mandag 26. mars 2012

Black Angel/Arabella l’angelo nero

Italy, 1989

Directed by Stelvio Massi

Tinì Cansino, Francesco Casale, Valentina Visconti, Evelyn Stewart, Rena Niehaus, Carlo Mucari, Renato D’Amore, Giosè Davì, David D’Ingeo, Vinicio Diamanti

Known for his many forays into the poliziesco genre, prolific filmmaker Stelvio Massi only directed two entries in the popular giallo genre. The first one was Five Women for the Killer (1974), a rather sleazy and tasteless effort about a killer who gorily mutilates pregnant women. It would take 15 years before Massi took another stab at the genre with Black Angel and it does not come as a big surprise that this effort, too, is a very seedy and tasteless affair.

In the film’s opening sequence we see a flame-haired and sluttily dressed woman named Deborah (Tinì Cansino – dubbed by Carolynn De Fonseca) driving around in a fancy red car while laughing and sipping from a mini bottle of J&B. Unbeknownst to her, she is being tailed by a seedy-looking man (Giosè Davì – dubbed by Robert Spafford) who eagerly follows her every move. Deborah parks her car and heads for a big, secluded mansion that turns out to be a kinky bordello where all kinds of perversions are catered to.

Deborah - out looking for thrills

Various bordello delights

Deborah doesn’t waste any time and quickly starts getting it on with two studly young men while the guy who’s following her watches from a distance – gleefully taking plenty of pictures of the spectacle. However, Deborah gets more than she bargained for when her two studs suddenly turn nasty and pull a knife on her.

Deborah’s three-way goes from steamy... very nasty...

...all under the leery gaze of Deborah’s stalker

Fortunately for Deborah, she is saved by a surprise police raid, and hurriedly flees to her car. But before she can drive off, Deborah is apprehended by a cop named De Rosa (Carlo Mucari). Distraught, Deborah tries to explain that she is not a prostitute but a well-off lady but to no avail as De Rosa swiftly handcuffs her, bends her over the hood of the car and rapes her – all the while Deborah’s sweaty stalker is secretly photographing the act from a distance! We’re not even 10 minutes into the film yet and we’ve already been bombarded with non-stop sleazy imagery. Talk about an opening!

Hopefully, this isn’t the standard operating procedure of the Italian police force

After he’s had his way with her, detective De Rosa uncuffs the poor woman, who sobbingly drives back home. We soon learn that Deborah is indeed a well-off lady as she is married to the wealthy, best-selling author Frank Veronesi (Francesco Casale – dubbed by Ted Rusoff), and lives in a huge villa together with him and his doting mother Marta (Evelyn Stewart). Oh, and for some inexplicable reason, it turns out that when Deborah is at home, she always wears a dark Bettie Page-style wig instead of the curly red hair we saw her with in the opening sequence. Anyway, Frank and Deborah’s marriage is anything but idyllic. They used to be very happy but a flashback reveals that on their wedding day, Deborah was giving her husband a blowjob while he was driving – causing him to crash the car and become paralyzed. Deborah still loves her husband and tries her best to be a good, supportive wife but Frank, however, is boiling with bitterness and rage, and even suffers from a writer’s block. He blames Deborah for putting him in a wheelchair and relishes every opportunity to yell at her and demean her.

Frank, the mean, crippled husband

Deborah in one of her numerous fits of sobbing brought on by her husband

Soon, things go from bad to worse as the vile detective La Rosa arrives at the dysfunctional household to look for Deborah. Having found out that she really does belong to the upper class, De Rosa demands Deborah to have sex with him again – threatening to tell Frank about her visits to kinky bordellos if she doesn’t obey. Desperate to keep her nightly activities secret, Deborah is forced to oblige and sneaks into the garage with La Rosa to do the dirty deed. However, a suspicious Frank catches them just as De Rosa is going down on Deborah – at which point she promptly grabs a hammer and bashes in De Rosa’s head.

Deborah disposes of De Rosa while her husband watches in disbelief

Frank helps her bury the body as Deborah confesses the details of her secret nocturnal life. Somewhat unexpectedly, this causes the estranged couple to rekindle their love for each other. It also gives Frank an idea on how to overcome his writer’s block. He insists that Deborah must continue her kinky nighttime activities and report back to Frank so that he can use her experiences as inspiration for the Black Angel, the protagonist of his new novel. Though highly reluctant, Deborah complies with her husband’s wishes and picks up a young gigolo with a cowboy outfit and has dirty sex with him in a cheap motel. But soon after Deborah has left, the young man is savagely stabbed to death with a pair of scissors before getting his genitalia sliced off.

Deborah’s one-nighter meets a horrifying end

Police Inspector Gina Fowler (Valentina Visconti) is assigned to solve the murder but she has trouble dealing with the grisly case, which visibly sickens and upsets her. However, it quickly transpires that it’s not so much the gruesome nature of the crime that upsets Fowler but rather the familiarity of the killing, which triggers a deeply traumatic childhood memory in her. And in the meantime the scissor murders continue...

Violent murders bring back traumatizing memories from Inspector Fowler’s childhood - surely one of the most iconic plot elements of the giallo

The giallo genre was having a bit of a resurgence in the 1980s thanks to the huge success of Dario Argento’s Tenebrae (1982). Nevertheless it was Carlo Vanzina’s Nothing Underneath (1985), a glossy giallo set in the fashion industry world, that would prove to be the most instrumental in shaping the look and feel of the genre during the mid to late 1980s. In the wake of Vanzina’s film, movie goers were treated to a wave of fashion-oriented gialli featuring slick and sometimes bizarre music video-style aesthetics, such as Lamberto Bava’s Delirium (1987), Dario Piana’s Too Beautiful to Die (1988), Piccio Raffanini’s A Taste for Fear (1988), Stelio Fiorenza’s Dark Bar (1988) and Bruno Gaburro’s Fashion Crimes (1989). But with Black Angel, director Stelvio Massi breaks free of this mold – opting instead for a seedier setting and much grislier murders. Black Angel also has much greater emphasis on sex and one might very well argue that this is more of an erotic film (albeit a very kinky one) in the guise of a giallo than it is an all out giallo. The giallo elements that are on display are pretty iconic, though, and clearly show the influence of Argento rather than the fashion-gialli initiated by Vanzina. The script (by a certain R. Filippucci) offers a few deliciously ridiculous plot twists and enjoyable nods to Argento but it must be said that the big reveal does not come as any major surprise – at least not to seasoned giallo viewers or Argento buffs.

But in spite of several clear similarities to the classic gialli of the 1970s, Black Angel is not nearly as much fun to watch. On the contrary it is a very grim film drenched in an atmosphere of extreme bleakness and cynicism. It plays out in an utterly joyless world where no one seems to be happy, and it’s abundantly clear that solving the scissor murders will do little to change this. It’s also hard to get emotionally invested in any of the characters, who seem to consist primarily of two different types: abusive scumbags and powerless victims. The latter category is moslty made up of women, and the former of men, starting with Frank, the bitter and crippled writer. He seems to put the blame for his paralysis solely on Deborah even though he is shown to be just as much at blame himself, and he clearly enjoys subjecting his wife to all kinds of indignities. But if Frank is bad, he seriously pales in comparison to how the officers of the law are portrayed. The worst of the lot is the loathsome detective De Rosa, who exploits his position by blackmailing law offenders into becoming his sex slaves. Not much better is Inspector Fowler’s assistant and lesbian lover Agnes (played by Rena Niehaus, and dubbed by Pat Starke), who tricks Fowler into revealing her childhood trauma – only to promptly use the story in an attempt to steal her job. The naïve Fowler is completely taken aback by her lover’s actions: “I always thought that girls had better souls than men”, she despairs. Upon which Agnes condescendingly remarks that: “These are typical lesbian thoughts, my dear”. Agnes is interesting in that she is the only strong female character in the film but this is only because she has adopted the cynical attitudes of the male characters and discarded any sort of humane – i.e. feminine – traits.

Agnes (left) momentarily feigns feminine values in order to exploit her lover

In stark contrast to Agnes, Inspector Fowler is portrayed as rather pathetic – a helpless victim of her own weak sex. Although a capable police inspector, she is nevertheless unable to cope with the strains of her childhood trauma, has dreams about being violated, gets backstabbed because she naively trusts in her lover, and then – worst of all – actually begs Agnes to take her back after having been betrayed by her. Fowler’s reason for doing so appears to be some sort of basic feminine fear of being abandoned and left alone – a fear which also causes her to makes another questionable decision later on. The same fear of abandonment and not being loved is exhibited by Deborah throughout most of the film. She seems to genuinely love Frank and hence she is willing to let herself be submitted to any kind of sexual degradation for his sake. Here, however, it is interesting to note that even though Frank is pressuring Deborah into degrading herself by dressing like a slut and cruising the streets in search of casual lovers, she is also shown to enjoy having to do this. While this may be seen merely as director Massi trying to cater to the male fantasy that women enjoy being treated badly, it can also add a bit of complexity to the Deborah character – making it somewhat ambiguous whether she is driven by a submissive need to do anything for the man she loves, or if she’s actually motivated by a more selfish urge to fulfill her own kinky desires. The film never gives us a clear answer and this makes Deborah a much more fascinating character. It’s just such a damn shame then that she is so prone to hysterical, sobbing outbursts as this tends to render her more pathetic (at least in the English dub, where Carolynn De Fonseca really lays it on with the sobbing in the dubbing studio).

Surprisingly, nearly all the victims are males, which is quite unusual for a film of this type. With that said, though, the women are victimized and abused in just about every other way. Fowler has recurring nightmares in which the killer caresses her naked body with a pair of bloody scissors before violently stabbing her in the crotch, and Deborah is raped, demeaned, objectified and spied on throughout the film. She is made to disrobe at frequent intervals and the camera ogles her shapely body in leering detail.

Deborah readies herself for a night of cruising - under the voyeuristic and objectifying gaze of her husband, the audience and herself

Inspector Fowler dreams of being violated

It should be said that Black Angel probably contains a bit too many long sex scenes that tend to grind the narrative to a halt, and this is probably the film’s most serious flaw. Sadly, the trend of putting too much emphasis on sex would become more and more dominant in gialli during the late 1980s and by the early to mid 1990s the once thriving sub-genre had been reduced to little more than a series of generic ‘erotic thrillers’ with few, if any, distinguishing traits to separate them from similar American products. Black Angel, however, is in no danger of this – thanks to a thick atmosphere of extreme sleaze and depravation characteristic of Italian B movie cinema at its finest. It also comes with a great, rousing and typically Italian synth score (credited to a certain Serfran) which suits the proceedings nicely.

Although the visual style of Black Angel is less striking than your average giallo from the 1970s, it is nevertheless slickly shot and contains a couple of stylish moments. Warranting special mention is a delightfully kitschy sequence in which Deborah is cruising the strip in search of male hustlers. Adopting Deborah’s point of view, the camera pans across a long line of young – and obviously gay – hustlers dressed in outrageous kink outfits strutting their stuff trying to entice anyone willing to shell out for their services.

A bunch of gay hustlers striking their poses in this great and wonderfully lit sequence

A big part of the film’s appeal undeniably comes from its delectable leading lady Tinì Cansino. Born in Greece as Photina Lappa, Cansino went to Italy to pursue an acting career in the 1980s. Possessing a passing resemblance to Hollywood legend Rita Hayworth, she modeled her look and appearance as closely to Hayworth as possible, changed her name to Tinì Cansino (Hayworth’s birth name being Margarita Carmen Cansino) and fabricated a story about being Hayworth’s niece. Her strategy was successful and she quickly became a regular fixture in such “dirty magazines” as Playmen and Gin Fizz, and appeared in a fair share of sexy film roles. Cansino is hardly what one would call a great actress but she does look incredibly sexy and participates in all the sordid and graphic material with unashamed enthusiasm. Oh, and the Hayworth resemblance manages to add an extra layer of sleaziness to the proceedings.

Tinì Cansino eagerly participates in a number of explicit scenes. Somewhat surprisingly, though, Black Angel was to become her final film

The only other notable actors in the cast are old pros Evelyn Stewart and Rena Niehaus. Stewart (who is also known under her real name Ida Galli) is a veteran giallo actress, having appeared in a number of classics such as The Sweet Body of Deborah (1968), The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail (1971), A White Dress for Marialè (1972) and Knife of Ice (1972). By the late 1980s, Stewart was in semi-retirement and it is wonderful to see this versatile and iconic giallo actress make a genre comeback. It’s not a huge part but Stewart plays it to perfection and I thoroughly enjoyed seeing her take on the role of the maternal figure in the decadent Veronesi household. Interestingly, Black Angel was not just a comeback movie for Stewart but also for German actress Rena Niehaus, who had achieved some success in the 1970s with leading roles in films such as Eriprando Visconti’s La orca (1976) and Ugo Liberatore’s horror film Damned in Venice (1978) before she abruptly abandoned the film industry. Black Angel was Niehaus’ first film in 10 years and she would only appear in one more film, the little-known crime film Mafia Docks (1991), before retiring for good. I don’t know why her comeback was so short-lived because she was still quite attractive and delivers a very enjoyable performance here as the bitchy lesbian cop Agnes.

The great Evelyn Stewart – still attractive in her late 40s – is one of the film’s strongest assets

Finally, the film boasts amusing uncredited cameo appearances by two highly interesting personalities who should be familiar to fans of Italian B movie cinema: Vinicio Diamanti and Zaira Zoccheddu. Diamanti is an extravagant character actor who specialized in playing comical parts as flamboyant homosexuals or drag queens. His most well-known film was no doubt La cage aux folles (1978), in which he played a small role, but he also pops up in Fernando Di Leo’s To Be Twenty (1978), Umberto Lenzi’s Excuse Me, Are Your Normal? (1979) and the cop-comedy Cop in Drag (1984) with Tomas Milian. In Black Angel, Diamanti appears as extravagant as always in the role of the doorman at the kinky bordello - sporting heavy make-up and full S&M gear while playing on an accordion.
Zaira Zoccheddu is perhaps a more obscure figure as she appeared almost exclusively in grade-Z trash. Originally a beauty queen, Zoccheddu represented Italy in the 1974 Miss World pageant before embarking on a series of sleazy adventures in the likes of Luigi Batzella’s ultra-trashy nazisploitation romp Achtung! The Desert Tigers (1976), Tano Cimarosa’s violent crime film Death Hunt (1977), the Ajita Wilson WIP flicks Escape from Hell and Hotel Paradise (made back-to-back in 1979), and the hardcore porn movie Gocce d’amore (1981). By the late 1980s, Zoccheddu’s career was reduced to appearing in the unbelievably awful (though highly enjoyable) horror film The Cross of Seven Jewels (1987), doing frequent pictorials in the nudie magazine Gin Fizz, as well as various small uncredited parts such as her role in Black Angel, where she is seen briefly as a topless woman with a Freddy Krueger-style glove who makes lewd gestures with her tongue and fingers to Deborah when she arrives at the bordello at the start of the film.

Vinicio Diamanti’s outrageous cameo as the bordello doorman

A very brief but welcome cameo by trash actress extraordinaire Zaira Zoccheddu

So, is Black Angel an enjoyable film? No, not particularly – for that it is much too depressing and cynical. It is also rather tacky and vulgar, as well as occasionally ludicrous, and this combination will probably be off-putting to several viewers. But in spite of this, Black Angel is a film that makes much more of a lasting impact than any of the fashion-gialli from the same era. Indeed, it remained on my mind for a long time after I’d finished watching it and I dare say it is made with more intelligence than a look at its jaded surface would have you thinking. It is definitely a memorable film and, ultimately, I would recommend all serious giallo fans to check it out.

A final note about the film’s English version

This film is usually referred to by the English language title Arabella the Black Angel, which is a direct translation of the original Italian title Arabella l’angelo nero. However, the film has never actually had any kind of official release under this title, and understandably so as the main character is only named Arabella in the Italian version whereas she has been renamed Deborah for the English dub. The film’s English export title is simply Black Angel, and I am certain that this is the only official English title even though the notoriously unreliable IMDb lists both Angel: Black Angel and Angela, the Black Angel as alternate titles – none of which make any sort of sense since there is no one named Angel or Angela in neither the Italian nor the English language version. Trivia buffs may want to note that Arabella isn’t the only character to be renamed. In fact, the majority of the character names have been anglicized for the English dubbed version. For example, Frank and Inspector Fowler are named Francesco and Inspector Falco, respectively, in the Italian version, but the biggest difference is Police lieutenant Marlowe, whose name in the Italian dub is Scognamillo. Of course, it’s not unusual for the English dubbing to attempt to obscure a film’s Italian origins (there are countless other examples of this) but, strangely enough, the surname Veronesi is retained in both the English and Italian language versions.

© 2012 Johan Melle

The cast:

Tinì Cansino as Deborah Veronesi

Francesco Casale as Frank Veronesi

Valentina Visconti as Inspector Gina Fowler

Evelyn Stewart as Marta Veronesi

Rena Niehaus as Agnes

Carlo Mucari as Detective De Rosa

Renato D’Amore as Lt. Marlowe

Giosè Davì as Private detective

David D'Ingeo as Gigolo

Vinicio Diamanti as Doorman at the bordello