I took a few days off from celebrating Gialloween for an ill-timed work trip, but since I can’t ever really get giallo films off the brain, staying in a hotel inevitably made me think of the grim, slimy, and little seen Pensione paura (1977)—which essentially translates to Hotel Fear—a really nasty piece of work. This season I’ve mostly written about the sleazier end of things with films like Autopsy (1975), The Killer Must Kill Again (1975), Giallo a Venezia (1979), and especially The Sister of Ursula (1978), with which Pensione paura shares certain similarities. But while The Sister of Ursula takes place at a scenic, if empty resort, Pensione paura is set in a dingy hotel in the ‘40s.
The teenage Rosa (Leonora Fani of Giallo a Venezia and The House by the Edge of the Park) helps her mother (Lidia Biondi) manage an isolated hotel while her father is off fighting in WWII. Rosa is lonely, as her mother spends most of her time caring for her lover, Alfredo (Franciso Rabal), who stays holed up in a hotel room. Unfortunately for Rosa, her mother soon passes away, leaving the girl at the beset of perverse, sex-crazed guests all waiting to get their claws into her. But a mysterious figure—maybe Rosa’s father, though he is believed to be dead—begins killing off those who hurt Rosa.
This Italian-Spanish film is one of two rather unconventional giallo movies from director Francesco Barilli and though it’s an obscure entry, it definitely deserves some attention. Fani briefly made a career of these kinds of perverse exercises in terror and Pensione paura is certainly of the same ilk as Giallo a Venezia (if less focused on drugs and lengthy softcore porn sequences) and The House by the Edge of the Park. In other words, if you’re not comfortable with depictions of rape or sexual violence, Pensione paura is not the film for you. A person—though certainly not me—could make the case that this belongs with a handful of films that straddle the line between giallo film and exploitation cinema, perhaps fitting more soundly in the latter camp. But in its defense, it does follow the classic giallo formula of trying to unravel the mystery of an unseen killer with plenty of red herrings and hints at the reemerge of a traumatic past event.
It does also bear a lot in common with Barilli’s better known and admittedly superior effort, the hallucinatory Mimsy Farmer vehicle The Perfume of the Lady in Black (1974). Both films center on an otherworldly, vulnerable female protagonist and in both entries sex is a source of anxiety, violence, and often outright terror. Both films also concern the protagonist’s complicated relationship with her parents, which is related to possible trauma and the cause of obvious mental disturbance. In both films, there are a number of unerotic sex scenes and one horrifying rape sequence (this is suggested but is not nearly as graphic in The Perfume of the Lady in Black), the like of which is implied but not often seen in giallo films—save for some of these seedier entries I’ve been covering recently in our Gialloween series. Throughout the first half of the film, Rosa is constantly threatening by the advances of Rudolfo, one of the despicable, horny guests—poliziotteschi regular Luc Merenda, who essentially steals the film, despite co-starring as a rapist. Pretending to protect Rosa, Rudolfo’s middle-aged lover (Jole Fierro) lures Rosa into her bedroom and traps her there with Rudolfo; the older woman merely looks on while Rudolfo rapes her. It’s captured quite graphically in a shot from above the squirming, sweating, and naked Rudolfo, while Rosa screams horrifically. There are equally disturbing shots of the other guests listening on, but not intervening.
Unsettlingly, the rape seems to make Rosa more assured and confident, but really it just pushes her closer to insanity and violence—like similar moments in The Perfume of the Lady in Black, and somewhat looking ahead to Argento’s The Stendhal Syndrome (1996). More shared elements between Pensione paura and The Perfume of the Lady in Black include the previously mentioned troubled parent-child relationships and trauma, which is perhaps not a standard feature of giallo plots, but can be found in some of Argento’s films like Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971) and Deep Red (1975), so they aren’t entirely unheard of. As with The Sister of Ursula, this familial complication adds a particularly seedy tone to Penzione paura. Other grotesque moments include an orgy being held by some of the guests—who are also on the verge of hysteria. Sexual desire, in particularly male lust, is depicted as corrupt, immoral, and perverse.
This sense of decadence and sexual frenzy blended with moral repugnancy can be found more often in other WWII-themed arthouse films from the period, rather than giallo titles, particularly in more graphic exploitation fare like The Night Porter (1974), Seven Beauties (1975), and Salon Kitty (1976). Like those films, Pensione paura makes interesting symbolic use of its unusual WWII-era components. While they could have been better developed, they provide an eerie backdrop and a built-in explanation for the film’s sense of claustrophobia and desperation. It’s unusual to find a period setting in giallo films and, with a few exceptions like A Quiet Place in the Country (1968) or The House with the Laughing Windows (1976), WWII is not often a presence in giallo the way it is in Italian arthouse fare.
On that note, claiming that Pensione paura is a straight giallo is a little misleading. I think part of why I find it so appealling is that it borrows from a number of subgenres and I’m not really sure that a simple label fits. It’s sort of a grim coming-of-age teen drama-cum-murder mystery with elements of the giallo and exploitation cinema. There are plenty of unpredictable components—for instance the rape sequence is countered by a budding teen romance, though the latter ultimately fizzles out. It fits loosely between dark, fantasy-fueled and horror-influenced coming-of-age films like Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970) or Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural (1973). Like both of those films, it is certainly adult fare and not made for a young teen audience; all three will likely horrify more contemporary viewers for their instance of putting young teens in the frequent—often surreal—path of sexual violence.
Young actress Leonora Fani carries the film and amazingly would go on to appear in the even more perverse Giallo a Venezia, as I’ve mentioned. She plays it straight and is thoroughly non-histrionic, even though it becomes clear that fantasy is intruding upon her reality as the film goes on. Rosa is somewhat similar to other unhinged female characters from ‘70s films that dip a toe into giallo territory—some of my favorite titles—of course like The Perfume of the Lady in Black, but also Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971), A White Dress for Marialé (1972), Footprints on the Moon (1975), and Through the Looking Glass (1976), among others. Rosa is sympathetic as the victimized protagonist, but fittingly complex and contradictory. Initially, she is helpless and vulnerable and pursues an innocent relationship with another young boy. Later, she expresses desire for a friend her father sent to protect her—even telling him she loves him. SPOILERS for the rest of the paragraph: When he wants to take her away from the hotel, she admits that she dressed up as her father in order to kill the people who attacked her. She applies make up, implying her transition to adulthood (or at least sexual maturity) is complete, but that she is also violent and perhaps insane. In the ambiguous ending she commits another murder and vows to lock herself up in the hotel until her father returns, despite his friend’s assurance that he died on the battlefield.
Pensione paura isn’t a perfect film, but there’s nothing quite like it and it’s a must-see for anyone looking for something more unusual than just a run-of-the-mill giallo. It’s flawed—and, again, is really quite nasty if you like your Italian horror a bit more restrained—but full of some delightful surprises. For example, there’s a zany side plot about thieves trying to steal jewels apparently hidden in the hotel, and another about a corrupt priest who refuses to give the recently orphaned Rosa food. If the lovely, rural setting looks familiar, it’s the same area that director Pupi Avati used for his menacing giallo about art, death, and postwar decay, The House with the Laughing Windows. Despite the overall squalor of Pensione paura, the vivid landscape provides an important contrast to the seedy hotel full of dank corners and grimy peepholes. And like Avati, Barilli is able to memorably capture the repulsive, festering side of humanity in a way that is sure to leave an impression on even the more jaded cult cinema fans.