belongings, but he can have it opened up if Bruno wants her things moved. Before Bruno can ask further questions they are interrupted by yet another phone call. While Tony makes his exit (“I’d better go; I have to change”), Bruno answers. On the other end is a woman, who threatens him. Fortunately it is only Sandra, making a prank call.
Sometime later Angela, a friend of Katya’s shows up, and asks if she can use the pool; Linda had always let her do so. Her behaviour is somewhat strange – though Bruno, keen to get on with his work, thinks little of it.
Angela notices a knife at the bottom of the pool. This discovery leads to her murder as an unidentified figure selects a knife from the kitchen and kills Angela in the bathroom. Oblivious to all this, Bruno only later notices the missing knife and a blood-encrusted gash in the bathroom that fits its blade perfectly. This prompts another exploration of the house and the recording of a message in which Bruno summarises the facts of the case thus far, plus his fears that he may be cracking up or targeted as the next victim…
Sandra shows up and suggests the killer likely would not have had the time to remove the bodies. As Bruno has already conducted a number of searches, exhausting almost all other possibilities, attention turns to the locked room containing Linda’s things. On hearing the name, Sandra mentions once knowing a Linda herself, although it would surely be too much of a coincidence were she the same person – the kind of thing that could only happen in “a bad movie.”
The foregoing is admittedly a somewhat longer plot précis than would be usual. Hopefully it can be forgiven on grounds of giving a good indication of A BLADE IN THE DARK‘s particular strengths and weaknesses. This is an engaging and well-crafted murder mystery. Bava and his writers play mostly fair with us as far as suspects and red herrings, making it possible to enjoy a repeat viewing after you know the who and the why of the ‘done it’. Suspense and shocks are well handled, with the nastiness of the latter perhaps a surprise when you consider A BLADE IN THE DARK‘s (Italian) television origins.
Unfortunately these also account for some of A BLADE IN THE DARK‘s weaker aspects. In particular the narrative is rather too extended and rather too episodic: Just how many times does Bruno go exploring only to be distracted at an (in)opportune moment? The murder scenes are also too neatly timed to coincide with what would have been the ends of parts one, two and three, and these scenes are followed, again somewhat obviously, by recapitulations of the story at the points corresponding to the starts of parts two, three and four.
What a precis cannot convey, however, is the sheer assurance of Bava junior’s direction. The elegant camera movements as he explores the environments of the house, all surfaces, textures and minute details, are very much in the manner of his mentor Dario Argento – giallo fans will recognise the villa from Tenebre (1983), where it also served as the haunt of a killer – albeit here without quite the same extravangance and ambition. Budgetary and other constraints obviously precluded Louma crane experimentation, for instance.
The De Angelis brothers’ effective synthesiser-led score is another asset. Though derivative of Goblin, it gains a certain justification in these self-same terms as being exactly what an early 1980s Italian horror film ought to sound like; again Tenebre provides an obvious point of reference and comparison.
One of the major pleasures of the film for the fan of Italian horror – i.e. the kind of person likely to read this review and to be the main market for the DVD – is what we can term its palimpsestic qualities. This fancy theoretical word is just another way of referring to those traces of other texts (films) whose ghostly presences can be felt, much like the voice on Bruno’s tape. Besides Tenebre, we might also mention the likes of 1975’s Deep Red (composer turns amateur investigator, the haunted “house of the screaming child”); Antonio Bido’s 1977 Watch Me Before I Kill (the composer as investigator, plus his use of sound mixing equipment to isolate the clue-fragment), and Fulci’s 1981 The House by the Cemetery (another haunted house, plus the casting of child actor Giovanni Frezza, who here appears in the film-within-the-film).
Again, something similar could be said the similarly self-referential Tenebre. But there is also a key difference. Tenebre’s self-consciousness is of a deadly serious sort. Argento seems to have wanted it to function as the ultimate giallo circa 1982, the last definitive word on 20 years of genre production. Coming after this, A BLADE IN THE DARK‘s game-playing is ironically more akin to that found within the film that started it all, namely Mario Bava’s The Girl Who Knew too Much (1963) – a film which also functions, not coincidentally, as key intertext for Tenebre via the shared presence of John Saxon and the self-referential importance of giallo literature. In other words A BLADE IN THE DARK is a fun and entertaining film that is not meant to be taken too seriously or dissected in dry quasi-academic terms. That one can do so is a plus, but ultimately less important. A BLADE IN THE DARK (La Casa con la Scala Nel Buio [House of the Dark Stairway”], 1983). Directed by Lamberto Bava. Written by Elisa Briganti, Dardano Sacchetti. Cast: Andrea Occipinti (a.k.a. Andrew Painter), Anny Papa, Fabiola Toledo, MIchele Soavi, Valeria Cavalli, Stanko Molnar, Lara Lamberti.
With a new DVD now available, Cinefantastique asks Giallo Fever’s Keith Brown to give us the low-down on Sergio Martino’s 1971 giallo thriller – “a well made suspense film that moves along briskly.”
As a maniac picks up and murders a prostitute in the vicinity of Vienna airport, a jet plane carrying, amongst others, businessman Neil Wardh (Alberto De Mendoza) and his wife Julie (Edwige Fenech) descends. For Julie the return to the city brings back memories of her former lover Jean (Ivan Rassimov), with whom she had an intense sado-masochistic relationship.
A couple of nights later Julie attends a party along with her friend Carol; Neil is occupied with business, as usual. Carol introduces Julie to her cousin George (George Hilton) who has recently arrived from Australia to claim his part of an inheritance left them by a recently deceased uncle. The charming George, who admits he enjoys seducing wives away from their husbands, makes an immediately favourable impression on Julie. He’s younger and more exciting than Neil yet not as dangerous as Jean – who also turns up at the party and announces his own intentions to reclaim Julie. Later the same night, the maniac strikes again, killing another of the party guests. La dolce vita becoming la dolce morte, again.
With Neil continuing to be absent more than he is present, Julie is soon drawn – not altogether unwillingly, it has to be said – into an affair with George. Unfortunately, someone else knows their secret, photographs them making love, and telephones to demand 20,000 Schillings from her. Carol agrees to pay off the blackmailer in a city park, only to be murdered there by an unidentified, razor-wielding attacker. Later the maniac makes an attempt on Julie’s life in a basement car park…
The Italian popular cinema from the mid-1950s to mid-1980s was dominated by the filone principle, by which a successful film would lead to a flood of imitators from producers keen to cash in before public tastes changed again. In the case of the western it was Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964) that (first) did this. In the case of the giallo or Italian style thriller – the kind of film we are talking about here – it was Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970).
Independently of one another, Italian screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi (who co-scripted this film) and British academic critic Christopher Wagstaff have discussed filone films with reference to hats. They suggest that the real difference between many filone films comes down to little more than their paradigmatic choices of headgear. Giallo killers were fedoras, their western counterparts cowboy hats, for instance.
That this theory does not apply too well to BLADE OF THE RIPPER (1971, known in its native Italy as Lo Strano Vizio della Signora Wardh [“The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh”]) helps affirm its status as one of the more genuine gialli; though Hilton had appeared in numerous westerns in the years immediately preceding the film, and director Sergio Martino had made the western Arizona Colt Returns the previous year, westernisms do not show through in their performance and direction, except by design. In particular, it is worth noting that Hilton’s outfit includes cowboy boots and a light-coloured tassled jacket that would not have looked too out of place on Charles Bronson’s Harmonica in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968).
This leads to a perhaps surprising point of comparison as, like Claudia Cardinale’s Jill McBain, Fenech’s Julie Wardh (the ‘h’ added to ensure that no real-life reference was made) likewise has three men in her life, each of whom also appears one to have been assigned a particular role: One to love her (Neil), one to take her (George), and one to kill her (Jean).
If it goes without saying that The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh is not at the level of Once Upon a Time in the West, it is nevertheless a well made suspense film that moves along briskly and sure-footedly. Indeed, it is probably my favourite of the five gialli Martino made between 1971 and 1973, at which point his attentions turned towards the cop film and comedy.
His other Fenech-Hilton-Rassimov entry, All the Colours of the Dark (1972) suffers by comparison for not quite playing it as fair, as a vital visual detail to which one of the characters is party is withheld from us. Though there are certainly some sleights of hand and strategic withholdings of information here, particularly in the final third of the story, when the action shifts from Vienna to Spain, The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh holds up better on repeat viewings. There is even the odd little detail that might not be picked up on the first time round, like the seemingly casual checking of a watch.
Fenech and Rassimov also appear in the Martino-directed, Gastaldi-scripted Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972, again), which takes its lengthy title from one of the messages sent by Jean to Julie. While worth a look, Your Vice is a bit too convolved for its own good, lacks a sympathetic center, and at one point sees the narrative grind to a halt for an over-extended motorbike race sequence. (That some motorbike racing is shown on TV here perhaps suggests someone involved in the productions had a thing for it; fortunately, the TV is soon switched off.)
Fenech and Hilton’s third giallo appearance together was in another Gastaldi-scripted entry, The Case of the Bloody Iris (1972, yet again). In the film, also produced by Luciano Martino, Sergio’s brother and Fenech’s then-partner, the actress’s character again suffers from the unwanted attentions of a possessive former lover. While again a useful compendium of giallo motifs, it is decidedly trashier, with director Giuliano Carnimeo trying that bit too hard for his and the film’s own good. Here, by contrast Martino knows when to go for it – the suspense and murder set pieces, the dream and nightmare sequences, many imaginatively framed shots – and when to hold back, take a more functional approach, and let his actors or the writers take the lead.
Fortunately both performances and dialogue are better than might be expected, particularly in the Italian version. Fenech again shows her talents extended beyond taking her clothes off at the least provocation, while Hilton, De Mendoza and Rassimov each play their roles beautifully. The script, meanwhile, has nice threads running through it, based around such themes as Adam and Eve or original sin and the fall of man, beginning with a quotation attributed to Sigmund Freud.
One of the film’s set pieces, the build-up to and murder of Carol, eerily prefigures and compares admirably to a similar sequence in Argento’s Four Flies on Grey Velvet (released in December 1971, 11 months after The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh); if Martino generally preferred to emphasise quantity of productions, sometimes this was not to the detriment of quality.
Another area where The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh impresses is its use of sound design and music. Two examples of this are the subjective shift that takes place in the Nora Orlandi ‘party music’ cue as Julie spots Jean across the room, and the use of a heartbeat effect during a tense life-or-death scene late on.
Noshame’s Region 1 DVD of The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh has been out of print for some time and accordingly commands a price premium. The new DVD from Mya – released on February 9, under the alternate American title Blade of the Ripper – is thus welcome for those unable to find or afford the Noshame edition. Those who have it will have no reason to double-dip, however. For Mya’s anamorphic widescreen transfer appears to come from exactly the same source but lacks the interviews with Fenech, Hilton, Sergio Martino and Gastaldi.
Running time: 96 minutes
Single layer, interlaced
Dolby Digital mono in English and Italian
Italian Theatrical trailer (without subtitles)
Stills & poster gallery
THE STRANGE VICE OF MRS. WARD (Lo Strano Vizio della Signora Wardh, a.k.a. BLADE OF THE RIPPER, 1971). Directed by Sergio martino, Screenplay by Vittorio Caronia, Ernesto Gastaldi, Eduardo Manzanos Brochero; story by Borchero. Cast: George Hilton, Edwige Fenech, Conchita Airoldi, Manuel Gil, Carlo Alighiero, Ivan Rassimov, Alberto De Mendoza, Bruno Corazzari.
It seems as though George A Romero (NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, MARTIN) is letting the dead rest in pieces, at least for a short while. Variety are reporting that he’s set to remake Dario Argento’s (SUSPIRIA, TENEBRAE) 1975 Italian horror film, DEEP RED. The film is also, drum roll please, set to be shot in 3D.
The original DEEP RED is a classic in the giallo horror sub-genre, about a pianist (of all people) who is investigating a serial killer, only to find that the maniac is seemingly one step ahead of his every move. This will of course not be the first time Argento and Romero have been connected: Argento helped produce Romero’s DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978), and each of htem wrote and directed one episode of the two-part horror anthology TWO EVIL EYES. Argento’s brother, Claudio, is currently writing the script.
Romero’s decision to temporarily ditch his walking dead friends is no surprise as he usually takes a few years out of each ‘OF THE DEAD’ entry to focus on other projects. Hopefully the change of tact will reinvigorate the director as his last two films, DIARY OF THE DEAD and SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD were woefully bad, and he’ll do justice to the original film.
Romero is said to be deep into negotiations to direct the remake, with a plan to start shooting in Canada later this year.
A film that fulfills both the positive and pejorative definitions of “sleaze,” Lucio Fulci’s THE NEW YORK RIPPER arrived – believe it or not – on Blu-Ray last week courtesy of the 21st century keepers of the exploitation flame, Blue Underground. The disc easily outstrips all previous foreign and domestic editions of the disc, and should be an essential purchase for fans of both the wildly uneven filmmaker and European exploitation of the ’70s and ’80s in general – for all others, here be dragons. The film is obscenely violent, sexually degrading, and bitterly misogynistic, but it has problems as well.
The story follows NYPD Detective Williams (featuring another staple of the genre, the slumming British thespian, personified here by Jack Hedley) as he tracks a serial killer who is brutally slashing women across Manhattan from the Staten Island Ferry to a live sex show on 42nd St, all while speaking in a high pitched, duck-like voice. Williams reluctantly accepts the aid of a Columbia University psychiatrist, Dr. Davis (Paolo Malco) to help form a profile of the ripper, just as the maniac takes to calling Williams both at the station and at the home of his hooker/girlfriend, Kitty (Daniela Doria.) When young Fay Majors (the gorgeous Almanta Keller) survives a nighttime assault, she describes the killer as having a deformed hand – the very same man who was also at the scene of the sex show murder on the ‘duce (Renato Rossini, here billed as Howard Ross, an Italian exploitation fixture whose Tony Musante-looking mug and steely gaze can also be found in WEREWOLF WOMAN and THE PYJAMA GIRL CASE.) Once the man is identified as Mickey Scellenda – a two-bit punk with a history of sexual assault and an apartment literally filled with drugs and porn – he becomes the prime suspect; the pleas of Dr. Davis, who doesn’t believe that Scellenda fits his profile, are not enough to convince he police that they’ve got the wrong man, especially after Scellenda attacks Fay in her home during the abscence of her physician boyfriend Peter (Andrea Occhipinti, billed here as Andrew Painter, who went on to work with Fulci again in 1983’s CONQUEST only to learn what real on-screen humiliation means the next year in John Derek’s snore fest ode to wife Bo, BOLERO).
Glanced at objectively, THE NEW YORK RIPPER is a careless mess of a thriller. While the film nominally carries on the tradition of the Italian giallo, a genre whose name comes from the lurid yellow covers that graced the crime and thriller paperbacks on which the films drew their inspiration, it’s also very abusive of the genre’s founding principles, throwing the trace elements of grace and logic out the window in favor of a tour of humanity’s gutter. While there were certainly great giallos being made featuring strong elements of violence and sex (see Sergio Martino’s TORSO) they were made with a degree of care and artistry that is wholly missing here. Fulci earned his paycheck aboring on Italian fart comedies and nondescript westerns before a creative spark and the script for DON”T TORTURE A DUCKING arrived simultaneously in 1972 producing a taught suspense yarn containing actual eroticism rather than simply copious amounts of T&A. Fulci’s real breakthrough would come in 1979 with the vivid, gut-munching undead epic, ZOMBI. What began as a DAWN OF THE DEAD rip off morphed into an outright horror classic, with Fulci exhibiting a firm control of his Technovision frame, and boasting an uneasy, dread-fueled pace and the outrageous gore effects of longtime Fulci collaborator Gino De Rossi.
Fulci found himself the toast of the exploitation world and struck while the iron was still hot with the New England-gothic infused CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD and HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY. In between those two came THE BEYOND, probably the director’s finest hour in any artistic sense, mixing his familiar doses of sexuality and violence but bolstered with a haunting, ethereal quality that seemed to indicate the beginning of an exciting new phase of his career.
THE NEW YORK RIPPER certainly signaled a new era for Fulci, but after the release of four noteworthy films, this effort felt like the work of a desperate magician whose hand had reached into the sticky bottom of the tricks bag. The film is artless, ugly, deeply cynical, and it proudly displays a misogynistic attitude that is utterly breathtaking. At the head of the pack of WTF moments is the head scratching decision to have the killer taunt his victims and the police with a grade-school Donald Duck impression that is neither scary nor funny and nearly takes the mickey out of the otherwise effective murder sequences (even if there is a justification revealed late in the film.)
And good Lord, what sequences! De Rossi’s makeup team worked overtime to devise what have to be among the most grisly onscreen deaths ever seen, from the business end of a broken whisky bottle delivered angrily to a sex performer’s privates to an agonizingly slow razor blade death (featuring one ultra-disturbing shot of the actress staring in horror directly into the camera, almost as if she were pleading with Fulci to stop the scene).
That nearly all the film’s violent deaths are reserved for women is nothing new in the annals of horror history, but accusations of Fulci’s reported dislike of women can find no easier purchase than this film. Whether it’s the pathologist reporting that one victim had a knife “rammed up her joy trail” (thank you Dr. Giggles!) or the profoundly unappealing Det. Williams’ casually degrading treatment of both his own girlfriend and the husband of a ripper victim who was murdered during a motel room tryst. We’re not the least bit surprised to see a cop in a Fulci film flinch at the notion of an open marriage, but watching Williams strongly imply that she got just what she deserved while her grieving husband is on the verge of tears always catches us off guard.
Anyone even remotely familiar with genre conventions will know whom to instantly rule out as a suspect, as well as spot the real killer about ten seconds after they appear onscreen. Still, there is lip service paid to the notion of a ‘who done it’ – enough to keep the picture at least technically in giallo territory. But in Fulci’s world, unlikely coincidence reigns as the supreme story element; the mysterious man with the deformed hand appears at the scene of so many sexual assaults in the greater metropolitan area that you wonder why the police don’t simply follow him around! A search of his apartment (located in the Same Chelsea building that contained at least one of the area’s notorious S&M leather bars – you half-expect him to run into Al Pacino while shooting CRUISING) turns up a king’s ransom in pornographic magazines, shots of oiled bodybuilders, at least a dozen syringes, a penis-shaped hash pipe, and the coup de grace, a theatrical poster-sized print of himself – naked – pressed up against a giant image of Marilyn Monroe.
However, it’s these very outrageous elements that confirm the film’s status as a cult favorite (not for nothing is the screenplay credit buried halfway through the end crawl). There’s a scent of rapidly fading glory that permeates RIPPER and informs our appreciation almost 30 years later. Fulci (who cameos as a vague NYPD authority figure) was still regarded as an exciting filmmaker on a rapid rise up the exploitation food chain, but post-RIPPER his career nosedived into a mix of embarrassing trash that would make Jess Franco take an Alan Smithee credit (SODOM’S GHOST) or sad, faint echoes of prior glories (VOICES FROM BEYOND.)
One pleasure that does grow stronger in retrospect is the unprecedented tour of the fleshpits and grindhouses in and around 42nd St. THE NEW YORK RIPPER’s Manhattan has changed quite a bit since Italian directors like Fulci and Enzo Castellari scuttled about the island, using its natural grime and urban decay as gratis art and set decoration. It’s also hard not to get a little wistful at the numerous shots of the World Trade Center towers, reminding us of how often filmmakers used them as a means of instantly fixing a location. We’re still trying to figure out exactly where Det. Williams’ apartment actually is, with its distinctive circular fire escape (poor Hedley seems like he’s on the verge of cardiac arrest after climbing to the top floor), and those familiar with Greenwich Village will note that Peter and Fay’s apartment is located in the bucolic Grove Court, making for a surprisingly good match with the Rome-shot interiors. Of course, the city has changed quite a bit since then (a fact lovingly documented on a new extra on the new Blu-Ray edition) and how amazing is it that a loose team of Italian exploitation artisans would wind up as the prime chroniclers of New York’s bleakest 20th century period?
Very few low budget European films of this vintage were shot with live sound, particularly those with the sort of extensive location filming that THE NEW YORK RIPPER showcases. The bigger British and American stars were almost always contracted to provide their own voices during the dubbing process (as Richard Johnson had done in Fulci’s ZOMBI a few years earlier), but apparently Jack Hedley was not considered a big enough star to make it worth going outside the usual pool of voice over talent. Hedley’s résumé consisted largely of small roles in large productions (he appears in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA as the reporter outside St Paul’s and a has a featured role in the Bond picture FOR YOUR EYES ONLY), and it’s unlikely that schlepping permit-less around New York for Lucio Fulci did much for his subsequent career. It doesn’t help that ‘Detective Williams’ is one of the most unlikeable protagonists in eurosleaze history (a huge statement), whose character building moments consists mostly of stress smoking and calling his prostitute girlfriend a “stupid bitch”. Much better is Paolo Malco – a minor genre staple in the early ’80s who already appeared for Fulci the previous year in HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY and for Sergio Martino in SCORPION WITH TWO TAILS – whose Columbia professor is far more sympathetic (even though Fulci tries to pull the rug out from under him as well by showing him secretly buying gay porn mags from a newsstand – a hateful no-no in the director’s oddly Catholic world view).
Blue Underground presents THE NEW YORK RIPPER in a staggering 1080p image on the newest edition to their Blu-Ray catalog. Long consigned to the domain of fuzzy VHS bootlegs, the film was previously available domestically on a non-anamorphic (and out of print) DVD edition from Anchor Bay, which presented the uncut version in the US for the first time. The amount of detail revealed here will be a revelation to fans, occasionally even revealing some EFX makeup inconsistencies that had always escaped us. The image might be a bit too bright at times, though this could also be due to flat lighting playing havoc with inexpensive Technovision lenses. The negative also has instances of dirt that show up just often enough to remind you what a miracle it is that this nearly 30-year-old, low-budget Italian offering has no business looking as good as it does here.
As if the image upgrade wasn’t enough reason to quack like a duck, there are two new featurettes (presented in HD, no less.) Aside from the aforementioned “NYC Locations Then and Now short,” there is also a brief interview with actress Zora Kerova, who played the female half of the couple performing the live sex show.