The original Italian title of Umberto Lenzi’s Eyeball translates as Red Cats In A Glass Labyrinth, which makes very little sense and is all the more impressive for it. However, there is no doubt that Eyeball is more to the point.
This giallo is about a busload of tourists in Barcelona being preyed upon by a killer in a red mac who stabs people in the (left) eye. And when I say people I mean women.
In keeping with that title there is even more emphasis on the gaze than you normally find in the giallo, whether that gaze be suspicious, voyeuristic, or simply the blandly passive gaze of the tourist.
Tormented by the suspicion that his neurotic wife Alma (Marta May) – who he is on the point of abandoning – is the killer, hero Mark (John Richardson) looks anxious throughout. In a curious scene – which the dubbing only makes curiouser – he asks a fellow tourist to look out for his wife and, if he sees her, to photograph her. He offers no further explanation: he seems like a man caught up in a world of appearances and unable to break through – the tourist’s fate in a nutshell.
In fact the killer turns out to be not his wife but his lover Paulette (Martine Brochard), the woman he was going to leave his wife for. Blinded in one eye when young, she has been visiting the same fate on her victims, plucking out their eyes and compulsively inserting them in her vacant socket (normally occupied by a glass eye).
You could see this as a symbolic way of breaking out of the ‘tourist trap’ and gaining an authentic insight into the surrounding culture (many of the victims are locals) but as pathology it doesn’t quite convince. At least, not as the killer’s pathology – as an expression of the hero’s castration anxiety (he is essentially caught between two threatening women throughout) it works, and adds another spin to the English title. Eyeballs, when it comes down to it, are balls.
Whether such notions ever troubled Umberto Lenzi’s mind is an open question, though one is oddly reminded of other films with a distinct emphasis on voyeurism – Don’t Look Now (the killer’s red mac) and Blow-Up (the photographer). Eyeball hardly belongs in their company but the sense that these ideas are in play certainly adds to the fun. My fun, anyway.
Mark ends up going back to his wife, having understood, through the crudest kind of symbolism, that the real threat to his manhood was from his lover – and also, perhaps, that tourism offers no lasting escape from your situation.
In some ways, however, the film calls Mark’s ‘manhood’ into question by making him an essentially passive figure. If the ‘classic’ giallo normally centred on a tormented woman, here – and this was increasingly the case within the genre in the 70’s – it is the man who is, if not actively victimized, definitely the one the world is closing in on.
SHORT NIGHT OF GLASS DOLLS
This trend is glaringly apparent in director Aldo Ladi’s atmospheric debut film, whose title retains its original strangeness, and which begins with the hero (Jean Sorel) being found dead in some shrubbery.
But wait! He isn’t dead, he has just been given a drug that simulates death by a sinister secret society of the old and rich. Despite this – and although active in the flashbacks which make up most of the film – he essentially spends the entire running time in a state of paralysis, like Richard Greene in Nathan Juran’s 1952 Hollywood melodrama The Black Castle.
Greene leaps out of his coffin at the end all guns blazing, but this is not the case with Sorel, who is eventually subjected to an autopsy in public, a highly improbable turn of events whose audacity, however, transports the film into genuinely nightmarish territory, even as it presents our hero with the possibility of escape.
Unfortunately his twitching hand is stilled by a swift jab of a scalpel to the heart before it can alert any sympathetic onlookers to his plight. That we have been privy to his thoughts throughout – that, indeed, he has effectively been telling us the story – only adds to a crushing sense of our hero’s utter powerlessness.
Back to Lenzi again, with a title that translates as ‘spasm’ but sounds so much better in the original Italian – a bit like a forgotten playground insult from the 1970’s. Check out the trailer on the 88 Films DVD*, where they say it over and over again.
Here we are once more presented with an oddly feminized hero, Christian (Robert Hoffmann) who is in a similar position to one of those heiresses in thrillers who are forever being driven out of their minds for their money.
Christian finds himself caught up in a kind of constructed reality from the moment he finds Barbara (Suzy Kendall) face down on a beach where he has taken his girlfriend, apparently to show her the spot where he and his brother once found a dead dog (‘It was a horrible sight.’)
Soon this girlfriend – perhaps underwhelmed by his romantic overtures – is out of the picture and Christian is accepting Barbara’s bizarre offer to visit her apartment and let her shave off his beard (‘I have a razor in my room – big, sharp and sexy.’)
At her apartment, however, he ends up shooting an intruder, whose body disappears. Confused, they decamp to the house of a Bolivian painter with a thing about birds of prey – the painter isn’t there, but the birds are, and so is a couple to whom Christian confesses to the murder, only to be told that he probably imagined it.
Possibly this is the case since later on the same intruder reappears, only to be killed again – this time definitively – by Christian, who ensures that the corpse is sufficiently burned up that it could pass for his, since by now he has concluded that his brother Fritz (Ivan Rassimov), inheritor of their father’s factory, is behind all this strangeness, and out to drive him insane and ensure that he has no claim on the business.
He’s not entirely wrong, since Barbara and just about everybody else is working for Fritz – however there is no need to drive him crazy, since he already is.
Fritz is apparently only trying in his strangely elaborate way to encourage his brother to check into an asylum, since Christian is, it turns out, a psychopathic killer of women. Unlike Fritz, who takes out his own urges in that line on the extensive collection of latex dummies which he keeps in his mansion, and which turn up at odd moments throughout the film, hanging from trees or whatever, to add to the growing sense of peculiarity.
Christian’s killings, including that of the girlfriend from the beach visit at the start of the film and Barbara, are shown at the end in what would have figured as a shock twist had we been capable any longer of surprise. Following this Barbara’s ex shoots Christian, and he lies down to die on the beach where once lay Barbara. And, prior to that, the dead dog.
Not quite dreamlike but amusingly disorientating, Lenzi’s film artfully avoids making any sense, and since it is about a maniac trapped in a plot constructed by another maniac, this is absolutely spot-on. Interestingly, Christian is not only the hero, and the victim (admittedly not the only one), he is the murderer as well.
Suggesting that, castration anxiety or not, the real message here is that there is no end to the male sense of entitlement.
*All of these films are from 88’s Italian Collection.