Friday, October 25, 2013

Italian Horror Blogathon: Spasmo

Umberto Lenzi’s Spasmo is one of the most gonzo-gialli I’ve ever seen. In fact, don’t let the labeling on the cover of the DVD fool you, this is not a “giallo classic.” Oh, that’s not to say it isn’t good; it’s just that I don’t think I would go as far as calling Spasmo a classic...or even a giallo, for that matter. At least not a giallo in the traditional sense, for Spasmo is more a psychological thriller than a black-gloved-killer-stalks-promiscuous-women horror film. And in fact, Spasmo is surprisingly tame for a film directed by Lenzi (more on that later), and maybe that’s why I liked it so much. I will freely admit from the onset of this review that I am perhaps overrating Spasmo because I was okay with its goofiness, and I found myself just having so much damn fun with it.

Trying to sum up Spasmo’s plot seems like a pointless endeavor, what with all of its convoluted twists and turns (I read a handful of synopses after I watched the film to try and get it straight, but I wasn’t sure I still got everything), but here goes: A young couple is making out on a deserted road when their afternoon delight is interrupted when the man notices a woman hanging from a tree. Naturally this ruins the mood, but as the couple moves in to get a closer look, they realize that the dead woman is really just a well-made, extremely lifelike rubber dummy. And then the film begins proper. This opening hints at things to come, but Lenzi interjects these moments with people finding these dummies as a break from the primary story. At first, we’re not sure what these fake murder scenes with the dummies mean (some are found on the beach, others in the woods; some have knives inserted them, others are smeared with fake blood), but to give credit where it’s due, Lenzi finds a meld these interjections into his primary mystery.

As for the primary plot: Christian (Robert Hoffman), an heir to an industrial fortune, meets a women named Barbara (Suzy Kendall), who seems to have some kind of sexual power over him as he instantly becomes obsessed with her. It doesn’t take much convincing from Christian before she takes him back to her apartment where Christian is sure to get some as long as he shaves his beard. And, no, that’s not a joke; there is a line in the film where she tells him he’ll get lucky so long as he shaves his beard off. So,  while in the bathroom, Christian is attacked by a gun-wielding stranger, who he ends up killing. When Christian rushes out of the bathroom to tell Barbara about what has gone down, she suggests they go back into the bathroom to get some evidence. However,  when they return to the bathroom, the man is gone, suggesting that the whole thing was just in Christian’s head.

And so Spasmo goes. The rest of the film consists of Christian trying to convince others of what happened in the bathroom; he and Barbara taking shelter in what is supposed to be an empty seaside castle that belongs to one of Barbara’s friends only to come across two total strangers (what would a seaside castle in an Italian horror film be without strange goings-on, though, right?), one of which is a woman that seems eerily familiar to Christian; and Christian following the mystery of the identity of his killer (who is now stalking him at the castle) all the way to its shocking conclusion (like any good giallo, Christian is the everyman character that takes the investigation into his own hands). Not to mention the bizarre scenes of the dummies being found hanged and stabbed across the countryside interjected throughout the film.

There’s so much more, but I’ll stop with what I have. Coming from the director of such trash as Cannibal Ferox, Welcome to Spring Break and Ghosthouse, it’s hard to remember a time when Lenzi really cared about his craft (Seven Bloodstained Orchids, a film I reviewed last year for this blogathon, is another great Lenzi giallo), but he seems to really be trying with Spasmo. There isn’t much evidence (aside from his Italian crime movies) to suggest that Lenzi was anything more than a hack, but films like Seven Bloodstained Orchids and Spasmo suggest, at the very least, a capable filmmaker that was wanting to try for something different with the giallo, a subgenre that was losing steam by 1974.  

Once again (just as we discussed yesterday with What Have You Done to Solange?), a director is given a mighty assist from Ennio Morricone, whose score here is one of the film’s highlights, beautifully underlining each scene with the appropriate displacing score or musical cue that suggests Christian isn’t sure of what’s real and what isn’t. After all, a film where lifelike, human-sized dolls keep popping up in ersatz crime scenes requires an off-kilter score, and Morricone delivers in spades. Perhaps more than any other genre composer, Morricone is as important to the film's tone as any other member of the crew.

Aesthetically, Lenzi does something interesting with this one in that it’s not shot like most gialli; there is no black-gloved killer lurking in the shadows, there is no subjective POV of the killer menacing nude women, there is no amateur playing detective and solving the case before the police do, and (perhaps most surprisingly considering this is Lenzi we’re dealing with) there aren’t those gratuitous, lurid moments of exploitation. In some cases, that’s disappointing because that lurid exploitation usually comes off as great cheese — especially when Lenzi does cheese (see: Hitcher in the Dark and Welcome to Spring Break) — and makes for entertaining trash at times. However, Spasmo plays it straight, and as far as a legitimate mystery, I was shocked by how into I was and how (sort of) neatly and (sort of) logically it all wrapped up.

All that to say: the film is fairly subdued and straight forward in how it’s shot. Lenzi does a good job of hinting at Christian’s possible insanity (the trailer is more gonzo than the film) with little camera tricks here and there, but outside of the requisite 1970’s zooms (not just relegated to Italian horror, mind you), Lenzi lets his story do the heavy lifting.

And this is what I alluded to in my review yesterday: A lot of people find gialli boring because the majority of them are the antithesis of what so many associate with the great Italian horror films of Bava and Argento and Fulci, where ethereal aesthetics take precedence over logical storylines (this is more applicable to the latter two filmmakers than the former). Don’t get me wrong, Spasmo has energy, but it’s in the narrative (even if the opening bits are kind of a muddled slog) not the aesthetics. A rare thing, indeed for Italian horror. But every now and then, I’m in the mood for that kind of Italian horror film, and I caught Spasmo on the right day.

So, this review is getting as jumbled as the plot to Spasmo, so I guess I should wrap this up. Here’s the best way to approach Spasmo: like the majority of Italian horror, the viewer needs to leave their logic at the door and just enjoy the ride. But unlike most (popular) Italian horror, the film is light on atmosphere and crazy aesthetics that detract from the illogical narrative. Spasmo is an head trip, for sure — a psychological thriller more than your average stalk-and-slash giallo/Krimi procedural — and Lenzi wants us to pay attention to his crazy mystery. And because of that fact, I really dug it.  I love what Lenzi does with the first half of his film (even though it doesn’t make a lick of sense), and I was pretty floored by the miraculous feat Lenzi is able to pull all off in melding the majority of these insane elements together into some kind of coherent ending. But it will take patience on the viewer’s end; the film borders on excruciating tedium in that first hour, but if you stick with it, you’ll be rewarded with one of Lenzi’s best efforts, and, really, one of the best and most fun of the later era gialli that you’re likely to come across.


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