tirsdag 23. februar 2010

Dangerous Women/Le diaboliche

Italy, 1989

Directed by Luigi Russo

Lisbeth Hummel, Pierangelo Pozzato, Beatrice Palme, Giulia Urso

After recently watching and enjoying Formula for a Murder (1985), Alberto De Martino’s nice little thriller about an evil plot to scare a wealthy wheelchair-bound woman to death, I kept feeling an irresistible urge to also check out Luigi Russo’s Dangerous Women since it has a pretty similar plot. But as it turns out, the two films are rather dissimilar in execution.

The plot centers around Elise Manning (Lisbeth Hummel), a wealthy heiress who is confined to a wheelchair. Although good-natured, Elise seems to be a rather lonely woman with few friends, and she lives by herself in a large mansion with only her housekeeper, Vivian (Beatrice Palme), and the chauffeur-cum-gardener, Angelo (Pierangelo Pozzato), to keep her company. The lonely Elise is so appreciative of Vivian’s hard work and companionship that she has decided to make her the sole beneficiary of her will. But poor Elise also suffers from a weak heart. So weak in fact that a friendly nurse named Giulia (Giulia Urso) comes by every day to check up on her. The doctor has said that any strong emotion could be fatal for her, so Elise needs to be quite careful! Hmm... care to take a guess where this is going?
Well, as you might have anticipated, Vivian has no intention of slaving around in a maid’s uniform for decades while she waits for Elise to croak. Instead she and Angelo (who is her lover) hatch a diabolical plot to frighten Elise to death – thus making her death appear natural.


The hellish housekeeper - one of the dangerous women alluded to in the title

Setting her evil plan in motion, Vivian tells Elise that she has to go away for some days because her sister has been hospitalized. Elise says she’ll manage on her own for a few days but shortly after Vivian’s departure bad things start happening. Her wheelchair mysteriously vanishes, and with no one else in the villa, she has little choice but to get down on the floor and crawl around the house in search of her missing wheelchair but to no avail. Elise quickly senses that she isn’t alone. Someone seems to be hiding in the mansion – someone who means her harm. But Elise comes to realize that whoever is lurking around in the villa doesn’t seem to be out to kill her but rather to terrorize and torment her. Alone, defenseless and heartsick, Elise is nevertheless determined to get the better of her tormentor but will her weak heart be able to sustain the ordeal?

Elise fights to stay alive

Director Luigi Russo is a fairly obscure figure in the world of Italian B movie cinema. He started out writing the screenplays of a few decamerotic films in the early 1970s, before moving on to write and direct his own films. The majority of Russo’s directorial output consists of little-known erotica efforts such as The Black Maid (1976) with Ines Pellegrini, and Blue Island (1982), a Blue Lagoon rip-off starring Sabrina Siani.

It is worth taking note of the fact that Russo didn’t merely write and direct his own movies – he frequently did editing and cinematography duties on them as well. To be honest, I suspect that his motives for doing so have less to do with him being a true auteur and more to with the fact that it’s cheaper to make a film when you’re doing everything by yourself. Nevertheless, this does mean that Russo was pretty deeply involved in most of the films he made, and this is also the case with Dangerous Women, which he wrote, directed, photographed, edited and even produced through his own company, Luigi Russo Produzione. It was the first film he had directed in almost seven years and it is a clear departure from the sex romps he used to specialize in. Russo’s only prior experiences with the thriller format is limited to co-writing the dismal giallo La morte scende leggera (1972) and directing the unreleased thriller Paura (1972), which starred German actress Kai Fischer and a young Patrizia Gori at the start of her career. But in spite of his somewhat limited experience with the genre, Dangerous Women is proof that Russo is still able to craft a reasonably engaging thriller that manages to hold ones attention.

Though sometimes referred to as a giallo, Dangerous Women can’t really be classified as such, although it admittedly has a few similarities to the twistful inheritance-plot gialli of the 1960s. But more than anything the plot is a reworking of the classic Les Diaboliques (1955) – a fact which is clearly acknowledged in the film’s original Italian title, Le diaboliche – with a couple of new twists and ideas thrown into the mix. The most notable difference is of course the fact that the imperiled leading lady is wheelchair-bound – a plot point that has been snatched from Formula for a Murder, which, of course, is a Les Diaboliques rip-off itself, although a highly enjoyable one.

Just to be clear, though: Dangerous Women is nowhere near as good as Formula but it has more going for it than you might expect from a late 1980s Italian thriller. The pacing is surprisingly snappy as Russo wastes very little time with setting up the plot before jumping right onto the terrorization of Elise. Russo uses the large villa setting to good effect and manages to create some nice tension as neither the paralyzed heroine nor the audience is exactly sure about who’s hiding there. And the scenes where the frightened Elise crawls around in the large mansion while clutching to a kitchen knife do a good job of establishing Elise as both vulnerable and highly exposed to her tormentor.

Terror in the dark

Seeing as there are only four characters in the entire film, it goes without saying that there are few kills, and the few deaths that we do get are not gory since Russo is clearly favoring psychological terror over splattery mayhem. There is, however, a surprisingly brutal scene where the mysterious tormentor violently attacks Elise with her own wheelchair. Filmed from the attacker’s POV as he repeatedly smashes the wheelchair into the poor defenseless woman, this relentless and prolonged sequence has a mean-spirited streak to it and is actually very unpleasant to watch.

Nasty wheelchair violence

On the technical side, Russo’s cinematography is fairly slick, and Luigi Ceccarelli provides an excellent synthesizer score that underlines the suspense perfectly. But the one really serious complaint I have about Dangerous Women (outside of a completely asinine surprise twist at the end) is that the concept is stretched out too far. At 90 minutes, the film is overlong. It would probably have worked better as a one-hour installment in an anthology series à la the popular 1970s TV series Thriller but there isn’t quite enough plot to fill an hour and a half, and consequently we get a bit too many long stretches with Hummel crawling around on the floor to the strains of Ceccarelli’s agreeable synthesizer score.

Crawling aplenty

The film is further hampered by a horrendous English dubbing job that is so flat and un-emotive that it seriously undermines the performances of all the actors. Thankfully, there’s only a limited amount of dialogue, which makes it more bearable but it’d still be nice to be able to watch this one in Italian with subtitles as I’m certain it would benefit from it.

Character motivation is at times a little shaky too. Because Elise has little interaction with other characters, we get rather limited access to what goes on inside her head, and this begins to pose somewhat of a problem once Elise starts making improbable choices. It seems highly illogical that when the nurse who checks up on her every day stops by, Elise pretends that everything is like normal because she’s too proud to ask for help. This sort of bizarre character motivation is hard to swallow but as the film progresses, we gradually begin to accept Elise’s determination and stubbornness as she lets her tormentors’ plot unfold while she starts preparing a trap of her own. In this regard, the Elise character is quite similar to the heroine of José Maria Forqué’s underrated giallo In the Eye of the Hurricane (1971), who also seemingly sits passive and lets a plot to murder her play out.

The casting of the film is quite interesting. The wheelchair-bound heroine is played by Danish actress Lisbeth Hummel, who is the real-life wife of Luigi Russo. In the 1970s, she appeared in several film directed by her husband but her most famous part was unquestionably her leading role in Walerian Borowczyk’s notorious arthouse shocker The Beast (1975). Hummel retired from films at the end of the 1970s but after a 10 year break from the limelight her husband convinced her to return before the camera to play the leading role in Dangerous Women. At the time she was pushing 40, and though she was still pretty, Hummel certainly looks far more ordinary and unglamorous here than in her glory days. This works to the film’s advantage, though, as Hummel convincingly looks the part of the lonely and vulnerable wheelchair-bound heiress. Since she spends much of the film in isolation and doesn’t have a great deal of dialogue, she is instead required to rely on her body language and facial expressions to convey the character’s emotions. On top of that, the role is very physically challenging as Hummel has to spend much of her screen time crawling the floors of the massive villa. I must say she manages this task really well, and her performance is what really holds the film together.

Hummel gets ample opportunity to play on fear and terror

It’s difficult to fully assess the performances of the three remaining actors because they are all badly dubbed and not given that much to do. Pierangelo Pozzato and Beatrice Palme act appropriately slimy as the greedy servant couple but neither of them are able to transcend the clichéd nature of their characters. Pozzato has just the right face for this type of unsympathetic role, though, and aficionados of extreme Euro-sleaze will probably remember him fondly for his role as one of the escaped death row prisoners terrorizing a women’s penitentiary in the unforgettable W.I.P. trash masterpiece Blade Violent (1983). Palme, while far less prolific in genre cinema, has enjoyed a long and successful career – appearing in everything from the obscure Fred Williamson action film Foxtrap (1986) to the internationally revered Cinema Paradiso (1988).
My favorite in the supporting cast, though, is the sexy Giulia Urso, who plays the growingly suspicious nurse who comes to check on Elise. Unfortunately, she never managed to make much of a career for herself. Outside of a supporting role in Sergio Martino’s WW2 action flick Casablanca Express (1989), she only appeared in a handful of pretty non-noteworthy films.

Pozzato and Palme as the bad guys

In sum, Dangerous Women is a pretty nice entry in the extremely short-lived fad of Italian wheelchair-terror flicks (actually, outside of this and Formula for a Murder there doesn’t really seem to be any other examples of this sub-genre, although a wheelchair does feature prominently in Leandro Lucchetti’s oh so subtly titled Bloody Psycho (1989), which I’ll probably cover later on). Anyway... as long as you’re able to overlook the incredibly stupid ending, the rest of the film is – in spite of its flaws – a fairly enjoyable way to spend an hour and a half, so I say give it a shot if you liked Formula for a Murder.

© 2010 Johan Melle

The cast:

Lisbeth Hummel as Elise Manning

Beatrice Palme as Vivian

Pierangelo Pozzato as Angelo

Giulia Urso as Giulia

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