May 3, 2011

Spasmo (1974)

Directed by Umberto Lenzi. Written by Massimo Franciosa, Luisa Montagnana, Pino Boller, and Umberto Lenzi. Starring Robert Hoffman ("Christian Bauman"), Suzy Kendall ("Barbara"), Ivan Rassimov ("Fritz Bauman"), and Adolfo Lastretti ("Tatum"). Unrated. Body Count: 7. Boob Count: 1.

Source: Region 1 DVD (Shriek Show)
Run time: 01:33:57
Country: Italy

A young couple's make-out session in a secluded area abruptly ends when they spot a dummy hanging from a nearby tree. And no, I'm not being sarcastic and poking fun at the excessive use of dummies in Italian genre films; there's a legit mannequin hanging from a tree, fully-dressed and giving the appearance, initially, of an actual woman. As the young couple is distracted, someone steals their car, and we then cut to the Morricone-scored opening credits in which the title cards appear over numerous fully-dressed female mannequins in various positions. The strangest opening to a Giallo I've ever seen? Perhaps. Are we in store for a Giallo about a black-gloved killer who slays female mannequins, or maybe a supernatural thriller where someone puts a curse on women and turns them into dummies?

Following the opening credits, we're introduced to yet another fashionable young couple, this time snapping photographs on a beach in broad daylight. They spot a well-dressed female laying face down on the sand, looking as if she just washed up onto shore (as if the movie couldn't get any weirder, and we're not even ten minutes in yet). The male, Christian, approaches and moves the body to reveal that it's indeed an actual woman and not another dummy. She nonchalantly gets up and blames it on the sun, laughing as she walks away. Later, at a party on a yacht with a bunch of rich Italians in turtlenecks and designer sunglasses, Christian bumps into the mysterious woman from the beach, who turns out to be a "sweet, sweet whore" named Barbara. All the while, a creepy guy in a red shirt is carefully watching Christian from afar.

Christian and Barbara eventually go back to her place to bump uglies, but she insists that he shave his beard first. About five minutes of small talk at Barbara's place passes when Christian is suddenly ambushed by the red shirt guy in the bathroom. "You lousy motherfuck", says the red shirt guy. "Hahahaha! He called him a lousy motherfuck!", says me. A struggle between the red shirt guy and the lousy motherfuck with the half-shaven beard ensues, and I think I've said enough about that.

Basically, Christian more or less descends into madness once he meets Barbara. Following the confrontation with "red shirt guy", the strange occurrences continue and he grows increasingly paranoid. Is Barbara the source of the series of strange events that seem to be happening without explanation, or are they merely a coincidence? Christian, for some reason, has fallen madly in love with Barbara, so perhaps love is blinding him to the fact that, maybe, she somehow triggered something that caused all of these sudden happenings. Meanwhile, mannequins are turning up in various places appearing as if they were just in the possession of someone who really dislikes mannequins (hence one of them being lynched early on in the film).

SPASMO is neither a Giallo about a killer who dislikes mannequins, nor is it supernatural in any way shape or form, bur rather a psychological thriller that revolves around A) a man who seems to be losing a grip on reality for some reason, B) a descent into madness that may or may not be triggered by a mysterious woman named Barbara (or the shaving of one's beard), and C) mannequin abuse. What I didn't tell you yet is that SPASMO is a psychological thriller with style out the wazoo and another in a long line of primo Ennio Morricone scores to boot. If this were lazily tagged as just another Giallo (which it might be, for all I know), then it's a very unconventional one.

From a filmmaking standpoint, SPASMO is solid. Gorgeous from beginning to end, and the fancy camera work, though unnecessary, is complimentary to the film's psychological aspect and on par with the some of the better Italian thrillers made by directors who are typically held in much higher regard than Umberto Lenzi. While Christian and Barbara are holed up in someone's home following the initial attack by the red shirt guy, there's a lot of focus on the many taxidermy animals that decorate the living room, especially an owl which gets a couple of extreme close-ups in the foreground as Christian stands in the background. The inclusion of mannequins and taxidermy animals in the film may or may not be to put an emphasis on the illusion of something being real when, in fact, it's not. Who knows.

As with most Gialli (or most Italian films resembling a Giallo), there are plot holes galore and certain things never add up, which is why we as viewers have to go that extra mile and suspend our disbelief in order to accept them (the films), basically, as mood pieces, and not focus so much on the story. When watching Italian thrillers, personally, part of me constantly calls bullshit on that theory, but part of me sometimes goes along for the ride and accepts the films for what they are, just as long as they have a little something extra to make the disbelief worth suspending. Fortunately, SPASMO does have that something extra, and seeing as it's about a man's reality seemingly fading away, the lack of "reality" in the context of the plot can be seen as fitting. The problem is, underneath all of the fancy camera work and nice cinematography is a pretty boring film. It's still worth seeking out if you're a fan of the genre, though.

Score: 6.5


  1. I'm sorry to say that I've yet to see Spasmo - but by the sounds of it, I think I'd love it! I really like Ivan Rassimov in the few films I've seen him in (Martino's gialli mainly) - the guy does charming/menacing and moody so effortlessly!
    I have the soundtrack to this (I'm a Morricone nut) and will have to track down the film at some stage. I love gialli that are quite untypical - Short Night of Glass Dolls, All the Colours of the Dark and House with Laughing Windows spring to mind.

  2. In your case, I think this one would be well worth going out of your way to see. I like films with unreliable narrators - if they're done well they can be really good, and such is the case with SPASMO to a certain extent. As far as quality and style, I'd put SPASMO up there with Martino's best Gialli, although I do much prefer Martino's films as a whole.