Spasmorecommended viewing

Don't gaslight me, bro!
★★★★
☆☆
Released: 
1974
Director: 
Umberto Lenzi
Starring: 
Robert Hoffmann, Suzy Kendall, Ivan Rassimov, Adolfo Lastretti
The Setup: 
Bizarre Giallo, and that is saying something.
Discussion: 

I have no idea how this ended up on my queue, but thank God it did. It's been a few months now, and as usual, after a little break, one needs a Giallo or two again. Having scored with The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave, I decided to move this one up in priority, and wow. I know some Gialli are crazy, hypnotic, insane, hard to follow, but even so, this one... WOW.

So we open with a couple driving up to a cliffside ruin / make out spot, where the guy shoves his head into the window or a parked car and asks for a light. An unseen person lights his cigarette. He and his female friend go to the ruin, and start making out, while we see that the feet of a woman who has been hung dangle nearby. They discover it, are freaked, and cut the woman down only to realize that it's a mannequin. Suddenly the car parked nearby screeches away. Then another couple, during the day, go to another place to make out, where the woman freaks, spotting the body of a woman down on the beach. Your first sight of the woman on the beach is an obvious mannequin, but when they go to her and turn her over, it's a real woman, Barbara. She has a thermos that says Tucania. When the guy, Christian, turns away for a moment, poof, she speeds away in a car as well. Welcome to Spasmo!

Tucania turns out to be a yacht, where a party is taking place. Christian's date is taken away by the yacht's owner, Alex, and, unless I'm mistaken, is never again seen in the film. Then who should arrive but Barbara, and guess who her boyfriend is? Alex. There is some flirty / jealous talk between the four, then Christian leaves with Barbara. She basically IS Susan George, but without the teeth. They are in the car talking as it's late day, when suddenly we cut to Barbara and it is the dead of night (probably a mistake, but it works). Christian says "That moon doesn't bother you?" and she replies "There's no moon [unintelligible]," and he says "I was right... you are a sweet, sweet whore." If only the men I meet knew how to talk seductive like that. They go to what you THINK is Barbara's, but is later said to be a motel, and she asks him to shave his beard--at which point you (or at least I) realize that his beard is fake. Meanwhile, some menacing man we glimpsed at the yacht shows in the bathroom with a gun, he and Christian have a struggle, and the man is killed! Christian tells Barbara "I've killed a man I never saw before!" and she suggests that they just leave, which they do.

At this point, about 20 minutes in, I have written in my notes: "This movie is CRAZY!" Because all of the things that can create dissonance in normal Gialli: overheated tone, slow, languid atmosphere, strange characters lurking on the sidelines, scenes that seem to begin or end in the middle, strange, jarring edits, stilted dialogue that only slightly makes sense, characters with inappropriate affect, odd lapses in time, and many, many more, are all here, just in extremely dense, concentrated form. Also adding to the dislocated sensation is that this is dubbed into English and you can't get the original Italian with subtitles. All that said, it remains involving and intriguing, the confusion only making it more interesting (for me, at least... I was surprised to find that many on IMDb consider this to be one of the worst Gialli ever).

They return to the yacht, where Alex has a talk with Christian about stealing Barbara. Then Christian returns to the motel, but the body is gone. Barbara thinks maybe he's just inventing the whole thing, and suggests they break into the house of a friend she knows is out. They do (just smash the window of your friend's house, they won't mind), but are soon confronted by OTHER friends staying there, the older, lugubrious Malcolm and his extremely sedate girlfriend, Clorinda. Malcolm says "My name is Malcolm. You're intruders, yet I'm treating you like guests. Rather odd, isn't it? What is it? Are you both here to commit some heinous deed?" So let's just say that the dialogue here contributes heavily to this whole film's off-kilter aspects. Malcolm says his friend, a police investigator, has just taken him to a hotel, where a man was killed in a bathroom. Christian erupts: "I killed him!"

SPOILERS > > >
That said, however, Malcolm and everyone else starts to convince Christian that there was no murder, there was no body, and it's just him being crazy. Meanwhile, mannequins are showing up all over the landscape, often in nothing but lingerie and apparently "killed." It's worth noting that, in retrospect, there is very little violence against women here, as is usual in Gialli, but the violence against mannequins takes its place and is perhaps even more bizarre and unnerving. Perhaps except for Christian raping Clarinda, as he does around this time, though it is done offscreen. She has been creeping around, reacting to everything in her affectless, blank and breathless delivery. And around here Christian does go back to visit the woman from the first scene, although their time together doesn't amount to much.

Then the guy Christian thought he killed in the bathroom shows up, and makes Christian drive to a cliff over a quarry. He's going to make Christian drive off, but Christian gets him down and runs over him, twice, with the car. He put the guy in the front seat, puts a few of his own trinkets on him, and sends the car off the cliff, where it bursts into flames. Who should show up then but Alex and Barbara, who see the flaming car and assume that Christian is inside.

Christian goes to the office of his brother, Felix, at this power plant. He is able to sneak inside and overhear a conversation with Felix, Barbara and Alex. It would seem that Felix has hired all of them to try to drive Christian insane... so all the supposed killing of the guy and then everyone pretending like it never happened was part of this plot to gaslight Christian, who had some mental issues after his father's suicide, back in the day. Barbara is all upset, because she thought the whole purpose of the scheme was to send Christian to therapy--a rather roundabout route to therapy, but they're Italian--and now she's in love with him, and feels all shocked, used and betrayed.

Fritz, who is only mentioned in the first part of the film but now comes out as its major driver, sits down to watch some old home movies of the moment they learned of their father's suicide. You'll notice that we are watching the old film, then go INTO the old film. Their mother comforted Christian, who has a deranged look in his eye, while ignoring Fritz, who apparently remains bitter to this day. We also see that Malcolm was on hand back then, and have a psychologist tell us that the father's madness is a hereditary illness, and has thus been passed down to Christian.

Christian appears to Barbara, who is shocked to find him still alive (see photo). He confesses his undying love for her--although they met two days ago--and then, after making love, he feels that old murderous impulse come over him. "No Barbara--not you!" he wails, before strangling her to death. He goes out, encounters Alex, and gets shot. He goes down to the beach in the dead of night, then poof! suddenly it's morning, and he dies in the surf. We now join Fritz, among his menagerie of mannequins, and learn that it has been him "killing" the mannequins all along. We hear the doctor's voice saying that the madness in his family is hereditary--i.e. Fritz is crazy, too--and that's the end!
< < < SPOILERS END

I liked it! As I said, on first viewing it makes almost no sense, but sustains such an intriguing, off-kilter air of mystery in an overheated atmosphere that it kept me glued. On second viewing, knowing the secret, it makes a lot more sense, and you can see that it had people openly discussing what we won't learn until the end, so on second viewing numerous elements things lock into place and it seems much more sensible. But that's what keeps it weird the first time: it is loaded up with scenes that only make sense with information delivered at the very end, which, you have to admit, is one approach. It makes sense that Christian would overhear conversations that, not knowing the full story, wouldn't make sense to him, and it keeps us, the audience, in the same confusion. Where it's successful is in remaining compelling even as we have no clue what is happening. Compare this to something like The House of the Devil, in which the movie goes so long without supplying information that we've stopped caring by the time the information comes.

On the disc is an interview with director Umberto Lenzi in which he says that he purposely avoided the sexual violence of most Gialli in favor of psychological depth, and this is when you look back and realize that most of the violence of the film was directed at mannequins. Apparently George Romero was asked to shoot scenes of violence that were inserted into the American version, and, well, Lenzi has a thing or two to say about that. He also stresses that the point of the film is to show the moral sickness that can creep into the comfortable, luxurious lives of the bourgeoisie. A point that leads some Italian directors to make L'Avventura, and others to make Spasmo.

In retrospect I'm disappointed but not surprised to learn that many people don't like this film, and think it's crap. For me, it was riveting and delightful. If you can run for a good long time on atmosphere alone, and don't mind taking a lot in without it making sense, ask your doctor if Spasmo is right for you.

Should you watch it: 

If you like a good, creepy, atmospheric Gialli, you bet.