Sunday, August 17, 2014

Underrated Horror Movie Gems--"Twitch of the Death Nerve"

     “Twitch of the Death Nerve” (1971) concerns the events occurring at a small bay in Italy.  Certain parties want to make it into a tony resort, while others are appalled by this idea.  When the overall property owner dies, confusion and violence ensue.  There is a disputed inheritance, interested tenants, and even a group of vacationing/squatting young people all grouped together.  A series of brutal murder occurs.  Who will be left alive, and what will they have to do to survive?
     “Twitch of the Death Nerve,” hereafter referred to as “TOTDN,” is an example of the horror subgenre called a “giallo.”  This is a 20th century Italian literature and movie type.  Giallo is actually Italian for “yellow,” and this is due to the books’ trademark yellow covers.  Although the written giallo dates back to at least 1929, the movie variant is younger, starting in about the early 1960’s (depending on who’s doing the classifying).  The film genre is typified as pulpy, murder mystery thrillers, which are full of suspense, extremely graphic and gory kill scenes, usually liberal amounts of sex and nudity, and a mysterious, black gloved killer.  Director Mario Bava’s 1963 film, “The Girl Who Knew Too Much,” and his 1964 effort, “Blood and Black Lace,” are considered the pace setters of the genre.  In addition to Bava, directors Dario Argento, Paolo Cavera, Umberto Lenzi, Lucio Fulchi, and Sergio Martino are some of the genre’s most famous and active practitioners.  Giallo’s glory period was about 1968-1978, with 1971-1973 being the most active years.  Some of the classics of giallo, besides the ones already mentioned, are Bava’s “Hatchet For the Honeymoon” (1970), Argento’s “The Bird With the Crystal Plumage” (1970) and “Deep Red” (1975), Fulchi’s “A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin” (1971), Pupi Avati’s “The House With Laughing Windows” (1976), and Martino’s “Your Vice is a Locked Door, and Only I Have the Key (1972).  (Obviously, giallos are also known for long, sentence-length titles, and this last one has to be a candidate for one of the longest titles ever!)
     (SPOILERS AHEAD UNTIL NOTED)  TOTDN is, no doubt about it, an incredibly nasty film.  Of the 13 adult main and supporting characters introduced, all 13 are murdered, in disturbing, bloody detail.  Stabbings, a hanging, impalements, decapitation, strangulation, shootings—a wide variety of ways of destroying a human being are utilized.  And these dispatches are surprisingly convincing, considering the film’s age.  Despite a limited budget, the filmmakers didn’t stint on the effects, hiring long time maestro Carlo Rimbaldi.  Rimbaldi later won two Oscars for his effects in “Alien” (1979) and “E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial” (1982), and also worked on “King Kong” (1976), and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977).  So be forewarned—if you don’t like seeing the red stuff, maybe give this one a pass.
     I’ll give a quick, spoiler-rich recap to get readers up to date on the plot.  Real estate agent Frank Ventura is pressing the overall bay property owner, Countess Federica, to sell him her land for development.  She refuses, but her husband, Donati, is interested, enough so that he murders her and makes it look like a suicide.  However, he in turn is almost immediately killed, and his body hidden.  Now the inheritance is in dispute, as there is the Countess’s illegitimate son, Simon, and a daughter, Renata.  Four young people (Duke, Denise, Bobby, and Brunhilda) head to the bay for partying, and they break into Ventura’s closed up vacation house.  After Brunhilda discovers Donati’s body in its watery grave, she and the rest of her group are quickly executed.  Renata and her husband, Albert, are watching over the proceedings in the bay, and Renata discovers the four corpses in Ventura’s house.  After Ventura attacks her, Renata apparently stabs him dead.  When the neighbor couple, Paolo and Anna Fassati, witness the carnage, Renata kills the latter, and gets Albert to dispatch the former.  Ventura’s girlfriend, Laura, who helped get Donati to kill his wife, arrives and is promptly strangled by Simon.  We then learn that Simon also killed Donati, and the four young people (since they were witnesses), to gain the inheritance, as he’s made a deal with Ventura to sell the bay.  Albert and Renata kill Simon, and then, after a brief struggle, Ventura (who survived Renata’s initial stabbing).  Renata and Albert are triumphant, in the clear as the sole heir, when, boom!—their 6-8 year old son and daughter inexplicably gun them down, thinking it’s a game.
     TOTDN makes the bold decision of making its main characters fairly unsympathetic, and in fact, pretty reprehensible.  Aside from the vacationing young people, the bystander Fassati couple, and the Countess herself, everyone is basically completely amoral, and willing to kill to get what they want.  But, in an odd way, this works to the film’s benefit.  It’s certainly hard to predict what will happen next, and there are no clear heroes or heroines.  Anyone can die at any time (and they often do!).
     Much is made about giallos being sexist (or even misogynist), and this is frequently a fair accusation.  TOTDN isn’t immune to this—the only real gratuitous nudity is a female character, and women certainly get slaughtered in hideous, camera-lingering ways (as do many of the men).  However, in other ways this tendency is subverted.  Although she only actually kills one person, Renata is clearly one of the main drivers of the murderous activities, ordering/manipulating her husband Albert into killing folks to suit their needs.  It’s kind of a weirdly refreshing change in a movie—in this one the husband is the only one to express regret about killing, and disgust with the mechanics of it.  His wife, Renata, meanwhile, shows no such qualms, and coldly pressures him to kill even more, for the good of their family (and of the kiddie killers, the boy apparently pulled the trigger, but his sister is clearly a gleefully enthusiastic abetter and witness).
     Also, while I clearly appreciate TOTDN, it’s certainly not without its faults.  Its characters, especially the ones that are killed almost immediately, are rather thinly drawn.  And some plot aspects are unrealistic.  For starters, the “Murder on the Orient Express”—like ability of much of the cast to savagely attack and kill people is a little far-fetched, to say the least.  Most people care deeply about large sums of money, but how many in one small group are capable of callously slaying (sometimes innocent) folks who might get in their way?  Finally, the ending, while a shocker, and rather karmic, is pretty absurd.  Why are these kids psychotic?  Did the near sociopath Renata intentionally raise them this way?  Not to mention, can a normal 7 year old effectively wield a shotgun?
     (END SPOILERS—SAFE FOR ALL READERS)  Horror fans usually credit “Halloween” (1978) as the first “slasher” movie, but clearly that horror subgenre owes a debt to giallos (I would also throw out 1974’s “Black Christmas” as an earlier slasher, but that movie was obviously not as widely seen, and thus as influential as “Halloween”).  This influence is rough in spots.  Slashers, of course, typically have a known, often supernaturally gifted killer, ala Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, etc.  Whereas killers in giallos (with some exceptions) are usually more mysterious, and aren’t imbued with incredible otherworldly healing powers, strength, and the like.  TOTDN’s killers aren’t even technically psychotic—they’re amoral, definitely, but they apparently only kill for money (with one exception, see spoiler-ridden paragraph above).  But the influence is nevertheless pretty clear.  The heavy use of the unseen killer’s point of view, the fetishistic killer uniform, the large body count, shown in excruciating detail—these are all incorporated in giallos, well before the slasher boom of the late 1970’s and early 80’s (and beyond).  In the “Friday the 13th” series this copying of TOTDN is very easy to see.  A couple of killings in Part 2 (1981) are essentially shot for shot ripoffs of the 1971 film’s blade-to-the-face murder, and the couple-impaled-as-one-while-copulating double slaying.  And, of course, the usual slasher killers’ preference for dispatching young nubile women, and the rough equation sex=death, can be seen as carryovers, or at least arguably influenced by giallos.
     The production of TOTDN was apparently quite limited, as Bava was operating under a shoestring budget.  So much so that for the movie’s many tracking (moving camera) shots, a child’s wagon was used to house the camera!  In addition, the bay that they shot in had only a smattering of trees.  Some fake leaf-covered branches and strategic camera shots were used to give the impression that the bay was heavily wooded.
     As mentioned previously, the director of TOTDN, Mario Bava, is credited with making the original giallo films.  But he accomplished more than just this.  He also made classic gothic, witches and castles horror films like 1960’s “Black Sunday” (which made star Barbara Steele into a horror icon), various sword and sandal epics, and sci-fi, including 1965’s “Planet of the Vampires,” thought to be one of the influences for “Alien.”  Aside from these, his most famous movies were 1963’s “Black Sabbath,” and 1966’s “Kill, Baby…Kill!”  His son, Lamberto, went into the family business, and directed “A Blade in the Dark” (1983), “Demons” (1985), and “Demons 2” (1986), among others.
     As for the actors, while most of them had fairly busy careers in Italian cinema, not many are probably familiar to international audiences.  Claudine Auger (Renata), is surely best known for playing “Domino” in the 1965 James Bond movie, “Thunderball.”  Luigi Pistilli (Albert) appeared most famously in two of Sergio Leone’s “spaghetti westerns”—1965’s “For a Few Dollars More,” and 1966’s “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.”  Laura Betti (Anna Fassati) was in 1960’s “La Dolce Vita” and 1972’s “Last Tango in Paris.”  The man who played her husband, Paolo, Leopoldo Trieste, appeared in “The Godfather II” (1974), and “The Name of the Rose” (1986), among others.  Roberto Bonanni (Bobby) acted in several U.S. television series, including “Beverly Hill 90210” and more recently (and respectfully), “Mad Men.”  Finally, Albert and Renata’s daughter was played by Nicoletta Elmi, who went on to act in 1975’s “Deep Red” and 1985’s “Demons.”
     Like many outrageous and controversial horror movies, and especially Italian ones, TOTDN went through many titles.  It’s best known as “Twitch of the Death Nerve” or “A Bay of Blood.”  Other monikers include, “Before the Fact,” “Chain Reaction,” “The Odor of Flesh,” “Thus Do We Live to be Evil,” “The Ecology of Crime,” “Blood Bath,” and “Last House on the Left Part 2.”  This last one is a peculiarly Italian phenomenon, of naming a movie as a sequel to a famous (usually American) movie, even when the filmmakers have no legal rights to the name, and the movie has nothing to do with the original, as in this case!
     To sum up, then, TOTDN is an engaging movie, which might appeal to those who like their horror flicks disturbing but energetic, and who appreciate viewing an important trend setter and influencer in the genre.

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