torsdag 25. februar 2010

La polizia brancola nel buio

Italy, 1973

Directed by Helia Colombo

Joseph Arkim, Elena Veronese, Halina Zalewska, Gabriella Giorgelli, Francisco Cortéz, Richard Fielding, Danny P. Gerzog, Robert Trewords, Margaret Rose Keil, Sonny Crowell, Daiana Murpy, Erika Fisher

I really love hunting down obscure, forgotten gialli from the 1970s. There is so much amazing stuff out there that’s just waiting to be rediscovered. Unearthing these old movies can be a two-sided coin, however, because sometimes you come to realize that there’s actually a pretty good reason why certain films have languished in complete obscurity for decades. This is certainly the case with La polizia brancola nel buio (translation: The police are blundering in the dark), which is arguably the worst giallo to emerge from the early 1970s. Made in 1973 by one-time-only-director Helia Colombo under the laughable shooting-title Il giardino delle iattughe (translation: The lettuce garden), it sat on the shelf for two years before finally receiving a limited theatrical release in 1975. After that it completely disappeared and never got a single VHS release. The only known version of the film to have turned up anywhere is a battered-looking Super 8 print, which has since been transferred to video and made available to an unsuspecting Euro cult audience.

It all kicks off in the countryside, where a pretty blonde model is despairing because she’s gotten a flat tire. She asks a passerby (whose face is unseen by the audience) for help but instead he attacks her with a pair of scissors – conveniently ripping her blouse open in the process. With the scissor-wielding maniac in hot pursuit, the poor girl runs off into the woods while her exposed boobs keep bouncing around.

A chase through the woods

After providing the requisite amount of screaming, tripping and bouncing tits, the girl is caught and stabbed to death with the scissors. Her lifeless body then slumps to her knees – resulting in a tasteless shot of the dead girl on her knees with her face pressed up against her killer’s crotch. This is a hilariously tacky opening sequence and it immediately sets the standard of quality for the rest of the film.

An awfully tacky scissor murder

Next, we learn through some newspaper headlines that the unfortunate victim is the fourth model in 18 months to go missing in this area, and that the clueless police are blundering in the dark (hence the title of the film). It turns out that all the missing models had been photographed nude by an eccentric photo artist named Edmondo Parisi, who lives in a secluded country villa. Now, you’d think that this would make Parisi a likely candidate for being investigated by the police but apparently this hasn’t occurred to the cops. You’d also think that Parisi would have a pretty hard time managing to convince any more models to come to his house to get photographed naked, but since nothing in this film seems to make much sense, a sexy blonde model named Enrichetta (Margaret Rose Keil) still shows up to get her picture taken. But unfortunately for Enrichetta, she too gets a flat tire on her way back. To make matters worse, there’s a bad rainstorm going on, so Enrichetta seeks refuge at the local inn, where she calls her journalist boyfriend Giorgio D’Amato (whose car she was using) and asks him to come get her. However, Giorgio is just getting it on in bed with another woman, and tells Enrichetta he hasn’t got time to come get her until the next day. Nice guy, eh?

Gentlemen prefer blondes – philanderers, apparently, do not

Anyway, that leaves Enrichetta with no other option than to rent a room at the inn. Luckily for her (and for the male viewers) there’s a big fireplace in her room, so she quickly gets out of her wet clothes and prances around naked. That is, until she discovers that the scissor killer has been inexplicably hiding behind the curtain (he wasn’t there when Enrichetta was looking out the window a few minutes earlier and there’s nowhere he could have come from in the meantime but, like I’ve already mentioned, things don’t make a great deal of sense in this film). So, naturally, poor Enrichetta ends up being victim number five. This really wasn’t a very good day for her!

Enrichetta’s demise

Cut to the next morning, as Enrichetta’s idiot boyfriend Giorgio finally comes to get her. Of course, she is nowhere to be found, so Giorgio heads to Edmondo Parisi’s villa to check if he knows anything more. Parisi turns out to be a rather weird, wheelchair-bound hippie-ish type who looks a bit like a gay version of Hyde from That ‘70s Show – sans the sunglasses.

Mr. Parisi

Parisi isn’t able to shed any light on what has happened to Enrichetta (and Giorgio doesn’t seem very interested in finding out either – although that may be down to bad acting) but he invites Giorgio to stay for dinner. And thus we get acquainted with the rest of the Parisi household, which consists of Parisi’s miserable wife Eleonora (Halina Zalewska), who hates living in the countryside and who apparently suffers from a hyper-maniacal state called ‘erotomania’; their beloved orphaned niece Sara (Elena Veronese); and Dr. Dalla, the village doctor, who doesn’t actually live with the Parisis but he apparently never has any patients so he spends his entire days moping around in their villa. Then there’s the domestic staff, which consists of the sinister and newly-employed butler, Alberto, who takes an immediate dislike to Giorgio’s presence; and the busty maid, Lucia (Gabriella Giorgelli), who is an insatiable nymphomaniac that will fuck anything or anyone – not even the local village idiot gets turned down by her!

But there’s more going on too. During dinner, we see Parisi secretly pressing a button on some weird devise, which causes the eye of his golden Buddhist statue to flash strangely. It turns out there’s actually a camera hidden in the statue but it’s no regular camera. No, Parisi has actually managed to invent a revolutionary camera that can photograph people’s thoughts!!!

Parisi's bizarre photographic devise

Now, I have to admit that all this sounds like the recipe for a thoroughly enjoyable – if somewhat crazy – giallo but, sadly, it's nowhere near as cool as it sounds. Once Giorgio arrives at the Parisi villa, the plot just grinds to a halt as the characters almost never do anything but dine or indulge in idle chit chat. It seems like the director ran out of ideas and could think of nothing better to pad the running time with than long, boring interior shots of people discussing irrelevant matters. Sure enough, at some point another woman (and you can probably guess who) bares her breasts and gets stabbed to death and then Parisi solves the crime by developing the thought-photographs he took of everyone during dinner. And that’s pretty much everything that happens. Seriously! Oh, and just forget about an explanation for the killer’s motivation because there just isn’t any.

In case you haven’t figured it out already, La polizia brancola nel buio is an extremely trashy affair that is very badly plotted and acted. One could easily overlook these flaws had the film at least provided a bit of suspense, or some stylish murder set-pieces like we’ve come to expect from a giallo, but unfortunately, there’s no such stuff to be found here. Writer-director Helia Colombo seems to have no eye for visual style or flashy imagery, so instead he tries to compensate by making sure that all of the female victims are flashing their tits when they get killed. Not helping matters any is the fact that the film seems to have been made on a virtually non-existent budget. It looks every bit as dirt-cheap as it undoubtedly was – especially in the beat-up Super 8-sourced version that’s currently doing the rounds. The cinematography is stale and boring, and the frenetic musical score by a certain Aldo Saitto (who doesn’t appear to have scored any other films) is annoyingly repetitious.

Tits and gore is all it takes to make a good giallo! Right...?

There are nevertheless a few interesting ideas thrown in – particularly the concept of the machine that can photograph thoughts. In Dario Argento’s excellent Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971), a victim’s eyeball is examined by a machine, which is able to extract the image of the last thing the person saw before dying. That in itself was pretty fanciful stuff but here Helia Colombo manages to take the idea one step further, and one has to sort of admire him for employing such a wild, science fiction-like plot element in a film that is otherwise... erm... realistic. Still, Colombo hardly does much justice to the idea, which is handled in a rather arbitrary fashion.

A classic Blow-Up-style sequence (well... sort of) as Parisi develops his thought-photographs

The majority of the actors are ultra-obscure and don’t seem to have appeared in anything else, although it’s hard to say for sure since most of them are hiding behind ridiculous anglicized pseudonyms that betray the filmmakers’ poor grasp of English – Daiana Murpy, anyone!? I don’t even know the identity of the actor who plays the leading role of the womanizing Giorgio D’Amato but whoever he might be, he’s a pretty uncharismatic guy as well as a useless protagonist. One initially expects him to be the amateur sleuth that solves the case but in the end it is Parisi who exposes the killer with his thought-photographing devise, while Giorgio proves to be as ineffective as the conspicuously absent police. In fact, Giorgio does nothing useful throughout the film and he’s a pretty unlikable character, too, due to his attitude towards women (his introductory scene where he refuses to help Enrichetta because he’s getting it on with another woman is just one example).

There are, however, three familiar faces in the film – all of them actresses. The most famous of these is the voluptuous Gabriella Giorgelli, whose long and prolific career includes appearances in westerns (Day of Vengeance, 1967), gialli (Seven Blood-Stained Orchids, 1972), sex comedies (The Virgin Wife, 1975), violent crime films (The Cynic, the Rat & the Fist, 1977) and much more. Giorgelli’s performance as the sex-hungry maid is one of the film’s few real highlights as she clearly savors the opportunity to show off her impressive physique in a steamy shower scene as well as in her hilarious sexual encounter with the village idiot.

Gabriella Giorgelli saves the day

Another familiar face is that of blonde German beauty Margaret Rose Keil, who at the time was well-known to Italian audiences for her appearances in a long-running series of TV commercials and prints ads for the vermouth brand Punt e Mes, as well as a bunch of sexy film roles. But unlike Giorgelli, Keil is poorly utilized in the rather thankless role of poor Enrichetta – she basically just gets naked and dies. Finally, there’s Polish-born actress Halina Zalewska (the older half-sister of the more famous Ely Galleani) in the role of Parisi’s frosty and dissatisfied blonde wife. Zalewska had a very successful acting career in the 1960s, when she appeared in such memorable films as the Antonio Margheriti’s gothic chiller The Long Hair of Death (1964) alongside Barbara Steele, the spaghetti western The Bounty Hunter (1967) and the bizarre crime/giallo hybrid Date for a Murder (1967). But, unfortunately, Zalewska’s career took a nose dive in the early 1970s – in fact this was to become her final film as she died tragically in a fire in her Roman apartment in 1976. La polizia brancola nel buio was hardly a good swansong for her as she isn’t given anything interesting to do here.

There isn’t much more to say, really. No one in their right mind would ever mistake La polizia brancola nel buio for anything even resembling a good film. It’s simply an awful piece of celluloid, and yet it is strangely endearing in all its awfulness. I suppose it’s the film’s sheer rarity and tastelessness, coupled with its glaring amateurishness and complete lack of logic sense that somewhat manages to work in its favor if you’re in a rather generous state of mind. Plus we do get a fair amount of tits and gore – and usually at the same time too – so if boobs and bloodshed satisfy your needs (even when it’s executed without any sense of style), or you just feel like exploring the very tackiest depths of the giallo format, then La polizia brancola nel buio is unquestionably a film for you!

© 2010 Johan Melle

The cast:

??? as Giorgio D’Amato

??? as Edmondo Parisi

Elena Veronese as Sara

Halina Zalewska as Eleonora Parisi

Gabriella Giorgelli as Lucia

??? as Dr. Dalla

??? as Alberto

Margaret Rose Keil as Enrichetta

??? as The village idiot

??? as The inn-keeper

??? as The inn-keeper’s wife

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

tirsdag 16. februar 2010

Formula for a Murder/7, Hyden Park: La casa maledetta

Italy, 1985

Directed by Alberto De Martino

Christina Nagy, David Warbeck, Carroll Blumenberg, Rossano Brazzi, Loris Loddi, Andrea Bosic, Adriana Giuffrè

Warning! This review contains a spoiler!

I have to be honest and admit that I don't understand how on earth Alberto De Martino has managed to develop a reputation as one of Italian genre cinema's worst directors. I just don't get it! Presumably it's due to the fact that he made two real turds: The Puma Man (1980) and Miami Golem (1985) but come on now! I think it's about time we forgave him for those two misses – particularly when we consider the fact that De Martino has also given us two of the most purely enjoyable Italian horror films of the 1970s: The Antichrist (1974) and Holocaust 2000 (1977). I actually find his directorial output on the whole to be very agreeable, and that includes his second to last film, Formula for a Murder.

De Martino wrote this film together with noted genre scribe Vincenzo Mannino, who is best known for his collaborations with Gianfranco Clerici. Together, Mannino and Clerici are responsible for penning a number of successful but violent films with a rather nasty edge, such as Five Women for the Killer (1974), The House on the Edge of the Park (1980) and The New York Ripper (1982), and that distinctly nasty edge is certainly present in Formula for a Murder too.

The plot kicks off in Boston in 1960, where a sexual predator dressed as a priest tries to get his clutches on a little girl by luring her with a doll. Sensing that something isn't right, the girl tries to escape by running up a big flight of stone steps but, unfortunately, she is caught. The man rips the doll out of the girl's hand and throws it down the stone steps - its head falling off upon impact. The camera then follows the broken doll as it tumbles down the steps in slow motion till it hits the ground.

Throwing in an ugly doll for added creepiness seems to always work

Cut to 25 years later – in the present time of 1985 – where we are introduced to Joanna (Christina Nagy), a wealthy wheelchair-bound heiress. It is soon transpires that Joanna is the little girl from the opening sequence and that her paralysis is a direct result of her childhood trauma as she fell down the stone stairs during her struggle with her attacker and broke her back.

Joanna isn't a bitter woman, though. She lives in a luxurious villa together with her helper and close friend Ruth (Carroll Blumenberg) and tries to live life to the fullest in spite of her handicap. She’s particularly fond of archery shooting, and has put a lot of her wealth into establishing a sports center for paraplegics.


Joanna's handsome sports coach Craig (David Warbeck) has been spending a lot of time with Joanna to help her improve her archery skills, and romantic sparks have set off between the two – much to the dismay of the jealous Ruth, who is apparently a lesbian and would like to have Joanna all to herself.

Craig romances Joanna...

...under the disapproving eye of his lesbian rival

Nevertheless, Craig and Joanna quickly get married, and a bitter Ruth moves out of the house – though Joanna reassures her that they'll still see each other every day. All is not well, however. Father Peter (Andrea Bosic), whose church Joanna was about to donate a large sum of money to, is gorily slashed to death in his confessional box by a mysterious killer dressed up like a priest. However, since Father Peter was just about to go out of town on some business, nobody seems to give his absence a second thought.

Father Peter takes his final confession

Craig is approached by Joanna's concerned psychiatrist Dr. Sernich (Rossano Brazzi), who worriedly reveals to him that Joanna has completely blocked out the childhood incident that led to her confinement to the wheelchair. She doesn't remember anything and, if she were to remember, it would probably be such a big shock that it could produce a fatal heart attack.

It doesn't take long after that before Joanna starts being subjected to some traumatizing events. While she is by herself in the living room, a figure dressed as a priest suddenly comes walking down the stairs – carrying a blood-stained doll that sings a creepy nursery rhyme. Joanna gets terrified and passes out from the shock of it. Craig quickly rushes to her aide – by which time Joanna's tormentor is long gone.

Let's scare Joanna to death

Like any decent giallo heroine, Joanna quickly dismisses the incident as a hallucination but the priest with the creepy doll continues to show up every time Joanna is by herself, and she eventually begins to question her own sanity. But then it is revealed that Craig is the one who's been dressing up like a priest to torment her. He's actually in cahoots with Ruth (who is his lover) and they are out to get their greedy hands on Joanna's fortune by scaring her to death, as a natural death will help them avoid any unwanted attention from the police.

Now, I realize that the above is somewhat of a spoiler but it hardly comes as that much of a shock and it's also revealed fairly early in the proceedings. There are still plenty of other unexpected twist and turns to follow. One twist in particular (which won't be revealed here) is highly surprising because it just comes out of nowhere – and without much foundation in logic, I might add. But, as any giallo fan will tell you, half-crazy, unmotivated plot twists from out of the blue are often the most enjoyable ones and it helps to make the film feel fresh.

Formula for a Murder isn't exactly groundbreakingly original, though. The plotline about a greedy couple trying to scare a woman to death to inherit her money is yet another reworking of Henri Georges Clouzot's endlessly imitated landmark thriller Les Diaboliques (1955), whereas the theme of the terrorized woman being wheelchair-bound recalls Hammer Studio's Taste of Fear (1961) – itself a Les Diaboliques-inspired thriller. But Formula for a Murder is at the same time a sort of giallo, and throws in a lot of familiar giallo traits – opening as it does with the creepy childhood trauma involving a doll, and then quickly afterwards introducing the requisite black-gloved, razor-wielding killer whose identity is kept secret from the viewers.

However, De Martino and Mannino's script drums up an unusual spin on the tried and tested giallo routine by choosing to unmask the killer early on. This is actually a pretty good idea as it shifts the focus away from the usual whodunit trappings and adds some freshness to the proceedings. Mannino would later revisit this approach when he co-wrote Ruggero Deodato's thriller Phantom of Death (1987) together with Gianfranco Clerici. In this film, too, the whodunit aspect is unexpectedly discarded around the 30 minute mark but a good deal of sympathy for the killer is retained throughout the film. The latter is not the case with Formula for a Murder, however. Quite the contrary, as the two villains are shown to be a particularly loathsome and unscrupulous pair – thus enabling Mannino to work his characteristically nasty edge into the script.

The murders, while few in number, are quite violent – including some graphic throat-slashings and a particularly brutal moment where a priest is repeatedly bashed in the head with a shovel. But the terrorization of Joanna, too, is quite mean-spirited – especially in the protracted but very suspenseful finale where she must try to defend herself from a maniacal Craig. The fact that Joanna is in a wheelchair makes her an easy prey, and De Martino really exploits her vulnerability to the fullest in order to muster up some effective thrills and suspense.

A couple of bloody highlights

A vital ingredient to the success of both the intense climax as well as the film’s overall level of suspense is the strong and convincing central performance by British actress Christina Nagy, who manages to instill a lot of sympathy in the character of Joanna – ensuring that the viewers care about what happens to her. Although Nagy worked extensively in British theatre during the 1980s, it seems that Formula for a Murder is – unfortunately – her sole film role. As such, she lacks the name value to attract the attention of most Euro-cult fans but is actually nicely cast in the role. Though slightly older and less glamorous than your average Italian thriller heroine, this seems appropriate considering the type of character she's playing, and Nagy makes the part of Joanna far more effective and believable than it would've been if played by such fluffy 80s starlets as Serena Grandi or Eva Grimaldi.

Christina Nagy pulls out all the stops in the climax

There's no denying, however, that the real standout in the cast is the always welcome David Warbeck, who really manages to turn Craig into a memorable villain. Rugged and handsome as usual, Warbeck comes across as quite charming in the early stages of the film – and thus completely believable as someone Joanna would fall for. But it's when Craig finally shows his true colors that Warbeck's performance really starts to shine. He makes a wonderful villain here, and is particularly great in the prolonged climax, where he goes completely over the top with intense, rolling eyes and a big, maniacal grin as he goes after Joanna with a knife and just keeps getting back up again and again after being taken down. Warbeck's unstoppable maniac routine was modeled after Jack Nicholson's iconic performance in The Shining (1980) – a fact that Warbeck himself admitted in an interview in the book Spaghetti Nightmares: "That was my idea actually, with the shears and everything. I was basically trying to dress up an awful script with nothing going for it. It was a terrible experience". I think Warbeck really deserves a lot credit for being such a true professional and never letting his apparent dislike for the film become visible on-screen. On the contrary, he seems to have really dug into the role, which just goes to show what a great, dependable guy he was.

David Warbeck is THE MAN

Unfortunately, both Warbeck and Nagy have been dubbed (by Frank von Kuegelgen and Susan Spafford, respectively), so we don't get the advantage of enjoying their own voices. The dubbing is not badly done but it is still regrettable that neither of the two stars opted to do their own dubbing.

Some mention should also be made of the strikingly beautiful Carroll Blumenberg, who plays the ruthlessly greedy Ruth. She has just the right look for this sort of devious and bitchy character but remains a total enigma as she doesn't appear to have been in anything else either before or after this film. The rest of the supporting cast doesn't make much impact. It's nice to see the excellent Rossano Brazzi onboard here but, unfortunately, he is thoroughly wasted in a throwaway supporting role that gives him very little to do.

Whatever happened to this knockout??

Technical credits are solid – with Gianlorenzo Battaglia's cinematography looking very striking and stylish due to the use of a lot of inventive camera angles. It's also a plus that we get some nice location scenes from New York – including a trip on the Staten Island Ferry, which is sure to bring back memories of Lucio Fulci's notorious The New York Ripper, which – just like Formula for a Murder – was produced by Fabrizio De Angelis' company Fulvia Film.

Gianlorenzo Battaglia always knows how to get a good shot

A trip to New York

The New York Ripper connection is further enforced by Francesco De Masi's electronic score, which is largely made up of recycled variations of his Ripper theme. De Masi’s main theme from Escape from the Bronx (1983) is recycled too, which feels a bit out of place but it actually works fairly well. It's not much of a surprise then that the amount of original music De Masi has composed for Formula for a Murder is rather limited. It isn't really up to par, either, as it sounds quite droning and uninspired.

In sum I'd say that Formula for a Murder is very much a worthwhile thriller – particularly on the first viewing – slightly less so on the second. The reason why it suffers somewhat on repeat viewing is because once you know how the plot is going to fold out, the film's logical flaws (of which there are plenty) become glaringly obvious. There's absolutely no good reason for portraying Ruth as a lesbian in love with Joanna other than to deliberately mislead the audience and then pull the rug underneath us when it is revealed that she is actually plotting Joanna's murder with Craig. Likewise, Joanna's bizarre nightmare – in which she is accused of faking her paralysis – is nothing more than a ploy to throw us off, and the film would probably have been better off without these plot elements. Luckily, it’s not enough to seriously hamper the film, which remains an enjoyable little thriller.

And believe it or not but this is actually not the only Italian film about a plot to scare a wheelchair-bound heiress to death. Four years later, Luigi Russo followed suit with the incredibly obscure Dangerous Women (1989), which I'll be covering here soon.

© 2010 Johan Melle

The cast:

Christina Nagy as Joanna

David Warbeck as Craig

Carroll Blumenberg as Ruth

Rossano Brazzi as Dr. Sernich

Loris Loddi as Father Davis

Andrea Bosic as Father Peter

Adriana Giuffrè as Dolores