July 22, 2016


When the opening titles of a film include the names Franco Rossellini, Luigi Bazzoni and Guilio Questi, it's safe to assume that all bets are off. LADY OF THE LAKE is an almost perfect blend of three idiosyncratic sensibilities. It's a film that uses the murder mystery as an abstraction, only there to provide a semi-sturdy foundation for a house built of half-remembered narrative occurrences, subtle misdirections and dreamlike flourishes of visual imagination. There's a hefty dollop of Antonioni sloshing around in its DNA, with whiffs of the French New Wave dancing through its aiery atmosphere. It feels, in many ways, post modern yet its visuals lie somewhere in-between the chiaroscuro streets of the Film Noir and the dark hallways of the finest British Gothic horror.

It's a film that is best watched. Reading about it will only give you half the story and little of the experience. The film tells the tale of Mr. Bernard (we're never given his first name), a writer suffering from a bout of existential melancholy, who travels to a lake side hotel during the winter to work on a book. He hopes to meet up with Tilde, a pretty blonde maid he met his last time there. The lake that sits near the hotel fascinates him. We're told that beneath the waters lies the ruins of a city, though we're never given any sort of evidence to back up that claim.

Upon arriving, Bernard is greeted by Enrico, the affable hotel owner, and his daughter, Irma. Enrico's son, Mario, arrives later with his distant, clearly disturbed younger wife Adriana. But still, there's no sign of Tilde. Visiting a photographer acquaintance of his in town, Bernard learns the tragic news. Tilde is dead. She was found to have ingested poison, the death ruled a suicide by local police. But the photographer claims to know the truth. Tilde did in fact have poison in her system, but the real cause of her death came from a slit throat. He shows Bernard a photograph he took of Tilde shortly before the murder. She is obviously pregnant.

But with whose child?

As the days go on, Bernard begins investigating Tilde's death. He begins to feel ill, sporting a high fever. Or is he being poisoned, too? Was his dream of Irma confessing her guilt over Tilde's death a fevered hallucination, or did it really happen? A memory keeps haunting Bernard, a memory of Tilde making love to an unseen man during the night. Was he the one who murdered her? Is it true that Enrico might have paid off the police to keep Tilde's murder from going public? With little more than rumors, conjecture and a handful of hazy memories, Bernard seeks to stitch together the truth, even though it might lead to his own destruction.

What makes LADY OF THE LAKE such a fascinating piece of film is its main narrative convention, that of the unreliable narrator. Bernard is as much of a mystery to us as the murder of Tilde. Though he knows Enrico and his family from his years of spending summers at the hotel, they're little more than passing acquaintances. Like Hitchcock's REAR WINDOW, our entire vantage point is through the eyes of the protagonist. When you couple that with Bernard's constant fevered mind, you're left with a skewed perspective and little solid ground to stand on. Unlike your usual Amateur Detective tale, Tilde's murder happened in the past and with the town all but empty, there's no one for Bernard to question but the people he suspects. With nothing more than rumors from a man he barely knows to go on, Bernard begins to read guilt where guilt might not lie.

Simple things like a nervous laugh or a passing glance are read as indications of something sinister. With only a single memory as a clue, Bernard begins to seek patterns out of nothingness. He descends into conspiracy thinking. When he spies Adriana, Mario's mentally indisposed wife, walking near the lake at night, it becomes something more than a night time stroll. And when she attempts to pass him a note one afternoon by dropping a piece of paper out of a window, Bernard assumes she has urgent news to tell him about Tilde. After she is found drowned in the lake, what other conclusion can Bernard draw than she was murdered? As the film descends further down its complicated path, Bernard begins to come to the realization that the truth he is seeking might not be as simplistic as he hoped it would be.

It might just be that the woman whose death he is seeking to avenge, a woman he never really knew but grew to cherish through unrequited love, might not have been much of an angel after all.

And therein lies the central conceit of the film. The nature of truth. The uncertainty of memory. The desire to solve what might be unsolvable, if for no other reason than to feel the satisfaction of some kind of closure. LADY OF THE LAKE doesn't end with closure of any substantial type, but that shouldn't come as a surprise. It isn't a film concerned with tying a nice bow of poetic justice on top of a package filled with easy answers. In the end, closure is as elusive as the truth and the journey to enlightened discovery can sometimes carry a burden far greater than the weight of simply not knowing.

(La donna del lago)

Director: Luigi Bazzoni, Franco Rossellini
Writer: Luigi Bazzoni, Giulio Questi, Franco Rossellini, Renzo Rossellini
Starring: Peter Baldwin, Salvo Randone, Valentina Cortese, Virni Lisi, Philippe Leroy
Italy; B.R.C. Produzione S.r.l., Istituto Luce
1965, 95 minutes

Narrative Variety:Amateur Detective
Murderer(s): 1 male, 1 female
Murderer(s) Role: Son of lead suspect, Daughter of lead suspect
Murderer(s) Motive: Killed initial victim in response to blackmail. Later victim was killed to keep victim from talking. The final two murders in the film are carried out to prevent a family's reputation from being ruined.
Victims: 1 female (throat slit – off screen), 1 female (drowned – off screen), 1 male (killed off screen), 1 male (killed off screen)
Murderer(s) Death: Male killer, killed off screen. Female killer, presumably drowned, thought to be suicide – off screen.

July 15, 2016


A wealthy woman with a missing husband, a dead body found at the Trevi Fountain, a suave reporter, a roll of microfilm… These are the essential elements in ASSASSINATION IN ROME. Looking at the title, you might think this would turn out to be a politically charged thriller, but alas, this film is a much more scattershot, plot-heavy potboiler (the original Italian title translates to THE SECRET OF THE RED DRESS, a much more typical, Edgar Wallace-styled title). Character introductions come fast and furious as the film builds steam, pouring attention into a revolving door of MacGuffins and dead ends, before finally settling down in the comfortable realm of murder mystery tropes. 

Here we see the Amateur Detective narrative come into play, the first time since Bava's THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH. The mystery to be solved concerns a tie between the missing husband and the dead body found at the Fountain, a dead body which just so happened to be carrying a package of heroin. Our detective character throughout the film is Dick, a smooth talking ladies man in good with the local police inspector. Reporters are an obvious choice for the amateur detective role. By profession, they know every one and every thing in town. They're scamps and snoops, their pockets lined with other people's dirty laundry, all the better for prying information out of locals. Using a reporter eliminates the need for hefty exposition. We expect a reporter like Dick to know things. After all, that's his job.

As the film plays on, a few more key characters are introduced. A couple of bumbling thieves (aka The Comic Relief), a big bruiser prone to knocking Dick unconscious whenever he enters a dark room, Dick's nosy girlfriend Erika, an ex-crime boss from New York who used to have ties to the drug trade, and a short-lived helper character (all of the Amateur Detective films have a helper character, someone who discovers crucial information, only to wind up dead before passing it on). By mid-point, this is a veritable War and Peace, brimming with characters that add a bit of personality to the film, but do very little to actually move the plot along.

When the film finally decides to treat its mystery with a bit more finesse, it all culminates in a few fistfights, a deadly gunshot and a frantic race against time to keep Shelley (that's the wealthy woman I mentioned earlier; her past romantic feelings for Dick – no laughing at that – adds a touch of pathos to their otherwise bland chemistry) and her recently found, hospitalized husband from ending up dead. When the final reveal happens, the film simply decides to wrap it up and roll credits. Only the reveal, the point when the events of the film should all be explained, isn't handled well at all. I had to rewatch a third of the film to make sure I didn't miss some kind of explicit explanation for why the killer did what they did. I'm still a little fuzzy on that point. Maybe something was lost in translation.

I don't want to sound too negative about ASSASSINATION IN ROME. It's a perfectly serviceable thriller. But that's kind of the problem, isn't it? Sure, it might be self aware (the film points out that the Trevi Fountain was featured in Fellini's LA DOLCE VITA, cleverly juxtaposing Anita Ekberg's joyous, lively romp in the water with the discovery of a dead body) and carried by several strong performances (Hugh O'Brian, Alberto Closas and Eleonora Rossi Drago are all quite good here), but the running time is too long and the narrative is too unfocused for it to ever really transcend its populist cinema roots. This was yet another multi-country co-production featuring aging Hollywood actors and set primarily in popular postcard settings like Venice with a few briefs excursions to tourist trap locations.

It never really forms its own unique identity, trading subversiveness for pandering and playing it safe all through the running time. It tries to be too much, a film about drug trade one minute, government secrets the next, and finally a full-throated murder mystery. But despite all of that, it is a damn fine way to spend a lazy Saturday afternoon. The film looks wonderful, has more than its fair share of clever, sometimes even thrilling, moments (even if they don't add up to much) and even has a sense of humor about the whole thing. It's a mixed bag for sure, but there are a few choice nuggets of goodness here, enough that I would recommend giving it a watch if you're into early gialli.

(Il segreto del vestito rosso)
Director: Silvio Amadio
Writer: Silvio Amadio, Giovanni Simonelli
Starring: Cyd Charisse, Hugh O'Brian, Alberto Closas, Eleonora Rossi Drago
Production Location ; Italy, France, Spain Production Co. Apo Film, Midega Film Dicifrance
1965, 110 minutes

Narrative Variety: Amateur Detective
Murderer(s): 1 Female
Murderer(s) Role: Love interest
Murderer(s) Motive: Money
Victims: 1 male (poisoned), 1 male (poisoned), 1 male (stabbed)
Murderer(s) Death: Falling

July 6, 2016


I've long held the belief that home invasion is a shared fear. It probably has roots in our territorial evolutionary heritage. Or maybe it's just because our house is where we keep all our shit. I don't know the exact reason why and frankly I don't care because the truth is, we all lock our doors at night. We all become immediately suspicious when the motion-triggered lights in the backyard come on while we're lying in bed. Our house is our home and our home is OUR home. Uninvited guests are (obviously) not welcome.

We feel safe behind our walls. We feel comfort when we click the locks on the windows, even though, when you think about it, what good is a quarter inch of glass against someone out to do you harm? All the dead bolts, security systems and casement windows… they're all just placebos. We're never really safe. Anyone could get in if they really wanted to and THAT, Dear Reader, is the subconscious reality that powers a good home invasion film.

Notice I said “good home invasion film”. Most of these films are too formulaic and cliched to ever really achieve power. They mostly go like this. An individual, usually a woman, is home alone. There will be a significant other or friend either on the way over or wanting to be on the way over. The killer will arrive, sometimes more than one, and cause some havoc. After awhile, the significant other or friend will pop on over for a visit and get killed. The action will largely consist of two to four attempts to escape, only to end up back inside the house for the ending.

That's the typical home invasion film. HUSH, a movie about a young deaf mute writer being terrorized by a killer, plays largely by these conventions, straying momentarily every now and then to bolster the shock value of the material. It's clearly influenced by WAIT UNTIL DARK, the Terence Young classic about a blind Audrey Hepburn harassed and threatened by drug dealers. There's a bit of THE STRANGERS in there too with a wink and a nod to Bustillo and Maury's INSIDE, the infamous French cartoon-gorefest. Everything about the film, you've seen somewhere else. This isn't going to win any awards for originality.

But that's fine. I have also long held the belief that “original” is overrated. Fact is, people don't want new and fresh, they want comfortable and familiar. They just want it done better than it was the last time. So we keep getting romantic comedies, each one a little more earnest than the next. We keep getting action films, each one a bit louder than the next. And we keep getting home invasion films, each one a bit more… I don't know. To be honest, the sub-genre kinda peaked with ILS, the absolutely amazing shocker directed by Xavier Palud and David Moreau. It's the HALLOWEEN of home invasion movies, a purely cinematic experience that utilizes depth of field, open framing and carefully choreographed bits of explosive tension to really get under your skin and stay there.

HUSH doesn't quite have what it takes to be as remarkably engaging as ILS. It feels like a short film padded out to feature length, with a pacing that can never really get revving up because it feels the need to drown us in scene after scene of Maddie, the deaf mute writer, looking out a window at the murderous unnamed antagonist (aka the Man) as he just walks around the lawn looking spooky. It makes the mistake of thinking that Maddie's condition is enough to earn our sympathy and that an early-in-the-film murder committed by the Man is enough to earn our fear. These characters spend nearly the entire movie separated by window pane after window pane. And while I'm well aware of what I said earlier, by the 40 minute mark, all the potential fear of things going south by way of a single rock to that window turns into a growling sense of procrastination on the part of the filmmakers.

By the time the obligatory friend shows up to check on Maddie, I was pretty damn close to checking out. Then the film did something I didn't expect it to do. 

It got good. 

Real good, in fact. The final 15 minutes of HUSH are so good, I almost forgave it for being such a waste of potential. And yes, that's largely what this film is, a waste of potential. Mike Flanagan knows how to direct a film. There are moments here that are incredibly suspenseful, even outright scary. But it is just so unevenly paced that none of that suspense is sustained. The performances are top shelf, too. I just wish the protagonist (played by Kate Siegel) was half as interesting a character as the films villain. John Gallagher Jr.'s performance is spot on, creating one of the most interesting sociopathic killers I've seen in quite some time. But that's another problem. I cared far more about the actions of the killer than I did about the fate of the protagonist.

I think the single strongest aspect of HUSH is its simplicity. That's something missing from a lot of these films. The simple premise of a home invasion can carry a film far. It doesn't need to be a tarted up survival-action film like YOU'RE NEXT. It doesn't need to be an over-the-top, masturbatory Grand Guignol freakshow like INSIDE. The primal fear lurking behind the home invasion film is enough. Like in ILS and THE STRANGERS, the killer here is a motive-free entity. The protagonist is a (somewhat) sympathetic character. All the film had to do was sustain the conflict between those two characters. If it did that, the suspense would have stayed constant and pervasive.

Unfortunately, all the dead weight sank the ship around the 40 minute mark. I lost interest. A great final 15 minutes doesn't make up for that. With a bit more editing (or a pushing of the home invasion material to later in the script), this could have been a new horror classic.

July 1, 2016


Closing out the gialli of 1964 is DEATH ON THE FOURPOSTER, another high melodrama, low impact thriller that could have been much better had it simply tried a little harder. The central narrative inspiration here is Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None, one of the most influential murder mysteries ever published. The film tells the tale of nearly a dozen characters, all spending the weekend in a secluded castle (though it looks no larger or different than a common villa) when a murder occurs. Why that murder took place and who is to blame is the main focus of the last third of the film.

It's obvious that the only thing lifted from Christie's novel is the concept and that's a shame as the film could have gone much further. Like the characters populating Soldier Island, the characters in DEATH ON THE FOURPOSTER all have secrets and squabbles. They're all flawed in some way, outright broken in others. But the film isn't interested in littering the castle with corpses. It's much more interested in setting up a slightly ironic morality tale wherein relationships, flings and attractions are revealed to be fleeting, almost indulgent nothings. It takes a group of well-off do-nothings and isolates them, lavishing screen time on their almost nonexistent moral underpinnings. No one is really a “bad person” here, but if they were, they'd all be too self absorbed to notice. In Christie's story, all the characters were revealed to be murderers, either directly or indirectly. The characters in DEATH ON THE FOURPOSTER are at worst lousy friends and at best self important idiots. In And Then There Were None, the punishment for the crimes committed by the characters is death. Here, the punishment is just a ruined weekend.

It's interesting to note that the only characters in the film given any real amount of attention are the men. The portrayals of the women are all rather simplistic. The only two female characters given any sort of depth are Catherine, the housekeeper, and Serena, the wild and sexy free spirit. Catherine and Ricky are in a relationship, but Ricky wants it kept from his friends, quite possibly because his role as a rich layabout would be diminished if he were in love with the help. Serena is an outspoken, sexually aggressive ball of energy. Within minutes of arriving, she's strutting around the place, dancing seductively and flirting with multiple men, especially Ricky, something that doesn't sit well with Catherine. Serena leads the group in a game she calls “shattering the illusion”, goading her friends into swapping partners and revealing secrets. Of all the women populating this film, she's the only one unchained by someone or something. Or so we think.

The men have more complicated personalities. One of them is an obsessive gambler. The other
has eyes for everyone other than his girl. Another is a cynical self motivated opportunist. The groundskeeper is a “feeble minded” voyeur who can't keep his hands to himself. And then there's Anthony, Serena's date for the weekend. It turns out that Anthony is a psychic. After being pressured to perform by Serena, Anthony leads the group in a séance, and that is where this long and tiring parade of squabbles, sweet nothings and flirtations takes a turn. Anthony has several premonitions. The women wearing period clothing. The men seeing themselves in a large mirror. A murder most foul. Anthony leaves in a hurry but the rest just laugh it off.

That is until Serena is found strangled to death in her bed.

This occurs roughly 55 minutes into a 91 minute film. It's also the only murder that happens during the entire running time. That should give you an idea as to what exactly this movie is concerned with. It's more interested in the minutiae of these peoples lives than the circumstances of their deaths. When you have a movie with over a dozen characters, you can imagine how little time is spent with each one individually. That creates a serious disconnect between the audience and the drama. Before the murder occurs, not a single character presents any behavior that may signal them as capable of taking a life. These people are too self absorbed, too interested in their own personal drama. Serena might rub a few guests the wrong way, but it's more of a “this person annoys me” than “I want to strangle this woman”. So the final 36 minutes of DEATH ON THE FOURPOSTER has to forcible change nearly everything about itself to accommodate this plot development.

We learn in rapid succession that Serena was pregnant, that Ricky spent time in a mental asylum, that the castle has multiple hidden passageways. We see Ricky suddenly start to hallucinate, suddenly start to drink, suddenly start to come under suspicion for a murder no one ever would have suspected him of in the first place as the film never once revealed any of his past problems to us until this very moment. Of course, it takes the cheap way out by pointing all of its fingers at the creepy groundskeeper, but it can only hold that focus for about five minutes. By the time another girl goes missing, we're firmly in “padding the narrative” territory. Characters split up, occasionally get spooked, stumble upon some passageway, toss out a few ideas on motive and then reconvene to shoot the shit or play dice. Meanwhile, Ricky is forced to take center stage as he begins, out of the clear blue sky, to think he's relapsing into madness. And because the film was never designed to support the weight of a murder mystery angle (like A GAME OF CRIME, this film feels like it was never intended to go down its mystery thriller path), it just spills the beans haphazardly by allowing a lone woman to clearly overhear a conversation the killer is having with an unknown character in the next room.

In the end, the motive for the killing boils down to money with a pinch of jealousy to spice things up. The supernatural angle explored earlier is never given any attention. Any possibility for action or intricate character moments are traded in for more talking and sitting around, and the film winds up being one of those movies where reading a detailed synopsis would suffice, if not be preferable over actually watching the film.

If there's a saving grace here, it's the direction by Jean Josipovici and Ambrogio Molteni. It's worth noting that this film is a French/Italian co-production so I'm not quite sure who directed what here, but the direction on display is handled very, very well, with some striking scenes littered throughout the film. The use of mirrors is a highlight, one that would have come in handy had the film stuck with exploring the dual natures of some of its more lively characters. There are a few fake-out scenes done entirely in-camera, like Ricky slowly approaching a woman, his back eventually obscuring our view of her, only to show him alone in the room when the camera makes a subtle move to the left. The creeping, crawling camera work and use of Dutch and low angles gives the film an interesting visual language. Whether or not it's enough to make up for its languid pacing and overly busy narrative largely depends on the viewer.
For me personally, I found myself increasingly frustrated with the film. Long stretches of underdeveloped, largely forgettable characters talking is not my idea of a good time. Had the film pared down its roster of characters and pushed the mystery angle up in the running time, I probably would have enjoyed the time I spent watching DEATH ON THE FOURPOSTER. Unfortunately, there was far too much of far too little for me to stay interested.

(Delitto allo specchio)

Director: Jean Josipovici, Ambrogio Molteni
Writer: Jean Josipovici, Giorgio Stegani
Starring: John Drew Barrymore, Gloria Miland, Luisa Rivelli, Antonella Lualdi
Italy, France; P.T. Cinematografica
1964, 91 minutes

Narrative Variety: Poisoned Past
Murderer(s): 1 male
Murderer(s) Role: Friend
Murderer(s) Motive: Protect martial inheritance
Victims: 1 woman, strangled off screen
Murderer(s) Death: Suicide