I remember vividly sitting down to watch Lady Frankenstein for the first time, and being completely amazed not only by the fact that no one had ever told me what an awesome, well-made, and gorgeously pervy public-domain flick it was, but also by the inexplicable idea that a creature as gorgeous, talented, and prolific as Rosalba Neri (aka Sarah Bey) had somehow escaped my notice for so long. I mean, she is so TOTALLY Relevant to My Interests, and yet it took a chance encounter with a 50 Chilling Classics disc to bring the two of us together at last. (Yet another reason the 50 Chilling Classics set has been worth its weight in platinum.)
Well, the older I get, the more I learn, and the more I learn the more I realize how little I actually know. The truth of this maxim was brought home to me yet again last week as I watched Sergio Martino's beautiful 1972 psychadelic devil-worshiping freakout All the Colors of the Dark and was introduced--incredibly, unaccountably, inexcusably for the first time--to the cinematic hunk of gorgeousness that is Edwige Fenech.
Seriously, people, you have GOT to clue me in on these things! Throw me a frikkin' bone, here!
In fairness to my readers, though, there's really no reason I should have been so tragically ignorant. After all, Ms. Fenech is hardly an undiscovered flower in the thick-growing jungles of filmdom. From 1967 to 1987 she starred in more than 50 movies, including such you-MUST-have-heard-of-this-one titles as Strip Nude for Your Killer, Five Dolls for an August Moon, The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh, Blade of the Ripper, and the "now on the Vicar's Netflix queue with a BULLET" flick from the same year as Colors, Ubalda, All Naked and Warm. Hell, she even did a cameo in Eli Roth's Hostel Part II, and if memory serves still looked pretty good. So really, I've only myself to blame.
After a very moody credits sequence that MUST have been the inspiration for the famously creepy Tales from the Darkside opening (an idyllic woodland scene in vibrant colors getting progressively darker and more shadowy until reaching absolute blackness for Martino's directing credit), we're thrown right into the brain-busting action with one of the freakier dream sequences I've seen in a while. On a darkened studio set with strange, cut-out furniture and windows, nightmare tableaux are illuminated by garish spotlights: a horrifying old woman in Baby Jane make-up and costume leers nastily at the camera, arms stiff and jerky like a marionette's; a pregnant woman with a huge afro lies naked on a gynecologist's table, the camera zooming in on her tired, angry expression; extreme close-ups of unnaturally blue eyes give way to a naked Eurohottie being stabbed to death, all while a disturbing "La la la la" song plays in the background. It's surreal, disturbing, and absolutely nightmarish stuff, really unsettling the viewer from frame one.
the camera veering off and crashing into a roadside tree--and then Edwige Fenech wakes up, twisted in the sheets and wearing a loose nightie. Still in her nightmare fugue state, Edwige stumbles to the bathroom and gets under the shower, letting the water run over her white nightshirt and thus expose the wonders beneath. Though I was still reeling from the nightmare from which our heroine has just awakened, I couldn't help marveling that the water didn't turn to steam from the hotness. Nightmares, death, and sex, all within the first few minutes. Don't fuck around, Sergio, just GIVE IT TO ME!
Edwige is Jane Harrison, a woman still recovering from the mental shock of a car accident that took the life of her unborn child and was the starting point for the horrifying nightmares that now plague her sleep. She lives with the baby's father, Richard Steele (Eurostud George Hilton) a marketing agent for a pharmaceutical company who poo-poos her desire to see a psychiatrist, insisting instead that she medicate with the samples he brings home from work. Even when their late-night lovemaking is ixnayed by a waking flashback to the stabby dream, Richard lets Jane know in no uncertain terms that he does not support her desire to seek therapy. As if that weren't suspicious enough, Jane catches Richard making eyes at sexy blonde neighbor Mary (Marina Malfatti) as he leaves for work, leaving the viewer to wonder whether there might be more to his anti-psychiatry stance than mere pharmaceutical prejudice...
Jane's sister Barbara (Nieves Navarro) has no such prejudice, however, though she does have a strange hate/hate relationship with Richard. (In a later scene, Barbara and Richard argue over Jane's treatment while the naked Barbara gets dressed and Richard watches her in a mirror from another room! Richard says things like "Beauty should be shown--why hide yours under all this clothing?" and "You must be the most unforgiving bitch in the world!" with exactly the same tone--weird.) Going against Signor Steele's wishes, Barbara takes Jane to see Dr. Burton, a psychiatrist with whom she works. In the waiting room Jane sees the blue-eyed murderer from her dream, but makes it to the analyst's couch without other incident.
Jane and Barbara's mother was murdered by stabbing, and in fact Mama Harrison is the non-pregnant naked woman in Jane's dream. Jane also reveals that she felt ashamed bearing Richard's child while not being married to him, and thus feels extra guilt about the car crash that tragically relieved her of that shame. Add her fear of losing Richard because of her nightmare-induced frigidity, and Dr. Burton has his work cut out for him.
I really can't go any further in the review without mentioning the absolutely GORGEOUS cinematography throughout. Martino seems to specialize in the striking mise en scene, whether it be in that opening nightmare sequence, a wide-angle shot of Richard comforting Jane in bed, overhead views of the apartment or various low- and wide-angle shots--all just stunning. There's nearly always something interesting to look at on screen, and a viewer with a soft spot for the beautiful visual will not be left wanting.
Also worthy of mention is Edwige Fenech's fantastic portrayal of the vulnerable, frightened, very possibly unhinged Jane. Her wide eyes and gasping breath, her way of opening her thoughts to the camera through expressions and gestures, all come together to give us a character we not only understand, but sympathize with and want to protect. As a result the scenes where the blue-eyed killer from her dreams invades her reality--in particular a chilling sequence on the subway, when the flickering lights in the train car show the icy menace jumping closer and closer with each interval of darkness--pack an extra emotional punch.
"I also used to have problems, and mine were even more serious than yours. But eventually I managed to free myself from them completely...I had to go to a Sabbat. It's a certain type of black magic ritual. It cured me, and I'm sure it could help you, Jane!"
Well, it IS the 70s, after all, so Jane decides to give it a go--especially once her problems are worsened after an appointment with a mysterious solicitor turns into a Blue-Eyed Stalker Attack! (Some great off-kilter spiral staircase shots in this sequence, with the exclamation point of a dog's skull being rolled down the stairs to her feet, followed by a near-miss hatchet swipe!) Mary drives Jane to a gothic mansion in the middle of nowhere, and everything's set. Let the healing commence!
They head inside to one of the most well-attended Sabbats I've ever seen--dozens of folks in attendance, all waiting to lay some Satanic and, as it turns out, sexual healing on Jane. The Sabbat Master--who by the way has to be one of the most AWESOME Sabbat Masters ever to don a goatee and a set of metal fingertips--sacrifices a puppy to Satan, drinks the blood, and then proceeds to work his horizontal black magic while the rest of the coven paws at and kisses the screaming, struggling Jane. It's another nightmarish, borderline psychedelic scene, with extreme close-ups, maybe a fish-eye lens shot or two, and enough rapey ickiness for two such Sabbats or three-quarters of a mid-week soiree at the Duke's.
she's now making love to Richard instead of Satan's favorite nephew. This time they reach completion with no stabby interruptions. "Darling, no more bad dreams!" Jane declares, post-coitus. "I feel strange...I don't feel real, Richard! I don't feel real!" Taking this as a testament to his manliness, Richard falls asleep, well-chuffed.
The joy doesn't last, though, as Jane's Blue-Eyed Boy shows up at the pub where Jane and Richard have lunch the next day, leading her to flee sans Dick to their apartment. Once there she discovers some books on the occult Richard has been reading, leading her (and us) to wonder if he's going all Gaslight Satan-style on her ass. Her suspicions don't stop her from attending a supplementary Sabbat, however, and once there a few of the mysteries are excitingly revealed.
Turns out Mary wanted to be free of the cult, and the only way to do that was to bring in her own replacement, who in the rite of initiation must stab Mary and thus free her "forever and completely." Drugged, Jane holds the dagger while Mary impales herself on it, thus cementing her ties to the coven. "Now you are one of us, Jane," the Blue-Eyed Man tells her. "It's impossible to renounce us!"
The rest of the movie concerns Jane discovering more and more dark secrets about her family past (Mom was a member of the same cult, and died on the same knife that Jane used to off Mary), all while staying a few tense steps ahead of the leering Blue-Eyed Man, who apparently serves the cult as some kind of enforcer. (His strange eyes and ability to pop up anywhere at any given time had me thinking for a while that he was in fact Satan, though I'm not sure the film's denoument bears this out.)
Dr. Burton the headshrinker for help. Tthe old man puts her up in his country house where she'll be "perfectly safe." Of course the Enforcer shows up, murders the caretakers and the doctor (we get a chilling scene of the corpses arrayed at the breakfast table, seemingly alive unti closer investigation reveals their slit throats), and Jane flees back to the city where she must determine if the people who love her are trustworthy, are working for the cult, or whether the whole thing is just a product of her disturbed, extremely active imagination.
In an interview accompanying this feature on the DVD, director Martino admits readily that Rosemary's Baby was a big influence, and the parallels are apparent. Fenech does a fantastic job portraying the frantic, vulnerable, possibly unhinged heroine, and Martino's penchant for deep-focus transitions and off-kilter camera angles keeps the viewer disoriented and never quite sure if what he's seeing is real or a nightmare. The supporting characters are great too, particularly Ivan Rassimov as the quietly terrifying Blue-Eyed Killer, Julián Ugarte as the super-groovy and aloof Sabbat Master, and Malfatti as the witchy neighbor looking for an out. In fact I couldn't point to a weak performance in the lot, which is unusual in films of this vintage, be they never so good. Though there are draggy bits spattered throughout the run-time, for the most part the plot keeps you interested and engaged, and the twisty-turny ending has some surprises that should please most exploitation fans, even if it doesn't tie everything up in a neat little bow.
Like I said earlier, this is just a gorgeous film to look at, and I really wanted to screencap the entire thing--Martino's eye for compositions is pretty much unerring here for me, and I can't wait to take in more of his flicks. Add the amazing SMOKIN' HAWTNESS of Edwige Fenech and you've got a definite winner on your hands. 2.85 thumbs, and you can definitely expect more Edwige Appreciation from me in the future.