Recently-widowed Kathryn West, who seems to be a celebrity although we're never told why (possibly just because she's a wealthy heiress) arrives in Italy to recuperate in one of her husband's properties. Her attorney/lawyer, Brian, is helping with the sale of her newfound assets as well as dealing with her husband's gobby sisters, who want to get their hands on as much of the financial pie as possible. He's also nursing a bit of a grá, as we say in Ireland, for Kathryn, apparently seeing no conflict of interest or impropriety in seeking to marry her. However, she has only eyes for Peter, a young ragamuffin whose car allegedly broke down outside her villa one day. He comes to stay with her, then his sister comes to stay with them both, then it turns out that she's not really his sister and they're shagging, then they get Kathryn hooked on pills and booze and then they convince Kathryn to sack the nosey housekeeper and essentially imprison her in her own home. Then some more stuff happens!
Writing it out there, it's surprising that one of the things I wrote while watching the film was that the second half drags somewhat, as it has "nowhere to go." It does - that long list of things basically takes up the third quarter of the film, but I suppose this is one of those situations where the success of this film (and its progenitor The Sweet Body of Deborah) led to so many facsimiles being made that familiarity breeds... certainly not contempt, but possibly a sense of inevitability, where it's clear in what direction things are moving, but they just take that bit longer to get there. Which isn't to say that this is a boring film - it's actually a terrifically-made, fun flick - but its impact and effectiveness has been dulled because its impact and effectiveness back in the late 60s led to so many similar films being produced.
The template was certainly set here for the Lenzi-Baker collabs: big houses in bright sunshine, young cads, cheesy nightclub dancing, speeding (too speeding*) cars, rack focuses to drinks glasses are all present and correct. Carroll Baker is typically great here-she wasn't afraid to own up to being somewhat further down the path of life than her co-stars; indeed, that's something of a theme here. The young, dashing ('dashing'-more on that anon) Peter and Eva offer a chance to engage with the 1960s youth culture by opening a door which seems to have been long-since closed for Kathryn-judging by the ages of her aunts-in-law her husband may have lived through the 1860s. Her uncertain attempts to get to grips with the free and easy lifestyle of the kids allows them to get their metaphorical claws into her, to hook her on pills and to systematically isolate her from everyone and everything she knows.
But she already seemed quite isolated - there's no evidence of her having had any real friends. Indeed Brian, her aged attorney, seems to be the closest thing she has on this front, and he's not all that close. The scene in which she admonishes Peter and Eva by telling them that they're too young to realise that they should hate themselves contains more raw human truth than a dozen other gialli combined. In common with most films made by middle-aged Italian genre directors, you get the sense that the freewheeling drug-taking ways of the youth are viewed with suspicion, if not downright hostility. Here, though, there's not a blanket dismissal of the evils of drugs, rather an admission that they are ultimately only an attempt to paper over the ever-widening cracks of the soul. And when the soul is corrupt, as pretty much every soul is in a Lenzi giallo, then the drugs ain't gonna change that.
(It's worth pointing out that while Baker's character does engage with youth culture with initial abandon, and is clearly sexually liberated etc, she does laugh off being called a 'slut' or 'whore' with disconcerting ease. This possibly reflected male attitudes of the times - we'll give you more freedom etc but don't forget that ultimately we're better than you - or it may just be another case of the middle-aged Italian flex.)
Now on to the youths. Colette Descombes is certainly a fascinating presence, sexy and vampish, but her 'brother' is another kettle of fish. Lou Castel is no-one's idea of an adonis, which makes the opening act of the film creak at times - are we really to believe that Kathryn is infatuated by Peter to that extent? You could make the argument that she lives in a closed-off world, but still - he just isn't charming or handsome enough for the scenes to ring true. He's much better when called on to turn into a weaselly manipulator though, tackling the part with a relish that would probably have been beyond a more relaxed, suave Hilton or Sorel-type of actor.
And speaking of closed-off worlds, it's worth considering the form of house arrest to which Kathryn is subjected by Peter and Eva. Sure, they're regularly drugging her, but she does have moments (long moments) of lucidity. And she's not all that trapped given a) she has a working phone for most of the time she's under house arrest, b) she still has a loyal servant living on the property, which c) is not by any stretch of imagination a high security prison.
This isn't the first time where logic falls somewhat short (on which note she herself falls twice, each time horrendously unconvincingly); an early scene has her apparently imagining a home invader, being calmed by her housekeeper Terry, and ends with her seeing a man walking across the garden beneath her window. There, then is the proof she needed - the guys got a club foot, so isn't going anywhere fast, yet she apparently decides against summoning Terry to confirm that she wasn't imagining things. So you can see why she was such easy prey for those devious kids!
In an interview accompanying the Severin Blu ray of the film Lenzi belies his advanced age to pat himself on the back for the ingenuity of the film's twist ending, one which "no-one" could have guessed. Well, to return to my notes, Umberto: "End twist predictable." And it is - though, again, at the time it'd likely have gone down a storm (even if in the interview he's talking about a retrospective screening in Venice), but because we now know that this is a Lenzi giallo, we know there's going to be a late twist (or two), and the main twist here can pretty much only be one thing, an attendant difficulty when you populate your films with so few characters. Also, the 'subtle clue' which is shown in flashback did stand out a mile to me at the time (again, it wouldn't necessarily be noticed by everyone, and it is executed without undue attention being focused on it, but anyone who's aware that they're watching a mystery film should pick up on it). And, even if you know what's coming, you should still have a hell of a time with this film, which, even if it's not the best of Lenzi's gialli, will still give the discerning giallo fan 90-odd minutes of orgiastic pleasure.
IF YOU... have manipulated yourself into inheriting a fortune through murder and blackmail, don't openly celebrate outside the executor's office!
*“Drinking on an empty stomach really impairs my driving skills” - a very sharp observation there from Eva.
End twist predictable-only possible further twist, and inception does stand out a bit (signing blank doc)