søndag 11. januar 2015

The Skin Under the Claws/La pelle sotto gli artigli

Italy, 1974

Directed by Alessandro Santini

Gordon Mitchell, Tino Boriani, Geneviève Audry, Ettore Ribotta, Mike Monty, Agostino De Simoni, Renzo Borelli, Mirella Rossi, Franco Rossi

Alessandro Santini is definitely one of the more obscure figures of Italian cult cinema – remembered primarily for a couple of collaborations with Italian cult movie great Renato Polselli and Polselli’s frequent partner-in-crime Bruno Vani. Santini debuted in 1971 with the trashy erotic drama Questa libertà di avere... le ali bagnate (translation: This Freedom to Have... Wet Wings), which he co-wrote with Polselli and which starred Mark Damon and Rita Calderoni. Next, he co-directed the satanic horror film Una vergine per Satana (A Virgin for Satan) together with Bruno Vani, but the film was never finished and some years later Polselli shot new scenes based around the old footage and released it as Casa dell’amore... la polizia interviene (House of Love... the Police Intervene) in 1978.

Santini’s second stab at the horror genre was the film I’ll be reviewing here: the zero budget oddity La pelle sotto gli artigli, made in 1974 and given a limited release the following year before vanishing into complete obscurity. Years later, the presence of beloved B-movie actor Gordon Mitchell in the cast and the general trashiness of the piece led to renewed interest in the film, and it’s currently circulating among collectors in a scuzzy-looking print from a Spanish VHS with audio from an old Italian TV recording slapped on top of it. No English version was ever prepared and hence no official English title exists, but it’s currently going under the bootleg title of The Skin Under the Claws (a direct translation of its Italian title) so that’s what I’ll stick to.

Late at night, a mysterious man picks up a young prostitute (Polselli regular Mirella Rossi) in a park. She willingly gets into his car and, as usual in these films, doesn’t seem to find it the least bit strange that the man is wearing a hat and sunglasses and that he is silently ignoring all of her questions. “Be nice! Let me see what color your eyes are and I’ll show you what color my panties are!” she purrs in a failed attempt to entice him into removing his sunglasses.

Btw, what IS the color of her panties? Pink?? You can’t really tell from this poor-looking version

The man brings the hooker back to his place, and naturally, it doesn’t take long before the poor girl is brutally stabbed to death and her lifeless body is unceremoniously dumped near a fountain.

The first victim

The hot-tempered, chain-smoking Commissioner Rinaldi (Ettore Ribotta) is in charge of the investigation and he is left dumbfounded when the medical examiner (played uncredited by trash movie extraordinaire Mike Monty) reveals that traces of heavily decomposed skin have been discovered under the dead girl’s fingernails. The cranky commissioner won’t hear of such nonsense: “I can’t believe a putrefied corpse visits prostitutes and then kills them!” he growls. But before long, another young woman is found dead – hacked into pieces and stuffed into two heavy suitcases – and others follow in quick succession, and they all have traces of decomposed skin under their fingernails.

Commissioner Rinaldi is on the case...

...and he’s not too convinced about the medical examiner’s findings

In the meantime, we follow a separate plotline involving Professor Ernest Helmut (B-movie legend Gordon Mitchell), a brilliant scientist who’s conducting strange experiments in his private clinic. After a series of brain transplant experiments on baboons, Professor Helmut believes he has finally found a way to beat death itself and ensure eternal life. His handsome assistant, Dr. Gianni Dani (photo-novel star Tino Boriani), is awestruck by the professor’s findings and marvels at the thought of how this could revolutionize science. But Helmut’s other assistant, the rather frumpy Dr. Silvia Pieri (Geneviève Audry), is appalled by the idea of tampering with the natural cycle of life. “When we travel on a crowded train, we don’t want anyone to get on. In fact, we’d like people to get off. Life is a miracle, but so is death”, she argues.

The brilliant Professor Helmut...

...and his strange research

Silvia and Gianni

Shortly afterwards, Silvia and Gianni are shocked to discover that Professor Helmut has died of a sudden heart attack. And what’s worse is that someone has stolen his corpse! Gee, I wonder if the professor’s bizarre experiments and his sudden death and disappearance could somehow be connected to the murdered women with decomposed skin found under their fingernails?

From the plot description alone, this bizarre mad doctor movie with giallo tendencies may sound like a grandiose Euro-trash classic but, unfortunately, it’s nowhere near as cool as it sounds. Much of the blame rests on writer-director Santini’s inept screenplay, which is crammed with preposterous nonsense and hysterically silly dialogue from beginning to end. And, at just 76 minutes, it still manages to be badly paced due to a series of padding scenes featuring minor characters. A good example of this is the scene in which Gianni and Silvia visit an eccentric painter friend of hers. The painter has two buck naked models who pose for him on the sofa, even though the painting he’s making is of something else entirely! It’s a completely irrelevant sequence that has no bearing on the rest of the film (said painter is never seen or heard from again) and a perfect example of the film’s thoroughly haphazard construction.

The painter’s “models”...

...and what he's actually painting

I love how the bored-looking models just continue to sit lazily in the sofa reading their magazines and not bothering to get dressed when visitors arrive

Also not helping matters is the fact that Santini insists on treating the whole thing as some big mystery and trying to throw some suspicion on the Gianni character, even though for anyone with a smidgen of genre knowledge, a mere cursory glance at the cast list will be sufficient to figure out who the real madman at large is.

In keeping with his screenwriting skills, Santini’s direction is thoroughly incompetent. Since the only available versions of the film are rather poor-looking TV and VHS prints, it is impossible to properly evaluate its aesthetical qualities, but it’s not hard to see that this was made on a virtually non-existent budget. The whole thing is shot in a very unimaginative point-and-shoot style in what I can only assume were the cast or crew’s private homes – adorned with some truly hideous-looking 1970s wallpaper – and then patchily edited together.

A couple of examples of the ghastly décor and wallpaper on display

The all-around cheapness also means that all of the killings take place off-screen as there clearly wasn’t enough money for special effects. There’s a lot of talk about gruesomely mutilated corpses, but we never actually get to see any of them except when covered by white sheets. Probably sensing that this approach would be off-putting to sleaze hounds (who, let’s face it, are the core audience for such films), Santini tries to make up for it by piling on a lot of senseless nudity, which is executed with the same level of incompetence.

The closest we get to seeing the mangled corpses

Some scattered attempts to liven up the proceedings

But while The Skin Under the Claws may be a terrible film, that’s not to say that it’s completely without its charms. As long as you’re in the right frame of mind, there is some great fun to be had with its endearingly inept direction, trashy atmosphere and above all its loopy writing. The script boasts numerous WTF moments – including the killer’s out of the blue attack on three peasant girls, and a really ludicrous twist ending – and the dialogue is ripe with hysterical one-liners.

But arguably the most memorable part of the film is a scene in a nightclub where a miserable-looking black woman (who must have been chugging down a heavy brew of sedatives and J&B before going on stage) performs a hilariously unenthusiastic naked tribal dance that is completely out of tune with the inappropriate band music. There are only four patrons in the audience (I guess the budget didn’t allow for extras either) and they all look as though they’re about to fall asleep. A priceless moment!

The film’s pitiful nightclub act...

...and the miserable-looking spectators

Poor Gordon Mitchell! He was a solid lead in Italian sword and sandal films in the early 1960s, but whereas most of his peers (including Steve Reeves, Gordon Scott and Mark Forest) retired when the popularity of such films started to wane, Mitchell persistently kept on working, and the 1970s saw him really scraping the bottom with appearances in such grade Z nonsense as Frankenstein 80 (1972), Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks (1974), Achtung! The Desert Tigers (1976), Holocaust 2: The Memories, Delirium and the Vendetta Part Two (1978) and Black Gold Dossier (1979). But even with such tough competiton, The Skin Under the Claws still ranks as one of Mitchell’s absolute worst films from the period. He doesn’t really have a whole lot to do here but it’s always nice to have him around and he does add a certain cult appeal to the film. Another welcome addition is Mike Monty – probably best known for his appearances in a series of cheap Filipino-lensed jungle adventures by Antonio Margheriti and Bruno Mattei – as the bespectacled medical examiner, though he sadly never gets to interact with Mitchell. Polselli starlet Mirella Rossi is thoroughly wasted as the hooker killed at the start of the film – with Santini barely allowing us a good look at her face – but there’s a pretty good role for Ettore Ribotta (a prolific character actor in the photo-novels published by Lancio and Grand Hotel) as the amusingly grumpy commissioner.

Gordon Mitchell hams it up in typically enjoyable Mitchell-fashion

If you get a kick out of watching ridiculous and hastily slapped together zero budget, grade Z Euro-horror then you really need to seek out The Skin Under the Claws. Everyone else, however, is better off seeking out something else.

© 2015 Johan Melle

The cast:

Gordon Mitchell as Professor Ernest Helmut

Tino Boriani as Dr. Gianni Dani

Geneviève Audry as Dr. Silvia Pieri

Ettore Ribotta as Commissioner Rinaldi

Mike Monty as The medical examiner

??? as Brigadier Tacconi

Renzo Borelli as The porter

??? as Cinzia, the nymphomaniac

??? as Barbara, Cinzia’s roommate

??? as Maurizio, Barbara’s boyfriend

??? as Goffredo, the painter

Mirella Rossi as The prostitute

Ingen kommentarer: