BLOOD AND BLACK LACE (1964)
Mario Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963) is said to be the first giallo, but of Bava’s films it is this that feels like the ur-giallo, a template for everything that came after – not just 70’s gialli, but 80’s slasher films as well. Like a lot of those films it feels mechanical, but in a good way: especially in this restoration from Arrow, it’s a shiny new machine, with a thrumming engine.
And what does this machine do? Well not to put too fine a point upon it, it kills women. The film is paced around the brutal murders of young models at the Christian Haute Couture fashion salon by a faceless killer in black mask, fedora, and gloves.
Which might suggest a thoroughly misogynistic perspective, though what’s most striking about the film is it’s refusal to let anyone in. Our way in to a film is generally through a protagonist, but BABL goes further than Psycho, which killed off its apparent heroine halfway through – it has no protagonist at all, unless you count the villains, who are only unmasked later on, and are naturally unsympathetic.
If you start to to identify with anyone else here they are either killed, or the film’s attention drifts away from them. The female characters are mostly victims and the male ones impotent (in one case explicitly so). The police don’t solve the mystery.
In keeping with the modeling theme the villain is not even one specific character but an outfit occupied by two people during the course of the film. The killer is mainly the salon’s manager Max (Cameron Mitchell) but to a lesser extent it’s the salon owner Christina (Eva Bartok) who, under his spell, adopts the killer’s costume to commit a murder that puts Max in the clear, since it happens while he is detained by the police.
Though Christina and Max kill each other there’s a sense in which the ‘real’ killer is the costume, variations of which will go on to be worn in other gialli.
As with the many gialli to come it’s the surface look that counts. There is a productive tension in BABL between our inability to find a way in via a protagonist and the seductive dreamlike surface of the film itself, established by Bava’s way with camerawork and lighting. This surface represents a continual invitation which the audience is unable to accept (with the brutal murders possibly spelling out the consequences of disrupting this mise en scene).
Finally, everything is held in a kind of stasis, with the omnipresent dummies and suits of armour given almost as much weight as the characters, and it’s as if the only prospect of getting in is through the camera itself, which at one point seems to be stalking Max, and even pushing objects out of the way, without representing the POV of a specific character.
And the camera, of course, is only a machine, like the telephone whose receiver is left dangling in the film’s final shot, like an emblem of failed interaction. And we haven’t interacted with the film in the conventional sense of identifying with a character. And it hasn’t mattered.
BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (1970)
Dario Argento’s film, generally thought of as the next great leap forward for the giallo,provides us with a human protagonist but then leaves him in the same position as the viewer of BABL: on the other side of the glass.
At the beginning the hero Sam (Tony Musante), an American author in Rome on holiday, witnesses a murder attempt on a woman in an art gallery by another masked, hatted and gloved killer. He watches the assault while caught between the two glass doors that form the art gallery entrance, unable to get in and assist the woman – who does, however, survive after the killer runs off.
He is aware that there is something wrong with the ‘picture’ he has seen and this feeling troubles him throughout the film, during which he helps the police with their enquiries and is also targeted by the killer, along with his girlfriend Julia (Suzy Kendall) and other characters, some of whom are killed.
His inability to penetrate the mystery is echoed in a scene where he visits an artist (Mario Adorf) whose painting of an assault on a woman has ‘set the killer off’. Now in a ‘mystical phase’, the artist lives (on cat meat) in a house which, to Sam’s bemusement, has no entrance on the ground floor.
Similarly, when a hired killer (Reggie Nalder) stalks him, Sam pursues him to a convention of prizefighters, where everyone is wearing the same clothes as Nalder, and Sam is presented with a wall of yellow-jacketed backs into which the killer has been absorbed.
But it’s only when the mystery is apparently resolved and the seeming killer, the art gallery owner Alberto (Umberto Raho), is discovered, that the original sense of ‘wrongness’ that has been plaguing Sam takes centre stage. Suddenly the tone of the film shifts, introducing a note of the uncanny as Sam looks away from the ‘final scene’ – the death of the ‘killer’ – to find that Julia, who was standing right next to him, is no longer there.
As, in a sort of trance, he wanders the city looking for her, we feel that sense of wrongness ourselves – the film is over, but it is continuing. We are no longer looking through the frame of a conventional, if strikingly well-shot and reasonably well-constructed, thriller: through Sam, we have passed beyond the glass.
There is a sense, when Sam finds Julia tied up by the real killer after accessing the art gallery by a rear entrance, that he has gone ‘backstage’, where he finds out how the original illusion was created. The woman he saw being attacked at the start – Monica, Alberto’s wife (Eva Renzi) – was in fact the killer; her husband, wearing the killer’s costume for his own strange reasons, was trying to stop her.
Yet, in penetrating the mystery, Sam only confuses the situation – the previous neat and tidy false ending is now muddled rather than clarified. The sado-masochistic relationship between Alberto and Monica blurs the killer’s identity: even if he didn’t commit the murders, he has worn the costume.
Sam’s reward for penetrating the mystery is to be penetrated himself, by a spiky piece of modern art brought down upon him by Monica, but the police arrive in time to shoot her, and save him – his powerlessness in this situation emphasises the fact that the mystery which he seemed to be just about ‘on top of’ is now overwhelming him. He has got too close.
Argento’s film does not dispose of his characters in quite the relentless way that Bava does, but his film has a harder, colder look – it is more self-consciously modern. Bava’s mise en scene is a Gothic clutter, and almost cosy in that respect, cosiness and claustrophobia being opposite sides of the same coin.
Argento, equally stylish in his way, doesn’t fill his spaces with suits of armour and shadows: his point is that you can see it all and still be deceived. His most baroque flourish is in the title, which proves to have a fairly banal explanation.
Unlike Bava in BABL he allows some humanity into the proceedings via the fallible Sam, and although women in Argento’s film are still likelier than men to find themselves on the wrong end of a knife, there’s also a woman on the ‘right’ end – which is hardly striking a blow for feminism, but at least demonstrates an egalitarian spirit.
But he is just as in love with that machine the camera as Bava. One thing they might agree on is that a perfectly crafted image is a snare and a delusion; and that there is nothing more rewarding than the painstaking construction of one.
SCHALKEN THE PAINTER (1979)
Leslie Megahey’s BBC film, made as part of the Omnibus series of arts programmes and seen here on a BFI DVD, is based on a ghost story by J. Sheridan Le Fanu. It aimed to be an arts documentary that shifts into supernatural territory, a nice idea that doesn’t quite come off, but always remains interesting.
Megahey (inspired by Walerian Borowczyck’s 1971 film Blanche) adopts a painterly approach to this story of Dutch painters, so that it becomes a kind of still life itself, with a deliberately maintained ‘flatness’ about it. Everyone in this ‘canvas’ is trapped – by economic circumstances, mysterious forces, their own limitations – but nobody more trapped than Rose (Cheryl Kennedy), niece of artist Gerrit Dou (Maurice Denham), who effectively sells her to a visiting aristocrat in want of a wife.
In his haste to conclude the deal he opts not to notice that this visitor, with his sepulchral voice and grey complexion, appears to be one of the walking dead.
Dou’s apprentice, Schalken (Jeremy Clyde) is most upset by this development, since he has tender feelings for Rose – though they are not deep enough to inspire him to make any attempt to save her (which would impact on his career).
Instead, with Rose gone, he satisfies his desires at the local brothel and continues successfully to paint. Rose returns twice, the first time in desperate flight from her situation, though we are left to imagine the details; having arrived in a traumatized state she shortly thereafter jumps out of the bedroom window into the canal and vanishes.
Later, however, she smilingly accosts Schalken in a crypt and offers him a demonic vision of marital bliss in which she sits enthusiastically astride her dead husband, all the while grinning back at the artist.
It is at these dramatic moments that the film falters a little, as though the spell of stillness has been, damagingly, broken – the ‘effect’ used in the crypt scene to make it look as though Schalken is fleeing in terror, yet rooted to the spot, is a bit silly.
But the image of Rose in necrophiliac ecstasy is a powerful one, though crucial to its ‘obscenity’ is the idea that Rose is enjoying herself, the same attitude that permeates another Le Fanu adaptation, Hammer’s The Vampire Lovers from 1970, directed by Roy Ward Baker and based on Le Fanu’s Carmilla.
Like many other vintage vampire films, including Hammer’s 1958 version of Dracula, it’s a film in which women have to be locked in their rooms to keep out not just the vampire, but the unseemly passion the vampire incites in them.
Rose too manifests this unseemliness. Whether she is ‘just’ an image in the distressed painter’s mind, her pleasure enacting his shame, or actively haunting him, that pleasure is still conspicuously there, along with the possibility that it might even be genuine.
And now what remains of her is an image, staring out from one of Schalken’s canvases, the suggestive painting of a smiling woman holding a candle that was the starting point of Le Fanu’s story, teasing us, like the ‘picture’ that troubles Sam in Bird With The Crystal Plumage, with an invitation into a world in which anguish and desire, aggressor and victim, are not always so easily distinguished.
One idea of art is that the artist achieves catharsis by expressing his feelings with, in this case, paint. Schalken doesn’t seem to have managed this, remaining effectively stuck in his own canvas while it is Rose, the subject of the painting, who has achieved catharsis – at least, this is one way of interpreting her ambiguously triumphant pleasure.
(Quite the opposite happens in Bird, wherein the artist appears successfully to offload whatever demons he might be dealing with onto the artwork before going into his ‘mystical phase’, and the artwork itself goes on to provoke not catharsis but a replication of the original trauma.)
The ‘art’ at the centre of Olivier Assayas’ film (Arrow Academy Blu-Ray) is anime porn, or hentai as those in the know apparently call it, but no reason why this too can’t provoke a ‘catharsis’ or two in either artist or viewer. It all depends on how loose your definition of catharsis is.
The film, however, studiously evades our emotional involvement. Our protagonist here is as ambiguous as Schalken – not quite inviting us in, though not necessarily warding us off either: Diane (Connie Nielsen) is a ruthlessly ambitious ‘ice queen’ businesswoman not above drugging her boss in order to further her career.
She seems to have some success negotiating an anime porn deal but after she turns cat burglar to raid rival company woman Gina Gershon’s hotel room, and ends up in a fight with her, it all falls apart – not just her career, but reality itself, along with the narrative structure of the film.
Suddenly, without explanation, Diane is meekly subservient to the disgruntled assistant (Chloe Sevigny) she used to boss around and is subsequently drawn into an obscure ‘deal’ wherein she ends up as a performer on torture site The Hellfire Club, secretly run by Gershon’s company demonlover.
Unlike in Videodrome (1983) and Mulholland Drive (2001), both of which are clear influences on this, there is no sense – as the film abandons conventional plotting – of a transition into a possibly-hallucinatory ‘other reality’. It’s more like this is still the same reality, only we have lost the ability to understand it. If a threshold has been crossed, it was already crossed before the film began.
Though its ‘ultra-modern’ world still has room for faxes, demonlover is quite telling about the present-day world of work, which – at least at the higher level at which Diane is operating – is largely a question of putting on a convincing performance, one which increasingly takes over your life.
When that performance falters, so does your life – Diane is propelled through a series of disconnections onto the digital ‘shop floor’: she ends up glowering from a computer screen at the teenage boy who has dialed her up but is now ignoring her in favour of his biology homework.
At this point she doesn’t look like a victim – more like she is plotting something. She has attained a kind of base level of capitalist reality, where the real money is made through real pain; and at the same time she is still ‘performing’. Our disconnection from the character at this point leaves us emotionally ambivalent – Diane is now ‘just’ an image, a ghost in the machine, unreal but as with Schalken’s painting, suggestive of hidden depths, possibly dangerous.
There is no catharsis for the viewer, and no clear one for Diane. There is a scene where she shoots a colleague, Hervé (Charles Berling), who has raped her, but this is not presented as part of a straightforward revenge scenario – she seems to be doing it in her sleep, and Diane is more traumatized than obviously ‘freed’ by it.
But perhaps she does achieve catharsis, when we aren’t looking – we are simply not allowed to share it, or at least to enjoy the illusion of sharing it. We are in any case torn between identification with Diane, and wariness of her. Nielsen’s performance, conveying a certain fragility beneath the ruthless front at the beginning and the possibility of triumph in apparent abjection at the end, navigates this ambiguity perfectly.
Like Rose in Schalken Diane has been delivered by means of a deal into a fate worse than death, and it isn’t necessarily the end of the world. The difference between them is that Rose is presented as innocent and Diane as, to some degree, guilty.
Diane is a heroine in the mould of Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane in Psycho – she transgresses (in Marion’s case through stealing money from work) and is subject to a cruel and unusual ‘punishment’, disappearing (as a known quantity in Diane’s case) halfway through the film. The excessive quality of this punishment in Psycho‘s case illustrates an idea that ‘life isn’t like the movies’ even as it shows the film eagerly embracing its status as ‘just’ a lurid shocker.
In the case of demonlover we aren’t really in a world where we expect to see good rewarded and bad punished – instead you could argue that the ‘punishment’ is visited on the audience, which is effectively shut out of the film. This is its way of saying that life in the modern world both is and isn’t like the movies – you are surrounded by images that distract you, but they leave you fundamentally unchanged. Catharsis doesn’t happen.
Or if it happens within demonlover to Diane it may even be that the process necessitates us being cast out – that we are among her ‘demons’.
At this point I am reminded of Lamberto Bava’s 1985 offering Demons, in which a cinema audience becomes exactly that. Which usefully brings me back to Lamberto’s father Mario, and Blood And Black Lace with its refusal of audience identification – which somehow doesn’t matter, perhaps because it is so ‘perfect’ in its look and structure.
In this scenario the audience occupies a fallen world, cast out of a place that could be Heaven or could be Hell, but in any case promises to resolve things one way or another – a resolution we are torn between desiring and fearing. That’s what keeps us in our seats.
In the world of demonlover – and in our world too – our relationship with the image is more complicated. In an echo of Diane’s situation, work has lately taken to invading our ‘real’ lives while simultaneously reducing us to images on a screen (though if we are lucky our experiences won’t be quite as extreme as Diane’s). Even outside the ‘workplace’ the closest we have been able to get to loved ones has often been by summoning them up on Zoom – the recent film Host (I haven’t seen it) has already exploited the situation for its horrific potential.
These images are less exquisitely composed than Bava’s or Argento’s (or Schalken’s) and more often than not contain versions of our own faces – we have become both audience and spectacle. It just isn’t much of a spectacle.
Unlike with films we can assume that some kind of reality lies on the other side of these images, but how do we get to it, and do we even want to? Would we even want to identify with ourselves as depicted on a Teams call? These are the kind of demons we are dealing with presently: it will be interesting to see where they take us.