Friday, 29 May 2020

Exploito All’Italiana:
Paganini Horror
(Luigi Cozzi, 1989)

You don’t need a PhD in Italian cinema to realise that the nation’s commercial film industry was in pretty dire straits by the tail end of the 1980s. Simply watching a few of the increasingly cynical and poverty-stricken horror and action films which continued to trickle out as the decade drew to a close, all seemingly designed solely to try to claw back some easy dough from the overseas video rental market, should get the point across well enough.

In terms in horror, Luigi Cozzi’s ‘Paganini Horror’ and its even more bizarrely conceived companion piece ‘The Black Cat’ (aka ‘De Profundis’, aka ‘Demons 6’, aka ‘Suspiria 2’, 1989) were not technically the end of the line. After all, directors like Fulci, Lenzi and Fragasso all kept pluggin’ away into the early ‘90s, Argento was still making films (albeit with overseas financing at this point), and Michele Soavi even pulled off a late era triumph with 1994’s ‘Dellamorte Dellamore’.

But, on an emotional level, Cozzi’s ’89 films still seem very much like the end of something. On some level, I can’t help but feel that that particular strain of stylised Mediterranean gothic first kicked off in earnest by Mario Bava’s ‘La Maschera del Demonio’ in 1960, reaches it’s eventual, ragged conclusion right here.

All of which may sound a bit maudlin, but, thankfully, there are two things you can always rely on Luigo Cozzi to provide, however daft his films may be – earnest enthusiasm and utter weirdness. True to form, ‘Paganini Horror’ delivers both in spades.

As you might have expected, the genesis of this film seems to have been pretty convoluted, but insofar as I can establish, the series of events which led to its creation went as follows. Earlier in the ‘80s, Cozzi claims that he wrote a script for a film which he envisioned as a serious period drama, exploring the life of the legendary Venetian composer and violinist Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840), and the diabolical rumours which swirled around him.

Unsurprisingly, this project didn’t get anywhere near being made, but a few years later, Cozzi found himself working in some capacity on the nightmarish production of the thrice-doomed Klaus Kinski vanity project ‘Nosferatu in Venice’ (1988). Word on the canals was that Kinski planned to follow up this misbegotten venture with a self-directed film about Paganini – and indeed he did, although the result was reportedly such a car crash that it barely even saw release upon completion.

Prior to that however, there was apparently a sufficient buzz surrounding the project for low budget producer extraordinaire Fabrizio De Angelis (who seems to have almost single-handedly kept Italian b-movie industry afloat through these lean years) to smell the opportunity for a quick cash-in.

(If you’re wondering by the way why Enzo Sciotti’s incredible poster artwork for ‘Paganini Horror’ – reproduced at the top of this post – features a monster design, characters and a building which bear no resemblance to the finished film… well, I believe that’s simply because, in true grindhouse style, De Angelis commissioned him to paint it before the movie had even been scripted.)

Presumably remembering Cozzi’s earlier Paganini script, and aware that he was already working on the Kinski film, De Angelis must have given our man a call, and after getting the kind of hearty “HELL YES” that producers are naturally liable to receive when calling up struggling directors about their unrealised dream projects, he proceeded to lay down some pretty harsh caveats.

Firstly, he wanted the film to be a contemporary, American-style slasher movie with a rock soundtrack. Secondly, he wanted it made super-quick for pretty much no money whatsoever. (In an interview included on the blu-ray release of the film, Cozzi claims that De Angelis’s contribution as producer consisted of handing him a faulty 16mm camera, pointing him in the direction of the ruined villa which serves as the film’s primary location, and telling him to get on with it.)

So, you can probably see where this is all headed. Yes, that’s right - somewhere AWESOME, particularly once the great Daria Nicolodi (permanently estranged from Dario by this point, I believe) somehow also got involved with writing the script.

Perhaps this last point might help explain why ‘Paganini Horror’ kicks off with an initially perplexing, ‘Deep Red’ style childhood trauma prologue in which a small girl carrying a violin case travels home via gondola and electrocutes her mother in the bath. Or perhaps not, who knows. Either way though, once that’s out of the way, the story proper kicks off in a recording studio, where an unnamed, primarily female rock band are demoing their latest song - a shameless rip off of Bon Jovi’s ‘You Give Love a Bad Name’.

The band’s manager Lavinia (Maria Cristina Mastrangeli) is unimpressed. “If you ask me, your creativity has fallen on it’s ass – you keep doing the same stupid things again and again,” she tells singer/band leader Kate (Jasmine Maimone), not unreasonably under the circumstances. “Find something new, something mind-blowing and sensational,” Lavinia commands. “That’s what people expect from you! Another hit, not rehashed bullshit!” Ouch.

In an attempt to overcome this creative impasse, the band’s drummer and sole male member Daniel (Pascal Persiano) decides the time has come for them to considerably raise the stakes on their plagiarism, and as such he arranges a clandestine rendezvous with the sinister Mr. Pickett, a dishevelled, Mephistophelean type figure played by Donald Pleasence (who clearly wasn’t above jumping on a plane every now and then to lend his talents to this sort of thing, nearly a decade after the humiliation of ‘Pumaman’).

In exchange for a big wad of lire, Mr Pickett hands over a dusty suitcase containing – what else - a long lost, unpublished composition by Paganini himself! (In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, we later see Pleasence climbing to the top of the Basilica di San Marco in Venice and throwing piles of bank notes into the wind above St Mark’s Square; “little demons, little demons,” he cackles.) (1)

Back at the shack meanwhile, drummer-boy sits at the piano and plays his new acquisition for his band-mates (naturally it sounds like daytime soap opera music with a few baroque flourishes thrown in), and verily, they are inspired. Not just to rework some the 200-year-old tune into a solid gold hit, but also to use the music’s allegedly foreboding atmosphere as the jumping off point for an epic, horror-themed video project, which will no doubt clean up on MTV!

“No one has done anything remotely like it before… except for Michael Jackson, with ‘Thriller’, and his fantastic video clip,” declares Kate - and no, that’s not just me being facetious, it’s a direct quote from the film’s English dub, which, as you will have noted, is an absolute thing of beauty. “WE COULD DO THE SAME,” Daniel immediately responds, clearly still struggling with the essential concept of creating something ‘new’ and ‘sensational’.

And so, the band and their bitchy manager set out to make their dreams come true, hiring a renowned horror movie director (Pietro Genuardi, apparently playing a close cousin of ‘The Black Cat’s Dario Argento stand-in character) along the way, and decamping to a genuinely ominous looking derelict palazzo on the edge of town (actually a location in Rome), in which Paganini allegedly spent his final years.

These days however, the place is owned by none other than Daria Nicolodi! And so naturally she hangs around during the filming too, because hey, who wouldn’t? It all looks like a lot of fun, as the shadows loom and the elegantly-hued drapes billow through the dusty, candelabra-and-skull filled rooms, whilst the spandex-clad band dodge their way past armies of creepy mannequins, enthusiastically miming their way through their new, Paganini-derived smash hit (which my wife, who has a better ear than I for these things, assures me is a shameless rip off of a song by ELO). Good times indeed.

But, of course, all is not well. Before you know it, there’s a guy in a big, floppy hat and ‘Phantom of the Opera’ rubber mask (looking not unlike the killer from Bava’s ‘Baron Blood’ (1971)), stalking the band and their entourage, disposing of a few of ‘em with a switchblade embedded in the body of a violin, and, well, you know the drill.

More than anything, ‘Paganini Horror’ (especially when viewed in its English dub) strikes me as having tapped into the same rare and special brand of straight-faced absurdity which has helped make Juan Piquer Simón’s ‘Pieces’ (1982) into such a fan favourite. But, as much as I may have enjoyed taking the piss out of it in the paragraphs above, it’s worth stressing that Cozzi and his collaborators still manage to bring a sense of craft and style to proceedings which fans of older Italian horror are liable to find extremely endearing (if not a little heart-breaking, in view of the reduced circumstances they find themselves here).

Although much of the film is shot on roving, handheld 16mm, Cozzi’s footage retains a certain amount of elegance and compositional flair (more than can be found in his earlier, more generously budgeted films, some may argue), reflecting perhaps the years he spent peering over the shoulders of Argento, Bava and other celebrated maestros of the Italian gothic.

Lighting is consistently, uh, interesting (bright, infernal neon reds and blue-filtered day-for-night), whilst the editing (courtesy of industry veteran Sergio Montanari) is particularly strong, lending an Argento/Soavi-esque vitality to the film’s central stalking / murder set pieces which momentarily transcends the inherent silliness of the characters and storyline.(2)

The abandoned building in which much of the action takes place makes for a great, authentically ancient and creepy location, with elaborate (albeit budget conscious) set dressing helping to recapture a bit of that ineffable Italio-gothic feeling, whilst the Venetian location work is likewise as atmospheric as you could wish for, aided by an icy, surprisingly sombre electronic score from Vince Tempera.

This being a Cozzi film though of course, there is still plenty of room for outright, inexplicable goofiness, particularly during the movie’s second half, as the director seems to begin throwing in any wacky idea he can come up with to try to keep audience interest from flagging, even managing to indulge his long-standing preference for fantasy and science fiction to a certain extent.

It turns out, for instance, that there is an invisible ‘energy field’ preventing our characters from leaving the grounds of the palazzo – as we discover when the movie director character drives his car into it and somehow ends up roasting upon his flaming windshield.

Furthermore, the house has a cursed room, with for some reason boasts E=MC2 graffiti, esoteric equations, giant glowing egg-timers and a portrait of Einstein(?!), its flimsy floor concealing a system of time-and-space defying caves, in which Lavinia gets lost… or something..?

Elsewhere meanwhile, we get billowing green smoke, scratched-in blue lightning crackles, deafening synthesizer squalls, Andy Milligan-esque camera swirl, putrid, multi-coloured goo (“it looks like blood… mixed with some other thing”), dialogue about “a special fungus which only existed during the eighteenth century”, lots of senseless screaming and shouting and… laser beams? Could there be laser beams at some point? I don’t entirely recall to be honest, but signs point to ‘yes’.

It’s a good ol’ descent into complete delirium in other words, rendered all the more enjoyable by the sight of Daria and Donald (once he reappears) hamming it up in appropriately eye-rolling fashion, in stark contrast to the younger cast members, who seem largely bamboozled by the experience, staring blankly into the middle distance whilst looking faintly aggrieved, whenever they’re not being asked to run around screaming each other’s names.

So, what exactly does all this have to do with the simple tale of an undead Paganini returning from the grave to ice a bunch of galoots who have had the audacity to steal his music? And, given that we’re clearly very much in supernatural territory here, how the hell is that giallo-esque matricide prologue going to factor into things? And what about all the Mr Pickett, deal-with-the-devil stuff, for that matter?

I wish I could to tell you that all this is tied up satisfactorily at the film’s conclusion, but… well, instead of fretting about it, let’s just put it this way – excluding those directed by Argento or Soavi, when was the last time you watched a late ‘80s Italian genre movie which suffered from having TOO MANY ideas? Count your blessings, readers.

Cheap, tawdry and nonsensical as it may be in fact, I can put hand on heart and say that there is not a single element of ‘Paganini Horror’ which I did not enjoy. By cross-breeding poorly dubbed comic book mayhem and last gasp slasher hangover vibes with adorable Luigi Cozzi brain-wrongs and genuine gothic flair, it actually stands as pretty much perfect comfort viewing for someone of my particular inclinations.

Unlike the majority of his increasingly grizzled contemporaries, Cozzi’s heart was clearly still full of love for what he was doing at this late stage in the game, and even when talent, resources and opportunity all faltered, that love still shines through brightly in ‘Paganini Horror’, as if this were the work of some Italio-horror Daniel Johnson. Which, perhaps in a sense, it is? Don’t worry friends, ‘Paganini Horror’ will find you in the end.


(1)Given that Pleasence was also a veteran of ‘Nosferatu in Venice’, and given that most of his footage here was shot on Venetian locations, it’s tempting to speculate that Cozzi might have actually grabbed these shots during downtime on the Kinski film, subsequently crow-barring them into ‘Paganini Horror’? The fact that Pleasence also appears in scenes in which he interacts with the rest of the ‘Paganini Horror’ cast, in addition to the film’s Venice-shot prologue, suggest that this may not actually have been the case, but who knows.

(2) For those who are unaware of his background, Cozzi began his film career as the Italian correspondent for ‘Famous Monsters of Filmland’, filing set reports from assorted horror productions during the ‘60s, before he befriended Dario Argento and began to work as his assistant through the ‘70s, branching out to make his own directorial debut with the giallo ‘The Killer Must Kill Again’ in 1975.


Cam1020 said...

The first time I saw this movie I was astonished at how legitimately good the pseudo-Paganini song turned out to be. Sure enough, some YouTube research revealed that it was a shameless rip-off of ELO's "Twilight." If nothing else, I'm kind of grateful to this movie for turning me on to ELO. I also found the movie incredibly lovable, though, and far better than internet word of mouth had led me to believe. I just find it fascinating how even to the bitter end Cozzi kept shoehorning random and inappropriate sci-fi elements into his movies. I guess he knew he'd never get to make the kinds of films he really wanted to make, so he indulged himself in the only way he could.

Ben said...

Thanks for your comment Cam1020 - it;s much appreciated, and I agree on all points! The music of ELO remains a bit of a blind spot for me, but my wife will be happy to hear she correctly IDed the song being ripped off.

According to a trivia entry on IMDB, 8 minutes of footage featuring "scenes of planets, galaxies and parallel dimensions" were cut out of 'Paganini Horror' before release, so yeah, seems like Cozzi just couldn't help getting his sci-fi on!

Maurice Mickelwhite said...

This ones been lurking around for a while on my considerations list, so may well bump it up a bit. I quite like these late period Italian films as they often come up with something interesting or offbeat.