Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Cult Classics Revisited: WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO SOLANGE? (1972)

(Italy/West Germany - 1972)

Directed by Massimo Dallamano. Written by Bruno Di Geronimo and Massimo Dallamano. Cast: Fabio Testi, Karin Baal, Joachim Fuchsberger, Christine Galbo, Camille Keaton, Gunther W. Stoll, Claudia Botenuth, Maria Monti, Pilar Castel, Giovanna Di Bernardo, Rainer Penkert, Marco Mariani, Antonio Casale, Giancarlo Badessi, Aristide Massaccesi. (Unrated, 107 mins)

After the international success of Dario Argento's THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (1970), the Italian horror/mystery subgenre known as giallo was a legitimate phenomenon. Argento is generally credited with starting the craze, but the style can be seen in its early stages as far back as Mario Bava's THE EVIL EYE (1963) and BLOOD AND BLACK LACE (1964) and other giallo prototypes like Antonio Margheriti's THE YOUNG, THE EVIL AND THE SAVAGE (1968), Romolo Guerrieri's THE SWEET BODY OF DEBORAH (1968) and Massimo Dallamano's A BLACK VEIL FOR LISA (1968). Following the breakout success of BIRD, Argento quickly followed with THE CAT O'NINE TAILS (1971) and FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET (1972), and the giallo floodgates were opened. Strange, poetic, verbose titles that often incorporated colors, numbers, letters, animals, a woman's name, or questions were hallmarks of the giallo movement, and Argento's films paved the way for Luciano Ercoli's THE FORBIDDEN PHOTOS OF A LADY ABOVE SUSPICION (1970) and DEATH WALKS ON HIGH HEELS (1971), Paolo Cavara's THE BLACK BELLY OF THE TARANTULA (1971), Lucio Fulci's A LIZARD IN A WOMAN'S SKIN (1971) and DON'T TORTURE A DUCKLING (1972), Riccardo Freda's THE IGUANA WITH THE TONGUE OF FIRE (1971), Duccio Tessari's THE BLOODSTAINED BUTTERFLY (1971), Emilio P. Miraglia's THE RED QUEEN KILLS 7 TIMES (1972), Giuliano Carnimeo's THE CASE OF THE BLOODY IRIS (1972), aka WHAT ARE THOSE STRANGE DROPS OF BLOOD DOING ON JENNIFER'S BODY?, Aldo Lado's SHORT NIGHT OF GLASS DOLLS (1971) and WHO SAW HER DIE? (1972), Carlos Aured's Spanish-made BLUE EYES OF THE BROKEN DOLL (1974), and several from Sergio Martino: THE CASE OF THE SCORPION'S TAIL (1971), YOUR VICE IS A LOCKED ROOM AND ONLY I HAVE THE KEY (1972), and ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK (1972), aka THEY'RE COMING TO GET YOU, among countless others.

The gialli were also inspired by the work of prolific British mystery novelist, playwright, short-story writer, and screenwriter Edgar Wallace (1875-1932), who died while in the early stages of scripting the 1933 classic KING KONG. Wallace's works had been adapted to the big screen as far back as 1915, but the late 1950s saw a massive resurgence in Wallace's popularity in West Germany roughly 25 years after his death. In 1959, the German production company Rialto Film acquired the rights to a good chunk of the Wallace catalog and produced dozens of films based on his writings throughout the 1960s. Known as krimi, most of these were directed by Harald Reinl or Alfred Vohrer and made their way to the US as part of syndication packages aired on late-night TV and afternoon Creature Features, and like their future gialli brethren, boasted memorable titles like THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE FROG (1959), THE DEVIL'S DAFFODIL (1961), SECRETS OF THE RED ORCHID (1962), THE CURSE OF THE HIDDEN VAULT (1964), THE COLLEGE GIRL MURDERS (1967), and CREATURE WITH THE BLUE HAND (1967). The Rialto Wallace programmers featured a stock company of West Germany-based actors like Klaus Kinski, Karin Dor, Joachim Fuchsberger, Harald Leipnitz, Eddi Arent, Heinz Drache, Werner Peters, and Aidy Berber, but would occasionally import an international star like Christopher Lee. The films were so popular in West Germany that Rialto's rival studio CCC Film bought the rights to several books by Wallace's son Bryan Edgar Wallace, which were turned into a competing series of "B. Edgar Wallace" adaptations like THE STRANGLER OF BLACKMOOR CASTLE (1962), THE PHANTOM OF SOHO (1964), and THE MONSTER OF LONDON CITY (1964).

In 1972, for their final Wallace-inspired production and more or less a passing of the torch to Italian thrillers, Rialto teamed up with Clodio Cinematografica and Italian International Film to produce the Italian/West German giallo/krimi hybrid WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO SOLANGE?, a film that attempted to balance the sleaze and the graphic violence of the gialli with the old-school, Edgar Wallace-inspired mystery of the krimi. For the most part, it succeeded, though it certainly leans more toward the giallo side of things, with the primary influence of the krimi coming from the presence of genre vets Karen Baal and Joachim Fuchsberger. If there's a poster boy for all things krimi, it's Fuchsberger (1927-2014), a busy character actor who became a beloved celebrity (nicknamed "Blacky" by friends and fans) and TV talk and game show fixture in his homeland, even serving as the stadium announcer at the opening and closing ceremonies at the ill-fated 1972 Olympics in Munich. Fuchsberger made a career playing detectives and inspectors in seemingly every krimi ever made, and of course, he's the lead detective in SOLANGE, which centers on philandering Enrico Rossini (Fabio Testi), a married gym teacher at a British girls' school who's having an affair with one of his students, Elizabeth (Christine Galbo). While the two are carrying on in a rowboat by the riverside, Elizabeth catches a flash of a blade coming from a nearby wooded area and the next day, a body is found near their canoodling spot, the woman stabbed and the knife still sticking out of her vagina. Initially dismissing Elizabeth's claims that she saw a knife, a concerned Rossini goes to the murder scene to find it swarming with police, arrives late for work and lies about having car trouble to wife and fellow teacher Herta (Baal), which blows up in his face when he's visible among the onlookers in a newspaper photograph of the murder scene on the front page of the next day's paper. This brings him into the sights of Inspector Barth (Fuchsberger), who thinks he has his prime suspect, which puts more strain on Rossini's already-fracturing relationship with the cold and brittle Herta. Elizabeth is plagued by nightmares about the murder, and more victims are found, all girls at the school and stabbed in the vagina, and though Rossini is eventually cleared as a suspect, he follows the rules of the giallo by conducting his own investigation. This ultimately leads him to the mysterious Solange (Camille Keaton, later to cement her place in exploitation history in the infamous 1978 grindhouse rape/revenge cult classic I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE), a traumatized, mentally-disturbed young woman with a dark tragedy in her past that has a direct correlation to the horrific serial killings that also claim the life of Elizabeth.

Directed by Italian journeyman Massimo Dallamano, of the aforementioned A BLACK VEIL FOR LISA and the cinematographer on Sergio Leone's A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964) and FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE (1965), SOLANGE is very much a giallo, right down to its sordid story, and the haunting score by Ennio Morricone, with dreamy, wordless vocals by the ubiquitous Edda Dell'Orso. It's one of the great "schoolgirls in peril" slasher thrillers, a tangent of the giallo movement that began with Margheriti's THE YOUNG, THE EVIL AND THE SAVAGE, aka NAKED YOU DIE, and popularized by the likes of Narciso Ibanez Serrador's THE HOUSE THAT SCREAMED (1969), Sergio Martino's masterpiece TORSO (1973), and even Bob Clark's Canadian-made classic BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974), and Juan Piquer Simon's insane chainsaw massacre epic PIECES (1983). Even the schoolgirls-in-peril films had their own supernatural spinoffs, like Dario Argento's SUSPIRIA (1977) and PHENOMENA (1985). SOLANGE adheres to many tropes of its giallo contemporaries beyond its disturbing violence and its dark, bleak twist. Elizabeth is a murder witness haunted by a barely-glimpsed clue that's just one piece of a complicated puzzle. Rossini's wife Herta is introduced in somewhat of a misogynistic fashion as a shrewish and vaguely androgynous tight-ass, not unlike Mimsy Farmer's similarly blonde, angry, and cheated-on wife in Argento's FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET, with Herta only letting her tightly-bunned hair down after it's revealed that Elizabeth was a virgin and Rossini's escapades stopped at going down on her, which apparently is enough to forgive him and go full-on "Stand by Your Man." Additionally, a potential murder suspect in the school's priest Father Webber (Marco Mariani) and the possibility of the killer posing as a priest are two plot strands very much in line with the giallo's inherent distrust of religious and church figures, also a key element of DON'T TORTURE A DUCKLING, WHO SAW HER DIE? and Antonio Bido's THE BLOODSTAINED SHADOW (1978), to name a few.

Photographed by Aristide Massaccesi, the Italian exploitation legend later known as "Joe D'Amato," WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO SOLANGE? was released in the US by Newport in 1975 as the more lurid, drive-in-ready THE SCHOOL THAT COULDN'T SCREAM. SOLANGE was the first of a very loose trilogy of Dallamano schoolgirl outings that was followed in 1974 by the giallo/polizia hybrid WHAT HAVE THEY DONE TO YOUR DAUGHTERS?, with Claudio Cassinelli and Giovanna Ralli (released in the US in 1977 under its original title and later reissued as THE COED MURDERS), and in 1978 by ENIGMA ROSSO (released on US home video in 1985 as TRAUMA), starring Testi in a different role than he played in SOLANGE. Dallamano was set to direct ROSSO but only has a co-writing credit--it was ultimately helmed by Alberto Negrin after Dallamano's tragic death in a car accident in Rome in November 1976.  WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO SOLANGE?'s cult has endured over the years for a variety of reasons--giallo superfans, hardcore krimi buffs, and the devoted horror-con fan base of the iconic Keaton, who doesn't appear until very late in the film but makes a powerful impression, starting with her memorable introduction--and was just released in a Criterion-level special edition from Arrow Video, complete with a booklet of essays, various interviews (including Baal, who really hates this movie), and a commentary track with film critics Kim Newman and Alan Jones. Firmly planted in the giallo but exhibiting a noticeable outside krimi influence, WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO SOLANGE? is a bit of a slow-burner but is stylishly made, more emotionally-driven than most of its type, and with the devastating reveal of its still-controversial subject matter, it remains one of the most downbeat and heartbreaking of the entire Italian giallo movement.

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