From the Mind of Mikel

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Archive for the category “Italian Genre Cinema”

Nine Lives of “The Black Cat”

It has been awhile since I last posted on this blog. Not that I’ve been research inactive or anything like that. It’s just the work I’ve been doing has been for publication rather than the blog-verse. So I thought I’d upload a couple of the essays I’ve written in the past few years that were published in the booklets included in Blu-ray packages. Of course, I’ll always give credit to where these essays first appeared.

Black CatsThis essay was produced for Arrow’s special package, Edgar Allan Poe’s Black Cats: Two Adaptations by Sergio Martino & Lucio Fulci; this special edition appears to no longer be available via the Arrow webpage, but at the time of writing it is available via Amazon here.  Where ever possible, I will link to the producing company’s webpage, but reference to any other films will link to Amazon. Here’s the essay…

Lucio Fulci’s The Black Cat (Il gatto nero, 1981) has been unfairly maligned, even by Fulci MV5BODMxNzQxMjMtMjdlMS00NDQwLWE0N2YtMzFmYmEyMzA1NWMyXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTQxNzMzNDI@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_fans, as “a minor work” (whatever that means). The film emerges in a period of tremendous success for Il Maestro: Zombie Flesh Eaters (Zombi 2, 1979), City of the Living Dead (Paura nella città dei morti viventi, 1980), The House by the Cemetery (Quella villa accanto cimitero, 1981), and The Beyond (L’aldilà … E tu vivrai nel terrore!, 1981) all appear in the same period as The Black Cat. Actually The Black Cat was the first of Fulci’s films to receive Italian release in 1981 [the order of Italian release in 1981 goes Cat, The Beyond, and then House]. What may have hindered The Black Cat’s reception by fans is that, even in this period of the director’s most loved films, Fulci holds back on the excessive gore, in favour of suspense and comedy. With a little gore.

But here, in this essay, I want to explore how Fulci’s The Black Cat is situated among other film (and one television) adaptations of Poe’s original story; from mainstream Hollywood to the American underground, from the Cartesian logic of the giallo to superstitions about the supernatural, and finally to American cable television.

Edgar_Allan_Poe_daguerreotype_cropEdgar Allan Poe first published his short story, “The Black Cat” in The Saturday Evening Post magazine in 1843. In the story, recounted in the first person, the narrator tells the tale of his torture and murder of his wife’s beloved cat. And, over the next few paragraphs, I want to explore how this particular story has inspired filmmakers, and in the variety of ways that inspiration has been shown cinematographically.

There are several key motifs – story points – in “The Black Cat,” which filmmakers have drawn upon, modified or ignored outright over the years.  These include, the cat (obviously), who is sometimes named (and sometimes not); Poe names him Pluto (after the Roman god of the Underworld), evoking a hellish association for the kitty. The unnamed alcoholic narrator of the story mutilates Pluto by carving out one of his eyes with a penknife, and then hangs the cat by his neck. A fire usually breaks out which destroys the protagonist’s home, and in the charred remains, a scorch-mark remains which looks like the lynched cat. The cat comes back the very next day with a white mark on his neck; Poe likens it to an image of the gallows. Pluto continues to terrorize the now-delirious narrator until he can take it no longer and in attempting to murder the cat accidentally buries an axe in his wife’s head. In order to cover up his crime, he inters his wife’s corpse behind a newly fashioned wall in his cellar and congratulates himself on the perfect crime. When the police come to investigate, they are drawn down to the cellar by the sound of a cat’s meows; and behind the still-fresh wall, the wife’s body is discovered along with the cat which was accidentally trapped inside. The narrator is then usually dragged out by the police raving like the mad-thing he has become.

When The Black Cat (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1934) was released, Universal Pictures was on a bit Black_cat_poster.jpegof a winning streak after Dracula (Tod Browning, 1931), Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931) and The Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale, 1933). In their search to expand their monster movie cache, producers turned to American-born Poe as a potential source for horror movie entertainment. The first of these was also the first on-screen teaming up of Dracula star Bela Lugosi with Frankenstein star Boris Karloff. The opening credits of The Black Cat (1934) note that the film is “suggested by the immortal Edgar Allan Poe classic” (emphasis added), and with the exception of the film’s title, Ulmer’s film avails itself to none of the story motifs from the Poe original. The vaguest connection to justify the use of the title is that Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Lugosi) suffers from ailurophobia, the fear of cats, and his nemesis, Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff), keeps a black one. Universal pictures revived the title again in 1941 with even less of a connection to Poe (although Lugosi appears in a small role, thereby connecting the film to the 1934 Black Cat instead). What these two Universal Pictures productions demonstrates is an awareness of “Edgar Allan Poe” as a reference to dark, ghoulish and frightening (and American) tales, even if it was unlikely that audiences knew enough about Poe’s original story to balk at the liberties the film takes. “Poe” exists as an idea, an association with horror literature, well beyond the actual writer’s fame.

Strangely enough, the year Ulmer’s The Black Cat was released, so was Dwain Esper’s way-over-the-top Maniac (1934), which according to the Internet Movie Database 51Eoxfq8cqL._RI_SX200_(imdb.com) cost about $5000 to produce. Maniac uses much more of the Poe story than some of the films which cite “The Black Cat” as its source.  In Maniac, washed up impersonator Don Maxwell (Bill Woods) works for the insane Dr. Meirschultz (Horace B. Carpenter) on his experiments for bringing the dead back to life. Maxwell kills Meirschultz and takes over the doctor’s experiments, passing himself off as his now-dead employer. Back in the day, most homes had a cat to catch mice (hence any Tom & Jerry cartoon), and Meirschultz has a black cat named Satan. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, the now-insane Maxwell (still posing as Meirschultz) pops out one of Satan’s eyes and eats the eyeball, in what is the first on-screen depiction of that particular motif from Poe’s original story. And true to form, Maxwell walls Meirschultz up in the cellar, accidently traps the cat, and the cat’s meows alert the police to the location of the body, as one would expect. Maniac is surprisingly faithful to the Poe original. Elsewhere in the film, one of Meirschultz’s patients, Mrs. Buckley (Phyllis Diller – but not that Phyllis Diller, the American comic), compares her husband’s mania with the orangutan in Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841). It is an incidental moment in the film, but it name-drops Poe explicitly, and demonstrates that Esper and his screenwriter-wife Hildegarde Stadie have actually read Poe, unlike anyone at Universal Pictures.

Continuing his Poe-inspired series of films, Roger Corman’s Tales of Terror (1962) 61LK7WTOlIL._SX342_features a screenplay from acclaimed writer Richard Matheson. Tales of Terror adapts three(ish) Poe tales – “Morella” (1835), “The Black Cat” and “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” (1845) – and it is the middle section which concerns us here. Matheson fuses “Black Cat” with another Poe story, “The Cask of Amontillado” (1846). In the Tales of Terror version, Montresor Herringbone (Peter Lorre) is the drunk and abusive husband of the lovely Annabel (Joyce Jameson); and she has a cat which Montresor loathes.  While out on the tear one evening, Herringbone comes across a wine-tasting event and there meets Fortunato Luchresi (Vincent Price).  Herringbone brings Luchresi home with him and introduces his new friend to Annabel. Luchresi and Annabel begin an affair behind Herringbone’s back.  By the time the drunkard figures out why Luchresi is so happy to send Herringbone out for his drunken escapades, fully paid for by Luchresi, it is too late to save his marriage. Herringbone kills Annabel, and walls Luchresi up with her body in the cellar. Again, cat is accidentally trapped and leads police to discovery of the bodies. While Matheson’s adaptation of “The Black Cat” certainly holds more fidelity to Poe’s original, although with much sanitized along the way, he draws comparisons between this story and “Amontillado”. In “Amontillado”, the narrator of the story is Montresor, while Fortunato and Luchresi are two different characters – rival wine experts. Matheson also blends Fortunato’s character into Montresor by making the narrator a drunken fool, “a motley” as Poe calls him. And like the unnamed wife in “The Black Cat”, Fortunato is also walled up in the wine cellar. Matheson also borrows from Poe a name for the wife, Annabel, taken from Poe’s 1849 poem “Annabel Lee”.  Herringbone, as a name, is Matheson’s own invention.

The exceptionally low-budget The Black Cat (Harold Hoffman, 1966), like Esper’s Maniac, black_cat_1966_poster_01is surprisingly faithful to the Poe story, unlike the grander Tales of Terror or Ulmer’s Black Cat.  Firstly, Pluto, the name of the titular cat, not only keeps fidelity to the original, but the cat is listed in the opening credits.  Celebrating their first anniversary, writer Lou (Robert Frost) is given Pluto as a present from his doting wife, Diana (Robyn Baker). In Poe’s original, the unnamed narrator claims to be a devoted animal lover (thereby creating juxtaposition with the alcoholic monster he becomes):  “I was especially fond of animals, and was indulged by my parents with a great variety of pets” (Poe “The Black Cat”).  Lou also is a devoted animal lover with his own menagerie, and Pluto fits right in. Hoffman keeps Poe’s transformative juxtaposition, from animal lover to animal torturer, including the nasty motif of cutting out one of Pluto’s eyes.  Returning home drunk one night, Lou hangs Pluto with a frayed electrical cord which sets the house on fire.  It turns out that Lou’s deceased father, who never had the family home insured, may have returned as Pluto the cat in order to drive Lou crazy. Lou is admitted to an asylum for several months where he is given electroshock therapy that clears away his delusions and returns him to mental health. When he is released from the hospital, Diane is there to pick him up and they drive off to their new beginning as the music crescendos lulling the audience into a false sense of closure. Once he is back home, Lou begins drinking again and returns to his paranoid and violent ways. An identical cat, complete with missing eye, begins hanging around his house, tormenting the man. True to form, Lou murders Diane accidentally with an axe and walls up the body in the cellar, with the cat. Hoffman has one last surprise for us; while the meowing cat draws the attention of the police who then discover the body, Lou escapes and drives away. As he is zooming away from the police, he sees one-eyed Pluto on the road and swerves to avoid it, only to fatally crash his car, losing his own right eye in the process. It’s a lovely ironic touch. While “The Black Cat” has always been a gruesome story, it appears that only the lowest budgeted shlock filmmakers – like Esper or Hoffman – are able to do justice to Poe’s story. By sanitizing the story, as Universal and American International Pictures (who produced Corman’s Poe films), that vitality is lost.

Your Vice is a Locked Door and Only I Have the Key (Il tuo vizio è una stanza chiusa e solo io ne ho la chiave, Sergio Martino, 1972) is “loosely based on the short story” by Edgar e7457f98-bba0-4fa5-bc08-39c398c3ee0dAllan Poe (in Italian, “liberamente tratto dal racconto “Il gatto nero” di E. A. Poe” – “liberally” adapted).  Oliviero (Luigi Pistilli) is a drunk brutish writer with “mama issues” living on his family’s estate. He frequently holds bacchanals with the local young hippies at his home, which enables his philandering, while also humiliating his long-suffering wife, Irini (Anita Strindberg). Mostly the Vice is a standard giallo, or Italian murder mystery film; several young women are found carved up by a sex maniac and suspicion falls on Olivieri as the prime suspect. Enter Olivieri’s niece, Floriana (Edwige Fenech), who has grown in to a gorgeous woman since he last saw her, and who functions as a distraction for both Olivieri and Irini. Irini and Floriana are plotting to get their hands on Aunt Esther’s jewels; Irini plotting with her lover, Walter (Ivan Rassimov), to murder the young women and try and pin the crimes on Olivieri by hiding the bodies in the cellar of the villa.

In this version, the cat, here called Satan (echoing more the associations Poe intended with calling his cat Pluto than any suggestion of a connection with Esper’s Maniac), was Olivieri’s mother’s cat, and he dotes on it. Irini hates the cat and tries, repeatedly to get rid of it (the cat also has certain psychological interpretations as a replacement for Olivieri’s mother, whom Irini is trying to replace).  Continuing the parallel, Olivieri plays with Irini much like a cat plays with a mouse or bird before he kills it. Irini therefore takes her anger out on the cat as a surrogate, instead of lashing out at Olivier or his dead mother.  In one particularly brutal sequence, the neighbour, Mrs. Molinar (Nerina Montagnani) catches Irini trying to stab Satan with a pair of scissors.

By the end of the film, Irini murders Olivieri in a delirium mistaking drafts of his latest novel as an actual plot to kill her. She stashes his body, along with the other victims behind a make-shift wall she quickly plasters over. And poor Satan also gets trapped. The police are alerted by Mrs. Molinar on animal cruelty charges and when they come to investigate they discover where the bodies are stashed by Satan meowing.  Vice, while a “liberal” adaptation, manages to play with the narrative destabilizing the genre expectations of both the Poe story and the giallo by reversing the gender of victim and killer.

 Lucio Fulci’s The Black Cat (Gatto nero, 1981) is not considered one of the maestro’s best d54f829b-fd68-477c-951f-3ca5df1090ecfilms, but it is still a solid film worthy of note. Again, the opening credits note that this is “freely adapted”, and bears little in common with Poe’s story. In an unnamed English village, a black cat seems to be stalking the villagers, murdering them with its powers of mesmerism. Professor Robert Miles (Patrick Magee), who seemingly “owns” the cat (one can never truly own a cat), is investigating the possibility of audio recording voices from beyond the grave. An American photographer, Jill Travers (Mimsy Farmer), visiting the village becomes interested in Magee’s studies, while also seconded over to the local police as a crime photographer investigating a series of strange murders. From Poe’s story, Fulci includes the cat (here unnamed), the attempt by Miles to hang the cat, the fire which burns down one house and nearly destroys another, and the film’s dénouement with Jill standing in for the wife to be bricked up behind the wall and the tell-tale cat’s meows alerting the authorities. Beyond these few motifs, Fulci’s The Black Cat is much closer to a classic giallo with the cat as the chief suspect; even his paws are black, echoing the classic black gloved giallo killer. Fulci includes audacious “cat-cam” shots, subjective camera angles from the perspective of the cat itself, suggesting the killer point of view shots in so many gialli.

The connection between Professor Miles and the cat is made explicit in the film; somehow they are connected. They both share the powers of mesmerism, the ability to control other people’s minds. Fulci’s frequent editor, Vincenzo Tomassi, intercuts between close-ups of Miles’ eyes with an almost identical shot of the cat’s eyes; this editing pattern established (for us) the connection between the two. Miles describes them as “bound by hate;” certainly the cat seems to resent the link as he attacks Miles every chance he gets. The central question of the film is who is controlling the cat? Is it witchcraft, suggesting the belief that cats are witches’ familiars? Is the cat controlled by the spirits of the dead who resent Professor Miles disruption of their eternal rest? (Sgt Wilson (Al Cliver) suggests to Jill at the beginning of the film that the dead don’t like people interfering with them.) Is the cat just an embodiment of evil? Miles notes that “cats take orders from no one,” as if thereby explaining the kitty’s malevolence.  As in any good giallo, the mystery must not only reveal the solution, but also demonstrate that we’d been staring at it from the beginning, unable to realize its importance. In The Black Cat, we’ve been led to believe Professor Miles is a victim of the cat, but it is Miles’ powers of mesmerism that is controlling the cat. The cat’s vicious attacks on Miles occur when the link is broken and the cat can express its resentment at being controlled by Miles. The answer to the mystery had been staring us in the face from the beginning.

71vBuBgteRL._SL1139_I’ve always had a soft-spot for Dario Argento’s contribution to Two Evil Eyes (Due occhi diabolici, 1990), the portmanteau film that he and George Romero created based on two of Poe’s tales. Argento made a “Black Cat” as bonkers and over the top as he is; not the least of which are the numerous references made to other Poe stories.  Rod Usher (Harvey Keitel) is a crime photographer who we first meet photographing the body of a naked woman cut apart by a pendulum-like device. Annabel (Madeleine Potter), Usher’s common-law girlfriend, finds and adopts a stray black cat. From the beginning, Usher and the cat do not get along, and their animosity towards each other is quite mutual. This version of the story is relatively conservative and (you’ll pardon the pun) by the book: Usher gets jealous of the cat, his drinking becomes out of control, he strangles the cat, he sees the image of a gallows in the white fur on the otherwise black cat’s neck and finally murders Annabel with a meat cleaver (instead of an axe) and hides the body behind a bookcase along with the cat. Argento adds (perhaps unnecessarily) that the cat was pregnant and the kittens have been feasting on Annabel’s dead body.

But when we take a closer look at Argento’s “The Black Cat” it becomes increasingly derivative. Any literary adaptation is going feature commonalities from one adaptation to another due to the shared source material; that’s logical enough. The remit of Two Evil Eyes is to adapt (and appropriately modernize) two Poe stories, and so we would expect to see strong narrative similarities. But it is the close resemblance of stylistic and textural aspects of the adaptations which concerns me, not their narrative correspondences.  Most of the “cool stuff” in Argento’s version has been plagiarized from other filmmakers, specifically Fulci’s The Black Cat. Both Usher and Jill Travers are crime photographers (and therefore give them logical – or at least plausible – access to the gory set pieces), and the use of cat-perspective subjective shots (“cat-cam”) is right out of Fulci’s film.  Giving the girlfriend the name Annabel is likely lifted from Tales of Terror, for in Poe’s story, you’ll recall, she, like the protagonist narrator, are unnamed. The case could also be made that, by refusing to give the cat a name in either Corman’s or Fulci’s film, Argento and co-screenwriter Franco Ferrini, don’t know what to call the beast and therefore construct a strange bit of business whereby Annabel says the cat whispers its name to her so Usher (and us) are left in ignorance. This suggests that, despite his publicly expressed adoration of Edgar Allan Poe, Dario Argento hasn’t actually read the stories themselves, and instead swotted up by watching Tales of Terror and Fulci’s Black Cat.

51UYtNVxUNLPerhaps the most inventive adaptation of “The Black Cat” was by Stuart Gordon for the Masters of Horror television series (ep 2.11, 2007). In this version, Edgar Allan Poe (Jeffrey Combs) is struggling with making money from his writings while his young wife, Virginia (Elyse Levesque), slowly dies from tuberculosis. The episode suggests that “The Black Cat” is based on Poe’s own experiences with his wife’s cat, Pluto. We see the key motifs of the story included: Poe’s alcoholism, the cutting out of Pluto’s eye, the strangulation and lynching of the (black) cat, the burning down of the house, the accidental murder of Virginia with an axe, interment behind a wall, and the cat’s cries bringing the authorities. Even having these events happen to Poe reflects the first person narration of the story; the story’s “I” is Poe himself.

Beyond the narrative conceit of having Poe himself be the episode’s protagonist, Gordon’s “The Black Cat” is remarkably faithful to the historical accounts of Poe himself.  He was married to his younger cousin Virginia who was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1842, the year before “The Black Cat” was written. She died a few years later, and Poe was dead by the end of the decade.  He was an alcoholic who raged and fought against the popularity of his “tales of mystery and imagination” and really wanted to be paid for his poetry. Publisher George Graham, who did what he could for Poe’s self-destructive tendencies, also appears in the episode; as does Poe’s chief rival Rufus Griswold. The historically accurate grounding of the episode creates a “perfect storm” of chaos in Poe’s life which then matched the delirium of “The Black Cat’s” first person narrator; this enables us to slip into the story itself. It is a very clever episode.

So, what have we learned from this whistle stop tour of the various film adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe’s 1843 short story “The Black Cat”? Poe’s works were sufficiently known (if unread) that “Poe” became shorthand for the macabre and horrific. Due to the horror and violence in the original story, exploitation cinema, which could “get away with” more graphicness in their films, was better situated for faithful adaptations than (more) mainstream companies like Universal or AIP. The Italian filmmakers, not beholden to the same censorship regulations as American cinema, were able to take some of Poe’s ideas and play with them; exploring connections between different cultural understandings of the “cat” as symbol.  Finally, I think, what all of these adaptations suggest is that the original source material (any original source material) is but a template for filmmakers; and these adaptations of “The Black Cat” demonstrate the different ways that template can be imagined.

Returning once again to Lucio Fulci’s version, The Black Cat stands as not the worst adaptation of Poe. Actually, Fulci keeps to the spirit of the short story more so than either Universal Pictures or AIP do. And, as a “minor work”, the film featured sufficient innovation that Argento felt it was worth cribbing from for his own version.  To give Fulci his due, his Black Cat may be “minor”, but its effectiveness sneaks up on you, like Carl Sandberg’s Fog, “on little cat feet”.

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The WTF Cinema of Andrea Bianchi

Andrea Bianchi is one of the most marginalized of the Italian exploitation filmmakers; perhaps deservedly so.  His reputation is based on two key films: the giallo Strip Nude for your Killer in 1975 and the 1981 zombie flick, Burial Ground.  While fellow Italian directors like Umberto Lenzi and Sergio Martino were making several films a year throughout the seventies and eighties, Bianchi managed to make about one film per year between 1972 and 1993, and most of these are barely watchable. Jay Slater refers to Bianchi as “a hack director”; a label that seems cruel as Bianchi aspired to be a hack director but never quite made that cut.

Bianchi’s films are a sleazy mixture of explicit sex and gore; and while for many, such is sufficient to deserve adoration, his films often include moments of the bizarre wherein one is shaken out of a bad-movie-numbness momentary to ask “whtatthefuck?!” We look around at the other people we’re sharing this movie with – friends, family, significant others (or even just at the empty spaces where friends would be if we had any) – to see if they too were struck by the films’ moments of strangeness. 1186006_518262951588140_512413961_nDid I actually just see that?! Italian cinema expert Peter Bondanella suggests that Bianchi might be a misunderstood master of parodying the exploitation genres’ conventions. Or maybe, as Donato Totaro diplomatically puts it, a “lesser-skilled craftsman”.  To try and discover whether Andrea Bianchi is a misunderstood auteur or the “Ed Wood Jr.” of Italy, I want to go on a bit of a journey through a handful of Bianchi’s films – some well-known and others … not.

p37034_p_v7_aa I want to start with one of Bianchi’s first films, What the Peeper Saw (originally titled Diabolica malicia in 1972; also known as Night Child and even Night Hair Child – I don’t even pretend to know what that last one means).  Bianchi is directing under the pseudonym Andrew White (a common enough practice among European exploitation directors) alongside British director James Kelly; seemingly Kelly was responsible for the English language print and Bianchi the Italian print.  The film has a reasonable cast for a European b-movie in the early 1970s – former Hitlerjunger Hardy Krüger plays Paul, a wealthy remarried widower, now married to the lovely Elise (Britt Ekland), awaiting the arrival of his deeply disturbed son Marcus (former Oliver star, Mark Lester). Early on in the film, Elise and Paul are at a party, and Elise moves through the kitchen to the outdoor patio to catch some air. The sequence takes no more than 20 seconds of screen-time. But in the background we see some very bizarre behaviour from the other guests: both men and women have a naked Black woman on the table and are molesting her with handfuls of fruit. This activity is not commented on by anyone, nor do we return to the action. Nor am I sure the fruit molestation is consensual. It’s an offhand moment, but certainly very weird.download

Elise and Marcus begin a series of mind-games over the actual fate of Marcus’s mother: was it an accident in the bathtub or was it murder? In one sequence, Marcus threatens Elise with a cricket bat by swinging it in front of him as he moves towards her answering her questions about his relationship with his mother. We also find out that Marcus is a Chelsea supporter – I’m not sure what’s more frightening.  But by far the strangest moment in the film is the game of quid pro quo Marcus plays with Elise: he’ll answer her questions truthfully while she takes off her clothes in front of him. The sexual mind-games notwithstanding, from the very beginnings of his career, Bianchi appears to be obsessed with incest; it’s a theme he keeps coming back to again and again across his films. Perhaps this is where some of the evidence of Bianchi’s authorship lies, in the inscription of this taboo played out with uncomfortable graphicness; a refusal to turn away or further repress those incestuous urges within us all.

Cry_of_a_ProstituteCry of the Prostitute (originally titled Quelli che contrano, 1974) stars Henry Silva as Tony Aniante, an American mob hitman brought in to find out who is stuffing dead children’s bodies with heroin for trafficking across the continent. Aniante does this by playing Yojimbo with the two warring families sparring off of each other. In one particularly bizarre sequence, Don Cantimo (Fausto Tozzi) invites Aniante over for dinner with him and his wife Margie (Barbara Bouchet). Dinner was apparently too banal for Margie, as she tries to seduce Aniante under her husband’s nose, by fellatiating a banana. “Lola”, the cross-dressing rapist in Exciting Love Girls, also deep throats a banana – apparently, Bianchi has a thing for fruit.  Not put off by the hitman’s rejection, Margie surprises our anti-hero in the pantry later that night, naked except for the luxurious fur coat she’s wearing. Aniante takes her roughly from behind, having violent animal sex up against an eviscerated pig carcass. Despite the absence of incest themes in Cry of the Prostitute, Bianchi still offers us some bizarre visuals bringing together the separate themes of sex and violence. And having animal sex, up against a pig carcass, with someone in a fur coat, may very well be bordering on the satirical.

Even by the standards of Italian crime films, Cry of the Prostitute is extremely violent. During a particularly bloody gang-war shoot out, the Casemi matriarch, Carmela (Patrizia Gori) puts the head of one of the Cantimo soldiers into a band-saw, with appropriate splatter effects across her face. The film ends with a beaten and bloodied Aniante standing off against the Casemi clan in a sequence which has more than a little bit of the spaghetti western to it. What this sequence demonstrates, at least to me, is the strong connection between the spaghetti westerns and the Italian crime films; if the action was contemporary, it was a crime film; if the action was set 100 years earlier, it was a spaghetti western – but the scripts and iconography were almost inter-changeable.
Nude_per_l'assassinoMade in 1975, Strip Nude for your Killer (original title Nude per l’assassino) tries to up the ante for sex and violence in the giallo film. A series of gruesome murders around a fashion photographer’s studio is investigated by one of the photographers and possibly chief suspect, Carlo (Nino Castelnuovo) and one of the models, who is likely going to be one of the victims, Magda (Edwige Fenech). Strip Nude seems to polarize critics: Peter Bondandella refers to the film as “first-rate” and notes

… by the time Bianchi shot the film, the giallo conventions established by Bava and Argento and elaborated upon by a number of directors in the early 1970s had become well codified. Strip Nude for your Killer makes the often implicit connection between the thriller and the ‘sexy’ film very explicit and deals with a number of themes (abortion, lesbian sex, frontal nudity) that were treated much less openly than in other earlier thrillers (Bondanella, 2009, p. 403).

Danny Shipka, on the other hand, refers to Strip Nude as “one of the sleazier gialli out there,” and notes “the film is only meant to titillate, which shows how far the subgenre had sunk by the end of the ‘70s”.

There’s a sequence, about the middle of the film, where the owner of the studio, Maurizio (Franco Diogene), tries to seduce one of the models, Doris (Erna Schurer) in his apartment. When she resists his advances, he hits her and throws her onto the sofa and begins to rape her.  Doris acquiesces and consents for a quickie; but Maurizio can’t achieve an erection. Doris tries her best to help him, but she eventually just starts to get dressed and calls for a taxi. Maurizio is embarrassed, not because of the attempted rape, but because he couldn’t get hard, and tries to give her money for a cab. She refuses the cash, as she’s not a prostitute, and leaves. Maurizio, sad and dejected, wanders over to a set of drawers in his apartment and pulls out an inflatable woman doll, who apparently is the only woman who “understands” him. Now, either this sequence is the epitome of violent misogynist cinema, or a very clever commentary on pathetic Italian machismo. Bondanella seems to suggest the latter as he notes “a certain sense of humor in the script”.  Either way, Bianchi gets to return to his beloved incestuous themes here: the killer was in a lesbian relationship with her own sister.strip-nude-for-your-killer1

Confessions Of A Naked Housewife UK QuadBianchi’s follow up to Strip Nude, 1976’s Confessions of a Frustrated Housewife (originally titled La Moglie di mio padre) returns the director to the incest themes more centrally. In fact, the Italian title translates better as “The Wife of my Father”, reflecting the romance between a frustrated Laura (Carroll Baker) and her step-son Claudio (Cesare Barro). Laura’s wealthy husband, Antonio (Adolfo Celi), claims impotence, but is still able to function with his many mistresses. And in frustration, Laura begins to look outside the marital home for sexual pleasure. Antonio even suggests that Claudio and Laura spend more time together, so he can have more fun playing around himself.

250fullIf Confessions of a Frustrated Housewife seems rather tame for the director of Strip Nude for your Killer, he more than made up for it with his 1979 erotic-gothic possession film, Malabimba; a picture Danny Shipka refers to as “a sick little puppy [of a film]”.  Bimba (Katell Laennec, in her only film role) is the teenage daughter of the Karoli family, a decaying aristocratic clan. During a séance at their castle, the evil spirit of Lucretzia is contacted and begins to possess young Bimba. Before the young girl goes full-on Linda Blair, Lucretzia has fun possessing Sister Sofia (Mariangela Giordano), the family nun, and teaches this “Bride of Christ” how to masturbate.  Lucretzia’s main purpose in the film is to give sexual licence to the various Karoli women, particularly young Bimba. At one point in the film, Bimba makes an appearance at a cocktail party, like Regan does in The Exorcist, but instead of urinating on the floor, Bimba flashes all the guests her body.

The biggest WTF moment in the film, however, comes when Bimba seduces her paralyzed uncle, Adolfo (Giuesspe Marrocco). As was typical of the time, Italian erotic films would be produced in both soft- and hard-core editions; that is, special inserts (you’ll forgive the pun) were filmed of hard-core penetration and cut into the existing film to make a hard-core edition. If the cultural mores in a particular community or from a specific board of censors viewed pornography negatively, the softer edition would be distributed instead. Bimba’s seduction of the paralyzed Adolfo begins to have an effect, and Adolfo begins to become aroused (probably for the first time in years). Bimba begins to fellatiate her uncle – and this is where the hard-core shots are inserted, most likely filmed elsewhere and with different actors. A blow-job from a teenage niece is too much for the elderly Karoli, and his heart gives out. But he does die with a smile on his face. While the incest between uncle and niece is certainly explicit, more implicit is the affection between Bimba and her widowed father, Andrea (Enzo Fisichella). Malabimba seems to suggest that the various possessions Lucretzia is responsible for – Sister Sofia and Bimba – merely awaken and exploit existing desires, including Bimba’s desire for her father. Perhaps I can extend this idea further, suggesting that Bianchi, like Lucretzia, is merely exploiting the desires in our society; that it is us who are sick – mala – not just Bimba in our repression of incestuous and carnal desires.  Or not.

220px-Burial-groundAnd this is the context in which Burial Ground was made in 1981 (originally titled Le notti del terrore, and also known by the direct translation of the Italian, Nights of Terror); Bianchi’s own contribution to the zombie filone or cycle of Italian exploitation cinema. And, love it or hate it, even without Strip Nude for your Killer or any of Bianchi’s other films, Burial Ground is so outrageous as to cement Bianchi’s reputation.  The film opens with Professor Ayres (Renato Barbieri), opening up an Etruscan tomb and reciting an ancient prayer that awakens the zombies.  Donato Totaro observed that the dry Etruscan dead owe much of their appearance to Armando de Ossario’s Blind Dead Templar Knights from a series of Spanish films ten years earlier.

George (Roberto Caporali) and Evelyn (Mariangela Girodano), along with their son, Michael (Peter Bark), have recently bought the villa under which the Etruscan graves were excavated by Professor Ayres. Joining them for the weekend are two other couples and a skeleton crew of domestic servants. With no phones installed, when the dead start attacking the villa, these nasty bourgeoisie have no place to go or get help from. Burial Ground is a full bodied bloody gut munching film, which is probably what its reputation is based on; and the dismemberment and disembowelment starts surprisingly early in the film, with little extraneous plot.   The maid (Anna Valente), for example is slowly decapitated by scythe-carrying ghouls. Leslie’s death (Antonella Antinori), looks almost like a shot-by-shot recreation of Lucio Fulci’s famous eye-splinter sequence from Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979), almost as if Bianchi is challenging Fulci suggesting that anyone could do that.

Fulci's Zombie - eye splinter

Fulci’s Zombie – eye splinter

Burial Ground - eye splinter

Bianchi’s Burial Ground – eye splinter

But beyond the gore, Burial Ground is most notorious for the creepy Oedipal incest between Evelyn and her ten-year old son Michael; Peter Bark, who plays Michael, is clearly much older than ten, and of restricted growth, to give him the height of a much younger boy. In a sequence which is probably the nadir of Bianchi’s incest motifs, Michael wants to suckle at his mother’s breast and even tries to run his hand up her dress.  Michael accuses Evelyn of not loving him anymore as he runs off to his doom.  At the film’s end, as zombie Michael approaches his mother, she gives him her breast to suckle and he bites a massive chunk out of it. As Johanna Vuckovic notes, “What else is there to do during a zombie apocalypse but make sexual advances on your mother”?

Oedipus Schmedipus!

Oedipus Schmedipus

Jay Slater, noting that Burial Ground is “a particularly unpleasant film to watch”, also suggests that the film is “simply a tasteless excuse to show people ripped to pieces and eaten at a time when it was popular at the box office”. But I’m not entirely convinced such a dismissal is warranted: Bianchi’s confrontation of the incest taboos, throughout these films, suggests a direct problematizing of these repressed desires in our society (well, his society of 1970s Italy). And along with that, as Johanna Vuckovic notes, the film can be read as “revenge of the dead against the living in which the ragged, plebeian zombies overthrow the decadent, libertine bourgeoisie”. And that’s always fun to watch.

download (1)I want to talk about one last film, as it touches on many of the points I’ve already mentioned, Bianchi’s 1983 film Exciting Love Girls (original title Giochi carnale, a much better title, as it translates as “Sex Games”). For most of the film, we follow two scuzzy guys who drive around looking for female hitchhikers to pick up and rape. Miche, one of the rapists, needs these experiences so he can play them in his head while he has sex with his fat and unpleasant wife, Maria. His buddy and partner-in-crime, has the brilliant idea to cross-dress as “Lola” so they cruise around as husband and wife to get a better class of hitchhiker to rape.

Parallel to this plot is the story of Dr. Daniella Mauri (played by Sirpa Lane, in her final role; she died in 1999), an angry feminist emergency doctor who is disgusted by the constant stream of rape victims she is treating. Eventually, the two stories come together and Dr. Daniella is abducted by Miche and “Lola” and brutally raped. While the two rapists are sleeping it off, Dr. Daniella retrieves her medical bag, and uses her surgery skills to anesthetize her attackers, removing their testicles, and dropping them in glasses of champagne for when they awaken.  And there the film ends.

Bianchi’s Exciting Love Girls is a deeply uncomfortable film to watch; the sequences of rape are brutal and pornographic. When Dr. Daniella is raped, she appears to enjoy it, or at least that’s the impression she’s trying to give to her attackers. Like the pathetic Maurizio in Strip Nude for your Killer, we are invited to identify with (or at least follow) these repulsive characters; but then the film seems to hold them up for ridicule and condemnation. It is as if we are invited to enjoy these sequences of sexual violence, only for Bianchi to turn on us, challenging his audience to recognize that we are the disgusting ones watching this junk. Before the film’s final credits, we are presented with two titles cards; one informing us that “What [we] have just seen has really happened. We just portrayed it on film” and the second one noting that “The Doctor was sentenced for 8 years. The rapists for 4”. One cannot be unmoved by such an ending; the “real” Daniella sentenced to twice as long as her rapists. At one level, Bianchi may be playing with a stereotypical misogynist warning – that castrating rapists might look like a good idea, but the law will punish you twice as severely. Or do we get a glimmer of Bianchi turning the visual pleasures of trash cinema against us, rubbing our noses in the gender inequity of women’s actual exploitation.

We’re faced with the quandary of what to make of the cinema of Andrea Bianchi. Is he an unsung genius directly confronting our own hidden desires and moral failings while his films seem to glorify them? Or is he so completely inept as a filmmaker, we need to read into his films some kind of moral justification to validate the time spent watching and discussing this trash? Truthfully, I don’t know. But what I do know is that we’re still talking about his films, thirty plus years after they were made. And many of them have the power to outrage, disgust and befuddle audiences still.

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