Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Hatchet For the Honeymoon

Hatchet For the Honeymoon (1970)  aka Il rosso segno della follia (“The Red Mark of Madness”) aka Blood Brides aka An Ax For the Honeymoon. But oddly no titles that correctly identify that the weapon of murder is in fact a cleaver.
Dir. Mario Bava
Written by Santiago Moncada, Mario Bava
Starring Stephen Forsyth, Dagmar Lassander, Laura Betti, Jesús Puente

HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON is, almost without question, Bava’s most entertainingly campy film. Coming in 1970, more or less at the first early crest of the giallo wave, this tale of a psychopathic wedding dress designer, an antagonistic ghost, a bunch of models, a hidden room full of mannequins and a suspiciously shiny meat cleaver (no hatchet, though) is a brilliant mix of hilarious ridiculousness and serious technical chops. In fact, it’s so well made it’s actually kind of a shame, in a way, that it’s not legitimately good. But then again, if it was we wouldn’t have a movie this sublimely silly, and I’d probably complain about that too.

Though arguably a giallo, HATCHET has a radically different structure than Bava’s earlier genre-defining THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH and BLOOD AND BLACK LACE. There is a mystery killer, but the murder was a solitary crime committed many years in the past. Does that mean this is one of those irritating bloodless giallos that have some convoluted mystery but almost no body count, like AUTOPSY? Not at all! It just means that this time we know exactly who’s been killing people, because he tells us right up front and we follow him for the whole movie.

The “he” in question would be John Harrington, handsome, debonair and enormously wealthy mansion-dweller and wedding dress fashion magnate. Seems like he’s got it all, but it’s not even a full minute after the intriguing abstract-animation title sequence that he’s hacking up a pair of newlyweds on a train with the aforementioned cleaver. But why? Well, there’s a appealingly simple explanation for that. “The fact is, I’m completely mad,” he helpfully narrates to us. And indeed, that self-diagnosis seems richly supported by the facts; he has a bizarre secret mannequin-strewn wedding-dress fetish room hidden in his sprawling mansion, which I would say handily crosses the fine line between “eccentric” and MANIAC even before I mention it’s where he keeps his trusty cleaver.

The sideburns say it all.

But despite his admitted insanity, he has a good, practical concrete reason for systematically murdering a bunch of screaming women (ideally newlyweds still in their wedding gear, hence the title*). You see, he has a repressed memory of his mother getting murdered, but can’t recall the face of the killer. Each murder he commits releases a little more of this memory, and he gets a little closer to solving the mystery of who offed mommy (hint: you’ve already figured it out). Possibly this concept rests on a somewhat iffy scientific foundation, psychologically speaking, but I dunno, the movie seems pretty certain this is a thing so I guess I’ll defer to Mr. Bava’s superior understanding of the human brain. It’s a patently outrageous premise, but I like it because at least it makes him a little different from the usual giallo killers, who are murdering out of psychosexual frenzy or because they saw their mom have sex with a sailor (usually both). Besides, it means he’s free to enjoy his work and his newfound state of productive psychosis, “the realization of which annoyed me at first, but is now amusing to me. Quite...amusing. Nobody suspects that I’m a madman.”

If the movie starts off as totally fuckin’ nuts as its protagonist, it only gets weirder. The slasher aspect is pretty standard, but just as the cat-and-mouse game with a suspicious cop starts to get a bit rote, another unexpected wrinkle crops up. See, John --despite his easy charm with the ladies-- isn’t entirely free to get jiggy at his discretion because of the minor annoyance that he is married to Mildred (Laurat Betti, LA DOLCE VITA) who openly hates him (who could blame her) and lives only to make his life miserable. Well, any abuse of this guy is richly deserved, but perhaps ill-advised because he has that cleaver and all. So it’s not exactly a surprise when she finds herself on the business end of John’s ceremonial slice-a-ma-jig. But what is a surprise is that her dedication to making his life miserable doesn’t end with death; she accompanies him as an invisible ghost that only other people can see, fucking up his murder routine and cockblocking him at every turn. How often do you see that in a movie?

The happy couple. You'd think something like this would bring them closer, but nope.

I’ve read a couple reviews of the film that mention its obvious similarities to MANIAC (the mannequins, the misogyny, the fact that the movie plays from the perspective of the killer) but a more interesting comparison is actually to AMERICAN PSYCHO. John Harrington and Bret Easton Ellis’ Jason Patrick Bateman are both dispassionate, remorseless psycho killers, but they’re also handsome, articulate and wildly successful. Joe Spinell’s Frank Zito in MANIAC shares their love of killing, but he’s also a penniless, greasy loser, weeping into bloody mannequin hair and tortured by his past. MANIAC shows the killer as an outsider, a weirdo who can just barely function on the margins of society. HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON and AMERICAN PSYCHO offer a very different perspective: society is actually set up to reward sociopathic maniacs, and we can see them succeed in pretty much everything they put their minds to. No one notices that they’re absolute monsters, because they’re focused, successful, and conscience-free; on the contrary, we envy their ambition and their power. Of course, AMERICAN PSYCHO was written as a satire, while HATCHET seems to be mostly playing it fairly straight. Still, the fact that John’s mansion is played by the Barcelona villa of notorious Spanish dictator Francisco Franco (in one of Bava’s only cinematic sojourns outside Italy) seems like it must be at least a bit of a wink at the way being a heartless monster can pay dividends.

I’m not convinced that the film is intended to be satirical, or that it has any particular subtext. Still, it’s a surprisingly funny film from Bava, who I never noticed having any sense of humor before. Were it not for the bloody murder scene, the tit-for-tat antagonism between John and Mildred (both before and after her death) is so caustic and blithe that it could have played in an old screwball comedy. There’s some simple but fun irony peppered through, too; John cheerfully hacks up newlyweds, but he’s also so gentle that he literally will not hurt a fly (he rescues one from a watery death, in fact, gently blowing on it to dry its wings), keeps doves as pets, and fastidiously tends to an opulent greenhouse (which also doubles as a body-disposal site, but still).

Interesting man cave.

Not exactly Oscar Wilde, I’ll grant, but this sort of thing is made a lot more effective through the performance of Stephen Forsyth (his last role before retiring to become a composer), who is absolutely perfect for the role in the sense that he over-emotes every single word and expression while at the same time never seeming to have anything remotely resembling a soul. It’s a big, broad performance, but so totally divorced from any kind of recognizable human experience that it manages to be forever hovering at the edge of camp comedy while still maintaining a unnerving undercurrent. It’s actually the sort of role Vincent Price would be great at, but Forsyth’s cartoonish Disney-prince good looks and cold, dead eyes give the character something distinct and different. Like Price, but somehow gayer. A lot gayer. Nevermind John’s ascot and gardening, he’s also a fey, vain and soft-spoken fashion designer with mommy issues and an obsession with wedding dresses. He’s got to be the most outrageously feminine male character I’ve ever seen in a giallo --which tend as a whole to have mostly unfortunate ideas about anyone breaking gender stereotypes (not a terrible surprise in 1970)-- but in this case I’ll allow for it simply because of the campy glory of this over-the-top gayness which at the same time never seems aware of how gay it is. I’m serious, he would be an easy target for the filmmakers to turn him into a mincing, sexually-confused degenerate, but instead they just treat this sort of behavior as normal, no one seems to notice that he’s about one sequen away from being RuPaul.  Maybe that’s just Italy, man. I don’t know.

What I do know, though, is that the real star here is Bava himself. Here he mostly avoids using his old tricks of gothic darks and surreal colored lighting, instead opting for a Hitchcockian world of canted angles, opulent sets and finely-tuned suspense sequences. In fact, the film also has a noticeable similarity to FRENZY, which would come along two years later: both have impeccable, sometimes cheekily extended suspense sequences which completely center around the tension over whether or not an utterly despicable character will be able to get away with murder, and they trick us into rooting for him simply through their strong use of cinema. Bava is helped here by a splendid atonal score by Jerry Goldsmith and a plethora of beautiful locations and imagery, but at the end of the day it’s his camerawork (again, he wrote, directed, and shot nearly all of his films) and splendid sense of pacing that wins the day here. Like Hitchcock (which is not a comparison I make lightly), Bava displays a shockingly strong ability to cultivate scenes which eloquently twist the knife with one subtle complication after another. The difference is, while stuffy Hitchcock had to mostly dance around the more puerile aspects of his dark imagination, Bava is free to indulge in as much sleaze and bloodletting as he requires, marrying the arch, campy performances with explicit, sometimes nightmarish gore and topping the whole thing off with rock-solid fundamentals of suspense filmmaking. The result is pure catnip for a horror buff: frequently outrageous, sometimes intentionally funny, sometimes genuinely unnerving, and never, ever dull. Now, if Bava could just learn the difference between a cleaver and a hatchet, he might really go places.

*Except for the “hatchet” part, obviously. Guess Italians don’t do a lot of wood chopping.


The Hunt For Dread October

  • SEQUEL: No. Seems like they didn't really do sequels to this sort of thing back then.
  • REMAKE: None, yet. It'll happen though, you mark my words.
  • FOREIGNER: Italian, with a hint of Spanish
  • BOOBIES: ...some T n' A, including one gratuitous scene where the camera just nakedly ogles a bunch of bikini-clad models. But I don't remember any explicit nudity.
  • SEXUAL ASSAULT: Not really, John isn't much interested in that sort of thing.
  • DISMEMBERMENT PLAN: Much hacking, I think a head comes off? Hard to recall exactly.
  • MONSTER: None
  • THE UNDEAD: Wife returns as malicious ghost.
  • SLASHER/GIALLO: Yes, arguably, though it's unusual to have such a film from the killer's perspective.
  • PSYCHO KILLERS (Non-slasher variety): Nah
  • EVIL CULT: None
  • (UNCANNY) VALLEY OF THE DOLLS: Lots of mannequins, PLUS John's childhood bedroom is full of creepy dolls.
  • OBSCURITY LEVEL: Mid. Well-known Bava.
  • MORAL OF THE STORY: If your creepy boss invites you to model wedding dresses in a locked, hidden room in his giant mansion alone at night.... what should we do, ladies?
  • TITLE ACCURACY: No hatchet, does kill one couple on their honeymoon but that's it. Say 40%.

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