The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail/La coda dello scorpione (1971)

‘He must’ve been peeling a pear when his knife slipped.’

A faithless wife receives a million-dollar life insurance payout when her husband dies in a plane crash. Several people believe that she was somehow responsible and, when she goes to pick up the money in Athens, various mysterious characters start to close in…

After director Sergio Martino took his bow in the Giallo arena with ‘The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh‘ (1971), it was less than eight months before he delivered his second entry. Also produced by brother Luciano, it again featured a writing team that included Eduardo Manzanos and genre leader Ernesto Gastaldi.

When a commercial airliner explodes mid-flight, the beautiful Lisa Baumer (Evelyn Stewart) isn’t too bothered when she finds out that her husband, Kurt (Fulvio Mingozzi), was on the passenger list. After all, it wasn’t that much of a marriage; he was constantly on the move because of business, leaving her alone in London to amuse herself with a string of lovers. In fact, there’s a considerable upside. A few months earlier, he’d taken out a million-dollar life insurance policy with her as the sole beneficiary.

However, newfound wealth comes with its own problems. Before leaving England, Stewart is stalked by one of her ex-playmates, who has an incriminating letter in which she wished her husband dead. Going to pay him off, she instead finds him dying in a pool of blood. Fleeing to Athens to collect the cash, she’s pursued by both insurance investigator Peter Lynch (George Hilton) and Interpol agent John Stanley (Alberto de Mendoza). If all that’s not bad enough, Mingozzi’s ex-lover Lara Florakis (Janine Reynaud) and her strongarm friend Sharif (Luis Barboo) want their share of the booty.

What follows is the tangled web of murder, mystery and misdirection typical of the sub-genre. Was the explosion on the plane an accident or sabotage? Who killed the blackmailer in London? Was Reynaud really Mingozzi’s lover? Is the businessman actually still alive? Does de Mendoza have a hidden agenda? Do Stewart and Hilton have a previous relationship, and does journalist Cléo Dupont (Anita Strindberg) have an ulterior motive in getting close to him? Question after question for Inspector Stavros (Luigi Pistilli) as the money disappears and the corpses begin piling up.

This is a quality Giallo, but with an impact slightly compromised by some structural and pacing issues. These were most probably caused by a hurried production. The original cut of the film ran short, and reshoots with Stewart took place in London. These scenes never fully integrate into the story and make for a rather extended first act. This means that Strindberg appears surprisingly late in proceedings, considering that she is a pivotal character and, at times, the drama does seem a little unfocused.

Nevertheless, the film has some definite virtues. On the technical side, we have wonderfully crisp cinematography from Emilio Foriscot, and Bruno Nicolai’s score is excellent. The director also ups the horror content with more explicit kills, even if the makeup effects leave a little to be desired on occasion. One of the murders proves to be the film’s outstanding sequence; another tour de force of editing, camerawork and direction that stands up to comparison with equivalent scenes in ‘The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh’ (1971). It’s also pleasing to report that, despite some niggles with the story in hindsight, the writers conjure a logical and satisfying conclusion when the audience could be forgiven for thinking that such an outcome is looking unlikely.

Performances are solid, with a lot of the cast already experienced in this type of project, despite the Giallo not yet reaching its heyday. Hilton and de Mendoza return from ‘The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh’ (1971), and the former appeared in ‘The Sweet Body of Deborah’ (1968) along with Stewart and Pistilli. Reynaud had starred in ‘Assassino senza volto/Killer Without A Face’ (1968) and ‘Run, Psycho, Run’ (1968), and Strindberg was a brief, but memorable, part of Lucio Fulci’s ‘A Lizard In A Woman’s Skin’ (1971). Almost the entire cast went on to further notable Gialli credits over the next few years.

The unwieldy structure holds the film back a little, but it’s still a highly enjoyable Giallo with memorable moments.

The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh/Lo strano vizio della signora Wardh (1971)

‘And I was afraid I’d have to do without any bratwurst.’

A neglected diplomat’s wife returns to Vienna with her husband during a series of unsolved murders of young women. She takes a lover but gets a phone call threatening to expose the affair. She suspects the culprit maybe her old boyfriend with who she had a violent sexual relationship…

High-quality Italian-Spanish Giallo thriller that launched the career of director Sergio Martino and took leading lady Edwige Fenech to the next level. Previously Martino had delivered a little regarded Spaghetti Western and a trio of documentaries, and Fenech was best known for her beauty rather than her acting chops. She had primarily appeared in sexy comedies, although she’d made an undeniable impression in supporting roles in Giallo pictures ‘Top Sensation’ (1969) and Mario Bava’s ‘Five Dolls For An August Moon’ (1970).

Returning to Vienna, diplomat Neil Wardh (Alberto de Mendoza) is immediately rushed from the airport into a top-level meeting, leaving bored young wife Julie (Fenech) to go home in a taxi. On the way, she has a vivid flashback to her affair with the handsome but sadistic Jean (Ivan Rassimov). It’s a striking scene and the first sign that the audience is in for something special. It’s almost operatic in the way it combines slow motion, dissonant music and sexual violence as the two wrestle on the ground during a rainstorm.

‘Go away, my flashbacks are far more interesting than you…’

With hubby almost permanently absent at work, there’s little for Fenech to do now she’s back home but hang out with cynical, liberated BFF Carol (Conchita Airoldi). Apart from the usual round of shopping and afternoon tea, this involves attending a vaguely naughty party with the smart set where girls wear paper dresses and tear them off during a catfight. Here, she meets Airoldi’s cousin, the ruggedly handsome George Corro (George Hilton) who’s in town to claim an unexpected inheritance that he’s sharing with Airoldi. Fenech attempts to resist his charms, but Hilton is persistent, and self-restraint is not her forte. Unfortunately, Rassimov is still in town and sending her flowers, although his intentions could hardly be described as romantic. Meanwhile, young women are being brutally murdered with a razor by an unknown killer.

After her first night with Hilton, Fenech gets an anonymous phone call demanding money in exchange for silence about the affair. She suspects Rassimov is behind it and confesses all to her best friend. Airoldi goes in her place to deliver the blackmail payoff in a public park at sunset, but she is attacked with a razor and murdered. Fenech suspects Rassimov is the serial killer, of course, but the police find he has an unshakeable alibi. As events twist and turn, Fenech starts to believe she is marked for death.

‘A blackmail payoff? No problem, afterwards we can talk about men some more.’

An excellent mystery coupled with some beautiful visuals, an unflagging pace and good performances make for one of the finest examples of the Giallo sub-genre. Director Martino handles the material with flair and style, and the screenplay by old hand Ernesto Gastaldi is tight and well-disciplined. In terms of credibility, the complex plot takes one twist too many at the end, but it makes for a satisfying resolution. It’s also been such a highly enjoyable journey to get there that it hardly matters. The dubbing in the English language version is not great, and the viewing experience improved significantly by watching the subtitled original.

The film was a watershed moment for Fenech as an actress and a tricky assignment. After all, our weak-willed heroine takes almost no positive action throughout, even on her own behalf; perfectly happy to abdicate responsibility for her actions and let Airoldi deliver the blackmail payoff, even though it’s likely to be a dangerous task with a mad killer on the loose. She also needs constant validation from her relationships with men, and usually in a physical sense. There’s little attempt to address her character’s psychology or analyse her sexual needs, particularly concerning her violent relationship with Rassimov. This is showcased in another memorable flashback where the couple has sex in a blood-soaked bed filled with glass fragments from a broken wine bottle.

‘And they told me there was a wardrobe budget this time…’

It’s a challenging task to keep an audience onside with such a passive, flawed character, and it’s a testament to Fenech’s increasing skill as an actress that she remains sympathetic throughout. The poise and personality she displays is a marked improvement on her showing in previous roles. It proved a stepping stone to a remarkable cult film career that included starring roles in several notable Giallo films. She worked with Martino again on ‘All The Colours of the Dark (1972) and ‘Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key’ (1972). Other examples were ‘The Case of the Bloody Iris’ (1972) and ‘Strip Nude for Your Killer’ (1975). She also continued to appear in many sex comedies throughout the 1970s and early 1980s and eventually began a second career as a highly successful producer for Italian television.

The male members of the cast also deliver strong turns here, with all three principals displaying an economy of performance and quiet charisma that serves their characters and the story. Airoldi also makes something out of the ‘best friend’ who keeps her undies in the fridge; world-weary and carefree on the one hand, but also practical and loyal at heart. The scene where she is stalked at the payoff rendezvous is one of the film’s highlights; a tense and unsettling sequence where Martino’s camera deftly captures the isolation and vulnerability of the victim as she walks through the public grounds of Vienna’s famous Schönbrunn Palace.

‘Just because he forgot our anniversary last week….’

After the Giallo craze subsided, Martino carved out a long career in Italian cinema. He teamed with Fenech again for some of her sexy comedies, as well as delivering such cult titles as the controversial ‘Slave of the Cannibal God’ (1978), Dr Moreau knock-off ‘Island of the Fishmen’ (1979) and that glorious slab of sci-fi cheese ‘2019: After The Fall of New York’ (1983). Like Fenech, Hilton became primarily associated with the Giallo, appearing with her again in ‘All The Colours of the Dark (1972) and ‘The Case of the Bloody Iris’ (1972). He also appeared in Martino’s ‘The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail (1971), Tonino Valerii ‘My Dear Killer’ (1972), and Luigi Cozzi’s ‘The Killer Must Kill Again’ (1975).

As a side-note, if the spelling of the title character’s name seems a little odd, then it was allegedly because a woman approached producer Luciano Martino and asked that it be changed to spare her embarrassment! If this seems a little far-fetched, it isn’t easy to come up with an alternative explanation.

A highly accomplished, entertaining Giallo delivered by a fine cast and a talented director who displays a fine visual sensibility and storytelling prowess. Highly recommended.

So Sweet…So Perverse/Così Dolce…Così Perversa (1969)

So Sweet...So Perverse (1969)‘Don’t get yourself so upset. You see corpses everywhere…’

A philandering playboy, caught in a loveless marriage, becomes intrigued by the mysterious blonde who has taken the apartment upstairs. Before long, they are having a passionate affair, but she is still seemingly in thrall to her abusive ex-boyfriend…

In many ways, this is the archetypical late 1960s Giallo thriller. This cocktail of death and sex is served up by journeyman Italian director Umberto Lenzi, who had just come off the similarly themed ‘Orgasmo’ (1969). Why is it so typical Well, there’s a small cast of principals whose loyalties and alliances are continually suspect. There’s a low body count, no blood to speak of, and the nudity is kept mostly under wraps. There’s also a twisting plot more reminiscent of a ‘mystery of the week’ than the kind of borderline horror picture that helped to inspire the American Slasher craze of the late 1970s and 1980s.

Our less than perfect protagonist is Jean-Louis Trintignant, already experienced in this kind of picture. Here, he’s a casual businessman approaching a mid-life crisis. Why is a little hard to understand. After all, he’s hitched to the beautiful and wealthy Erika Blanc, and they live in a wonderfully gothic old building in the centre of Paris. But Trintignant is a serial player with a roving eye and other wandering parts of his anatomy, and his various infidelities have left him at loggerheads with Blanc. Enter beautiful blonde Carroll Baker, who takes the apartment upstairs. Blanc had wanted to rent it for expansion purposes (or perhaps as a retreat from Trintignant), so the couple has a key. Trintignant finds a dropped earring in the elevator, which seems to belong to Baker, and well, you can guess the rest.

So Sweet...So Perverse (1969)

‘This is the last time I let the boss drive me home from work..’

As usual, the game is to guess who’s in league with who and what they might be planning to do to someone else. The wild card is the last member of our featured quartet; violent bully Klaus (Horst Frank), who runs a photography studio. He still has some hold over Baker despite their relationship being over. Or is it?

Baker was getting quite experienced at playing out these kinds of scenarios, and she’s the stand out here. Her character turns on a dime so many times that it sends Trintignant into a complete spin, and constantly wrong-foots the audience. Is she victim, or perpetrator? Damsel in distress or cold-hearted femme fatale? Elsewhere, Blanc gets a bit of a thankless role as the cast-aside wife, but there is a nice piece of business where she walks around her flat staring up at the ceiling, following the sounds of Baker and Trintignant making love in the flat upstairs. There’s also some casual exploitation with stripper Beryl Cunningham in a ‘swinging’ party scene, and Helga Liné is completely wasted as a family friend. It may have been a nothing role, but at least it was another credit for the hardest working actress in 1960s Europe.

Probably the film’s greatest asset is that Lenzi resists a lot of the tricks and flourishes he’d employed on ‘Orgasmo’ (1969), although there is one sequence where he throws the camera around and puts coloured filters on the lens. But it’s brief, and most of the time he chooses to shoot in a way that serves the story, rather than distracts from it. The twists are better executed too, happening more organically throughout the film. This helps to keep the audience interested, even if the final resolution isn’t particularly satisfying and the end product is ultimately a little bland.

So Sweet...So Perverse (1969)

‘Thank you, but I’m not interested in a new set of vacuum cleaner brushes.’

The film’s most remarkable feature is the presence of so many people on both sides of the camera who became closely associated with the Giallo film. Behind the scenes are co-writer Ernesto Gastaldi and producer Sergio Martino, both of whom leant their talents to many similar outings.

Baker had only just finished working on ‘Orgasmo’ (1969) with Lenzi and went on to star in half-dozen or so similar projects into the 1970s. Here, she is dubbed by another actress in the English language version; presumably, her voice-track not being available after the original Italian dub. It’s not as disconcerting as similar instances involving actors such as Christopher Lee, as her voice is not as distinctive, but it’s still a little distracting.

A solid thriller. Not a bad example of the genre, but a little unmemorable.

The Sweet Body of Deborah/Il Dolce Corpo Di Deborah (1968)

The Sweet Body of Deborah (1968)‘And now watch out, I like to eat little girls.’

A bridegroom takes his American wife to his old home town of Geneva on their honeymoon. When they arrive, he discovers that his ex-lover has committed suicide and it’s not long before the couple are being subjected to strange happenings and mysterious threats…

The ltalian ‘Giallo’ movie is now recognised as a precursor to the American slasher craze kicked off in earnest by John Carpenter’s ‘Halloween’ (1978), but the term originally simply referred to a ‘murder mystery’ and this film falls squarely into that category. So there’s a notable absence of the familiar tropes we expect when viewing films from that sub-genre today, but nevertheless this was an important steeping stone in their development, although not so much for what actually appears on the screen.

Handsome Swiss hunk Jean Sorel is showing new wife Carroll Baker the sights of Europe when they stopover in his old stomping ground on the shores of Lake Geneva. A seemingly chance encounter with old friend Philip (Liugi Pistilli) turns nasty when Pistilli informs him of the suspected suicide of Sorel’s ex-girlfriend Suzanne (Evelyn Stewart) in a car accident.

The Sweet Body of Deborah (1968)

‘Shake it Baby!’

At Stewart’s abandoned old home, they hear spooky music and Baker gets a phone call threatening her life. Believing Pistilli was in love with Stewart and is seeking vengeance, the couple rent an isolated villa in the country, but it seems they can’t escape Sorel’s shady past. And what’s their dangerously handsome next door neighbour George Hilton got to do with it all?

The film starts rather slowly with Sorrel and Baker as loving newlyweds. The intention is to establish character and get the audience invested, which is a fine idea. Unfortunately, both Baker and Sorel seem disengaged with the material and there is little chemistry between them. After their visit to the spooky old house, suspicion raises its ugly head on both sides and the cracks in their relationship begin to show. Their quiet sense of distrust in each other is nicely played and these are probably the film’s best scenes.

So, after a somewhat rocky opening, toward the half way point things seem to be building up nicely. But then there’s no more story development until the last 15 minutes when all the threads come together. It’s this lengthy and very dull second act that really derails the film. To its’ credit, we still not exactly sure of what’s happening until pretty near the conclusion but when the pieces fall into place it’s not exactly a surprise and an attempt at an additional twist at the end is rather ambiguous and makes little sense.

The Sweet Body of Deborah (1968)

 In the 60s people really knew how to party… 

Director Romolo Guerrieri is keen to catch that 1960’s zeitgeist by dressing Baker in funky outfits and employing some ill-advised (if pretty) slo-mo in some of the romantic flashbacks. The musical soundtrack by Nora Orlandi is very much of its time and there’s a slightly odd sequence where Baker and Sorel play ‘Twister’ in their back garden to the sound of a marching band!

Considering all this is a fairly tepid experience, then why is it an important step in the development of the ‘Giallo’ as we know it today? Because of the people that were involved – on both sides of the camera. Writer Ernesto Gastaldi (who co-authored the screenplay) was already becoming the ‘go-to guy’ for these kind of convoluted thrillers and co-writer/producer Luciano Martino went onto fulfil the same roles on several notable examples, including ‘So Sweet…So Perverse’ (1969) and ‘The Strange Vice of Mrs Wrath’ (1971). That last film was directed by his brother Sergio who served as production manager on this film and actually starred Hilton who top-lined several other similar projects in subsequent years. And the same can be said of Pistilli and Sorel! Perhaps it just shows how tightly knit the Italian film industry was at the time.

Baker was a Hollywood actress who had fame almost as soon as she stepped in front of the camera with a featured role in the James Dean epic ‘Giant’ (1956) and an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of the title character of Elia Kazan’s ‘Baby Doll’ (1956). Partly due to the nature of that role and the national controversy which the film provoked, she found it hard to get decent roles afterwards and often argued with producers and studios to escape type-casting. When big budget biopic ‘Harlow’ (1965) was a box office disaster (and her performance in the title role panned by critics) her stateside career was effectively over and, after a short break, she relocated to the continent. Subsequent to this film, she made a string of ‘Giallo’ pictures: ‘So Sweet…So Perverse’ (1969), ‘Orgasmo’ (1969), ‘A Quiet Place To Kill’ (1970) and ‘The Fourth Victim’ (1971) among others.

This is not a bad thriller by any means, but a dull middle section betrays the lack of an interesting plot and there’s not enough suspense or surprise to satisfy mystery fans. And those familiar with the more extreme elements of later ‘Giallo’ pictures are likely to be severely disappointed.

lsland of the Fishmen/L’Isola Degli Uomini Pesce (1979)

Island of the Fishmen (1979)‘This island is inhabited by zombies! The Living Dead! That’s why the graves are empty!’

1891: A prison ship is wrecked in uncharted waters and the few survivors wash up on an empty beach. The island’s owner isn’t pleased to see them and it becomes obvious that he has more than one secret to hide. What is his connection to the strange, amphibious humanoids that live out in the swamps?

Cast adrift in a boat with no food or water and only convicts for company, it would seem that things can’t get much worse for ship’s doctor Claudio Cassinelli. Unfortunately, he’s also got to deal with arrogant autocrat Richard Johnson, whose household consists of pretty young wife Barbara Bach, and native servants who seem more interested in voodoo than their household chores. Oh, and he’s keeping elderly Professor Joseph Cotten in a secret laboratory under the stairs.

Yes, what with the murderous fishmen out in the reeds, it seems we’re back in ‘Dr Moreau’ territory again for another round with H.G. Wells’ classic novel. But what’s that lying in the depths offshore beneath the coral reef? Why, it’s the lost continent of Atlantis, of course, which puts rather a different spin on things. As well as that, Johnson’s housekeeper Shakira (Beryl Cunningham, not the pop star) is carrying out strange ceremonies in a cemetery in the woods. This tropical boneyard has been abandoned by everyone, including the residents! Questions pile up for Cassinelli as he investigates, inevitably falling for Bach along the way as his convict charges becomes fish food one by one.

This all sounds like quite a heady mix with lots of possibilities, but it all falls rather flat under the direction of journeyman Sergio Martino, whose only real cinematic claims to fame are the controversial ‘Slave of the Cannibal God’ (1975) and delirious Mad Max ‘homage’ ‘2019: After the Fall of New York’ (1983). The main problem is the lack of originality in the script and the sheer predictability of events. Barely a quarter of an hour has gone by before the local volcano starts rumbling, effectively signposting the way to the climatic conflagration and inevitable stock footage. What is it with these mysterious islands and their volcanos? It seems one isn’t complete without the other. And there’s little else in the way of real action either; with the voodoo subplot going nowhere and our amphibious friends doing little until some aquatic shenanigans in the final act. To the production’s credit, the creatures don’t look particularly ridiculous, just a little unconvincing.

Island of the Fishmen (1979)

Bach’s choice of boyfriends wasn’t always perfect.

Bach was a Bond Girl in the era when it was a double-edged sword. Although it brought instant fame, it could also be a career curse and she struggled to escape the shadow of ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ (1977). Subsequent projects were less than stellar Eurotrash such as ‘The Great Alligator’ (1979) and ridiculous ‘Star Wars’ (1977) knock-off ‘The Humanoid’ (1979). She met Ringo Starr on the set of prehistoric comedy ‘Caveman’ (1981), became his wife and virtually retired. It was probably for the best, as she is a distinctly vapid presence here, and her dialogue seems to be dubbed.

Spare a thought for Cassinelli too, whose part entirely consists of looking rugged and asking endless questions. So acting honours go to Johnson, who gives a performance so dastardly you expect him to start twirling his moustache at any moment. Cotten, on the other hand, is obviously just picking up a cheque, and probably wasn’t on set too long to get his brief scenes in the can.

This has all the ingredients of a cult classic but fails to deliver on almost every level. lt’s not so bad that it’s good, and not good enough to be very entertaining.

Hands of Steel (1986)

Hands_of_Steel_(1986)‘It’s impossible – no hand could do that kind of damage.’

In a polluted near-future, a blind political leader stands up against the corporations who are poisoning the planet. People listen and he takes on almost messianic status so a dodgy businessman has a cyborg created from a badly wounded soldier and sends it to kill him.

Sergio Martino (credited here as ‘Martin Dolman’) followed up his trash classic ‘2019: After The Fall of New York’ (1982) with this not-so classic ‘Terminator’ (1984) re-boot. Our hero – part mechanical, all beefcake – is played by U.S. actor Daniel Greene and the main villain by b-movie legend John Saxon (‘Enter the Dragon’ (1973), ‘Blood Beach’ (1981) etc, etc).

The film has some promise at the beginning as Greene sneaks into a backstreet tenement to carry out his mission. At the last moment, his human side wins out over his programming and he goes on the run instead. Unfortunately, when he holes up in Janet Agren‘s truckstop motel, the proceedings come to a shuddering halt. There’s some arm wrestling and snake decapitation with George Eastman’s local bullies while both the villains (Claudio Cassinelli in charge) and the FBI close in before a bullet soaked climax.

His new combat technique featured a mean seagull impression.

His new combat technique featured a mean seagull impression.

This is so 1980s and typical of the kind of flick you’d find down your local video store. There’s the usual pounding synthesiser score, the female cyborg is a dead ringer for Darryl Hannah in ‘Blade Runner’ (1982) and our muscular hero looks like he’s been to Mel Gibson’s hairstylist. Sadly, it’s not a patch on Martino’s previous film; this is just a generic actioner with a science fiction gimmick. There’s lots of bad dubbing and a couple of big explosions near the end. That’s about it, although the final freeze frame and caption is pleasingly nonsensical.

John Saxon refused to film his scenes in the U.S. because it was a non-union shoot. The American filming featured a helicopter in which he and Cassinelli were supposed to be travelling. It crashed and Cassinelli was killed instantly.

Buy ‘Hands of Steel’ here