Friday, June 30, 2017

Past Misdeeds: Evil Face (1974)

aka The Hand That Feeds The Dead

Original title: La mano che nutre la morte

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts without any re-writes or improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

(Not to be confused with Le Amanti Del Monstro aka Lover of the Monster made in the same year, by the same director, with mostly the same cast, shared footage and even shared character names; don't ask, it's the Italian exploitation industry at the absurd height of its power, so everything's possible).

Ye Olden Days. Mad scientist Professor Nijinski (Klaus Kinski) has quite an interesting household. His wife Tanja (Katia Christine) is the daughter of his former mentor Ivan Rassimov (yes, exactly like the actor), and has been disfigured in a fire that killed her dad. Normal medicine can't help Tanja get her old skin back, but fortunately, daddy was a pioneer in skin transplantation, alas a rather primitive kind that for some inexplicable reason not only takes skin but also all of a donor's blood to work. Fortunately for Tanja, her husband does not have too many scruples, and his assistant, a lame, slightly hunchbacked mute named Vanja (the great Turkish bad guy actor Erol Tas) does have even fewer. Vanja's enthusiasm for the work might have something to do with him and Tanja having an affair behind Nijinski's back - that is, when Tanja isn't just torturing Vanja's ears with a tuning fork. Anyway, with two strong mad men on her side, there are always enough young women to go around to build a new skin for her.

In a fit of cleverness, Nijinski has even paid off sexual adventuress Sonia (Stella Calderoni) to stay at their mansion, quite possibly so that there's a skin donor around should he need one on very short notice. Apart from Sonia, there's also the writer Katja Olenov (Marzia Damon) staying at the house. Officially, she's there to research a book about Rassimov, but in truth the young woman suspects Nijinski of being responsible for the disappearance of her sister and is trying to find concrete evidence for her theory. Somehow, she manages not to notice all the murders going on around her.

To make matters more complicated, newlyweds Alex (Ayhan Isik) and Masha (Katia Christine) have a coach accident nearly in front of the Nijinskis' mansion. The Professor is only too happy to take the couple in and help get the hurt Masha on her feet again once he's taken a look at the young bride's face and realizes that she looks exactly like his wife did before her accident. And as luck will have it, Nijinski has left the necessary skin transplants on his wife's face for last. Will anyone notice that something is very wrong in his house before it's too late?

Sergio Garrone's gothic exploitation movie Evil Face is a bit of a difficult film to enjoy. The movie's first half consists of way too many bland scenes setting things up, and way too few scenes in which interesting things happen in interesting ways. For every minute of Erol Tas stumbling through the mansion's garden to reach his mistress before her tuning fork will drive him completely insane, and for every second of Nijinski's fantastic lab (Look at all that brass! And the red, bubbling liquid! The blinking lights! Truly, this is a place where scientific work is being done!), for every moodily framed shot, there are ten minutes of bored, stagey dialogue sequences that just go on and on and on. For some reason, nearly all of the film's big exploitational values - action, breasts, lesbian sex, blood, a premature burial, a deeply unpleasant rape scene, stolen faces etc. - are pushed into the film's last third, a point when it's still possible to appreciate the movie's sudden ruthlessness and interest in keeping its viewers awake, but quite impossible to care too much.

Weirdly enough, even Evil Face's if not action-packed, so at least occurrence-packed final third, has a strange feeling of slowness about it. On paper, there's a whole lot of stuff happening at once, but the pacing still feels leaden and unsure, even for the not exactly sprightly genre that is the Italian gothic horror film.

It's also a bit of a disappointment how little use the film makes of Kinski. It's obvious that the great madman wasn't paid for as many shooting days as his co-stars, so there are quite a few scenes where Nijinski's character disappears nearly completely, or where the back of a stand-in takes Kinski's place. However, even when Kinski is on screen, he isn't completely there. Seldom have I seen the actor this disinterested and bored for the duration of a whole film, with nary a blip of his usual charisma and intensity. Perhaps Garrone should have given him a scene or two with a naked lady not on an operating table?

Because Kinski's never there, most of the physical acts of evil are left to Erol "Dr. Satan" Tas, and the Turkish actor does take the opportunity to show off his special brand of physical overacting, so full of grunting, limping, jumping and eye-rolling that every scene with him is pretty much a winner (or, in the case of the short rape sequence, pretty much as horrible as it should be).

The rest of the actors are decent, attractive, and quite believable as a bunch of characters totally incompetent in everything they do. Actually, I'd suggest that Garrone might be trying to make a point on the ineffectualness and painful blandness of the usual heroes and (sometimes) villains of gothic horror - especially the male ones - here, by leaving two women this sort of film would usually side-line as the involuntary instigator of a villain's deeds and victim number two - the utterly heartless Tanja, and the frequently traumatized yet still courageous and intelligent lesbian Katja - as the characters among the film's cast actually doing more than just going through the motions, making them the film's real villain and hero, respectively. Given the state of the rest of the film, I somehow doubt Garrone did this on purpose, though.

But, purpose or not, I'm happy for every hint of actual thought going into a movie. It's not enough to recommend the film to anyone not as deeply into this sort of thing as I am, but since "this sort of thing" in this particular case includes gothic horror, Klaus Kinski, Erol Tas, and possible genre-bending, quite a few of you might still want to take a look at Evil Face.

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