Three Great Gialli by Luciano Ercoli directed by Luciano Ercoli
It seems possible to me that even those fans of the genre known as the giallo film — that uniquely Italian cinematic product marked by stylish mayhem, gorgeous soundtracks, mind-bogglingly recomplicated plotting, outrageously violent set pieces, and fiendishly wackadoodle serial killers — might be unfamiliar with the director whom I would like to shine a spotlight on here. Though they might be very familiar with such giallo mainstays as Mario Bava (whose 1963 film The Girl Who Knew Too Much is often cited as the very first giallo picture), Dario Argento (who has arguably done more for the genre than any other single director, and who remains wildly popular to this day), Lucio Fulci, Sergio Martino, Umberto Lenzi and Massimo Dallamano, they yet might not have experienced the three gialli created by one Luciano Ercoli (1929 – 2015), who also helmed films in the genres of the spaghetti Western, the historical drama, and the crime film (also known as the poliziotteschi, or polizieschi all’italiana). But from 1970 until ’72, Ercoli came out with three linked films that were every bit as impressive as many created by those other great giallo masters just named. The three were linked not so much as regards story, but by the fact that all three were not only directed by Ercoli, but were also scripted by the same person, Ernesto Gastaldi (who was responsible for SO many of the great giallo films by other directors as well), and starred both Susan Scott (a pseudonym for the Spanish-born actress Nieves Navarro, who married Ercoli in ’72) and Simon Andreu. Perfect for viewing during this Shocktober season, the films might prove eye-openers for those who are both game and patient. So open up a bottle of Chianti, settle back, and let’s take a look at these very fine examples of the giallo world:
The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion (1970): My old buddy Rob, who knows more about psychotronic movies than anybody I know, was the one who turned me on to one of my favorite film experiences of recent years, The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh (1970), so when he recently raved about another giallo thriller from 1970 that he’d just seen, The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion, I made a mental note to check it out as quickly as possible. And boy, am I glad I did! In The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion, Dagmar Lassander plays the part of Minou, a woman who is being sexually blackmailed by a man who has incriminating evidence of a murder her hunky businessman husband supposedly committed. Lassander looks a bit like a redheaded Debra Messing here, and her character is indeed quite the mess even when we first meet her, smoking and drinking too much and popping tranquilizers the way I’d pop Pretzel Nuggets. Needless to say, the events she must go through in this sexy, stylized thriller push her ever closer to the cracking point.
Anyway, while gorehounds may be a tad disappointed by the lack of extreme violence in this picture, there are still abundant joys to be found. Luciano Ercoli’s direction is impeccable; the script by Ernesto Gastaldi (who seems to have written every other giallo that I see!) is one made to keep you guessing (although, plotwise, the film is much more straightforward than many other gialli); and Susan Scott, playing Minou’s best friend, is remarkably sexy. But the single best element of this picture, for me, is yet another superb score by the maestro, the late Ennio Morricone. Isn’t it remarkable how many hundreds of outstanding film scores this man was responsible for? I’m just in awe of this friggin’ dude! I promise that you’ll have this film’s catchy theme song bouncing around in your head for days … and won’t be forgetting this little giallo picture too quickly, either. Thanks, Blue Underground, and thanks again, Rob!
Death Walks on High Heels (1971): Director Luciano Ercoli, screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi, and actors Susan Scott and Simon Andreu had greatly impressed me with their 1970 giallo offering, The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion. Curious to see whether lightning could possibly strike twice for this same team, I took a look at 1971’s Death Walks on High Heels, and it turns out that this latter film is, remarkably, even better than the first! In this one, sexy redheaded stripper Nicole (appealingly played by Scott) gets into major-league trouble when a masked killer with a mechanical voice box starts to target her, whilst looking for some stolen diamonds. You may think that you know where this stylish thriller is headed (and Ercoli does direct with style to spare), but trust me, you’re dead wrong. A shocking twist of plot around halfway through really does pull the rug out from the viewer’s expectations here, sending us into very strange and uncharted waters indeed.
Gastaldi has here provided us with yet another ingeniously plotted story that hangs together marvelously (unlike — for me, anyway — Ercoli and Scott’s follow-up film, 1972’s Death Walks at Midnight); composer Stelvio Cipriani has contributed a chic and catchy score; and some great-looking lensing of Paris, London, and the English countryside provides some elegant backdrops for the film’s very sinister doings. Add some touches of welcome humor (in the film’s latter half), one genuinely nasty slice-and-dice sequence for the gorehounds, and some fairly brutal fisticuffs at the film’s conclusion and you have one extremely satisfying giallo indeed. Good luck trying to figure out the killer’s identity in this one! As icing on the cake, the DVD that I just watched comes to us courtesy of the fine folks at No Shame, who continue to impress with pristine prints of lost Italian wonders, and with excellent subtitling, to boot. Grazie, No Shame!
Death Walks at Midnight (1972): Following such marvelous gialli as 1970’s The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion and 1971’s Death Walks on High Heels, director Luciano Ercoli, screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi, and actors Susan Scott and Simon Andreu reunited one more time, and the result, 1972’s Death Walks at Midnight, although perhaps the least of the three films, is another winning entertainment, nevertheless. In this one, Scott plays a gorgeous redheaded model, Valentina, who becomes the willing test subject of a new hallucinogen, H.D.S. During her trip, she sees a spike-gloved killer mutilate a young girl across the way … a murder that, as it turns out, actually transpired six months earlier! Holy flashback! And from this bizarre setup, things get progressively stranger, as said killer starts to stalk Valentina all over the streets of Milan!
Anyway, perhaps I’m a little slow on the ol’ rebop, but I had to watch this picture almost three full times before it began to make a bit of sense to me. The plot is a bit convoluted, to say the least, and whereas in most gialli I make an attempt (usually a fruitless one) to spot the killer, here, I was hard pressed just to barely keep up. Still, brain twisting as the film is, it did, ultimately, kinda sorta make sense to me (just don’t ask me to explain it out loud!). And the picture does have a lot going for it: stylish direction, beautiful photography of the city of Milan and its countryside, yet another supersexy performance from Susan Scott, a catchy score by Gianni Ferrio, several (not overly) gory homicides, and a furious rooftop dukeout to cap off the film. Drug dealers, a mental institution, a pot party, groovy discos, a couple of cute little Japanese kids, a murder attempt in a cemetery, and a bloody cat all, ultimately, get thrown into the mix. Yes, this really is one heady giallo. And the great-looking DVD from No Shame that I just watched does it justice indeed.
Anyway, FanLit reader, yes, the world of the giallo film surely is a strange and very deep one, with manifold wonders to be found therein. I hope to be able to shine a spotlight on some other giallo films in this Shocktober column. In the meantime, I hope you do get a chance to see this trio from Luciano Ercoli, after which I am sure you will agree with me that he was indeed one of the giallo masters…