Monday, June 25, 2007

Review of Death Walks at Midnight

At the very fringe of my early memory, I recall having read a young adults book by James Howe called “The Celery Stalks at Midnight” about pets that fight a vampire bunny and some supposedly evil celery. Reflecting on the cute pun title, I can’t help but wonder if the benign children’s author was a fan of “Death Walks at Midnight” (1972) and was consciously making the reference. Certainly, the film had an early, though minor, cult status and the two books do share a certain amount of silliness in addition to their horror elements.

Anyway, “Death Walks at Midnight” (also titled “Death Caresses at Midnight,” but both titles are equally irrelevant) was Luciano Ercoli’s follow-up to “Death Walks in High Heels” (1971). The two gialli share at least five cast members that I could tell: Susan Scott (as the lead), Carlo Gentili (as the inspector), Simon Andreu, Luciano Rossi and Manuel Muniz. Despite this, accusations that the film is virtually a repeat of the earlier movie are entirely unfounded. The plot, setting and character dynamics are utterly different.

Ercoli seems to have learned from a few of his past mistakes, and starts the film off without the somewhat tedious voyeuristic camp that tripped “High Heels” before it even left the starting gate. Instead, we open with Valentina (Susan Scott) inviting over pack of sketchy fellows bearing a camera and drugs. They pay her 300 grand (Italian). Are they shooting porn? Arranging an orgy? Better. They are testing a new psychotropic hallucinogen and filming her, masked, as a demonstration of its effects! Once she gets high, her unethical friends remove her mask and ask her to describe her visions. She reports seeing (and the audience sees with her) a brutal murder taking place in the neighboring apartment with a spike-covered iron fist as the weapon.

When she awakens the next day, she has the added stress of discovering that her face is strewn across every tabloid cover. The embarrassing notoriety gets her fired from her job and when she confronts Gio Baldi (Simon Andreu), the journalist who filmed her, the ensuing property damage gets her arrested. Police inspector Seripa (Carlo Gentili) begins to take more interest when he discovers that Valentina’s description of the crime matches one that took place in the apartment directly across from hers… six months ago!

[Image: The empty room where the brutal slaying took place is expertly filmed. The sheer lack of mise-en-scene works to make the crime feel surreal, cold and modern.]

At this point in the film, I was absolutely hooked. Screenwriter Ernesto Gestaldi (veteran of “Death Walks on High Heels,” “The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail,” “The Case of the Bloody Iris,” and “The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh”) has fashioned a perfect giallo premise with some help from Sergio Corbucci (director of “Django”) and a parade of other writers. Things do eventually suffer from too many recipe-writers in the kitchen leading to a prairie dog colony of plot holes. We’ll get to all that, but a little more on the story.

Valentina sneaks over to the apartment where the murder took place and finds nothing. From the balcony she can see over to her place where her boyfriend is listening to loud music and working out. She shouts to him, but he can’t hear. Almost immediately afterward (oh, the tragic irony), the killer returns and attacks. When she locks him out of the room, he starts beating his way through the door with the spiky metal gauntlet. The whole scene is pure giallo magic. Consider:

1) A maniacal fiend, looking like a dropout James Bond villain, wearing a white trench coat and dark shades and wielding a monstrous weapon.

2) Susan Scott screaming, prancing about and then screaming some more.

3) The wicked irony of her boyfriend being so close (if he would just turn around!), but unable to hear her.

4) The clever solution wherein she breaks a piece a glass and reflects a beam of sunlight into her apartment, finally getting the boyfriend’s attention.

5) The conclusion, where the boyfriend arrives (scaring us since we are expecting the killer to bust in) and proceeds to not belief her again while on the left half of the frame (see screenshot below) we watch the villain slip out.

[Image: A homage/revision of “Rear Window” (1954) that is far more successful then Argento’s version in “Do You Like Hitchcock?” (2005).]

Poor Valentina can’t get anyone to believe her, but for once there are some pretty good reasons. Everyone knows she was on hallucinogenic at the time she “witnessed” the murder and the police think she is staging another publicity stunt because of her still-fresh tabloid debut. The typical giallo pattern has the female victim assisted by a police inspector or a reporter, but while both roles are present in the film, Valentina is strangely alone. She gets to head the investigation and inflict some feisty justice largely without the agency being horded by the male characters. While she’s not exactly a feminist icon, one must admit that she’s less passive then the typical Edwige Fenech role.

After Valentina meets Verushka Wuttenberg, the best friend of the iron-glove victim, she starts to do some serious sleuthing. Verushka shows her pictures of the dead girl and it isn’t the person Valentina saw murdered! The two women head to an asylum to see the man already arrested for the six-month old crime and he isn’t the killer Valentina saw! Things just get more confusing when, in a quick chain of events, Verushka disappears, a nun comforts the supposed killer rather then the distressed Valentina, an inmate starts dances a manic jig in circles around her and the asylum director makes an intimidating entrance.
Hitchhiking home from the unpleasant experience, Valentina sees the killer once again, driving behind a hearse. She asks her driver to speed up and does get away from her apparent stalker only to contend with the driver’s unwanted advances. She meets up with Verushka several times later at locations ranging from a cemetery to a villa overrun by houseplants. She begins to get closer to the truth, no thanks to an elaborate series of disconcerting red herrings. If you liked the ridiculous extremes of unmotivated fake-outs in “Death Walks on High Heels,” you’ll love the random distractions found here, exemplified by cat with a cut throat that is never even partially explained.

Writer Gestaldi marshals one of his trademark all-out awesome endings. There is a series of successive twists that succeed more due to the enthusiastic delivery then their clarifying or revelatory qualities. You get a pair of new villains thrown in at the last minute, including a knife-throwing drug dealer who compulsively giggles with sadistic madness. The inevitable rooftop chase finale is an irresistible combination of action, horror and excess that will leave a smile on the face of any cult cinema lover. Sadly, though, the confusing plot is never satisfactorily wrapped up.

There is nary a single positive review of the movie that I can find, but I am a definite big fan. There are two major complaints: the plot holes and the pacing. The former problem I must heartily agree with. While starting off in high form things just get so jumbled that it’s clear the writers have no idea how to unravel all their narrative threads and dramatic knots. There is so much that goes unexplained, or that is outright inconsistent or totally based on coincidence that I can’t argue the script ends up making much sense.

However, I disagree with most critics about the pacing. There is a twenty minute lull in the middle of the film but nothing like the dry stretches in “Death Walks on High Heels” or the main body of most Fulci films. The beginning is 30 minutes of thrilling rising action that is far above the typical giallo mold of single opening crime and then sluggish “mounting tension” filler. I found the ending so captivating, in fact, that the plot holes just rushed passes me, making the enjoyment of the experience quite high despite retroactive disgruntlement with the story.

Though no one is surprised by high-minded art house critics and middle-brow newspaper reviewers panning a giallo, there is little support for this film even amongst Eurotrash fans and internet reviewers. Many complain that the film isn’t sleazy enough (there is no nudity), but by contrast I found that the restraint had a positive effect. It prevented the often-questionable narrative halts of dancing/stripping/sex scenes (not that the giallo would be the same without them) and the boring romantic entanglements which never get developed anyway. It also makes the film more interesting to see a female star overcoming a cadre of male characters who lie, exploit, humiliate and try to kill her with the focus being, for a change, more on “overcoming” then on the exploitation, humiliation and murder. I’m not arguing that Scott isn’t still used as a sexual draw for the film; her hair is so styled and bouncy that shampoo commercials wilt with jealousy as she walks by. The difference is that Scott gets to keep her blouse on, kick a rapist in the crouch and shoot a character you’d never expect her to kill (I won’t spoil it, see the movie).
[Image: If Nancy Drew were an Italian model…]

The acting in this movie is not exactly what I call “good,” but it won me over with the minor roles. Much like “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage” (1970), the type of character in mysteries that are usually used as disposable connective tissue to provide clues from one local to the next, are instead given distinct personalities and quirks. Everyone from the concierge, the hearse driver, the gay photographer (an ubiquitous giallo stock character it would seem), asylum inmates, the giggling knife-thrower and the obvious red herrings is given enough attention to provoke amusement if not sympathy. Gio Baldi, the reporter, gets a nice little chain smoking habit that makes “Do you have a light?” his something of his personal tagline. It actually gets integrated into the plot with laudable wit and variety.

[Image: (top) The Italian Steve Buscemi and (bottom) a killer who can’t stop giggling.]

As for style, Ercoli lives up to his reputation as a second-tier, but not untalented, director. I enjoyed the constant presence of the killer in reflections (including the giallo staple sunglass reflection) and through glass, making him seem always vague, transient and perhaps even a figment of Valentina’s imagination. I liked the use of inappropriately jazzy elevator music during some of the violence and chase scenes, but it isn’t particularly great and certainly not good horror material. Then too, Ercoli isn’t a master of framing or color experiments, but his camera placement is occasionally inspired. I think that “Death Walks at Midnight,” despite the fact that the focus is a little off in many normal shots, excels most at its pervasive focus pulls. Here are three favorites:

So while I don’t think Ercoli is necessarily on the verge of (or deserves) a major rediscovery/revival, I have really enjoyed his films. This one did convinced me to buy the Luciano Ercoli “Death Box Set” and it gets a hearty thumbs up from me.

Warlus Rating: 7

I haven’t done an art comparison in a while and this film really begs for one considering that Valentina’s boyfriend is a sculptor. His work looks influenced by Henri Moore’s use of negative space (possibly one of his disciples), but for my example I’ve chosen the classical image of the reclining female. Plenty of examples from art history to choose from, but Valentina sleeping beneath a picture of herself reminded me of Man Ray photo of his own painting. It also reminds me of shot from Tarantino’s “Death Proof” (2007). Coincidence or not? You decide.

[Image (from top to bottom): “Death Walks at Midnight,” “Death Proof,” and Man Ray’s “Observatory Time – The Lovers.” Screw Saussure; I can take my referents from anywhere I want.]


Molly said...

You're making me yearn for Italian horror!

Also, I adore your reference to "The Celery Stalks at Midnight," which is by far the best title in the whole Bunnicula series.

Mad Dog said...

Wow, it's like they took the best parts of the premises from A Lizard in a Woman's Skin and Deep Red and mashed them together.

You'd think Italy was choked with psychics and psychedelic drugs.

Anonymous said...

any clue what the name of that picture hanging above her in death proof is?

FilmWalrus said...

I think it's a production still of Brigitte Bardot in "The Night Heaven Fell" (1958).