Thursday, 1 March 2018
Delirium: The Photos of Gioia
(Lamberto Bava, 1987)
As a lover of the irrational in cinema, it saddens me to report that one of the most delirious things about this late period giallo opus from Lamberto Bava is probably its name. First off, this ‘Delirium’ should definitely not to be confused with Renato Polselli’s more comprehensively delirious 1972 ‘Delirium’, nor indeed the 1979 American horror film of the same name. And, if you’re thinking, hang on, pictures of what? Well, ‘Gioia’ is the Italian version of ‘Gloria’, which is the name of the central character in the English dub under review here, so, there you go; it’s not just a poster typo that stuck, although quite why the title wasn’t anglicised to match the dub heard in English territories is anyone’s guess. (1)
So, having got that out of the way, let’s crack on and see what kind of enjoyment we can wring from the younger Bava’s attempt to sew up elements of Argento, De Palma and indeed his father’s own ‘Blood & Black Lace’ (1964) into a kind of crudely assembled Ultimate Giallo, telling the can’t-miss tale of Gloria, the excruciatingly rich and tasteless publisher of a soft porn/fashion magazine named ‘Pussycat’, and of a vengeful killer stalking and murdering the models in her employ.
As you might well have anticipated, ‘Delirium’ is first and foremost a veritable riot of out-of-control ‘80s kitsch. The film’s visuals immediately recall the slick, hyper-real fantasias of Argento and Michele Soavi’s ‘80s films, whilst the fetishised, Helmut Newton-esque fashion / photography milieu that provides much of the local colour seems like a direct homage to ‘The Eyes of Laura Mars’ (1978), executed here with a level of garish, exploitative tackiness that makes Irwin Kirshner’s film look like a model of taste and restraint in comparison.
This aesthetic is carried over wholesale into the movie’s shamelessly prurient stylised murder sequences, and, needless to say, the wardrobe and hair-styling throughout must be seen to be believed, whilst the displays of conspicuous consumption highlighted in the production design are such that the characters may as well be lounging around on furniture made of gold doubloons.
Another thing viewers will soon note is that lead actress Serena Grandi has unsettlingly large breasts. Not the cool, Russ Meyer / Tura Satana kind of large breasts, but the kind that look out of proportion with the rest of her body and tend to make you worry about the terrible back pain she must be suffering.
Realising it is his solemn duty to exploit these assets appropriately, Lamberto does so not just via a ludicrous climax that sees Gloria going one-on-one with the killer whilst wearing Victoria’s Secrets-style lingerie, and also through the means of a sub-plot in which she reignites her love affair with a jobbing actor, aptly played by the ubiquitous George Eastman. In a delightful touch, Eastman is introduced whilst in costume for some kind of barbarian movie his character is appearing in. [I’ll put money on the fact that this actually WAS his costume from Ruggero Deodato’s ‘The Barbarians’, released the same year].
Grandi and Eastman’s passionate-in-inverted-commas jacuzzi love scene is… quite the thing, proving beyond doubt that wherever the younger Bava’s talents lay, it was certainly not in the arena of eroticism.
During ‘Delirium’, I wasn’t overly troubled by the notion that Grandi might be a gifted actress, but, in fairness, IMDB reveals that she has over fifty credits in theatrically released Italian pictures across four decades, so she must be doing something right. Perhaps it was just the combination of a distinctly iffy English dub and general tone of OTT melodrama that torpedoed her here, who knows.
Happily though, Grandi is flanked by a battalion of familiar faces in the supporting cast, including Daria Nicolodi (brilliant as ever, making comical “shifty eyes” faces behind the backs of the cops as they question her about the murders), David Brandon (whom you’ll recall as the outrageously camp English theatre director in Soavi’s ‘Stage Fright’ (1987), here expanding his range to include an outrageously camp English photographer), and ‘60s starlet Capucine, who puts in a great turn as Gloria’s embittered former mentor/rival magazine publisher (red herring much?), retaining about as much dignity as is humanly possible in a movie like this.
In order to differentiate his product from the legions of other “beautiful fashion models get butchered” titles competing for our attention across the decades, Lamberto’s principal gimmick in ‘Delirium’ involves shooting the murder scenes as heavily-tinted subjective sequences giving us the POV of the murderer. Nothing out of the ordinary there, I’ll grant you, BUT it seems that this killer’s ill-defined paranoid schizo tendencies cause him/her to see his/her photogenic victims as rubber-faced monsters of one kind or another, thus instigating ‘Delirium’s sole claim toward delirium.
The first time this happens – with fluorescent gel lighting flashing crazily as a model we just saw leaving a late night soiree in Gloria’s villa suddenly walks on-screen with a giant prosthetic eyeball head, shortly before she is impaled by a pitchfork – is genuinely pretty crazy; an authentic WTF highlight that momentarily justifies the movie’s title.
This is only topped by the second – even more distasteful - murder sequence, in which the killer visualises his showering victim with a compound-eyed aphid head. Overpowering her, s/he subsequently slathers his/her victim in what appears to be honey, before unleashing… a shoebox full of bees! (It was the shoebox that cracked me up.) Presumably an attempt to capitalise on ‘Phenomena’s (far superior) insect effects a few years earlier, this is all utterly inexplicable, and just as grotesquely daft as it sounds. (2)
As if all that weren’t enough to keep us busy, we’ve also got a peculiar sub-plot involving a wheelchair-bound teenager who spends his time spying on the kinky goings-on around Gloria’s pool and making obscene phone calls to her, but hey, it’s ok, he’s a good kid really. Beginning as an obligatory Hitchcock nod, developments here take a pretty weird diversion in the second half of the film, when it is revealed that wheelchair boy’s incapacity is a self-inflicted psychological condition resulting from the guilt he feels for the car crash that killed his fiancée. For a few moments there, ‘Delirium’ seems as if it’s about to turn into some ‘General Hospital’ tearjerker, and… I have no idea why any of this ended up in the movie to be honest, but hey – at least it’s unexpected.
Also worthy of note, we have another reliably banging, synth-drum heavy score from Simon Boswell, and a wonderful ‘Pieces’-esque moment in which a cop investigating the first murder presents his superior officer with a blood-free pitchfork, announcing “I found this in the tool shed” before the latter stares quizzically at him for a few seconds, then orders him to “get it to the lab, for testing!” (Ah, small pleasures).
Now, by this point, you’re probably thinking that ‘Delirium: The Photos of Gioia’ is shaping up to be one of the greatest Euro-trash horror films of the 1980s. How can it not be? Well, I don’t have any easy answer for you, but let’s put it this way: one of the great unsolved mysteries of European genre cinema must be: given the lengths it clearly goes to to please the kind of people who’d want to watch a film like this in the first place, how come ‘Delirium’ is basically just not that much fun to watch?
It’s a puzzler alright, but for Exhibit A I’ll put the following proposition to you. Given that Lamberto Bava’s ‘greatest hits’ as a director (the two ‘Demons’ films) provide a veritable blueprint for dispensing with exposition entirely and making horror movies that go off like rockets, it is ironic that, whenever he ventured into thriller/giallo territory, his films tended to suffer from serious pacing issues.
Essentially I think, whilst Lamberto can handle the action/exploitation stuff like a pro, he has no feel for either building tension or developing believable character interactions, and when doing so becomes necessary, he is apt to flounder.
Furthermore, for a film named ‘Delirium’, plotting here is disappointingly mundane. The nature of the killer’s monster delusions is never really expanded upon (indeed, this whole device is dropped in the movie’s second half), and things culminate with the kind of crushingly inconsequential “oh, it was… that guy” type resolution that has long been the hallmark of inferior gialli.
With no real surprises or innovations, the film’s 95 minute run time feels pretty gruelling, with toe-curlingly awkward, repetitious dialogue, highly variable performances and ill-motivated corridor wandering eventually reducing it to a painful crawl to the finish line, in spite of the myriad bells and whistles I’ve outlined above.
And for Exhibit B meanwhile… again, I’m not entirely sure how to put this, but there is a certain lack of charm to ‘Delirium’ that makes me reluctant to give it the same breaks I’ve accorded many of the other films I’ve reviewed in this Exploito All’Italiana strand.
By 1987, I suppose things were getting pretty far down the line towards po-mo self-awareness and the kind of “so-bad-it’s-good” mentality that led many cult filmmakers to creative penury during the dark days of the ‘90s. In this respect, the scenes of monster-headed weirdness in ‘Delirium’ feel contrived – knowingly silly - where, just a few years earlier, more genuinely unhinged filmmakers like Lenzi or Polselli would likely have thrown them in entirely in earnest.
It feels as if Bava was sufficiently canny to know exactly what he was doing with the various cultural reference points and commercial necessities spliced into this picture, but was not smart enough to really justify them or put them to any interesting use. Instead, the film veers toward a cynical, camp sensibility that never feels entirely satisfactory, light years away from the simple, derivative charm of pictures like Sergio Martino’s ‘Hands of Steel’ (1986) or Bava’s own Blastfighter (1984). It’s a fine line perhaps, but Clever-Stupid can make for a good time - Stupid-Clever not so much.
Just a few months ago, we were looking at a Lamberto Bava film – Graveyard Disturbance – that crashed and burned as a result of its total failure to fulfil audience expectations of a horror movie. It is curious therefore to reflect on the way that ‘Delirium’ ostensibly delivers in spades on everything an inebriated Euro-cult fan could possibly wish for, yet still somehow comes up empty-handed. What can I say - It’s a funny old game, isn’t it?
It’s not that ‘Delirium’ isn’t worth watching at some point if this kind of thing floats yr boat. On the contrary, it’s loaded with stuff to make you grin and chuckle and gasp, right on cue. But, just as in the world of empty ‘80s narcissism that the film purports to critique in some vague, five-degrees-removed type fashion, those grins, chuckles and gasps will feel hollow and fleeting, where once they ran deep and rich.
(1) For the record, IMDB currently lists upward of twenty feature films with the name ‘Delirium’ – mostly indie horror efforts released during the 21st century, although there’s also a Spanish ‘Delirium’ from 1983, a 1997 Filipino one, and most intriguingly, a 1965 Iranian horror movie that also shares the name. Now that I’d like to see!
(2) We need to acknowledge at this point that ‘Delirium’ is about as shamelessly misogynistic as these things get, but c’mon. If you’ve made it past the poster art and plot synopsis, you should be prepared for that. You might as well criticise a bulldog for drooling. Should you wish to mount a defence of the film on these grounds, I suppose you could point to both Nicolodi and Capucine as strong/interesting female characters who are never overtly sexualised, and perhaps even make a tenuous claim that the film’s camp sensibility pushes its leering depictions of eroticised violence into a guilt-free queer/po-mo context. But, I’m not going to make these arguments – in fact I’m going to drop the issue right there. ‘Delirium’ is gloriously indefensible rubbish, and I’m happy to enjoy it as such.