Director: Umberto Lenzi
Screenplay: Pino Boller, Massimo Franciosa, Umberto Lenzi and Luisa Montagnana
Cast: Robert Hoffmann (as Christian Bauman); Suzy Kendall (as Barbara); Ivan Rassimov (as Fritz Bauman); Adolfo Lastretti (Tatum); Franco Silva (Luca)
Synopsis: Christian Bauman (Hoffman) has an illicit affair with Barbara (Kendall), whose boyfriend is a man of considerable wealth. However the night they decided to be together in a motel is interrupted by an assassin, a struggle taking place and Christian believing he's killed the man. From here the body disappears and he becomes surrounded by countless unanswered questions as strange circumstances start to take place. A conspiracy is possibly afoot around him, but from who, why, and does it have any connection to the female mannequins being found through the regions with knives shoved in them or hung on nooses like they were murder victims?
It's a debatable issue whether the giallo subgenre from Italy should be put in the horror genre or not. They end up on the shelves labelled "Horror" at British HMV stores, but they're murder mysteries or stories of intrigue first, the plots as knotted as pretzels and as much beloved for their convoluted natures as they are for their good plot twists. What differs them from conventional murder mysteries are the body counts many have, usually with very gory set pieces. Some belong in the horror genre, such as Dario Argento's Deep Red (1975), or Torso (1973), but for others it feels more appropriate to call them suspense stories, which entrenches further complexities to this issue. They confuse the barriers of what genre tags should mean, befitting that their origins were pulp paperback novels with yellow covers ("giallo") which included Italian translations of Agatha Christie stories as much as they did more lurid fair.
Spasmo was a tough watch for three-quarters of its length, a vague narrative mostly of suspense rather than horror where little is purposely explained. It all finally gets explained in its conclusion, relieving me of the stress I had trying to grasp the film. Despite having adapted to even the most difficult of art films, I still have moments where having a lack of clear plot or something to hook onto causes frustration for me by my own fault as a viewer. When it does explain what has taken place, the result is one of the most ridiculous plots for a giallo I've seen in a while, involving Christian being less than he appears and his brother Fritz Bauman (Rassimov), but this is as much why it proved to be exceptionally entertaining when the pieces came together. The continual wrong-footing and bafflement of what actually takes place proved to be a reward in itself, exemplary of a virtue in giallos that they're about keeping the viewers on their feet, both in logical plotting but also purposely slipping into the bizarre.
Spasmo also makes steps for me to reconsider a certain Umberto Lenzi for a re-evaluation, a man I may have unfairly dismissed in his previous films I've seen. One of the best aspects about the golden years of Italian genre cinema is that, whether they were only working directors or more than that, from the composers to the directors, names have their own fanbases and also distinct personalities even if they worked in countless genres. Not only does this mean Mario (and Lamberto) Bava, Argento and Lucio Fulci, but also an Enzo G. Castellari, a Sergio Martino or a certain Mr. Lenzi. Spasmo is interesting as it's a vastly different side to a director known for his volatile temper on sets and films like Cannibal Ferox (1981), an openly unconventional narrative that stands out as one of the least conventional giallos I've seen. Christian is a character completely lost as I was as a viewer too in the narrative, what happens deliberately vague until the answers are drip fed to you. Not only is it the strange importance of female mannequins that catches you off guard, but how the world is kept a distance from Christian and us. Characters fade in and out of the narrative abruptly, and while the plot twists are quite obvious in hindsight, Spasmo proudly an overripe pot-boiler, when they appear they drastically change all that takes place for Christian to drastic extents.
Giallos have always been stylist, at least before the mid-eighties when the genre industry in Italy started to collapse. A large of the subgenre's appeal is of their period details - the suits and dresses worn by the characters, the decor of rooms, the appearances of J&B whiskey bottles everywhere - the high technical quality of many of these films meaning they are kitsch but are also exceptional artistically as well. Films like Spasmo through this paint their own misanthropic universes, where Christian is not sympathetic, cheating on his pregnant girlfriend at the start of the narrative, but you still fear for his life with what is taking place around him. While plot is not something I necessarily talk about in this section of the reviews, the balancing act is perfectly accomplished and helped by the filmmaking itself.
The score as well stands out in the sense of disorientation it adds to Spasmo. Not surprisingly, having Ennio Morricone compose the score would rarely lead to a bad work. Unlike the bombast of his scores for Sergio Leone, this one shows an avant-garde ting that was also audible in his other work in the giallos like The Bird With The Crystal Plummage (1970), appropriately discomforting and close to noise when the plot reaches moments of disarray and ill-ease.
Abstract Spectrum: Mind Bender/Psychotronic
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): Low
Whether Spasmo will change on multiple viewings, now I can join the dots of what takes place, is for future debate, but this does stand out as a bold, unique giallo, encapsulating the very abstract sense of disorientation where one does not know what's taking place around you. It's something that you actually find in a lot of mystery and suspense tales, but usually it's never allowed to be startling to a viewer because the plotting explains itself throughout the stories even before the final twist is revealed. Spasmo immediately stands out for how much it keeps secret, and barring the one overtly surreal aspect involving the mannequins inexplicably appearing in various locations, everything else that alarms a viewer in this film is entirely on restricting as much as possible about what is taking place until the plot threads are finally fed to you.
For two-thirds, I thought with a heavy heart that, considering Spasmo's warm reaction with fans, I might find it overrated and sluggish. Then the finale comes into play and I found Spasmo to be a smartly constructed movie, one with a nutty plot but which executes it with intrigue and creativeness. From the famous poster art alone, which I had to include at the top of this blog review, this is a very different giallo from others, leaving a mark in what it finally reveals itself to be.