The Bird With the Crystal Plummage [Blu-Ray]

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Dario Argento is a towering figure in both genre and Italian cinema. But back in 1970 he had yet to direct a feature film solo and his first outing as writer/director would be a giallo. This sub-genre of potboiler thriller is so named because they are in the style of old pulp novels that almost invariably had yellow covers in Italy.

The Bird With The Crystal Plumage would turn out to not only be an exceptional giallo, but would also launch Argento into being arguably the pre-eminent auteur of the genre. He would subsequently branch out into horror and gain international acclaim, but it was in the murky world of serial killers and whodunnits that he made his name.

The plot here does have the familiar elements of a black-gloved killer of beautiful women, but it is a step above most in its style and pacing. Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) is an American writer relocated to the quiet of Italy in order to work better. Now, as his return home is imminent, he sees a knife attack on a woman in an art gallery. The police, believing this part of a run of serial murders, refuse to let him leave the country due to his status as a witness.

Sam finds himself a target of the killer, apparently convinced Sam saw enough to be a threat. The only option Sam has to protect himself and his Italian model girlfriend (Suzy Kendall) is to try and track down the killer, his only clue being his memory of that night.

The script is a bit infantile at times and contains some wild stretches of logic, but it sweep along with a broad sense of humour and is punctuated by the real strength of Argento – the set-pieces.

These are not as stylish as his later work would become, but there are the first signs here. The attack Sam witnesses takes place in a pure white gallery, with Sam trapped between glass walls, unable to intervene, framed against the black night. Elsewhere, an extended foot chase through darkened city streets and a bus yard is superbly staged.

Some more dubious Argento elements also emerge. One of the murders is sexualised – the victim changes for bed into a diaphanous piece of lingerie that would only be considered sleepwear in adult entertainment immediately prior to being stabbed to death. Sam’s girlfriend Judith is a simpering damsel-in-distress throughout and the female roles in general are underwritten to put it mildly.

Nonetheless, this is a superior giallo that never flags in pace. The importance of The Bird With The Crystal Plumage in film history may rest primarily with its status as the launchpad for Dario Argento, but it remains an effective thriller in its own right.

Extras:

Trailers.

A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin

Womans-Skin-DVDOne of the best films to come from the fertile mind of cult Italian filmmaker Lucio Fulci (Zombie Flesh Eaters, The Beyond, New York Ripper), A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin is also one of the prime examples of a classic giallo thriller (a genre of Italian cinema named after the popular pulp crime novels published in the 1960s, dubbed ‘giallos’ because of the cheap yellowing paper they were printed on).

In the best giallo tradition, the plot of A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin is convoluted yet ultimately simple and obvious, and seems to serve ostensibly as a vehicle for the film’s cinematic style. Carol Hammond, a classy and wealthy but seemingly bored London housewife (played by beautiful cult Euro starlet Florinda Bolkan) is traumatised by vivid, sex and violence drenched dreams which feature her permissive, party-loving neighbour Julia Durer (the equally stunning Anita Strinberg). When Carol awakens one morning to discover her dreams have transcended into reality and Julia has been discovered brutally murdered, she is fingered as the main suspect and must try to decipher her dreams and discover whether or not she is a cold-blooded murderess with a memory block or the victim of an elaborate frame.

Coming off like a Hitchcock film on acid, A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin literally pulsates with a psychedelic vibrancy, with some intense erotic imagery and moments of gaudy, extreme violence that foretells some of Fulci’s later career choices. The sequence where the institutionalised Carol stumbles upon a quartet of still-living, whimpering dogs hung up and dissected in a laboratory is truly disturbing and ghastly, and it’s not too hard to see why this scene was cut from most prints during the film’s initial theatrical run (the dogs, and a horde of attacking bats, were created by noted mechanical effects expert Carlo Rambaldi, who would go on to work on such notable films as E.T. and Alien. Ennio Morricone’s sparse but hypnotic soundtrack perfectly complements the film’s surreal tone and style, and would have to rate as one of the great Italian composer’s more underrated scores. The film also looks sumptuous, with nice sets and some ostentatious but stylish early-seventies wardrobes worn by the female leads. With their elegant and striking looks, Florinda Bolkan and Anita Strinberg are both effective in their roles, and are well supported by Stanley Baker (as a Scotland Yard inspector), Jean Sorel and Leo Genn as Carol’s father Edmond Brighton, a distinguished lawyer trying to clear his daughter’s name.

Umbrella’s release of A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin utilises a mostly sharp widescreen print that offers you the options of watching the film either in Italian language (with optional subtitles) or English dubbed. While the Italian language soundtrack is best, the dubbed version doesn’t distract too much due to the film’s UK setting. The colours of the transfer are vibrant and do justice to the lush cinematography of Luigi Kuveiller. A couple of the re-instated nudity and violence sequences are a bit grainy due to the source material utilised, but it’s nothing too distracting. Unfortunately, no special features are present, making Shriek Show’s two-disc special edition from a few years back still the ultimate release of this film. Considering some of the special editions of genre films which they have released in the past, it’s a shame to see Umbrella content to put out bare bones releases of late (in what is surely a cost-cutting measure for the company).

A perfect introduction for those unfamiliar with the giallo, and an essential addition to the DVD library of any established fan of the genre (not to mention the army of loyal Fulci cultists).

Available on R4 DVD from Umbrella Entertainment. 

Deadly Sweet

DeadlySweet

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When the name Tinto Brass is attached to a film, it would probably lead most audiences to expect one of two things:

i – A collision of 1970s Art House erotica and (s)exploitation shock tactics, such as in his infamous Caligula and Salon Kitty.

ii – Curvaceous, scantily clad and sexually liberated young women, sensuously cavorting, as the Italian erotic maestro steadily becomes more and more infatuated by their derriere, as in many his later outings like The Key, Paprika, Miranda or All Ladies Do It.

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