Sunday, August 5, 2007

Review of Seven Blood Stained Orchids

It was with some reluctance that I approached, “Seven Blood Stained Orchids” (1972) by successful Italian horror auteur Umberto Lenzi. Though Lenzi is one of the most prolific and best known second-tier giallo directors, his career carries the onus of the cannibal film. For all my love of gialli and even zombie flicks, I have come to despise the Italian cannibal subgenre as crossing the line of decency without offering any redeeming reason or collateral (such as style or fun). Lenzi’s “Cannibal Ferox” (1981), an immediate member of Britain’s banned “video nasties” list, was one of the defining films.

So I had assumed, fully consciously or not, that “Seven Blood Stained Orchids” would be on the crude side of the giallo continuum, both in terms of production values and exploitation. The opening scene, depicting the murder of a prostitute in a corn field off the side of a highway, unseated my doubt that Lenzi would be stylistically bankrupt and technically incompetent but tended to confirm my worries about his potential sleaze-factor.

Once the movie really got rolling, however, I discovered that my reluctance was unfounded. Lenzi’s film lands somewhere in the middle of giallo territory, with enough gore and nudity to keep conservatives frowning and horror buffs smiling. The writing and plotting is definitely above average, perhaps since the story comes from the world’s most adapted novelist, British mystery writer Edgar Wallace.

The killer soon moves on to a second victim, this time a cat-loving female artist. Lenzi composes some excellent imagery while upping the surrealism ante of the first murder. The woman pours bowls of milk for her cats and leaves the room. When she returns, she finds the cats are meowing and dying from poison. Distressed, she flees to another room and finds that someone has painted blood flowing from her portraits. When the stabbing finally ends (there was stabbing, of course) we are left with a closing shot of black and red paint pouring onto her wound and mixing with the blood. If I ever have to be done in by a serial killer, I hope he has an equally poetic eye for macabre beauty.

The first two murders are connected by the killer’s calling card: a half-moon medallion. The third victim, Giulia (Uschi Glas), at least gets some development. Her bossy fashion designer husband, Mario (Antonio Sabata), and she have names and lines of dialogue, establishing them as likely protagonists. True to form, Guilia survives her attack by the killer and the two have the curiosity piqued enough by the near-death experience to investigate the case.

To be honest, their efforts must have been quite welcome to the police, who are utterly unable to do any investigation of their own. One would think (based on watching only gialli) that they were on strike from 1971 to 1975. Our leads discover that all the victims are women who, years before, had stayed in the same hotel on the same day. There were seven in all, later briefly represented by orchids laid at the grave of the prime suspect. (Note the use of a minor, misleading, but intriguing-sounding, clue for the title a la “The Case of the Bloody Iris” and “The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail.”) The couple decides to contact each of the remaining former guests and warn them, but like all good stories in this vein, they have a tendency to arrive only five minutes too late… every time.

[Image: The black-clad killer escapes in the rain across the roof of an asylum.]

Though the setup of the story seems fairly formulaic, the plot is actually quite well handled and neatly balanced. My gut prediction about the killer’s motive was that all the women had witnessed some crime that they did not even realize and that the murderer was systematically attempting to cover his tracks. Lenzi/Wallace definitely pulled one over on me with a more original twist that is executed smoothly and convincingly. Best of all, the red herrings are actually handled judiciously and their power to mislead and scare is actually earned through craft and development.

The satisfying story is complimented by Lenzi’s camerawork. Though his visual style is not as marked as Argento, Bava or Martino, it still shows remarkable sophistication and originality. That being said, I am now unsure whether credit for inventing the “through-the-harp” shot belongs to Lenzi or Martino (it appears in “All the Colors of Darkness” from the same year). At least Lenzi’s location choices, art-strewn sets and engagement with 60’s mod culture are all unequivocally his own. The visuals end up carrying the style of the film almost entirely unaided, since the soundtrack consists wholly of mediocre rhythm tracks.

Much like Argento, Lenzi excels most at his murder sequences and “Seven Orchids” has some of the best in my recent memory. The early corn field kill is eerie and effective, with a set that somehow looks part urban, part jungle and part farmland. It is far more claustrophobic than one would imagine and somehow artificial enough to feel surreal while innocuous enough to seem real. The voyeuristic killer-POV approach is not very new, but Lenzi gives it a level of eroticism and compulsion that reminded me of “Peeping Tom” (1960).

#4 on the killer’s hit list is a mental asylum patient with a persecution complex. Cruel though the exploitation of infirmed can be, one has to appreciate the delicious irony of the entire hospital staff ignoring her honest cries for help because she’s a paranoid hypochondriac who is “always” screaming that someone is trying to kill her.

#5 gets knocked off despite a pair of bodyguards. She goes into a confession booth and when it is opened later, her corpse topples out. #6 is played by the Marisa Mell (of “Diabolik” fame) in the duel role of identical twins. The wrong one meets a grisly end at the point of a power drill (an interesting update of the phallic substitutes found elsewhere in the movie which includes knifes, scalpels and truncheons). Lenzi argues somewhat unconvincingly that an important American director stole the idea from him. I do hope he is referring to Abel Ferrara’s “Driller Killer” (1979), yet another “video nasties” alumnus.

The director succeeds not just with the sheer creativity and flair of these scenes, but also in terms of editing and atmosphere. Though the usual black gloves make many an appearance, Lenzi has an interesting preponderance to represent the killer with shots of his black shoes. The way the presence of the villain is felt long before he strikes, creates a psychological torture that is more effective than the actual gore. The murders themselves are not protracted beyond necessity. Though they are less over-the-top than Argento’s work (where murder often spans multiple stages), the sense of deathly foreplay, inevitability and sudden climax are memorable for their obvious sexual implications. The revelation of the killer’s identity only makes this process of sublimation more interesting and explicit.

Although the killer is the most extreme case, the film in general presents a fascinating brand of sexual politics. Patriarchal authority figures throughout the movie tend to be utterly unable to protect the women in their charge. The police seem to leave the footwork to the everyday citizens and Mario does his best to fill their boots, but he is, after all, just a fashion designer. He doesn’t even have the private detective or journalist or insurance claims adjuster skills usually bestowed on a mystery protagonist. When the cops do catch on to the pattern and start protecting the potential victims, they are constantly subverted by the killer. The police, bodyguards, airport security, husbands and religious and medical authorities all fail to save the beautiful women presumably “in their care.”

[Image: Women being boxed in, but not protected.]

Lenzi constantly stages his actors so that the women are bracketed by male “protectors” on-screen, but then kills the woman within minutes to underline their lack of power. Conversely, the female characters are often depicted as unwilling to accept the proffered authority and protection. They frequently assert their independence (almost all of them are unmarried, for instance) and refuse to “stay put” despite knowledge of their danger. While Lenzi might be interpreted as punishing the independence of these women in the classical horror film mold (the murder of the prostitute as tacit comeuppance would appear to be a typical example), I don’t think that the audience is situated in such a traditional position.

When we discover the killer’s motive, we learn that the original event behind the current crimes was a woman abandoning her lover in a time a need. This supports a view that the real theme of the film is the usual horror genre gender critique (that women are too independent, anti-authority and sexually free) now viewed from the flipside (that men are unable or unwilling to cope with gender equality and a generation of women that are not attached to or reliant on them). Though Mario does finally assert his protective abilities in the final scene, the culmination of his successful combat is left off-screen.

In their opening scene, Mario dictates exactly what Giulia is allowed to wear and even says that without his fashion decisions she looks like a hooker (tying her to the murder that took place earlier). As the film continues, his control over her weakens and by the end she is the one pushing for more direct action; setting a trap for the villain. In the last shot, masculine authority is not reasserted through the arrival of the police on the scene nor is Mario shown “claiming his reward” in a dominating sexual way. Rather, the couple walks off side-by-side in a mutual stance. I think the story ends up being more of a lesson aimed at chauvinistic males then a cautionary tale aimed at free-spirited women.

[Image: Look really closely into the pool and you just might learn the identity of the killer.]

“Seven Blood Stained Orchids” was never screening theatrically in America, but is now available on DVD. I liked it.

Walrus Rating: 7


Unknown said...

Whoever came up with it, I'm glad the focus-pull-with-harp is around. AWESOME.

The titles like this are all so hilariously random. OMG, you should make giallo-title generator. It'd be like, "the red queen kills for the august moon"...?

Although, I guess I would also enjoy "The house by the cemetary man." Hehe.

Mad Dog said...

Sounds like a fun time, but I wish you hadn't spoiled the motive of the killer. :(

So where can I snatch this lovely and for how much?

FilmWalrus said...


I wish I would have thought of the giallo-title generator first, but one is already out there:

It is highly amusing.

Mad Dog,

Sorry about the motive slip. It doesn't ruin the movie and I tried to be non-specific. Nevertheless, I added spoiler bracket to protect anyone else who visits the post.

The-Iron-Inspector said...

WOW! As a big fan of the giallo an poliziotteschi movies, your site is indispensible...thanks for the great reviews,

FilmWalrus said...

The Iron Inspector,

Thanks for the praise. Expect plenty more giallo reviews to come.

You'll have to give me some pointers on poliziotteschi some time. Your blog shows a genuine passion for them, and I could use some informed recommendations.

FilmWalrus said...

Also, if you haven't already, make sure to check out these fellow Italian genre and giallo bloggers:

Anonymous said...

Hi,your review is one of the best I have ever read about the movie "Seven Blood Stained Orchids". Very thoughtfull and smart! Great!

FilmWalrus said...

mirko di wallenberg,

Thanks! I think gialli like this are great targets discussion and analysis because they are so dense with style, audience manipulation and psychological extremes. They also happen to be a lot of fun to watch!

Sorry about the sp/grammar errors and poor sentence flow. I need to go back and clean up some of these long reviews. Still, I'm glad you enjoyed the read.