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Home / Film / Feature Articles / So Sweet, So Perverse: The Giallo Films of Umberto Lenzi, Part 1

So Sweet, So Perverse: The Giallo Films of Umberto Lenzi, Part 1

One of Italian cult cinema’s most prolific directors, the wonderful Umberto Lenzi dabbled in many horror and exploitation genres, and is generally remembered for gory cannibal films like Eaten Alive! (1980) and Cannibal Ferox (1981), or poliziotteschi classics like Almost Human (1974) and Violent Naples (1976). But he also made some of the most underrated early giallo films in the beginning of the cycle, and thus they lack a lot of the more formulaic elements of the Argento rip-offs made in the mid and late ‘70s. For example, while most giallo films are set in urban environments, many of Lenzi’s take place in the Italian countryside. He often focused on pressure cooker settings that explored toxic romantic relationships and fraught erotic dramas, almost always resulting in murder and a surprising degree of nihilism.

It’s surprising to me that these early thrillers have been so cruelly neglected. Few of them are available on Blu-ray or have been seriously written about by genre critics; a particularly unpleasant example of Lenzi’s treatment by critics is the fact that certain recent releases have included special features describing Lenzi as “second rate” or unfavorably comparing him to Argento. This is complete and utter bullshit. Typically I write more in depth, academic pieces, but this essay—the first of two—is going to be an introduction to Lenzi’s giallo films, but mostly a love letter. We lost him just about a year ago and I would like to see 2018 and 2019 be the start of a Lenzi resurgence, particularly where home video is concerned. Anyone who thinks he’s inferior can kindly pack up their things and move along.

In fairness, it has been difficult to see these films because of the complete clusterfuck surrounding the English language titling system, so it’s sometimes hard to understand what film you’re getting or even which plot description corresponds to which movie. The mess began with his first—and certainly one of his greatest—giallo films, Orgasmo (1969). (Let me just take a moment to appreciate that a movie called Orgasmo was released in 1969.) Orgasmo was released in the U.S. as Paranoia, and is the first of a three-film collaboration between director Umberto Lenzi and American blonde beauty Carroll Baker—in the perhaps strange but delightful tradition of casting American actors in Italian cult films, from John Saxon to Farley Granger.

It’s easy to confuse these often difficult to find films—along with a fourth giallo from Lenzi made at the same time—thanks to their similar release titles, which are as follows:
1) Orgasmo (1969), released as Paranoia in the U.S.
2) Cosi dolce… Cosi perversa (1969), released in the U.S. as So Sweet… So Perverse, its direct English translation
3) Paranoia (1970), released in the U.S. as A Quiet Place to Kill
4) Un posto ideale per uccidere (1971), released in the U.S. as An Ideal Place to Kill, its direct English translation

So we have lots of paranoia and a few places to kill… and the same lead actress, resulting in a lot of confusion, particularly for anyone trying to find the films in English. (And that’s not counting all the additional titles these were sometimes released under, which I’ll get to later.)

To make matter slightly more confusing, the first three films in this loose series follows a similar plot pattern. In Orgasmo, the recently widowed Kathryn (Baker) arrives at her husband’s palatial Italian estate for a period of quiet mourning with no company except her disapproving housekeeper and a deaf gardener. She has occasional contact with Brian (Tino Carraro), her lawyer, who is handling the estate. One afternoon, a young American, Peter (Fists in the Pocket dreamboat Lou Castel), arrives with a broken down car. She allows him to fix the car and then spend the night, where the two becomes lovers. Though he disappears for a time, Peter returns with his sister, Eva (Colette Descombes), and they introduce her to a lifestyle of constant partying, though she soon learns that the siblings are not all that they seem.

This French-Italian coproduction—perhaps my favorite out of all four of Lenzi’s films I’m discussing in this essay—is not quite a giallo, but fits more in line with erotic thrillers. It’s certainly one of Lenzi’s most enjoyable from this period. Like most of the other four films in the series, it involves a treacherous threesome, where two members of a trio conspire to double-cross and murder the third. The “siblings” Peter and Eva are predictably not brother and sister, but have a complex, competitive Dangerous Liaisons-style relationship. They were close family friends as children, until Peter’s parents divorced and swapped spouses with Eva’s parents, making them step-siblings twice over. (This isn’t so much a spoiler, as it is quickly revealed.)

Baker, who rose to prominence with her award-winning role in Elia Kazan’s Baby Doll (1956), subsequently had her career mismanaged by Warner Brothers, producer Joseph E. Levine who wanted to shape her as the next major sex symbol, and a greedy husband. She essentially defected to Italy, where she presumably contentedly made a series of giallo films. She gives one of her best performances here, though she’s unable to rescue the film from one of its chief flaws. Baker, who was in her late ‘30s in Orgasmo, looks to be 30 at the most, so it’s strange that she’s positioned as an older widow having an affair with a much younger man. The film works far too hard to make her appear older, particularly when she begins spending time with Peter and Eva and referring to their behavior as “young”—when she is also contrasted with the prim, aged housekeeper and her much older lawyer, who is clearly interested in pursuing a relationship with her.

The film’s portrayal of Kathryn is confused in many ways. Sometimes she’s shown as rich and decadent, which is contrasted with depictions of her as lonely, depressed, and miserable, hating her husband’s fortune and the business responsibilities that come along with it. During a luncheon with her husband’s surviving family, she is so stressed out over a discussion of property and inheritance that she actually faints. She is also occasionally shown as wanton, sexual, and an alcoholic—and she briefly discusses her past career as a pop/rock star (where are the flashbacks we deserve!)—yet other times her behavior is conventional, shy, or outright prude.

Overall, the film is restrained in terms of sex and violence, despite its reputation (and title). While Baker is nude quite often—a rarity for Hollywood actresses at the time—and there are a few sex scenes, this avoids the near softcore quality of many of Lucio Fulci’s giallo films made in roughly the same years, like One on Top of the Other and Lizard in a Woman’s Skin. It also skates the edge of the anti-capitalist theme introduced in films like Death Laid an Egg, where greed and bourgeois excess are seen as forces of total destruction, though it fails to really commit to this classist angle. Although the twist ending insures that characters obsessed with money will get their just desserts, Lenzi also seems to be suggesting that the world is populated with greedy backstabbers.

Così dolce… così perversa (1969)—which, thank god, literally translates to So Sweet… So Perverse—pairs up Carroll Baker with the divine Jean-Louis Trintignant, and a cast full of familiar faces. Jean (Trintignant) is having some trouble at home. His wife, Danielle (giallo regular Erika Blanc), refuses to have sex with him. But he has plenty of affairs and has his eye on a beautiful, but troubled new neighbor, Nicole (Baker). Soon they begin a relationship and she reveals that her sometimes lover, Klaus (Horst Frank), is violent, abusive, and controlling. Though Nicole agrees to go on a romantic vacation with Jean, and he has fallen completely in love with her, all is not as it seems—Danielle and Nicole seem to be secretly against him and Nicole has not quite freed herself from Klaus after all…

This Italian-French-West German production is the second film in director Lenzi’s giallo trilogy with Baker, though it isn’t a standard giallo at all. There’s no black-gloved killer bumping off victims, but rather a complicated love triangle that leads to murder, backstabbing, sexual intrigue, greed, and other unpleasantness. This somewhat less common giallo type was the early purvey of Lenzi, who began directing what could be described as giallo films before Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) pretty much set the tone for the rest of the genre’s output in the ‘70s. Instead, this film has something more in common with Jess Franco’s sleazy, erotic Eurotrash output like Venus in Furs (1969), full of dizzying plot twists, but with few moments of actual horror.

There are plenty of confusing plot threads, particularly where the conclusion is concerned. This is a somewhat common example of the problem with Eurohorror dubbing in the ‘60s and ‘70s and I’m guessing the film would seem less vague with a more substantial audio track—really all of Lenzi’s giallo films need to be restored and released in definitive versions packed with special features, because thus far they’ve only been available on grainy, often cut and mislabelled bootlegs or subpar home video releases. So Sweet… So Perverse is a strong example of Lenzi’s early giallo films and includes a lot of the elements that make them so endearing to me: there are some wonderful set pieces, including fantastic costumes worn by Baker and Blanc, and Jean-Louis Trintignant will always looks stylish joyriding his troubles away in a muscle car. There’s a very ‘60s-looking dream sequence with wild colors and crazed camera movements that stands as the film’s most memorable scene and—I swear I will stop making Jess Franco references eventually—is one of the things that reminds me of the more freewheeling Eurocult films than the established giallo classics.

A chief reason to seek this out is because of the starring turn from one of humanity’s most perfect specimens, Jean-Louis Trintignant (fresh off equally experimental giallo films Death Laid an Egg and Deadly Sweet), whose character is thoroughly fleeced by the plot here. Screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi is renowned for penning a dizzying number of giallo greats (Torso, The Case of the Bloody Iris, All the Colors of the Dark, etc), though this script is allegedly from a story idea by Luciano Martino, brother of and producer for giallo director Sergio Martino (who also worked with Gastaldi regularly). But this is really Carroll Baker’s show, as are all three films in her trilogy with Lenzi. She is surprisingly mutable, appearing as damaged and desperate in some moments, and as a callous temptress in others.

Paranoia (1970) aka A Quiet Place to Kill continues Lenzi’s collaboration with Baker—who would return one last time in 1972’s eerie A Knife of Ice. Helene (Baker), a racecar driver (I shit you not), has a bad accident that leaves her hospitalized, broke, and with at totaled car. Unsure of her future, she agrees to a recent invitation from her ex-husband, Maurice (Jean Sorel, who should never be trusted when he appears in a giallo), who has invited her to the estate he shares with his wealthy second wife, Constance (Anna Proclemer). Though some tension is in the air, it turns out that Constance really invited her and is hoping that Helene will aid in Constance’s diabolical plan to murder Maurice—so that he can never leave her for another woman. But Maurice is also making secret overtures to Helene, suggesting that he still loves her, and soon she’s caught in a tangled mess between husband and wife.

The third in Lenzi’s trilogy with Carroll Baker, Paranoia is also his third film about a complex love triangle that results in murder. This is closer to a standard giallo than either of the first two films, which feel more like erotic thrillers, and like So Sweet… So Perverse, this seems obviously inspired by Henri-Georges Clouzot’s masterpiece of suspense, Les diabolique (1955). The general shared plot is that two members of a threesome decide to kill the third, but then all sorts of mad double-crossing ensues and nothing is quite as it seems.

This Italian-French-Spanish co-production boasts some lovely scenes—including many where Baker and giallo regular Jean Sorel (Lizard in a Woman’s Skin) seem like they had a great time lounging on sailboats and drinking J&B—but the kind of cockamamie plot that will baffle Argento purists or anyone looking for straightforward genre fare. This is really more of an erotic thriller with giallo touches that will appeal to fans of Jess Franco; for starters, we’re expected to believe that Carroll Baker is a racecar driver. In Orgasmo and So Sweet… So Perverse, she plays ultra-feminine, pampered characters, a female stereotype who is easy manipulated, controlled, and abused. And she quickly slips into that role here. Despite the fact that she has some sassy moments, she defers to both Maurice and Constance in nearly every scene and does not seem particularly adventurous. The plot twists are absolutely dizzying. SPOILERS: Essentially Constance wants Helene to help her kill Maurice, because—leap of faith here—he left Helene and he will do the same to Constance as soon as her money runs out. Constance seemingly expects Helene to organize the whole thing, but Helene can’t go through with it because Maurice manipulates her lingering feelings for him. Then he convinces her to help him kill Constance and make it look like an accident, which everyone believes except for Constance’s grown daughter, who Maurice is also compelled to seduce. Sorel is always enjoyable in this sort of “handsome bastard” role found so often in giallo films (though he can’t compete with the master of this type, George Hilton).

One notable element about Lenzi’s giallo films, particularly this early trilogy, is that unlike more popular entries in the genre, his protagonists do not often survive the film. This fatalistic universe implies that everyone is guilty of some crime—generally murder—and that the antagonist will always get his/hers in the end. I don’t feel too bad giving away a few spoilers while discussing this film (or any of Lenzi’s), because the purpose of his early films—utterly unlike the later “stalk and slash” giallo films or unlike Argento’s more complex mysteries—is not to discover the identity of a killer, but to watch the protagonists’ desperate attempts to cover up their crimes and repress their guilt.

Fans of more conventional horror may find this a dull affair, as at least the first half of the film borrows from soap operas and simply concerns the fraught relationship between a husband, his wife, and his ex-wife. But I think it’s wonderful and it becomes decidedly giallo-like after the first murder, with plenty of nudity, sex scenes, double-crossing, and the slow burn of Helene’s increasing paranoia. For fans of wilder and weirder ‘60s and ‘70s cinema, Carroll Baker dances around a bit, Austin Powers-style, and she and Anna Proclemer (Journey to Italy) have plenty of fabulous costumes—though none of these top Baker’s birthday suit. There’s some lovely camera work courtesy of Aristide Massacessi (aka Joe D’Amato)—providing a rare chance to see two of Italian cult cinema’s balls-to-the-wall directors in a lighter, gentler setting.

Un posto ideale per uccidere (1971) aka Oasis of Fear follows two British teens (the glorious Ray Lovelock and Ornella Muti) who are funding their European vacation by selling porn, until they come across some obstacles: they are arrested for peddling their wares and have a sizable chunk of their profits stolen by a motorcycle-riding folk singer. With no funds, food, or gas for their obnoxious yellow convertible (with flowers painted all over it), they stumble across a village that appears to be abandoned. They break into the garage to steal gas from the car, but they meet the outraged woman of the house, Barbara (Greek powerhouse Irene Papas). At first threatening to call the police, she soon invites them to stay the night. What begins as a fun evening—including dinner, champagne, and a dance party—soon becomes more sinister when it seems that Barbara is trying to frame them.

Also known as An Ideal Place to Kill—the literal translation of the title—and Dirty Pictures (probably my favorite of all these because I’m a filthy pervert), this takes Umberto Lenzi’s favorite giallo conceit of the threesome gone horribly wrong and adds a sense of anarchistic fun and some clever twists and turns. This is essentially an inversion of Orgasmo, where two teens (or possibly twenty-somethings) prey upon a wealthy woman alone in a country mansion. Here, the stately Irene Papas (Z, The Guns of Navarone) brooks far less nonsense than the susceptible Carroll Baker and it’s immediately clear that not only does she have something to hide, but she isn’t really in danger when the kids decide to take her hostage… she’s just biding her time. In this sense it offers up an interesting take on the recurring giallo theme of the dangerous woman, whether that means a female character who is ultimately revealed to be the murderer in disguise (as Argento was fond of), or simply characters able to take care of themselves (like Daria Nicolodi and Barbara Bouchet sometimes played), or even a woman dangerous because of her seeming unpredictability (a type at which Florinda Bolkan excelled).

Apparently Lenzi originally wanted An Ideal Place to Kill to be his own take on something like Easy Rider (1969) and the first act does establish a sort of swingin’ ‘60s vibe. The beautiful Ornella Muti (of Flash Gordon) looks nothing like an English schoolgirl, but is delightful in her role as a kittenish, if naïve teen who refuses to play by the rules. The Italian-English Ray Lovelock is slightly more believable if less likable than Muti in one of his first starring roles, which I think would establish his type as a charismatic if often unlikable leading character in genre films like Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (1974) and Autopsy (1975), or Eurocrime films such as Almost Human (1975).

The potential for criminal activity—and silliness—established in the first half is upended when the teens invade Barbara’s home, though this sequence doesn’t quite rival the similar moments of dread and suspense found in Orgasmo. There is one particularly unforgettable scene somewhat reminiscent of Fulci’s unsettling giallo from the same year, Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, when Barbara flees into what she calls a “bird house” on the property: a dark, foreboding dwelling filled with panicking birds. She lunges madly at Lovelock with a knife while an owl screeches over their heads and wings flap incessantly. But much of the remainder of the action follows the two playing cat and mouse in Barbara’s home, determining who is predator and who is prey.

Oasis of Fear includes the four key elements found in Lenzi’s giallo trilogy with Carroll Baker, namely a ménage à trois gone wrong, a dance sequence, spousal murder, and vehicular death. While I do love hyperbole, that’s no exaggeration; in each of these films, someone gets into a fatal automobile accident, usually because they’re driving like an asshole, and it is used as a sort of deus ex machina for the guilty to get their just desserts. Except, of course, for Oasis of Fear, where he finally retires this formula and in a cynical twist has the innocent parties die in a crash so that the guilty can get away. His more well-known giallo films, which I will explore in part two of this essay, Seven Blood-Stained Orchids (1972) and Eyeball (1975), don’t fixate on these themes in quite the same way. In a sense, with his early four—Orgasmo, So Sweet… So Perverse, Paranoia, and An Ideal Place to Kill—it’s fascinating to watch a director work through some of his favorite themes in different ways.

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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