tirsdag 7. juli 2015

La morte scende leggera

Italy, 1972

Directed by Leopoldo Savona

Stelio Candelli, Patrizia Viotti, Veronika Korosec, Tom Felleghy, Fernando Cerulli, Antonio Anelli, Marcello Di Martire, Rossella Bergamonti, Franco Marletta, Lella Cattaneo

Leopoldo Savona was a bit of an oddball director whose career was made up mostly of low-budget spaghetti westerns, but he also made two attempts to tackle horror and thriller material – first with the stylish and underrated gothic horror film Byleth (1972) and then with the little-known giallo La morte scende leggera (translation: Death Descends Lightly).

The plot deals with shady drug trafficker Giorgio Darica (Stelio Candelli), who returns home from one of his “business trips” and finds his estranged wife Irina with her throat slashed. Fearing he’ll be the police’s number one suspect, Giorgio seeks help from Magrini (Fernando Cerulli), a corrupt magistrate he has dirty dealings with. Magrini and Giorgio’s shady lawyer Savara (Tom Felleghy) arrange for Giorgio to hide out in a temporarily abandoned hotel until they can set him up somewhere more permanently. Giorgio goes along with the plan but insists on bringing his mistress Liz (Patrizia Viotti) along to the hotel – against Savara’s wishes.


Giorgio seeks help from his big shot friends

At first, Giorgio and Liz seem to settle in well and enjoy spending their time relaxing, watching old porn loops on a projector, and having lots of sex, but it doesn’t take long before the confinements of the hotel causes boredom and paranoia to kick in. Liz starts questioning whether Giorgio has actually murdered his wife or not, and the two are soon at each other’s throats and arguing violently.

Sex and games at first...

...then boredom sets in...

...and finally hysteria

Things take a turn for the worse when it turns out that Giorgio and Liz are not alone at the hotel. In the middle of the night, Giorgio is awoken by strange sounds and heads downstairs, where he finds a middle-aged woman murdered – her throat slashed just like Giorgio’s wife. Suddenly, the hotel owner (Antonio Anelli) appears and matter-of-factly explains that the woman is his wife, whom he has just murdered because her jealousy was making his life unbearable. The strange hotel owner tells Giorgio that the two of them are in the same boat now and asks him to help dispose of the body – to which Giorgio reluctantly agrees, but the hotel owner’s bizarre behavior soon has him questioning his own sanity and whether or not what is happening is actually real.


Giorgio becomes an unwilling accomplice

Complicating matters further is the sudden arrival of the mysterious Adele (Veronika Korosec), who claims to be the hotel owner’s daughter, and who begins playing mind games with Giorgio and trying to seduce him. The increasingly distressed Giorgio is unable to tell whether Adele is real, or a figment of his imagination, or perhaps even a ghost. Has he gone mad? And is he the killer of his wife or not?

The mysterious Adele

Giorgio and Liz start to get freaked by all the strange going-ons

La morte scende leggera is another one of those little-seen gialli that has lapsed into obscurity and is currently circulating only through rips of an old Italian VHS with English fan subs slapped on top of it. Production of the film was originally announced in Variety back in June 1971 under the slightly longer title La morte scende leggera come un ragno (Death Descends Lightly Like a Spider), with spaghetti western star Robert Wood set to star alongside Patrizia Viotti. By the time it went into production, however, Wood had been replaced with Stelio Candelli. The film was eventually completed and approved by the Italian censorship board in August 1972 but for reasons unknown it did not hit Italian movie screens until two years later – making little impact at the box office and apparently never receiving an English dub. Interestingly, the blurb in Variety cites Aldo Marcovecchio – who had previously written The Night of the Damned (1971), which also starred Viotti, as well as Savona’s previous horror film Byleth (1972) – as the writer whereas the film’s opening titles credit the story to Luigi Russo and the screenplay to Russo and Leopoldo Savona, with no mention of any sort for Marcovecchio. It is still very much possible, however, that Marcovecchio had a hand in the script because the bizarre screenwriting traditions in Italy at the time meant that writers who contributed substantially to a film’s screenplay might end up receiving no credit at all while someone who had comparatively little to do with the finished script might end up receiving full credit for it.

As for the film itself, La morte scende leggera is another case of a rare giallo that has faded into obscurity for a reason. It starts out promisingly enough, with the seemingly abandoned hotel serving as a suitably sinister and claustrophobic setting for the action. But it doesn’t take long before the confinements of the hotel start to bore and frustrate the two main characters, and unfortunately, their boredom quickly rubs off on the viewers as Savona’s direction is languid and lacking in momentum. The ghostly twist is a welcome change of pace from the usual giallo routine, but Savona seems unsure about how to handle it, and the big climatic reveal is clumsily telegraphed early on. Still, the film isn’t necessarily all that bad – the real problem is rather that everything is so hopelessly indistinct. The cinematography by Luciano Trasatti is pretty slick, but for a giallo it is rather on the ordinary side. There’s none of the visual panache we’ve come to expect from these films, and likewise, there are no flashy or stylish murder set-pieces, or even the requisite kitschy fashion tastes – presumably a result of the visibly meager budget. Again, nothing is outright bad, but the execution is consistently half-assed.

There’s an unfortunate lack of extravagantly silly fashion and décor choices but, thankfully, Liz’s ghastly decorated bedroom is an exception

Thankfully, there are some notable exceptions to the mediocrity which are able to redeem the film somewhat – most notably the soundtrack by Lallo Gori and particularly the cool, guitar-driven song “Sunday in Neon Lights” – performed by Ghanaian prog rock singer Mack Sigis Porter – which plays over the opening titles and which is repeated at various times throughout the film. This song was not written for the film (it is instead taken from Porter’s 1972 album “Peace On You”), nor did composer Gori have nothing to with it, but according to Quarter Records’ CD release of the film’s soundtrack, Gori nevertheless “designed his orchestration to match the song and creates a memorable, haunting tapestry of madness, mod and psychadelia”. Gori’s compositions do indeed match the song very nicely and together they help set a nice atmosphere and mood for the film. You can listen to the song yourself here:

Another priceless highlight is the scene where Giorgio and Liz are in bed watching a sex loop on an 8mm projector that Giorgio has very conveniently brought with him. You can’t go on the run without one of those! Anyway, what’s interesting is that the footage being shown on the projector is actually a recycled sex scene from Savona’s previous horror film Byleth (1972) featuring the beautiful Marzia Damon. This scene even gets a little meta on us when Liz asks if the loop is Italian and Giorgio informs her that Italy is producing more of this stuff than Sweden and Denmark.

Nothing sets the mood like some good 8mm porn

It is also interesting to note how the film foreshadows Umberto Lenzi’s Spasmo (1974) in the way it questions the sanity of its protagonist, although ultimately the film’s troubled release story resulted in the Lenzi film being the first to hit movie screens. The hotel setting and ghostly apparitions means that the film also manages to foreshadow Stanley Kubrick’s iconic The Shining (1980), though only on paper as the two films couldn’t possibly be more different in execution. If anything, the atmosphere of La morte scende leggera, with its zero budget look and confined setting, most of all resembles a Jess Franco film.

Casting for the film is somewhat odd – headlined by spaghetti western bad guy Stelio Candelli in one of his relatively rare starring roles. Candelli’s hard face and intense gaze made him an unusual choice for leading roles and as such he is a nice fit to play a shady crook like Giorgio. He’s not a particularly sympathetic protagonist, but the film deliberately plays on this by keeping the viewers in the dark about whether or not Giorgo has murdered his wife. The opening scene simply shows him exiting his apartment building looking all wild-eyed, sweaty and nervous, but it is unclear whether his agitated state is due to having just committed a murder or simply because he has just found his wife dead and is nervous about becoming a suspect. It’s a nice approach, but it never quite succeeds – largely because Giorgio is not only a rather unsympathetic character, but also a boring one. Candelli is a good actor and does a decent job, but there’s only so much you can do with such a thinly drawn and underdeveloped character.

Guilty? Or just nervous?

Filling the part of the female lead is the dour-eyed Patrizia Viotti, who gives off a rather unlikable vibe throughout the film, although it’s difficult to tell whether this is intentional or not. She is as quick to disrobe here as she was in Filippo Walter Ratti’s sexy-gothic horror film The Night of the Damned (1971) but her acting rarely rises above passable except for a well-done freak-out scene where she gets into a violent confrontation with Candelli.

Patrizia Viotti

The most familiar name in the supporting cast is surely that of Hungarian-born character actor Tom Felleghy, one of the most frequently employed actors at Cinecittà, with appearances in more than 200 Italian productions (be it western, giallo, horror, peplum, crime, comedy, Eurospy etc) but usually in small roles limited to a scene or two. The role of Giorgio’s shady lawyer allows Felleghy to take on a more substantial part than usual for him, and it is nice to see him get a fair bit of screentime even if the role itself is hardly all that exciting.

Tom Felleghy

La morte scende leggera might be worth a watch, I guess, as it has a couple of interesting moments and a terrific soundtrack, but this is definitely a lower-tier giallo, so approach it with low expectations.

© 2015 Johan Melle

The cast:

Stelio Candelli as Giorgio Darica

Patrizia Viotti as Liz

Veronika Korosec as Adele

Tom Felleghy as Attorney Savara

Fernando Cerulli as Magistrate Magrini

Antonio Anelli as Hotel owner

Marcello Di Martire as Commissioner De Carmine

Rossella Bergamonti as Marisa

Franco Marletta as Malvestiti, the film director

Lella Cattaneo as Hotel owner’s wife

tirsdag 28. april 2015

Microscopic Liquid Subway to Oblivion

Italy, 1970

Directed by John Shadow

Alex Rebar, Ewa Aulin, Carlo De Mejo, Eugene Pomeroy

Wow! Where do you begin with something like this? The title alone should give you some idea of what to expect here, and indeed, Microscopic Liquid Subway to Oblivion is a bafflingly strange, nonsensically titled film that defies all categorization. Practically unreleased anywhere in the world, it is surely one of the rarest and most overlooked Italian productions of the early 1970s – made all the more fascinating due to its muddled release history and the fact that it somehow stars famed Swedish bombshell Ewa Aulin. It crops up every so often in discussions about particularly rare Italian films, but not many appear to have actually seen it.

So what’s it all about? Well, the plot deals with the stiff-lipped and self-important college professor John Fink (Alex Rebar), who is mortified after one of his students dies while under the influence of drugs. Professor John blames the widespread use of drugs among his students on rebellious heroin-addict Billy Fisher (Carlo De Mejo), but doesn’t want to expel Billy or report him to the police in fear of tarnishing the school’s reputation. Instead, the professor recruits the help of his nerdy star pupil Henry (Eugene Pomeroy) to trick Billy into joining them for a weekend getaway at Professor John’s isolated villa in the Italian countryside.

Of course, it’s all just a pretense to lure Billy away so the professor can use him in an experiment to cure him of his drug addiction. As soon as they’ve arrived at the villa, John disconnects the phone and sabotages the car to prevent Billy from leaving, bugs his room and begins messing with the boy’s head.

Professor John

Billy the druggie

The professor starts playing mind games on Billy

Joining them is the professor’s subservient and much younger wife, Elizabeth (Ewa Aulin), who is upset by the way her husband is treating Billy, and who would rather have the two of them spend some time alone at the villa. John criticizes her for her priorities and staunchly defends his experiment, which he is determined to carry out under his motto of “no emotions”. Unfortunately, things quickly get out of hand due to the professor’s inability to confiscate Billy’s stash of drugs, and worse yet, Elizabeth – having grown tired of being neglected by her manipulative husband – takes a liking to Billy and gets hooked on his drugs…

Elizabeth and Billy hit it off...

...leading to more drug abuse...

...and freak-outs

This genuinely strange zero budget oddity currently only circulates via grey market dupes of a rare Greek VHS release from the 1980s, and has long been subject to a lot of debate over who actually directed it and whether or not it ever received any sort of theatrical run. According to the onscreen credits, Microscopic Liquid Subway to Oblivion was written, produced and directed by John W. Shadow, who is also credited with writing all of the songs for the soundtrack. According to the notoriously unreliable IMDb, John W. Shadow was a pseudonym used by small-time Italian producer Roberto Loyola, who never directed anything else. The name John Shadow also crops up as the writer-director for the decamerotic film Tales of Canterbury (1973) and as a screenwriter on J.P. Simon’s notorious Spanish slasher epic Pieces (1982), and in these two instances the IMDb claims the man hiding behind the John Shadow name is Joe D’Amato. A little bit of research quickly reveals, however, that John Shadow is actually a real person. He is/was a British songwriter who was married to Ewa Aulin from 1968 to 1972 – a marriage that produced a son, Shawn, born in 1969. Shadow wanted to branch out into movies but never received much, if any, attention for his brief filmic output, and what little press he did get was almost without exception connected to his marriage to Aulin, who was a big star and favored object of the Italian yellow press in those days.

John Shadow and Ewa Aulin pictured together in the La Stampa newspaper in 1969

One of the very rare instances in which Shadow did get some press on his own was when Variety ran a few pieces about the production of Microscopic Liquid Subway to Oblivion in early 1970. These pieces, while brief, reveal several fascinating details about the production history of the film, as well as some welcome information about Shadow’s background, and I am thus choosing to reproduce them here in their entirety.

The first Variety piece is from 18 March 1970:

Sound Productions is a new film company in Rome, inaugurating activity with a semi-experimental low-budgeter "Microscopic Liquid Subway to Oblivion", which John Shadows will produce and direct from his own screenplay. “Liquid Subway” is a warmup exercise for Shadows who has set up a base here with Swedish actress (and wife) Ewa Aulin. The young producer is a nephew of the late Ella Shields, a Jolson era entertainer known on both sides of the Atlantic. His background also includes founding membership in Radio Caroline, the station that operated in extra-territorial waters off the British coast, with a peak audience of 18,000,000 listeners when Shadows left to enter cinema. Innovation in “Liquid Subway,” Shadows said, would cut to the bone the standard screen reactions and gestures, and prod participation by filmgoers to insert them mentally as the pic unspools. Sound properties are “Only One Way To Go,” an original by Shadows and film publicist Hunt Powers, and “Question Of Innocence,” a Shadows screenplay. As his program develops, he intends to raise financing from a public stock issue, but not until cast and directors are committed. The young filmmaker-promoter is a strong believer in the stock counter as a new source of industry financing, providing the producer can line up a major broker, bank endorsement and a top law firm as a guarantee of legitimate enterprise. “Once this is done,” Shadows said confidently, “the angels will come forward.”

The film is then briefly mentioned again in a Variety issue from 22 April 1970:

John Shadows completed shooting on “Microscopic Liquid Subway to Oblivion” on a three-week schedule and a $70,000 budget. Party, headed by Ewa Aulin, Alex Rabar, Alida Valli's son Carlo Demejo and Eugene Pomeroy together with lenser Gabor Pogany and all others on the unit, accepted salary minimums for profit participation. Shadows also produced for his Sound Pictures and directed from his own script.

A third and final mention of the film occurs in a Variety issue dated 20 May 1970:

“The Microscopic Liquid Subway to Oblivion” is described by its director John Shadow as Italy's answer to the New York. Shot in 17 days and starring his wife Ewa Aulin, songwriter Shadow brought off his filming debut with no financial problems. Backers came out of the walls after comments by Dr. Christiaan Barnard encouraging the undertaking. Shadow formed his own company, Sound Productions Ltd., in the Bahamas a year ago to insure independence, and began working on the film based on a story about a London friend hooked on drugs. Cast also includes Alex Rabar, Eugene Pomeroy and Carlo de Meo, Alida Valli's son. After his first “underground” effort which included writing the script, directing and producing the film and composing the sound track, Shadow says he has other films in preparation.

Unfortunately, Variety didn’t run any more pieces on the film after this point, and this is where things start to get complicated. Shadow shot Microscopic Liquid Subway to Oblivion in Italy, where he and Aulin were based, and the film appears to have been an Italian production, yet it is not listed in the official registrar of Italian films and there is no evidence of any sort of theatrical release in Italy. Somewhat confusingly, American-born actor Eugene Pomeroy, who played the nerdy Henry in the film, mentions in an interview that his family came all the way from the States to attend the premiere in Italy, at which John Shadow and Ewa Aulin were also present. However, this was most likely some sort of private screening for cast, crew and their families rather than a real cinema premiere. Again, the film does not appear to have received any kind of official theatrical release, and no posters or promotional art for the film has surfaced anywhere. Clearly, the production must have run into difficulties – with Shadow perhaps being unable to find a distributor. While one cannot completely rule out the possibility of brief theatrical runs in other European countries, this seems unlikely. In fact, the only known release of the film anywhere in the world is the Greek video release from the 1980s, although how on earth the film ended up on a Greek VHS after being unseen and undistributed for so many years is a mystery that is still waiting to be solved.

The rare Greek VHS release of the film. Note how the highly misleading cover art is stolen from Jess Franco’s Bloody Moon (1981). No original artwork for the film appears to exist

As for the film itself, I’m afraid the complicated release history and confusion over who directed it is far more intriguing than the actual product, which is neither particularly well-made nor enjoyable. For what is ostensibly a drug movie, Microscopic Liquid Subway to Oblivion is curiously lacking in terms of psychedelic imagery – with the only exception being the stylish opening credits, which feature a syringe injecting drugs into a colored bubble, weird sounds, and fish-eye lens shots of a spaced out Ewa Aulin dancing in slow motion. It’s a terrific opening sequence and that only makes it all the more disappointing that the film doesn’t have more scenes like this.

A few images from the stylish opening credits

But while the film may be lacking in psychedelic imagery, it offers no shortage of shock zooms, slow motion, subliminal inserts, bizarre camera angles, jumpy edits, extreme close-ups of faces, echoing sounds, and confusing cutaways. All this results in quite a trippy and weird atmosphere but, unfortunately, it does not translate into a particularly pleasurable viewing experience. The plot makes about as much sense as the nonsensical title, the pacing is languid and the whole thing is frequently boring in spite of the sky high bizarro factor.

Several reviews have commented that the film has a raw, unfinished feel to it, yet the various Variety pieces all indicate that it was indeed completed, so any such feeling is surely down to the inept staging and direction. Among the most confusing aspects are the brief but frequent cutaways to entirely unrelated scenes of Billy’s hippie friends camping out in the woods. It really makes no sense whatsoever. Equally incomprehensible is the decision to film the first 12 minutes (minus the opening credit) in sepia tones. If the transition from sepia to color had occurred at the moment when someone shooting up, it might have made some sense, but instead it happens completely at random – much like everything else in the film. It is of course possible that Shadow simply didn’t have enough money to shoot everything in color. We’ll probably never know.

Some of the head-scratching cutaway footage to Billy’s hippie friends

Sepia toned scenes

In all fairness, the film is not entirely bereft of talent. Gabor Pogany’s cinematography (which is partially cropped on the Greek VHS version) is fairly stylish, and employs some very unusual and inventive angles that are put to particularly good use in a loopy sequence where Professor John is messing with Billy’s head during a game of billiard, or when Billy has tied himself to his bed to fight off his withdrawal symptoms. Furthermore, the songs on the soundtrack (written by Shadow and performed by American-born but Italian-based R&B, blues and disco singer Ronnie Jones) are actually very good and nicely fit the film’s thematic and mood, and there’s even some nice instrumental music by Bill Conti and Marcello Gigante thrown in – featuring the ubiquitous wordless female vocals that seem to have been considered obligatory back then.

The zany billiard sequence is a trippy montage of weird camera angles, shaky camera shots, zooms and snappy edits that nicely illustrate Billy’s state of mind during his withdrawal period

Some pretty effective camerawork during the scenes where poor Billy is tied to the bed

The small but interesting cast is headed by American actor Alex Rebar as the strange Svengali-like professor. Rebar was apparently a personal friend of John Shadow and later acted for him again in Tales of Canterbury, but is best remembered for playing the title role in the American cult classic The Incredible Melting Man (1977) as well as serving as executive producer and occasional writer on such amateurish and cheap slashers as Terror on Tour (1980), To All a Good Night (1980), Demented (1980) and Home Sweet Home (1981). He gives a terrible performance here – coming across as both awkward and hammy. Faring infinitely better is Euro-horror favorite Carlo De Mejo in one of his early film roles. Seeing him without the trademark beard he sports in the likes of City of the Living Dead (1980), The Other Hell (1981) and Blade Violent (1983) is a little baffling at first, but De Mejo is quite good here and really invests himself in the role the rebellious druggie even if the script doesn’t give him a whole lot to work with.

By far the biggest name in the cast is Ewa Aulin, who had become something of an international celebrity after starring alongside the likes of Marlon Brando, Richard Burton, James Coburn and Ringo Starr in the sex farce Candy (1968), which earned her a Golden Globe nomination for most promising newcomer. Aulin seemed destined to become the next big thing in Hollywood, but things took a disastrous turn after she was cast alongside Lee Van Cleef and Jim Brown in the US western El Condor (1970). She began working on the film in late 1969, but clashed with director John Guillermin and producer André De Toth over some sex scenes that Aulin refused to appear in – causing her to promptly walk away from the film and be replaced by Marianna Hill. An article about the incident in Time Magazine gives the impression that the then 19-year old Aulin’s decision to not appear nude (even though she had no such qualms when she starred in Candy) may at least partly have been spurred on by Shadow, who was sometimes described in the Italian press as being very jealous and possessive of his 12 years younger wife.

For Shadow it was obviously convenient that his wife dropped out of El Condor since it meant she was available to star in Microscopic Liquid Subway to Oblivion, but for Aulin it was a catastrophic, career-killing move that put a definite end to any hopes she may have had of conquering Hollywood. She had to have been at least somewhat aware of that while she was making the film, and this may account for her slightly disengaged performance. She looks lovely as always but the only scene in which she seems to come to life is when she dances around the villa in a drugged state pretending to be some Greek goddess.

Ewa on a trip

In his aforementioned interview, co-star Eugene Pomeroy recalls an incident that occurred while he was working on dubbing the film into English together with Ewa Aulin and John Shadow: “I do remember John screaming at her during the dubbing sessions. I found dubbing to be quite easy and fun. There was one scene where Eva had to scream or cry and John kept making her do it again. I realized after the tenth, or was it the twenty-fifth take, that all he wanted her to do was to scream, but he kept screaming things like ''I want you to put more emotion in it!'' and reduced her to tears”. It is perhaps not such a wonder then that the two went their separate ways in 1972 after just four years of marriage. Intriguingly, the relationship between Aulin’s character, Elizabeth, and her husband can be read as a reflection of Aulin and Shadow’s real life relationship – with Elizabeth portrayed as young, naïve and subservient to her older selfish husband (that is until the use of drugs set ‘free’ and enable her to stand up to her husband). I would assume that these similarities are unintentional but it nevertheless adds a little extra layer of interest.

Summing it up, Microscopic Liquid Subway to Oblivion is far more interesting than it is enjoyable. It isn’t very good but it is really weird, very rare and endlessly fascinating, and as such it is worth seeing if for nothing else than to make up your own mind about it.

© 2015 Johan Melle

The cast:

Alex Rebar as Professor John Fink

Ewa Aulin as Elizabeth Fink

Carlo De Mejo as Billy Fisher

Eugene Pomeroy as Henry Keating