During the first half of the ’70s, Italian genre director Umberto Lenzi divided his time neatly between two types of film: poliziotteschi action fare like Syndicate Sadists and gialli shockers like Seven Blood-Stained Orchids. Lenzi pushed the latter style of film to its outer limits with his 1974 film Spasmo. Gialli are known for way-out plotting and a certain baroque sensibility towards shocks… but even experienced fans of this subgenre might be thrown for a loop by Spasmo. It really is that weird.
The trippy narrative starts with wealthy but troubled playboy Christian (Robert Hoffmann) discovering a woman lying on the beach, presumably dead. However, a close inspection reveals the woman, Barbara (Suzy Kendall), is alive and perhaps as troubled as he. They abandon their current lovers for each other and trouble immediately begins to follow them, including a hired killer (Adolfo Lastretti) out to get Christian and thugs sent by Barbara’s vengeful rich-guy ex (Mario Erpichini). Oh, and there’s also an unseen psycho dressing up life-size female dolls and stabbing them on the periphery of this overheated plot.
The above synopsis may sound wild but it doesn’t capture the bizarre storytelling style of the film, particularly in its dreamlike first hour. The main characters speak to each other in Freudian gibberish while side characters are introduced then forgotten or killed only for their corpses to vanish suddenly. There are interjections of frantic violence from previously unseen attackers who refuse to explain themselves. The cumulative effect of this pileup of events feels like Dario Argento at his most flamboyant colliding with David Lynch at his most cryptically dreamlike.
That said, if you hang in there with Spasmo‘s wild first hour, the final thirty minutes pay off in a legitimate, story-driven manner. Surprisingly, this is not a letdown as that final half-hour plays like a traditional giallo on fast-forward as we thrown into a barrage of new characters, family secrets, double identities, more murders and loopy plot reveals galore, including a killer final twist that brings all the eccentricities full circle.
The film is also beautifully made. Lenzi’s direction is inspired from start to finish: he makes ironic use of tranquil seaside locales for the brutality and confusion while staging the surreal turns of plotting with bold compositions from cinematographer Gugliemo Mancori that give it a pop-art flair. Hoffmann comes unglued in a memorable manner and gets nice support from Italian genre regulars like Lastretti and Ivan Rassimov. Ennio Morricone’s masterful score ranges from atonal eeriness to somber beauty, perfectly completing the film’s otherworldly and vertiginous feel.
Needless to say, Spasmo is not for those who are novices to the quirky, sensation-driven world of ’70s Italian genre filmmaking but it is a delight for those who already savor this style. Not only do they not make them like this anymore, they’ve rarely made them like this ever.
Blu-Ray Notes: Scorpion Releasing revived this long out-of-print title for blu-ray and did an elegant job with it. The dual-layer disc offers not one but two transfers, one remastered and slightly filtered digitally and another sans any digital tweaking. Either one is a worthy viewing option. Both English and Italian soundtracks are offered, the latter with English subtitles. Also included are a trailer and a Lenzi interview carried over from the prior U.S. DVD.