What Have You Done To Solange?/Cosa avete fatto a Solange? (1972)

‘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.

Full Moon of the Virgins/The Devil’s Wedding Night/ll Pleniluno Delle Vergini (1973)

Full Moon of the Virgins (1973)‘Do your architectural investigations always begin with an inspection of ancient crypts, Mr Schiller?’

An amateur archaeologist tracks down the location of a supernatural ring to Dracula’s castle, but his irresponsible twin brother sets out to reach it first. When he arrives, he finds the estate owned by a beautiful Countess, but it turns out that she remains immortal by bathing in the blood of seven virgins every 30 years…

Somewhat underpowered Euro-Horror from director Luigi Batzella (credited as Paolo Solvay) which looks pretty good but lacks both a compelling plot and interesting characters. The story focuses on twins Karl and Franz Schiller (Mark Damon), one a serious academic, the other a suave ‘man about town’ who already looks a bit like a vampire with his black cloak and pale complexion. Karl has been hitting the (dusty) books and has tracked down the legendary ring that was the subject of Wagner’s famous music cycle. Apparently, it originally arrived on Earth as part of a meteorite and has been in the possession of every famous warlord in history; Atilla the Hun, Ivan the Terrible, Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan, among others. And now it’s fetched up at Castle Dracula. How he knows all this is a bit of a mystery, but, you know…books!

Anyway, Franz fancies a bit of this as the ring endows the owner with unearthly and superhuman powers, so he hotfoots it for the Carpathians with the hapless Karl in eventual pursuit. Franz gets the usual cold shoulder when he mentions ‘Castle Dracula’ at the local inn, but things seem to be looking up when he finds the Castle in the possession of the Countess De Vries (the luminous Rosalba Neri) who asks him to stay for a dinner that may include her for desert. Vampires! A supernatural ring! Rosalba Neri! It’s enough to make any cult movie fan start having palpitations!

Unfortunately, what the film delivers is a rather lacklustre remake of the opening chapters of Bram Stoker’s original novel followed by an underwhelming climax. Franz is just a stand in for solicitor Jonathan Harker; finding himself locked in his room at the castle, climbing out the window, creeping down cobwebbed passages, finding coffins in the crypt and stumbling across a vampire bride. Eventually, he’s attacked by some psychedelic visuals (as well as Neri, which was probably a lot more fun) and it’s up to ‘good twin’ Karl to try and save the day. This is all fine as far as it goes but the pace is very slow and the final action isn’t helped by some truly dreadful SFX, which would have been best left on the cutting room floor.

Full Moon of the Virgins (1973)

‘Excuse me, but do you know the way to Castle Dracula?’

As per most Euro-horrors of the period, the castle is appropriately gothic and there’s rich colour cinematography from Aristide Massaccesi (later to direct dozens of exploitation pictures under many aliases, the best known being Joe D’Amato). Neri looks as amazing as ever and her performance is perfectly adequate but it lacks the spark of her best work. Perhaps she was getting a little tired of the generic roles coming her way at the time.

But the main problem here is the script, which is credited to three separate authors. After the first act, the story never really develops, becoming simply a series of predictable events padded out with occasional trippy visuals and a smattering of nudity and gore, including Neri writhing about naked in a bath of blood (which is nice). Even at less than 90 minutes, proceedings seem remorselessly padded.

Damon retired from acting in 1997 but was far better known as producer by then anyway. Beginning in the 1970s, he began hitting his stride with family science fiction pictures in the following decade, including ‘The NeverEnding Story’ (1984), ‘Short Circuit’ (1986) and ‘Flight of The Navigator’ (1986). Since then his name has been attached to a variety of projects; everything from the tame erotica of ‘Wild Orchid’ (1989) to hopeless horror ‘Feardotcom’ (2002) to real-life drama ‘Monster’ (2003), which snagged an Oscar for Charlize Theron.

So, is the film just an excuse to see some tried and trusted horror tropes spiced up with a little bit of blood and some beautiful women with no clothes on? Yes, of course, it is. But it’s not really anything more.

Quest For The Mighty Sword (1990)

Quest For The Mighty Sword (1990)‘In the hands of a hero, it has the power to save the world. In the hands of evil, it has the power to destroy it.’

Ator, son of Ator, goes looking for a mighty sword. He finds it in 20 minutes. Some other stuff happens afterwards.

Ator, the Fighting Eagle first appeared in a movie of that name in 1982 in the person of muscular Miles O’Keefe, who had first come to the public’s attention in the title role of Bo Derek’s less than stellar ‘Tarzan the Ape Man’ (1981). O’Keefe played the role 3 times; battling giant rubber spiders, ugly snake creatures and smarmy villains. All on a very tight budget. It’s fair to say these films were awful. But when original director David Hills (better known as Joe D’Amato, real name Aristide Massaccesi) went for a 4th film, he’d either lost O’Keefe’s phone number or he’d decided that a reboot was in order. And, in a remarkable feat of filmmaking prowess, he delivered the unthinkable: a film that was actually even worse than the 3 that had preceded it.

Part of the problem is Eric Allan Kramer in the title role. Now, he is undoubtedly a more expressive actor than O’Keefe and quite a large chap, but he simply doesn’t have the physical presence required. He’s also saddled with a silly blonde wig and far too much dialogue. It’s not that he delivers the dialogue badly; just that it’s inane at best and diminishes any remaining mystique that the character has. There’s barely any real story; some silliness about his mother being cursed to wander the kingdom forever in the guise of a good time girl whose only allowed to get it on with ugly blokes (really!), an evil king who wants to turn Ator’s girlfriend into a statue, an evil dwarf badly in need of a dental intervention and a barely glimpsed evil bloke who offed our hero’s father. There’s some silly mumbo-jumbo about the ‘gods’ and the heroine spends some of her time as a bird (I think).

Quest For The Mighty Sword (1990)

It’s not for us to judge.

Ok, so a lot of these ‘sword and sorcery’ epics don’t have much of a storyline, do they? They’re not about the acting, either. No, these ‘epics’ stand or fall on the combat and the action, the monsters and the SFX. So, how does all that stack up here? Well, to be blunt, it doesn’t. Kramer wields the ‘mighty sword’ like it’s a piece of plastic (maybe it is?!) and the monsters wouldn’t scare a toddler.

The tagline (given above) makes absolutely no sense at all, as the sword doesn’t seem to have any special powers and no one really seems bothered about it once Ator’s got his meaty paws on it. Or maybe I’d fallen asleep by that point. This is a tatty, slapdash production that looks like it was knocked off in a couple of days when everyone involved was thinking about something else. It’s hard to imagine how anyone could get an iota of enjoyment from such a creatively barren enterprise.

Ator did not return afterwards. He probably fell on his plastic sword.

Iron Warrior (1987)

Iron Warrior (1987)‘Life is an illusion. Death is real.’

Brothers Ator and Trogar are being raised as protectors for the kingdom’s future Princess when wicked witch Phaedra kidnaps Trogar and turns him into a soulless beast. Exiled for her crimes, the witch returns 20 years later to complete her plans, but she has reckoned without the posing prowess of Ator, the Fighting Eagle!

In the early part of the 1980s, the U.S. and U.K. thrilled to the exploits of Conan the Librarian in the shape of Arnold Schwarzenegger. But audiences in continental Europe had their own warrior hero: the mighty mulleted Ator, The Fighting Eagle (1981); slayer of giant rubber spiders. Ator was Miles O’Keefe, whose stateside film career had begun – and pretty much ended – in the title role of Bo Derek’s ‘Tarzan, the Ape Man’ (1981); a film mercilessly crucified by critics and public alike. ‘Ator’ on the other hand, shifted enough box office tickets to prompt an almost immediate sequel: ‘Ator, the Invincible’ (1982). It was utterly dreadful, but actually not as bad as the first one. Both these epics were brought to us by director ‘David Hills’ (actually better known as Joe D’Amato, although both names were 2 of the 68 professional pseudonyms used by Aristide Massaccesi).

Hills/D’Amato/Massaccesi jumped ship for Ator’s belated third adventure; replaced in the director’s chair by ‘Al Bradley’(actually Alfonso Brescia). He was known for a series of cheap, interchangeable ‘Star Wars’ knock-offs from the late 1970s. But something far more important had happened in the intervening 5 years than just a change of director! Something that was the biggest cultural change-up since the Renaissance. What was it? Why, MTV, of course!  As a result this film resembles nothing so much as the ‘vague story bits between the performance footage’ of a hair metal music video. We get soft focus! Blue tinting! Low angles! Coloured smoke! Wind machines! And lots and lots of slow motion!

The plot? Well, O’Keefe and heroine Savina Gersack wander about a bit looking for something or other. She has one red eyebrow and a dress that never tears. Every now and then Trogar turns up. He wears a shiny metal skull mask and wants to kill Ator. He and Ator fight. O’Keefe and Gersack wander about a bit more. Some horsemen turn up and attack them. Halfway through there’s a strange ‘vision’ bit and her dress changes colour. Trogar turns up again. Ator fights him. There’s a couple of lines of dialogue. The horsemen ride right under O’Keefe and Gersack when they are hiding in plain sight on a rope bridge. Trogar turns up again. In a ruined city, Ator lets her go first into a dungeon. What a gent! Only she gets trapped underground and chased by exploding bowling balls. Way to go, Ator! O’Keefe and Gersack find a golden chest. But it’s not the real one. And, hang on, here comes Trogar…!

Iron Warrior (1987)

The Princess had some strange hobbies.

The film is very different from the first two movies in the series, but there’s absolutely nothing else to recommend it. O’Keefe and Gersack are possibly the least engaging screen couple ever; struggling to muster even one significant facial expression between them. The brief dialogue is pretty appalling too: ‘But what if they kill you?’ ‘Then I’ll be dead. But they won’t.’

The action scenes can’t save it either; the big fights mostly play out in slow motion and aren’t even remotely convincing. Elisabeth Kaza hams it up unmercifully as the evil witch, providing what entertainment value there is, but it’s not all that much!

Ator returned for one last hurrah in ‘Quest for the Mighty Sword’ (1990) but O’Keefe didn’t! It was sacrilege – how could they make an Ator movie without Ator!? But not to worry – Hills/D’Amato/ Massaccesi returned to the director’s chair to ensure that the legend stayed in a pair of ‘safe’ hands…