Eye in the Labyrinth/L’occhio nel labirinto (1972)

‘There was something devilish about him, maybe because he was a psychiatrist.’

A young woman embarks on a journey to track down her friend, a doctor, who has apparently vanished. The trail leads to a remote lakeside community and a villa occupied by various artists. All of them claim never to have seen her friend, but she soon has good reason to think otherwise…

Slow burn Giallo thriller from co-writer and director Mario Caiano that was a co-production between Italy and West Germany. Famous faces Alida Valli and Bond villain Adolfo Celo grace the cast, and a story that places a naive protagonist at the mercy of a rogue’s gallery of questionable characters.

When her boyfriend, Dr Luca (Horst Frank), fails to show up at his office after a short trip, Julie (Rosemary Dexter) is concerned. A note in his diary suggests that he may have gone to a remote lake, so she follows and starts asking questions around the local area. She’s given a lead by a mysterious man named Antonio (Gaetano Donati), who takes her to a ruined building, claiming someone lives there who can help. But it’s deserted, and part of the structure falls, almost killing her.

A friendlier local named Frank (Adolfo Celi) suggests she try her luck at the isolated villa owned by middle-aged millionairess Gerda (an intense Alida Valli). This house has a seemingly permanent population of oddballs and idlers. There’s Eugene (Franco Ressel), who obsessively records everyday conversations on a tape machine and Toni (Sybil Danning), who takes photographs of feet. Theatrical double act Thomas and Corrine (Gigi Rizzi and Peter Kranz) have a big, personal secret, and handsome toyboy Louis (Michael Maien) spends his nights in Valli’s bed. Dexter is keen to move on with her search, but Celi suggests that their sworn ignorance about the good doctor may not be the entire truth.

Director Mario Caiano starts his film with an impressive sequence. A man in black flees down empty passages of white stone, apparently pursued by a killer. Extreme camera angles and lighting combine to deliver a sense of hyper-reality and disorientation. When Dexter wakes up, it’s revealed as only a nightmare, but it’s only the beginning. She remains off-balance throughout the entire story, placing her trust in the wrong people and persistently ignoring some pretty obvious red flags. The character is not likeable or sympathetic, and when she finally takes action, she makes bad choices. It’s a testament to DeXter’s clever and skilful performance that the audience stays engaged and on her side.

The solution to the mystery makes sense, but Caiaino has dropped a few too many clues on the way, and certain aspects are a little difficult to swallow. The problems revolve mainly around the involvement of Saro (Benjamin Lev), an adolescent artist who lives at the orphanage run by Celi’s mistress (Elisa Mainardi). His behaviour makes little sense, given his possession of the solution to the mystery. Still, his eventual fate does make for the film’s standout scene.

Gorehounds and those looking for an escalating body count are likely to be disappointed here, with Caiano’s focusing more on the psychological and mystery elements than horror. There are also few visual flourishes after Dexter’s opening nightmare, and little extravagance elsewhere, aside from the overstated score by Roberto Nicolosi. His music does work well at times, creating some unsettling moments, but at others, it’s merely an unfortunate distraction. The cast is good across the board, with Dexter showing up well against the more seasoned principals. Celi was an expert in playing outwardly friendly characters with a barely concealed sinister edge, and it’s good to see him go up against Valli as the manipulative Gerda. Ressel scores as the creepy Eugene in support, and Danning is fine in an early role, although there’s little sign of the tough persona she would bring to so many ‘B’ movies in the era of video home rental.

Caiano was a journeyman director whose career mirrored many other craftsmen in the Italian film industry in the latter half of the 20th Century. He began in the ‘sword and sandal’ arena with entries such as ‘Ulisse contro Ercole/Ulysses vs Hercules/Ulysses Against Hercules’ (1962) and ‘Goliath and the Rebel Slave/Goliath e la schiava ribelle/The Tyrant of Lydia Against the Son of Hercules/Arrow of the Avenger’ (1963). He also tried his hand at both the gothic horror with ‘Nightmare Castle/Amanti d’oltretomba/The Faceless Monster’ (1965) and the Eurospy with ‘Spies Strike Silently/Le Spie Uccidono In Silenzio’ (1966). Perhaps he was best known for a series of Spaghetti Westerns, though, material for which he showed more affinity, particularly with action scenes such as the excellent climax to ‘A Coffin for the Sheriff/Una bara per lo sceriffo/Lone and Angry Man’ (1965). Along with many others, he was working almost exclusively in television by the 1980s as the domestic film industry wrestled with serious financial problems.

Valli was born into the nobility in 1921 and was of Austrian, Italian and Slovenian descent, although she always identified as Italian. After a short spell in acting school, she was on the screen at age 15 and scored her first significant success in the comedy ‘Mille lire al mese’ (1939). Breaking into more dramatic roles with her award-winning performance in ‘Piccolo mondo antico’ (1941), she was brought to Hollywood after the war by famous producer David O. Selznick. Her career never really took off in America, although she was unforgettable as the haunted Anna Schmidt in Carol Reed’s iconic ‘The Third Man’ (1949). Back in Europe, she enjoyed great success in Luchino Visconti’s ‘Senso’ (1954) and Georges Franju’s superb ‘Eyes Without a Face/Les yeux sans visage’ (1960), among many other prestigious projects. In later years, she appeared in Mario Bava’s ‘Lisa and the Devil/El diablo se lleva a los muertos’ (1974) and the Dario Argento classic ‘Suspiria’ (1977).

Solid, professional Giallo with a few interesting elements.

Goliath and the Rebel Slave/Goliath e la schiava ribelle/The Tyrant of Lydia Against the Son of Hercules/Arrow of the Avenger (1963)

‘I think you are the strongest and most unselfish man in the world.’

The opposing armies of Alexander the Great and his Persian enemies are camped on the frontiers of Lydia. The kingdom’s ruler plans to abscond with the contents of the royal treasury, so he sends emissaries to both camps as a distraction. The one chosen to visit Alexander is Lydian general and man of the people, the strongman Goliath…

More Peplum antics from Italy chasing the money wagon launched by Steve Reeves as ‘Hercules’ (1957). This film is the third in the short-lived ‘Goliath’ series, and here it’s former Tarzan Gordon Scott treading in the sandal prints of Reeves, who was in the first entry and Brad Harris, who’d appeared in the sequel.

The world is closing in on the city of Sardis. King Marcius (Massimo Serato) is already planning to jump ship while his generals and advisors have shouting matches in the throne room. Muscleman Goliath (Scott) is all for extending the olive branch to the noble Alexander (Gabriele Antonini), while his rival Artafernes (Mimmo Palmara) favours the Persians. It’s not a plot spoiler to reveal that Palmara, his Lady Macbeth, Zoé (Gloria Milland) and slimy politico Barbuk (Giuseppe Sortis) have already sold out everyone down the river to the Persians anyway.

Scott embarks on his quest while Serato busies himself rifling the royal coffers and placing the booty in a secret tunnel that leads out of the city. On the way to Alexander’s camp, Scott rescues blonde, blue-eyed Princess Corri (Ombretta Colli) by catching a team of runaway horses and stopping her stagecoach. OK, he actually fights off a gang of bandits that attack her caravan, but it’s the same difference—the two fall in love in the blink of a false eyelash and the twitch of a deltoid.

When he reaches the Macedonian tents, Scott finds that Antonini is indeed an honourable man and strikes a deal on behalf of his sovereign. However, he doesn’t know that Colli has reached Sardis in safety, and Serato likes what he sees, selling her on the idea of marriage to help protect the people. His wedding plans go south after a cup of poisoned wine, and Colli is accused of murder. It’s all a plot concocted by our villainous triumvirate, of course, and before you can shake a ceremonial spear, Palamara and Milland are firmly ensconced on neighbouring thrones, and Colli is on the execution list.

Director Mario Caiano’s film is a slightly unusual entry in the Peplum genre in that he chooses to emphasise character and plot over action in the first two acts of the film. This would be a welcome change of pace were it not for the fact that the audience is unlikely to care. All the story developments are signposted well in advance, and the characters are nothing more than the usual hero/villain archetypes. The love story between Scott and Corri is soppy and dull, and the entire cast struggles to make anything out of Gian Paolo Callegari and Albert Valentin’s lifeless script. Serato does seem to be having fun, but he’s gone too soon.

Scott usually infused his heroes with some humour and humanity, but here he just seems to be sleepwalking through his dialogue, although he perks up a bit for the action when it arrives. If you’re thinking that Scott had already tackled the role of Goliath twice before in ‘Goliath and the Vampires’ (1961) and ‘Goliath – King of the Slaves’ (1963), then that’s understandable but you’d be wrong. In the first film, he played legendary hero Maciste, and in the second, a character called Nippur, the original title of the film translating as ‘The Hero of Babylon’. In a similar free translation, the ‘Goliath’ in this film became a ‘Son of Hercules’ when the movie hit American shores.

Also appearing in the film are the Lost Kingdom Dancing Girls ticking off a gig at the Royal Court of Sardis in their never-ending tour and some long shots of big battles scenes, appearing courtesy of another movie. But perhaps this film’s finest moments occur after the escape of Corri and her handmaiden, played by Lea Lander. The two swap dresses to throw off the soldiers that pursue them, and the patrol duly picks up Lander and takes her back to the palace, leaving Corri free. This would be a plausible development if Corri were not a blonde in a white dress and Lander a jet-black brunette in blue, and the soldiers hadn’t had a clear view of them before they swapped outfits.

A sadly lacklustre Peplum adventure. Perhaps it’s not too much of a surprise that the next film in the series reduced Goliath to almost a bystander in his own movie.

Ulisse contro Ercole/Ulysses vs Hercules/Ulysses Against Hercules (1962)

Ulisss contro Ercole/Ulysses vs Hercules/Ulysses Against Hercules (1962)‘Tomorrow my subjects will tear you with their claws. After that, your bodies will be exposed on the branches of the sacred oak.’

Ulysses has offended the Gods by blinding the cyclops, Polyphemus. Hercules is tasked with bringing him to account, but the demi-god has his own issues. The love of his life is about to be forced into marriage with the despicable Prince Adrasto…

The eighth in the loose cycle of ‘Hercules’ films that emerged from Italy in the late 1950s and early 1960s. This one comes courtesy of writer-director Mario Caiano. For a change, it (mostly) avoids the goofier aspects of the muscleman genre to deliver a straightforward adventure that’s crammed full of an unlikely amount of plot and lots, and lots, of action.

Hercules (Mike Lane) is not a happy demi-god. True love Princess Elena (Alessandra Pinaro) is about to be married off to Prince Adrasto (Raf Baldassarre) after his father helped save the kingdom of Ircano. Although that doesn’t sound so unreasonable in a way, it’s more like blackmail, and Pinaro only has eyes for Lane, rather than the nasty Baldassarre. To make matters worse, Lane is ordered by the Gods to take the adventurous Ulysses (Georges Marchal) back to serve the cyclops he blinded. A not unreasonable action on the sailor’s part when you consider that the monster was eating his crew!

Ulisss contro Ercole/Ulysses vs Hercules/Ulysses Against Hercules (1962)

‘He’s not with me, you know.’

After some model boat action in a nearby bathtub, our two heroes are shipwrecked on a desolate shore and Lane captures Marchal. But our dynamic duo ends up at the mercy of the Queen of the Bird People (a stunning Dominique Boschero in a dress seemingly made entirely of feathers) who plans to sacrifice them to a giant vulture. But, of course, she can’t resist the charms of our gallant heroes, so decides to marry one of them instead. Only she can’t choose, so they have to fight to the death first!

Later on, Marchal escapes but ends up in the hands of the sadistic Lagos (Gianni Santuccio), King of the Cave Dwellers, a bunch of mutant misfits in cheap rubber masks. This makes for some excellent comedy as Santuccio’s potentate is quite a few lightning bolts short of a thunderstorm, and the actor looks to be having a lot of fun with his demented role. This reaches a high point when he demands Marchal make him a pair of wings so that he can fly and swoop down on his enemies. Predictably, the test flight is not an unbridled success.

Ulisss contro Ercole/Ulysses vs Hercules/Ulysses Against Hercules (1962)

‘If she’s your kind of bird, go ahead, mate.’

All this is a decent amount of fun, with Caiano’s pacy script filled with interesting characters and incident. The swordplay is energetic, if bloodless, and the action scenes are laudably large-scale, even if the notion of battle tactics don’t seem to have reached the shores of Ancient Greece. The Cave Dwellers are mostly polite enough to attack Lane one at a time, though, so they were obviously conversant with basic filmmaking tradition and tropes.

What really adds to the entertainment value is the easy chemistry between our two male leads. Caiano is careful never to give one character priority over the other and has written them as distinct if not complicated personalities. Marchal is the thinker with the silver-tongue, Lane the more reserved and physical. This dynamic works particularly well in the film’s first half where Lane is permanently grouchy, unhappy at losing his chance at happiness with Pinaro while Marchal is far more upbeat. This plays well into the strengths of both actors, as Marchal was the one with the brighter presence and acting chops, while Lane was the one with the far more limited screen experience. The script offers them no great barbs of wit or exchanges of clever dialogue, but they still make for an appealing partnership.

Ulisss contro Ercole/Ulysses vs Hercules/Ulysses Against Hercules (1962)

🎵 I believe I can fly…🎶

In the US this film was included in the TV package ‘The Sons of Hercules’ (complete with stirring theme song), and this is the mostly easily accessible version available for viewing today. There is one major cut; an approximately six minute sequence at the halfway point where Marchal is captured by the Cave Dwellers, but the only other significant change is a prologue that features VoiceOver Man. He solemnly explains that our musclebound hero is one of the ‘Sons of Hercules’ who fights for truth, justice and whatnot. What’s his name? Heracles. Which is actually the original Greek name for Hercules. There are also a few references in the dub mentioning that he is the son of Jupiter. Not Zeus. Which is interesting because Jupiter was a Roman God.

It’s no surprise than some of the fight scenes contain wrestling moves as the 6ft 8” Lane was a professional in the square ring in the 1950s, both as a grappler and with the boxing gloves. As an actor, he got his big break playing pugilist Toro Moreno in Humphrey Bogart’s final film The Harder They Fall’ (1956). He also played Boris Karloff’s creation in the wretched attempt to update Mary Shelley’s work that was Frankenstein ’70′ (1958). Marchal had a lengthy career in European cinema and often acted in the films directed by his friend, Luis Bunuel, including the famous Belle de Jour’ (1967). The more eagle-eyed viewer may also spot Raffaella Carrà in the cast. She became an Italian national institution over the following years as a TV host, singer and entertainer. She even had a UK hit single in 1976 with the Euro-tastic anthem ‘Do It, Do It Again.’ 

Ulisss contro Ercole/Ulysses vs Hercules/Ulysses Against Hercules (1962)

‘Do you know the Funky Chicken?’

Boschero appeared memorably as the self-appointed ‘Queen of the World’ in the ridiculously enjoyable The Fantastic Argoman/Incident In Paris’ (1967) and also in Eurospy shenanigans Secret Agent Fireball’ (1965) and Fury In Marrakesh’ (1966). In the following decade, parts in Giallo films included The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire’ (1971), All The Colors of the Dark’ (1972) and a more substantial role in Who Saw Her Die?’ (1972). Writer-director Caiano’s future included directing muscleman Mark Forest as Maciste, gladiators di Sparta’ (1964), gothic horror Nightmare Castle’ (1965) with Barbara Steele, Eurospy ‘Spies Strike Silently’ (1966) and Giallo ‘Eye In The Labyrinth’ (1972), as well as numerous Spaghetti Westerns.

The lack of the cheesier elements of the Peplum genre makes this less of a giggle than many of its contemporaries. Instead, the film proves to be a surprisingly enjoyable, high-spirited adventure.

Spies Strike Silently/Le Spie Uccidono In Silenzio (1966)

Spies Kill Silently (1966)‘Then you become an automaton, bending all of your willpower and intelligence to my will alone.’

When a top professor’s daughter is murdered, it provides confirmation that a mysterious villain is targeting the scientific community. His assassins are individuals in positions of utmost trust, programmed to obey him via a new hypnotic drug. The authorities send their best agent to bring the madman to justice…

Although it was not obvious at the time, it now seems clear that the Italian and Spanish governments signed an international treaty in the mid-1960s. Their intention was to take over the world by flooding the marketplace with endless cheap Eurospy films, thus bankrupting Hollywood and the western Military-Industrial Complex. It’s the only thing that makes any reasonable sense.

This week’s ‘Bond On A Budget’ is Canadian actor Lang Jeffries as Michael Drum, an agent so brilliant that he only thinks to check his hotel room for electronic bugs after he’s explained his plans to local police inspector Craig (Jose Bodalo). He’s also happy to accept a colleague’s prompt identification of a cyanide pill, which he makes just by looking at it. Yes, we’re back in the fairly predictable territory of low-budget spy shenanigans, with a complete absence of big set pieces, stunts, gadgets and even car chases. Most of the action here is confined to the usual fisticuffs and a couple of gun battles. After one of those, Jeffries strolls down the street and fixes a beautiful woman’s car. When she asks for the keys back, he keeps them. ‘I’ll drive’ he smirks, taking her right back to his hotel room. Why does she just smile and go along with it? Because it’s the sixties, baby! Oh, and because she’s an enemy agent, which no-one could possibly have guessed.

In its defence, at least director Mario Caiano keeps things going at a decent pace and, although Jeffries is not over-blessed with screen presence, he’s a capable enough leading man. He enjoyed a very brief career on US TV in the late-1950s before being cast opposite Rhonda Fleming in Italian muscleman picture ‘Revolt of the Slaves’ (1960). He rarely worked outside of Europe after that, playing mostly in costume pictures and more Eurospy films. He even tried his hand at science fiction; appearing as literary hero Perry Rhodan in the hopelessly tatty but rather fun, ‘Mission: Stardust’ (1967).

Spies Kill Silently (1966)

The Three Stooges were trying out some edgier new material…

Elsewhere in the cast we find the lovely Erika Blanc, who brought beauty to a number of notable cult pictures in the 1960s, including Mario Bava’s ‘Kill, Baby…Kill’ (1966), and several Eurospy films like ‘Espionage in Lisbon’ (1965). She also steamed up the screen in horror ‘The Devil’s Nightmare’ (1971). She’s still working as of 2017 at the age of 75.

What lets this film down in the final analysis is the fragmentary script, which is little more than a hodgepodge of half realised ideas that were already becoming a little too familiar by the mid-1960s. Character motivation is never a major concern; the most obvious example being that of our supervillain Andrea Bosic. Why is he killing off all the scientists who are working on projects to help the human race? Well…umm…we don’t really know. He never really explains himself, beyond some vague declarations about taking over the world. He even unveils a super weapon toward the end of the film that he’s had all along but never mentioned!

Cookie-cutter Eurospy which benefits from good pacing and professionalism all round, but the only thing likely to live in the memory is the shortcomings of the script.