Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Le foto di Gioia (1987)

Le foto di Gioia (aka Delirium) (1987) is an Italian thriller (or giallo, depending on how liberal you are with your labels) that no one seems to like.  Its participants are well-known to fans of the genre:  director, Lamberto Bava; cinematographer, Gianlorenzo Battaglia; screenwriter, Gianfranco Clerici; and actors Serena Grandi, Luigi Montefiori, Daria Nicolodi, and David Brandon, for example.  In short, Le foto di Gioia is a quite sleazy but standard thriller.  The requisite over-the-top kill sequences are present, but this film is more a Serena Grandi-centric showcase of eroticism.
Grandi plays Gioia, whose character I've read described as "a former porno actress (1)," "a former hooker (2)," and "a model for Pussycat, a skin magazine (3)."  In any case, Gioia is now the owner of the "skin magazine," and Le foto begins with a poolside scene at her house of a photo shoot involving up-and-coming model, Kim (Katrine Michelsen).    Her brother, Tony (Vanni Corbellini) "directs" the shoot by telling the models how to pose, while quiet Roberto (David Brandon) snaps the soon-to-be glossy pics.  Gioia's close friend and colleague (who also lives with her), Evelyn (Daria Nicolodi) handles the administrative duties.  A disabled young man, Mark (Karl Zinny), spies on Gioia with a telescope from the second story of the adjacent house.  He even calls Gioia and makes inappropriate remarks, but she only seems slightly perturbed.  At the end of the day's shoot, the group convenes for a drink.  Kim is the last to leave; and in a bizarre sequence leading to a very pedestrian murder scene, Kim becomes the first victim of the film.  Sales of the magazine skyrocket upon the discovery of the model's death; yet Gioia feels that this killer is targeting her in a very deadly game...

It does not take long after starting Le foto di Gioia to note the distinct lack of enthusiasm in this production.  I submit as evidence these two quotes from director, Lamberto Bava, in which each he makes a telling admission:

"I don't like thrillers, even though they say I can direct them.  After LE FOTO DI GIOIA, I had to make another one, but I find doing scenes where women get stabbed to death repugnant.  Dario Argento does it so well, but I feel like being sick as soon as I see the knife in the murderer's hand.  I reached my limit with that film, it's a genre that doesn't interest me.  I prefer fantasy.  To be a director, you have to enjoy what you do; the moment you stop enjoying yourself, you'd better stop, that's why I've stopped doing thrillers.  I'm better off doing something else. (4)

"At a distance of year, I can say that it was an error of mine to do a movie with Serena Grandi, who at that period was at the peak of her success in Italy.  Maybe I should have made a movie with a Black Mass, Serena on the altar with black goats, but I don't like eroticism.  I made a giallo I shouldn't have made.  If I was a professor and LE FOTO DI GIOIA was a composition, I'd give it a 6, 6+ [on a scale of 10]." (5)

Bava admits during his interview included as a supplement on the Media Blasters/Shriek Show DVD of Delirium that this film was made at the peak of Serena Grandi's popularity in Italy, and also that the production was centered around her.  (6)  He did note in the same interview that he did like some of the murder sequences (7); to which I agree, as they are very unique in conception.  For example, when Kim is murdered early in Le foto, the camera changes to a first-person, subjective point of view.  Cinematographer, Gianlorenzo Battaglia lights this point of view very much in the vein of Bava’s previous Dèmoni (1985).  The face of Kim changes radically, and her head is covered with a bizarre mask which resembles a giant eyeball.  Presumably, this point of view is to demonstrate the crazed mind of the killer.  Bava admits in his DVD interview that he was influenced by the paintings of Savini (presumably Tom Savini).  (8) These sequences are designed to have a surreal, disorienting, Buñuel-ian effect but unfortunately, they are done without any sensitivity.  In execution, the murder sequences appear almost silly.
Gianfranco Clerici’s script for Delirium is exceedingly easy to follow and mind-numbingly boring to boot.  Bava’s direction does not help much to either elevate or energize it.  For example, he paints almost all of his characters as red herrings in a very uninteresting fashion.  Daria Nicolodi’s character will make an offhand remark to Gioia and then brush it off as nothing.  Luigi Montefiori’s character has been hooking up with Gioia and then splitting town, but what is he hiding?  In a single take, Montefiori sits in front of a window in an office.  Behind him is the Colosseum.  He tells Gioia over the phone that he is not in Rome.  Really?

Since Le foto di Gioia was conceived with Serena Grandi in mind and the production centered towards her, it is no surprise that the film is truly a love letter to its voluptuous and beautiful star.   The film’s credits are intercut with a nude model pictorial of Grandi; the killer photographs all of his victims in front of a giant nude photo of Grandi; and in the office of Pussycat magazine, nude photos of Grandi hang from the walls.  Grandi has two love scenes with Montefiori, one in a bubble bath and one in a sauna:  in these sequences, the nearly seven-foot actor occupies less than a quarter of the frame.  In the quite sleazy finale, the killer rips the clothes from Grandi’s wardrobe nearly piece by piece to increase the ogling time for the viewer.

“Lamberto is a fairly good director but I only acted in BLASTFIGHTER and LE FOTO DI GIOIA to make money,” recalls Montefiori.  (9)  “I don’t think much of either film, though I’ll admit the former had more originality and style.” (10)  When asked if Le foto di Gioia was one of her least-liked films, Daria Nicolodi answers, “Yes.  I believe I love everything I do and all the experiences I live through, but these two films [the other, Paganini Horror] simply weren’t very interesting.” (11)  I’ve already detailed above what Bava thinks of the film.  In conclusion, given the talent involved, Le foto di Gioia is a missed opportunity to make a memorable thriller in the waning days of Italian horror cinema.  I love just about anything that these participants produce; but when they are not excited at all about the production, how are we to be?
I am, however, excited and proud to include this entry as part of the Italian Horror Blogathon being hosted by Kevin J. Olson at his blog, Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies.  Kevin has written some fine pieces on Italian Horror this week and the previous contributions from other bloggers have been top notch, as well.  I highly recommend everyone to visit his blog and immerse him/herself in a little horror, Italian-style this Halloween season.

1.  Smith, Adrian Luther.  Blood and Black Lace The Definitive Guide to Italian Sex and Horror Movies.  Stray Cat Publishing, Ltd.  England.  1999:  p. 39.
3.  European Trash Cinema.  Vol. 2, No. 6.  Ed. Craig Ledbetter.  Kingwood, TX.  1992: p. 40.
4.  Spaghetti Nightmares.  Ed.  Luca Palmerini and Gaetano Mistretta.  Fantasma Books.  Key West, FL.  1996:  p. 23.
5.  Della Mora, Max, Matteo Palmieri, Andrea Giorgi, and Manlio Gomarasca.  “The Lamberto Bava Interview.”  European Trash Cinema.  Vol. 2, No. 7.  Ed. Craig Ledbetter.  Kingwood, TX.  1993: p. 11.
6.  Interview: Lamberto Bava.  DVD Delirium: Photo of Gioia.  Media Blasters/Shriek Show.  January, 29th, 2002.
7.  Ibid.
8.  Ibid.
9.  Spaghetti Nightmares.  Ed.  Luca Palmerini and Gaetano Mistretta.  Fantasma Books.  Key West, FL.  1996:  p. 109.
10.  Ibid.
11.  Spaghetti Nightmares.  Ed.  Luca Palmerini and Gaetano Mistretta.  Fantasma Books.  Key West, FL.  1996:  p. 117.

Friday, October 25, 2013

El Hundimiento de la Casa Usher (1983)

El Hundimiento de la Casa Usher (1983) was the first Jess Franco film that I had ever attempted to watch.  About twenty years ago, I requested a print catalog from a film collector who advertised in the classifieds of either Fangoria, Gorezone or the like.  This particular collector (whose name escapes me after all these years) dealt in primarily obscure European horror cinema and offered VHS copies for sale.  He had about fifteen films for sale directed by Jess Franco (which, at the time, I thought was a large filmography, only to be oblivious to the fact that Franco had directed probably ten times that many films by that point!).  One of the titles for sale was The Fall of the House of Usher (bear in mind, that this was his listed title.  I cannot find a credible source which lists this title as an official release title).  Bypassing more exotic titles such as Vampyros Lesbos and Succubus, I decided to dip my little toe into the water with a film with very familiar source material.  When the tape arrived in the mail, sadly very little could be gleaned from its print:  it was a multi-generational copy; the imagery was washed-out and blurry; and the audio distorted with hums, hisses, and pops.  About five or six years ago, I purchased the region-one, Image Entertainment DVD of El Hundimiento de la Casa Usher under the title Revenge in the House of Usher and I have watched it three or four times over the last few days.  I also dipped into my library of arcane film knowledge and uncovered some very interesting tidbits about the production.
Alan Harker (Antonio Mayans), a young doctor, is summoned to the castle-home of Dr. Usher (Howard Vernon), Harker's former professor and colleague.  Dr. Usher is cared for by young Helen (Lina Romay) as Dr. Usher's physical health is failing along with him suffering bouts of mental incapacity.  Harker greatly admires his former professor, despite the fact that Dr. Usher adhered to some very controversial medical theories.  It would appear, at first blush, that Dr. Usher needs Harker's help with some medical experiments; but it soon becomes clear that Dr. Usher wishes to make a hefty confession unto someone who may understand his actions...
Revenge in the House of Usher has the potential to be a strong film in Franco's enormous filmography.  Franco really excelled at creating very moody and poetic cinema and he was especially adept at creating disorienting, other-worldly settings outside of the fantasy genre.  One of his best examples is Christina, princesse de l'érotisme (1973), where the main character encounters both real, corporeal people in the mansion that she is visiting; but she also encounters seemingly ethereal, unreal people also inhabiting the mansion.  Franco, unlike any other filmmaker, seamlessly is able to blend both types of encounters to make really sensuous and provocative cinema.  Lorna, the Exorcist (1974) works in the same way:  throughout the duration of the film, one never gets the sense that Lorna is completely "real," despite the fact that she is very present in familiar settings, like a crowded casino, or dreamily available in Lina Romay's bedroom sequences.  Usher has similar sequences:  during Harker's first night in the castle, he descends into the catacombs, where he encounters captive females, an imprisoned servant, and a spectral woman who all hint towards a malevolent past which Usher is hiding.  Later, in the final act of the film, Vernon's Usher, who has now lost his grip on classical reality, encounters his dead wife in a surreal encounter.  He also uncovers all of the women in the castle playing a taunting, child's game at his expense, which really undoes the belief that Usher is in control of anything going on in his life.  These dream-like sequences are the essence of Franco's artistic talent, and Usher has very strong scenes.
Unfortunately, El Hundimiento de la Casa Usher commits one of the cardinal sins of cinema, and I honestly believe it never recovers from this stigma:  the reuse of footage from Gritos en la noche (The Awful Dr. Orlof) (1961).  During the much-anticipated confessional scene between Usher and Harker, El Hundimiento de la Casa Usher cuts to lengthy clips of Franco's classic film.  As one could imagine, this use of the footage feels like padding and also feels like a really cheap, low-budget tactic.  It appears that Eurociné either co-produced or acquired the film after it was finished.  The company owned the rights also to the Orlof film (1); and additional scenes were filmed for the French version (2) (which is also the print on the Image DVD).  These additional scenes star Olivier Mathot as Morpho and Françoise Blanchard as Usher's daughter, Melissa.  These scenes are included, obviously, to make Usher an Orlof film.  (If I had to speculate, Mathot probably directed his scenes with Blanchard.)  With the exception of some festival showings, this print remained unreleased in Spain. (3)  I wish that El Hundimiento de la Casa Usher didn't contain these scenes.  I would have much preferred to have Vernon relay his confession to Harker in narrative form:  it would have allowed the expressive Vernon to convey his feelings of melancholy and guilt in a purer, more heartfelt form.
Finally, here is the most curious tidbit regarding Revenge in the House of Usher.  In an 1996 interview, Franco was asked "What would be the smallest crew you've ever used?" (4)  Franco responds:

"The smallest?  Let's see... I did the direction of photography myself in the 'Usher' film.  So one--I had an assistant for the camera.  I had someone for the makeup--two.  I had Mayans--three.  I had one more, more or less, for props and things. And Lina.  That makes four or five.  Five people."  (5)
Interesting to note in the vast filmography of Jess Franco, Usher has his smallest crew.  I find this very impressive.  Also, I really enjoy this film:  it's very moody and poetic in classic Franco style; and if one can appreciate the compositions, the disorienting vibe, and its somber tone, then it's well worth visiting.  Another film of artistry on the periphery.

1.  Bethmann, Andreas.  Jess Franco Chronicles.  Medien Publikations.  Tschechien, Czech Republic: 1999.  pp. 108-09.
2.  Obsession:  The Films of Jess Franco.  Eds. Lucas Balbo and Peter Blumenstock.  Graf Haufen and Frank Trebbin.  Munich, Germany:  1993.  p. 156.
3.  Bizarre Sinema Jess Franco El sexo del horror.  Eds.  Carlos Aguilar, Stefano Piselli, and Riccardo Morrocchi.  Glittering Images.  Firenze, Italy:  1999.  P. 133.
4.  "Interview with Jess Franco," by Kevin Collins.  European Trash Cinema Special #1.  Ed. Craig Ledbetter.  Kingwood, TX.  October, 1996.  pp. 27-28.
5.  Ibid.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

El retorno del Hombre-Lobo (1981)

El retorno del Hombre-Lobo (Night of the Werewolf) (1981) is the culmination of a strong career in the fantasy genre for Paul Naschy.  While Naschy was often solely the screenwriter and performer on most productions, Night of the Werewolf afforded him the opportunity to direct himself as his most famous character, Waldemar Daninsky.  Utilizing very familiar themes from his past work, such as the heavy burden of history upon the present, tragic and doomed love, and the eternal battle between good and evil, Naschy creates with El retorno del Hombre-Lobo a very personal and special work in his filmography.

Unsurprisingly, Naschy is quite proud of the film.  In his autobiography, Memoirs of a Wolfman, he writes:

"El retorno del hombre lobo contains all the coordinates of my own life, fitting together like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle:  the claustrophobic castle, the Gothic tombs, the ill-fated love affair, the menace of the undead, the ostracism of someone who is despised for being different and the all pervading shadow of death.  All of these elements go to make up my personality and my work.  Movies, even horror fantasy movies, can carry real depth of meaning because through fantasy we can convey a far deeper message than would appear possible at first sight." (Midnight Marquee Press.  Baltimore, Maryland.  1997. p.150.)
Night of the Werewolf begins in medieval times where Elizabeth Bathory (Julia Saly) is adjudged a witch, a Satanist, and a vampire and sentenced.  Her followers, including Waldemar Daninsky (Naschy), a werewolf under the control of Bathory, are sentenced to death before the royal court.  Cut to the present where lovely archeological students Erika (Silvia Aguilar) and Barbara (Pilar Alcón) are planning a special holiday trip to the Carpathian mountains.  At a fireside meeting on a dark and stormy night, Erika tells her professor that she has located the tombs of both Elizabeth Bathory and Waldemar Daninsky and intends upon traveling to the region to investigate the site.  She asks her professor if she may take a special talisman on her journey, a medallion bearing the demonic name of Astaroth, with the intention of performing a ritual at the grave of Bathory.  Her professor resoundingly says no, but Erika is channeling an evil vibe in her dreams and is determined to resurrect Bathory to all of her former glory.  Auspiciously, two dullards happen upon Daninsky’s crypt slightly before Erika, Barbara, and their friend, young Karen (Azucena Hernández) arrive in the region.  These two geniuses intend to loot the crypt’s contents for treasure.  One pulls the silver cross dagger from Daninsky’s heart, and the newfound crypt becomes their own...
I’ve seen a lot of Naschy’s cinema, and at first blush, one would think that El retorno del Hombre-Lobo is a retread of themes and stories from his previous films.  For example, think of the iconic opening of El espanto surge de la tumba (1973), where Alaric du Marnac (Naschy), a warlock, and his faithful servant, Mabille (Helga Liné), a witch and vampire, are adjudged by the royal court as criminals and executed for their crimes.  Later, during a present-day setting, the descendents of that past event are called upon from the grave by their evil ancestors.  The theme of tragic love is a strong and familiar one in Naschy’s cinema.  In El gran amor del conde Drácula (1973) (as in other films, for example), Naschy’s monster character may only find peace in death from the hand of a woman who completely loves him.  The appealing irony of this theme is through love life is worth living, but a happy life is impossible when a violent creature stirs also inside that same heart.  Finally, one can see the lasting influence of the Universal Studios’ classic, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), in several of Naschy’s films, especially its classic final battle.  One needs only to look to Naschy’s previous La noche de Walpurgis (1971) as evidence.  El retorno del Hombre-Lobo contains all of these themes, and these themes are dramatized in sequences that eerily resemble their predecessors.
However, Night of the Werewolf really stands out from other Naschy work for this performance of Waldemar Daninsky.  Naschy is often praised for his athleticism and dedication to detail with his acting.  Rarely is kudos ever given for his emotive ability.  Naschy’s cinema is often talky, but Night of the Werewolf shows a judicious use of dialogue.  By this point in his career, Naschy was a veteran actor and he is able to bring a real sensitivity and tenderness to his Daninsky character.  For example, in a particular scene, Daninsky sits in front of a fire alone.  He is joined by his companion, an outcast who cares for Daninsky in his home, named Mircalla (Beatriz Elorrieta).  She is a beautiful woman who is horribly disfigured on the left side of her face.  Mircalla tells Daninsky that one of the young women will be able to free Daninsky from his curse.  He acknowledges the truth of what she says, and with a tender gesture, he rests his hand upon the left side of her face.  No long. heavy-handed, and drawn-out conversations.  Just quiet and intense character interactions.
Make no mistake, however, El retorno del Hombre-Lobo is a werewolf film; and Naschy is going to tear into quite a bit of ass during its running time.  If nothing else can be said about the film, it is so damn entertaining, well-paced, and handsomely-filmed.  I always giggle when Naschy as the werewolf grabs a rifle from an unsuspecting victims hands and breaks it in half before tearing into his victim’s jugular vein.  Who doesn’t love the sensuous imagery of the vampire women appearing at will upon the guests at the castle?  One also cannot forget the truly provocative imagery of Saly’s Bathory bathing in the blood of her victim.  El retorno del Hombre-Lobo ranks as one of the best of Spanish fantastic cinema.
I’ve seen Night of the Werewolf at least a dozen times and I will see it a lot more.  For those who have not seen it, check it out immediately (it was released on both DVD and Blu-Ray about six or seven years ago by BCI/Deimos).  For those who have seen it, Night of the Werewolf is worth revisiting, especially during this Halloween season.