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JUNE 22, 1998: 

Hitchcock had a quote: roughly, "I don't focus on the police in my movies because the police are boring." The Italians apparently subscribed to the same line of thinking; the giallos and horror movies of the Sixties and Seventies often don't adhere to a strict narrative structure or even logic. They are often episodic, and tend to favor style over substance or even story integrity. That said, they are also often intriguing and spellbinding to watch, with a superficial reality that constantly shifts and changes.

Lisa and the Devil

D: Mario Bava (1972) with Telly Savalas, Elke Sommer, Alessio Orano, Sylvia Koscino

Elke Sommer gets separated from her tour party in an Italian village and gets lost, eventually winding up at a rambling mansion inhabited by a perverted son, a blind mother, and a lollipop-chomping Telly Savalas as the butler (and presumably the Devil). During the course of a long and very confusing night, she falls in love with the son, gets mistaken for the son's dead wife, and finds herself in the middle of some truly Grand Guignol-style murders. Many images stick in one's mind; Savalas making mannequins of everyone in the house (thereby stealing their souls), the son (Orano) trying to make love to a chloroformed Elke with his dead wife's skeleton in bed next to them, the l920's touring car repeatedly running over the hated husband of the houseguest couple. The mansion where this all takes place has a seemingly unlimited number of rooms and is laid out like a huge maze; the whole film has a dreamlike, almost hallucinatory quality. It also makes almost no sense at all, but if you let yourself go with its wild machinations it only heightens the unnerving, macabre, decadent atmosphere that pervades this film. Later reworked as House of Exorcism for American release (with additional unrelated footage added, including washed-up Robert Alda and Elke vomiting frogs), Lisa and the Devil is probably Bava's best work from the latter part of his career. Derivative and wildly original at the same time, it calls to mind Poe and the gloomy Russian fairy tales of which Bava was so fond. Beautiful, dark, and unsettling as hell, a real must for Mario Bava fans. Anchor Bay Entertainment has an excellent uncut version available on video.

Lizard in a Woman's Skin

D: Lucio Fulci (1970) with Stanley Baker, Edy Gall, Silvia Monti

This rarely seen Fulci offering brings to mind many comparisons with Dario Argento's earlier works, like Cat o' Nine Tails or The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, but has a less coherent narrative and is even wilder and flashier stylistically. A woman (Monti) dreams in slow motion of murdering her somewhat libertine neighbor and relates it all back to her therapist; some time later, her neighbor indeed turns up dead, and the details all match those in the dream. The police are called in (the familiar-looking Baker, who whistles an incredibly annoying little tune in every scene), many red herrings are thrown in, and as the false resolutions arise, the police procedural turns into an unbelievably convoluted and confusing spiral. Two hippies, whacked out of their minds on LSD, witness the murder but make unreliable witnesses due to their state at the time. The line between reality and hallucination becomes increasingly blurred throughout the whole film, as the mentally unbalanced Monti tries to reconcile her shifts in perception. The strength of the movie lies in the visuals, however; Fulci's wild camera work helps reinforce the sense of illusion throughout. Ennio Morricone's score complements the picture's strange mood perfectly. Fulci found himself in court over an unusually ugly scene of vivisected dogs (during a hallucination); his SFX man Carlo Rambaldi had to bring in the animatronic models of the dogs to get him off the hook. At times it's a bit slow, but at other times Lizard in a Woman's Skin is a very wild ride indeed. Keep an eye open for the extremely obvious ripoff of Hitchcock's The Birds.

Daughters of Darkness

D: Harry Kumel (1971) with Delphine Seyrig, Paul Esser, Danielle Oumet, Andrea Rau, John Karlen

Valerie (Ouimet) is on her honeymoon with new husband Stefan (Karlen) when they put in at a posh hotel overnight. The desk clerk swears he's seen one of the guests 40 years earlier, and that she hasn't changed at all in that time. The guest reveals that she is the Hungarian Countess Bathory (Seyrig); legend has it that the Countess stayed young by bathing in the blood of virgins. The Countess travels with her beautiful young charge Ilona (Rau) and apparently has an intimate relationship with her; when the Countess and Stefan discuss the Bathory legend and get lost in a rapture of sadism and sex, Valerie realizes that her husband is not what she thought. The seductive Countess tries to work her charms on Valerie, while Stefan makes a play for the gorgeous Ilona. Stefan proves to be a real bastard, though, as he treats his new bride with utter disrespect and tries to force the naked Ilona into the shower despite her pronounced fear of water. The lesbian/erotic overtones play out as Stefan is gradually forced out of the picture and a pall of foreboding settles over things. Daughters of Darkness is a superb, elegant, and sexy vampire movie; its deliberate pace only adds to its overall impact.

-- Jerry Renshaw

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