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31 Days of Gialloween: Autopsy (1975)

Autopsy (1975) aka Macchie solari—which translates to “Sunspots”—is a rare giallo from director Armando Crispino, also known for cult horror film The Etruscan Kills Again aka The Dead are Alive (1972), another bonkers riff on the tried and true giallo formula. This is surely his best film and is one of the finest works to appear toward the middle/end of the giallo canon. Along with films like Footprints on the Moon (1975) and The House with Laughing Windows (1976), this is an example of the genre taking a decidedly weird spin and embracing some unconventional subject matter. Autopsy opens with a dizzying suicide montage cut in with shots of solar flares—you simply won’t see anything like it in the more conventional giallo fare, even among Argento’s more operatic sequences of violence. The cinematography from Carlo Cantini is absolutely beautiful and transforms sunny Rome into a place of oppressive heat, claustrophobia, paranoia, and madness. It’s impossible for me to really say what I want about this film without getting into some spoilers, but Crispino and company seem to care more about the bananas first two acts than they do about the conclusion to the film—thus I can’t help but feel like giving away the identity of the killer doesn’t take anything away from Autopsy’s splendor. And there is plenty I won’t spoil that packs more of a punch than the somewhat predictable conclusion.

The film follows Simona (Mimsy Farmer), a reserved young pathologist who is working on a thesis about suicide victims during a rash of apparent suicides in Rome. Though they are attributed to the intense heat waves beating down on the city, Simona suspects otherwise. A young girl believed to have committed suicide is brought in, but Simona proves that she was murdered. She inadvertently teams up with the girl’s brother, a troubled priest (Barry Primus), to investigate the suicide/murders, but risks her own life when the killer comes close. Suspects loom around her, including a lascivious morgue attendant, her distant playboy father (Massimo Serrato), her photographer boyfriend (Barry Lovelock), and even Paul, the priest with a violent past.

In a sense, Autopsy reminds me a little of Aldo Lado’s earlier Short Night of Glass Dolls (1971). Both films take an eerie approach to medical science and deal with sequences of hallucination, but even more so, there is a sense of conspiracy to both films, as though the typical giallo conceit of a labyrinthine mystery is spread across the network of an entire city. While Short Night of the Glass Dolls features a foreign reporter in a strange city (Prague), the Rome of Autopsy is equally estranged to its protagonist. The picturesque Roman landscape is contrasted with images of corpses, naked bodies ready for autopsy. It’s not the sunny tourist destination of Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963), but a hostile, hellish place whose very landscape seems to be directly responsible for violence.

Though Simona is a resident of the city, there is a sense that she doesn’t belong; neighbors are threatening, even an innocent-looking shop on the corner becomes a place of unease. Simona’s fundamental instability is revealed early in the film, when she has disturbing visions of the corpses coming to life and engaging in sex, a hint of a deep sexual repression that borders on psychosis. She’s an unusual female protagonist for a giallo and is powerfully sexual despite the script’s attempts to make her plain, somewhat alien, and even threatening. Like Florinda Bolkan’s character from Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, she’s almost a cipher, a blank canvas that reflects the madness and violence around her. She has issues with her father that hint at abuse or an incestuous relationship, and her inherent morbidity draws her to the film’s other male characters—and them to her—like a moth to the flame, on the verge of incineration.

I can’t stress enough that what makes this film so powerful—outside of its jarring  imagery—is Mimsy Farmer herself. I’m a little obsessed with her, primarily for her nearly unparalleled ability to portray a genuine creepiness normally only found in male actors. She was almost type cast throughout Italian cult cinema as a female protagonist who is destabilized, perhaps mad, sexually repressed, and certainly capable of great violence. Her roles in films like Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971), The Perfume of the Lady in Black (1974), and Autopsy (1975) are eerily similar, as if Farmer is projecting slightly varied manifestations of the same personality refracted through different though overlapping cinematic universes. Though blonde and lovely, there is something almost alien and asexual about her. Sexual repression, particularly issues with incestual or abusive father-daughter relationships, are a staple of all her characters in genre films from this period. Director Crispino uses her more disturbing qualities to his advantage and she oozes a desperate sexual frustration that soaks through the entire film and seems to be connected to the mystery with her father and the unexplained murder-suicides.

Farmer’s Simona is countered by two contrasting giallo types: the angst-ridden priest and the playboy. While previous giallo films like Fulci’s Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971) or Argento’s Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971) revealed the disturbed female protagonist as the killer—perhaps my single favorite giallo trope that I could write about endlessly—Autopsy makes it clear early on that for all her potential madness, Simona is not orchestrating any murders and one of her paramours is likely to blame. Her boyfriend Riccardo—played to the nines by beloved poliziotteschi actor Ray Lovelock, also of Living Dead at Manchester Morgue—is the sort of smarmy, handsome, and charming male lead so often depicted by George Hilton. Much like Hilton, whose leading male characters in giallo films often turn out to be antagonists, Lovelock’s Riccardo remains ambiguous for much of the film, but is ultimately revealed to be a killer. Though he is clearly popular with the ladies, he stubbornly pursues Simona and perseveres through her sexual neurosis, leading her to something like a moment of liberation. He is undoubtedly a strange influence on her, manipulating her fascination with death and violence, while also stimulating her repressed sexual desires. His collection of pornography—unusual but not unheard of in giallo films—is reflected by Simona’s much darker collection of crime scene photographs and grisly images of autopsies and death, possibly foreshadowing what is to come.

On the other hand, the second primary male protagonist, the priest Paul, represents a sort of idealized, asexual, never-consummated notion of romantic love. Priest characters recur throughout giallo films—such as in titles like Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972) and Who Saw Her Die? (1972)—often turns out to harbor murderous tendencies. It’s important to remember that Italy is a staunchly Catholic country and such characters are often the manifestation of sexual repression transforming into perversion and violence. At face value, Simona’s relationship with Paul is something along the lines of Deep Red (1975), where a male and female character with conflicting personalities are forced together to solve a mystery, resulting in romance. But the strange chemistry between Simona and Paul has a more symbolic function and it is almost as though she is being forced to choose between two warring impulses within her own psyche.

Ultimately though, Autopsy falls back on that trusted giallo chestnut: old-fashioned greed and a dispute over a will. While I find this final plot reveal kind of disappointing, it’s really the only predictable note in a grim, nightmarish film obsessed with images of death. For the most part, every element of the production is steeped in strangeness. For example, the scone from Ennio Morricone is one of the best things about an already wonderful film and his use of layered voices and whispering adds a disorienting element mirrored by Farmer’s performance. Alongside Morricone’s work on Lizard in a Woman’s Skin—with a similarly unsettling performance from Balkan and an equally eerie use of female voices in the score—it represents some of my favorite soundtrack work on any giallo film. And for as much as I adore Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, it doesn’t open with a rash of grimy suicides and then transition into spontaneously reanimated corpses fucking on an autopsy table, so…

About Samm Deighan

Samm Deighan is Associate Editor of Diabolique Magazine and co-host of the Daughters of Darkness podcast. She's the editor of Lost Girls: The Phantasmagorical Cinema of Jean Rollin from Spectacular Optical, and her book on Fritz Lang's M is forthcoming from Auteur Publishing.

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