Wednesday, July 16, 2014


All the Colors of the Dark (1972)
(aka Tutti i Colori del Buio) 
Director: Sergio Martino

Jane has problems, to put it mildly. She's troubled by surreal dreams in which grotesque figures lie strapped to tables in the agony of unending and fruitless birth. They cavort in mimicry of childhood games. Some die violently at the hands of a killer with an icy blue stare. The images are ruining her ability to lead a normal life and to have a normal relationship with her husband. Every time the two try to have sex she's terrified by shocking visions of being stabbed to death with a knife. (Maybe not the most subtle metaphor.)

Birth. Sex. Death. These are the shackles that bind Jane, who's played by Edwige Fenech in her second collaboration with director (and brother-in-law) Sergio Martino. All the Colors of the Dark is the story of her attempt to liberate herself from the strictures of her stifling marriage and middle-class life. Of course, there are other more pressing issues for her to deal with, namely the mysterious man with the piercing blue eyes who seems to be following her (Ivan Rassimov).

Jane wants to solve her emotional problems by attending therapy, but can't convince her husband Richard (George Hilton). He thinks the sedatives he gives her are enough to dull her fears, and seems to like the idea of her lying in an incapacitated daze at home for most of the day. Bolstered by the encouragement of her sister Mary (Nieves Navarro), Jane resolves to see a therapist anyway, husband's wishes be damned. It seems to help her deal with the nightmares, all of which are symbolic representations of her traumatic childhood and recent miscarriage. Unfortunately, therapy can't help solve the problem of her stalker...

The male gaze.
Male control over Jane's body and destiny is the true enemy here, and for a while the stalker seems to be a supernatural manifestation of that. After all, who the hell could this guy be? She has no idea, and the film gives us nothing with which to figure it out. When he finally attacks her, she seems on the verge of a nervous collapse she's not convinced any amount of therapy can cure. The ever-helpful Mary offers a different suggestion that's a little more... unorthodox.

All the Colors of the Dark is often labeled as "The Italian Rosemary's Baby," almost certainly due to the second act of the film. Mary's suggestion is that Jane join an underground cult and take part in their violent sex-fueled rituals. "Drink this, and you will be free," their leader says, handing her a goblet filled with the blood of a freshly killed puppy. Free from what? He never states it explicitly, but freedom is what Jane longs for: freedom from the control of her husband, her therapist, the stalker. She's looking for autonomy, and what better way to exercise it than to engage in group sex with a bunch of drugged hippies?

A face you can trust.
If it sounds like this plot twist comes out of nowhere, well, it does. The intent may have been to capitalize on the success of Rosemary's Baby, and there are certainly similarities. The cult scenes are more lucid here though, and they're entered into willingly by Jane (at least initially) rather than forced upon her while she's unconscious. From her perspective, they're a way for Jane to liberate herself rather than fall further under the control of the men who would rule every aspect of her life. As you might expect, Martino shows no shame in allowing his camera to linger on Fenech's body at every chance, especially during her encounters with  the cult. Were this not exploitative genre fare at its heart, I'd say there's a bit of meta-commentary there, but that might be giving the film too much credit.

It'd be nice if the solution to Jane's problems were this simple, but her involvement in the cult doesn't deter her stalker, nor does it completely free her from the control of her husband. As she becomes increasingly familiar with the cult's rituals, she also begins to realize that she may have become indentured to a new master even more cruel than the last. Mary's motives for introducing Jane to the cult were anything but pure, and were a last act of desperation from someone who had sought control over herself but ended up surrendering her life to a system that ensured her exploitation and ultimate destruction.

Her marriage, the cult, the stalker - all overlap in the end. All are facets of a broader system that rules Jane's life. Perhaps afraid of committing to a truly bleak ending, the film becomes somewhat confused in the end, introducing a secondary motive for Mary's betrayal involving an inheritance and explaining away the supernatural aspects of the film with drugs. This is all delivered in the least elegant way possible, via massive talky infodumps. Counter to the underlying theme, the film offers a chance for her husband to redeem himself. He's proven to be well-intentioned all along, despite the drugs he fed Jane to keep her pacified. If taken at face value, these plot twists make the final words spoken by Jane seem oddly out of place: "I feel as if some strange force were controlling me. Oh darling, help me." Really, she's glimpsed the truth of the matter - even now, free from the cult, free from her manipulative sister, she's run right back into the arms of the force who was controlling her all along.

All the Colors of the Dark isn't a typical giallo, even though it's usually lumped in with the rest of the genre. While it shares some themes and visual cues with Rosemary's Baby, I think reducing it to a pastiche of that film doesn't do it justice. When Sergio Martino allows the film to fire on all cylinders there's a great synergy between the hallucinatory camerawork, the lurid plot twists, and Bruno Nicolai's bleak, yet occasionally upbeat score. Detractors of Italian horror sometimes complain about the lack of narrative logic in the genre, but I'd have preferred Martino drive this one off a cliff rather than ground everything with a big fat lump of exposition. As such, All the Colors of the Dark is definitely worth checking out for giallo fans, but falls a bit short of being a must-see.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Review: OCULUS (2013)

Oculus (2013)
Director: Mike Flanagan
Seen via: Raleigh, NC Dollar Theater

Hauntings are usually dangerous only because of what they reveal about those who are haunted. Ghosts are ethereal - they can't destroy someone who didn't have the potential for destruction already within them. Both of the main characters in Oculus are floating on oceans of repressed trauma just waiting to be unleashed. It's somewhat fitting then, that the symbol at the heart of the story is a mirrror, because the journey in this film doesn't so much take us into the supernatural as it does into the recesses of its main characters' psyches.

[Spoilers throughout.]

As a child, Tim (Brenton Thwaites) murdered his father in self-defense. He's been institutionalized ever since. Over the years he's developed tools to move beyond the physical and psychological abuse that his father inflicted on his family and restore order to his life. His release date, also his eighteenth birthday, gives him the chance to reconnect with his sister Kaylie (Karen Gillan) for the first time since their traumatic separation.

Kaylie has not yet moved on with her life and instead has constructed an elaborate explanation for the events of their childhood. In her version of the story it was a haunted mirror that caused the possession of her father and drove him to destroy their famiily. Kaylie has tracked down the mirror once again, meticulously researched its history, and approached its supernatural properties with an almost scientific mindset. The effects that it has on its victims are varied: personal neglect, dehydration, starvation, catatonia, self-inflicted violence - all ultimately end in death. Kaylie is convinced that she can beat the mirror with Tim's help and convinces him that the best course of action is to lock themselves in the house with it and confront its evil once and for all.

Beneath the surface-level ghost story, Oculus is about the trauma domestic abuse imposes on its victims and how the cycle of abuse leaves a legacy spanning generations. The mirror is a mechanism for both Kaylie and Tim to confront the events that destroyed their family. Both have used different strategies to avoid revisiting the conflict, whether it's deliberately repressing memories or cloaking them in fantasy. But locked in the house with the mirror, there's no choice for them but to look within, to look back upon themselves and re-encounter what really happened the night Tim killed their father. The film accomplishes this through a series of flashbacks woven through modern-day storyline. The jumps between past and present slowly fill in the details of the past and become more frequent until the timelines seem to merge. It's a really clever editing device that spices up the second act of the film, which seems to be when lots of haunted house flicks begin to drag. Even if the film spins its wheels for a little while toward the end, it's gained sufficient momentum by that point to carry it through to its conclusion, where past and present seem to finally converge.

Tim, meet Tim.
With the extent that the film plumbs the psychological depths of its characters, it doesn't really even need a supernatural monster. You get the sense that it recognizes this, since we only catch a few rare glimpses of the specter in the mirror until the very end. Rather than a story of a foreign entity haunting strangers, this is a narrative about the trauma inflicted on the victims of domestic abuse and how it weaves itself through the rest of their lives. It's a shame that the supernatural does eventually take center stage, but it thankfully never completely crosses the line and becomes completely ridiculous (remember "Mr. Boogie" from Sinister?). When the ghosts eventually manifest, we've already entered purely psychological territory, so they function less as a supernatural threat and more as distorted memories of the protagonists' damage.

There's been a surge in "domestic" horror in the past few years, which producer Jason Blum has capitalized on like crazy. These films tend to follow a pretty strict formula that was defined in Paranormal Activity and subsequently refined with Insidious and Sinister, (and taken to a ridiculously right-wing extreme in Dark Skies). All of these films play on fears of the nuclear family going truly nuclear under the influence of illness, unemployment, and loss of national identity. Take fears borne of the current political climate, throw a supernatural monster on top, and you've apparently figured out the recipe for box office success. Oculus fits right in with the rest of these films, but despite its general adherence to the formula it's actually a fair bit smarter than its precursors. I'll chalk a large portion of the credit up to director Mike Flanagan, whose Absentia was a really strong character-driven horror film completed on a shoestring budget. If Oculus signals a turn toward the mature for this breed of horror, then it's one I'll gladly welcome. If not? Well, we can always hope for the best in the inevitable sequel.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Review: CALIBER 9 (1972)

Caliber 9 (1972)
(aka Milano Calibro 9)
Director: Fernando Di Leo
Seen via: Anthology Film Archives, NYC

Caliber 9 has been sitting on my to-watch list for years, perhaps for all the wrong reasons. Once upon a time I downloaded a mix of poliziotteschi / Eurocrime themes, and the theme to Caliber 9 stood out as a massive highlight. (You might be able to track down the mix or at least the track list by searching for "Trondheim Violenta," by Luca Canali). As fate would have it, Caliber 9 was the second of the two films I was able to catch in the Anthology Film Archive's Italian Connection series. This film falls more squarely into the crime genre than Dallamano's What Have they Done to Your Daughters? As evidence, I give you exhibit A, our hero:

Ugo Piazza (Gastone Moschin, who's no stranger to crime films) has just finished his prison sentence, and no sooner has he exited the prison gates than he's accosted by his former accomplices. We've already seen the failed crime that landed him in jail in the film's opening montage: a heist in which $300,000 somehow went missing and the team responsible was killed for their error. (Blown up by dynamite actually, in a hint of some of the sadism that's to come.) Ugo is sort of a proto-Statham: quiet, downtrodden, yet bigger and meaner. When he claims to just want to return to his girlfriend Nelly (Barbara Bouchet) and leave the criminal element in the past, we want to believe him. But is he more hero or anti-hero?

The mastermind behind the failed heist, an enigmatic figure named The Americano, is convinced that Ugo stashed the $300k. The Americano has given his slimy assistant Rocco (Mario Adorf) full permission to hound Ugo until he coughs up its location. Rocco chews his way through every piece of scenery in sight, making Ugo's life hell - beating him up, trashing his hotel room, even threatening his stoic (and somewhat frightening) friend Chino (Philippe Leroy). He's a cartoonish lackey who provides a bit of humor to lighten up the brutal violence that fills the rest of the film.

Rocco (right), in an unusually ponderous moment, considers the choices that
 led him and his greasy colleague to this violent junction in life.
We're not entirely sure of Ugo's true motives after we see him leave jail, but he's not as dumb as he looks, and he deftly navigates his way through mind games with both Rocco and the inept police force. The film introduces an odd political element into the film through the police, and devotes entire scenes to internecine arguments about the theory and nature of the origin of crime. Whether it's because of some internal flaw in the being of the criminals (as an elder chief swears), or unrest caused by an oppressed lower class reaching critical mass (as a younger officer claims), Ugo and his former colleagues operate between the two extremes, or maybe along a different, more pragmatic axis. Money is there to be taken, and violence is just the most effective tool in the shed to get the job done. When things are personal, it's more to do with the tangled web of grudges and constantly shifting allegiances than with socioeconomic class. The theorizing may be director Fernando di Leo's authorial voice coming in a bit strongly, but it has the effect of letting the police spin their wheels while the criminal factions continually raise the stakes.

Ugo's face-punch face.
Caliber 9 is a really wonderfully stylish flick, and it's no surprise that this was heavily influential on Tarantino's early work. The film runs extremely tight at less than 90 minutes, and its colorful cast, continual double-crossing, and unrelenting brutality (particularly in the end) mean that it has all the ingredients for a thoroughly captivating crime story.

Thanks to the Anthology Film Archives for a great show, and for screening a 35 mm print that looked like it had been roughed up by a gang of thugs and might just fall apart at any second.

Friday, July 4, 2014


What Have They Done To Your Daughters? (1974)
(aka La Polizia Chiede Aiuto, or The Police Want Help)
Director: Massimo Dallamano
Seen via: Anthology Film Archives, NYC

Months-long silences on this site are nothing new and I've long given up on offering explanations or apologies when life gets in the way of writing. Still, it might be worth mentioning that over the past couple of months I've graduated, moved, and ended up with a job in New York City. While I've only been up here for a short time, one of the things that caught my eye pretty quickly was a the Anthology Film Archives' Italian Connection film series. The Archives were host to last year's Giallo Fever series, and The Italian Connection is sort of a thematic sequel centered around poliziotteschi - Italian crime films of the 60's and 70's. There's some significant overlap in the thematic content of gialli and poliziotteschi, and there are also names bouncing around in the genre that will be familiar to horror fans.

Massimo Dallamano is most commonly mentioned in the context of the cinematography he did for Sergio Leone's Dollars trilogy and for his directorial work on the giallo What Have You Done to Solange? Solange is a film whose superb craft helped win me over despite its pretty massively unlikeable protagonist (a teacher who's having an affair with one of his students). Schoolgirls in peril are also the subject of What Have They Done to Your Daughters?

The film opens onto a crime scene: a teenage girl dead, hanging from the rafters in the attic of an old building. What initially appears to have been a suicide is called into question by the subsequent autopsy. The gruesome details continue to unfurl as the coroners reveal that the girl was sexually molested just hours before her death. Assigned to the case are Inspector Valentini (Mario Adorf) and Vittoria Story, the uncharacteristically female District Attorney (Giovanna Ralli). Despite a rocky start with the case in which the press publishes a full-page cover photo of the slain girl's nude body (to help determine her identity, of course), the two realize that there may be more to the crime than a simple homicide.

As in Dallamano's Solange, sex lies at the heart of this mystery. Once the victim's parents have been identified and interviewed, it becomes clear this family was under a bit of strain. Sylvia, the victim, had been caught taking birth control pills by her mother. When mom threatened to tell dad, Sylvia threatened suicide, and wore a razorblade in a pouch around her neck from then on as a reminder that she was willing to make good on the promise. Sound like a closed case? Maybe, except that the detective Sylvia's mom hired to investigate the girl's love life is the next one to turn up dead.

Investigation into this second death results in the investigative team meeting the film's most iconic character: a black-clad, cleaver-wielding hitman who attempts to kill anyone with information on the case before they can offer it up to police. The figure in black is an image ripped right from any giallo, and the scenes in which he stalks his victims are some of the film's best set pieces. Granted, a meat cleaver is slightly less subtle than the weapons favored by your typical gloved killer, but this is not a subtle film. Botched kills by the motorcyclist lead to car chases and shootouts that are better suited to the crime and action genre than suspense or horror. It's in the transition from mystery to police procedural that the film loses a bit of its intrigue. While the threads behind the initial killing run deep, they're exposed completely with plenty of runtime left in the film. From there it's a straightforward exercise to tie up the plot, typically with more gunfights and chase scenes.

Nevertheless, the film has a lot to say about the systematic exploitation of women, and it manages to do so while mostly avoiding the misogyny inherent to a lot of genre film of its era. Vittoria Story is atypical as a strong female main character who isn't exploited, subject to undue violence, or used as eventual bait. She's a refreshing antidote to a lot of the sweaty machismo that can otherwise run rampant in a film like this. Still, the story as a whole walks the line between glorifying its more lurid subject matter, and criticizing those in society who are responsible for the crimes.

As in Solange, sex in this film is something to be feared - not because of its innate consequences, but for the reaction of those who are trying to actively suppress it. Sylvia isn't killed because she's a sexually active teenager, but because the culture of silence surrounding sex allows for those who would exploit her to operate covertly. Ironically, it's the power structures that should be protecting girls like her that are ultimately responsible for her abuse and death.

Despite a few weak scenes that seem to be obligatory nods to crime flick cliches, What Have They Done to Your Daughters? is a film that benefits immensely from Dallamano's skill behind the camera. Poliziotteschi films are host to soundtracks that rival those of the best gialli, and Stelvio Cipriani's score is no exception, whether it's pulsing underneath the suspenseful parts of the film or keeping the momentum up between action sequences. (The main theme also makes an appearance in Bruno Forzani and Helene Cattet's more recent giallo mash-up Amer.)

The realm of the poliziotteschi is largely unexplored territory for me, but What Have They Done to Your Daughters? is motivation to explore it further, along with the rest of Dallamano's body of work.