Monday, October 31, 2016

Oasis of Fear (1971)

AKA An Ideal Place to Kill (Un posto ideale per uccidere) and Dirty Pictures 

Although he’ll probably forever be best known, and perhaps rightfully so, for the radiation sickness outbreak epic Nightmare City (1980) and notorious cannibal classic Cannibal Ferox (1981), Umberto Lenzi doesn’t get nearly enough credit for the contributions to the giallo field. During the time period in-between Mario Bava’s jumpstarting the genre with The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963) and Blood and Black Lace (1964) and Dario Argento’s opening the floodgates with The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (1970), Lenzi, along with many other filmmakers, was responsible for several thrillers that would continue to lay the foundations for where the giallo would eventually be headed in the 70’s. Long before the infamy of Salon Kitty (1975) and Caligula (1979), Eurotica maestro Tinto Brass delivered the Antonioni influenced pop art thriller Deadly Sweet (1967) which starrted Jean-Louis Trintignant and Ewa Aulin who would both go on to star in Giulio Questi’s bizarre and utterly singular Death Laid and Egg (1968). Even Lucio Fulci got in the giallo game early on with Perversion Story (1969). That same year also saw Lenzi began his string of erotic jet-set thrillers with the Carroll Baker led Paranoia (1969), So Sweet… So Perverse (1969) and A Quiet Place to Kill (1970) which Lenzi followed up with 1971’s Oasis of Fear, one of his best thrillers and a film which see’s Lenzi putting an interesting spin on previously explored obsessions.

Dick (Ray Lovelock) and Ingrid (Ornella Muti), two young American tourists are financing their trip across Europe by selling pornographic photos of themselves. After running into some trouble with the law in Italy they find themselves with a 24 deadline to leave the country and their luck gets even worse after being ripped off by a gang of bikers, leaving them with no money and no gas. The two eventually stumble upon a seemingly abandoned large estate and in a move of desperation, attempt to siphon gas from a car in the open garage, although they are interrupted by Barbara (Irene Papas), the lady of the house. After explaining their situation, Barbara becomes sympathetic and even invites them to stay and the three have a wild night together. The fun is short lived however as Dick and Ingrid discover Barbara’s reasoning behind keeping them around is far more sinister than what she originally led on.

In many ways Oasis of Fear is a spiritual sequel to Paranoia with Lenzi once again utilizing somewhat of a home invasion angle, although here he reverses the roles with the younger generation being the pawns. Where the films differ is in Lenzi’s toying with audience expectations in regards to characterization. In Paranoia, it was obvious from the get go that Carroll Baker’s character would be the victim and therefore easy to sympathize with. With this film however Lenzi obscures the notions of “good” and bad” a bit, presenting the audience with a bit of a moral conundrum by leaving it out in the open as to whether or not Dick and Ingrid’s way of dealing with their dilemma is the best solution. This is were Lovelock and Muti really excel in their roles, perfectly capturing Dick and Ingrid’s youthful spirit early on in the film and also their naivety when things become dangerous. As Barbara, Papa’s is brilliant as the brooding and mysteries femme fatale with obvious ulterior motives yet there is also a seductive empathy about her which Lenzi exploits to gain a bit of uncomfortable sympathy from the audience due to Dick and Ingrid’s treatment of her. The class warfare and generational gaps between predator and prey that were prominent throughout Paranoia are even more pronounced here and it could be said that Lenzi’s outlook is more nihilistic this time around with the outcome of the film essentially mirroring what would very likely happen in a similar real life situation.

Given the release history of some of Lenzi’s previous thrillers, its only appropriate that Oasis of Fear would have some alternate titles liable to confuse some viewers. The film was released in Italy under the title Un posto ideale per uccidere or An Ideal Place to Kill. This is of course not to be confused with Lenzi’s A Quiet Place to Kill which was also released as Paranoia, not to be confused with Lenzi’s 1969 film Paranoia also known as Orgasmo! Lenzi would return to the giallo fold a few more times following Oasis of Fear, reuniting with Carroll Baker for the excellent Knife of Ice (1972) along with helming two films more in line with the direction the giallo would take as the 70’s moved forward, Seven Bloodstained Orchids (1972) and Eyeball (1975). Then there’s the bizarre Spasmo (1974), Lenzi’s delirious psycho thriller that in many ways almost dares to be classified as a giallo. In between all that Lenzi also found time to plant the seeds for the Italian cannibal film craze with The Man From Deep River (1972) as well as begin a series of films in the Eurocrime genre of which Lenzi is rightfully considered a master of. As far as his giallo/thrillers are concerned, Oasis of Fear is right up there with the best of them with a perfect cast as well as a fairly bleak world view.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Paranoia (1969)

AKA Orgasmo

The world of the Italian horror/thriller has seen many a memorable artist/muse collaboration over the years. One that springs to mind immediately would be the now legendary pairing of Lucio Fulci and Catriona MacColl with the trilogy of City of the Living Dead (1980), The Beyond (1981) and The House By the Cemetery (1981). Another obvious one being Dario Argento and Daria Nicolodi with Argento giving Nicolodi, his wife for a time, numerous roles in films like Deep Red (1975), Inferno (1980), Tenebre (1982), Phenomena (1985) and Opera (1987). Then of course there’s the king and queen of the giallo, Sergio Martino and Edwige Fenech who defined the subgenre with The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh (1971), All the Colors of the Dark (1972) and Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972). One of the more fruitful director/performer tag-teams to come from the golden age of Italian genre cinema would be Umberto Lenzi and former Hollywood blonde bombshell Carroll Baker, who from 1969 to 1972 made four films together after Baker relocated to Italy following legal troubles and a divorce, Paranoia, So Sweet… So Perverse (1969), A Quiet Place to Kill (1970) and Knife of Ice (1972), with the first of these collaborations, Paranoia, being the best along with being one of the best Italian thrillers to come from this period and one of Lenzi’s finest films.

Kathryn West (Baker), a wealthy jet set widow retires to her estate in Italy following the death of her husband. One afternoon, Kathryn hears a car horn outside the gates and meets Peter Donovan, a young local who’s car has broken down and needs to use the phone. Peter returns later that night and Kathryn aggress to let him stay and the two begin a passionate affair with Peter eventually moving in. Not long after, Kathryn is introduced to Peter’s sister Eva whom Kathryn takes an immediate liking too and she too moves in. At first Kathryn feels reinvigorated, letting go of all her worries and having fun until she returns home one night to find Peter and Eva in bed together. Soon Peter and Eva’s sinister intentions behind befriending Kathryn dawn on her as she finds herself becoming a plaything for the two incestuous sadists amusement.

Featuring dialogue like “One has to be afraid of everything these days, especially when one’s happy” and “When I think of myself I want to vomit. But I’m happy because I realize it”, Lenzi makes no attempt to hide his nihilism throughout the course of Paranoia. Even by Lenzi standards Paranoia is a pessimistic gem, shining a light, albeit a highly eroticized and pulpy one, on some of the rotten things human beings are capable of doing to each other. As a thriller, the film works for all the obvious reasons although what’s interesting is that there really isn’t a sense of mystery to the film setting aside Peter and Eva’s end goals. Virtually every advertisement for the film made it glaringly obvious that Peter and Eva aren’t what they seem and in any other film a similar storyline probably wouldn’t have much momentum however in the case of Paranoia its what gives the film its wheels. This is mainly thanks to the wonderful performance of Carroll Baker who is sympathetic from the start of the film and only gets more so as the film becomes more mean spirited. Baker perfectly captured the devolution of Kathryn’s psychical and more importantly, mental state which Lenzi also perfectly translated visually by deliriously liberal use of the zoom lens. What also makes the film interesting is that underneath the main plot is a none too subtle element of class warfare and generational gaps which Lenzi would explore again in the similarly themed Oasis of Fear (1971).  

Paranoia is one of several Lenzi films that has a tendency to confuse some newcomers to the world of European cult cinema based on its title. The film was originally released in Italy as Orgasmo (Orgasm), however once it entered overseas markets the films title was later changed to Paranoia. One year later following this film and So Sweet… So Perverse, Lenzi and Baker teamed up again for what was originally released in Italy as Paranoia later became A Quiet Place to Kill. This particular re-titling can lead to some confusion of its own as the aforementioned Oasis of Fear is also known as An Ideal Place to Kill! Lenzi would encounter the re-title again and sometimes ironically as when his TV movie The House of Witchcraft (1989), part of the House of Doom project Lenzi did along with Lucio Fulci was released in Germany as Ghosthouse 4, despite having absolutely nothing to do Lenzi’s original Ghosthouse (1988). Then there was Lenzi’s underrated voodoo/zombie mash-up Black Demons (1991) which was renamed Dèmoni 3 and marketed as the third film in Lamberto Bava’s Demons series. Regardless of its title, what’s certain is that Paranoia or Orgasmo is a special film from an unusual yet surprisingly simpatico director/actress collaboration. Sexy, stylish, more than a bit misanthropic and featuring what has to be one of Carroll Baker's finest performances, Paranoia is unquestionably an essential Lenzi title.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Scorpion With Two Tails (1982)

AKA Assassinio al cimitero etrusco (Murder in an Etruscan Cemetery)

From 1971 to 1973, Sergio Martino was on a serious role, establishing himself as the king of the giallo. Together with screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi, Marino helmed the genre defining masterpieces The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh (1971), The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail (1971), All the Colors of the Dark (1972), Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972) and Torso (1973). Gastaldi and Marino continued to collaborate although either out of boredom with the genre or fear of burnout, Martino began to move away from giallo films and began working in a plethora of other genres like Euro crime with The Violent Professionals (1973) and Gambling City (1975), spaghetti westerns with Mannaja: A Man Called Blade (1977), the cannibal epic Mountain of the Cannibal God (1978), and creature features such as Island of the Fishmen (1979) and The Big Alligator River (1979), several of which feature writing by Gastaldi. In 1982, Martino and Gastaldi, along with fellow legendary screenwriter, former Lucio Fulci collaborator Dardano Sacchetti, teamed up for Scorpion With Two Tails, somewhat of a return to the giallo for Martino but with a (literal) twist. Originally conceived as a mini-series then later edited down to a theatrical feature, Scorpion With Two Tails is often dismissed as a lesser Martino film when in fact its one of Marino’s most interesting and a unique spin on the giallo.

Soon after discovering a previously unheard of Etruscan tomb, Arthur Barnard, an esteemed archeologist is murdered by having his head twisted backwards, an ancient Etruscan method of murder. Prior to his death, Arthur’s wife Joan had a dream involving a ritualistic sacrificial ceremony taking place in the exact same tomb Arthur had discovered. Joan, along with two of her late husband’s colleges travel to Italy and come to find out that while in the tomb, Arthur uncovered a crate, the contents of which were very lucrative and not for Arthur’s eyes. Dissatisfied with the way to police handled Arthur’s murder, Joan decides to stay in Italy to so some investigating of her own and soon finds herself in the middle of a mysterious plot involving murder, drug smuggling and an ancient Etruscan treasure as well as coming to the realization that she may have more in common with the ancient Etruscans than simply knowing the language.

A strange mix of giallo, Euro crime and supernatural horror, there certainly is a lot to digest at once with Scorpion With Two Tails. Given that the film originated as a much longer mini-series, there are some points in the film where it becomes apparent that certain things were trimmed for time, for instance a very important subplot ending rather abruptly, however in the end Martino has the film come full circle with most of the loose ends being tied up. The things that are left unexplained mainly pertain to the films supernatural side and is here where the film really becomes interesting. Despite it being fairly obvious that Joan has some sort of connection to the ancient Etruscans, Martino wisely leaves it a mystery as to whether or not she actually is supernaturally inclined which leads to many a surreal moment expertly rendered by Martino in an appropriately dreamy fashion and often involving the memorable use of maggots. Of course being centered around the ancient Etruscans the film is ripe with stunning locations, the main tomb is an astounding site and Martino wastes none of its potential, particularly during the finale. What’s also unique about the film is the blending of various subgenres with the giallo/murder mystery elements leading to the more esoteric side of the film while the crime subplot makes both a bit more engaging and never once does one trip over the other which is again surprising considering that many things had to be omitted for a theatrical release.

The final theatrical edit of the film received several VHS releases around the world over the years and finally a DVD release from Mya Communications in 2006, however the original TV version has yet to be seen anywhere. As a bonus, the DVD included a few excerpts from the TV version which includes more screen time for the legendary John Saxon who plays Arthur. One of the many complaints leveled at the film is Saxon’s bit part and while more John Saxon is always a good thing, for the sake of the narrative his character had to be killed off early in the film so even if he was in the TV version longer he still probably wouldn’t have made it that much longer anyway. Lead actress Elvire Audray in the role of Joan is another big target of negative criticism. Her dubbing may be a bit off (not exactly her fault) but otherwise her performance was more than appropriate as she appears to be in a delirious state a good portion of the time which fit her character. For whatever reason, Martino signed the film with his “Christian Plummer” pseudonym. Perhaps he was unhappy with the final edit of the film but its hardly a film to be ashamed of. True, its not like his earlier giallos but its something a bit different and a good melding of distinctly European genre styles.