Monday, January 28, 2013

Passi di morte perduti nel buio (1977)

... aka: Death Steps
... aka: Death Steps in the Dark

Directed by:
Maurizio Pradeaux

A French woman aboard a train headed toward Athens from Istanbul seems nervous and keeps fiddling with her necklace. As the train passes through a tunnel and all goes pitch black, someone takes the opportunity to stab her to death. The murder weapon is a letter opener belonging to playboy photographer Luciano Morelli (Leonard Mann). He instantly becomes the chief suspect, insures police "I photograph beautiful women. I don't go around killing them!" and makes sure to remind the cops that there were many others aboard the train and any of them could have done it as easily as him. Seated near the victim were a bunch of other international travelers, including pot-bellied Middle Eastern priest Omar Effendi (Antonio Maimone), neglected married woman Ida Tuclidis (Barbara Seidel), businessman Ben Amuchin and airhead Swedish model Ingrid Stelmosson (Vera Krouska), who's been having an "affectionate liaison" with Luciano and is so stupid she doesn't know the difference between a key and a monkey wrench. In addition to them, con man Raoul (Nikos Verlekis) and his black bisexual mistress Ulla ("Susy Jennings" / Marie Elise Eugene), were also on board.

For some reason that makes absolutely no logical sense, the killer had snuck into the train's bathroom to snip some wires and then dropped their monogrammed black gloves onto the floor before the murder took place. Raoul picked the gloves up and now wants to use them to blackmail the killer for 10 thousand dollars. While Ulla is out with her wealthy old "sugar daddy" (who gets a photo op with the press after commissioning a gold-plated bust of her [!?]) Raoul decides to make the switch with the psycho. When he shows up at their agreed meeting point, instead of getting his 10K he gets his throat cut with a razor. Police soon get word that Luciano has just withdrawn 10 thousand dollars from his bank account. How they also miraculously seem to know what Raoul was up to - or how much he was asking from the killer - without any such proof or any possible way of knowing is another matter entirely.

Because of the cash withdrawal, the police issue a warrant out for Luciano's arrest. In an effort to dodge them, he slaps on a curly blonde wig, hoop earrings, lipstick and a mini-skirt and tries to pass himself off as a hooker (!) His gruff ex con black market dealer buddy Salvatore (Anestis Vlahos) hooks him up with a place to hide out in the meantime; an old fishing shack located on the ocean. Tired of feeling "like a fucking seagull" because of his all-fish diet, Luciano attempts to clear his name. He pays Ulla a visit during one of her nightclub shows, where she slinks around on stage in a white feather boa singing "Making Love To You Is Just All I Want to Do" and then does some dance in a bra. Ulla calls up her female lover and asks her to go to her apartment to retrieve the other black glove, but when she arrives, the killer slashes her throat. When Ulla returns home, she accidentally takes a bath in her girlfriend's blood, gets her throat cut and is then disemboweled.

Meanwhile, the film tries to throw us off even further by showing us brief scenes of what the other still-living train passengers are up to. Ida's divorcing her husband. Ben always seems to be lurking around where the murders take place. And the priest is himself shown on the phone getting 10,000 thousand dollars out of the bank. He also isn't even a priest and has come to Athens to see his younger mistress. Luciano, Ingrid and Little Boffo, the daughter of an underworld figure they've hired to help them crack open a safe (!!) end up in a home with a corpse... and the killer, but manage to get out alive. They then invite all of the suspects to a fashion show in an attempt to catch him / her. And yes, this plot is every bit as convoluted, ridiculous and silly as it sounds.

Speaking of silly, there are numerous "comic" scenes with chief Inspector Karatis (Robert Webber), who constantly complains of having heartburn and stomach aches, belches, almost pukes, dips his hands into bloody water at a crime scene then flicks it off his fingers, casually steps over one of the corpses while having a discussion about eating spicy foods and helps himself to a soda from the refrigerator of one of the victims. The detective is also given plenty of hilariously inane dialogue, made all the more funny by the English dubbing:

"Forgive me for asking a rather delicate question, but during the trip did you go to the toilet?"

"A man doesn't buy another man a first class ticket from Istanbul to Athens unless he's gay... Wait a minute, was he gay?"

And, when asked by his partner whether they found fingerprints in the train's john...

"Hundreds of them. There's one beauty in a smear of shit like someone wiped his ass with his fingers. Incredible!"

This whole thing is so preposterous I had a difficult time telling whether or not it was intended as a spoof or is just a thriller with lots of painfully bad comedy. Perhaps it's a little bit of both. As stupid, ridiculous and needlessly complicated as this film's plot is, it's actually no dumber, more ridiculous or any more convoluted than the majority of other gialli which are supposed to be taken seriously. Same goes for the hilariously bad dialogue, which even serious giallo is full of. The drastic tonal shifts are rather strange: one minute this is light-hearted and extremely goofy and the next it's vicious, bloody and deadly serious. There are some intentionally funny moments in here, but just as many embarrassingly bad ones. Viewing the various posters and advertising materials, none seem to indicate this is anything other than a standard horror-thriller, so I finally came to the conclusion it wasn't intended as a spoof like most claim. The poor dubbing and silly dialogue just make it seem like one. Doesn't really matter either way, I guess. This may be bizarre and imperfect, but it's not uninteresting and it's never boring.

Director Pradeaux (who'd previously made the more serious giallo DEATH CARRIES A CANE) shoots the "erotic" scenes about as effectively as Jesus Franco. Meaning, not very well at all. Like Franco, Pradeaux goes for the gynecological extreme close-ups. While these work fine when razors glide across necks, they don't work too well during a lesbian sequence where we get to see every bump, blemish and hair follicle on the actresses. He even manages to make a Sapphic kissing scene look like a pair of slimy, bumpy slugs having a wrestling match. The film has no shortage of T&A. The "black girl," as she's constantly referred to by all of the characters, has three long, full nude scenes. Several others also do. There's plenty of blood and the horror sequences are handled fairly well.

Riz Ortolani did the score. The cast is a mix of Italian, American and Greek actors and, for some strange reason, none of the Greek actors (even the ones with major roles) were deemed worthy of receiving a credit for their work. Some of the other credited actors (such as Imelde Marani) do not even appear in the film, and other names appear to be pseudonyms. Jessica Dublin (from the notorious ISLAND OF DEATH) can be spotted sitting at a table during the fashion show at the end and the director has a cameo as a press photographer.


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