Thursday, October 25, 2012

Italian Horror Blogathon: Seven Bloodstained Orchids (aka Sette orchidee macchiate di rosso, Puzzle of the Silver Half Moons)

Before he made his infamous cannibal films The Man from Deep River, Eaten Alive, and Cannibal Ferox, Umberto Lenzi was more known for his gialli. A Euro-Horror cult figure known more for the aforementioned cannibal films and for his wacky atomic zombie flick Nightmare City, Lenzi was actually pretty adept at the classic giallo film, and one of his best and most competent film is 1972’s Seven Bloodstained Orchids. Considered a lesser giallo by some, Lenzi’s film is one of the better entries into the subgenre that was oh-so-popular in ‘70s Italian cinema.

Lenzi starts us off with two quick murders (naked women, naturally) leaving us to believe that this is just going to be another piece of lurid Lenzi trash. However, he slows things down and begins telling a story that pulls you in. The procedural aspects of the giallo – influenced by the linear narrative tropes found in the German “whodunits” called “Krimi’s” – are almost tricky and usually convoluted to the point where they drag during these scenes; however, Lenzi’s pacing is really on-point here and the film feels more like the “classier” giallo The Bird with the Crystal Plummage (which had come out a year earlier) than some kind of trashy exploitation flick. Don’t get me wrong, Seven Bloodstained Orchids is trashy and exploitative in parts (what Lenzi film isn’t), but it’s not as trashy as something like his follow up gialli, Eyeball and Spasmo. Here, the story is efficiently told and the denouement – a critical part of any giallo – actually makes sense and rewards the attentive viewer.

Okay, so the plot: the killer in question is seemingly offing random women while leaving a symbol of his work at each crime scene. Silver half-moons are found on the first two victims, and it is by sheer luck that the police are able to cobble together an M.O. thanks to Giulia Gerosan (Uschi Glass) surviving a knife attack while on a late night train from Rome to Paris. Giulia – a young bride-to-be – is rescued by a train guard as he interrupts the killer before he can finish the job and leave the trademark symbol that has been found at the other murder scenes. When released from the hospital, the police tell Giulia that she is safe to return to her fiancĂ©, Mario (Antonio Sabato…yes, it’s his dad), who “comforts” her with this howler of a line:  “Let's put it all down to a maniac who runs around killing and presents trinkets to all his girlfriends." Not the kind of support one would want after having almost been murdered.

The rest of the story plays out like a lot of the gialli of the ‘70s: the police investigate, trying to use the misinformation that Giulia actually has been killed to lure the killer out of hiding; Mario, like a lot of giallo characters, doesn’t trust the police investigation, so he wants to investigate himself; and of course this always leads to plenty of red herrings as Mario’s investigation seems to uncover more questions than truths. Seven Bloodstained Orchids more entertaining in its surprising efficacy; most gialli stumble through their twists and red herrings, turning procedurals into excruciating viewing experiences; however, Lenzi’s narrative her is surprisingly engaging and entertaining.

Like smoother gialli before and after it – whether it’s Argento’s The Bird and Crystal Plumage or Fulci’s Murder to the Tune of Seven Black Notes – Seven Bloodstained Orchids is never boring and moves at a good clip. In what seems like nothing more than a few unconnected murders, we soon find that the prostitute and the other woman at the beginning of the film are connected to Giulia. The Half Moon Killer (so-named for his calling card he leaves at every murder; the silver half-moon pendant) seem to be stalking women who were co-workers with Giulia at hotel she worked at. Giulia remembers the silver pendant on a key chain of a strange American tourist three years prior, and thus spurs Mario’s investigation into finding just why this killer seems to be targeting these specific women. We find ourselves invested in Mario’s investigation, and, unlike the worst gialli (and there were a lot of them around this time), Lenzi keeps things focused on the investigation only taking a few (necessary) detours for violence and rarely with nonsensical twists that don’t add up by films end.

Seven Bloodstained Orchids is filled with gory, giallo moments. There’s an unsettling overhead shot of a woman’s cats lying dead (presumably poisoned). Also, an aesthete is murdered; her head perched on an open picture frame as red paint drips on her body. It is little flourishes like that that make this stand above most of Lenzi’s other horror efforts. The climax is completely bloodless, but it’s well-blocked and shot (I love that we focus on Giulia’s face while the primary struggle between Mario and the killer happens off screen, under the water of a swimming pool, in eerie silence) and quite effective in delivering tension.

The film’s most famous scene, however, is the moment where the black-gloved killer uses a drill to kill a woman. As the killer knocks their victim to the ground, Lenzi’s camera stays glove-level with the killer as it pans over to their selection of weapon: a power drill. Instead of cutting, Lenzi keeps his camera fluid here as it pans with the killer as they turn around to face their victim. Lenzi doesn’t keep the tension as unbearable as, say, Fulci would with the whole splinter-in-the-eye bit from Zombi 2, but he paces the death well enough so that the image of that drill lingers and is effective. To my complete shock, the scene isn’t at all exploitative in the sense that Lenzi’s future films – and the way he would have his camera ogle the deaths in his films – would be. It’s a quick punch-to-the-gut type of death scene (complete with fake-looking blood spurting).

Umberto Lenzi’s career is an interesting one. He straddled both sides of the exploitation fence; he made both trashy, ugly films and stylish exploitation goodies. The former are well documented elsewhere (and here on the blog), but it’s the latter that I want to spend a moment to talk about. Seven Bloodstained Orchids is pretty clearly one of the last competent horror films Lenzi made before he would step away from the subgenre to make Italian crime movies. His Poliziotteschi (like giallo/gialli is a style of Italian horror, this is the name for a particular style of Italian crime movie) are violent exploitation gems; films like Almost Human; The Cynic, The Rat, and The Fist; Violent Naples; Gang War in Milan; and Syndicate Sadists are all ridiculously violent and entertaining (an aside: any kind of Italian genre film is good in my book when it has John Saxon in it, as many of these Poliziotteschi did)

However, when Lenzi decided to get back into the horror genre with the cannibal film, the exploitation shifted towards a violence against women (the Poliziotteschi could be misogynistic but more in that “Oh those pesky Italians” kind of way, whereas his horror films are pretty ugly in the seriousness of their misogyny) and innocent animals. Cannibal Ferox is one of the biggest wastes of celluloid, and his late-era slashers are just the shits. Only his goofy Nightmare City is noteworthy for at least being a fun midnight movie. So, his gialli fall more in step with his Poliziotteschi: stylized, violent exercises in exploitation, and Seven Bloodstained Orchids is  one of his best – a worthy entry in the subgenre that would act as a good initiation picture for those unfamiliar with both Lenzi and the giallo. In no way should be considered a “lesser” giallo.


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