søndag 8. juli 2012


Italy/Spain, 1979

Directed by Enzo G. Castellari

Leonora Fani, Patricia Adriani, Wolfango Soldati, Marta Flores, Luis Induni, Vincent Gardenia, Enzo G. Castellari, Alberto Squillante, Antonio Mayans, Caterina Boratto, José Sanchez, Massimo Vanni, Rocco Lerro, Mónica Garcia, Francisco Porcel

Enzo G. Castellari has long been lauded as the king of Italian action movies, and during the 1970s, he did indeed made some of the most gripping and action-packed movies Italian cinema has to offer. Squished in-between his action films, however, Castellari made the odd horror film Sensività, an Italian-Spanish co-production which has fallen into complete obscurity.

The plot concerns a beautiful, young university student named Lillian (Leonora Fani), who returns to her childhood village in the Spanish countryside in order to write a thesis on the legend of a local witch named Kira. Lillian has not set foot in the village since her mother drowned in a lake under mysterious circumstances when Lillian was just a child. Marta (Marta Flores) and Manuel (Luis Induni), the old caretakers of Lillian’s family home, greet her with friendliness but appear strangely anxious. Marta in particular, seems to fear that Lillian’s presence will lead to bad things. In fact, the whole place seems shrouded in a disquieting ambiance of unease, and it quickly transpires that the locals believe the lake near Lillian’s house to be cursed.

Lillian as she arrives on her motorcycle

A sculpture of the mysterious local witch Kira

A strange and beautiful savage named Lilith (Patricia Adriani) – referred to as “the monkey girl” by the locals – secretly spies on Lillian and appears angered and upset by her presence. A strange supernatural symbol – apparently connected to the witch Kira – keeps popping up wherever Lillian goes and she also finds an old photograph of her mother wearing a necklace with the same symbol.

The beautiful and mysterious “monkey girl” Lilith

The strange symbol in the necklace worn by Lillian’s mother shows up all over the village

The local young men take a liking to Lillian, however, and during a night on the town she hooks up with a handsome boy named Julien (Alberto Squillante), whom she ends up having steamy sex with in a cemetery of all places. Unnoticed by them, they are being spied on by the mysterious Lilith, who is compelled – seemingly against her will – to masturbate as she watches.

Lillian and Julien go at it in the cemetery...

...while the spying Lilith is overcome by a compulsion to masturbate

Things start to get really weird when Lillian, just as she reaches the point of orgasm, slips into a strange death-like trance. Her terrified partner flees the scene in panic – only to die as he crashes his car after being frightened by the sudden appearance of the ghostly figure of the witch Kira (Caterina Boratto).

The witch Kira manifests herself

This tragic incident, however, does not dissuade Lillian from continuing to bed one local young boy after the other, even though it always ends the same way – with Lillian slipping into the same deathly trance as she reaches her climax, while her lovers perish in strange accidents shortly afterwards. Even stranger is the fact that Lillian appears to be psychic-sexually linked to Lilith. Every time Lillian has sex, Lilith is compelled to masturbate, and they simultaneously reach the point of orgasm, at which point they both fall into a death-like trance.

Lillian has her fun with another lover...

...until that pesky death-trance sets in

Lillian’s busy love-life is giving the psychic-sexually linked Lilith a busy masturbation schedule

But why does this happen? Could it all have something to do with the cursed lake, the death of Lillian’s mother, or the sinister spectral figure of the witch Kira?

Sensività is a strange but interesting film that is frustratingly difficult to get hold of, and this is due largely to its complicated release history. After receiving a limited theatrical release in Italy in 1979, the film pretty much vanished. An Italian VHS release was issued in the 1980s under the new title Kyra, la signora del lago (i.e. Kyra, the lady of the lake), but this is actually a radically different cut of the film. Apparently, the producers felt that Castellari’s original version didn’t sufficiently play up the horror elements of the story, and hence they re-edited the film – removing or shortening some sequences and adding several new and more horror-centric scenes made by Alfonso Brescia, the man responsible for the infamous sci-fi trash pentalogy made up of Battle of the Stars, War of the Planets, The War of the Robots, Star Odyssey and The Beast in Space (all made during 1977-78). Unfortunately, Castellari’s original version never received an Italian VHS release, and hence most viewers have had to make do with the the new Kyra cut, which has been disowned by Castellari. The original cut was released in Spain as Diabla and there was a Spanish VHS release of this version but, unfortunately, it’s extremely rare and hard to get hold of.

The new material includes an all-new opening sequence in which Lillian’s mother is grabbed from a boat and pulled under water by a ghoulish, bloody hand. This hand is also spliced into numerous later sequences – most notably the deaths of Lillian’s lovers. The hand also makes an appearance at the cemetery, where it erupts from the grave Carrie-style and grabs hold of Lillian (played here by a body double for Leonora Fani). Finally, there are several new inserts featuring said body double being menaced by an axe-wielding figure in a black cloak.

This bloody hand features prominently in the inserted Alfonso Brescia footage

The hand of death bursts out from the grave and grabs hold of Leonora Fani’s body-double

Unfortunately, these scenes stick out like a sore thumb. It’s not that they’re that badly made (they are actually reasonably creepy) but they just don’t gel well with the rest of the footage at all. Fani’s body double is not convincing even though she goes to great lengths to keep her face hidden and it’s simply much too obvious that the material was shot and inserted at a later time. Only the drowning of the mother works somewhat and that is because it is a stand-alone scene and not spliced into the middle of existing scenes.

Fani’s body double tries her best to keep her face hidden

To make matters worse, other scenes from Castellari’s original version have been either removed or shortened to make room for the new horror footage. Sadly, I have only been able to view the radically altered Kyra cut (which remains the most commonly available version) and it is impossible to properly assess the qualities of Castellari’s original film on the basis of this bastardized re-edit. It frequently feels choppy and badly edited, containing a couple of unnaturally brief scenes which abruptly cut away to new sequences without much sense of rhyme or rhythm. Surely, much of this is the fault of the producers’ tampering with the film but we should also not forget that Castellari by his own admission does not feel very much at home working within the horror genre – in fact he turned down an offer to direct Zombie (1979) because of this very reason. As such, it is difficult to pinpoint which of the film’s problems are due to the re-editing and which ones are simply due to Castellari working in a genre that isn’t his forte.

What is clear, however, is that this is a stylish and highly atmospheric film regardless of which version you are watching. The nocturnal sex scenes are particularly impressive, with the stand-out moments being the misty and beautifully lit sex scene in the cemetery (a strikingly stylish and deliciously macabre moment) and a later scene in which Lillian and a lover start going at it while sitting on her motorcycle – conveniently parked by the cursed lake.

Love on a motorcycle

Technical credits are solid, with some really nice cinematography by Alejandro Ulloa, while the always reliable De Angelis brothers supply an excellent and haunting musical score which greatly enriches the mood. The rural Spanish village where the film was shot makes an effective backdrop to the macabre proceedings and the authentic old buildings used throughout are laced in atmosphere. Throw in a Lucio Fulci-style little blind girl who assembles dolls from mismatched parts for some added creepiness and we’ve got a truly wild, atmospheric and strange erotic horror film like only the Italians know how to make.

A blind child and some creepy dolls always does the trick

Of course, one cannot discuss this film without mentioning the outrageous climax, in which Lillian and her psychic-sexually linked nemesis battle it out in an extended eroticized catfight where they roll around and rip each others’ clothes off. It’s a hilariously trashy sequence, and no less enjoyable for it!

The climatic catfight between Lillian and Lilith

Considering Castellari’s limited interest in both horror and eroticism, it seems fair to assume that he was somewhat of a hand for hire on this film, and that much of the credit for the film’s success should go to screenwriters José Maria Nunes and Leila Buongiorno. They have come up several bizarre and effective ideas, and manage to mix horror, sex and general strangeness in a way that would make Jess Franco proud. Indeed, the psychic-sexual link between Lillian and Lilith recalls Franco’s Doriana Grey (1976), made during his Swiss period. That said, Castellari, too, deserves a lot of credit for having put together this unusual film, and especially so when one considers his lack of interest and experience in working with horror and eroticism.

Sensività is quite a unique film and completely different from anything else the director has worked on, and as such, it doesn’t have a lot of the characteristic ingredients one normally expects to find in a Castellari film. The one notable exception is the scene in which Lillian’s first lover drives off a cliff and perishes as the car blows up in a big fireball – all gloriously captured in a three-way split screen. I wonder if this was part of the original version of the film or just added to the re-edited version. In some ways it feels typical of Castellari, who had experimented with split screen techniques in his WW2 film Eagles Over London (1969), but at the same time it feels very out of place with the rest of the film.

Car crash mayhem seen in split screen

The film is not without its shortcomings, though, as there’s a share of sloppy writing on display. Some plot details are rather confusing – especially the very rushed and inexplicably edited explanation scene near the end of the film, though some of this may be because of the re-editing done on the version under review. Furthermore, a carnival sequence where the whole village dresses up in big, creepy masks falls somewhat flat and isn’t able to conjure up the kind up sinister atmosphere that it ought to.

Instrumental to the film’s success is the excellent Leonora Fani, one of Italian B movie cinema’s most thoroughly victimized heroines. Fani had to endure graphic scenes of relentless sexual abuse in such shockers as Born for Hell (1976), Pensione Paura (1978) and the notorious Giallo a Venezia (1979), and while these films offered her limited opportunity to act, she nevertheless exerted such believable vulnerability and raw emotion that she managed to shine. Made somewhere in between the aforementioned films, Sensività offers a change of pace for Fani by allowing her to play a stronger character than usual. In the role of Lillian, Fani gets to be a tough, independent girl who rides a motorcycle, wears black leather and big boots, and picks up men whenever she feels like it. But there’s also a vulnerability to the character, who grows increasingly desperate due to her strange blackouts and being ostracized by the superstitious villagers who believe her to be a witch – thereby providing the expressive Fani ample opportunity to play on fear.

A tough Leonora Fani

The wide-eyed and frightened Leonora Fani we’re all used to seeing

As expected, Fani does not shy away from nudity and explicit material either, and the same goes for the stunning Spanish actress Patricia Adriani, who plays the savage girl Lilith. She does not have a lot of dialogue as the role is more physical and largely reliant on Adriani’s ability to convey emotions through sexual scenes – in which she succeeds. Both Adriani and Fani willingly embrace the explicit material they’re given to work with and it is thanks to their uninhibited performances that the film’s erotic angle works as well as it does.

Leonora Fani throws herself into a graphic sex scene with unashamed abandon

Patricia Adriani isn’t quite as quick to lose her clothes but she gives her all in the many masturbation scenes

The supporting cast is made up of a number of interesting actors who will be familiar to fans of Italian and Spanish genre cinema. Hollywood character actor Vincent Gardenia had previously acted for Castellari in the outstanding crime/action flick The Big Racket (1976) and must have enjoyed the experience as he pops up here as a mysterious local painter who says cryptic things and appears to know some mysterious details about Lillian’s childhood. Gardenia works well in the role but could have been given more to do. Another actor who had previously worked with Castellari is the handsome Wolfango Soldati, who played a substantial role as a junkie in The Heroin Busters (1977). Here, Soldati appears as the most prominently featured of Lillian’s lovers.

There are also some dependable veterans brought in from the Spanish side of the production – namely Luis Induni and Marta Flores as the old caretakers. Induni was extremely prolific in spaghetti westerns (in which he usually played the sheriff), while Flores was an experienced character actress who also became a casting agent and founded the very successful Marta Flores Casting Agency. Both actors are excellent here and manage to make the most of their limited parts. Unfortunately, this was to be one of Induni’s final films as he passed away a few months after its release.

Amusingly, Castellari actually casts himself in a surprisingly big (though uncredited) supporting role a quirky police inspector, who looks very pumped-up and macho but still has an affinity for tea and struggles with constant nasal congestion.

Luis Induni and Marta Flores are the secretive caretakers

Vincent Gardenia shares a scene with Enzo G. Castellari

Castellari’s amusing police inspector doesn’t go anywhere without his nasal spray

Other familiar faces in the cast include handsome Jess Franco regular Antonio Mayans as one of Leonora Fani’s ill-fated lovers, while stuntmen/actors and Castellari favorites Rocco Lerro (who was also the film’s assistant director) and Massimo Vanni show up as some of the local young men who befriend Lillian.

Finally, some mention must go to the wonderful Caterina Boratto, who appears only fleetingly yet effectively as the ghostly lady of the lake. Boratto had been a great beauty and a popular star in Italy in the 1930s but is probably better remembered for the many notable roles she played during her middle-age, including her turn as Giulietta Masina’s mother in Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits (1965) and as one of the perverse story-tellers in Pasolini’s notorious Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975). From time to time she dabbled in genre cinema, but Sensività is arguably the most bizarre entry in Boratto’s filmography. A good-looking woman even in her mid 60s, the impeccably elegant Boratto always brings a touch of class to whatever she appers in, and this is no exception. It’s a small role and she never even speaks, and yet the sight of the regal and quietly sinister Boratto as she manifests herself in a cloud of mist while stroking her black cat is highly impressive.

Caterina Boratto silently but effectively portrays the deadly witch of the lake

A rare English-dubbed version bearing the title Kira – The House Near the Lake also exists, and it features a fair share of familiar voice artists, including Pat Starke dubbing the voice of Leonora Fani, Susan Spafford doing the voice of Marta Flores, and the ubiquitous Ted Rusoff dubbing Enzo G. Castellari’s police inspector. Unfortunately, the English dub sounds like it was thrown together in a hurry. with somewhat inappropriate voices chosen for some of the actors. The character of Lilith has unwisely had her name anglicized to Lily, and there are a few classic examples of silly dubbed dialogue – the highlight being a hilarious bit where one of the local guys characterizes Lillian as “a real pain the spectacles”! The Italian dub is far more resonant and convincing – featuring carefully chosen voices which fit each of the actors perfectly – and the film plays out much better this way.

I hope to be able to one day see Castellari’s original cut of Sensività as the re-edited version leaves a bit to be desired. But even in this form it is a wild, hypnotic and wonderfully atmospheric film. It’s unlike any of Castellari’s other films and may not appeal to most of his fan base but those into the kind of wild, off-kilter horror movies that the Italians do so well should really check this out.

© 2012 Johan Melle

The cast:

Leonora Fani as Lillian [Liliana in the English dub]

Patricia Adriani as Lilith [Lily in the English dub]

Wolfango Soldati as Eduardo

Marta Flores as Marta

Luis Induni as Manuel

Vincent Gardenia as The painter

Enzo G. Castellari as The police inspector

Antonio Mayans as Miguel

Alberto Squillante as Julien [Rupert in the English dub]

Caterina Boratto as Kira

José Sanchez (??) as Chaco

Massimo Vanni as One of the local men

Rocco Lerro as One of the local men

Mónica Garcia as Laura, the blind girl

Francisco Porcel as Carlos