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SPASMO (1974)

Ah, Umberto Lenzi. What a terrible mess you have made of this movie. Or maybe it is not your fault. But most likely it was your fault, since you want to take credit for rewriting the story. Not to mention inventing the whole giallo genre.

Wake Up Barbara

Actually, SPASMO is a great idea. A cross between a surrealist reworking of LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH and a weird mediation on the unstable world of a serial killer.

SPASMO’s world is one where the characters have a tenuous grasp on reality and the film gleefully plays on that with disjointed conversations and off kilter staging. Plus there is the weird inclusion of the quick shots of variously posed mannequins, but more on that in a moment.

SPASMO centers on a hammy playboy named Christian, a typical tight-suited unbuttoned smooth chested skinny; the type of European pretty boy who skids along these giallos, failing and sometimes saving the day. Overplayed by Robert Hoffman, Christian is possibly tormented, possibly suggestible stooge. Does he have a dark secret or is he a victim of a loony conspiracy? Seems both, actually.

In one of the films defining moments, Christian who might have just picked up a prostitute named Barbara, earnestly played through sweaty makeup by Suzy Kendall (To Sir with Love & Argento’s Girl With the Crystal Plumage). She has a demanding pimp/boyfriend who lounges on the side of the frame projecting greasy threatening threats.

But it is Barbara who is the real threat. She demands that before they make it together, Christian must shave off his beard. He does so with little protest, which could be read several ways. The most obvious is that Christian has been unmasked. He turns the corner, stripped of his protective mask, he enters a maze of psychological disruption. Nothing is what it seems and he is nakedly unprotected.

Beardlessness might, also, set the viewer up for a bait and switch. A MacGuffin, of sorts, where Christian is being set up to look like someone he is not. Possibly a twin? Or another sort of doppelganger? Both are the sorts of absolute left turn twists offered by these giallos. Of course, it should come a no surprise that Christian isn’t what he looks like. He IS a sick serial killer, not the gently confused hero of some sinister plot.

Mannequins in the Woods

The only other effective aspect of SPASMO is the quick cuts to the disrobed and anatomically correct mannequins. Elaborately staged like violent crime scenes, the few times actual people discover the life sized dolls, the make out lovers or the gardeners, these people are shocked then confused. These quick shots befuddle the viewer, as well. They might be disconnected hallucinations of an off screen killer. They might be stand in dislocations for actual crime scenes, actual murders seen as grotesque objet d’art, posed as the disturbed killer sees them? They seem to be cast as key pieces in the film’s psychological puzzle.

Of course, there are other hints at a better movie that might have been filmed. The unfamiliar familiarity of the old man and his provocative red haired companion who materialize out of the night only to know more than they possibly could know. There is the windy scenery of the tower, under lit and creepy. There is the nefarious bother lurking in a well to do office taking phone calls. Then there is that stupid home movie.

I must say something about that home movie. In the film’s pivotal confrontation between the brothers, a scene that should reveal the psychological impetus of the horror, the film totally fumbles the ball. The home movie, showing two little boys ominously staring at the camera, close up of mental institution needles and equipment, and a somber birthday party , all play laughably incoherent. Nothing is revealed.

In fact, the film and confrontation is so ineffective, the movie needs to explain itself in a phone message. Much like the doctor’s speech at the end of PSYCHO, this message explains the whole movie in a few brief sentences. Stupidly as well.

SPASMO tries to be innovative and introduce some subtly into the over the top violent gore of the giallo. BUT. It fails. The failure is mainly built into the structure of the narrative. In order to strip the genre of its tent poles, Lenzi casts aside all suspense or coherency of danger. Since we are never shown that murders have actually be committed, the fact that they have been comes as an “oh okay” moment. The fact that there are no police bumbling around, removes the audience’s only guide through the off screen action. Etc.

Had Lenzi been a better writer or maybe had a better cinematic vocabulary, SPASMO might have proved to be an effectively strange film of psychological horror. As it exists, it is a bit of a strange mess.

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