Saturday, September 26, 2015

#216: Autopsy (Armando Crispino, 1973)

I really enjoy '70s Italian horror movies, though there are certain tendencies and tropes I've had to overlook or ignore. I don't want to generalize, and I don't want to lump a disparate group of films together, but I've noticed some commonalities, good and bad, among most of the Italian horror I've watched from this era. First, the good stuff. Italian horror from the '70s tends to have great music, strong and distinct women characters, great locations, beautiful color palettes, strikingly unusual images, a perverse and creative approach to scenes of violence and death, an international cast, an almost avant-garde approach to narrative that follows dream logic more than conventional storytelling and plotting, a real sense of style, and a deft approach to suspense, atmosphere, and unease. Now, the stuff you have to contend with that isn't always so enjoyable. These movies also tend to be ridiculously sexist, unnecessarily confusing, wooden in terms of character development and convincing dialogue, and too often full of atrocious dubbing (the Italian film industry standard was to shoot without sound and dub everything in later well into the 1980s, so the voice actors weren't always the same as the actors in the film, with sometimes godawful results). Some of the negatives can paradoxically turn into positives by becoming so bizarre and/or ridiculous that much unintentional comedy is created or simply by creating enough of a strange disconnect to add to the dreamlike feel.
Autopsy has all of these strengths and weaknesses and is a truly strange film. I don't even know whether I like it or dislike it as a whole, though there are many individual scenes that float my Italian horror boat. It certainly opens strong, with an abstract, strange piece of score by the legendary Ennio Morricone that is accompanied by almost operatic, terrified moaning and a succession of rapidly edited scenes of various people committing suicide and murder/suicide all over Rome. It's a wild, powerful way to set the tone.
Shortly afterward, we meet Simona (Mimsy Farmer), a half-American/half-Italian grad student in forensic pathology writing her thesis on the differences between authentic and staged suicide and working an internship in a city morgue. She has some weird sexual hangups relating to her playboy father Gianni (Massimo Serato), who lives in a swinging bachelor apartment directly above her own, and exacerbated by her boyfriend, a creepy, smarmy sexist jerk named Edgar (Ray Lovelock). Edgar is a rich kid who spends his days as a photographer and part-time race car driver, and you'll want to punch him in the face every second he's on screen. Their relationship makes little narrative sense. Thrown into this drama is a mysterious American woman crashing at Simona's dad's place while he's gone who claims not to know him. Her name is Betty (Gaby Wagner) and when she mysteriously kills herself on a beach, her brother Paul (Barry Primus) enters the mix. He's a Catholic priest and ex-race car driver who spent time institutionalized after accidentally killing 14 spectators during a crash at Le Mans, and he and Simona have some weird sexual tension, too. The plot only gets more confusing from there, though the confusion primarily stems from the strange way Italian horror doles out the narrative.
Nothing much makes sense until the end, when a scam involving inheritances, embezzlement, rare books, archives, druggings, and the 1966 Florence flood and the efforts of the Mud Angels to retrieve and save damaged rare books, artworks, and artifacts ties everything together. By then, the audience has been bombarded with so much blood, nudity, dead bodies, mysterious weirdness, barking dogs, sexist Italian dudes (seriously, the movie puts forward the idea that every Italian man is a drooling, horny sexist cretin and that attempted rapes are normal occurrences every attractive young woman in Italy must endure daily and that these attempted rapes are annoyances rather than serious crimes), shenanigans in the Museum of Crime, abstract art, international beauties in red wigs, swanky apartments, shady conspiracies, automobile races, images of autopsied bodies coming to life and doing weird sex things, deaf aunts, paralysis, and rooftop gardening that it barely seems surprising.
A side note: My wife is an archivist, and she was pretty psyched about the archival aspects of the story. She sent me these two links about the flood, and the efforts to save these historical artifacts, artworks, and books here and here, if you'd like to check it out. It's interesting stuff, and an event my wife says made huge changes in the archives profession unlike a single event before or since.
Director Armando Crispino is not a stylistic master on par with Argento and Bava in their prime and he's not as visceral and crowd-pleasing as Fulci, but he pulls off some highly strange images and scenes here. I like the oddball atmosphere and highly eccentric approach to narrative, and we get some pretty spectacular death scenes. As always, Ennio Morricone provides a quality score. This one features some of his most out-there experiments in sound alongside more conventional and sentimental melodies. Mimsy Farmer and Gaby Wagner have great Italian horror screen presence, but, ugh, the male characters in this movie. The sexism is even more pronounced here than the usual '70s Italian movie macho thing, which seemed to bother me more than my wife, probably because she deals with the actual shit every day of her life so a 1973 Italian movie is small potatoes, but I grew tired of it while remaining engaged in other aspects of the movie.
Nevertheless, Autopsy is packed full of weirdness, and that goes a long way with me. I probably won't ever watch this one again, but I'm glad I saw it.  The high points are worth slogging through the other stuff. 

Saturday, September 12, 2015

#215: Warning Shadows (Arthur Robison, 1923)

Warning Shadows, a fascinating German Expressionist oddity, is a silent film in the purest sense of the term. There are no intertitles, leaving the film to its own entirely visual devices to tell the story. The film uses shadow more than any other I've ever seen (it's right there in the title), and the plot depends on characters looking at the shapes made by shadows on the wall, through curtains, and projected on a hanging sheet. The film is pretty self-referential for 1923, with the act of watching movies and voyeurism in general its true subjects aside from the moralistic message-making discouraging married women from flirting with single gentlemen.
The story begins with a wealthy baron (Fritz Kortner) and his lovely wife (Ruth Weyher) giving a fancy dinner for four gentlemen. (None of the characters' names are revealed in the film.) Unfortunately for the baron, these men have the hots for his lady, and she loves the attention. She's particularly into the overtures made by the youngest, handsomest gentlemen (the awesomely named Gustav von Wangenheim) and makes it quietly but perfectly clear she's willing to reciprocate his affections. Our baron is a tightly strung dude at his best, and when he sees the shadows of three of the gentlemen caressing his wife all over through a curtain, he understandably loses it. Unfortunately for the baron, this shadowplay is a proto-sitcom hilarious misunderstanding. The non-von Wangenheims are an immature, horny, prankster bunch, and they notice if they stand behind the woman and make lewd gestures by the curtain, their shadows look like they are groping her. The baron saw some bawdy pranks, not the actual touching of his lady love.
Compounding the drama, the servant holding the candles (Eugen Rex) can't stop smiling at the shadow pranks and is slapped by the baron's wife for his lack of composure. Understandably pissed, he allows the baron to continue thinking his house guests have been taking liberties. It's not the trio of lewd goofballs the baron should be worried about, though. Handsome young von Wangenheim is making eyes at his wife, and they keep brushing up against each other and almost holding hands. The baron starts stomping around his castle like a madman and sees a creepy-looking shadowplayer (Alexander Granach) putting on a shadow show on the wall for the servants. He gets an idea and convinces the shadowplayer to put on a cautionary tale for his guests and wife, showing them the terrible consequences of their flirtatious behavior. The shadowplay seems to exert a spell over the castle, and events in the story are brought to life. Things get dark.
Though Warning Shadows is more novelty than masterpiece, it's filled with beautiful shots that must have taken a tremendous amount of work to set up, particularly a moment when the shadowplayer elongates the shadows of the dinner guests. I'm a sucker for screen-within-a-screen shots, and Warning Shadows is full of them, most strikingly in the shots of the backs of the dinner guests heads as they watch the shadowplay on the movie screen-like hanging sheet. It's interesting that this early in the medium, a filmmaker is already depicting what it looks like to watch a movie on the big screen. The romance, mythology, and seduction of shadows and light projected on a white screen in a darkened room. That's the real subject of this film.
Director Arthur Robison has an interesting history. The son of German Jews who had moved to the United States, Robison was born in Chicago but moved with his family back to Germany when he was a child. Educated and raised in Germany, he attended medical school at the University of Munich. He worked as a doctor for several years before falling in love with film, and he made his first feature in 1916. Warning Shadows was his third surviving feature. He made 17 more before his death in 1935 at the age of 52.