Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Italian Horror Blogathon :: Luigi Cozzi's L'assassino è Costretto ad Uccidere Ancora!

After losing another dust-up with his wife, Norma (Velázquez), over her controlling interest of the marital purse strings (-- she's loaded and ready to divorce, he's a leeching free-loader and a philandering deadbeat), the husband, Giorgio (Hilton), storms out of the house, drives off into the night, but picks a lucky spot to cool off, near a canal, where he fortuitously witnesses someone disposing of a body by dumping it and a car into the drink.

How is that lucky, you ask? Simple. For you see, our scheming no-goodnik has no intention of doing his civic duty and informing the police. No. Blackmail is what he intends. And though he has no desire for money, Giorgio is willing to barter for something else. So, What is the price for his silence, then? Simple again. He's willing to keep his mouth shut, and even offers payment for services rendered, IF the killer will kill again and bump off his wife, which would give Giorgio all the loot and the last word on how he spends it.

With such an offer he can't refuse, the Killer (Antoine -- who kinda looks like Peter Weller dressed up as Christopher Lee in Hammer's Curse of Frankenstein) agrees. And their Fargoesque plan to make the death look like a kidnapping for ransom gone wrong goes off without a hitch, with Giorgio firmly establishing a rock-solid alibi at a party -- after one final shag with the wife, who forgives him too late, because she's already dead and just doesn't know it yet (-- firmly establishing what a Douche McTurdburger this Giorgio guy really is). Thus, left alone, the Killer does the dirty deed without much fanfare. And after placing Norma's body in the trunk of her car, he returns to the house to set the stage for the faux kidnapping. Once that is done, all that's left to do is dispose of the body and the debt will be fulfilled. Perfect, right? Well, it would be except for one slight hiccup, signaled by the turn of an ignition key. Which explains why when the Killer returns to the street, the car, and the body, are long gone...

When most folks, myself included, think of Luigi Cozzi, the first thing that most probably pops into our heads is Caroline Munro as the leather-bikni-clad space pirate, Stella Star, who teamed up with Marjoe Gortner, the Hoff, and a redneck Robot sheriff to save the galaxy in the whole six-pack of awesome known to we mere mortals as Starcrash. Cozzi also churned out all those Lou Ferrigno vehicles in the early 1980's, where the former Hulkster took a shot at Sinbad the Sailor and two shots at Hercules -- with the sequel proving even more stupefying than the first, and we all remember how he put a bear into orbit in the first one, right? So, yeah, Cozzi is mostly known for these hair-brained sci-fi and fantasy epics that are goofy as hell and good -- eh, make that great, on those terms, if you catch my drift. And when judged against what came later makes the genuinely impressive quality of his first foray into feature film even more baffling.

By the time he was a teenager growing up in Milan, Luigi Cozzi was already a hardcore science-fiction and horror aficionado, an obsession that landed him a coveted spot as an Italian correspondent for Famous Monsters of Filmland, giving him an outlet to espouse on those films he loved, and even managed to churn out and sell some of his own fantastic fiction. This proved fortuitous, as it led to several contacts in the publishing industry, where he quickly moved up the editorial ladder, which led to more writing on film and a meeting with one of his new cinematic heroes, who we'll reveal in just second.

For all the while Cozzi was putting pen to paper growing up, he was also shooting his own 8mm movies, aping one of his favorite directors at the time, Roger Corman (-- who was in the middle of his Poe cycle by then); some complete with home-made stop motion animation (-- that would come to define most of his later sci-fi output). And as he honed his craft, using his literary contacts, Cozzi landed the rights to Frederik Pohl's The Tunnel Under the World, a satirical, poke in the eye at the world of advertising and market research that the novice director turned into a self-financed, meaning no-budget, avant garde piece of weirdness that became an underground hit in the Continental art-house circuit.

Ironically enough it was while writing about a different medium that brought Cozzi into contact with Dario Argento for that fateful encounter I mentioned earlier. Taking a half-assed rumor that inadvertently predicted the break-up of the Beatles just days before it actually happened, this "scoop" landed Cozzi a job in Rome, which gave him enough clout to pursue interviews with his favorite genre directors. A lone voice, apparently, for no matter how well the films did at the box-office, critically speaking, horror and sci-fi films held a spot barely a notch above pornography. This interview forged a lasting friendship that was cemented when Argento invited Cozzi to pitch in with his latest project, which turned out to be Four Flies on Grey Velvet, another gialli on the heels of his groundbreaking The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Cat o' Nine Tails. (And if you don't know what a gialli is feel free to check out my take on Giulio Questi's Death Laid an Egg, where I do my best to define the truly undefinable.)

Thus, Cozzi helped his friend hammer out a script by bouncing pillaged murder scenarios off of each other to fit that title (-- since it was all Argento had at the time), and was encouraged to hang around the sets while filming commenced, earning himself a spot as an assistant director. This experience, in turn, lead to his first professional directing gig: The Neighbor (Il vicino di casa), which proved to be the most watched (and definitely the best) episode of Argento's TV anthology series, The Door into Darkness (La porta sul buio). And on the heels of that, when producer Giuseppe Tortorella approached Argento to do another thriller for him, Argento, wanting to do something different, declined but gave Cozzi such a glowing recommendation he was soon in the director's chair again for Il Ragno (The Spider), which was eventually tagged with the much more blunt and matter of fact:

__ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __

I'm sick of the unknown killer. You see the hands of the killer. You see the eye of the killer. You see the mouth of the killer. The finger of the killer. But you never see the face until the last shot of the picture. I wanted to start [this] picture with a shot of the killer.

-- Luigi Cozzixxx
__ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __

And that's exactly what Cozzi did, which makes The Killer Must Kill Again less of a gialli and more of a conventional thriller, whose roots can be best described as a mash-up of Strangers on a Train (-- a man blackmailing another into killing his wife), and a book by famed Italian crime-novelist Giorgio Scerbanenco, Al mare con la Ragazza (At Sea with the Girl), where a boy takes his new (and unwitting) girlfriend to the beach with the body of his ex-girlfriend tucked away in the trunk. And that's exactly what happens, here, when two bored teenagers see and seize a golden opportunity (-- namely a set of keys carelessly left in the ignition), and putter off to the beach, blissfully unaware of what's stuffed in the trunk, leading to several scenes where Cozzi really gets his Hitchcock on when the body is nearly but not quite discovered, keeping our couple also blissfully unaware of the danger they're in while the Killer relentlessly pursues them to the beach to get back what he needs.

Meanwhile, thanks to the Killer's cock-up, Giorgio's kidnapping scheme starts to unravel when the cops, led by a wily Inspector (Fajardo), start poking into his ever-fraying story on what happened to his wife when things don't add up at the crime scene. Back on the road, our two teenagers, Luca and Laura (Orana and Galbó), finally reach their seaside destination and follow their noses into an abandoned villa. The girl is charmed by the bizarre decor but the boy has something else on his mind and an itch in his pants, which apparently does most of the thinking for this cretin. Rebuffed, a frustrated Luca is sent out to find some grub. But once he's back out on the road, our boy is delayed when he stops to help a stranded motorist, which is why Laura is all alone when the Killer finally catches up with them, leading to the film's most infamous scene, where Luca, once more thinking with that itch in his pants, and the Blonde ditz (Benussi) he picked up strip and have at in the back seat of the car, while poor Laura is attacked and brutally raped back in the villa by the Killer.

Disturbing and unforgivably explicit at first glance, Cozzi shot and edited this scene together much more skillfully than that on second glance. Yes, the sex between Luca and Blondie is very explicit and titillating but the rape, thankfully, is not. And with his sure and steady hand, with the two scenes juxtaposed, basically, right on top of each other, it's all as tough and nasty and repulsive as it sounds; as it should be, and it's exactly what Cozzi intended and I think he deserves some major props for how he handled it. And what gives that scene even more impact is the quiet (disquieting?) aftermath, when we cut between Blondie casually fussing with her hair while a devastated Laura tries to pull herself back together.

Tough, tough scene, folks, and in lesser hands -- well, I'd rather not even think about it.

And so, using Laura as bait, the Killer waits for Luca to return with the car. Which he does, so he can introduce Laura to his new girlfriend and give Ms. Prissy-Pants the big kiss-off. And, really, can a viewer be blamed, then, for cheering a little (okay, a lot) when Luca proceeds to get his ass kicked and his head caved in by the Killer. But strangely enough, the Killer has no intention of killing the car thieves once he susses out that neither of them realized what's in the trunk ... Well, he wasn't going to kill them until Luca's little roadside tryst comes back to bite all of them on the ass.

E'yup. Guess who finally took a look in the trunk? And so, with his secret discovered, the somewhat reluctant Killer dispatches Blondie most gruesomely with a butcher knife (-- strangely enough, the only really gratuitous violence in the whole picture, though you'd swear there was more). Drained after all that blood-letting, the exhausted Killer slinks off. And with Blondie dead, and worthless Luca beaten senseless, I guess it's up to Laura to save their collective hash -- which she does, in a scene of such Herculean effort that it should be etched in stone in the annals of the Plucky Heroine Hall of Fame.

Thus, with the killer dead, the body recovered, and Laura ready to dump Luca as soon as the Inspector is done taking their statement, all that leaves is that asshat, Giorgio, whose fault all this is, was and ever shall be. Never fear, his goose was long ago cooked, even before the final coda, where the Inspector finally gets his man via the old hoist'd petard.

Technically speaking, Cozzi's episode of The Door into Darkness was also based on Scerbanenco's novel, making The Killer Must Kill Again nothing more, really, than a rehash, where he expanding that nail-biter to feature length. And Cozzi was up to the task, too, with this relentless, near pitch-perfect, suspenseful yarn of constantly overlapping games of cat and mouse, keeping the tension pulled so taut from beginning to end I don't think any amount of hammering would produce a single note -- the piano wire was strung that tight, metaphorically speaking. And for being considered a gialli, the film makes way too much sense, plot-wise. Not a knock on the genre, mind you; just an observation.

In front of the camera, Galbó steals the movie, despite Antoine's best efforts as the stone-faced killer. Aside from Barbara Steele, I'm hard pressed to find a more alluring pair of eyes in film. Galbó just puts all her chips on the table for every role I've seen her in -- this, What Have You Done to Solange, Let Sleeping Corpses Lie and The House that Screamed, she just sells it with everything she's got. And despite those efforts, where she's put through the wringer, a lot, I think she's terribly under-appreciated as far as Gialli-Queens go, which is a damn shame.

When it was finished, despite most of the violence being implied, The Killer Must Kill Again (also released as The Dark is Death's Friend) was hammered so hard by the Italian censors it's release was held up for almost two years. From there, it basically disappeared off the cinematic map and Luigi Cozzi's film career became defined by the interstellar insanity that followed. Fortunately, the fine folks at Mondo Macabro got this lost classic back in circulation in 2004, and I cannot recommend that disc enough. Stuffed with all kinds of special features, including several interviews with Cozzi, the highlight of the disc is a commentary track with the director, where he breaks down the film in great detail (-- I've barely scratched the surface here, and why listen to me when you can hear it from the man himself), including the family oriented financing, with the producer's wife's car playing a pivotal role and the producer's son's girlfriend making a cameo as a corpse. But most importantly, the film, though not as obscure as it used to be, is readily available for all to see. And when you do, I think you'll agree with those of us who have, that The Killer Must Kill Again is relentless, deliciously nasty, and just plain fantastic. And all the credit goes to Luigi Cozzi. Go figure.

There's always room for more
giallo, am I right? And that's why this post is part of Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies' latest endeavor, The Italian Horror Blogathon, where I and several others share their thoughts on anything from gialli to zombies to bad knock-offs -- as long as it's horror and from Italy, it meets the criteria for this blogathon. So what are you waiting for, click on over and start reading the other wonderful entries!

For further reading on more Italian genre films :: My take on Mill of the Stone Women, Death Laid an Egg, The Pyjama Girl Case, A Bay of Blood, and Cannibal Holocaust.

L'assassino è costretto ad uccidere ancora a/k/a The Killer Must Kill Again (1975) Albione Cinematografica~Git International Film~Paris-Cannes Productions / EP: Giuseppe Tortorella / P: Umberto Lenzi / CP: Sergio Gobbi / D: Luigi Cozzi / W: Luigi Cozzi, Daniele Del Giudice, Adriano Bolzoni / C: Riccardo Pallottini / E: Alberto Moro / S: George Hilton, Antoine Saint-John, Cristina Galbó, Alessio Orano, Eduardo Fajardo, Tere Velázquez, Femi Benussi

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