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Giallo with a Sense of Humor: Suspicious Death of a Minor (1975)

Italian director Sergio Martino made six gialli during the genre’s spicy peak in the early to mid-1970s. This reviewer has still yet to see The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail (1971), but the other ones fall among the must-see standards of the genre. The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh (1971) and All the Colors of the Dark (1972) feature Italian sex icon–and producer Luciano Martino’s then wife–Edwige Fenech in almost every scene. She returns as an incestuous supporting player in the labyrinthine Edgar Allan Poe “adaptation” Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972). Martino followed that with Torso (1974), one of the most beloved gialli of all. Arrow Video has just released a restored version of his sixth picture in the genre, the tonally awkward Suspicious Death of a Minor (1975). The film is entertaining, but as Barry Forshaw, who wrote the liner notes for the Arrow release mentions, it morphs into and out of gialli, poliziotteschi, and comedy, making it difficult to settle into the viewing experience.

Leave it to a giallo to be a story about underage sex trafficking with ample comedic relief. We see a woman murdered, and then another, as our protagonist, Paolo Germi (Claudio Cassinelli) follows along on their trail, seeking out information. It isn’t until the end of a nonsensical car chase, when we have a car full of goonish detectives in high speed pursuit of Inspector Germi which leads right to the police station, that it becomes fully clear that the fellow is a cop. Up until that point, he may have been a private investigator, for all we know. The film continues on, with Germi being the butt of jokes just as much as a seasoned investigator.

The whimsical tone of the film does not completely ruin it, however. The feeling of the film just seems particularly out of place if the viewer has already seen Martino’s previous giallo, which run the gamut of being sadomasochistic, poetic, supernatural, aggressive, vindictive, and beautiful. Previous to Suspicious Death of a Minor there had been only sparse intentional humor in the string of pictures. The film actually has a bit of comedy that is very similar in tone to the lighter scenes in Dario Argento’s Deep Red, which was also released in 1975. Both of the films include gags about characters being forced to enter cars via a sunroof, because our protagonists ride around in beat up old pieces of junk with doors that don’t work correctly. Suspicious Death of a Minor takes it a step further when Giannino (Adolfo Caruso), our side kick, throws the detached car doors at the police car pursuing them.

The film also resembles Deep Red in terms of the soundtrack. The score by Luciano Michelini often sounds like the progressive stylings of Goblin, who collaborated with Argento a number of times. Additionally, the music sometimes becomes so saturated in prog rock as to sound like the band Yes, but also has moments when it regresses back to the harmonies that would accompany an Italian comedy of that period. Indeed, Suspicious Death of a Minor cannot seem to settle on one film to be–but does it have to?

Instead of Martino’s earlier gialli, Suspicious Death of a Minor often resembles the giallo-poliziotteschi hybrids of Massimo Dallamano like What Have You Done to Solange? (1972) and What Have They Done to Your Daughters? (1974) These films have sadistic killers in scenes rotating with police officers chasing bad guys and grilling them in the questioning room. Underage sex orgies and prostitution are also prevalent in these films, much like with Martino’s sixth giallo. However, Martino seems to steer clear of mixing excessive graphic nudity and violence into Suspicious Death of a Minor, elements that are inherent in the two Dallamano gialli-poliziotteschi. This is somewhat surprising seeing as how Torso is also known for its over the top visual intensity, but this amount of restraint in Suspicious Death of a Minor goes along with the light-heartedness found occasionally in the demeanor and music, as mentioned above. That being said, the film definitely still does have enough sex and violence to make those feint of heart turn away during some scenes.

Suspicious Death of a Minor may not reach the heights of Martino’s other gialli, but it is still solidly on the level as most examples of the genre from lesser known directors. It is able to achieve that odd formula of frenzy and abstract mathematics that the time and style demanded. By the last fifteen minutes, the plot starts to lose coherence, quite ironically when characters begin to open their mouth for lengthy explanations. By this time in gialli, the explanation of the plot often doesn’t matter as much because viewers are already taken by the visual and aural set pieces enough so that the narrative is no longer as important. With this in mind, Martino’s sixth giallo succeeds. He does not rely on saturated colors like Bava and Argento often do, but attractive framing, exposure, and color that has more a sense of poliziotteschi (neo-)realism. Suspicious Death of a Minor may be more gratifying for viewers who are fans of Italian police procedurals of the time, as opposed to the lurid aesthetics often associated with gialli.

About Joseph E. Dwyer

Born on a Friday the 13th, Joseph Dwyer has an ambivalent relationship with horror cinema that ranges from visceral pleasure to investigative schizoanalytics. He holds two master’s degrees from the San Francisco Art Institute, as both a filmmaker and theorist. He is unmoved by most contemporary art, and currently looks to the horror genre as a potential space for new perspectives on desire and dissent.

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