Death Falls Lightly

dir. Leopoldo Savona
1972 / Agata Films / 85′
a.k.a. La Morte Scende Leggera
written by Luigi Rosso and Leopoldo Savona
cinematography by Luciano Trasatti
music by Coriolano Gori
starring Stelio Candelli, Patrizia Viotti, Veronika Korosec, Rossella Bergamonti, and Tom Felleghy 

Warning: It’s impossible not to talk about the film’s ending when talking about its strengths and weaknesses, so the following will enter spoiler territory.

After returning home from a business trip Giorgio Darica (Stelio Candelli) finds his wife dead in her bedroom with a slit throat. Giorgio does not report the murder to the police, for his business trip was of a type one just can’t use as an alibi, unless one is a big fan of spending time in prison. Instead, Giorgio goes to a judge (or lawyer, the fansubs aren’t quite sure about that one, though I’d go with judge) he is working with. Giorgio’s business, you see, is to smuggle drugs for a conspiracy of corrupt judges, cops and politicians who buy position and influence with the money they make from the drug trade (and clearly, any form of corruption that’s profitable). Even though that’s not something you want to say aloud in a murder trial, it is very much something a man like Giorgio is willing to say in a murder trial if his rather well-positioned “friends” don’t help him out of his problematic situation.

Because nobody wants to risk to have Giorgio arrested or questioned, and even just killing him is deemed too risky, his partners hide Giorgio and his girlfriend Liz (Patrizia Viotti) in a big, empty hotel building, while they put their influence in action and make further plans that may or may not be meant to exonerate Giorgio.

The couple’s stay at the hotel isn’t too pleasant. Giorgio’s new position in life as a murder suspect does not make Liz happy, especially since she isn’t quite sure her lover didn’t actually kill his wife, so there’s a lot of squabbling and hysterics going on between the two. That, however, is before the hotel turns strange. Music plays in rooms where there shouldn’t be any music playing, and noises hint at other people staying where there shouldn’t be any. It’s as if the hotel were haunted by ghosts peculiarly in tune with Giorgio’s troubles. Things turn even stranger, when a group of people appear who claim to be the hotel’s owners. It doesn’t take long until Giorgio isn’t sure what’s dream, what’s reality and what’s delusion.

  
  

Leopoldo Savona’s Death Falls Lightly is a more interesting example of the giallo than it at first seems to be. The film’s first half is more than a bit slow going, and even though its rather sardonic comments on the state of Italian judicial and political culture are not completely without relevance for anyone curious about the political climate surrounding early 70s Italian genre cinema, it’s also not exactly a riveting first half. Especially the whole “lovers flip out on each other after spending about one day alone together” angle is just not very convincing, and while the secrets and lies which these scenes disclose as the basis of Giorgio’s and Liz’s relationship will be important later on, I could think of less artificial ways to expose them.

However, once that (expository) hurdle is taken, Death takes a turn for the weird I can only describe as delightful; at least if your definition of “delightful” fits a series of scenes that turn a character’s inner workings into simply yet effectively realized metaphors and nearly drive him insane in the process. I find especially lovely how organic the film’s turn from the semi-realistic tone of its beginning to the weird and possibly supernatural is, with Savona using the empty hotel as a place that – even when we are nominally still in the “realist” part of the movie – does more belong to the realm of dreams than to that of reality as we usually understand it. Savona emphasises this by lighting and blocking everything that takes place in the hotel quite differently from the rest of the film, suggesting the claustrophobia and spacial and temporal disjointedness of a dream.

Of course, and somewhat disappointingly, all the supernatural occurrences will later turn out to be no such things at all in a last act twist that is not exactly to my taste – as I prefer the supernatural in my narratives to stay supernatural, or at least ambiguous – but that works too well to ruin what came before. Mostly, this part of the movie works well enough for me because Death - quite surprisingly for a giallo – does play fair with its audience by featuring a killer whose motivations you can discern from the clues the film delivers, as well as by using a device for its plot twist whose cause you have actually witnessed and (hopefully) just forgotten as one of these random flourishes giallos tend to include. Of course, even though the twist’s set-up makes sense seen from that perspective, it’s still quite difficult to buy it as anything any police force, even one as corrupt as the one shown in the movie, would actually be involved in; on the other hand, it’s thematically and atmospherically so fitting to the film at hand, I can’t find it in me to see that fact as a problem for anyone who doesn’t insist on absolute realism – and therefore boredom – in her movies.

I, for one, am happy to have found another giallo that succeeds at wedding rather sardonic politics with moments of dream-like beauty.


The Horror!? is a regular cult cinema column by Denis Klotz, aficionado of the obscure and operator of the film blog of the same name.

The Box

postercompany: Warner Bros. Pictures
year: 2009
runtime: 116′
country: United States
director: Richard Kelly
cast: Cameron Diaz, James Marsden,
Frank Langella, James Rebhorn,
Holmes Osborne, Sam Oz Stone
out in wide release

Warning: Spoilers may lie ahead

I don’t believe I have ever seen a movie that confused me so much. I will not even attempt a complete plot summary as its disparate elements are so far flung and baffling that it would be a difficult task to condense them all into a review. The Box disappointed me because I was optimistic about seeing this movie after reading reviews and because the premise seemed to have a lot of potential. A couple is offered a choice: push a button and win one million dollars however pressing the button will cause the death of an unknown person. Based upon the story Button, Button by Richard Matheson, the premise conjured questions of morality: upon what do we base our morality, and are we capable of ever truly being moral entities?

The beginning of the movie seemed to deliver on that promise. A couple, Norma (Cameron Diaz) and Arthur (James Marsden), receives a box early one morning which contains a button mounted on a wooden base and covered in a glass dome. Later that day a man calling himself Mr. Steward arrives at their house and explains the conditions of the million dollar prize. They may not speak to anyone about the offer that has been made to them or they forfeit the million dollars, and Steward is not able to answer any questions about those who employ him. They also have only 24 hours to make their decision. This offer is immediately tempting because of the financial difficulties faced by the couple. After almost a full day of discussion, Norma pushes the button 15 minutes before Mr. Steward arrives to reclaim and reprogram the box.

From this point on the film diverges wildly from the Matheson story. What had begun as an interesting examination of the moral choices that human beings make, becomes a paranoid rambling that centers around a partnership between the United States government and Mr. Steward with Norma and Arthur at its center trying to desperately save themselves. It appears that for some reason Norma and Arthur should be somehow punished for choosing to push the button. The parallels between this couple and Adam and Eve are quite apparent throughout the film, and are highlighted by the existence of two other couples that are briefly present in the film. In all three cases the wife pushes the button while her husband sits next to her silently. One could be forgiven for assuming there is a misogynist bent to the film.

As for Mr. Steward, it appears that he was actually killed during a lightning storm while testing equipment for NASA. This has happened sometime before the events shown in the film take place. Sometime after being sent to the morgue, he is miraculously resuscitated and it is implied his body is being inhabited by another being. This new being, which has adopted Steward’s name and form, is conducting an experiment on behalf of a group which he refers to as “those whom control the lightning.” If a magical number of people choose to press the button and receive the million dollars these mysterious lightning people will decide to speed up the extinction of the human race. The assumption is that only moral species are allowed to survive, though no one seems to be offering this choice to lions, or dolphins, or spiders or any other animal that kills others of its species for personal gain (food, mates, space, etc). It is also never quite made clear what moral code this decision will be based on which in turn makes the movie somewhat hard to interpret.

With the powers granted to him by the lightning people, Steward mobilizes a large group of people he refers to as his employees. They distinguish themselves from the rest of the cast by doing things in unison, having nose bleeds, and walking around with their mouths open as if to catch insects. Their purpose in the film is never really made clear. Are they spying on the couple? Are they doing Steward’s laundry? We are never really told. A few of them do useful things like drive Steward’s car, deliver notes, or kidnap children but they are a fraction of the number that are actually “employed.” They seem to exist solely to create an atmosphere of paranoia a la INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS.

The ending of the film is the most bewildering part. Norma and Arthur’s son Walter is kidnapped, and through some ambiguous, though reversible, process he is rendered both deaf and blind. He is then deposited in the couple’s bathroom while his parent’s face their final choice. Because Norma pushed the button, they can either keep the million dollars and live with a blind and deaf son, or Arthur can shoot Norma in the heart at point blank range and their son can regain his sight and hearing. Either way Walter, who has had absolutely no active role in any of the decisions that his parents have made, suffers. Either he loses both of his parents or he exists in a world of silent darkness forever. Arthur and Norma decide that their son’s welfare is the most important thing, and Norma insists that Arthur shoot her. At the moment that Arthur pulls the trigger, another couple is deciding to push the reprogrammed button given to them by Mr. Steward. I can only assume that her decision to sacrifice herself is a way to atone for her more selfish decision to accept the million dollars.

At this point, then, it becomes unclear who actually is responsible for Norma’s death. Is it her husband or is it the new couple who pressed the button? This has huge implications for the rest of the film. One presumes that because Norma pressed the button and she is guilty of someone’s death that for justice to be served she has to die. However, as we learn during the film, the woman that was killed when Norma pushed her button was shot at point blank range by her husband. Who, then, is responsible for the woman’s death – Norma, or the husband who ultimately pulled the trigger? After seeing the ending, the rest of the movie seemed to fall apart. None of the obscure Sartre references help much either.

Lastly, for powerful supernatural beings, these lightning folks don’t seem to know much about experimental protocol. They could have learned plenty about human morality by simply observing us, and it would have saved them a lot of effort and money in making little wooden boxes to send out to unsuspecting people and in kidnapping and brainwashing dozens of people. In addition the lightning beings will only choose couples who are married and have one child. So as a result of the actions of this specific group of people, the rest of us will be either doomed or saved.

Aside from the gaping plot holes the movie makes the mistake of being much too broad. It attempts to integrate too many plot devices and twists and eventually loses the elegance and simplicity of the original premise. This has the additional consequence of making the message of the film rather obscure. Is the ultimate lesson that it’s bad to kill people even if you don’t know them? There are children’s books that make the point more succinctly. Instead of interrogating the motives for making a selfish versus selfless choice, it explodes into conspiratorial silliness. If the premise interests you do yourself a favor and simply read the Matheson story. As is the case with I Am Legend, the textual version of the story offers so much more than the version adapted for the screen.

These are the Damned

a.k.a. THE DAMNED
Hammer Film Productions [1961] 96′
country: United Kingdom
director: JOSEPH LOSEY
cast: ALEXANDER KNOX, MACDONALD CAREY,
cast: SHIRLEY ANNE FIELD, KENNETH COPE

THESE ARE THE DAMNED (or, as released in 1965 in the USA, THE DAMNED) is an oft overlooked genre outing from blacklisted director Joseph Losey that, thanks to a few recent theatrical screenings and at least one television broadcast via Turner Classic Movies, is beginning to receive some of the positive reception it so richly deserves. Originally produced in 1961, the film encountered some trouble in its attempts to be distributed, eventually appearing in the UK in 1963 and the United States two years after that, albeit parred down to 87′ (or less, in some cases). More recently, Sony has taken to restoring the film to its original 96 minute running time and playing it on a very small scale theatrically and, as already mentioned, on television.

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