Saturday, April 14, 2018

Retro Review: RED RINGS OF FEAR (1978)

(Italy/West Germany/Spain - 1978)

Directed by Alberto Negrin. Written by Marcello Coccia, Massimo Dallamano, Franco Ferrini, Stefano Ubezio, Alberto Negrin and Peter Berling. Cast: Fabio Testi, Christine Kaufmann, Ivan Desny, Jack Taylor, Fausta Avelli, Bruno Alessandro, Tony Isbert, Helga Line, Brigitte Wagner, Caroline Ohrner, Silvia Aguilar, Taida Urruzola, Maria Asquerino, Cecilia Roth. (Unrated, 84 mins)

The final installment of a loosely-connected "Schoolgirls in Peril" trilogy that began with 1972's WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO SOLANGE? and 1974's WHAT HAVE THEY DONE TO YOUR DAUGHTERS?, the giallo RED RINGS OF FEAR was a troubled production even before filming began. Massimo Dallamano, a career journeyman (A BLACK VEIL FOR LISA, DORIAN GRAY, THE NIGHT CHILD) who established himself as a top cinematographer in the 1960s with Sergio Leone's A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS and FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, directed SOLANGE and DAUGHTERS and was set to helm the third installment, but was killed in a car accident in Rome in November 1976, not long after the release of his final film, the polizia COLT 38 SPECIAL SQUAD. He was still in the process of completing the RED RINGS script, which was then cycled through an additional five credited writers--including future Dario Argento collaborator Franco Ferrini--over the next year and a half before shooting finally began. In Dallamano's stead, directing duties were assigned to Alberto Negrin, who's spent his entire career in Italian television as a go-to guy for prestigious RAI Radiotelevisione Italiana TV-movies and miniseries that would occasionally make it onto American networks, such as the 1985 miniseries MUSSOLINI AND I with Susan Sarandon, Anthony Hopkins, and Bob Hoskins as Il Duce, and 1990's VOYAGE OF TERROR: THE ACHILLE LAURO AFFAIR with Burt Lancaster and Eva Marie Saint. RED RINGS OF FEAR remains Negrin's only theatrical feature to date in a career going back to 1971, and he took the opportunity to cut loose and run with it. Typical of the sleazy direction gialli would take in the latter half of the 1970s beginning with the likes of the subtly-titled STRIP NUDE FOR YOUR KILLER, RED RINGS OF FEAR doesn't go as far as the 1979 giallo/porno crossovers GIALLO A VENEZIA and PLAY MOTEL, but it doesn't avoid embracing the trashier side of things, with a twisty and perverse story involving murders, corruption, cover-ups, abortion, and Catholic schoolgirls forced to take part in a prostitution ring being run by one of their own teachers.

Fabio Testi starred in WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO SOLANGE? as a lecherous teacher at a posh girls school who, as per giallo rules, becomes an amateur sleuth in an attempt to get to the bottom of a mystery in which he's briefly the main suspect. Here, dubbed by the velvet tones of Ted Rusoff, he plays the actual detective in charge of the case, Insp. Gianni Di Salvo, assigned to investigate the death of a teenage girl whose genitally-mutilated corpse was found wrapped in plastic and dumped in a river near a dam. The girl was a student a nearby Catholic girls school and, from a tip by the victim's little sister Emily (Fausta Avelli), learns that she was part of a clique known as "The Inseparables." He immediately suspects the other girls are hiding something, and since it's a giallo, he's right. The investigation leads to numerous red herrings, mostly involving the teaching staff who all act like they're hiding something, including an uptight headmistress and another who pointlessly sleeps with one black glove on his bedside table. The dead girl's diary also has recurring drawings of a designer jeans logo, which eventually leads to the involvement of uncooperative clothing store owner Parravicini (Jack Taylor with a perm). Anger management case Di Salvo begins losing his patience, especially after an attempt on his life as well as an escalating body count when a teacher (Tony Isbert) is killed in a mysterious hit-and-run accident and the remaining Inseparables become targets themselves.

Unlike SOLANGE and DAUGHTERS, RED RINGS OF FEAR was never released theatrically in the US, instead going straight to video in 1985 as TRAUMA (one of its many retitlings, another being the grindhouse-ready VIRGIN KILLER), in one of those Wizard Video big boxes that also erroneously included five-time Oscar-nominee Arthur Kennedy in the credits on the packaging (he was in his share of Eurotrash movies in the mid-to-late '70s, but this wasn't one of them). It's just out now on Blu-ray from Scorpion in a restored transfer, properly framed at 2.35:1, and looking better than it ever has after decades of barely watchable VHS prints that were ported over to numerous public domain DVD sets. From the time of Dallamano's tragic death, the film was plagued with problems, from script changes to, as Nathaniel Thompson points out on the Blu-ray's commentary track, co-star Jack Taylor even claiming the film was never completely finished. At the very least, things seem to be missing and possibly never shot, which may explain the unusually brief running time of just 84 minutes. Second-billed Christine Kaufmann, an Austrian actress and former Hollywood ingenue who was married to Tony Curtis for five years after co-starring with him in 1962's TARAS BULBA, is barely in the movie as Di Salvo's kleptomaniac friend-with-benefits. It's not really clear if they already know each other when he catches her stealing cat food at the supermarket early on (some of the dialogue even hints at the possibility that she's a prostitute) and nothing results from a later revelation after they have a fight and she's next seen sleeping with Di Salvo's boss, Chief Insp. Roccaglio (Ivan Desny, dubbed by Ed Mannix). She's never seen again after that--it's unknown whether she had scenes cut or never filmed and her appearances are sporadic and pointless enough that it's not out of the question to wonder if she simply quit the movie. For a prominently-billed actress of established repute in both Europe and Hollywood (she won the Golden Globe for Best Newcomer Female for 1961's TOWN WITHOUT PITY and went on to appear in several Rainer Werner Fassbinder films before and after RED RINGS OF FEAR), it's a strangely minor and insignificant role. Spanish cult actress Helga Line (HORROR EXPRESS) also has a brief bit part as the first victim's mother and future Pedro Almodovar regular Cecilia Roth (ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER) has a small early role as a Parravicini employee sleeping with her boss. In keeping with the choppy, seemingly rushed nature of the film's assembly, Riz Ortolani's main theme sounds like it belongs more to a 1970s cop show than a giallo murder mystery (Thompson points out that it was recycled in full from Ortolani's score for Dallmano's 1973 crime film SUPERBITCH).

But RED RINGS OF FEAR holds your attention: you've got Testi's rageaholic detective barging into a school meeting and bellowing "Somebody with a cock THIS BIG raped and killed her!"; you've got a bizarre sequence where, following the designer jeans lead, Di Salvo's partner (Bruno Alessandro) goes jeans shopping and struts around in skin-tight denim; you've got Di Salvo sarcastically calling the same partner "Starsky," something obviously ad-libbed by Rusoff in the dubbing studio; you've got one victim being stabbed in the neck with a flaming hot curling iron; bullying Di Salvo interrogating and threatening a scared-shitless Parravicini on a speeding rollercoaster; there's an ominous, unsettling vibe in the dimly-lit hallways of the school, filled with intimidatingly-placed religious iconography and a statue of a scowling, finger-pointing nun at the top of the main staircase, seemingly silently and pre-emptively judging everyone who walks in the building; an Argento-like sequence where an absurd amount of marbles are poured down a staircase being ascended by one of The Inseparables; a memorable performance by young Avelli, the other little red-haired girl in 1970s Italian horror movies who was called upon when the far creepier Nicoletta Elmi was busy (Avelli is probably best known to mainstream audiences as "Sweets," the little girl O.J. Simpson is killed trying to rescue in the 1977 plague-on-a-train disaster movie THE CASSANDRA CROSSING); and, in what has to be the film's most notorious bit, a cross-cutting juxtaposition of Inseparables member Virginia (Silvia Aguilar) going to a clinic for an abortion, intercut with flashback footage of the Inseparables at the orgy where the first victim was killed, bleeding out after her vagina was penetrated and torn apart by an oversized dildo. It has to rank as one of the tackiest sequences in any giallo up to that point, made even more retroactively surreal since one of the actresses playing The Inseparables is a dead ringer for Jennifer Lawrence. It had to be hard to fathom the giallo getting any more tasteless, but fear not, the 1979 double shot of GIALLO A VENEZIA and PLAY MOTEL saw ENIGMA ROSSO's abortion/orgy jawdropper, said "Hold our beers," and introduced hardcore porn into the genre, pretty much taking things as far as they could go and effectively ending the giallo at least until it was given a post-slasher film resurrection with a return to relatively traditional, classier fare in the 1980s. RED RINGS OF FEAR is a mess, but it's got its share of unusual, inventive, and audacious moments that make it hard to outright dismiss, especially with a quality Blu-ray presentation that helps it make a credible case for itself.

The back of the Wizard Video big box from 1985,
with Arthur Kennedy mistakenly credited. 

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