Spasmo [1974]

I’m sure you guys are familiar with William Castle’s gimmicks, where he’d put buzzers in the chairs, drop plastic skeletons from the theater ceiling, or grant life insurance policies for viewers who died of fright during his creaky horror flicks.  I’d like to posit that Italian director Umberto Lenzi went one step further than Castle did during his career, creating a movie about madness that actually has the capacity to drive its audiences to nail-gnawing fits of insanity.  My friends, that film is “Spasmo,” an Italo-thriller that I assume is so named because of the neural convolutions that it inflicts on its viewers.

Actually, I’m kind of lying.  “Spasmo” takes its name as a nod to Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” which is referenced in the English-language promotional materials for this film (I opted for the Italian poster here because–dude–boob-mouth).  It attempts to bend the conventions of the thriller in ways similar to the movie that was its inspiration, but ultimately winds up confusing its audience.  As a “Psycho” clone, “Spasmo” fails, but the movie is a lot of fun in its sloppiness and nuttiness, and is ultimately saved by hairpin-turn plot developments in its final few minutes.

"Spasmo" 

Twisty for twistiness’ sake and filled with the kind of dubbed dialogue that sets fans of vintage Euro-genre cinema a-quiver with delight, “Spasmo” tracks handsome jet setter Christian Bauman on his descent into rash romance and maybe madness.  After meeting Barbara, a mysterious blond woman he discovers passed out on the beach, Christian becomes obsessed with getting to know her better and tracks her to her lover’s yacht, which is docked nearby.  The two set up a rendezvous and Barbara agrees to have sex with Christian, but only if he’ll shave off his beard. There’s a good ten minutes of banter surrounding whether Christian will keep his beard or get to bang Barbara, which I imagine was  significantly more comedic in native Italian.  Christian ultimately succumbs to Barbara’s charms, but just as he’s putting paid to the final remnants of his chin sweater, a ghoulish assassin bursts into the room.  During the ensuing struggle, Christian accidentally shoots the man and he and Barbara go on the lam.  Things descend into craziness and creepiness with oddly familiar faces, misplaced memories, and mutilated mannequins populating the terrified couple’s landscape.

"Spasmo" 

That dialogue I mentioned above?  It’s truly some of the kookiest I’ve heard this side of an Emanuelle flick.  It’s supposed to be clever and flirtatious, but mostly sounds like a verbal game of non-sequitors.  Witness, for example, some seductive talk between Christian and Barbara during their tryst, alone in Christian’s car, parked somewhere in the woods:

C: That moon doesn’t bother you?
B: There’s no moon in my hotel room.
C: I was right, you’re a sweet sweet whore.  OK, let’s go.
B: But you have to shave your beard off first.
C: What?
B: Your sweet, sweet whore doesn’t take any payments, but she does have her limits.
C: You’re crazy.  I could have you now, here, and you’d like it even with the beard.
B: I have a razor in my room: big, sharp and sexy.

…And they drive off to the motel.  END SCENE.  Do these people like each other?  Is Christian a mad rapist?  Is Barbara actually a whore?  These are the questions posed just in these few lines of dialogue.  Every time a character talks to another character, more questions like this arise, until ultimately the viewer questions his or her own mental well-being.  I’m going to go ahead and give the benefit of the doubt to the five scriptwriters responsible for this material and assume that this off-kilter sensation was their intent.


In the roles of Christian and Barbara, Robert Hoffman and Suzy Kendall (giallo vet of “Torso” and “Bird with the Crystal Plumage” fame) exhibit a strange sort of attract-repulse chemistry.  They’re both very attractive individuals (though Barbara is *mad* to make Christian shave the beard–he can work facial hair), but there’s no real heat between them.  Oddly enough, this works in the favor of the movie’s disorienting feel–a tender relationship would be entirely out of place in this insane universe.

"Spasmo" 

Shades of “Psycho” are present in the taxidermied birds in Christian and Barbara’s hideout, as well as in some of the depth-of-field camerawork that shifts focus between foreground and background to interesting effect.  In the same way that the horrors of “Psycho” are enhanced by its Bernard Hermann-penned musical accompaniment, “Spasmo” boasts an impressive soundtrack by Ennio Morricone, complete with swelling organ motifs, shivering strings and moments of unsettling discord.

Unlike many Italian thrillers of its time, “Spasmo”isn’t stuffed with murder setpieces and lurid nudity.  There’s always the threat of violence, and the plot hinges on sex, but this film relies on build-up–it’s all about suspense here, getting thisclose to a reveal and then pulling back from the ledge.

The movie snakes its way through various developments, double-crosses and uncertainties up until its final ten minutes–and I would be an awful, awful person to spoil the revelations that tie everything together.  While the solution to the mystery isn’t necessarily something the viewer will puzzle out, it’s not as out-of-left-field as the kind of exposition that ties up loose ends in gialli.  Suffice to say, fans of the high gothic will be delighted.

Don’t get me wrong–“Spasmo” isn’t a traditionally good thriller, but it’s groovy and its twists are pretty dang unexpected.  Fans of Eurotrash cinema will be well served by its bizarreness.

For more images from “Spasmo,” check out the Flickr gallery here.

Simon, King of the Witches [1971]

Some movies are more than the sum of their parts, effective in a way that’s not easily pin-down-able. It can be hard to recommend a movie like this in a concise way, but I’m going to have to give it a try, because Bruce Kessler’s “Simon, King of the Witches” is definitely one of those movies.  It’s a film about the power of the occult that’s quieter and more coherent than the typical hippie freak-out fare, functioning more as a character study than as a cinematic acid trip.  This might be the American complement to “The Wicker Man”–a thoughtful representation of modern-day paganism in a Christian moral world.

Gorgeously-named Simon Sinestrari is a dealer in occult charms who lives in a storm drain and tries to avoid the prying eyes of authority figures who’d just as soon see him jailed for vagrancy.  On one of his nights spent in jail, Simon meets peppy teen hustler Turk, who introduces him to the world of swishy social climber Hercules.  Simon is welcomed into the bohemian enclave*, where he sells magical trinkets and tarot card readings to his Aquarius-Age audience.  All is not peace signs and pipe-passings in this clique, however, and when Simon’s relationship with the local DA’s daughter blossoms and his detractors grow more vocal, the extent of his magical powers is revealed and an ominous cycle of black magic begins.

*You can always tell a primo boho party of this time due to the presence of the man in the turban.  I’d imagine that, were I alive at the time, I’d probably create some kind of Turban Scale to describe the relative swankness of different soirees.

"Simon, King of the Witches" 

Ordinarily, I’d be frustrated by a movie about the occult that relies on subtle shifts in tone and character while following the classic tragedy story arc.  There were plenty of opportunities for this movie to go off the rails into craziness, but it never does.  The psychedelia is in line with the plot, and there’s no hair-rending Satanic madness.  Everything is told from Simon’s point of view–he’s a true believer in the occult,  and seems to grasp the magnitude of the powers he’s dealing with.  As the film builds to its eventual crescendo–and there is a very dramatic apex to this film–there’s a sense of inexorable pull, of the overwhelming magnetic/electric forces that are the source of Simon’s magic.

"Simon, King of the Witches"

There’s a rich sense of place in this film, which is set in 1970 Los Angeles.  I’ve seen plenty of movies dealing with magic and counterculture that are hilariously out-of-touch with their subjects, but “Simon, King of the Witches” has the quality of first-hand observation.  It’s rumored that screenwriter Robert Phippeny was a magical practitioner, and that shows in the scenes of Simon practicing his craft.  Above and beyond this, there’s a level of understanding of non-mainstream culture that runs through this film.  Hercules’ social circle isn’t just made up of young, long-haired idealists–there are politicians, idle children of the wealthy, business owners, swingers and other hangers-on who seem to greatly outnumber the artists, musicians and other eccentrics.  The film’s attitude towards these people is balanced between self-aware humor and an uncertainty about changing social norms.  It captures a moment in time when underground culture began to permeate the mainstream, and the resulting strangeness.  Related to this culture clash is the theme of authenticity versus affectation.  There’s a great scene in which Simon witnesses a ceremony carried out by a coven of witches, an event that’s got all the trappings of witchcraft (to whit: human bones, chanting, a costumed goat, ritual sex, and an excess of Egyptianate eyeliner) and none of the spiritual significance that Simon invests in his own workings.  It’s an opportunity for the filmmakers to show the sensational side of hippie-era magic while making a wry comment on its ludicrousness.

"Simon, King of the Witches"

Much of the success of “Simon, King of the Witches” rests on the shoulders of Andrew Prine’s performance in the title role.  The character is charming and witty, but sketched with a certain amount of darkness and poignancy around his edges.  In different hands, Simon could be a campy, histrionic huckster, but Prine makes him a tragic hero.  Simon truly believes in the power of the forces he’s summoning, but despairs at ever making the world understand the nature of these otherworldly agencies.  It’s easy to see how Simon’s charisma and cleverness could capture the attention of Hercules’ associates.  And it needs to be said that while Prine is not a traditionally handsome individual, his depiction of Simon is downright sexy in its intensity.

"Simon, King of the Witches"

“Simon, King of the Witches” is an unusual entry into the late 60s/early 70s occult cinema canon.  Its sociological insight and attempt to realistically depict ritual workings put it apart from the kind of shock tactics and heavy-handed moralizing of many of its genre-mates.  For folks who want a groovy time capsule with more intelligence than they’re probably used to, “Simon, King of the Witches”is well worth a view.

"Simon, King of the Witches"

For more images from “Simon, King of the Witches” check out the Flickr gallery here.

Many thanks to Bryan of Cinema Suicide for encouraging me to watch this movie sooner rather than later!  Sir, you are a gentleman and a scholar.

I LOVE BAD MOVIES ‘Zine & Tenebrous Kate Present "MAC AND ME"

I love bad movies: it’s a rallying cry, a fearless assertion. and also the title of a lovingly hand-crafted ‘zine.  Creators Matt Carman and Kseniya Yarosh are dedicated to seeking out strange, overlooked, and sometimes altogether forgotten movies and giving them the attention most people wouldn’t think they deserve.  Their areas of bad-movie interest go beyond horror and sci-fi fare, extending into comedy, romance, family fare, and beyond.  They bring together an eclectic bunch of talented authors in each issue of I LOVE BAD MOVIES, and devote the pages of each ‘zine to a specific type of schlock cinema.  Issue 4 is devoted to children’s films, and I’m delighted to have a piece included in its pages.

Order Issue 4 of I LOVE BAD MOVIES here, and see more classic zines in Kseniya’s Etsy shop while you’re at it!

 Fellow lovers of cinema’s dregs in the New York City area should join me and the I LOVE BAD MOVIES team for a very special presentation, of the existential shocker “Mac and Me” on September 30th at 92YTribeca.  Stare bravely into a world of madness, mutation, physical disability, and cynical marketing exploitation.  There will be entertainment from your hosts, and yes–there is beer & wine available for those who need a little liquid courage during the presentation.  Get your tickets at the 92YTribeca website!

“Mac and Me” is just one part of September’s Rip-Off Cinema Series at 92YTribeca, which features some amazing and rarely-screened gems.  Flicks like “Abby,” “Lady Terminator” and “1990: Bronx Warriors” are all being shown.  Be sure to check out the entire line-up and support local weirdness!