Written and directed by Italian cinematographer turned filmmaker, the late Massimo Dallamano, Cosa avete fatto a Solange?/What Have You done to Solange? (1972) is an Italian/West German production. While it is credited as being based on the novel The Clue of the New Pin (1923), by British novelist Edgar Wallace, it bears little resemblance to it. The then Danish, now German, production company Rialto Film had previously adapted 33 of Wallace’s crime novels for the German market, beginning with their 1959 adaptation of Der Frosch mit der Maske/The Fellowship of the Frog. These would form the nucleus of the German film movement of crime films known as ‘kriminalfilm’, commonly abbreviated as ‘krimi’. Due to being a part West German production, the Edgar Wallace connection, and the casting of krimi regulars Joachim Fuchsberger and Karin Baal, was an effort to appeal to the German market where, at this point, the krimi genre had become passé.
Solange is instead a prime example of the ‘giallo’ genre. It was made during a transitional period of European cinema – during the death of the krimi, and the peak of popularity of the giallo, which would fall from its peak just two years later. 1974 saw the introduction of giallo and poliziottesco hybrid films, which was another transitional period between the fall in popularity of the giallo and the rise in popularity of poliziottesco (Italian crime films), which would enjoy success until the late 1970s. One of these genre hybrids is Dallamano’s own What Have They Done to Your Daughters? (1974), which is a similar themed pseudo-sequel to Solange. The late giallo entry, 1978’s Rings of Fear, completes the unofficial Schoolgirls in Peril trilogy, which Dallamano was attached to direct until his death right before the start of production. He is still credited as one of the writers.
Not only is Solange essential gialli viewing, emerging during the genre’s most popular period in the early 1970s, it is also one of the most disturbing and gut-wrenchingly emotive contributions to the genre of any decade; rarely does it reach the harrowing and poignant heights that this entry does. Its murder set-pieces are not as explicit as most of its contemporaries, lacking the graphic bloody imagery that had become a staple in gialli, but the brutal nature of the crimes and the reveal of the killer’s tragic motivation leaves a long lasting impact on our psyche. Although it does feature most of the elements that these murder mystery thrillers are synonymous with, in terms of both stylistic and thematic tropes, narratively it is more tightly plotted than most of its ilk.
The setting is London, England. Italian, Enrico (Fabio Testi), is an Italian language and gymnastics teacher at a Catholic College for girls. He is married to a fellow teacher there, Herta (Karin Baal). Their marriage is going through a rough patch, and Enrico is having an affair with one of his beautiful young students, Elizabeth (Cristina Galbó). One afternoon, while spending time together at a local lake, Elizabeth catches glimpses of a bare breasted young woman being chased by someone, and of a flash of a knife.
They later learn they were just yards from a murder being committed. The victim was also a student at the college, a friend of Elizabeth’s, and was taught by Enrico as well. As he accidentally dropped a pen near the crime scene that afternoon and did not willingly disclose this information to the police, in order to hide his infidelity, as well as the fact that a photographer from a tabloid newspaper took a photo of him at the crime scene when he came across it the next day, Enrico becomes their chief suspect.
Other female students, who are also friends of Elizabeth and of the first victim, and also taught by Enrico, are then killed off one by one in the same vicious way – vaginal impalement with the knife left inside them. Elizabeth starts to remember more of what she saw that afternoon – the murderer was wearing a black priest’s habit. Enrico and Herta start to piece together information and find out that, before the murders started, the girls had a friend named Solange (Camille Keaton), who suddenly went missing.
Many gialli have themes of sexuality and contain anti-Catholicism sub-texts. Countless entries in the genre feature Catholic priests as the antagonists and here it is no different. Although the killer masquerades as a priest, punishing the young, sexually active college girls, the film embodies damning commentaries on the religion’s woefully misguided fears of sexuality and its extreme views on abortion. The traumatic incident of a young woman’s abortion gone wrong provides the killer with their motivation. In seeking retribution, the killer’s merciless punishment is to murder her friends in the same way the abortion was performed. The killer is unable to accept this young woman’s lost innocence, due to the belief that all women should be virtuous, transposing blame upon her promiscuous friends as a corrupting influence. Only one victim, a virgin, is spared the “vaginal impalement.” The knife acts as a phallic tool; as it violates the young female bodies, it symbolizes their loss of innocence.
As stated before, the film does not depict its violence as explicitly as most other gialli does – because it does not need to. It is a restrained affair with no elaborate set-pieces, presented instead in a matter of fact fashion. For example, in the opening sequence, we see the flash of the knife and the murderer plunging it between the woman’s open legs before the camera abruptly cuts to Elizabeth as she exclaims what she just saw. As nasty as this looks, it is not until Inspector Barth (Joachim Fuchsberger) shows Enrico the gruesome crime scene photographs – with the sight of the unforgettable and sickening x-ray showing the foot-long blade still inside the victim and protruding from her vagina – that we start to squirm in our distress. We never see the blade enter the vaginas of the other victims, only where the blade has been left in their dead bodies. This is all we need to see, as this is effectively unsettling enough. Dallamano knows just what to show us; he is more concerned with telling the story and emphasizing the suspense and mystery than simply stringing together set-pieces woven together with a loose story.
There are the expected copious amounts of female nudity and the usual shots of the killer’s black gloved hands as they kill. The distinct absence of elaborate set-pieces – another inherent stylistic element of gialli – is what helps to elevate the film above most other additions to the genre, in respect of realism and being genuinely disturbing. No matter how bloody and sleazy gialli gets, more often than not, these sequences are so theatrically executed that they become so over the top in their quirkiness that they require a great deal of suspension of disbelief to take it all seriously. Often though, this is not enough, as these sequences can be so overblown that they become too superficial. As a result, we cannot withhold our critical faculties anymore and have to put what we are watching down to being purely campy entertainment. Sure, the imagery can be mighty unpleasant, but rarely are the set-pieces as a whole realistic and disturbing.
In terms of narrative structure, the film does not fall into the typical illogical trappings of the genre, as it is more tightly plotted. There are no multiple red herrings thrown in – usually via new characters introduced too far into the proceedings as yet more suspects with no real motives – that ultimately become extraneous to the plot. There is no multitude of unnecessary flashbacks, with such sequences saved for when the story really calls for this. We are also spared the usual migraine-inducing and convoluted expositional information. Dallamano’s assured composition moves the proceedings along at a perfect pace, with well-placed twists and turns all the way to the powerful and devastating reveal, which is emotionally satisfying. We also actually give a shit about the cast of characters, whose actual personalities shine through to keep us invested. The solid cast all deliver effective performances.
Director of photography Aristide Massaccesi (later known as hack director and purveyor of trash, Joe D’Amato) beautifully shoots the film, providing striking visuals that give it a distinct style. The typically masterful score by Ennio Morricone is moody, shifting from its haunting beauty in evoking the theme of ‘innocence lost’, to enhancing the eerie atmosphere and moments of tension.
Solange is an obscure giallo compared to the more popular works of the genre’s revered auteurs – such as master innovator Mario Bava and maestro Dario Argento. Over time though, it has rightfully garnered quite the cult following. I hope that this fanbase will grow larger when the Nicolas Winding Refn produced remake is released, exposing the film to a wider audience. Dallamano’s serious approach to the always topical subject matter of Solange makes it a captivating, melancholic, heart-breaking, and vicious depiction of a punishment of innocence lost. One of the greatest and most important gialli.