Under a beautiful purple dark night sky sits the asylum setting of Fernando di Leo's Slaughter Hotel (1971), his sole contribution to the horror/thriller genre, a genre, perhaps, for which Di Leo had little love. Its opening sequence is a signal: a dark caped figure is prowling outside the asylum grounds. The figure gains entrance into the quiet place and eyes an axe to pick up, after playing with the iron maiden which sits in its lobby (I always associate torture devices and weaponry from within the walls of medical facilities). Slowly upstairs, the caped figure ascends to spy beautiful Cheryl (Margaret Lee) in her birthday suit and in total slumber. Cheryl makes an innocuous movement with her hand and signals the nurse. The lights come on and the dark figure gasps and disappears. All sound and fury. Cue credits.
Di Leo intimates (during his interview included on the region one DVD of Shriek Show's release) that inherently the mystery or thriller genre is limited: there are only so many red herrings that one can put to the viewer with a limited number of characters to produce a satisfactory conclusion. The narrative, which Di Leo co-wrote with Nino Latino, soon fades away. Although Slaughter Hotel has numerous titles for its various world releases, perhaps a fitting one would be Sensational Hotel. Aided by his laissez-faire attitude towards the genre, a talented cinematographer with Franco Villa, a wispy and catchy score (also sometimes minimal and haunting) by Silvano Spadaccino, and Klaus Kinski and a bevvy of beautiful actresses, Slaughter Hotel is a melange of atmospheric and effective erotic sequences juxtaposed with equally atmospheric and effective violent sequences.
Di Leo doesn't hide his affection for beauty Rosalba Neri who plays patient Anne. She tells the doctors, "I just want to make love," a desire which earned her a stay at the clinic. Neri's first appearance is memorable: in a revealing black pants suit, Di Leo's camera focuses on Neri's powerful sensuality. In a playful and erotic sequence, Anne goes to the greenhouse to shag the groundskeeper. When two orderlies come hunting for Anne, Di Leo lets Neri go. She sashays out of the greenhouse to encounter the curious orderlies. She falls into the arms of the two, and with feline movements rubs her body and gropes the young men with her arms and kisses. While it would seem the two have been looking quite a while for Anne combined with Anne's lack of reluctance to go with them, the orderlies aren't moving. They'll stay frozen for a minute or two like statues until Neri gets bored with them. Look close and you'll even see a smirk on the face of one of the actors. Neri's confrontation with the killer is also memorable. After a very long voyeuristic sequence of viewing Neri dream while writhing nude upon her bed, the killer enters and Anne begins her seduction. The scene is a combination of flesh and shadows and emotions of arousal and repulsion.
Mara (Jane Garret) is a lonely patient and feels an outsider, with whom Nurse Helen (Monica Strebel) is fascinated (or perhaps fascinated with the idea of Mara). Di Leo films the two's relationship initially as sensitive caretaker bonding with sad and friendless patient, as they sit on the bench outside on the grounds. A kinship is formed, but these ladies will not become sisters. Di Leo films the two in a series of erotic sequences, escalating in sexual tension. In the first, Helen massages a nude Mara, then comes Mara's bubble-bath bathing with Helen's assistance (of course, she removes her nurse's outfit in order to facilitate a better bathing), which ends with the two dancing before inevitably making love. These sequences are all for the benefit of a male audience, and Di Leo doesn't disappoint by delivering the eye candy. As with Neri, Di Leo focuses on these characters almost exclusively in a visual fashion. Strebel has gorgeous big eyes and fiery red hair, while Garret's aloof demeanor and quiet looks provide the simmering sensuality.Kinski, like the actresses, was chosen by Di Leo's for his "dramatic face," and like the ladies, he's eye candy. Klaus Kinski plays Dr. Francis Clay who has a burgeoning love for Margaret Lee's Cheryl. Kinski's expressionistic face with his piercing eyes and brooding demeanor hides mystery (which Di Leo plays on). Kinski walks the halls and gives some of the most uncomfortable cigarette-smoking sequences (I'm not a gambler but I would bet Kinski is not a smoker). Kinski and Lee display a light romance, straight out of any dime-store paperback.To Di Leo's credit, the compositions of the killer are well shot. In a haunting sequence, the killer is brandishing a sword, and all alone he swings it in a madman's fury before his next frenzied kill (the swings of the sword are accompanied by low-octave notes delivered by Spadaccino's minimal score). In a humorous (yet effective) scene, a nurse passing the grounds at night walks within inches of the killer and does not notice him. A scythe is in the bushes, and as soon as she passes, the killer picks up the scythe to decapitate her. The nurse turns and screams before her death. The scene comes off as the very definition of perfunctory: okay, I'll walk by you and pretend you're not there. Get the nearby weapon, which I also conveniently fail to notice, and kill me.
Despite almost a pure display of cinematic exploitation, Di Leo drops in a little of his trademark socio-political commentary. An early scene of a husband coldly dropping his wife off at the front door of the asylum is effective. A clinic which houses only women patients with seemingly the only rule being "you can't leave" pervades the claustrophobic atmosphere of the film. It is also extremely difficult to discern what actual afflictions these patients have. The doctors are often shown as incompetent and less-than-professional. The police, when they finally show, can talk. That's about it. I own both the Shriek Show (Media Blasters) and Raro releases and recommend both. Facts about the production, I took from Di Leo's interview included on the Shriek Show release.