Saturday, February 10, 2024

La polizia brancola nel buio (1975)

... aka: Il giardino delle lattughe (The Lettuce Garden)
... aka: Police Are Blundering in the Dark, The

Directed by:
"Helia Colombo" (Elio Palumbo)

When I'm preparing to review a movie I usually put in a tiny bit of research prior to hitting play. Nothing like plot spoilers or anything to that effect, but more just getting a basic idea of the cast, crew, release date, some website scores, etc. And let me tell you, this particular title may as well have been holding up a giant, flashing neon sign reading "I'm going to suck!" The amount of red flags here was absolutely insane. First and foremost, this was completed in 1972, right smack in the middle of the theatrical heyday of giallo in European cinema, yet no one bothered to release it until three years later. So why didn't they capitalize on a hot short-term trend while it was still big? Second, when this was finally released it was re-titled to steer audiences away from thinking it was a horror-mystery and instead more of a police / crime movie. It's not that the two didn't usually overlap anyway, but there are still some major distinctions that can be drawn and this intentionally chose to blur those lines with a marketing misdirection.

I should point out that this is far from a cop / crime / poliziotteschi movie; further away, in fact, than most other gialli. The "police" of the new title don't even factor into the plot in a significant way and only show up during the last few minutes. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing. I still have no clue how anyone could think watching a bunch of detectives sitting at desks rehashing the very things we the viewers have already seen for ourselves minutes earlier is anything but boring.

There are many luminaries who worked in this subgenre at the time, both behind and in front of the camera, and on both big and low budget productions. None of them were involved with this. The first time director / writer (more on him later) opted to use a pseudonym and never made another film. The producer, and the attached production company, never made another film. Gialli are renowned for their cinematography and scores above all else, and this was shot by an unknown and features a score from another one-time composer. Were these real people or is everyone listed in the crew using a fake name? Good movies can certainly be made by virtual unknowns but those people would have absolutely zero incentive to hide their identities if they were proud of the work they were putting out.

The backers of these films frequently shelled out at least a little money to attract a name star or two who'd help them sell the film to an international audience. Nope, none of that here! In fact, the four top-billed male lead actors are complete unknowns who never appeared in another film again, at least not using the names they used here. There are a couple of female cast members that did other things, but even these ladies are going to be alien faces to everyone out there who's not a very dedicated exploitation fan. The only person I was somewhat familiar with was Halina Zalewska, who had previously appeared in the Barbara Steele vehicles THE LONG HAIR OF DEATH (1964) and AN ANGEL FOR SATAN (1966).

Jump ahead a decade to the VHS boom. No one wanted to release this. Jump ahead a few more decades to the DVD boom, when there was a big resurgence in the popularity of these kind of films, and still no one wanted to release this. It wouldn't be until 2020 that this finally surfaced on Blu-ray as part of Vinegar Syndrome's "Forgotten Gialli" line.

Taking a glance at viewer scores on film websites is yet another warning. Gialli fans are far more forgiving than I when it comes to their beloved subgenre and if even they are rejecting this, there must be something amiss. Another clue is that gialli fans are quick to remove the horror tag from these movies on various websites and instead assign the (they believe) classier designation of "thriller" to them instead, yet they've let the horror tag remain on this one. It's like they're saying, "OK, this one's so terrible that even WE don't want to claim it!" 

That all gives me bad flashbacks to the IMDb board days when we had a seemingly endless fight on the main boards about whether Jaws should receive a horror genre classification or not. It was there from the start, then it was stripped away, then it was reinstated, then it was removed again... Over and over and over again it went. The mods were annoyed. We had a lengthy debate about it. For those of us who were pro horror tag, our points of debate centered around the movie being called a horror film by its very own director, it being advertised as "the most terrifying motion picture..." and "the movie that scared millions out of the water...", how it was heavily influenced by older monster movies that no one debates are horror films, how it had recurring suspense builds where the entire payoff was delivered in the form of a jump scare and how its chief objective was to try to scare / terrify the audience, which is precisely what it did when it hit theaters in 1975. Also, ya know, that part about it revolving around a giant, monstrous man-eating shark terrorizing an entire community, ripping off limbs, devouring skinny dippers and little kids whole and all that.

Well, long story short, we ended up losing the battle and the mods permanently locked down Jaws as an "action / mystery / thriller" instead, which is how it remains to this very day. The truly interesting part of all of this is that none of the pretentious snobs who thought it was too good to be horror ever once advocated for similar treatment for any of the sequels. Despite containing almost identical content, right down to the same characters, plot points, etc., the follow-ups were apparently mid or bad enough that it was OK to still consider them horror.

Beginning as any good film in this subgenre must begin, an attractive young woman with her breasts exposed gets carved up by some unknown black clad psycho armed with a large pair of scissors. Well, I shouldn't really say completely unknown. As he thrusts his murder weapon of choice forward, his face enters the frame to reveal it's an older gentleman wearing glasses and with unkempt pork chop sideburns, which may have taken the mystery completely out of this mystery in just the first couple of minutes. A newspaper article then informs us that the victim is one of four photo models who've recently disappeared, adding "la polizia brancola nel buio!"

A roster of suspects and victims is then established, and they turn out to be an unsavory, unlikable crew of weirdos, depressives and degenerates. There's Edmundo Parisi, the rich, eccentric, chain-smoking, wheelchair-bound, afro-sporting nudie photographer (!) and his always-miserable-looking wife Eleanor (Zalewska), who's grown angry and bitter at both her isolation in the country and her self-serving husband's arrogance and impotence. They share their secluded villa with Parisi's orphaned teenage niece and understudy, Sarah (Elena Veronese), as well as young porter Alberto and "erotomania"-suffering maid Lucia (Gabriela Giorgi), who both seem to be up to something sketchy. Local physician Dr. Dalla is another frequent presence in the home.

Our hero is the classy Giorgio D'Amato (Joseph Arkim), who is first seen refusing to pick his poor girlfriend up after her car breaks down because he's lying in bed with the naked brunette he's cheating on her with when she calls. The girlfriend, Enrichetta (Margaret Rose Keil), is then forced to spend the night in a creepy old inn, where she gets felt up by the owner's half-wit son after stripping out of her clothes by the fireplace. She then just decides to leave her clothes off and walks around her room, takes off her make-up and eats a ham sandwich while topless before someone sneaks in and stabs her through the throat and tit. When Giorgio shows up the following day, the crime scene has been cleaned up and she's nowhere to be found, which sends him on a quest to discover what happened to her.

Thankfully, Giorgio's an independent journalist by day, so being a snoop is like second nature to him.  After locating his former girlfriend's car and scheduling book, he's able to track her previous known location to the villa where she was doing a modeling assignment for Edmundo. Unfortunately, chasing after tail is his first nature and he seems to forget why he's even there approximately five minutes after arriving. It takes him no time at all to charm his way into the troubled families home as a guest. It then takes him no time at all to charm the panties right off the teenage niece. And leave it to an Italian giallo to expect us to cheer on a "hero" who inadvertently killed his own girlfriend because he was too busy cheating of her and then cheated on her again while in the process of trying to find her. Hell it would have been two more times had the jealous butler not been interrupted when he was with the nympho maid.

Sordid family secrets in the Parisi household are soon revealed. The niece lives in fear of both of her guardians and claims that her uncle is insane, cruel and controlling while her aunt has been using her as a sexual plaything since hubby can no longer perform. Being the kind and nurturing type that he is, Giorgio responds to the poor girl's teary-eyed confession of abuse and rape by immediately stripping off her dress, lying her down in bed and then double checking to make sure her hymen is still intact since it was only her female guardian who'd been raping her and not the male. Once she passes his purity test, he then feels free to take her virginity.

A completely weird plot point is thrown out toward the end when Sarah reveals that her uncle has invented a brand new style of photography that allows him to take images of people's thoughts (?!) He hides his little contraption inside a bronze Buddha looking statue, uses it secretly take photos of everyone and then sits around in a hidden control room all bug eyed, laughing maniacally as he looks over the results. What's even stranger is that this absurd idea is not even exploited in any kind of fun or novel way nor is it even used to uncover the killer. It's just kind of there. For no discernable reason. As for the big killer reveal, it turns out NOT to be the same guy whose head accidentally entered into frame in the opening scene, which makes me realize that either the filmmakers didn't think anyone would notice or simply didn't care if anyone noticed. Ahhh, meticulous filmmaking at its finest!

Going in assuming this was going to be terrible actually resulted in it exceeding my expectations in its own shitty little way. While it's true this is a bad movie, it's no less entertaining than your average film in this subgenre. It's as sleazy as other gialli from the same time and filled with lots of great 70s fashions (crazy suits, miniskirts, wigs and go go boots galore), cars and home décor. It's dumb, yet it's no dumber than, say, THE CASE OF THE BLOODY IRIS or STRIP NUDE FOR YOUR KILLER; two films many devotees seem to love. It's also kind of boring at times yet not as boring as some others, like KNIFE OF ICE or NIGHT OF THE SCORPION. And, while it's not very stylish or visually creative, the photography and score aren't noticeably bad either. So hooray for low expectations coming through, and getting me through, once again!

As for the director's true identity, it was later revealed to be Elio Palumbo. Though not a known entity here in the U.S., Palumbo was a very successful platinum-selling artist / composer, record executive and music producer in Europe in the 1970s and 80s.

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