Monday, April 28, 2008

Review of The Bloodstained Shadow

I’ve learned that giallo films can fall into three basic categories. Two have equivalents in all genres: (1) films that are awesome and (2) ones that suck. The third category (and this is where my original research will soon make me a household name) is unique to the giallo and can be loosely termed (3) “gialli that suck except for the murders, music and last fifteen minutes.” I can safely put “The Bloodstained Shadow” (1978) in category #3.

Stefano (Lino Capolicchio of “The House with Laughing Windows”), a professor of some unspecified discipline, meets Sandra (Stefania Cassini of “Suspiria”), a beautiful antiques dealer or something, while returning to his rural Italian hometown following a long absence. (I swear they meet inside a train, but are shown disembarking from a boat…) Upon arrival he is met by his brother Don Paolo, a priest, who catches Stefano up on the local gossip. Read: bald-faced exposition. That very night, amidst a terrible storm, Paolo witnesses a murder in the village square. He isn’t able to distinguish the killer’s identity, but whoever is sending him threatening letters for the remainder of the film apparently didn’t get the memo.

[Image: Stefania Cassini has to shoulder pretty much all the sexiness alone as “The Bloodstained Shadow” has a fairly limited cast and an almost dignified business-before-pleasure attitude.]

Don Paolo has, by this time, already introduced us to the main suspects during his rundown of the local color: a wealthy homosexual child molester, a sinister doctor and a medium who conducts late-night séances. Obviously these characters are far too suspicious to be the real killer, but director Antonio Bido goes through the motions anyway. It would help if Stefano were actually given any clues to move his investigation forward, but the audience is mostly left to solve the film by relying on the usual giallo truisms.

[Image: (Below) I never realized piano lessons involved so much creepy physical contact.]

Stefano and Sandra do make an unusually ineffectual pair of amateur detectives, and their pseudo-realistic sleuthing incompetence is interesting in itself. Stefano isn’t part of the giallo occupational triad (cop, reporter or insurance claims investigator), but actually behaves like what he is: a concerned schmo in a small town plagued by murder fever. No one else seems altogether bothered by the plunging population, so he might as well take a crack at it.

Stefano is physically average (his inability to lift or push heavy objects comes up several times), always unarmed, emotionally shy and mentally less impressive than his academic degree would suggest. Every once in a while, he goes into a trance and recalls an obscure childhood trauma. Oh, I forgot to mention that he thinks the murders are tied to a similar strangling that he vaguely remembers from when he was just a boy. No reason that I mentioned that just now. No reason [whistles unobtrusively].

[Image Missing: Stefano was apparently so bland that I forgot to take any screenshots of him. He doesn’t appear to be significantly visible in any of about 50 still I made. Oops.]

Having protagonists that are relatively normal makes them more relatable, but it’s offset by the particularly awful dub and it hardly overcomes the film’s pacing problems and uninspired bulk. The lack of liveliness and originality in the delivery of the story made me guess that Bido was a fairly inexperienced director, and indeed he was. There is a lot of material getting shamelessly borrowed from the gialli of the then-fading golden age, but let’s call it a homage. Still, his film deserves to be placed in category #3, where it must not be ignored by fans of the genre.

[Image: “The Bloodstained Shadow” features one of the least stealthy killers of all time, constantly knocking things over and attracting attention to his presence nearby. Fortunately for him, the victims just dart their pupils at the sounds and then investigate, typically unarmed. No one calls the police, locks their door or runs away.]

Let’s take the music first. Composer Stelvio Cipriani has whipped up a scrumptious batch of Euro-synth delicacies performed to perfection by Goblin. Cipriani proves that there’s no instrument that can’t be improved by some synthesizer distortion, not even bells and pipe organs. The arrangements are eclectic, with hints of everything from classical to disco (done Goblin-style, naturally) and nary a throw-away in the entire film.

The murder scenes aren’t wildly creative, but they do each have their own flavor. The opening credits play over a grainy close-cropped slow-motion slaying that sets a pleasantly unreal tone (not really maintained), finishing with a contrastingly crisp and neatly-framed image of the corpse. Probably the most memorable kill involves an old lady who gets wheelchaired into a fireplace. A later assassination attempt sees Jesus literally coming down off the cross to bust some skulls, but the falling crucifix misses its mark.

Bido fumbles occasionally, but is able to lift his hap-hazard camerawork and editing out of mediocrity. Occasionally it feels like his visual sense wears itself out in short sprints and is left panting for air through the stretches between. The interior set design isn’t much to speak of, perhaps due to budget constraints. That said, the Venice locale makes excellent exterior atmosphere and regular installments of aesthetic effort do pay off for the director.

[Images: Giallo directors just can’t resist taking advantage of Venice’s old-world ambience.]

I especially like one motif he uses during scenes of “where is the killer” tension, in which he rapidly cuts to a statue’s face and then jump cuts even closer. It kind of works as a scare by faking us out with inanimate expressions that are often wickedly out of place. It has especial graphical resonance in the context of Stefano’s trances, in which he sees similar flashes of a crying boy’s face.

[Image: Inward jump cuts; a welcome alternative to Italian genre cinema's love of zoom shots.]

The film’s best scene occurs at the very end. [SPOILERS until end of paragraph]. The twist plays out in strict accordance to two cardinal giallo rules: (1) The priest is the killer (2) unless there has been any implication that the priest is the killer before the final act, in which case he is just a red herring (thus any evidence of his guilt is paradoxically proof of his innocence). In this case, the thoroughly sympathetic and apparently victimized Don Paolo is, of course, the murderer. The contrivances that make this work are somewhat fishy, but not wholly impossible. Once unmasked, he has a vision of administering the Eucharist to a row of his kneeling victims. Bido’s beautifully cross-cuts between the black-clad shattered Paolo and his white-robed dominating doppelganger scored to a triumphant synth-hymn.

Despite unmistakable evidence that “The Bloodstained Shadow” is just a soft echo of the classics from the early 1970’s, I still find it quite pleasing and watchable. I’d really only dissuade viewers from trying it as a giallo gateway, as anyone already happily familiar with the genre is likely to be fond of it for the very reasons that make it clichéd and derivative. As a low-budget European thriller more generally, I would even award it the official Film Walrus Zirconium Medal for Conspicuous Distinction in the Field of Slight Above-Averageness.

Walrus Rating: 6.0

[Image: Item that does not belong in a tabernacle #3615, goat head.]

3 comments:

Derek said...

Piano lessons can be surprisingly dangerous.

We read a case last quarter about a piano teacher who decided to demonstrate how to play a particular passage by playing it on his student's back. He caused her “thoracic outlet syndrome on the right side of her body, requiring the removal of the first rib on the right side” and “scarring of the brachial plexus nerve which necessitated the severing of the scalenus anterior muscles.”

I think the piano teacher needs to change his profession--he'd make a totally badass kung-fu movie character.

Mad Dog said...

Isabelle Adjani approves of that man's method of teaching.

Walrus said...

Derek,

That is just awesome. I can only imagine what would happen if he tried to teach someone drums. Or the gong.

Mad Dog,

And Heinrich has finally found a soulmate.