Murder Obsession

dir. Riccardo Freda
1981 / Dionysio Cinematografica / 97′
written by Riccardo Freda, Antonio Cesare Corti, Simon Mizrahi, and Fabio Piccioni
director of photography Christiano Pogany
original music by Franco Mannino
starring Stefano Patrizi, Martine Brochard, Henri Garcin, Laura Gemser, John Richardson, Anita Strindberg, Silvia Dionisio, and Frabrizio Maroni
Murder Obsession is out on Blu-ray (reviewed here) and DVD from Raro Video USA, and is available through Amazon.com or Raro Video directly.

Co-produced by Italy and France as a means of cashing in on the popularity of the burgeoning American slasher, esteemed director Riccardo Freda’s last stand (he would be fired from his only subsequent directing job) is ultimately far, far stranger than its body count pedigree might suggest. A horror in the broadest since of the word, Murder Obsession bucks categorization by synthesizing practically every familiar genre motif imaginable into an unwieldy and confoundedly contrived cine-monstrosity that must be seen to be believed.

The plot, such as it can be described, concerns young actor Michael, who as a child murdered his famed conductor father after witnessing him beating his mother. Ostensibly cured of the violent impulses that drove him to kill, Michael grows into a seemingly normal human being and a successful film actor to boot. But when one of his roles calls for him to strangle his co-star he takes the stunt too far, nearly killing the poor woman instead. After the incident Michael begins to wonder whether his compulsion to kill has been cured or not, and finds himself compelled to visit his ailing mother and the family mansion where the original murder took place. His girlfriend and a few close friends join him for the trip, expecting a bit of deep-country high-life fun, and who can blame them – what could possibly go wrong on a vacation to the isolated Gothic family mansion of an admitted ex-murderer?

Dramatically Murder Obsession is only so interesting as its dull protagonist, a decidedly vacant Stefano Patrizi (The Cassandra Crossing), and its similarly disinterested writing (credited to four screenwriters, including director Freda himself) allows. This is slow, dry going for the first half hour or so, with no effort at all put into ratcheting suspense from the dynamite situation. With Michael appearing so indifferent about his own potential insanity and non-threatening besides, it’s difficult for the audience to buy him as anything but the film’s most obvious red-herring. His lack of conversational manners is amusing, at least – “In case you hadn’t heard, I killed my dad,” he blandly interjects at one point. The rest of the cast fair about as well, both in performance and scripting, from Sylvia Dionisio (Blood for Dracula) as Michael’s girlfriend and D’Amato muse Laura Gemser (Black Emanuelle) as his unfortunate co-star to John Richardson (Bava’s Black Sunday) as the obligatory creepy groundskeeper.

Fortunately for us director Freda and his collaborators seem to have lost all interest in what they had been doing at roughly the half hour mark, at which point Murder Obsession takes a sharp turn into the nonsensically bizarre and never really recovers. Groundskeeper Richardson stares blankly into the abyss as muddy footprints are left on the mansion’s floor by invisible feet. Gemser is nearly strangled to death – again. Girlfriend Dionisio lapses into a hysterical nightmare, in which she wanders endless tunnels full of screeching rubber bats and enormous spider webs and neath forest bows full of blood-dripping skulls before finding herself strapped to a sacrificial cross and embroiled in a Satanic ceremony that raises a giant and rape-hungry hell-spider from beyond. As familiar as I’ve become with the twists and turns that permeate Italian genre cinema I was honestly surprised by the sudden developments here. After thirty minutes of mind-grinding monotony I couldn’t help but wonder what right Murder Obsession suddenly had to kick ass.

While the giant and rape-hungry hell-spider from beyond is definitely the high point of the proceedings (and what a high!) Murder Obsession thankfully never again settles into its earlier groove, instead opting to channel the gialli of the decade before by way of the slashers that were in the process of transforming so many American drive-in screens into clearing houses for disposable teenagers. As Michael-and-company wander the mansion grounds a leather-gloved killer stalks them down, chewing through their bored and worthless humanity with a hunting knife, an axe, and, most dramatically, a chain saw. While the pretense of mystery is upheld throughout (practically everyone in the film owns leather gloves, inviting a bit of ‘whodunnit’ pondering) Murder Obsession doesn’t seem too concerned with it, and takes more pleasure in whittling down its cast to the point that the responsible party is obvious. In contrast to its early slog the latter two thirds of the story move at a fever pitch, as the film hemorrhages blood and sense on its way to a ludicrous conclusion that may just be cinema’s greatest bastardization of Michelangelo’s Pietà (those sensitive to sacrilege need not apply).

To say that Murder Obsession is a good film would be a gross overstatement, but it’s certainly different, and just the sort of strange, nonsense achievement that I’m happy to have cluttering up my video shelves. Still, a recommendation is tough. Those whose eyes twinkled and hearts leapt at the words giant rape-hungry hell-spider from beyond likely already know where they’re going to stand on this one, and I’ll not deter them from seeking it out. They must, for it is in their blood. The rest of you would probably do best to stick with more respectable genre diversions.

I’ve yet to cover The Fernando Di Leo Crime Collection, the only other Raro Video USA Blu-ray release I own and a real mixed bag in terms of both transfers and encodes. Murder Obsession (which was released to DVD by the same label just a few months ago as an English-only edition) marks a substantial improvement over that release in pretty much every regard – the quality of the film itself excepted.

Presented in 1080p at slightly pictureboxed 1.85:1, Murder Obsession looks pretty good if not quite right on Blu-ray from Raro. Though uncredited as such this is undoubtedly another of LVR’s transfer jobs, as it exhibits precisely the same qualities as those previously known to have been done by them. No, this transfer doesn’t look like film. There’s a somewhat smudgy and DVNR-ish quality to the motion of the image, and while there is plenty of noise to be found there is not a speck of identifiable film grain in evidence. All that aside Murder Obsession retains a certain capacity to impress, offering tight contrast and vivid color where the photography allows for it. There is suspicious softness in places, and an undeniable waxiness to the image at times, but there are also moments of robust detail that are indeed impressive. While I’ve no doubt that a proper transfer from a less problematic post house could have resulted in an overall better image, I’m not sure Murder Obsession really demands it. For home video this looks just fine, and I can’t say that I’m disappointed.

The technical backing really squandered the potential of Raro’s Di Leo collection (granting a piddly 14.8 Mbps average video bitrate to a classic like Milano Calibro 9 is just shameful), and the specifications here have thankfully been beefed up substantially. Murder Obsession is actually available in two separate Mpeg-4 AVC encodes, one for the 92 minute English language cut and another for the 97 minute Italian (each is culled from the same transfer). The shorter cut receives less support, an average bitrate of 21.6 Mbps, and looks a tad softer for the trouble, with more artifacts to be found amongst the transfer’s noise. The Italian cut is, by contrast, quite strong, with its average bitrate of 28.6 Mbps supporting the visuals very well. There are still minor artifacts lurking, but nothing that distracted me in motion. Audio for each version receives a lossless DTS-HD MA 2.0 encode, with the English sounding substantially rougher all around (it sounds to be sourced from tape). The Italian arrives with optional newly-translated English subtitles.

Aside from the bonus English cut of the film the rest of the supplements proved of little interest to this reviewer. The best of the bunch is a 10 minute interview with effects man Sergio Stivaletti, who cut his teeth assisting fx artist Angelo Mattei on the film. Otherwise there’s a longer (22′) interview with Claudio Simonetti on the music of genre cinema, and a shorter (8′) interview with director Gabriele Albanesi (Ubaldo Terzani Horror Show) on the subject of Riccardo Freda. Rounding out the disc is a (very) brief tape-sourced deleted scene and a list of Blu-ray credits. The package is wonderfully designed, from the disc menu up, and comes with an 11 page booklet featuring a synopsis, an essay on the film by Fangoria editor Chris Alexander, and a short biography of writer / director Riccardo Freda.

And that’s it, I think. Murder Obsession receives an imperfect, but perfectly acceptable release from Raro Video USA. At the low price it currently commands ($15.99 shipped from Raro directly, or a dollar more through Amazon) those interested in the film are encouraged to indulge.

The Blu-ray screenshots in this article were taken as full resolution .png in Totem Movie Player, then compressed to .jpg format at a quality setting of 97% using the ImageMagick command line tool. All screenshots are from the more robustly encoded Italian cut of the film.