Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Libido (1965)

... aka: Libido Terror

Directed by:
"Julian Barry Storff" (Ernesto Gastaldi and Vittorio Salerno)

Made just one year after Mario Bava's seminal Blood and Black Lace (1964), this modestly scaled b/w psychological thriller with few location changes and a very small cast is now typically considered one of the earliest giallo films, though I personally don't think it really qualifies as such. This has far more in common with suspense films like Diabolique and, perhaps most especially, early 60s Italian Gothic chillers than it does later gialli. There's (thankfully) no police investigation going on, rampaging psycho killer attacking naked Euro starlets, elaborately-staged gory death scenes or excessive attempts at visual style present in this one, though the links between it and what would come later are still quite obvious.

This low budget production surprised even its makers by becoming an international success, which prompted many of the key players to venture into other twist-laden murder mysteries and police procedurals. Though not credited on the film itself (or on IMDb or other websites for that matter), the producers were Luciano Martino and Mino Loy, who'd go on to make dozens of later giallo films, many of which were directed by the former's brother, Sergio Martino, who worked as the production manager here under the alias "Serge Martin." Co-director Gastaldi would go on to an incredibly prolific career, seemingly writing or co-writing every other Italian genre script over the next two decades. He'd not only write most of the Martino films, but also worked with Mario Bava, Riccardo Freda, Umberto Lenzi, Antonio Margheriti and others. So, if only by association, I can see why this usually gets thrown on giallo lists despite really not being one itself.

Giancarlo Giannini makes his film debut (billed as "John Charlie Johns") as the dour Christian Carro, who's on the verge of inheriting a remote seaside castle after his father's passing. He travels to the castle along with his wife, Helene (Dominique Boschero), family lawyer Paul Benoit ("Alan Collins" / Luciano Pigozzi) and Paul's much-younger wife, Brigitte (Mara Maryl, who was married to Gastaldi and also receives a story credit here), for a protracted stay to take inventory of the castle's belongings and get everything in order.

Paul has been tasked with executing the will to the letter, per the father's instructions. Said instructions include not allowing Christian much say in what goes on until he reaches his 25th birthday in 3 months and completing some restoration work on the castle tower despite Christian's insistence on it just being a big waste of money. After all, he merely wants to sell everything and wipe his hands of the place and all of the bad childhood memories associated with it. Christian's late father, whose large portrait adorns one of the walls, was something of a sexual sadist who may or may not have murdered some of his lovers in a mirror-filled kink room, and Christian may or may not have witnessed one of those murders.

The neurotic, chain smoking, mentally unstable Christian now fears he may have also inherited his father's penchant for sadistic sex. In addition to that, there's the looming question about just how the father died, or even if he died. Supposedly, he committed suicide by jumping off a cliff, but there were no witnesses to his death and a corpse was never found. This leaves Christian wondering whether or not he's losing his mind when strange, seemingly otherworldly things start occurring in the castle. His late father's rocking chair rocks all by itself, his favorite skull pipe is found smoking and a haunting music box melody, one that makes him recall a particularly troubling event from his childhood, is heard. He also sees a figure that resembles his father lurking the grounds.

Is this a haunting? Is Christian going insane? Or, in the vein of the aforementioned Diabolique, is there some kind of conspiracy afoot? It's established from the get-go that the two male leads strongly dislike one another. Due to a stipulation in the will, Christian has to be of sound mind (and alive, of course!) to collect his inheritance or else it falls into Paul's hands, which opens the door for some greed-fueled gaslighting. After catching his wife and Paul having some private conversations, Christian suspects she may also be involved. As for Helene and Christian's marriage, it's a strange, cold and apparently sexless union that finds the two of them sleeping in separate bedrooms at night and not showing the love, affection and care that a young, healthy married couple would normally exhibit.

In a nice reversal on formula, the film's most intriguing character turns out to be the second female lead, who possesses all of the characteristics of someone who's going to be written (and killed) off in no short order but proves to be more essential to the plot than it first appears. A bubbly blonde Monroe-esque airhead, Brigitte spends most of her screen time trying to seduce the men and cavorting around in short dresses, lingerie and, best of all, a skimpy little bikini with cat face cups for the top! However cute she may be, she also strongly resembles the same woman Christian has visions of his father murdering and her mere presence seems to be exacerbating Christian's descent into madness, which may or may not be the intended effect. Having this sometimes silly character around also helps get us through the sluggish first half otherwise dealing with three serious, solemn and depressive-acting characters.

Despite taking place in present day, the Gothic trappings are laid on as thick and heavy as any other period-set Italian Gothic from this time, with its large, darkly-lit castle setting and the usual thunder claps, howling winds, footsteps in the dark, creaking floorboards, candle-lit strolls, sudden lightning flashes illuminating the dark, muddy footprints found along corridors, etc. The proceedings are competently, crisply photographed by Romolo Garroni, though the direction is not very visually imaginative. This takes awhile to reveal its modest pleasures, too. While the first hour is strictly average, the twist-filled finale is highly enjoyable and boosts the score up a notch.

I could find no evidence that Libido was ever given a U.S. theatrical release. If there was, it was a minor one, though there was an English language dub prepped at some point. Some sources claim this was given a small release in the UK in 1967, though I couldn't verify that either. I also couldn't find a single legitimate home video release here in the States prior to the Severin Blu-ray, which was released just last year. Severin's release comes with English and Italian audio tracks (the latter with optional English subs) as well as a lengthy interview with Gastaldi.

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