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.
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.
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.
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.
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.