‘After five years, do you have to be so piss-elegant?’
A married school teacher comes under suspicion when one of the girls from his school is murdered on the banks of the river Thames. The police discover he’s romantically involved with one of her classmates, and the couple was in the area when the crime occurred. Then another student from the school is kidnapped and killed…
Brutal, complex Italian-West German Giallo that pulls few punches as its narrative unfolds. Director Massimo Dallamano co-writes with Bruno Di Geronimo, and the two deliver a tight, intricate thriller that mixes serious themes with a compelling mystery.
Dashing young gym master Enrico Rossini (Fabio Testi) works at an all-girl Catholic school where he is popular with the students, if not the older faculty members. His wife Herta (Karin Baal) also teaches there and suspects him of playing around, as their marriage has disintegrated into recriminations and squabbling. Her instincts prove to be spot on as Testi has begun a secret relationship with 18-year-old student Elizabeth Seccles (Cristina Galbó). The lovebirds are busy canoodling in a boat on the river when the first killing happens nearby, and Galbó glimpses the flash of a knife and a dark figure, although she’s unsure exactly what she’s witnessed.
Hearing about the murder the following day, Testi rushes to the scene. His impulsive action puts him firmly in the crosshairs of lead investigator Inspector Barth (Joachim Fuchsberger), as the victim was a girl from his school. Testi denies being in the vicinity, of course, to avoid embarrassing explanations. Galbó also clams up, despite the victim being a friend, believing that her testimony is too vague to be of much help anyway. Then, a second girl from her class, Jane Bryant (Pilar Castel), is kidnapped outside her home one night and viciously slain.
Testi and Galbó come clean to the Inspector, the girl believing that the figure she glimpsed on the river bank was dressed in a long, black robe like a priest. The investigation focuses on the school, with Headmaster Mr Leach (Rainer Penkert) and his staff coming under official scrutiny. As well as Testi and Baal, there’s the nervous Professor Newton (Antonio Casale), clerics Father Webber (Marco Mariani) and Father Herbert (Antonio Anelli), Professor Bascombe (Günther Stoll) and history master Joesph Kane (John Gayford). Fuchsberger theorises that one of them used secrets revealed in the church confessional to target his victims. Meanwhile, Testi pursues an independent line of enquiry and comes to believe that the solution lies with a mysterious and elusive girl named Solange Beauregard (Camille Keaton).
First and foremost, this is a very serious-minded thriller with some uncomfortable moments and shocking elements, enhanced by director Dallamano’s grounded, matter-of-fact approach. There are no outlandish set pieces here or overt visual flamboyance, with the occasional flourish so well-integrated into the presentation that it passes almost unseen. The film also addresses some dark themes other than teenage homicide. Sexual repression and catholic guilt are the catalysts for the tragedy that unfolds as acts of adolescent rebellion lead to life-changing consequences and, eventually, murder.
There is plenty to unpack in Dallamano’s film, but it’s still principally a mystery. Who is the killer, and what can the motive be behind the slaughter? The director offers few clues as events unwind, but the mystery is constantly absorbing rather than frustrating, and very few viewers will likely have worked out anything of significance with barely a quarter of an hour of the runtime remaining. Everything ties up neatly in the end, although a few minor plot points don’t bear close scrutiny.
Dallamano’s handling of Galbó’s role in the story is the only weak point. It’s never really clear how she manages to see what she does that day by the river. Later on, the nightmare that triggers her memory of the long, dark robe worn by the killer coincides with the moments of Castel’s murder. It’s almost as if Galbó has a psychic link with the assassin. However, the idea is never developed any further or presented with any real credibility. The undercurrent of hostility toward the catholic church is handled far better, though, with the girls ultimately as much the victims of a lack of guidance and out-moded teaching as the killer’s blade.
The cast delivers good performances across the board, aided by the depth with which the characters are written. Testi is hardly the conventional hero, professing his love for Galbó while simultaneously attempting to lay her, scarcely appropriate behaviour for a teacher towards a schoolgirl, even if she is (just about) of age. Some justification is present initially in the conduct of his wife, Baal, who is cold, bitter and antagonistic. However, subsequent developments cause the audience to side with her rather than the feckless Testi, and these character shadings help to keep the audience invested and off-balance. There’s also an eye-catching turn from Keaton as the wordless Solange, her eyes, gestures, and body language conveying far more than reams of dialogue could.
Dallamano also infuses proceedings with a heavy sense of voyeurism, his camera work often inviting the audience to participate. Characters are seen through keyholes, undergrowth and, briefly, in the confessional. Shot composition is also meticulous and deliberate; the camera often focuses on the actor furthest away while the other is very close to the lens at the edge of the frame. This approach is never distracting and helps to heighten the feel of eavesdropping on private conversations. However, making one of the characters an actual peeping tom is a little on the nose and feels somewhat redundant. The general attention to realism means that there’s plenty of teenage flesh on display, but the director is careful never to sexualise his young cast and tip the film over into the exploitation arena.
Technical credits are also high with high-quality work, particularly the understated, masterful score by legendary composer Ennio Morricone. His incredible 60-year career brought dozens of awards, including a much-overdue Oscar for Quentin Tarantino’s ‘The Hateful Eight (2015). The lighting and cinematography by Aristide Massaccesi are also top-notch, but his subsequent career was unlikely to merit the attention of academy voters. He directed almost 200 films under multiple names but is best known as Joe D’Amato, the alias he assumed here. Projects ranged from several entries in the adult ‘Emanuelle’ series, to post-apocalyptic shenanigans like ‘2020 Texas Gladiators’ (1983) and ‘Endgame’ (1983), to three entries in the abysmal sword and sorcery series featuring Ator, the Fighting Eagle, which culminated in the truly dreadful ‘Quest For The Mighty Sword’ (1990). Most of his later time was spent in the hardcore arena, delivering video gems such as ‘Some Like It Hard’ (1995) and ‘Anal Strippers X-Posed’ (1997). Occasionally, he ventured into horror with low-budget exploitation titles like ‘Zombie 5: Killing Birds’ (1985) (starring Robert Vaughn!) and ‘Frankenstein 2000’ (1992).
Sadly, Dallamano’s life was cut short by a car crash in November 1976. He’d begun his career as a cinematographer just after the Second World War, arguably reaching its peak with his work on the first two films in Sergio Leone’s ‘Dollars’ trilogy starring Clint Eastwood. Perhaps unsurprisingly, his first directorial assignment was the well-regarded Spaghetti Western ‘Bandidos’ (1967). It was the final film on which he worked as a cinematographer. He followed up with the excellent Giallo ‘A Black Veil For Lisa/La Morte Non Ha Sesso (1968) and his trashy but undeniably enjoyable take on Oscar Wilde’s ‘Dorian Gray/Das Bildnis des Dorian Gray (1970). Subsequently, he tried his hand in several genres, including comedy, supernatural horror and the police procedural, the latter being a vital element in his other excursion into Giallo ‘What Have They Done to Your Daughters?/La polizia chiede aiuto’ (1974).
Testi worked his way into the film industry as a stuntman and with uncredited bits in well-known films such as ‘Barbarella’ (1967) and Sergio Leone’s ‘Once Upon A Time in the West’ (1968). He quickly graduated to second leads in smaller productions like obscure Giallo ‘Death Knocks Twice/Blonde Köder für den Mörder’ (1969). Leading roles in low-budget adventures followed, such as ‘The Avenger, Zorro/El Zorro justiciero’ (1969) (which seems to have remained unreleased for three years) and the Spaghetti Western ‘One Day at Dawn…Django Meets Sartana!/Quel maledetto giorno d’inverno… Django e Sartana all’ultimo sangue’ (1970). His big break came courtesy of Vittorio De Sica’s Oscar-winning ‘The Garden of the Finzi-Continis/Il giardino dei Finzi Contini’ (1970), which firmly established his status as a leading man in his homeland. He has worked steadily since and successfully transitioned to television in the 1980s.
American-born Keaton became somewhat famous as the lead in the controversial rape-revenge vehicle ‘I Spit On Your Grave’ (1978), which bothered many a sweaty film censor in the early days of video home rental. Following on from her appearance as Solange, Keaton had taken the lead in Riccardo Freda’s horror ‘Tragic Ceremony/Estratto dagli archivi segreti della polizia di una capitale europea’ (1972). However, the film only received a limited release, even in Italy, although it has been restored for blu ray in recent years. A couple of other undistinguished horror projects followed, and she returned to America for the notorious ‘I Spit On Your Grave’ (1978). A few scattered appearances over the next few years seemed to indicate the end of her career. However, working the convention circuit in the new century led to a return in low-budget horror ‘Sella Turcica’ (2010). Subsequent projects included Rob Zombie’s ‘The Lords of Salem’ (2012) and independent horror films where she rubbed shoulders with veteran genre stalwarts such as Barbara Steele, Gunnar Hansen, Tony Todd, Heather Langenkamp, Dee Wallace, P J Soles and Adrienne Barbeau. She reprised her role as Jennifer in the belated sequel ‘I Spit on Your Grave: Deja Vu’ (2019) and took the lead in the home invasion drama ‘Cry for the Bad Man’ (2019).
A Giallo for those seeking more than just extravagant kills and an escalating body count. Essential viewing for fans, and with some appeal to more mainstream audiences.