Tuesday, 22 March 2011

What Are These Strange Drops of Blood Doing on Jennifer’s Body? (Perché quelle strane gocce di sangue sul corpo di Jennifer?, 1972)

aka The Case of the Bloody Iris

An entertaining, if unexceptional, entry in the early giallo genre stakes, this thriller unites three ubiquitous figures of Italian genre cinema: leading lady Edwige Fenech, screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi, and director Giuliano Carnemeo. Carnemeo’s effective direction, essayed under his regular pseudonym of Anthony Ascott, and the photography by Stelvio Massi, provide the crisply defined yet perfervid colouring and carefully expostulated style vital to the giallo cinema. What Are These Strange Drops of Blood Doing on Jennifer’s Body? plunders the Bava-Argento playbook with impunity. The story revolves around a series of murders of young women in a luxury high-rise apartment block. Carnemeo’s visual emphasis on the modernist structure’s towering interior spaces and central stairwell, around which much of the subsequent action takes place, clearly takes its cues from moments in Argento’s The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (1970). The creeping murderer’s guise of black coat, hat, stocking-clad face, and gloved hands, comes straight from Bava’s Blood and Black Lace (1963). But Strange Drops of Blood is a worthy example of the realm beyond that storied pair of directors, and has its own claim to significant impact: the opening killing of a young prostitute in an elevator clearly prefigures a similar scene in De Palma’s twisted tribute to giallo, Dressed to Kill (1980), and the title was surely paraphrased for Karyn Kusama’s Jennifer’s Body (2009).

Gastaldi’s script is both the source of many of the film’s problems and many of its inventive and enjoyable quirks. The haphazard narrative progress suggests Gastaldi had a checklist of racy things he wanted to put into a movie. Free-love cult? Check. Lurking lesbian out to seduce the heroine? Check. Disfigured pervert? Check. Topless models? Check. Karate-kicking black chick? Check. The diffusing effect on the tone and momentum of such material is pervasive and depletes tension, but also helps make the film rich and peculiar. The first victim (Evi Farinelli) is discovered dead in the apartment building’s elevator, inspiring a strangely insipid reaction from the three residents to discover her body: retired violin-playing Professor Isaacs (George Rigaud), aging widow Mrs Moss (Maria Tedeschi), and Mizar Harrington (Carla Brait), an amazonian model and nightclub performer. Mizar quickly excuses herself from the crime scene in order to make it to an audition, and is later glimpsed at her nightclub job, where she offers sex to any man who can beat her in a wrestling match, not that any can do it. Amongst the audience is Andrea Barto (George Hilton), an architect and manager for the apartment building who’s been convinced by flaky advertising photographer Arthur (Oreste Lionello) to use Mizar in an advertising campaign. But Mizar is soon murdered too, tied up and drowned in her bathtub. Barto has also befriended two more of Arthur’s models, Jennifer Lansbury (Fenech) and Marilyn Ricci (Paola Quattrini), and he arranges for them to move into Mizar’s now-empty apartment. But this, of course, also puts them in the killer’s hunting ground.

Soon there are enough red herrings to start a fishery. Jennifer lives in fear of her ex-husband Adam (Ben Carra), founder of said free-love cult. Cue Jennifer’s flashback memories of being initiated, ooh la la. Adam’s increasingly crazed and aggressive stalking sees him leaving crushed flowers on the ground in places she frequents. Mrs Moss is secreting her hideously burned son in her apartment. The Professor’s daughter Sheila (Annabella Incontrera) enjoys any opportunity to paw pretty Jennifer, and once wrote a love letter to Mizar. Barto’s motives come repeatedly under question even as he romances a swiftly smitten Jennifer. Police Commissioner Enci (Giampiero Albertini) takes time out from enlarging his stamp collection to investigate, paying half-hearted attention to Jennifer’s increasingly distraught accounts of intruders in her bedroom. Like many giallo films, especially Argento’s early works and in particular Deep Red (1975), Strange Drops of Blood is provocative in investigating the ripple effect of the sexual revolution on a culture riddled by repression neurosis and disparate moral evolution, with the killers desperately trying to corral female sexuality that taunts them without the promise of release. Here the specific motive of the killer is cleverly entwined with this half-conscious authorial impetus, as the hooker, the amazon, the liberated models, and the lesbian are all targeted by the psycho. Even the leader of the polyamorous orgy cult is actually insanely jealous of the wife who left him in a relentlessly conservative impulse, whilst the theme is more humorously represented by Enci, who wistfully longs for an “Islamic” version of paradise with palm trees and plentiful houris.

Carnemeo’s film is relatively playful and not particularly gory, in comparison to the likes of Lucio Fulci, and even some of Bava’s later works like Bay of Blood (1971). The emphasis in Strange Drops of Blood is more on character interactions and semi-comedic flourishes than gore, and the film’s chief problem is that it doesn’t take itself quite seriously enough. Sequences involving Marilyn, whether pretending to be dead in her bath to play a joke on Jennifer and Barto, or just releasing her motor-mouthed verbal faux-pas, push the film towards silliness. Likewise, Gastaldi lets his characters do a few too many stupid things for the sake of his storyline’s convenience, wandering into darkened junkyards and boiler rooms in momentary ignorance of the fact there’s a killer stalking them. Not to mention his heroines moving into the building in the first place. Fortunately, there’s a wryer comedic vein in the efforts of Enci’s flailing assistant Redi (Franco Agostini) to keep up with the heroes, bored in waiting out a long session of Barto and Jennifer’s sexual gymnastics, and munching on a sandwich whilst a killing is committed a few feet away. Gastaldi, to his credit, also fleshes the film out with many colourful, engaging character touches, from Arthur, who swings from gabbling excitedly about the advertising potency of a pretty girl to grumbling cynically over social decadence, to Mizar provoking the would-be he-men in her audience, drawing one out only to kick his ass with balletic aplomb.

The seemingly random characterisation of Sheila as a lesbian as a homophobic bluff proves to be cleverly connected to the main plot, for the murderer is actually her father, punishing the loose young women who have come in close contact with her and “corrupting” her. This revelation comes after Sheila’s already been horribly scalded by his releasing a steam jet at her, burning away her pretty, polluted skin. There’s an interesting rhyme here with the state of Mrs Moss’s son, and the very end of the film, which sees the narrative circle back to where it started, with a lush young woman phoning Sheila and arranging to meet her at her apartment, calls into question at least some of what we’ve seen, and of what will know happen, for now Sheila is in presumably the same state as the son. The notion of parents desperately trying to control/hide their aberrant children is then interestingly employed and described as the root of mass murder. Such elements keep the film buoyant in spite of the patchy pacing and faults.

Still, a giallo film without a director who relishes staging murders and utilising the painterly expanse of the widescreen is not a giallo film. Displays of Carnemeo’s abilities in this regard are scattered but impressive, particularly in the murder scenes and the Vertigo-esque finale, as Carnemeo blends haute couture violence and high theatre. Dashes of inspiration drop here and there like the petals of Adam’s flowers, as in the moment when Jennifer is attacked by the killer as she’s removing her thin sweater, her face and the killer’s both masked and partly defined through material. Or in the moment Barto and Jennifer making love are reflected in the glass over a cubist painting, as neat a metaphor for the giallo genre’s schematics as any. The film’s best moment is Marilyn’s murder: stabbed in the belly whilst standing on the street and, unable to scream, she stumbles mutely towards Barto and falls into his arms. His powerful, paralysing blood phobia, already established when Jennifer cut her thumb in an earlier scene, prevents him from calling out as well, leaving him clutching the dying woman, covered in gore, and immediately presumed by everyone around him to be the killer. This plot touch recurs again in the very conclusion as Barto battles the bad guy, blood again momentarily paralysing him, and Carnemeo creatively employs a series of lightning flashbacks to the source of the phobia, being Barto having been trapped in a crashed car with his father’s blood dripping on his face. More such intelligent filmmaking and some tightening of the script might have made this a superior psycho-thriller. As it is, it’s worth checking out if you’re seeking greener pastures in the genre, and cult actress Fenech is absurdly beautiful here, at the very least: no-one who came to see her would have been asking for their money back.


Patrick said...

Can I leave a totally off topic comment? I can? Good. I almost left this a day ago, but since Elizabeth Taylor just died, it seemed like sort of timely comment (plus I've never even heard of the Jennifer movie) - I grabbed the Liz Taylor version of Cleopatra from the library this week, thought I'd try a few minutes of it anyway and see how it worked out, been reading quite a bit about that era, fascinating period. Of course the reputation of Cleopatra preceded it, I didn't have terribly high expectations, but found that I enjoyed it quite a bit. Epic scale, reasonable historical accuracy, nice performance by Rex Harrison as Julius Caesar. Really a pretty good show. Someone at IMDB suggested perhaps it takes viewers who are a generation removed from all of the peripheral gossip that was floating around the movie when it was made to give it a fair evaluation. I think that is probably true.

Roderick Heath said...

Hell, I agree Patrick. It's a very good movie that might have been great. Ironically, I think Taylor's one of the worst things about it. I wrote it up a couple of years ago:


Greg said...

I'm going to steal some of these grabs for my tumblr site, 'cause that's just what I do. Of course, full linkage back here will be given.

Roderick Heath said...

Hey, that's what they're there for.

Patrick said...

Good review (as usual), I missed it over there when originally posted. I wasn't that keen on Taylor's performance either, maybe didn't mind it quite as much as you. I have my doubts that the real Cleopatra, at least at the age she was when Caesar met her, was that imperious, she was supposedly quite a charming and engaging personality, Taylor's Cleopatra was so overbearing she didn't seem terribly likable to me. Some of that is the script, some is Taylor's interpretation.

The word is Angelina Jolie is going to be making a version, that would seem to have the potential to be good. (Script by Brian Helgeland, I'm apparently one of the only people who liked Robin Hood.)

Roderick Heath said...

I really wanted to like Robin Hood but I simply couldn't, and Helgeland's disjointed, cliched, straight-from-the-Screenwriting-101-structured script was a great part of why I couldn't. And if Jolie's half as bad as Cleopatra as she was as Alexander's mom, torpor will ensue. But I choose to look on the bright side!

Patrick said...

I watched about half of "Alexander" before more or less saying - This thing is killing me, get me out of here - and shutting it off. I have since expunged any memory of the movie from my brain, but I would guess Angelina was torpedoed much more by the movie itself than any lack of talent. To me she just seems like a really cool person, which is not my usual approach to actors and actresses. I looked at her filmography, haven't actually seen her in too many things, but I did like her a lot in Mr. and Mrs. Smith. (I suggested that one to you about 20 posts ago, I kind of think it would be your sort of movie.) I think she does have a strong screen presence, an important element for a potential Cleopatra.

Roderick Heath said...

The failure of Alexander indeed wasn't Jolie's fault entirely, but she was remarkably lazy in the part. I like Jolie well enough as an actress - given the right role, she can be quite effective, but where you find cool, I find a kind of closed-off, unreal-ness that even when she's trying to play ordinary people just never entirely convinces me. When it comes to her in action roles, I preferred Salt to Mr and Mrs Smith, a film that I'm sorry to confess I found so witless and poorly structured that I turned it off half-way through. Salt on the other hand demanded things Jolie can give and in spades, a space to be physically forceful and unflappable.