Good bad film club #4: What Have You Done to Solange?
(Previously: Nightmare City, Burial Ground and SexWorld.)
(Expect potentially a fair few more of these over the next month, as if expected politics over the four weeks to come turns into one long scare-athon, I really can't be doing with pretending to be interested in or attempting to referee between one side claiming house prices will fall by 18% if we leave and the other saying the EU makes it illegal to sell bunches of bananas in twos and threes. A plague, frankly, on both their houses. I'm also not here the week of the referendum, just as I wasn't for the Scottish vote. Good timing, eh?)
This will probably be taken as proof of my lack of credibility on Italian genre cinema, but I really don't care for a good number of Dario Argento's acclaimed earlier works. Sure, I'm quite partial to his first three films, the ones that picked up effectively where Mario Bava had left off with the all but creation of the giallo, but when it comes to Deep Red, Suspiria and especially Inferno, I'm just left cold. Deep Red fails to satisfy, and Inferno I simply find tedious. Yes, it opens well with Rose Elliot plunging into water in the basement of her apartment complex, has the usual striking visuals and looks gorgeous, but the surrealism does nothing for me. I'm the same with Lucio Fulci's films from the same period: everyone usually raves about The Beyond, which is by far his most Argento-like work, whereas I just see a mess of gory setpieces without anything really connecting them together. Sit me down in front of either Zombi 2 or City of the Living Dead though, or when it comes to Argento his 80s films Tenebrae and Phenomena, and I'll lap them up.
So it is with Massimo Dallamano's 1972 giallo What Have You Done to Solange? By the standards of the giallo, it's a fairly straightforward, relatively lacking in outright sleaze little number. To describe it in such terms is undoubtedly to do it a grave disservice: by the standards of 1972 it's still a really quite nasty picture, while also being very much of its time. The BBFC rejected it outright back in 1973, around the same time as they were letting through films such as the Exorcist, A Clockwork Orange, Straw Dogs and no doubt some others I've forgot uncut, if with very much in the way of controversy. Even in 1996 it was still being cut for video release by 2m 15s, no doubt lopping off practically everything that explains why the killer is murdering his victims in the way he is.
Anyway, we're getting ahead of ourselves. Dallamano is probably best known for his work as a cinematographer, lensing two of Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns starring Clint Eastwood, A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More. He most certainly brings a cinematographer's eye to Solange, as from the very opening of the film, as we watch the two stars Fabio Testi and Christine Galbo, playing Enrico and Elizabeth respectively through the leaves of trees on the bank, pawing at each other in a punt as they float down what we soon learn is meant to be the Thames, this is a giallo that takes great care with its composition. Shot in 2.35.1 ratio, it never looks anything less than beautiful, the colours eye-popping. The cinematographer responsible below Dallamano is none other than Aristide Massaccesi, aka Joe D'Amato, notorious shlock director behind the Black Emanuelle series, the video nasties Absurd and Anthropophagus, and in later years, a huge number of hardcore features. That he was supremely talented, if not at directing, will come as a shock to some.
Enrico and Elizabeth's heavy petting session comes to a halt when Elizabeth is sure she caught a glimpse of something happening on the bank. With the frustrated Enrico unable to find anything amiss, he drives his younger lover back into the city. For yes, this is a giallo set in the London of the early 70s, although it's not exactly clear why, being an Italian-German co-production. Set mainly around Kensington and Chelsea, with the obligatory shots of the Houses of Parliament, Buckingham Palace and other landmarks, it nonetheless even in these limited circumstances infinitely cranks up the interest level, at least for this Brit. Enrico it turns out is more than a bit of a cad: not only is he cheating on his wife Herta, played by a dressed down Karin Baal, he's also a teacher at the exclusive Catholic girls' school attended by Elizabeth.
Now, while it's never made clear precisely how old Elizabeth and her schoolfriends are meant to be, although one guesses 17/18, we are obviously in distinctly dodgy territory. Films based around the exploits of barely legal schoolgirls were very much the rage at the time, and this is one of the tamer examples. Nonetheless, that the entire film is based around the very sexual murder of teenage girls, whatever their age, even if in the denouement this is rationalised, the film could very easily be classed as misogynist. It definitely has a conservative view of the world, that's for sure.
Indeed, the way things pan out, you could almost define it as a Catholic work as a whole. Enrico starts out as this lothario, apparently determined to split from his frumpy German wife to be with the nubile Elizabeth, only for the pair's marriage to be rekindled and saved by err, Elizabeth's untimely demise, drowned by the killer in order to cover his tracks. Enrico is predictably fingered as a potential suspect after her murder at their flat for just such liaisons, only Herta is convinced that her straying husband, while a bastard, isn't a killer. Galbo's death comes as a shock, despite it being an obvious take from Psycho of the killing off of one of the main stars.
From this point on, the film flips on its axis into familiar giallo tropes: Enrico is the amateur sleuth working alongside the police, determined to both clear his name and find the slayer of his almost lover, as we're soon told that Elizabeth was in fact still a virgin, unlike the other classmates already murdered. This is despite us being shown a scene that clearly shows Enrico and Elizabeth in the presumed midst of sex. But hey, this is a giallo, we're not looking for everything to make perfect sense, are we?
Everything is in any case wrapped up neatly by the end. Solange herself, in something only an Italian genre of this type could probably ever get away with, isn't so much as mentioned until we're three quarters of the way through the film. Never mind What Have You Done to Solange, Who The Fuck is Solange? Solange once she turns up is played by none other than a mute Camille Keaton in her first film role, best known for playing Jennifer, the rape victim turned avenger in I Spit on Your Grave, one of the video nasties still cut by the BBFC to this day. Without giving any further spoilers, there's a reason why Solange is the way she is, rather than being born in the state we see her in, and it involves all the previous victims.
...Solange is by some distance the best film I've covered yet in this series, to the point where it's a bit of a cheat to even include it. There are a whole host of things wrong with the film, most of which are amusingly pointed out by Alan Jones and Kim Newman on their superb commentary track featured as an extra on the similarly brilliant Arrow Blu-ray release, yet none which really detract from it so much that it prevents it from being one of the finest giallos I have yet seen. Jones says it's easily in his top ten, which is praise indeed from the author of a book on Argento. Everything about the Arrow release exudes class: the film has been given a glorious transfer, there's a visual essay on the film and its semi sequels by Michael Mackenzie, and then there's the newly commissioned artwork, which manages to top even the original exceptional poster art. Whatever your taste in films, give this one a go.