Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Red-Stained Lawn (1973): or, The Days of Wine and Robots

How do you know when it's love?

Is it that first surreptitious glance across the room, eyes meeting over swirls of cigarette smoke and strains of Wagner thumping in your ears? Is it those first furtive, fleshy fumblings in the alley behind the bar, all hands and lips and straps with complicated fasteners? Or does it come later, reclining comfortably on the couch in a shared apartment, sharing a bottle of wine and your last cigarette as you wait patiently for the next episode of Cupcake Wars to roll?

It's a mystery, parishioners.

But even though I can't say exactly when or how it happens, I know that love is real. I know because I've found it, a love that asks for nothing and gives everything. I've found it in
Riccardo Ghione's 1973 hippie-abducting, mad science-spouting, blood-bottling, ultra-groovy mad movie bonanza, The Red-Stained Lawn (Il Prato Macchiato di Rosso).

Let me tell you a little something about that girl o'mine.

Really. I insist.
We open with a hard-boiled UNESCO agent (Nino Castelnuovo) investigating what appears to be a wine-smuggling operation on the Mediterranean coast. Easily swiping a crate of contraband from a couple of very task-focused smugglers, he makes a disturbing discovery: the bottles in the box are not your run-of-the-mill Chianti, but are instead filled to the cork-line with human blood! Duly alerted, he scuttles off to headquarters to inform his superiors about this unprecedented threat to the reputation of Italian wines worldwide.

Meanwhile, in Piacenza, good Samaritan and Daniel Craig-lookalike Alfiero (Claudio Biava) travels every highway and byway in his BOSS powder-blue sports car, searching for walkabouts who look as though they might fancy a lift. He has no trouble, as the northern Italian town is apparently crawling with automotively challenged individuals of every stripe. Within moments he's picked up a flower-selling Gypsy (Barbara Marzano), a Drunken Tramp (Lucio Dalla), a modestly priced Hooker (Dominique Boschero), and young hippie couple Max and "Max's Companion" (George Willing and a stunningly afro'd Daniela Caroli). Being the accomodating sort, he invites each passenger to come back to his sister's palatial estate, to drink their wine, eat their food, and set a spell. All for free! Now just what kind of paranoid, ungrateful monster would turn down an offer like that? 

At the mansion, the guests are introduced to the lady of the house, Nina Genovese (Marina Malfatti), and her eccentric, science-enthusiast husband, Antonio (Enzo Tarascio). Through a series of rapid-fire and not-at-all suspicious questions, Nina quickly determines that none of her visitors have any friends, family, or employers who will be looking for them, nor have they informed any outside parties as to their current whereabouts. Which simplifies things, of course--I mean, you wouldn't want to set the table for eight and then have a dozen show up, would you? Particularly if any of the extras were police. Not that they would be, for any reason. Hey, did you check out our freaky robot statue in the corner over there?

"Pericolo, Guglielmo Robinson!"
It doesn't take long for the quintet to make themselves at quite at home. The Tramp displays his frankly amazing wine-drinking skills: not only does he down bottle after bottle with no apparent ill effects, he makes it interesting for the viewer by balancing one canister on his head between gulps, carrying on a conversation with his beverage, and at one point getting the alcohol into his system faster by pouring the wine directly into his eye! That's more than alcoholism, that's showmanship!

The Hooker, meanwhile, splays herself languidly on every available piece of furniture, regaling the group with unashamed tales of tricks gone by. The Gypsy steals a few unguarded knick-knacks, as is the custom of her people, and Max and his Hot Mama drape their bedroom with scarves and burn some incense before lighting up a truly monstrous spliff. The Genovese Estate is thus a hedonistic oasis, a sort of "Pleasure Island" where everyone does what he wants and there's never any price to be paid. Or...IS THERE?!?!*

*Nota bene: there is.

He never takes "no" for an answer.
Unfortunately it's true that nothing good lasts forever (q.v., parachute pants, jelly shoes, Slim Whitman's career), and before long some strange, slightly sinister things are happening in Chez Boom-Boom. First, the Tramp and Max discover the Gypsy girl tied naked to her bed with her mouth duct-taped shut--a circumstance that does not inspire quite the sense of alarm in them that you might expect. Later the hippies, going against type and availing themselves of a hot shower, are moderately surprised when the water suddenly changes to a torrent of wine--though again, not so much as you'd imagine. Even when Max and Maxine rake the coals in the estate's furnace and find a nearly complete human skull, their only reaction is to come back inside and have a bit of "the sex." Which normally I'd agree is a fine solution for any problem, but this is looking to be a special case.

The only guest who keeps his wits about him is, paradoxically, the Drunken Tramp, who eventually confronts the master of the house with his suspicions. Turns out, Antonio Genovese is more than just an eccentric benefactor to the Italian unwashed--he's a MAD SCIENTIST! And it has to be said, one of the most fabulous mad scientists in cinematic history. Don't believe me? Just take a look at this selection of dominant, scientific neckwear:

"To do: buy more wine..."

"No no, I'm sorry...but you may not touch the cravat."

"What? Have I got something on my face?"

"This one's actually a Steinkirk, only tied like a cravat. See the difference?"

It takes a lot to draw the attention away from his wife's boobs, but I think Antonio has nailed it.

If that's not a man who's getting ready to take over the world, then I've never seen one.

So yes, there's evil-doings afoot in the mansion, and as the guest list grows smaller and smaller, Max & Co. grow more and more troubled. Actually, scratch that--they're not troubled at all! The Gypsy's disappearance merits barely a nod, and when even his best friend the Tramp vanishes, all Max can deduce is that the Genoveses are kinky voyeurs who like to watch smelly hippies getting it on. Though to be fair, it's clear that the hosts are more than a little freaky-deaky. Leaving aside Nina Genovese's more-than-fraternal closeness with Alfiero and her show-stopping psychedelic outfits (which are AMAZING--in fact the flick is worth seeing for the fashions alone), there's still the little matter of the doctor's...shall we say, interesting architectural choices.

"And this, my fwiends, is the Wumpus Womb!"
In case your eyes have refused to accept what they're seeing and have replaced the image above with one depicting My Little Ponies™ prancing around a daisy-strewn field, let me confirm that yes, that IS a giant vagina portal on the wall. (Because lord knows I'd hate for you to miss out on the subtlety and nuance of that image.) Leaping through the labia like Lilliputian lust-puppets, they find themselves in a huge mirrored room, where the Hooker immediately deduces she's been brought to perform the service for which she's been hired.

"Still, it beats diggin' ditches."
Alfiero breaks out a couple of bottles of champagne and Nina puts on some super-groovy music, encouraging the Hippy/Hooker trio to agitate that with which their Mamas equipped them upon the occasion of their births. This they do, downing the booze and shucking off their clothes with admirable efficiency. This scene goes on for some time, and is in fact one of the grooviest things I've witnessed in quite a while: psychedelic music, frenetic hippy dancing, Laugh-In-style zooms, and warped, distorted reflections in which the director and crew don't even bother to hide themselves--it's a gas gas gas, truly.

Eventually the trio drop to the floor, their bodies shutting down due to sheer grooviness overload. Meanwhile the UNESCO agent is tracking down the source of those suspicious bottles, and no points for guessing where the trail leads. Sub-meanwhile, Dr. Genovese and Nina are arguing over the relative values of science and business, which ends with Nina filling the doctor's Super Robot full of lead...well, more lead. Max and AfroGirl FINALLY get suspicious and decide to investigate the basement, where they find a freezer full of dead, naked, bloodless bodies in a genuinely chilling scene. (What I did there--you see it?) The purpose of Antonio's robot is finally revealed, as is the reason behind the whole operation; the Hooker succumbs to the dictates of the Robot's silly but deadly prime directive, and the Hippies are next on the slab. Will UNESCO reach them in time, or will they be riding out in the next delivery truck, in 750 milliliter-increments?

Love Machine
It's hard to imagine The Red-Stained Lawn being made at any time other than the 1970s--in fact, it's hard to imagine it being made even then. But made it was, and I for one couldn't be happier about it. I loved the relentlessly groovy fashions, the broad-strokes characterizations, the repetitive and intrusive score, and even the overly earnest folk-rock title song (written and performed by the Drunken Tramp himself, Lucio Dalla, who was apparently a pretty big deal recording artist at the time--I will pay you for a translation! :) ). But most of all I love the unabashed weirdness of the flick, the sci-fi mixed with crime-thriller mixed with hippie drug culture and stirred up with mad science to create a hallucinatory souffle that Mad Movie fans will love getting between their molars.

The acting is all pretty good for a picture of this sort--Dalla steals the show as the comical Tramp, and both Malfatti and Tarascio as the dueling Genoveses are a delight--the missus with her Ice Queen gorgeousness and ruthless amorality, and the doctor with his kooky visionary ramblings and stunning neckties. (Both actors worked together a couple of years earlier in The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave, a movie I really want to revisit now.) The rest of the cast is serviceable, and despite a few rather endearing flubs (equipment shadows in the shot, blinking "corpses," the director's pant-leg cameo in the Mirror Room sequence), the film is rather expertly and beautifully shot--the colors and compositions are often quite stunning, a testament to Ghione's eye.

And I think to myself...what a wonderful world!

In short, for fans of the weird, this is a little-known treasure. 2.75 thumbs.

A few more images from The Red-Stained Lawn (1973):

Anal Sex: Not For Everyone

"Now...where did I put that last bottle of wine?"

Blowout Patch

Rarrr!

Sure it is.

"Please, just try to relax."

Truth.


3 comments:

Al Bruno III said...

Another great write up! Keep them coming. And please tell me how do I see this intriguing film?

The Vicar of VHS said...

I'll do my best, Al! :) It helps to have some time off my day job...

As for where to see this, there's a version on YouTube whose video quality is so bad you can barely tell what's happening, plus it's Italian without subtitles. I found mine via other channels...a devoted order of B-Movie Monks who slavishly collect and subtitle such things, in preparation for the upcoming Cinemageddon. It's good to have connections.

Failing those, if you're a very good boy, you might get it for Christmas. Dropped in your Box, so to speak...

Am I being too cryptic? ;)

Bill said...

This sounds like a blast, Vicar! I'll have to add it to the list of films I simply must see someday...

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