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. 

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