The French Sex Murders/Casa d’appuntamento (1972)

‘It must have been difficult getting permission to have the head.’

A prostitute at an exclusive brothel is brutally murdered. The police arrest her last client, and he is found guilty of the crime. The young man dies trying to escape custody, but the killings have only just begun…

Rather awkward Giallo thriller from co-writer and director Ferdinando Merighi that attempts to blend several mismatched elements without a good deal of success. Poor execution and a bizarre casting decision create further issues.

Small-time criminal Antoine Gottvalles (Peter Martell) may be a good-looking guy, but his life is coming apart. Problems with alcohol and increasingly erratic behaviour have made him persona non grata at the high-class brothel operated by Madame Colette (Anita Ekberg). Reluctantly, she agrees that he can visit his favourite girl Francine Boulert (Barbara Bouchet), one last time. However, later on, he’s seen running from the house, and a few minutes later, Bouchet is found beaten to death. Martell runs to his ex-wife Marianne (Rosalba Neri), but she’s busy entertaining nightclub manager Pepi (Rolf Eden) and sends him away. Soon afterwards, he’s snared in a police dragnet, arrested and sent to trial.

The case looks open and shut, and Martell’s found guilty and condemned to death by Judge George Teschi (William Alexander). However, he tries to cheat the guillotine with an attempted escape, only to be decapitated in a horrific motorbike accident instead. Case closed. But then Ekberg is murdered in much the same way as Bouchet, without an apparent motive. Meanwhile, scientist Professor Theodore Waldemar (Howard Vernon) has obtained Martell’s severed head for research purposes, trading on his friendship with Judge Alexander to obtain the grisly specimen. In light of the Ekberg killing, the dogged Inspector Fontaine (Robert Sacchi) is looking at the Bouchet case again and soon has more murders on his hands.

There are many issues with Merighi’s film, and these only become more and more apparent as the runtime passes. The opening scenes feature groups of police chasing a half-seen figure up the Eiffel Tower, a pursuit which concludes with a suicide plunge, courtesy of some very shoddy SFX. The rest of the story unfolds in an extended flashback, and, to be fair, the flaws are not immediately evident. Merighi does a competent job assembling all his suspects and suggesting their possible guilt via a series of apparently unrelated subplots.

While Neri sings in the club, her lover Eden is apparently playing away with hostess Tina (Piera Viotti). Professor Vernon’s beautiful daughter Eleonora (Evelyne Kraft) seems strangely reluctant to pursue a relationship with her father’s assistant Roger Delluc (Franco Borelli), and he’s becoming confused and frustrated. Middle-aged writer Randall (Renato Romano) is also spending many evenings at the brothel (for ‘research purposes!) and having a fling with Bouchet’s ex-colleague Alice (Flavia Keyt). Saachi is also interested in the activities of Martin (Alessandro Perrella), the bed partner of Doris (Ada Pometti), who works as the Judge’s maid. To Merighi’s credit, he keeps all these characters successfully in play, and their surface relationships with each other and to the story are perfectly clear.

However, the film has much bigger problems. The decision to cast Saachi as the detective is particularly baffling. He was a professional Humphrey Bogart impersonator, and yes, that’s exactly what he’s doing here. Slicked back hair, mannerisms, voice (courtesy of an offhand English dub track), trenchcoat and all. Obviously, it’s incredibly distracting every time he appears on the screen. The French have an evident love for Film Noir (they coined the phrase, after all) and crossing Noir with Giallo had been attempted before by director Tinto Brass with ‘Col Chore ln Gola/Deadly Sweet/I Am What l Am’ (1967). This film was an international co-production between France, Italy and West Germany, so an eye on the French box office might explain its inclusion. But, apart from Saachi’s Bogart impression, there are no other Noirish elements here whatsoever. So it’s an isolated and somewhat confusing creative choice, to say the least.

The story also falls apart in the final third. It’s not that the conclusion doesn’t make sense; it’s just absurd and rather stupid. Merighi also shows the killings with brief, repeated shots through different coloured filters. It doesn’t work on any level and looks terribly dated to a modern audience. It heightens the impression this was a project put together very swiftly with the sole intention of taking advantage of a booming box office trend. Producer Dick Randall had plenty of experience in the exploitation field, initially with documentaries such as ‘The Wild Wild World of Jayne Mansfield’ (1968) cobbled together and in theatres less than a year after her death. When he moved into features, it was with projects such as sex comedies ‘Let It All Hang Out/Der Mann mit dem goldenen Pinsel’ (1969) and ‘Playgirl 70’ (1969). Later projects included ‘Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks/Terror! Il castello delle donne maledette’ (1974), ‘The Daughter of Emanuelle’ (1975), ‘Crocodile Fangs/Agowa gongpo’ (1978) and ‘The Clones of Bruce Lee/Shen wei san meng long’ (1980). Here, he also plays a small role in front of the camera and makes an uncredited contribution to the script. The latter may have led to the character of the brothel-creeping writer being named after him.

The biggest shame is the waste of a particularly strong cast, most of whom were probably hired due to their involvement in previous, far better, Giallo projects. Both Bouchet and Neri had starred in Silvio Amadio’s ‘Amuck!/Alla ricerca del piacere’ (1972) and ‘Smile Before Death/Il sorriso della iena’ (1972), even if Bouchet’s role in the latter had been as an uncredited cameo. Neri has also done ‘Top Sensation’ (1969) and ‘Slaughter Hotel/Cold Blooded Beast/La bestia uccide a sangue freddo’ (1971). Bouchet had starred in ‘The Man with Icy Eyes/L’uomo dagli occhi di ghiaccio’ (1971), ‘Black Belly of the Tarantula/La tarantola dal ventre nero’ (1971) and Lucio Fulci’s ‘Don’t Torture a Duckling/Non si sevizia un paperino’ (1972). Vernon had been playing oddball scientists since taking the title role in ‘The Awful Dr Orloff/Gritos en la noche’ (1962) for director Jesús Franco. This historical role may explain why his character carries out strange experiments with Martell’s decapitated head in this film (just what is the Professor supposed to be researching exactly?!)

Merighi mainly worked as an Assistant Director on Spaghetti Westerns in the 1960s. He also did the job on a couple of war pictures and low-budget Gialli ‘In the Folds of the Flesh/Nelle pieghe della carne’ (1970) and the obscure ‘Questa libertà di avere… le Ali bagnate’ (1971). In marked contrast, actor Vernon had a career that stretched for 50 years and included minor roles in ‘The Train’ (1964) starring Burt Lancaster, Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘Alphaville’ (1965), and Woody Allen’s star-studded ‘What’s New, Pussycat’ (1965). By the 1970s, however, he was firmly entrenched in low-budget European horror, working countless times with writer-director Jesús Franco and reprising his most famous role as Dr Orloff several times. Kraft had a short screen career but did appear as jungle girl Samantha in the much-celebrated cult item ‘The Mighty Peking Man/Xing xing wang’ (1977), in which she provides the definitive artistic depiction of a crashing aeroplane.

A tatty and rather slipshod Giallo that wastes a good cast.

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