Sunday, April 17, 2016

Pensione paura (1977)

... aka: Fear Hotel
... aka: Hotel Fear
... aka: Hotel of Fear
... aka: La violación de la señorita Julia (The Violation of Miss Julia)

Directed by:
Francesco Barilli

Set in rural Italy toward the end of World War II, this centers around a depressed, put-upon teenager named Rosa (Leonora Fani), who's helping her mother Marta (Lidia Biondi) run the family hotel and cafe. Dad is away serving in the war and may in fact be dead but, either way, he's not around. To relax and get away from her miserable daily life, Rosa rows out to a favorite spot she used to go to with her father and continues to write to him. Because of the war, food rations and money are both tight and even a casual dinner turns into a stressful situation with the electricity flickering when planes fly overhead and the whistling of dropping bombs can be heard off in the distance. Marta expects a lot from her only child but only because she cares. Not only does Rosa have to grow up fast, help run the hotel and put up with a bunch of creepy guests in the process but she also has to keep up with her studies and get a certificate so she can take care of herself in case something should happen to her mother. Almost prophetically, something does end up happening.

During a thunderstorm, Marta is heard screaming and is then found dead at the bottom of the stairs with a broken neck. Now left to her own devices, Rosa's forced to running the hotel by herself and deal with all of the perverted, leering men her mother used to shield her from. One of her many admirers is a bald, middle-aged widower (José María Prada) whose wife and kids were killed in a bombing and who now seems to get enjoyment out of finding different ways to scare Rosa. There are many other unsavory types around, including a couple of hooker sisters and their tricks, plus a shell-shocked, unpredictable servant named Alfonso. Not only that, but Rosa is also forced to take care of her mother's secret lover (Francisco Rabal); a cowardly and increasingly paranoid war criminal who's hiding out in a hidden upstairs room of the hotel.

Rosa finds herself both drawn to and repulsed by handsome but perverted and sexually aggressive gigolo Rodolfo (Luc Merenda), who's staying there with, and is being supported by, his much older lover (Jole Fierro). Rodolfo spies on Rosa changing clothes, offers to show her his manhood through a key hole, forces her to kiss him because she won't willingly do so and even promises to take her away from there in she'll only give in to him. Since his lover is running low on money herself and can no longer afford to shower him with expensive gifts and vacations, Rodolfo finds interest in his over-the-hill amour quickly waning. Instead of taking out her frustrations where they belong, il puma brands Rosa a whore, blames her for trying to seduce Rodolfo and physically assaults her. While she's busy being insecure, he's busy attempting to steal her diamonds to trade for money and a passport to run off to Switzerland and leaving her ass high and dry.

A couple of shady, dangerous thugs, who Rosa catches murdering someone in a cemetery, show up at the hotel to meet up with Rodolfo for the swap, but things don't go as planned... for pretty much anyone! In a desperate last ditch effort to cling on to her man, sugar mama pretends to be kind and motherly to Rosa just long enough to lure her into her bedroom and then helps Rodolfo rape her. Afterward, the duo are stabbed to death in their bed. Once Rosa stumbles upon their bodies, she drags them down to the basement, sticks them in a bathtub and covers the bodies with some kind of clumpy brown substance that's either mud or feces (it's difficult to tell). Things then get even more violent when the thugs come after Rosa looking for the diamonds and upon the arrival of a surprise visitor (played by Máximo Valverde) who makes quick work of all the weirdos and pervs populating the hotel with a Tommy gun.

This is not really a giallo. Just because it was filmed in Italy, has some visual style and features a few murders does not make it one. There's no real mystery component here and it certainly doesn't stick to a set formula like the majority of films it's often erroneously categorized with. Instead, this is what I like to call a “kitchen sink art film” where the director mixes up pretty much whatever he wants (surrealism, war drama, horror film, coming-of-age story, etc.) in an effort to underscore a central theme. In this case, that theme is clearly the cost of war. The world of Pensione paura is a world where the battle scars aren't just on the soldiers, but also those dealing with war on the home front. WWII has has turned pretty much every adult into a conspirator, a criminal, a psycho, a pervert, an adulterer or a murderer, who then pass all of their bullshit on to the next generation; a point hammered home by the finale.

The only glimmer of hope in this downbeat film is a subplot involving an innocent romance that develops between Fani and a sweet neighborhood boy named Guido (Francesco Impeciati), but both end up corrupted by the adult world by the film's end. Though Rosa's fate is pretty much sealed being trapped in a seedy, dangerous environment, Guido's more sheltered and “respectable” upbringing does nothing to shelter him from the ugliness of war either. His father, a priest, won't even give Rosa a credit on a dozen eggs while he himself has a feast. One could say this has nothing new to add to the conversation but as far as I'm concerned there can't be enough anti-war sentiment floating around in this world.

Even ignoring the subtext, this is well made, well acted, handsomely shot by Gualtiero Manozzi and thoroughly interesting even when taken at just face value, with the director impressively managing to navigate multiple genres in a smooth, sensible and engaging way. Well, that is until the last fifteen minutes when he opts for a preposterous, jarring, absurdist conclusion that won't set well with many viewers and gets silly enough to undercut the credibility and serious intentions of pretty much everything that came before it. Regardless, there's more than enough good going on here to merit a strong recommendation.

Pensione paura is one of those films that's difficult to pigeonhole and categorize, which is both a good thing and a bad thing. It's good in that it typically makes for pretty interesting and unpredictable viewing. It's bad in that it often limits a film's release and commercial appeal and thus sets its on a road to obscurity. This rare title has definitely suffered from the latter and doesn't appear to have been released anywhere outside of its production countries of Italy and Spain (under the title La violación de la señorita Julia). It has yet to receive any kind of official U.S. release, though there are at least English fan subs available for the film now.

Lead actress Fani, who was in her early 20s here but still believable playing a teen, somehow ended up in some of the sleaziest Euro flicks of this time period like NAKED MASSACRE (1975), Dog Lay Afternoon (1976) and GIALLO IN VENICE (1979). In this film she's asked to get naked and be abused a lot too but at least here she's also given an interesting part to play. Pretty much the same can be said for Merenda, who also gets naked numerous times and is certainly used to much better effect here than he was in the giallo TORSO (1973). The rest of the cast is a mix of Italian and Spanish actors and almost everybody does a fine job in their respective roles. Director Barilli is best known (among giallo fans at least) for The Perfume of the Lady in Black (1973). He also co-wrote the script with Barbara Alberti and Amedeo Pagani, who'd previously collaborated on the script for the controversial The Night Porter (1974).

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