Thursday, November 24, 2011

Nepeta cataria

"All mimsy were the borogoves."
-Lewis Carroll Jabberwocky

What is it about this woman that drives men mad with desire? I don't know myself, but I must confess to being similarly afflicted of late. It started when I revisited Argento's Four Flies on Gray Velvet and continued with The Perfume of the Lady in Black and most recently culminated in the 1975 horror giallo Autopsy. Like a black cat drawn to catnip, I'm similarly attracted to this actress and can't seem to escape her alluring mystique. Maybe it's because she's one of the select few giallo queens that hails from America. Or maybe it's because she often displays a fragile vulnerability in the roles she takes. Or maybe she's just the human equivalent of nepeta cataria which works on some biological level to make men act whacky. It would certainly explain a lot about her character's effect on the males in Autopsy. But I'm getting a little ahead of myself.

With short, often disheveled, bleached out hair, slightly gapped teeth and a talent for sculpture, Merle "Mimsy" Farmer seemed an unlikely actress. An American, who after doing some episodic television and a few juvenile delinquent movies movies in 60's Hollywood, went on to work in some of the coolest European cinema of the 70's and 80's.  Her work in giallo films is what interests me most, but she has a varied resume with work in political thrillers, art house films, slashers and a host of other movies from such diverse directors as Argento, Fulci, Margheriti, Campanile, Barilli and Carpi. The roles she played were often that of delicate, possibly unbalanced women who always seemed moments away from being terrorized in some fashion. In no film is this description more apt than Armando Crispino's Autopsy.

In Autopsy, Farmer plays a forensic pathologist med student with the unlikely name of Simona Sana which not only alliterates quite nicely, but could also double as a Bond-girl's handle. Simona's main problem in the film is that men like her way, way too much. From the introduction of Sana until the end of the film, the character is harassed, terrorized or victimized in some way or other. So much so that the American release's alternate title of The Victim is a lot more on the nose than Autopsy in describing the film. But don't worry, there's plenty of gruesome stuff on the autopsy tables to make the title apropos. The movie bursts out of the gate with several scenes of the most enthusiastic suicides ever seen. I don't want to spoil by describing, but they are quick and disturbing at the same time. We're then whisked off to the morgue where the huge pathology lab is set up like a large hostel only with dozens of gurneys lined up in a big room instead of beds. Being use to one pathologist working over one body Quincy-style, I was unnerved by the mass production autopsies being performed. The young Doctor Sana is no sooner introduced than she starts hallucinating imagining the cadavers up to all kinds of hijinx. This scene, coupled with the opening suicides is a more than potent one-two punch that is easily the 'make or break' part of the movie. The rest of the film doesn't quite live up to the strong opening and becomes a much more conventional giallo. Initially, I thought I was in for a down and dirty psychological horror ride, but the film becomes more and more of a sleaze and gore fest. It's still well worth watching, but after a great set up it settles down to some degree to become a standard mystery.

Don't get me wrong though, there's still a lot of crazy, good fun to be had. A lot of people describe this film as convoluted, but it goes far beyond that. The main cast members regularly go off the acting deep end unnecessarily with their characters exhibiting wild emotional swings for no reason. It's as if director Crispino got bored during shooting and occasionally dropped a mouse down a random cast member's pants and shot their reaction. This was only exacerbated by the dubbed dialogue which would go from mild to wild in a split second. But the oddest aspect to the movie is that Farmer's character is constantly getting molested in some way, shape or form by every male character (except for the priest ironically). Guys just seem to lose their minds around Simona and get all kinds of inappropriate with her. Even her father, played by Carlo Cattaneo, takes a peak up her dress and gives her an unwanted kiss full on the mouth. It becomes almost comical the amount of times the men get rape-y with her and how often the camera leers. Not since The Sister of Ursula have I felt the need to shower off and attend a gender sensitivity training class after viewing a giallo. Again, this aspect doesn't harm the movie, it's just odd that it's ubiquitous throughout, but at the same time, kind of pointless.

The three main characters of the film are molestion-magnet/pathologist Simona, her boyfriend Edgar (played by Ray Lovelock) and the aforementioned priest, Father Paul Lenox, played by Barry Primus. Lenox, a former race car driver(!) who quit because he had a grand mal seizure while driving and killed a bunch of people, is a little tightly wound to say the least. Early on, after being attacked by a dog, Father Paul chokes the owner out exclaiming "I've killed before, I've killed before!". While Simona spends the majority of the film dodging wildly inappropriate sexual advances, only Lovelock's character of Edgar seems relaxed and groovy, even good-naturedly dubbing Simona "Ice Cube" when she won't put out for him.

As the story unfolds, Father Paul reveals that he is the brother of one of the suicide victims who he actually believes was murdered. As he begins to investigate, more people appear to commit suicide. All the while, there's a marked increase in sun spot activity (and male gropiness). What's really going on does get satisfactorily explained in the end, but it's the bat-shit insane ride along the way that makes the movie fun. Even with wild, erratic bursts of overacting and some odd directorial and editing choices, the film is still neither incomprehensible or incompetent. It's just a very nutty fever dream. The movie does get a little flabby in the middle, but generally sleazes out to sustain interest. The movie's tone is helped a lot by a steady and subtle Morricone soundtrack. The film isn't particularly stylish with a limited production value and looks fairly average but it's not quite ugly either. But for fans of hybrid gialli, Italian horror or especially Mimsy Farmer, this is an entertaining watch.

Score 6.5/10

Monday, November 14, 2011

What's That Smell?

Ooh, ooh that smell
Can't you smell that smell?
Ooh, ooh that smell
The smell of death surrounds you.

-Lynyrd Skynyrd

I can't quite figure out why Francesco Barilli's 1974 film, The Perfume of the Lady in Black is so overlooked. Maybe it's because it was so hard to find for so long. Or maybe it's because it's so difficult to categorize. Or maybe it's because I'm the only guy in the world with a mad crush on Mimsy Farmer. Well, the good news is, it's no longer hard to find. It's currently playing on Netflix Instant Watch, but if you really want to view it in all its splendor, check out the RaroVideo release that's currently available for less than a sawbuck at Amazon. As to what category the film falls into, that's debatable. Most reviewers call it a giallo, and if it is, it would fall into the same borderline psychological horror territory as The House with Laughing Windows, Short Night of Glass Dolls or Footprints on the Moon. It has horror, even occult elements, but it also has a distinct giallo feel. The first time I viewed it, I kept expecting a black gloved killer to pop up and take out poor ole Mimsy Farmer's character Torso-style. But the film also has more than a bit of an art house quality to it. It is stunningly beautiful with a soundtrack to match. Further, the story is a bit opaque with flashbacks and patchwork dreamlike sequences that may, or may not reflect reality. A lot of reviewers have likened the film to Polanski's work, at least in terms of story and tone, but I think it's much closer to Aldo Lado's films. In visual style, it comes close to Argento's best - yes, it looks that good - with striking colors and recurring geometric patterns that make it a feast for the eyes. Mimsy Farmer's bedroom, for example, may be the bluest room I've ever seen on film. In fact, I'd love to see the blue in this film fight it out with the red in Suspiria in a no-holds-barred death match of rich color. The attention to detail by Barilli, to color palette alone, is quite impressive and often makes the film appear to be a moving work of art. Couple this with the visual geometry the director displays in tunnels, passageways, staircases and other architecture and the eye candy just keeps coming.

If the visual highlights aren't enough, there's a fantastic original score by Nicola Piovani. The main 'music box' piece sounds like a cross between The Exorcist's Tubular Bells and Goblin's Suspiria theme. And aside from one overly loud sting, the music is pretty subtle and unobtrusive, effectively creating a moody, dreamlike tone without being too noticeable.
And finally, there's Mimsy Farmer. Setting aside my crazed love for her gappy teeth, bleached hair and Jabberwocky name, I can objectively say she puts in a career performance in a very beefy, complex part. Unfortunately, she worked in a time when a lot of second tier actresses were consigned to the wife or girlfriend stereotype and thus unable to strut their stuff. But Farmer gets the opportunity in this role and she makes the most of it. Her character's emotions have to run the gamut, and she does a nice restrained job, but also goes suitably nuts when required. In addition, she has to carry the film, not only because she's the central character, but also because there weren't any supporting characters who really drew attention or had charisma. And that's about the only criticism I have of the film. It really needed one or two standout creepy characters, like the sisters in Don't Look Now for example. The supporting actors do execute a workmanlike job, but there weren't any performances that sent chills up my spine (although there were certainly a few scenes not involving Farmer that did give me the willies).

I intentionally avoided talking about plot points and story in the post because I think this is a film better experienced than related. Farmer's character is a successful professional woman who starts experiencing some weirdness. That's about all you need to know going in, but be on the lookout for details that crop up here and there. The family photo shown at the outset is the first piece in the puzzle. The movie could definitely be off-putting to those not into symbolism and/or the ADD afflicted, as the pace is leisurely. But the film never bores as there's always another piece of the jigsaw around the corner to keep up interest and curiosity. What it all means, I'm not quite sure of, but that's part of the film's intrigue and definitely fodder for conversation afterward.

If the film is indeed a giallo, I need to redo my top ten list because it definitely belongs on it. But it works as a dream-like, psychological horror film as well that will haunt those who view it long after the experience.

Score 9/10