Wednesday, October 22, 2008

A Product of Bourgeois Morality

Exploring the different worlds of the Giallo can feel like swimming through unchartered waters sometimes. A few months ago I saw THE FORBIDDEN PHOTOS OF A LADY ABOVE SUSPICION which I kind of loved, so I was naturally eager to check out the dual DVD release of a few other movies by Luciano Ercoli, the same director. I had a slightly chilly response to DEATH WALKS ON HIGH HEELS, the first of the two I watched, which may have had to do with my own expectations and how they were thwarted. DEATH WALKS AT MIDNIGHT, on the other hand, was a little more along the lines of what I was looking for. It’s not as tightly plotted as it should be and isn’t quite as good as a few of its best moments but it’s a nicely enjoyable example of the form, as ridiculous as it ultimately is.

Gorgeous fashion model Valentina (Susan Scott aka Nieves Navarro) agrees to take an experimental hallucinogenic drug named HDS for a fashion shoot being covered by reporter Gio Baldi (Simon Andreu) to record her response. The session takes a surprising turn when in the middle of her reverie she suddenly has extremely disturbing visions of a woman being killed by a man with large sunglasses using a spiked glove which he drives into her face. Nobody, including boyfriend Stefano (Peter Martell) thinks anything of it but when an appointment for a shoot turns out to be fake, she thinks she gets a look at that killer in the flesh. Realizing that she may have once actually witnessed such a murder she begins to believe that the killer is really out to get her. The problem is compounded when the murdered woman’s sister Verushka (Claudie Lange) searches out Valentina and it soon becomes clear that there be more than one woman to worry about.

It’s of course an absurd plot but the various elements manage to click together nicely, with the usual wild twists, red herrings, disbelieving cops and disappearing corpses (“I saw her right there, stabbed to death with a knife in her breast!” “Evidently she got tired of waiting, threw out the knife and left.”), not to mention that I’m not even sure that everything makes sense in the end, even if we do get a ridiculously overcomplicated expalnation. It’s probably not important to try to figure it out anyway. Much like in the other Ercoli films the two male leads have a strong resemblance to each other and once again both female leads have long red hair (she’s not the only actor who recurs). What the reason for this could be I don’t know, but even though the plots of the three are not similar the tone remains consistent that watching the three together could very well give the feel of a very long film where some of the same personalities drift in and out under different guises. The director and star were married (still are, as far as I can tell) so the question is were these films just a thinly veiled examination of the nature of this couple’s marriage? How much J&B did these people really drink in real life anyway?

More than anything, what matters in DEATH WALKS AT MIDNIGHT even more than the previous two by Ercoli is how it works as a complete showcase for Susan Scott by the director, who also happened to be her husband. As serious as some of it is, there’s a definite comic tone to much of the film and with an actress like Scott in the lead it comes off as a sort of Giallo version of FOUL PLAY, moreso than it would with certain other actresses playing the part. On the essential Arbogast on Film blog a few months back the good detective wrote a wonderful appreciation of Scott with a certain focus on the awkwardness of her physicality at times, particularly when she runs. And he’s right—there really is something goofily endearing about it. Scott certainly is beautiful like Giallo heroines of the Edwige Fenech variety but the pluck and humor she brings to the role through her personality makes her more relatable and makes the film more likable as a result (the nature of her role being minimized in DEATH WALKS ON HIGHT HEELS was for me a problem there). Even her wide-eyes reactions of terror, almost like she’s a character in a silent movie, seem somehow charming here. If there’s a serious problem with the film it’s that too much of the mid-section wanders, complete with a section where the leads take time to babysit for a few kids and it has nothing to do with anything. Maybe the director was trying to give as many different things for his wife to do as possible—She’s funny! She’s sexy! She’s frightened! She’s a mother figure! She sneaks around like she’s Nancy Drew! Hey, if I were married to Susan Scott I’d want to show her off too, but it just leaves too much slack in the story.

Much of the additional enjoyment comes from the score by Gianni Ferrio, some of which I know I’ve already heard on a few compilation CDs. A lot of it seems to consist of versions of the same two themes over and over again and while there may be a little bit of repetition the music is so damn catchy I don’t really care. Just as in FORBIDDEN PHOTOS where things seemed to pause as we followed the lead walking from one place to the other as the Morricone music played, in a few places this movie seems content to just let the luxury of the music play out whether it’s pausing for a moment during a car ride to or the bonkers intensity it gives off in the scene where Scott runs through the street away from a recently discovered body.

There’s a surprising lack of sleaze in the film, but there is a visit to an insane asylum, a cop who meets the heroine for a meeting in a nightclub, a bit of J&B drinking and a genuinely harrowing climax which in a small way cleverly mirrors a comical scene (containing a pratfall) at the beginning, a nice bit of screenplay structure. That ending sequence culminates in a brutal, exciting rooftop fight (those sound effects definitely help) which keeps the suspense going right up until the end. It’s not a major title in the history of the genre, but during those points where we can sit back, let the music and atmosphere kick in as Susan Scott does just about anything onscreen, DEATH WALKS AT MIDNIGHT definitely gets the job done.

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