Sunday, 21 January 2007


While out walking Christian Bauman (Robert Hoffman) and his girlfriend Xenia notice a woman's body lying on the beach. Going to investigate, they find the woman, Barbara (Suzy Kendall), had merely passed out from the heat. Then, when their backs are turned she disappears, leaving behind a thermos flask with the word 'Tucania' on it.

Later that evening the couple spot a boat of this name and go on board. Christian finds Barbara again and, with Xenia going home with a (perhaps too convenient) headache, they get talking and wind up (again with remarkable ease) back at her place.

A multitude of broken doll imagery from the start of Spasmo; Hans Bellmer or Trevor Brown might like this film.

Before she will make love to him, Barbara wants Christian to shave. “I'm very suspicious of men with beards,” she explains. While he is doing so a gunman – who we had earlier seen being telephoned about Tucania – sneaks in through the bathroom window and threatens Christian with his silenced pistol. When the gunman is momentarily distracted, Christian manages to disarm him and, in the ensuring struggle, accidentally shoots him, dead.

Barbara suggests that they should flee. Just as they are about to drive off, Barbara's over-possessive friend Alex, from the boat, shows up, announcing that they have something important to talk about. Even more curiously, he seems to know that something is up:

“For God sake Christian what's wrong? You look like you just murdered someone.”
“What the hell do you mean.”
“Exactly what I said”

This makes Christian realise that he has left his distinctive – i.e. incriminating – medallion in Barbara's bathroom and dashes off to retrieve it, only to discover that the body has vanished...
What the hell is going on and what does it have to do with all these mutilated mannequins that are turning up all over the coast...

Some of the compositions re-iterate the theme of being in a world of representations and constructions.

To say much more would likely spoil your enjoyment of this deliberately convoluted and confusing 1974 giallo from Umberto Lenzi.

The key to appreciating it seems to be to recognise it is less “beyond Psycho” as one advertising line claimed as “beyond Vertigo” or “the forerunner to The Game,” as we gradually come to realise – or think we realise – the nature of the “family plot” against Christian who happens to be the major stockholder in his brother Fritz's plastics company; it will perhaps suffice to add that it is all about an inheritance. (As an aside, one wonders if the presence of Caroll Baker in Fincher's film signals his awareness of Lenzi's gialli more generally. Then again, given that Lenzi's self-congratulatory tone in his DVD interviews suggest he would never tire of mentioning this, it is perhaps better that we do not know.)

A blade (or two) in the dark

Understood in this context, as part of the game Lenzi and company are playing, Spasmo's plot contrivances and portentous dialogue emerge as positive strengths. (“You know what? You can keep your lovely beard and leave. It's really a very silly game.” “No in fact it's a beautiful game and I'm not going to leave, even if you kill me.”) One also feels, however, that it is unfortunate that the filmmakers tried to conceal things from us to the extent that they did and that the balance between shock and suspense is weighted too far towards the former, making it harder to really engage with Christian and his predicament (or, for that matter, that of the head of the conspiracy against him).

Stuffed Psycho-style birds are another recurring visual motif in Spasmo

Something similar pertains with regard to Lenzi's direction, where the incessant zooms and close-ups of potentially meaningful details – or, in the case of the dolls, retrospectively meaningful details – serves to overwhelm and tire the viewer when a more subtle and restrained mise-en-scene, allowing for a growing sense of unease / paranoia / horror, would ultimately have been more effective.

This said, the film does look exceptionally good, with nice use of subjective camera; convincing night work contrasted with brightly lit daytime scenes; and even the odd moment of visual poetry, as when Lenzi racks focus from abstracted red shapes against the background of the sea to reveal they are roses. (A moment crucially that is also actually integrated into the whole, in that the key detail within the ensuing sequence revolves around the gardener's scissors as blade / phallic symbol / trigger to memory.)

A rose by any other name; note that the gardening scissors are the same as the bloodied ones above

While not wanting to read too much in, it is this visual that also seems to encapsulates and reiterate the film's failings. What we have with the shift from “red” to “rose” is a situation where there is need for background / foreground contrast to make proper sense of things. But within the film as a whole there is too much that is undifferentiated and pitched at the same level, making it difficult to see the wood for the trees / differentiate signal from noise.

Part of what makes the film worthwhile is thus the impression that Lenzi was actually trying to do too much for a change, not just going through the motions. One suspects the problem is that, with a relative paucity of his stock-in-trade – violence and action – he was concerned whether the story would be enough to hold audience attention and over-compensated in trying to inject more style and visual impact in than was required. A comparison with Fulci's gialli might be instructive in this regard, as he shows an awareness of when to prioritise narrative over visuals and vice-versa and, more importantly, how to bring them together; one can only wonder at what he might have made of Spasmo had he gotten to direct it as originally planned.

The nature of the work obviously makes it difficult to evaluate the performances in conventional terms, as with the exception of Christian – with Hoffmann's role here bearing obvious comparison to the one he played in the La Bambola episode of Door into Darkness – everyone is already playing a role with greater or lesser degrees of conviction and competence and, in a sense, already performing as “the femme fatale”, “the gunman” and so on.

A key moment in this regard, and one which allows for a positive evaluation of Kendall's performances as Barbara, based on her false then true feelings for Christian, is the point when she tells him that she is “not a strong woman” then repeats this same line to herself and the audience after he has left; despite the difficulties we have in figuring our her character at this point, it works at the emotional level and suggests that she was not just a pretty face.

The one aspect of Spasmo that needs no qualification and can be recommended unreservedly its the Ennio Morricone score, in which gentle yet always uneasy listening themes predominate.

No comments: