Friday, August 5, 2011

What Have They Done to Your Daughters? (1974)

It begins with a body...

I see that I haven't posted a new review in over a month.  (Thankfully, Allex has kept the blog active in my absence.)  There's not really a great explanation for my silence.  I've watched a metric shit-ton of movies in the past month, so it's not like I haven't had plenty of choices to write about.  Sure, I've had some new projects going on, but none so time-consuming that I couldn't produce a few reviews in the past few weeks.  No, I think it's simply best written off as a summer vacation.  But I'm back now, summer heat be damned, with a review of Massimo Dallamano's 1974 giallo/poliziotteschi hybrid What Have They Done to Your Daughters?

My co-author and I both have a love for film that is defined in no small part by our affections for particular eras or genres in film history.  That's not to say that our cinephilia is bound up and tied to narrow regions of the film landscape; on the contrary we both watch a wide variety of stuff.  (Hell, we've each seen one of the big obligatory summer superhero movies this year.)  But, speaking for myself, there are many areas in which I'm content to watch a handful of key films, whereas other genres compel me to adopt the quixotic quest of mapping out for myself every little nook and cranny I can find.  Eurocult film, especially the giallo genre, is one such area for me.  If there is a new DVD of a giallo coming out you can be assured I've got it pre-ordered.  I've spent relatively outrageous sums tracking down out of print editions I wanted for my collection, bought gray-market bootlegs, and have a list of titles I'm still seeking as long as my arm.

But there's a paradox there, perhaps even a perversity.  When you go genre-diving you have to know that the vast majority of the time the truly great films, the best of the best, are the first to see the light of day on home video, the ones that never go out of print and have swanky special edition releases.  Consequently, the titles you expend the most effort to track down and spend the most money on are often the least rewarding.  Counter-productive, perhaps, and often more than a little frustrating.  But for me, at least, it's all worth it for those times you pop in a movie that was a little off the beaten path, expecting a so-so experience that mostly serves to check a title off your list, and are utterly and completely blown away.

Lest there was any doubt we are watching a giallo...

Granted, What Have They Done to Your Daughters? is not nearly as hard to come by as some.  There is a great DVD edition out from Shameless, a UK based distributor.  But without an American release, much of its potential stateside audience is likely to miss out, which is a damn shame.  A spiritual sequel to Dallamano's What Have You Done to Solange? (often thought of as belonging to his "Schoolgirls in Peril" trilogy alongside 1978's Enigma Rosso, which he wrote, but which wasn't filmed until after his death), Daughters is a thrilling giallo of startling sophistication and sincerity that should appeal to enthusiasts as well as those who typically write off the genre.

The film opens with police officers responding to an anonymous tip that leads to the discovery of the body of young Silvia Polvesi (Sherry Buchanan of Last House on the Beach and Zombie Holocaust.)  An apparent suicide, she is found hanging nude from a noose in an attic apartment.  But as Assistant D.A. Vittoria Stori (Giovanna Ralli) and Inspector Silvestri (Claudio Cassinelli of Flavia the Heretic and Mountain of the Cannibal God) begin their investigation they follow a trail of bloodshed to a teenage prostitution ring patronized by the rich and powerful of Italian society.

With its sleazy subject matter, black-garbed killer, gore and nudity Daughters in undoubtedly a member of the giallo family.  Yet there is much that sets it apart from its brethren.  First, there is the focus on police officers as the protagonists and the attention to the details of their investigation.  On the basis of most gialli, one could be forgiven for concluding that the majority of murder cases in Italy are solved by foreign writers and musicians on vacation or by sexy women having drug-induced dreams of violence.  Not here, however.  Not only are both our leads agents of the law, but their investigation seems largely grounded in reality, following believable paths of gathering evidence, interviewing witnesses and dealing with the press.

The police aren't taking any chances this time.
Secondly, most gialli would take full advantage of the subject matter to revel in salacious scenes of underage sex and graphic murder.  Dallamano clearly has a different agenda, however.  The two most important murders take place off screen and there is no sex to speak of, only brief nudity from Buchanan in a couple of flashbacks.  Likewise the outrageous fashions and decor that typically give gialli an air of fantasy are completely absent here; the look of the film feels very grounded and it's not hard to imagine that this is a pretty good representation of how people in these positions actually dressed and lived in Italy in the 1970's.  So if he's not really delivering on the exploitation, and not presenting the story as fantasy, just what is Dallamano up to?

The answer comes from a surprising place.  You watch enough exploitation flicks, and you get used to the habit of "the justification."  As though trying to provide cover for the more tasteless elements of their films, there are countless movies from the era that try to suggest that they're really addressing some serious social problem.  Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS famously begins with a disclaimer stating that the film is an attempt to document the atrocities of the holocaust, lest we forget such tragedy.  (Right.  I'm sure Spielberg was this close to including a plot-line in Schindler's List about a man saving the day with his miraculous ability to delay orgasm.)  Likewise, Ernst Hofbauer's Schoolgirl Report films claimed to be public service films informing parents of changing sexual mores.  (Doubtless the series' success is due entirely to PTA educational viewings.  Don't worry, that man in the trenchcoat is just taking notes.)  And so when Daughters opened with a similar disclaimer, claiming that "only a faithful reconstruction of [events like those in the film] can bring to light the dramatic disturbing truth behind them" I chuckled to myself.

Inspector Valentini (Mario Adorf) sees his daughter in a new light.

And yet, when the film closed on similar text which cited the annual number of adolescent disappearances in Italy I wasn't laughing anymore.  I've had many reactions to gialli:  I've been amused, I've been shocked, I've been turned on, and I've been bored.  But I do believe that this was the first time I've been moved by one.  When Inspector Valentini (Mario Adorf, in a stand-out performance within a generally terrific cast) discovers that his daughter was involved in the prostitution ring, his reaction is genuine and devastating.  He confronts her and before he is able to say what he knows she can see it in his face; they both struggle to maintain composure as he tries to come to grips with his guilt, fear and sorrow.  It's a truly powerful moment in a genre not known for its emotional intensity.  Later in the film, the camera lingers mournfully on a pair of elementary school age girls as they make their way down the street; everything we've seen so far makes the viewer painfully aware that their childish innocence has an expiration date.

Even if these girls survive to adulthood relatively unscathed, their prospects may not be that grand.  Our protagonist is a female assistant D.A. who reveals in a vulnerable moment that despite her career success and her obvious skill at her job, she's never able to forget for a moment that thanks to her gender her colleagues forever see her as weak, as prey.  Moments like these convinced me that Daughters is an utterly sincere film.  Dallamano was horrified at a society that closes its eyes to the fact that the powerful prey on the innocent and the most vulnerable, and like all artists, turned to his medium to express that dismay.

Giovanna Ralli as Assistant D.A. Stori

I realize that so far I may have made Daughters sound like a bitter pill to swallow.  Many enthusiasts, myself included, love a good giallo for precisely the things this film (mostly) omits: sleazy sex and violence, outrageous fashion and fantastical plotting.  Sure, you may be asking, Dallamano is sincere and the movie deals with serious issues intelligently...but is it entertaining?  To that, the answer is a resounding "hell yeah it is."  Dallamano worked within the structures of Italian genre film-making; he was well aware that any film, no matter its subject matter, which didn't deliver the goods on some level would sink like a stone.  What elevates Daughters to the upper echelon of genre film-making for me is that he embeds his serious issues in the framework of suspense cinema and delivers a thriller that is as exciting as they come.

The set-pieces in Daughters are consistently second to none.  When Stori is stalked by the killer in a darkened parking garage, I was immediately reminded of the justly famous cat and mouse game in the bus depot in The Bird With the Crystal Plumage.  Typically, reminding the viewer of an Argento classic would be a quick way to make your film look weak by comparison, but the scene here is, if anything, tenser and more exciting.  I typically tire of car chases pretty damn fast, but an extended sequence in which Silvestri pursues the murderous motorcyclist out of the city by street and alley, across fields and through a mining site had me on the edge of my seat for every second.

Dallamano knows that a more realistic tone doesn't preclude style or visual flair.

So:  serious issues treated deftly in a first-rate script, a terrific cast, and thrilling action set-pieces...only one thing else is necessary to wrap this one up as an absolute must-see, and thankfully Stelvio Cipriano is on board to knock it out of the park.  Daughters' older sister, What Have You Done to Solange? boasted a typically excellent score from the maestro himself, Morricone.  Always a hard act to follow.  Yet Cipriano's score utterly eclipses Morricone's work on the previous film.  Propulsive and memorable, it perfectly accentuates the action on screen.  After watching the film last night I've been humming the main theme all day and am now off to find the soundtrack.

Oh, and by the way...the DVD from Shameless, in addition to having a fantastic transfer, is region-free so you have no excuse not to add this to your collection.  Go.  Do it.  Now.

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