Thursday, January 28, 2010

Fernando di Leo's Vacanze per un massacro (Madness) (1980)

Mario Gariazzo at Cineproduzioni Daunia 70 directed two films under their banner, Acquasanta Joe (1971) and Il venditore di palloncini (1974). Cineproduzioni Daunia 70 also housed Fernando di Leo who directed several works under their banner including the famous trilogy of Milano calibre 9 (1972), La mala ordina (1972), and Il boss (1973). Di Leo offered advice to Gariazzo on his script for his film La mano spietata della legge (1973) and towards the production of both Acquasanta Joe and Il venditore di palloncini. Their paths were to cross again as Gariazzo had prepared the story for the film Vacanze per un massacro (1980) which he would also direct. At the insistence of the producers, Fernando di Leo replaced Gariazzo as director and is credited also with its screenplay (Gariazzo has a story credit on Vacanze).

Vacanze per un massacro opens with Joe Dallesandro's character escaping from prison. Later, it is revealed that he served five years of his sentence for committing the crime of murder and theft of a sum of three hundred million lira. The money was never found. Immediately after escaping, Dallesandro's character (named Joe Brezy) kills two farmers and steals their car. Off to the countryside and to a small vacation cottage in the mountains. Joe arrives at the cottage and prepares to break in. Married couple, Liliana (Patricia Behn) and Sergio (Gianni Macchia), is from Rome and arrives at the cottage for a weekend getaway. Accompanying the couple is Liliana's younger sister, Paola (Lorraine De Selle). Joe hides in the bushes in wait. The next morning, Sergio goes hunting and Liliana goes shopping. Paola is all alone at the cottage, and Joe takes the opportunity to take control of the cottage and find what he has come for.
Vacanze is perhaps the purest exploitation film from Fernando di Leo. After five years in prison, Dallesandro's Joe didn't learn patience. Although Di Leo attempts to heighten the tension as if his eventual capture is imminent by police with radio reports of his escape and a front-page newspaper story detailing his murder of the two farmers, Di Leo also shows scenes of Joe coolly avoiding the police at a cafe in the beginning and making his way to his destination with little getting in his way. In fact, in an expository dialogue scene in the beginning, Joe asks a local at the side of the road as to whom lives in the cottage. Joe learns before the couple unexpectedly arrives that they are from Rome and are weekend visitors. Joe could wait nearby for the weekend to pass and for the couple to leave. The cottage and surrounding area would all belong to Joe. "There are no thieves, here," says the local on the side of the road. Well, there is now at least one, and there's an exploitation film that needs to play out.Joe seemingly doesn't have a propensity for violence, and when he does become violent, it's as a protective measure to ensure his own survival. However, Di Leo crafts the opening evening events and the events of the following morning in a subtle and provocative way. As Joe sits in wait outside the cottage, he becomes an observer of Paola, Liliana, and Sergio. Paola and Sergio, together and alone by the car, very near in time to the three's arrival, begin to scheme as to when the two will have an opportunity to screw. Later, after night falls, the three have dinner, and Joe watches from a window (with Di Leo's camera directly over his shoulder). Liliana listens as Sergio and Paola playfully bicker and complain about mundane events back in the city (Paola's university studies, it would seem, mean little to her for her future.) As Sergio and Paola play antagonistic brother- and sister-in-law (in an ineffectual manner), Paola takes the opportunity to play footsie with Sergio under the table. Liliana and Sergio retire to the back bedroom after dinner to make love before sleeping, while Paola hears the two's lovemaking. Joe watches from the window as she pleasures herself on the couch. The following morning, Sergio in hunter's garb and rifle in hand, awakens Paola who demands Sergio make time today for sex. Sergio takes the time to go down on Paola right there after she commands him, but she violently pushes him away and laughs in his face. Paola knows she controls Sergio. When Sergio goes outside and does some ridiculous, quasi-Tai chi moves, Joe knows he can control this trio also: Sergio isn't going to use his literal or metaphorical rifle at all; Paola is just a provocateur; and Liliana is clueless. Vacanze takes a turn into the Last House on the Left territory, as terror, humiliation, degradation, and violence ensues. As the typical terror film, of which Wes Craven's Last House on the Left (1972) is representative, middle-class fears are exploited: in all of their economic comfort and created world of self-control, there is an overwhelming fear of the outsider at the fringes of society who is secretly jealous of that comfort and self-control. In the terror film, that outsider does more than terrorize and violate his victims--he completely removes that comfort and created self-control. This idea was obviously an attraction for Di Leo with Vacanze, as the events of the film play out in unexpected way for a terror film. Paola doesn't play victim when confronted by Joe: she's still very much the provocateur: she begins to seduce him as soon as the two have a quiet moment. Joe forces her to work at digging a hole in the fireplace (take a guess as to what's hidden there). After Paola works for quite a while, she demands a break; and Di Leo begins to blur the characters' motives. As she wipes the sweat off of her chest, is she still seducing Joe? or is she genuinely tired? When Joe makes an advance upon Paola, is her pulling away just an ineffectual move? Are Joe's advances an act of violence? Why would he choose now to make a move upon Paola with Liliana and Sergio still outside the cottage with either arrival unknown? Di Leo forces the viewer to answer these disturbing questions (and for the remainder of the film), and the filmed proceedings aren't pretty.Despite Vacanze being Di Leo's purest exploitation film, its attraction lies in watching an immensely talented director apparently slumming with this film. The film appears extremely low-budget: four actors in total drive the narrative. The cottage appears tiny and is sparsely furnished in a very Spartan manner. Humorously, there is a poster of John Travolta on the wall above the couch in the living room. Even Luis Bacalov's score is recycled from another Di Leo flick (although not all of the music is recycled within Vacanze). Dallesandro still has his signature Adonis-like physique yet his youthful, boyish good looks are fading as the Seventies close and he is getting older. Most of the film is shot in harsh light (both the natural exterior and the artificial interior light) and the bruises and blemishes on the actors' skin are not covered with makeup. Everything about Vacanze is stripped down. Enrico Lucidi's cinematography is quite good yet minimal: Di Leo's compositions are an effective mix of hand-held camera, medium shots, and close-ups, increasing the claustrophobic atmosphere. While all of the actors have a limited range in their performances, Di Leo plays to their strengths and charisma, especially Dallesandro. He's effective when menacing and effective when manipulative. Lorraine De Selle appeared in several curious (and often nasty) Italian exploitation films. She always gives enthusiastic and energized performances and doesn't disappoint in Vacanze. What really shines is Di Leo's talent above all, and Vacanze is a true curiosity in his filmography. The above objective facts from the first paragraph come from the English-language liner notes included in the Raro DVD release of Vacanze per un massacro. Within the foldout insert, the same text, presumably, in Italian is on the left side with the English text on the right. The English language text is rather cryptic (as to whether this results from translation or otherwise is unknown). For example, the text reads that "Fernando di Leo 'lent a hand' by offering advice for his script--for his good detective film, The Bloody Hands of the Law (La mano spietata della legge)." I have no idea what "lent a hand" means in this context. Is the liner notes author insinuating that perhaps Di Leo scripted the film or had a larger role than offering advice? or is he making a joke towards the film's title? Also, the English text reads "at the producers' insistence, he (Gariazzo) was finally replaced by di Leo." Armando Novelli is the credited producer on Vacanze according to the film print on the Raro DVD. Interestingly, Gariazzo's two directed films for Daunia and Di Leo's trilogy under their banner, for example, were all produced by Novelli. Novelli, in addition to producing Vacanze, would also produce Gariazzo's Occhi dalle stelle (1978) and his nasty, Play Motel (1979) around the same time. If Novelli is the sole producer, then why write "producers'," insinuating that more than one exists. Is it a typo? Does this mean the film's financiers? Besides whom, the more important question is "why?" The choice of the word "insistence" implies something more intense than the "producers" preferring Di Leo over Gariazzo to direct. What did Di Leo possess that Gariazzo did not which would make him a more suitable director for the film? Finally, the text reads that Di Leo considered Vacanze per un massacro a "minor entry in his filmography," so perhaps all this questioning is for naught. Regardless of any mystery, Vacanze is a curiosity waiting for the unsuspecting.

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