Italian Horror Blogathon: What Have You Done to Solange? (aka Cosa avete fatto a Solange?, Terror in the Woods, The School that Couldn't Scream, The Secret of the Green Pins)
I think of Italian horror in stages: you have your Gothic stuff from Bava, you have your ethereal horror a la Suspiria, you have your cannibal subgenre, you have your cheap knockoffs of popular American films, you have your zombies, and you have your gialli. It is this later category that Italy is most known for. Sure, anti-narrative fare like the Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond is what stands out the most to fans, but it is those early gialli — with their whodunit, Edgar Wallace-esque narratives and block-gloved killers — that most people think of when the topic of Italian horror comes up. The sheer volume of titles that continue to be unearthed, cleaned up on DVD, and presented to American audiences is staggering. There are still so many gialli that I’ve never even heard of that I continue to come across every year I do this blogathon. These films have a higher percentage of being terrible because if the mystery isn’t engaging, there usually isn’t a whole lot about the film’s aesthetic that engages me. Whereas with a film like City of the Living Dead, for example, may confound me and even make me laugh at how silly it all is — but damn does it look great in stretches. This is not always so with a giallo — where if the narrative is a slog, then the entire film is usually a slog because there usually just isn’t anything too pretty to look at (unless, of course, you’re Mario Bava) to distract you from how boring the film is.
All of this is to say that when Dario Argento burst on the scene in 1970 with the release of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, there was a bit of resurgence for the giallo — a subgenre that dominated Italian horror for much of the ‘60s. It would only last until Argento (and American horror films like The Exorcist that were hugely popular in Italy) changed the game years later with Suspiria. All of this is to say (and here I am nearly two paragraphs in, and I haven't even mentioned the title of the movie I'm talking about yet) that when I popped in Massimo Dallamano's What Have You Done to Solange? for this blogathon, I was absolutely floored by how into it I was. It's one of the better gialli I've seen.
I'll make the plot synopsis brief since (even though the film is 40 years old) nobody wants a good mystery ruined for them. The film opens with a man and a woman makin' whoopee in a rowboat. The man in question is Enrico Rossini (Fabio Testi, who later starred in Fulci's Contraband and other poliziotteschi), an Italian gymnastics instructor who has moved to London, with his German wife, to teach at an elite Catholic girls school. His wife, Herta (Karin Baal), is also a teacher at the school, but alas, it is not her who is in the rowboat with Enrico...that rapscallion. Italian stereotypes aside, Enrico is the youngest teacher at the school and the girls love him. Some are even in love with him, and Enrico, never one to disappoint his students, begins an affair with Elizabeth (Christina Galbo), an 18 year-old senior whose family is very prominent in the community.
So, back to the rowboat: Enrico and Elizabeth are necking in the rowboat when Elizabeth swears that she has seen an heinous action on the riverbank. This ruins the mood (Enrico isn't convinced and thinks she's just trying to play defense against him) and acts as the catalyst for our mystery as the next morning Enrico reads the newspaper, learning that there was indeed a murder in that location the day before. Even more worrisome to Enrico is that the victim was a fellow student of Elizabeth's. What makes the mystery so intriguing at first is that it's a balancing act between Elizabeth's vision and Enrico trying to hide his infidelity when the police come snooping around the school.
Naturally Enrico doesn't want his affair with a student to get out, considering it could ruin the school's reputation and his marriage. But when more students end up dead (the method of which, a knife through their vagina, is rather gruesome), Enrico has to give in even though he maintains that the information he has, and what little Elizabeth actually saw, can't really help the police with their investigation. In typical giallo/Krimi fashion, Enrico fears that the investigation is focusing too much on him and not trying to find the real killer, so he takes matters into his own hands and begins investigating the murders. This "everyman as police investigator" is a required element in these kind of films, and even though most gialli have convoluted mysteries with huge plot holes, Solange is surprisingly adept. Enrico's investigation leads him to the truth before the police, natch (with one of those wonderful bits of exposition found in almost all gialli where he says, "the revenge he planned was symbolically obvious..." while gathered with the police around the dead body of the killer), but the reveal of the film's central mystery is at once horrifying and surprisingly poignant.
Solange's director, Massimo Dallamano, was most known for his work as DP on Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More. The only film of his I was familiar with prior to this film was the The Omen rip-off The Night Child, whose trailer pops up a lot of on exploitation trailer comps (spoiler: it's no good). But I have to say, Solange makes me more than curious about his other work (only The Night Child and his earlier Devil in the Flesh constitute horror), especially his poliziotteschi since the mystery in Solange is so solid. Here, he shows enough restraint during the murders that the film doesn't come off as lurid trash, and with a big assist from Ennio Morricone's score (with its great opening theme, posted for you below), he's actually able to pull off a poignant coda; a rare thing, indeed, for a giallo.
As I mentioned earlier, there usually isn't much aesthetically going on in these giallo/Krimi films, and Solange is no different. There are exceptions to be sure (anything by Bava, Argento, Martino), but the real joy and craft is in how well the filmmakers unfold their mystery and whether or not they can successfully pull the rug out from under the viewer. However, the look of Solange is surprisingly coherent, never getting in the way of the central mystery. It's surprising because the DP is non other than Aristide Massaccesi (better known to Americans as Joe D’Amato). This isn't the zoom-obsessed (although it is 1970's Italian cinema, so there are going to be zooms whether you like it or not) Massaccesi who would become the hack we love to rib on this blog; no, this was before the days of filling up his CV with crap like Emmanuel and the Last Cannibals, Papaya: Love Goddess of the Cannibals, Sexy Nights of the Living Dead, and Porno Holocaust. His camerawork here is more than serviceable, and it suggests the sort-of-capable filmmaker we would see in spurts in Beyond the Darkness and Anthropophagus (the only two films of his I've had anything positive to say about).
Perhaps the best part about Solange is that it's interested in all kinds of little details that move the mystery along. There are Red Herrings, to be sure, but they're quickly dealt with, as it really comes across as Dallamano and co. were sure not to insult the intelligence of the viewer (there's an interestingly self-aware line at the beginning of the film when Enrico says, “a suspicious wife is a very boring character," essentially eliminating his wife as a potential suspect) by paying more attention to the nuances of the mystery. This made me giddy, for it is a rare thing indeed for a giallo not to completely fall of the rails logically.
“If I’ve seen one giallo, I’ve seen them all” is a common sentiment among horror fans, and so as I wrap this post up I just want to throw my weight behind the film and urge those that think all gialli are the same to give this one a shot. Even for those that are squeamish and don't like Italian horror because of its penchant for the grotesque, really, with the exception of one gruesome looking x-ray and a flashback that is admittedly disturbing (although free of blood), Solange is light on gore, and contains one hell of a mystery. In fact, it's the rare '70s giallo that is more interested in its mystery than gruesomeness. See it; it's well worth your time.