Arrow Video: Giallo Essentials - Black (1972 - 1974) - Reviewed

Images courtesy of Arrow Video

For awhile now, Arrow Video has been one of the leaders of releasing Italian giallo films throughout the 1960s and 1970s on blu-ray disc with English subtitles in the United Kingdom and United States.  So popular were many of these standalone genre film releases on disc including but not limited to Torso, The Suspicious Death of a Minor, The Possessed, A Bay of Blood and many others got repackaged into limited edition boxed sets called Giallo Essentials.  Basically just boxing up titles that already came out on their own separately, it was a repackaging gimmick that seemed to catch on alongside Vinegar Syndrome’s ongoing Forgotten Gialli series of films.
But now with Arrow Video’s Giallo Essentials – Black edition, this time the titles being included are exclusive to the box and aren’t being sold separately with a particular emphasis on gialli tropes including but not limited to sex and nudity, graphic violence, red herrings and a sense of an Agatha Christie whodunit.  Comprised of three films, Silvio Amadio’s mod sixties fashionista thriller Smile Before Death from 1972, Francesco Mazzei’s quasi-nunsploitation whodunit The Weapon, the Hour, the Motive from the same year and lastly Giuseppe Bennati’s mean, surreal and possibly paranormal The Killer Reserved Nine Seats from 1974, all the pictures have been restored in 2K from the original camera negatives and come stacked with plentiful extras. 
While the other Giallo Essentials boxes offered repackaged items you may have already bought before, the Giallo Essentials – Black edition is special for being the only place you can obtain these titles on blu-ray disc.  All three represent unlikely offshoots of the subgenre that showcase both modern and archaic Italian architecture, mod high lifestyles with gaudy apartments decorated with baubles and/or a deep dive into creepy decrepitude.  Usually sporting strong willed sexually active female characters who are either damsels in distress or the ruthless killer themselves alongside masked or gloved killers protruding daggers or axes, this trio of films represents not only colorful, audiovisually exciting thrillers but they also illustrated times when the giallo film could willingly drive itself off the rails into uncharted territory.  With as much gialli as there is still being unearthed by film restoration teams, few if any look, sound and feel quite like these ones.
Smile Before Death (1972)

Opening with a catchy opening theme song that reverberates and is worked over through several iterations over the course of the movie, Smile Before Death opens on an apparent suicide of the protagonist Nancy Thompson’s (Jenny Tamburi) mother who returns home to grieve her loss with her stepfather Marco (Silvano Tranquilli) and his mistress fashion photographer Gianni (Rosalba Neri).  However, after engaging in a number of nude photo shoots for Gianni, Nancy begins to suspect her surrogate parents of foul play and a series of increasingly labyrinthine double crossings and surprises come about including but not limited to a startlingly nihilistic finale that seems to play against the peppy colorful mod splendor of the world of the film. 
The only film in the trio of films shot in 2.35:1 scope widescreen on Kodak Eastmancolor by Caligula cinematographer Silvano Ippoliti, this visually arresting travelogue feels posited somewhere between the sixties mod fashion world as imagined by fellow Italian artist Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up if it were invaded by Sergio Martino midway through.  Filled with lush, scenic vistas with colors that radiate and almost pop off of the screen, Smile Before Death while being perhaps the bleakest film of the bunch nevertheless is the most fun to look at and listen to.  Let’s talk about that catchy peppy soundtrack by Roberto Pregadio which simply does not feel like a giallo score but rather a kind of poppy Italian promenade loaded with swanky luxuriousness.  Even after everything has unfolded, that score comes back to inject increasingly ironic “good cheer” into the soul of the picture.

The ensemble cast is generally excellent with the sultry cougar Rosalba Neri exuding alluring beautiful danger while Jenny Tamburi as the young naif turned muse and lover on the side comes across like unsuspecting prey onscreen.  Even as she’s swimming freely into nudie photoshoots, there’s still underlying the whole thing a sense our aggressive camerawoman smitten by her new muse could bite her throat out at a moment’s notice.  Fans of The Bloodstained Butterfly will notice Silvano Tranquilli’s turn as Tamburi’s stepfather whose aged two-face hides conspiratorial deceitfulness.  Also, there’s a party scene late into the film featuring dancing by Barbara Bouchet as an additional treat for those who are really looking.
While made in the same year as the director’s other giallo feature Amuck featuring the aforementioned Bouchet as well as Rosalba Neri again onscreen together, for some reason Smile Before Death never splashed across the ocean into domestic American or British theaters.  Thankfully however Arrow Video has righted that wrong and published the title domestically for the first time ever.  While yes the most playfully colorful film of the trilogy, almost garish and gaudy at times, the film’s bright and cheery visuals and music are deliberately placed at odds with the material unfolding.  For all of the splendor on display and height of Italian fashion, it is more than a little dark with startling revelations and a finale not even studied gialli fans will expect.

The Weapon, the Hour, the Motive (1972)

Making an almost 180-degree tonal reversal in terms of style and setting despite coming out the same year as Smile Before Death is Francesco Mazzei’s gritty and downbeat quasi-nunsploitation giallo thriller The Weapon, the Hour, the Motive.  Rejecting outlandish ultra-modernity of Smile Before Death in favor of dimly lit fish-eyed lensed shots of cathedral interiors, hidden passageways and an uncomfortable mixture of piousness and perversity of a sexual nature, the film zeroes in on the murder of a young clergyman named Don Giorgio (Maurizio Bonuglio).  As the police commissioner Franco Boito (Rezno Montagnani) closes in on the case he finds himself being drawn into the embrace of his ex-lover Orchidea (Bedy Moratti).  Unbeknownst to them, a young-orphaned altar boy named Ferruccio (Arturo Trina) knows more than he’s telling and may hold the key to solving the murder case.
Drenched in brooding atmosphere fluctuating between a modern day giallo ala Torso with Old Testament levels of nunsploitation including but not limited to an entire convent of nuns going topless before whipping themselves, The Weapon, the Hour, the Motive becomes an intriguing police thriller purging through Italian architecture, secret hidden Pentecostal cathedrals and an unlikely series of developments.  One of the few child oriented gialli akin to Lucio Fulci’s still provocative shocker Don’t Torture a Duckling that does a good job evoking fear in the viewer for the safety and welfare of the kid with implications of a merciless femme fatale guiding the grim proceedings, the film’s closest kid cousin is undoubtedly Killer Nun with Anita Ekberg, mixing together giallo and the religious exploitation thriller.
Visually speaking though grittier with a tendency towards handheld camerawork, the film is lensed by Pier Paolo Pasolini cinematographer Giovanni Ciarlo best known for The Decameron.  Often utilizing fish-eyed lenses for surreal effect including but not limited to vistas of the church alter itself, the look of The Weapon, the Hour, the Motive while less glamourous than Smile Before Death still manages to evoke a scenic beauty particularly when the cameras venture out into the open terrain.  The soundtrack by Once Upon a Time in Hollywood composer Franceso De Masi adds to the proceedings an overarching sense of danger and threat with one of the most frightening sequences involving the young lad nearly being chased off of a cliff to which he hangs for his life.

Performance wise, the film draws much of its uncomfortable strengths from Bedy Moratti who on the outside exudes innocence and untainted beauty but in reality harbors far more deadly intentions.  Not to mention throughout the film we see her entrapping the young altar boy when she isn’t drugging him up with shots to keep him docile.  Renzo Montagnani makes a good detective who finds himself falling for the Moratti woman not knowing how sharp and potentially murderous her claws are.  Maurizio Bonuglia as the beleaguered pastor with a fling on the side who gets killed has a Joe Dallesandro quality about him and would two years later star in the hit giallo film The Perfume of the Lady in Black.
As with Smith Before Death, the film was pretty hard to see with English subtitles with only a German release in sub-par quality previously offered until the folks at Arrow Video did a 2K scan of the original camera negative and breathed new life into a long thought dead picture.  Somewhere between gialli, nunsploitation with hints of poliziotteschi peppered in, The Weapon, the Hour, the Motive represents another solid gialli featuring a plucky child actor in the role of the film’s voice of reason and the audience’s perspective.  While our heroes remain in the dark about what’s really going on, the altar boy sees all and that builds an unbearable tension as forces of darkness threaten to silence him from speaking the truth.  Somehow managing to work several disparate subgenres and styles into one piece, The Weapon, the Hour, the Motive is surprising for how many feats it manages to pull off just in once giallo film and in stark contrast to the first film in the set promises a glimmer of hope in a world otherwise shrouded in darkness.

The Killer Reserved Nine Seats (1974)
The third and final feature in the Giallo Essentials – Black trilogy, Giuseppe Bennati’s The Killer Reserved Nine Seats produced two years after the previous offerings in the set is without question the meanest and nastiest of the bunch while offering a different take on the so-called The Old Dark House tropes.  Opening on an isolated abandoned Gothic castle that has since been reconverted into a live stage theater where urban legend has it grisly murders occur once every century, we meet a gaggle of bourgeois degenerates including but not limited to Patrick Devenant (Chris Avram), fiancée Kim (Janet Agren), two lesbians played by Eva Czemerys from The Weapon, the Hour, the Motive and Lucretia Love and a piggish creepy played by Howard Ross.  Responding to the summons of a strange nobleman, the ragtag group of miscreants eventually end up in the main grand auditorium where the lines between fiction and murder begin to blur upon the arrival of a masked killer and just a few subtle hints of the possibly paranormal.
Easily the most vicious slasher of the bunch (including but not limited to groin stabbing followed by crucifixion because brutality) as well as the most mysterious where anyone and everyone could be the killer while the rules of logic and reason slowly start pouring out the windows, the scenic, visually arresting shocker.  Losing the lush hyperactive colors of the prior two pictures in favor of old-fashioned Gothic ala Hammer Horror while moving away from the glowing aura of Mario Bava, the look of the film lensed by Mallory Must Not Die! cinematographer Giuseppe Aquari is wonderfully noirish.  Sporting a patina not wholly unlike the Gothic horror spaghetti western And God Said to Cain, it’s a luxurious genre film that is drenched with deep foreboding shadows with arms that can reach out and snatch you.  Then there’s the original score dripping with dread by Mario Bava composer Carlo Savina which further augments the already unpleasant deadly splendor which also suggests some of the twists and turns in the piece cannot be easily explained.
The cast of characters including but not limited to Eva Czemerys, Lucretia Love, Rosanna Schiaffino and Paola Senatore have a lot of heavy lifting to do including but limited to nearly every actress taking turns disrobing for the camera while the male characters are tasked with running around getting into deadly battles with a masked mystery man who may or may not be human.  Paola Senatore is no stranger to Italian cinematic transgression including but not limited to such fare as Eaten Alive, Images in a Convent and a sex comedy by none other than Joe D’Amato.  All in all, everyone more than goes the distance in this film that’s not quite as mean as What Have You Done to Solange? but at times it comes pretty close.

Previously unavailable in the US outside of murky VHS transfers belittling the film’s artistic virtues, once again Arrow Video have come to the rescue the film from obscurity.  In the trilogy it is definitely the most disturbing one including a dolled up death presentation too risqué to include on the poster.  Flirting with elements of the unexplained, touching on longstanding familial curses and an emphasis on Gothic atmosphere versus psychedelia or sensory overload, The Killer Reserved Nine Seats is a fantastic closing chapter to Arrow Video’s Giallo Essentials – Black trilogy boxed set.  A film that lulls you into a false sense of security before going in for some inspired nastiness, viewers accustomed or unaccustomed to gialli won’t see this one coming for miles even with all the tropes on full display.  All in all, Arrow Video have done a swell job on this collection of three of Italy’s most surprising and unexpected gialli.

--Andrew Kotwicki