Monday, May 2, 2016

There's Always Room for Giall-O Shots :: Death Takes a Stroll in Arrow Video's New Luciano Ercoli Double-Feature Boxset, with Death Walks on High Heels (1971) and Death Walks at Midnight (1972)

Several years ago while writing up a review for Giulio Questi's completely demented Death Laid an Egg (1968), I tried to do the impossible by explaining what made a gialli a gialli -- a term derived from the standard yellow-hued book covers for a series of lurid Italian pulp novels, which was then co-opted to describe a certain breed of Continental cinematic thriller. At this I mostly failed, but the effort was valiant because defining the difference between a gialli and a more conventional mystery is like trying explain how a square can be a rectangle while said rectangle cannot be a square. Essentially, the basic elements are present in both: a murder or string of murders; a murderer; a protagonist caught up in the investigation to catch said murderer; a few clues, a few suspects, and maybe a late twist or two to add some punch before wrapping it all up for the closing credits.

Now, where the gialli starts to differentiate itself from this formula is that it seems to be more interested in the howtheydunit as opposed to whodunit -- and the more baroque theydunit, and the cooler wheretheydunit, the better -- and whytheydunit is basically irrelevant or taken care of with a massive plot dump at the end. However, to get to that, these things are absolutely Rube Goldbergian in structure with a byzantine twist, starting with the protagonist, serving as a surrogate voyeur for the audience, witnessing something -- usually a murder -- that sets off an unstoppable chain-reaction of other nefarious events/murders/blackmail, usually made worse by the protagonists efforts to stop them. False starts, false leads and a healthy dose of hedonistic red herring and human collateral damage doesn't help make things any easier to unravel and decipher. Nothing appears to be what it seems on the surface. Nothing is concrete, and mass confusion is your new best friend. And while the audience, and the protagonist, begin to question their own sanity while focusing on one thing, nine times out of ten our eyes and attention should be focused somewhere else.

For, once the dominoes start falling in these twisted menageries, it's hard to keep up with each separate line of falling blocks as some stall out, others reach a dead end, and some make pretty designs and a lot of noise but in the end prove pointless and irrelevant to the bigger picture. Which is usually why, when the climax is reached and the whys and why-fores come out, a viewer's frustration factor might be needling into the red a bit. And that's completely understandable when the big pay off craps out, but sometimes ... Well, sometimes the view along the way is still worth the trip.

And that is definitely the case for the films of Luciano Ercoli, beginning with his first film, The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion (1970), which also marked his first collaboration with screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi, who turned out pages for all kinds of genres, from horror [Werewolf in a Girl’s Dormitory (1963)], peplum [Medusa Against the Son of Hercules (1963)], and spaghetti westerns [The BIg Showdown (1972)], and worked with several genre legends, including Mario Bava, Sergio Martino, Antonio Margheriti, and Umberto Lenzi. Together, Ercoli and Gastaldi spun a labyrinthine tale of blackmail and murder where a wife (Dagmar Lassander) is forced into having sex with another man (Simón Andreu), who holds incriminating evidence of murder against her husband. From there, the plot kinda sorta follows in the footsteps of The Naked Edge (1961), where on one hand the wife gathers evidence of her husband’s guilt, while on the other she defends him anyway. And as things get out of control no one will believe her and begin to question her sanity, including her best friend (Nieves Navarro -- billed as Susan Scott), who may or may not be behind the whole scheme to begin with.

As this plot continues to pretzel itself while we barrel toward the eventual resolution in Forbidden Photos, Ercoli’s camera brings an intoxicating sensuality to these proceedings, be it a scrumptious background setting or delectable character, blurring the lines of what is real and unreal. You’d never guess this was a first time effort. Often cited (or blamed) as the originator of bringing a sexual-component to these protracted murders, I don’t think we’ve quite reached the tipping point of ‘sex equals death’ yet as Ercoli’s films are still about resolving who the killer is and not how the victims died; a short, slippery slope that will wind us up in the deep end of the stalks 'n' slasher pool as the decade progressed.

As for myself, I instantly fell in love with the movie, and Navarro, who kinda steals Forbidden Photos out from under everyone with her mere presence, eye-popping wardrobe and sexually aggressive behavior. Ercoli also took note of this, which explains why Navarro was destined to star in his next two pictures, Death Walks in High Heels (1971) and Death Walks at Midnight (1972), two films I had been anxious to see ever since screening Forbidden Photos but whose limited availability and out of print status thwarted me at every turn. But now, thanks to the fine folks at Arrow Video, we have a brand spanking new ‘Death Walks Twice’ box-set featuring both those Ercoli films on DVD or BluRay.

In fact, if Death Walks on High Heels has one flaw, and it is nearly fatal, it’s that Navarro’s character essentially disappears when the movie is only half over. It begins with an exotic dancer (Navarro) being pursued by a masked man with striking blue eyes, who thinks she knows where a stash of stolen diamonds are. In fear for her life, she dumps her surly boyfriend (Andreu) and flees the country with a diplomat (Frank Wolf) who is dangerously obsessed with her. Murder soon follows, but whodunit? And why? And why won’t anyone believe our heroine is in real danger? 

We take an abrupt left turn from there as the film settles into a fairly standard police procedural groove as Scotland Yard’s finest (Carlo Gentili) tries to unravel the mystery and a diabolical money-grab. This, takes a while, as red herrings pile-up and bleed-out, which leads to the film’s second flaw in that it is too long for it’s own good (clocking in at nearly two hours) as I felt my attention wandering off on several occasions. A few fast plot curve-balls at the end do add some punch, but it might be a case of too little, too late for some.

Despite these beefs, the film looks just incredible, with Ercoli’s set-ups and set-pieces easily curb-stomp all concerns about the meandering plot. I also have some more good news to report as, once again, Ercoli seems to have learned from his mistakes for his third feature, as Death Walks at Midnight has rocketed into my top five favorite gialli of all time thanks to Ercoli’s keen cinematic eye and kick-ass performance by Navarro as a fashion model who is duped by a reporter (Andreu yet again) into taking a hallucinogen, and while tripping-out she sees another woman being brutally murdered by a man wearing some kind of medieval gauntlet.

Once this all sees print, our heroine soon finds herself neck-deep in sordid puzzle pieces, dead bodies, and a narcotics ring currently embroiled in a lethally violent management restructuring that she must sort out all on her own when, once again, due to her admitted psychotropic drug use, the police, the reporter, and even her boyfriend (Peter Martell) don’t believer her, meaning if she wants to survive she’s on her own because frankly, in this movie, it’s always midnight somewhere.

It is Navarro’s feisty independent streak that endeared me to her through these films, even in Death Walks on High Heels she takes no crap from anyone. (Though there is one racially charged dance number that is sure to rightfully raise a few eyebrows.) Sure, she’s also a knock-out, and a living and breathing embodiment of haute couture fashions of the day, but it goes much deeper than that.

See, there’s this one particular scene early in Midnight that sets the tone for the rest of the film. It’s right after Navarro’s character has been drugged and taken advantage of for a salaciously dubious article on narcotics, which causes her to lose her next gig. And as she passes a newsstand, plastered with photos of her seized in abject terror, which really gets her dander up, you know from here on out there will be no cowering in fear from her. No more victimization. And that her next act is to go and beat the crap out of the guy who duped her into those photos is just gravy. Pure gravy. And then, even as the noose began to tighten around her and she gets ever closer to the truth, the character will fight to the bitter end; and while it appears a man pulls her hash out of the fire, she winds up doing the same for him.

All told, it was just nice to see a female lead so proactive instead of just being passively reactive in one of these bloody thrillers -- she essentially plays the same character in Midnight as Tony Musante in Argento’s seminal The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), which is why, with all apologies to Edwige Fenech, Navarro is now the new, reigning gialli queen in my cinematic universe. Kudos to Ercoli, too, for showing loyalty with his stock cast and comedy relief through all three films. Sadly, this would be it for Ercoli, who came into a sizeable inheritance, married Navarro, and retired from filmmaking altogether shortly after making Midnight.

Anyways, Arrow Films has done a remarkable job on this new boxset. The prints look fantastic, with both having a brand new 2K restoration, with a slight edge to High Heels because the colors appeared a tad -- stress on the ‘tad’, more vibrant to my eye. Both films also feature a dual language option, either English or Italian, with newly translated English subtitles for those Italian soundtracks. The sound is clear, with no discernible hiss or drop-outs, and do justice to those breezy soundtracks.

And sticking with Arrow Video’s usual modus operandi, these Ercoli discs are also chock full of bonus features. Each disc contains a commentary track by Tim Lucas, head guru of Video Watchdog, which are always friendly and informative as he shares a deluge of info on the film, cast and filmmakers that are probably worth the price of the set alone. Both discs also feature reversible sleeves with original poster art for those who care about that kind of thing. (I know I do.) And if you hurry, there’s a limited edition 60-page booklet containing essays on these films from authors Danny Shipka (Perverse Titillation: The Exploitation Cinema of Italy, Spain and France), Troy Howarth (So Deadly, So Perverse: 50 Years of Italian Giallo Films) and Leonard Jacobs. Both discs also include an optional introduction by screenwriter Gastaldi. But never fear, there are also a few exclusive features for each individual disc:

Death Walks on High Heels has several featurettes, including From Spain with Love, a brand new interview with Ercoli and Navarro at their home in Barcelona, Master of Giallo, where Gastaldi reflects on his career and how to write a successful gialli, and Death Walks to the Beat, an interview with composer Stelvio Cipriani. Meanwhile, Death Walks at Midnight includes an alternative TV cut of the picture, a second and completely different chat with Gastaldi, and perhaps my personal favorite featurette, Desperately Seeking Susan, which is a video essay narrated by Michael Mackenzie as he explores the collaboration between director Ercoli and star Navarro/Scott, which echoes my own feelings on her performance and the pang felt over how they didn’t do any more films together.

And there ya go. I guess my only real complaint is that Forbidden Photos wasn’t included in this package, making the trilogy complete, but for those who are curious the film is readily available and reasonably priced on DVD from Blue Underground, which I also cannot recommend enough. As for Arrow Video’s boxset, if I could recommend it anymore I would but I don’t think that would be possible. And I applaud them for their restorative efforts (-- their Blood and Black Lace Bluray left me speechless on the quality upgrade over my old DVD), and for getting these and other gialli back into circulation as those otherwise wonderful NoShame, VCI, Shriekshow, and Anchor Bay DVDs of the same can now safely wither in those over-priced used bins. So go. And go Arrow. And watch these films. Now! 

Death Walks on High Heels (1971) Atlántida Films :: Cinecompany / P: Luciano Ercoli, Alberto Pugliese / D: Luciano Ercoli / W: Ernesto Gastaldi, Mahnahén Velasco / C: Fernando Arribas / E: Angelo Curi / M: Gianni Ferrio / S: Frank Wolff, Nieves Navarro, Simón Andreu, Carlo Gentili, George Rigaud

Death Walks at Midnight (1972) C.B. Films S.A. :: Cinecompany / P: Luciano Ercoli, Alberto Pugliese / D: Luciano Ercoli / W: Sergio Corbucci, Ernesto Gastaldi, Guido Leoni, Mahnahén Velasco / C: Fernando Arribas / E: Angelo Curi / M: Gianni Ferrio / S: Nieves Navarro, Simón Andreu, Pietro Martellanza, Claudie Lange, Carlo Gentili

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