Friday, January 16, 2015

Body Puzzle

Body puzzle (1992) aka Misteria
Dir Lamberto Bava
Written by Lamberto Bava, Teodora Corra, Bruce Martin
Starring Joanna Pacula, Tomas Arana, Fran├žois Montagut, Gianni Garko

In a lot of ways, the 1990s were a much better time than the 70’s and 80s. The economy was way better, for one thing. Probably on average less racist, obvious that’s a plus. Lets see, disco was well and truly dead. Porn got a whole lot more available. America briefly flirted with embracing some genuinely imaginative, alternative music (before backing off and instead embracing an ever-escalating parody of that music which finally grew so laughably absurd that it killed pop music altogether). TV got way better, though not as good as it would be a decade or so later. I mean, you know, you got your X-Files, your Twin Peaks. The best episiodes of The Simpsons. Lance Henriksen had his own show! Yes, a lot of things were going pretty well in the 90’s.

Giallos were not one of those things. A roaring industry since 1965’s smash hit BLOOD AND BLACK LACE, dozens, perhaps hundreds were produced in the 70s, including some of the most enduring horror classics of the era. But the giallo limped into the 80’s; oversaturation and changing taste tarnished their appeal, and gradually budgets shrank and talent moved on. By the early 90’s most of the greats from previous decades had moved on; Fulci, Lenzi, Deodato, Martino, Cavara… not a single one made a giallo after 1989’s (arguably?) Lenzi-directed NIGHTMARE BEACH. Only Argento forged onwards, and I think we can all probably agree to ever-diminishing results. And of course, Mario Bava, the guy who started it all with THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH and BLOOD AND BLACK LACE back in the early 60s, had died in 1980, while the genre was still near the height of it’s power. But his son, Lamberto Bava, got into the game late -- his first solo directorial effort came the same year his father died. And by 1992, he wasn’t quite ready to let go, even though it was probably obvious even then that the writing was on the wall.

This looks scientific.

BODY DOUBLE has all the problems you would expect from a 90’s giallo: Talky, overplotted, overlit, nonsensical in a mostly boring way, and lacking anywhere near enough mayhem and style --or even sleaze!-- to compensate. But it’s still slightly better than you might think. Even at this late date, with all the inevitable loss of definition which comes of being a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy, there’s still just barely enough of those old giallo goods to scratch the itch.

It seems pretty dire at first, though: There’s a fair-to-middingly murder at a candy shop, and right away we see the villain, a bad sign since a giallo usually hangs whatever rambling threads of plot it can muster on a whodunnit angle. We learn pretty quickly what the situation is: seems that the accidental death of Abe --formerly married to the aggressively unmemorable Tracy (Joanna Pacula, DEEP RED [no, not the Dario Argento one, the Michael Biehn/ Craig R. Baxley made-for-cable Sci-Fi], GORKY PARK)-- has triggered the killings: someone is mailing body parts to his widow, and that person is super likely to be this guy named Ted or something (Fran├žois Montagut, bit part in THE MAN WITH THE IRON MASK), Abe’s uh, real real close best friend, if you get my drift. Seems that Ted had a bit of a breakdown after his bud died, and literally every single person the cops interview about him immediately volunteers “yeah, that guy definitely seemed like he’d be capable of a series of dismemberment killings.” Jesus guys, how bout you share that helpful little tip with the cops next time, preferably before the organ snatching spree?

I know what you're thinking, but it's OK that she doesn't wear a bra because she's teaching blind kids. Honestly, why even wear clothes at all?
Revealing the killer early in the giallo is usually death, because then all you’re left with is motive, and that’s usually just that he saw his mom have sex with a sailor that one time he keeps flashing back to. This one makes it even worse, because we see the guy’s face, and know there’s no one else who could conceivably have the motivation to do this, and yet they still try to play it like there’s some doubt. Gee, what a compelling mystery this is, fellas. Who could possibly have committed this suspicious string of killings that were done by Ted?

Fortunately, after a very rocky start the kills start to get a bit more creative. The early murders are just standard slasher bits, but right about the time he kills a guy in a swimming pool by swimming straight into him with a knife, I started to come around on this one. I mean, you gotta admit, this may be the ballsiest giallo killer ever, and not just because he is eventually gonna have to cut someone’s balls off if he’s going to pull off this whole body puzzle gimmick. I mean, most giallo killers are gonna ambush someone in some dark, abandoned gimmicky area, maybe an abandoned theme park ride (EYEBALL) or some kind of crazy suicide museum (AUTOPSY) or at least in a secret murder room full of mannequins (MANIAC, HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON). This guy Ted, he just simply does not give a fuck, and he murders his victims wherever they happen to be standing at this particular moment, for example in a candy shop during normal business hours, in a crowded public swimming pool during the day, or in the middle of class in front of a laughing crowd of blind students who don’t know what’s happening. Somehow no one ever manages to see him, it’s so unlikely that you start to wonder if he’s a ghost or something. But I guess by 1992 giallos were such old hat that Italians started not to notice people around them getting killed and cut up, it just ended up blending into the scenery. To make up for the blaise reaction of the local citizenry, the killings are usually accompanied by A Night On Bald Mountain, already one of the most overused songs in history by 1992, but absolutely essential to the over-the-top drama Bava is trying for here, and as such an absolutely essential part of the movie. You gotta enjoy the totally over-the-top emotions of this sort of classic boondoggle, plopped in a middling slasher that hasn’t even remotely earned that kind of intensity.

Just keep swimmin', just keep swimmin'

Alas, the kills are way, way too infrequent to keep you entertained, and it’s not like the plot about the widow and her uncomfortably inappropriate fully clothed stairway sex with the cop assigned to her case is gonna make up for it, or even be remembered by the end of the movie, let alone the next day (or 4 months later. I had to look it up to remind myself what happened in between the funny parts, and it turns out my mind had helpfully edited nearly this entire plot out of my memory). Fortunately the movie has another ace up its sleeve: the absolute most appropriate use of my “people who are terrible at their jobs” tag ever. The police pathologist in particular needs to be singled out for rampant and baffling crimes against competency. At the crime scene, he feels the corpse’s pulse and declares “he’s been dead for two hours.” OK, I’m not sure that’s the best method of testing how long a corpse has been dead, since I’m pretty sure the pulse stops immediately upon death. But OK, he’s the expert. But then the movie cuts immediately to the same pathologist, now with the body back at the lab for a full autopsy. “He’s been dead between 4 and 8 hours,” he announces. Even the other assisting pathologist looks a bit skeptical of this pronouncement. Then he eats a sandwich without washing his hands. Later, at a crime scene with a victim whose eyes have been removed, he speculates that she has “died from blood loss due to the removal or her eyes.” Gee, you don’t fuckin say.

There’s one other group of professionals who also deserve our scorn here: Not to get all Sc***tologist* on you, but… psychologists. But to explain why I’ll have to get into the details of the final act, when it suddenly goes absolutely shrieking off the wheels on a crazy train.** So consider this SPOILER territory. See, the psychologists here all agree that the only sensible explanation is that this Ted dude was psychologically shattered by the death of his very special bud Abe, and so now he’s murdering all the people who got Abe’s organs after his death and collecting them to rebuild some kind of crazy million-dollar Abe. And he’s doing this because… he believes himself to be Abe! Sound psychology, gotta like that. I’m pretty sure Dr. Phil had a show about that very phenomenon.

(SPOILERS continue) But wait, it gets better. Out of the fuckin’ blue, this turns out to be the craziest case of mistaken identity ever. See, Ted checked himself into a mental institute after the death of Abe, which is why the psychologists know all this. Problem is, he kept insisting that he was Abe. So the psychologists worked diligently day and night, and were finally able to convince him that he was, in fact, Ted. Once he admitted he was really Ted, they felt safe releasing him with no followup whatsoever. That pretty much explains the rampage, no? But get this: when the widow finally gets a look at this killer Ted, she realizes something shocking: he IS Abe! My god, how is this possible? Well I mean, it’s not, but in the context of the movie what happened is that the cops were looking at a photo of the wrong guy (definitely want to make 100% sure you get that right before relaxing and getting around to the business of fucking the dead guy’s wife next time, Copper) and apparently there must have been some kind of crazy fucking mixup with the body, that part is kind of unexplained (note to widow: next time, actually take look a cursory glance at  the body, huh?). In fact, it was Ted that died in the accident, and Abe has been alive the whole time.

(Last SPOILERS) But wait, this raises the obvious question: did the psychologists make this guy insane? They insist that he “believed” himself to be his dead friend Abe… but it turns out he was right! No wonder he’s so mixed up. He checked into a hospital under his real name, and then doctors spent months convincing him he was actually his dead friend and only mistakenly believed himself to be named Abe. Jesus guys, check some ID before you try this shit.

(End Spoilers) Anyway, there’s plenty of blame to go around here, from the pathologists to the psychologists to the idiot cops to the secretary who prevents a murder from being averted because she’s new and doesn’t know where anything in the school is, to the stupid teacher who manages to gets murdered in front of her class without anyone realizing it.*** Another culprit, of course, is the 90s itself (themselves?) and the painfully tepid productions the decade facilitated. I mean, this thing mostly looks like crap, there’s barely even the vaguest hints of the stylish lighting, sharp camerawork, and crisp editing that used to provide the “art” part of giallos reputation as trash art. 

But even with all that working against it, there’s still just barely enough crazy in ol’ Lamberto Bava to capture that old feeling one last time. It would be his final giallo, and indeed, his last theatrical release til 2005’s torture/porn (not torture-porn) cheapie, the imaginatively named THE TORTURER and 2007’s presumably-not-a-sequel-to-GHOST-DAD flop GHOST SON. For better or worse, this would be more or less the end of the giallo era, so in a way it’s sort of a comfort that it’s crappy enough that you’re not exactly crying out for more. But if it must end here, at least we got that agreeably nutso ending, a heartening reminder that while Italy’s horror industry may have suffered an artistic decline, there’s still no one who can beat them at crazy. Well, maybe Japan.

Anyway nevermind, I just saw THE STRANGE COLOR OF YOUR BODY’S TEARS so I can safely declare that the giallo is back. Forget I said anything.

*Not so fast, lawyers, I could be talking about Scatologists, too.

**And I mean, a goddam crazy train, like a train transporting mental patients. And maybe the train itself is also crazy, it’s one of those Thomas The Tank Engine / Little Engine that Could trains with a face and everything, only it’s gibbering about demons living in the fuse box and shitting into its own crazy train hand.

***You hate to blame the victim, but the blind kids don’t realize she’s being murdered because at the time of her murder she’s playing an audiotape of her own voice reading them a story. Try actually teaching next time, you lazy fuck.

  • The Hunt For Dread October

  • SEQUEL: None
  • REMAKE: None, although wasn't there that 90's Christopher Lambert flick about a serial killer taking body parts to reconstruct his own "special friend" (in this case, Jesus)? Yes there was, I'll go ahead and answer my own question there. What was the deal with the 90's that made this plot device so timely?
  • FOREIGNER: Italian
  • SLUMMING A-LISTER: Not even remotely close.
  • BELOVED HORROR ICON: None, although the always-tedious role of "police chief" is played by beloved Spaghetti Western staple Gianni Garko ("Donnie Darko" in English).
  • BOOBIES: None, can you fuckin' believe that?
  • DISMEMBERMENT PLAN: Yes sir, it's the main theme of the movie! I think the only actual limb we see removed is a hand, though.
  • MONSTER: None
  • PSYCHO KILLERS (Non-slasher variety): No
  • EVIL CULT: None
  • OBSCURITY LEVEL: Deservedly extremely high. Thanks to Raro video for sharing.
  • MORAL OF THE STORY: Bring an I.D. with you if you check yourself into a mental hospital, because otherwise these fuckers are going to browbeat you into believing that you are, in fact, your dead friend and that you are the dead one.
  • TITLE ACCURACY: Not much of a puzzle, but it checks out

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