Friday, July 14, 2017

Past Misdeeds: Paganini Horror (1989)

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.

The career of 80s synth rock monstrosity/siren Kate (Jasmine Maimone) seems to come to its natural end. At least if you ask her producer Lavinia (Maria Cristina Mastrangeli), who has turned into quite a bitch from suffering through hours and hours of Kate's "music" during the years, and so really doesn't mind telling her charge how much she sucks. To make a long story short - Kate really needs a hit, and she needs it soon. Fortunately, her drummer Daniel (Pascal Persiano) knows a simple solution to his friend's complicated problem, and buys a lost, never published and never publically performed song of possible devil dealer Paganini from a certain Mister Pickett (Donald Pleasance). The song, obviously being called "Paganini Horror", just happens to be a really crappy 80s synth rock of the sort Lavinia deems a surefire hit.

Now Kate and her partners in crime just need to make a video ("just like Michael Jackson's fantastic Thriller"). For that, they hire famous horror director Mark Singer (Pietro Genuardi), who works alone, just like Wolverine. But where to shoot? Oh, right, in a derelict house in Venice that once belonged to Paganini where he supposedly made his pact with the devil and made violin strings from his girlfriend's guts. It's going to be quite a cost-efficient shoot - apart from Singer, Kate and her three co-musicians and Lavinia, there's only the house's owner, Sylvia Hackett (Daria Nicolodi), on set. Soon enough, the mandatory horrible things (and I don't just mean Kate's music) start happening.

The house is caged in by a cartoon lightning forcefield, and Paganini (he of the golden mask and the golden violin with the in-built blade) does a bit of killing and time-and-space-bending. Lots of running around in the dark, splitting up, and screaming ensues. Who will survive until the twist ending?

After experiencing the major ecstasy of his The Black Cat/Demoni 6/etc., I couldn't help but pounce on this other late-period horror film directed by Luigi Cozzi as soon as possible. Now, I'm even more convinced that I underestimated Cozzi quite heavily. When the man was on, he was quite capable of making a film of the sort of nonsensical beauty and intense, lovingly presented stupidity more typically found in the works of Bruno Mattei and Claudio Fragasso. Paganini Horror isn't quite the mind-blowing experience that other movie (which may or may not have been produced in the same year) turned out to be, but it is still chockfull of the sort of insane delights I always hope for in Italian horror movies.

Apart from the obvious (and pretty wonderful, of course) dumbness of the film's set-up - and the charming idiocy of its twist ending (note to directors: nobody will complain your twist ending ruins your whole film when your plot never made any sense anyway) - there's at least one excellently stupid thing a minute on screen, starting with Paganini's (whose violin quite expectedly sounds like a synthesizer and not like a violin) hobo-Phantom of the Opera outfit, and the violin knife and most certainly not ending with one of the best deaths in crappy horror cinema - death by "special fungus". Connoisseurs of this sort of thing can also look forward to some drunkenly rotating camera to visualize moments of disorientation and a very funny blood fountain when Lavinia is pressing her face against a piece of glass, um, is squashed to death by an invisible Paganini, I mean. Not to mention Kate's "music" (or the fact that the song that is supposed to be Paganini's when they shoot the video sounds nothing like the song Daniel played to them), the "dancing" and the eye-destroying costumes.

Visually, the film's all blue, green and red lights and rather shaky camera, with Cozzi doing everything in his budget to let the audience forget most of the film is taking place in the same five or so rooms (to be fair, there are also a handful of scenes taking place in Venice). I most certainly didn't forget, but I was much too occupied with giggling about the director's shrugging disregard of the nature of time and space (that's even a plot point), characters (that's not really a plot point), or plot (naturally, there isn't much of one).

I don't think I was the only one giggling about the whole affair, either. At least the always wonderful Donald Pleasence (in his "one day of shooting only and a trip to Venice, please" phase) looks for most of his sparse screen time as if he could barely hold his amusement in, making his devil (oops, spoiler) intensely endearing, like one's favourite uncle. Amusement is of course the natural reaction when one's biggest scene in a movie sees one throwing down money from a high balcony in Venice, shouting "Fly, my little demons!".

The rest of the actors don't seem of one mind about how to take on their roles. Daria Nicolodi goes for a quiet dignity that is completely at odds with the merrily deranged tone of the film - which is a bit ironic given that she's also billed as the screenplay's co-writer - while Maimone and Mastrangeli seem to be caught in a competition concerning who is better when it comes to hysterical overacting; Maimone's probably slightly more consistent there - her facial contortions when she talks about Michael Jackson and Thriller alone would be worth the price of admission. As you can imagine, these quite divergent acting approaches in combination with the incredibly loopy dialogue only add to film's very special (quite like the fungus, yes) charms.

As a whole, Cozzi's movie feels like one of the last great "hey, I have a thousand dollars, a script written by a semi-cult actress, an old house, and one day of shooting time with Donald Pleasence, so let's make a horror movie and get rich!"-films the Italian exploitation film industry popped out. As such, Paganini Horror not only produces tears of laughter and delight, but also leaves one with the melancholic feeling of witnessing the end of an era of the right kind of shoddy, somewhat desperate, yet weirdly enthusiastic filmmaking.

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