Tuesday 24 December 2019

On a Thousand Walls #24: Orrore Popolare, Part 3

Dylan Dog (Tiziano Sclavi et al, 1986-present)
All the Colours of the Dark (Tutti i colori del buio) (1972)
What Have You Done to Solange? (Cosa avete fatto a Solange?) (1972)

It's straight to business with the usual provisos: these are mystery films I'm writing about (and also a comic, but we'll get to that) and there are spoilers. These matter more than most spoilers, because mysteries. Also, one of the films I'm writing about is What Have You Done to Solange? And listen, if you are deeply bothered by violence against women, sexual violence, mutilation of women, abuse of minors and well, pretty much every horrible thing you can imagine being done to women and girls, best to skip that bit. There are other things that can ruin your day. An essay about a horror film shouldn't be one of them.

I am not sure if London is really the weirdest city in the world. Certainly, of the places I've visited, I could make a case for New Delhi, Los Angeles and Lisbon being equally weird in their own ways. But London thinks it's the weirdest, even if it won't consciously admit that, and horror cinema, and to a lesser extent horror fiction, is full of stories that evidently want you to think London is the weirdest, or act as if they do, which I suppose amounts to the same thing. London's fractured geography gets a chapter of its own in On a Thousand Walls, but the weirdest take on London has to be the funhouse take of the outsider, particularly the outsider who hasn't been there.

London accidentally takes on a mythical quality in a lot of these stories. Since we're still talking about Italian horror, I can't really let things slide here without a word about Dylan Dog, the quintessential example of London as myth in Italian horror. If you haven't heard of Dylan Dog, it's because he's a prime example of how insular English speaking comics fans are. Sergio Bonelli Editore, best known for the 70-years-and-still-running Spaghetti Western comic Tex, has published Dylan Dog since 1986. In that time, it has become, after Tex, the second most popular comic series in Italy, selling over 120,000 copies a month (to compare, the top sellers in the US market – a market with a population five times the size – sell roughly similar numbers), and in Italy, Dylan Dog is mentioned by fans in the same breath as things like Watchmen, which is a fair comparison, especially since Dylan Dog's notoriously eccentric creator, Tiziano Sclavi, has a similar place on the Italian scene to Alan Moore in the UK. And yet, barely a dozen issues have been translated into English (I own the seven that Dark Horse did in 1999-2002, now, if eBay prices are anything to go by, collector's items; Epicenter Comics have published a few more since 2017). There was an English language movie starring Brandon Routh, Dylan Dog: Dead of Night (2011), but it was critically stabbed up and flopped catastrophically.

(Note: I should probably mention, though, Michele Soavi's wonderfully goofy 1994 movie DellaMorte DellaMorte, AKA The Cemetery Man, which is also based on work by Tiziano Sclavi. Here, Rupert Everett plays a character who is more or less Dylan Dog by a different name, and the same mix of grim comedy and ludicrous horror that characterises Sclavi's work runs through the whole thing. It's not Dylan Dog, but it's exactly like Dylan Dog in flavour, theme, aesthetic and rampant sexism.)
The eponymous Dylan Dog is the self-styled "Nightmare Investigator". A former police detective, he lives in a flat in London with his sidekick, a Groucho Marx impersonator who had a psychotic break and who now thinks he's actually Groucho Marx (although in the Dark Horse reprints, the moustache was erased and the character renamed Felix, to avoid trouble from the Marx estate). Dylan and Groucho, sometimes assisted from the sidelines by the avuncular Inspector Bloch of Scotland Yard, investigate all the horror standards: zombies, ghosts, invisible men, vampires, interstitial geography, horrific surgical anomalies and serial killers all appear. Dylan gets laid a lot, with a new girl pretty much every issue. This often ends tragically. If someone consults Dylan, he almost invariably refuses to help and advises that they look for a rational explanation. The stories are often surreal. Sometimes Dylan falls into them, sometimes the whole narrative breaks down. Sometimes the Apocalypse happens, only for the story to reset in the next issue. A recurring villain called Xabaras may or may not have a Satanic origin and may have some connection with Dylan's lost father.

Although the sexism might well be a dealbreaker for you, these are otherwise great comics. Funny, tragic, disturbing, gory as hell. But the London setting is, for a British reader, incredibly off-kilter. Sclavi, who apparently never visited London, has said that he never felt he needed to, and in a sense he is right, because London is as much a place of myth as Rome. But Sclavi's London is, as a result, wrong. The police carry SMGs. Murderers are still sentenced to death by hanging. Trains still have compartments.
("Never did like cops", as said by no Londoner ever)
The Dark Horse reprints accidentally double down on this further by being translated by someone who's clearly never been to London either, so the English texts are full of weird, jarring Americanisms, so we get a fake London made of lines and ink.

Sclavi's errors are substantially different to the translator's, though. He knows he's working from an imaginary idea of London and leans hard into it. It's not that it's deliberate, exactly, but nor is it accidental. It's that he doesn't care, because that's what suits his story. On the other hand, the American translation is just the result of the sort of lazily accidental cultural imperialism that no one does quite as consistently as American pop culture outlets. The result is that while Sclavi's writing draws you into a blood-drenched and deliriously amusing never-was London of dreams, the terrible American translation (the Dark Horse one, at any rate; it's proven impossible to get my hands on any of the Epicenter issues this side of the Atlantic, so I won't speak for them, but if you've got one and want to chuck it my way, do let me know) yanks you right back out of it. It feels like an incompetently dubbed film, where the characters' voices don't even remotely synch with their mouths.

But we're really here for cinema.

In the sixties and seventies, London was a cheap place to film, so a lot of movies from all over the world wound up being set there. And of course that includes several giallo movies.

But as it is with Dylan Dog, there's a weird sense of distance. A filter. This time, it is actually London, these are London landmarks, but it's somehow wrong.

Don't undervalue the simple fact that we might have a film set in London where everyone speaks Italian.

And I mean I can guarantee a hundred percent, possibly a hundred and fifty, that you've seen films set in mainland Europe where everyone speaks English (take for a relatively recent example 2008 World War II drama Valkyrie, where everyone is German and played by Bill Nighy and Kenneth Branagh and Tom Cruise, right?) but it's not until you've seen someone make a film set in your own nation where everyone's speaking the wrong language that you really understand how strange that is.
So, Sergio Martino's psychedelic classic All the Colours of the Dark, starts with Jane (honest-to-God Italian sex symbol Edwige Fenech) waking from a grotesque, bloody and very Freudian nightmare, and her partner Richard (George Hilton) comes in, and they talk to each other in Italian (or if you're watching the alternative version, stilted dubbing) and have breakfast, and then Jane and Richard walk out of the block of flats onto a London Street – Kenilworth Court, Putney, in fact – and Jane gets into a black cab. Later, we'll see Jane running in terror from Holland Park tube station.

And it's weird, genuinely weird to watch. I wasn't ready for it, even though the first time I watched it this week it was with the English dub (because a dub never really sounds right). And Martino's London is a London of mysteries, of devil worshippers and strange assailants. Images from Jane's nightmares begin to leak into her real life, especially the sinister man with the weird blue eyes who features heavily in the dreams and follows her into the waking world.
Jane has not psychologically recovered, from either a miscarriage brought on by a car accident, or, further back, seeing her mother's murdered corpse as a child. Everyone thinks they have a better idea of what's good for her than she does. Richard, a sales rep for Big Pharma, keeps feeding her pills of unknown provenance (apparently they're “concentrated vitamins” that make her throw up, which checks out, right, because that's totally what vitamins do) while her sister Barbara (Nieves Navarro, credited here as Susan Scott) is, perhaps more sensibly, set on getting Jane to see the shrink she works for. But it's new neighbour Mary (the dignified and statuesque Marina Malfatti, who we also saw in the equally messed-up-but-fun The Red Queen Kills Seven Times) who, although evidently in a deep state of dissociation, comes up with a solution over a nice cup of tea. What you need, she says, is a black mass. That'll really sort you out.

Because of course. Why wouldn’t you?

Jane is initially reluctant, but that creepy blue-eyed bloke keeps following her – she was supposed to see a solicitor about something important, and he chases her out of the building, so she doesn't find out what the legal man wants (until the end, when we find out it matters). Maybe black magic is the answer after all. She keeps going back.
To start with, I was underwhelmed. But it's when you get to the bits with the Satanic coven that you realise why people care about this movie. I may be wrong, but I am fairly sure that All the Colours of the Dark has the definitive Post-Hippy Psychedelic Black Magic Ritual Scene. The whole thing tips over into another world. It's completely bonkers, and while the hardline commitment of the movie to finding reasons for you to look closely at the specific attributes of Edwige Fenech's naked form does not at any point waver, the trippy Satanic freakouts are everything that an early 70s exploitation movie should be. When the whole thing tips over into human sacrifice (they've already sacrificed a dog), it becomes a delirious, fevered trip. Symbols abound, especially a blue eye in a triangle, of which Jane wakes up with a (frankly somewhat crap) tattoo on her arm, after a particularly psychedelic black magic sexytime.

It was about this point that I started, to my surprise, really enjoying this creaky, off-kilter movie. I'll be honest, after a bit of a dry spell, movies like The Red Queen Kills Seven Times, The House with Laughing Windows, Deep Red and All the Colours of the Dark have aroused my enthusiasm for film more than pretty much anything else for a little while now.
Unlike a lot of giallo films, there is almost no question in All the Colours of the Dark of who the villains are – the question is more “Who are these people really, and why are they so set on stitching Jane up, and who is pulling the strings?” It's one step removed from the usual giallo programme, in that sense.

Jane as a character has her agency violated by pretty much everyone: Richard with his weird blue pills that are totally not vitamins; Barbara, who seems set on mucking about with Jane's head the socially acceptable way (and has something to hide); and the devil worshippers, who include Mary, the Blue Eyed Man (that's probably a spoiler but it's not like it's not completely obvious) and the devilishly handsome high priest (Juliàn Ugarte), all of whom seem to be trapped in some sort of Evil Pyramid Scheme and who have a closer connection to Jane than initially they seem to.

But someone is directing this, and we are led by the film down various garden paths. No one seems to be honest – where did Richard get the book about satanism from, for example? The supernatural seems to be false, but Jane's déja vus are surprisingly accurate.

What seems to be a happy ending isn't at all, really. While the plot is exposed and everybody involved with the cult winds up dead (and nearly everyone is involved with the cult), Jane is really in no better place at the end than she is at the start. Her last words in the film place her directly into Richard's hands: “I'm scared not to be myself anymore. Help me.”

(Note: in the English dub, it's just a cry of terror. “Richard, I'm scared. Darling, help me!" There are a number of places where the English dub makes it a slightly different movie. This is one of them.)
She’s back to the start. Take your pills. Do what you’re told. Look pretty. Edwige Fenech, best known as a star of softcore erotica, looks pretty, clothed or not. She can actually act, and is in fact the best actor in the whole thing, by some distance. She gives a credible performance of a woman falling apart. But this film does her no favours, and is not on her side. This never lets you forget it is an exploitation movie. It does a lot of exploiting.

On that line of critique, fans of Anna Biller's 2016 pastiche The Love Witch (which is next up) might get a lot out of watching that particular movie back to back with All the Colours of the Dark. In a lot of ways, The Love Witch serves as a counterpoint and corrective to films like All the Colours of the Dark, and aesthetically it literally couldn't exist without the older film, or at least without films of its lineage. I mean Anna Biller doesn't even have to have seen it for it to be an antecedent. It's the visual language of the thing.

I've watched what must be a dozen giallo movies in a row now, but none of them, even the genuinely great ones, have resonated with me on a personal level the way All the Colours of the Dark did. I watched it three times in a row and yes, it's sleazy and exploitative, and yes, it's not on Jane's side, but then that simple fact gives the whole thing a sort of sad, desperate beauty. I mean, I've never been conned into a Satanic Pyramid Scheme exactly, but that feeling the film inspires, where you're in a psychological mess, and you wind up flailing around looking for a relationship that won't abuse you, a community that will will accept you, where you are pursued by the sense that something could destroy you and you don't know why, where you give too much of yourself to people too quickly and you realise much too late that you shouldn't have: it resonates. Some of us imagine that we're the heroes in the movies of our lives. If my life were a movie, it might feel like a more boring version of All the Colours of the Dark. 

It does not matter one bit that All the Colours of the Dark will supply us with a rational explanation for the parade of weirdness that assails poor Jane, and an entirely prosaic motive, the most prosaic of all motives, in fact, because the psychedelic freak-out beforehand is so utterly bizarre and the imagery so groovy that it really does not make the tiniest bit of difference. After all, if you're freaked out by a thing that kills, does it matter what caused it? It's no less scary for that. And mundane explanation or not, the London of All the Colours of the Dark is a London of dreams, where double yellow lines and underground stations are the context for horror, not a contrast to it. Where you get invited back to a neighbour’s pad for tea, biscuits and satanism.
Much less strange, in occult terms anyway, is Massimo Dallamano's relentlessly nasty Morricone-scored murder mystery, What Have You Done to Solange? A couple canoodling in a boat on a river, Italian Enrico Rosseni (Fabio Testi) and the much younger Elizabeth Seccles (Cristina Galbó), witness what looks like a murder. Enrico disregards what Elizabeth has seen, and in fact he treats her horribly. Watching it for the first time, I actually said out loud to the screen, “This guy is the actual worst.”

I didn't know the half of it. Enrico is in fact the hero of this story. This does not sit well. You see, it is of course a murder, it's one of Elizabeth's schoolfriends, in fact, for Elizabeth, only just turned 18, is a student at a Catholic school in London. Enrico is the gym teacher. Enrico's wife Herta (Karin Baal) also teaches here. Their marriage isn't in the best place, as you might imagine. Despite being stunningly beautiful, and, you know, an actual adult, Herta is given all the cinematic signifiers of sexual repression: severe hair, dowdy clothes, an unsmiling demeanour. But come on, would you be smiling if you bloody well knew your husband had thrown you over for a teenager? Still, the film disapproves of her. It's almost as if it's her fault: if she had let her hair down a bit, the film is saying, maybe her husband wouldn't be perving over teenagers, right?

Yeah. I know.

That first murder is horrendous, a butcher's knife used as an implement of rape. And we see the corpse. And we see where the murder weapon is left. Enrico winds up in the frame, because he's clearly got secrets. Again, suspects are raised and discarded. Elizabeth, too, meets a grisly end, after – of course – telling the school staff that she has an idea of who the killer is (although in this film at least she does get to share her information). And the film goes on. Enrico and the sensible police inspector, Barth (Joachim Fuchsberger), try desperately to track down the murderer, after one teenaged girl after another (and one backstreet abortionist) gets tortured to death and left with a carving knife sticking out of her vulva.
I know that's a brutal way to put it. But I can't otherwise get across how brutal this film is, how openly it portrays a burning hatred of women and girls (that doesn't mean Dallamano hated women and girls, just that the film's killer absolutely has it, and isn't alone in that). And I can't stress enough how much of the sexual content concerns minors.

We will see naked teens in the shower, and a peeping Tom staring through a hole in the wall. We will learn about a group of girls who were explicitly 16 and 17, going to sex parties. And we will learn about what happened to Solange (Camille Keaton), the traumatised girl who stands, silently (literally, her trauma has left her non-verbal), at the centre of the mystery.

Now I have a lot of readers in the USA. In the USA, the age of consent is (federally) 12, but laws exist in most states that nonetheless make having sexual intercourse with someone under 18 when you're over 18 the crime of statutory rape, and Americans, in my experience, tend to be strict across the board on 18 being the age in which it becomes OK to have sex with someone. Which is, I guess, actually not at all a bad thing, because if you're an adult and you're going to have consensual sex, you should be having it with an adult. But ages of consent vary around the world. In the UK, the age of consent has always been 16. And in Italy, it's 14. I'm not going to make any pronouncement on that, I'm just leaving it there, but it should be brought up in this discussion at least, because the question is: is there a cultural context in which What Have You Done to Solange? was ever OK? Was it OK in Italy? Has it simply Not Aged Well?

I don't think so. I think the film is supposed to be, in its intent, transgressive and pervy. In a lot of ways, this is what giallo movies did: they transgressed. But you can't transgress if you don't have a norm to kick against. You can't cross a line that isn't there.

 What Have You Done to Solange? wasn’t even that popular when it came out. Even in 1972, it was a nasty little sideshow to much better main events. The only real reason it’s in discourse now is because Arrow Video gave it a nice Blu-Ray release. Consider how many films would be much less important if they weren’t easily available to buy or stream. This really is the cinephile’s golden age, but it’s skewed by what you can see and what you can’t, and that’s an interesting point about our collective cultural haunting right then and there that I’m going to get back to at a later date. Anyway. It's not that What Have You Done to Solange? was ever OK, it's that it was going out of its way not to be, even in 1972.

Enrico courting a pupil wasn't OK in 1972 wherever you were, and of course even in the film, he's fired the moment the truth comes out. Herta forgives him after hearing proof that he never had sex with Elizabeth and the two work together to find the culprit, although Herta is briefly put in the viewer's frame as a potential killer. Thankfully, she isn't, because she's the only really sympathetic adult in the whole damned movie, but her taking Enrico back just seems, well, it's the sort of awful thing that actually happens. And my biggest problem with What Have You Done to Solange? is that while its protagonist is obviously a complete asshole, the film hasn't seemed to notice that, and assumes you too think this guy isn't so bad.

But then that's pretty much how our society works. Gaping, faeces-dangling assholes, obvious ones, get a pass all the time (observe: Boris Johnson's parliamentary majority). Teenagers do really go on sexcapades and get in trouble (I mean, I was actually a teenager and I never got to do that stuff but I knew plenty of kids who did and who needed taking home and having me cover up for them, just like Elizabeth in the movie). People do take back cheating partners when they shouldn't.

The sexualised serial killing, that's another deal, but there's a sense in which this sleazy, horrible film portrays something true. It loves making you look at it, though. And in 1972, I think it was deliberately calculated to scandalise. The plot itself is pretty pedestrian; it's the rationale and the method of murder that's the nastiest. This film is made to court outrage. And that in and of itself is not a reason to dislike it (I mean, hell, I've raved about movies like Szamanka and Martyrs, so it's not like this is a dealbreaker for me in and of itself). Maybe if it was a better acted, better written film with characters who were likeable, maybe if it cared about people, I might actually have better feelings about it. But it isn't better. It doesn't like people,either the ones on screen or the ones watching it. It's a procedural mystery movie that wants you to stare at teenaged corpses, raped to death with knives.
I do not like this movie. I didn't much care for Don't Torture a Duckling, either, but that one had plenty of redeeming features and was reaching towards art, and is actually worth seeing, both as a historical artefact and an important part of its genre. I mean, look, if I'm honest, The Red Queen Kills Seven Times and All the Colours of the Dark are sleazy movies too, but both of those films have something, a spark of gonzo beauty, a commitment to something other than pissing people off. They're a lot more fun to watch. But What Have You Done to Solange? is horrible. There's actually nothing wrong with the direction, it's competently and efficiently made and played, but, OK, I hate it. I don't regret seeing it, though. Because even though it's horrible in the wrong ways, it's interesting to see how it approaches London.

Here, London is a place where you hide secrets, and hate, and death. It's a sun-drenched summer city that nonetheless has the context of awful things. And these things, again, aren't contrasts. They go together. They're inexplicable. Tea, biscuits and satanism.

In these films, London is a weird place, but the weirdness is normal, and the normal is weird. Orrore Popolare in a nation foreign to it is all the more pronounced: while British folk horror is often about the contrasts, the dissonance, Orrore Popolare is about the complements, the connections. In folk horror, we don't go back. In Orrore Popolare, it's all the same, and it's all going forward.