Friday, October 20, 2017

The Halloween List: The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, Bay of Blood, and Blood and Black Lace

The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (1970)

These movies have been my first exposure to Italian Giallo, a sub-genre that feels like an evolutionary link between Murder Mysteries and Slasher Films. The Bird With The Crystal Plumage follows Sam Dalmas, an American writer living abroad in Italy, who one night stumbles across an attempted murder inside a museum. Although he’s trapped in the antechamber, he manages to call the police, and then has to wait, just feet away from a woman he can’t help further.

Shockingly, the victim survives passing out from her injuries. More shockingly: she isn’t the only assault victim to live through the movie. The Bird With The Crystal Plumage doesn’t view death like a contemporary film. People survive reasonable injuries, and people like the writer are haunted by what they see. Death isn’t easy to achieve, and it’s also too weighty to shrug off. Sam can’t forget the horrible imagery, and spends the rest of his time in Italy trying to track down the attacker where the police have failed.

So it sounds like a 70’s Murder Mystery, right? A guy outside the system who can’t let an injustice stand. But this is mixed with scenes of the killer stalking other people, which culminate in Slasher Movie-like deaths. These attacks are like a ticking clock, making us root for Sam all the harder. You’d call it a successful hybrid, except the Slasher sub-genre didn’t exist yet.

Another funny takeaway is that if this movie were made in 2017 instead of 1970, Conservatives would get huffy over how political it is. Sam and his girlfriend have a poster labeled “BLACK POWER” next to their front door. When a transvestite is put in a line-up of suspected perverts, the lead detective yells to get him out of there because transvestites aren’t perverts. One of Sam’s first leads in the case is interviewing an art dealer who is quite gay, such that he can’t go thirty seconds without hitting on him. For an allegedly low type of film, it’s socially progressive in ways American cinema still isn’t.

Bay of Blood (1971) (AKA Twitch of the Death Nerve, The Odor of Flesh, Thus Do We Live To Be Evil, Before The Fact, Ecology of Crime, Chain Reaction, New House on the Left, and I'm seriously not kidding you, Last House on the Left Part II)

I love how many ridiculous titles this movie picked up, including the audacity of someone to try to pass it off as a direct sequel to Wes Craven's Last House on the Left. At a certain point, false advertisement becomes entertainment.

This is widely cited as an inspiration for my beloved American series Friday the 13th, I had to check out this Italian classic eventually. And while my coverage of Italian film is thin this year, I’ve created quite a list to check out in 2018. Already I can see a wide range in what fits in this sub-genre.

Bay of Blood follows four teenagers who go on vacation to a secluded bay and break into an empty house. As they flirt, dance, and swim, they stumble across a dead body, and soon, the killer is after them. It’s a bunch of things American cinema imported a decade later, but grounded inside a real estate deal turned wrong, with locals swarming around, some perishing, other promising they’d make great suspects. It’s almost a hybrid of the American Slasher and the European Murder Mystery, except the former genre hadn’t been formalized yet.

The biggest impression is how obviously the early Friday the 13th films lifted material from Bay of Blood. There’s one particular scene where lovers are impaled by a spear in the middle of sex that isn’t just in Friday the 13th, but is one of the most popular deaths in the series.

At closer examination, both films have a similar double-layered morality: both are obviously about carefree teens enjoying the pleasures of life that audiences are supposed to sympathize with and root for, and both are easily interpreted as punishment narratives. Without knowing the culture of Italy at the time, I couldn’t intuit how much was intentional in my viewing, but after American Horror’s hunted teen tropes calcified into a series of punishments based on backwards values, it’s impossible to watch this without the same interpretation.

The movie even has that one jerk friend who gets jealous when his girlfriend likes someone else better, and tries to push and bully them into his vision of how things should go. Definitely, Bay of Blood has the DNA of Slasher films. But its chase scenes and kills are awkwardly shot, sometimes difficult to follow, and at one point in particular, laughable as a dead victim’s actor clearly keeps breathing on the ground. Depending on your personality, that’s either obnoxious, or charming for exactly the reasons you’d want to watch B-movies.

Blood and Black Lace (1964)
You know how I said Giallo begat Slasher movies? Blood and Black Lace literally opens with a guy in a creepy mask following and killing a woman in the middle of the night.

Blood and Black Lace is a movie that’s very proud to be shot in color – it was Mario Bava’s second color picture, after Black Sabbath. Our characters work in high fashion, producing and wearing bold dresses, and when they don’t wear them, they appear on bright mannequins. The most striking is a cherry-red mannequin wearing stark black fashion. More than aping commercial thought, the movie is showing off what it’s able to show. Characters are often dressed to profoundly match or clash against their settings – both by fashion designer characters, and by the happy director. I love the idea that pink silk could be a special effect.

This is the most Who Dunnit of the Giallo films I watched this year. Valuables have been stolen, riches are somewhere in this broad estate, and over the course of the film we watch a masked figure stalk them, while various characters follow clues trying to discern the identity. There’s fear to the stalking, but never anticipation that they need to solve this now or they’ll die. It’s obvious very few if any characters will survive the film, so anyone in the killer’s clutches is probably gone. Any remaining urgency drained out of the story when one character fall off the roof while scheming to go from window to window, and, unceremoniously fell out of the movie at the same time.

Such a plot is full of intrigue, infidelity, and double motives. It fits better with the Mysteries of the 60s than with anything I enjoy in Horror. It was worth watching to further appreciate the taxonomy of a sub-genre, but gets the lowest recommendation out of today’s three.

Coming Monday: Dog Soldiers and Area 51

1 comment:

  1. Another fascinating selection. I do love, and am awed by, your reviews.


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