Giallos and Expressionism in a Family Drama: Sarah Horrocks’s The Leopard

Standard

With a new year always comes new goals. We have whirred past a month and a half of 2016, and this year, I am committed to digging deeper into the physical and digital shelves of the comics world to find the unexpected. As a result, I’ll try my best to veer away from the major independent publishers here on this blog, with the exception of works that I just cannot pass up, in the hopes of excavating works that strive for something bolder, be it by a visual style, a narrative structure, or a subject.

In this quest, after a bit of searching, I’m happy to present a review for Sarah Horrocks’s The Leopard.

Alluring Cover for Volume 1 of The Leopard

Sure, a cover never tells a full story, but sometimes a cover strikes you and forces you to peek inside. After spending a couple of hours searching through various online comics providers only to find too many recycled genre motifs and archetypes (vampires are over, zombies are fading, time travel is an overused method of transportation across story arcs…), I saw the cover for volume two of The Leopard and a description which included the term “giallo”and was instantly intrigued.

From a premise perspective, nothing in the basic plot of The Leopard is out of the ordinary. The matriarch of a wealthy family lies on her deathbed, and her offspring return to their childhood home to determine the fate of the family’s riches. As expected, the children despise each other, united only in their hate for their mother and their thirst for fortune, and consequently, when all of the siblings must remain in the same place for more than an hour, nothing good will come from the bonding time. The warring wealthy family is not a foreign theme in media; from Antigone to Dallas to You’re Next, family members have battled and killed each other over inheritances and power for thousands of years, regardless of changes in society, so the family of The Leopard does not experience an unfamiliar conflict to any reader; however, the art and the development of the different characters involved distinguish The Leopard from other family dramas and horror stories, creating a visually fascinating and psychedelic mystery that pays homage to Dario Argento, Mario Bava, and Andrzej Żuławski along with, of course, Luchino Visconti and his film that shares the same name as this series.

Given the clear inspiration from three filmmakers with outstanding and unique visual styles, Horrocks, like the three mentioned above, persistently experiments with the visual style on her medium. Every page of the the first three volumes of The Leopard presents something surprising, and while some ideas work better than others, every single page demands extra study and admiration. In The Leopard, you will find piercing color combinations, collage, and even some radial paneling, all of which help to create an appropriately ominous and disorienting mood for the sinister deeds on the horizon. While at points, the art may exceed the complexity of the story, it never takes over and makes The Leopard just a collection of artwork; every visual detail has a role in conveying the motivations and personas of each character, and this is the strongest feature of Horrocks’s style as a creator.

One of my favorite pages of giallo-inspired artwork from The Leopard (page from Volume 2)

To emphasize themes and ideas in horror, The Leopard and the comics paired with each volume have rich references to brilliant works and iconic images for any cineaste. Horrocks alludes to the in-shower eye gouging of Fulci’s Zombi, Isabelle Adjani’s disconcerting lovemaking with a tentacled creature in Żuławski’s Posession, and the ballet school of Argento’s Suspiria in her work here, conveying her own inspiration in visual storytelling and connecting the reader to the tones and moods of these works. While I was excited to see any reference to Żuławski, these specific allusions somewhat hurt the success of the comics. Horrocks already has her own strong style that blends influences from giallo, horror, and experimental film, so the inclusion of nearly exact ideas from the works that inspire her as allusions or homage distract your focus from the characters, the story, and the artwork of the comics because you leave Horrocks’s world that she has meticulously created to think about the work of other creators that are somewhat but not entirely connected to The Leopard

While The Leopard absolutely contains deeply embedded cues from cinema in its storytelling, the overall aesthetic of the series has a starkness and grotesque nature much like the artists of the Die Brücke group. The sharp color combinations of the pages form images that are unified but also jarring, severe, and fantastic, much like the work of Kirschner. And in a similar stylistic vein, the family members have exaggerated forms that make them appear more like demons than people, which, based on their personas as the series progresses, makes sense, for none of their ugliness lies internally; the hideousness presents its plumage on the faces and figures of the characters and reinforces the incorporation of German Expressionist visual concepts.

With such a distinctive combination of styles, Horrocks proves her awareness in her own work in addition to her unconventional (by comics standards, at least) sources of inspiration. In turn, The Leopard aims for far more than your traditional comic, and though at times, the influences slightly overwhelm the series (after all, it’s a great challenge to incorporate stalwarts of Western art and cinema), all of the diligence to create a new and daring comics reading experience shows itself on the pages.

Currently only available in digital format, this is one of the first digital comics I really wished I had in print, and for that statement alone, The Leopard should be on your reading list as soon as possible; I suspect Horrocks will have even more to admire and astonish in future volumes, and you will want to be there for the extravaganza.

The Leopard is written and illustrated by Sarah Horrocks. It is available via Gumroad here

Advertisements

Mario Bava Scares You One More Time With His Final Theatrical Film “Shock” From 1977

Standard
Shock 1

John Steiner and Daria Nicolodi in Bava’s Shock

Sometime during the late spring of 2007, my friend Michelle and I hoofed it over to the Brattle Theater in Harvard Square to check out some of their Grindhouse series that they had programmed following the popularity of the recent Tarantino/Rodriguez double feature film experience that revived interest in the exploitation films of the late 1960s and 70s. The day we decided to head over to Cambridge was a way too pretty Saturday afternoon to see a nasty giallo, but such things like a clear sky rarely matter to horror fans, even fans who had just spent the last few months buried under New England snow and grey skies. Also, what helped me convince Michelle to head to the theater that day was the opportunity see a 35mm print of  Shock, the last feature film directed by the father of giallo genre, Mario Bava.

Before he became a pioneer in Italian horror, Bava started his film career assisting his father Eugenio at the special effects department at Benito Mussolini’s film factory, the Istituto LUCE, before becoming a cinematographer himself. Bava had lensed over twenty films before getting his first opportunity to co-direct when director Mario Camerini needed an AD for his sword and sandal film, Ulysses, an Italian production that starred Kirk Douglas. The next year, during production of Riccardo Freda’s 1956 film, Beatrice Tenci, Freda and his friend Bava discussed the possibility of making a horror film, which would be the first Italian horror film of the sound era, as the genre had been banned in Italy throughout the 30s and 40s. The pair negotiated a production deal with Studio Titanus, provided that they could write a script in a few days and have the film done in two weeks to which they agreed, and I Vampiri was born, a nasty low budget film centered around the murders of young women who are found drained of their blood. Though I Vampiri did not perform well at the box office, it wasn’t met with huge opposition either, despite the film’s carnality, so the door was now opened for the horror genre again in Italy.

For a few more years, Bava would shoot several more gladiator films, but in 1960,  he would have the chance to direct a loose adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s 1865 horror story “Viy” into a feature film, the outrageously gory La maschera del demonio (Black Sunday), a film so visceral that it it would be banned in England for most of the decade but would help launch Bava as a relevant director of the horror genre internationally. After Black Sunday, Bava would occasionally direct a sword and sandal and even a few spaghetti westerns (Roy Colt And Winchester Jack is a favorite), but it was the giallos that he would master such as Black Sabbath, Kill, Baby, Kill and Bay Of Blood.  

Fueled by the success of the Bava giallos, the genre began to flourish, so by the mid-1970s, there were many directors such as Dario Argento, Sergio Martino, and Lucio Fulci challenging Bava for the giallo crown, and even though Mario would always be regarded as the master, the theaters were packed with competing Italian horror films from younger directors. Jumping genres again, in 1974 Bava would direct the nihilistic poliziotteschi, Rabid Dogs, which had been plagued with production issues that were further exasperated when the film’s producer went bankrupt after the main investor died in a car crash. Bava would take two years off from directing after the headaches provided by Rabid Dogs, but he would return in 1977 with Shock, a smart, small horror film that would prove that the master still possessed a bevy of technical tricks from all of his years as a cinematographer to scare you senseless.

Shock stars Daria Nicolodi as Dora Baldini and John Steiner as her husband Bruno, who begin the film by moving back into Dora’s family home. Bruno is Dora’s second husband as her first, Carlo, died several years prior, and the house has been locked up ever since. Given the circumstances of her first husband’s death and the fact that his dead body had never been located, Dora is not too happy about moving back into the home, and her head is not all together there, since years of drugs and electroshock therapy received during her institutionalization after her husband’s death have left her quite the mess. Adding to her daily dilemma is that Dora had a son with her first husband, the waifish-looking Marco (David Colin Jr.), who gets along with his stepfather Bruno, but he is still not one hundred percent accepting of this new man who amorously embraces his gorgeous and slightly catatonic mom. Coming to Marco’s rescue, as the forces of evil always seem to be there to fiendishly assist with the sadness of youngsters, a new friend in the house, an imaginary one, enters Marco’s life, and given that his stepdad is an airline pilot and frequently away, little Bruno spends lots of time talking to his new “friend” and spends much time in the basement where some evil mojo is boiling up in the Baldini home.

Original Trailer for Mario Bava’s Shock

What really bumps Shock’s creepiness up to eleven are the incestuous actions that little Marco (or perhaps Carlo living inside of him) begin to take towards his mother. Marco begins by spying on his mom in the shower, slicing up her panties, jumping on top of her and sexually thrusting, and even romantically touching his sleeping mother’s face and neck with a hand that suddenly transforms into that of a rotting corpse, which all perhaps suggest that maybe Carlo is looking for love from beyond the grave? It is these moments where Marco begins to morph into his dead father that provide the greatest jolts in Shock, including one scene that I will not give away that occurs when Marco runs towards his mother that sent both Michelle and me leaping from our seats. It is the kind of scare that only a master director could imagine, so basic in its visual construction, relying on no special effects, and yet it still scares you silly. Although the scene that I just described may be the best of the film, Shock is loaded with a ton of smart, visual inventions that make you believe that during the two years that Bava was “retired,” he was compiling his terror filled ideas into a notebook for later use, and I, for one, am so glad that he had enough inspiration to make a giallo, one that despite its modest structure and a surface that looks like another post-Exorcist era possession film, comes off with so many jolts to make it a captivating, haunting watch. Shock’s overall dark tone, a killer fusion score from the Italian/Motown signed band I Libra, and low budget but affecting visual elements make it a fitting final theatrical release for the brilliant Bava, who sadly died of a sudden heart attack in 1980 at the age of 65.

I found out shortly after that afternoon screening that Shock was my friend Michelle’s first Bava film, and she was very impressed. In the seconds after the film, I thought that I should’ve started her out with one of the director’s earlier, more accomplished films, but I soon was confronted with the reality that a giallo from a then 62 year old Bava affected Michelle, who was then a young filmmaker herself, making Shock just as qualified as Bava’s other works. I have always said that if a comedy without an audience can make you laugh out loud, then it is very successful, and I guess a similar type of success exists for a horror film that terrorizes you on a pretty day.

The Erotic Comic Book Series “Valentina” Goes Big Screen In Corrado Farina’s 1973 Film, “Baba Yaga”

Standard
Baba "Connects" With Valentina In Baba Yaga

Valentina Is Really Not Feeling Baba Yaga Here

Having just spent the last two days at Long Beach Comic Con, attending panels, wading through a sea of cosplayers (both sensual and non), and speaking with a multitude of comic book writers and artists for our soon to be published Forces Of Geek piece, the inevitable concern of what the final goal of their art might be does come to mind. There are the comic creators who are clearly delving into the world of zombies, solely for the purposes of being pitched a film or television deal as “The Walking Dead” has made the shambolic undead the hottest commodity around. There are also cosplayers who dream of being in the circles of the more famous in their craft like Alodia Gosiengfiao who collects in millions in endorsements or those who simply create because of the reason we all hope for: The need of artistic expression with the final goal of making people laugh, cry, understanding a political leaning of some sort, or to just turn them on via overt eroticism.

Sadly, as far as erotic expression in comic books in the United States is concerned, there has not been a great deal of respect thrown that way, and a lot of what is produced that is sexually themed here is relegated to a niche market, and imports of such material (outside of manga) are currently incredibly difficult to locate in the US much less in the late 1960s. Such was the case with the work of Italian comic book writer, Guido Crepax whose important erotic series “Valentina” barely saw the light of day here in America despite its immense popularity in Europe.

Valentina was originally a character in an earlier science fiction based Crepax series called “Neutron,” who eventually became the protagonist of her own series in 1967 due to the popularity of the issues of “Neutron” in which her character was featured. This is not surprising as Valentina Rosselli was exceptionally illustrated and written as a gorgeous and intelligently opinionated Milanese fashion photographer and left leaning journalist who progressively abandons the more science fiction facets of her persona in “Neutron” for a more enticing and stark mix of promiscuity, sadomasochism, and just about any other kink that you could imagine. Though outrageously explicit, it is clear that Crepax did not want Valentina to be seen as only a sexual being but more as a fully rounded heroine to be admired. Unlike Theresa, the protagonist from “Looking For Mr. Goodbar,” (my review from last week) who is an American single Roman Catholic woman who engages in sexual escapades that end with guilt, condemnation, and death, Valentina’s stylistic fused sexuality is a celebration of her freedom as a woman who during her time could explore sexuality however she wants. I mean she is living in Italy, after all.

After achieving an almost cult status in Italy, Valentina was given a film adaptation by young director Corrado Farina who seemed like a solid choice as he had given Bram Stroker’s “Dracula” a truly bizarre giallo treatment in his 1971 film, “Hanno Cambiato Faccia, (They Have Changed Their Face). Isabelle de Funes (the niece of famed French actor, Louis de Funes) was selected to play Valentina as she bore a striking resemblance to the character that was illustrated in Crepax’s series. And playing the role of the older witchy dominatrix Baba Yaga is the luminous American actress Carrol Baker of “Baby Face” fame, who like many Hollywood stars had moved to Italy a few years before when her career in the States began to wane. So you may be wondering then: If this is the first film adaptation of the “Valentina” series then why is the title “Baba Yaga” and not “Valentina,” the latter title being the obvious choice for an American comic book adaptation. My theory is that given the state of sadomasochism that was depicted in giallos during the early seventies, producers must’ve been thrilled when “Baba Yaga” the 1971 issue of the then popular “Valentina” series was issued, as it was the first in that popular series to introduce the protagonist to the world of B&D.

The film opens with an occultist political theater production that is being staged by hippies in a cemetery (that resembles the graveyard scenes in Bob Clarke’s “Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things”), where we first see Valentina taking shots of the scene, which suddenly disbands once the police arrive and gets us to the opening credits and one of the true stars of this film, the jazz/prog score by Piero Umiliani. Soon after Valentina rejects her part time lover, a commercial director named Arno (George Eastman), she defiantly walks home alone and nearly dies while trying to rescue a dog about to be run over by a Bentley-driving society woman named Baba Yaga.   Baba takes a more than subtle sexual interest in Valentina, even going as far as stealing a piece of Valentina’s stockings as a keepsake. Baba takes Valentina home but insists that Valentina visit her the following day. The next day Valentina is back behind the Hasselblad snapping picks of a ravenously gorgeous model in the comfort of her modern giallo set designed swanky Italian apartment, which is complete with animal skins on the walls, a blood red tiled kitchen, and glowing orbs for lamps. She discusses her left leaning politics with her clearly fascist model friend before going off to visit Arno on set at a slum where he fishes out a rodent that he films some hot rat action for the sake of symbolically shaming politicians.

Then its off to Baba’s home, a large gothic setting equipped with an old movie spookiness that Norman Bates would feel more than a bit comfortable wheeling around in if not for the scattered bondage gear, fetish footwear, and bullwhips. Valentina spears somewhat concerned and soon she finds a bottomless pit hidden under a Persian rug in the study that somehow doesn’t seem to freak out Valentina enough to leave the apartment screaming in terror. Finally, to make matters over the top creepy, Baba gifts Valentina a fetish doll named “Annette” who will “protect her (Valentina) from danger” because nothing scares away evil more than a sexed up cupie/voodoo doll. Valentina’s luck starts to turn very bad after she begins to photograph (after some incredibly politically incorrect motivational speech) a black man and white woman engaged in some aggressively naughty hand-holding to make a political statement about racial unity. After the shoot, the white model is felled by a puncture wound to the leg that no one can account for. Valentina also takes down a protesting hippy with the lens of her camera after taking his picture. It seems that these people are paying for Valentina’s leftist ways, but why would Baba curse her in that way? When more things go wrong, Valentina is off to return Annette to Baba at her home where we then have a scene of voluntary domination and discipline that is inflicted on Valentina by Baba. It is indeed an erotic turn of events, but Valentina never seems to be the victim, and although she is strapped in for the ride, she never loses control of her sexuality.

Original Trailer For Baba Yaga

I am completely onboard with the style of this film, as I am with many giallos of the early 1970s. It is a slickly shot film that is matched with a hip soundtrack and gorgeous actors, and the sexuality is provocative enough to keep one’s attention during the gaps, but I must admit that the politics of this film are a tad confusing. It seems that Baba Yaga is trying to use her sexuality to tame Valentina of the free sexuality that Valentina exhibits throughout the film, but if that is the case and Baba is some remnant of the right wing, then why would she use deviant sexuality to dominate her? There are a few scenes in the films where Arno knocks Valentina’s politics as well, leading me to believe that this film is a slam against the left wing, but you just cannot be sure as there is evidence to prove the opposite as well.  You cannot escape the feeling that Farina’s intention of this adaptation is that politics is just the fodder of the well off, and you should just shut up and watch the sexual fireworks in all its eternal coolness.

There is a key scene early on when Valentina’s intellectual friends argue at a party about the value within the low budget film work of Godard to which Valentina replies, “I prefer Chaplin films, because at least you laugh.” Perhaps that message is the one we must follow when watching “Baba Yaga,” the message being that for the rich, the discussion of politics and art is just conversation for effect that has no real impact and that sometimes your best intention for creating art should what I stated earlier, to make someone laugh, or to cry, or in the this case to turn them on, but perhaps to leave the politics behind for the politicians.

Karl Malden Shines In Part Two of Dario Argento’s “Trilogia Degli Animali,” 1971’s “The Cat o’ Nine Tails”

Standard
the-cat-o-nine-tails-1971-karl-malden-james-franciscus

Cookie (Karl Malden) Meet Carlo (James Franciscus)

Before I write one critique about Dario Argento’s second film in his “animal trilogy,” “Cat o’ Nine Tails,” let me first commend him on casting the usually gruff talent of Karl Malden in the role of Franco “Cookie” Arno, a blind ex-reporter who creates crossword puzzles while taking care of his adorable niece, Lori. Sure, Malden is solid in this role as always, but the mind swims at the concept of Dario possibly sitting at his office and pitching to his producer/brother Salvatore that Malden would be perfect as the lovable Cookie, a year after Malden’s tough portrayal of General Omar Bradley in “Patton.” Either Dario is a genius, or Malden could just nail any part that came before him. I also wonder if Michael Douglas ever pulled the “Cookie” card on Malden the following year when they began filming “The Streets Of San Francisco?”

You might think that it is a bit odd that I am reviewing the middle film in a trilogy without ever reviewing the first and third films, but let me assure you that there is absolutely no connection between the three that might encourage you to watch Dario’s first in the series, “The Bird With The Crystal Plumage,” before reading further into my review.   What is true about this period in Argento’s work is that it represents his thriller output before he would embrace more of the supernatural aspects that would define his later films. In “Cat o’ Nine Tails” you have our young director drawing from Hitchcock, as so many of his peers were, but here he adds that element of sinister violence that is less gory than his later masterpiece “Suspiria,” but still quite jarring at times, especially one very creative and teeth-clinching elevator-related death. Though not a masterwork, I found “Cat o’ Nine Tails” to be as solid a thriller as Argento would make at this point in his career.

Our story begins with a burglary occurring at a genetics lab and the sounds of this event being picked up by our darling Cookie, who becomes interested a la James Stewart in Rear Window, so he then teams up with a young and all too hunky reporter, Carlo Giordani (played by the rugged and coiffed American television star, James Franciscus). After a few folks associated with the lab start ending up dead, it becomes clear that the lab has discovered some genetic strand that bears out the criminal tendencies that lie within people, and they have also created a drug that can cure these bad thoughts, but someone isn’t thrilled with one of these two discoveries, so the bodies start to fall. As stated earlier, the murders are not of the lavish, glowing straight razor variety that you would come to expect from Argento; most of our victims in “Cat o’ Nine Tails” are dispatched in the rope around the neck style. This is fine by me as Dario tries to make the plot the star around our killings, as opposed to a sketch of a plot that exists just to glue together a series of baroque imagery as in many of his giallos. My only real stylistic complaint comes from the enviable sex scene between Carlo, our dedicated reporter, and the wealthy daughter of the genetic lab’s director, Anna (Catherine Spaak, the gorgeous lead from Dino Risi’s 1962 film, “Il Sorpasso”). I’m not sure why Argento insisted on filming their coupling in the most robotic way possible, but as an Italian man, I am a bit taken aback by such non-emotional touching that given the dire circumstances that those two characters were surrounded by, should’ve heated up their illicit tryst.

Kudos again to Dario for the attempt at plot complexity here, but it may just be a bit too complex as the “nine” in the title refers to the nine potential criminal leads that are never followed fully enough to potentially draw your interest away from the reveal of the actual killer making the ending, despite a stunner of a death scene, fairly anticlimactic.  There is also a score created by legendary composer Ennio Morricone, that is pretty lackluster, which is not surprising considering that Ennio has scored over five hundred projects over his illustrious career. There has to be a few throwaways in the bunch, and sadly we have one of those here. Malden and Franciscus are the main reasons why you stay in your seats as they are veteran actors that can make any scene work a cut above the rest.

Original 1971 Trailer For Cat o’ Nine Tails

“Cat o’ Nine Tails” is a decent enough film that now stands as a kind of testing ground for a young Dario Argento for what would and would not work and not work in his subsequent films. There are more than enough visual creations that will make you jump, and the overall cinematography is more than a cut above the usual early 1970s giallo.  Finally, I tip my hat to director Argento for acquiring the acting talents of Malden and Franciscus for this, only his second feature film. I don’t know if I would have the nerve to fly an actor the stature of Malden across the Atlantic and saddle him with a character named “Cookie,” but I still admire Argento for thinking that Malden would fit into that character so well.