Thursday, December 09, 2010

WINTER OF DISCONTENT: The Red Queen Kills Seven Times

"It’s just like a soap opera," remarks one employee of upmarket fashion house Springe to another as aristocratic photographer Kitty Wildenbruck (Barbara Bouchet) organises a shoot while her lover, and the vice president of Springe, Martin Hoffman (Ugo Pagliai) flits around.

With its haute couture setting (a la ‘Blood and Black Lace’), designer apartments, family conflicts, dark secrets from the past, and its myriad casual affairs, petty jealousies and everyday back-stabbing (in both senses of the word), Emilio Miraglia’s stylish giallo certainly has more than a touch of daytime melodrama about it. Only with a quota of knifings, shootings, drownings and nudity from which ‘The Bold and the Beautiful’ would run screaming.

Springe is thrown into disarray with the murder of the firm’s president Hans Meyer (Bruno Bertocci), knifed while cruising for a hooker to make up a threesome with his bit on the side, the magnificent model Lulu Palm (Sybil Danning). Lulu and Hoffman had exchanged harsh words earlier, the VP threatening to fire her once he replaces Meyer.

Lulu’s not the only person apprehensive at Hoffman’s succession. Secretary Rosemary Muller (Maria Pia Giancaro), who had also been involved with Meyer, disagrees with Hoffman over his policies for the company. Nonetheless their rivalry and ambitious drive to succeed at Springe lead them to attempts at ingratiation with Hoffman.

Meanwhile, Hoffman himself is juggling his relationship with Kitty and his reluctant commitments to his mentally disturbed and hospitalized wife. Kitty, too, is juggling various issues: Hoffman’s inability fully to commit to her; guilt over the accidental death of her sister Evelyn; the recent death of her exceptionally wealthy – that’s exceptionally wealthy as in the dude owns a freaking castle – grandfather Tobias (Rudolf Schindler); and the reappearance of Evelyn’s white trash boyfriend Peter (Fabrizio Moresco) who’s not buying her story that Evelyn has moved to the States and is incommunicado. Then there’s the business of how Tobias’s last will and testament will affect her relationship with her remaining sister Franziska (Marina Malfatti) and Franziska’s husband Herbert (Nino Korda), both of whom were complicit in keeping Evelyn’s demise under wraps.

With Tobias’s death followed quickly by Meyers’s – and, this being a giallo, plenty of other offings in the offing – Kitty starts coming apart, fearing that the old family curse is coming true.

Oh yeah. Sorry. I forgot to mention the curse.

‘The Red Queen Kills Seven Times’ opens with the infant Kitty and Evelyn playing with their dolls in the grounds of the castle. Evelyn steals Kitty’s favourite doll and goes haring off into the castle. Kitty catches up with her in Tobias’s study where she’s staring in fascination at a macabre canvas depicting a noblewoman in black stabbing a noblewoman in red. Seemingly mesmerized by it, she grabs a knife and goes all ‘Deep Red’ on the doll’s ass. Or rather its head.

Tobias calms the sisters (by now locked in a hair-pulling tussle) and tells them the story behind the picture. Reader’s Digest condensed version: the red queen and the black queen; sisters; one kills the other; the murdered sibling returns from the dead to kill seven victims, the last being her murderer. The curse is said afflict a pair of sisters every generation. The tale told, Tobias despatches them to play in the garden. Evelyn’s malicious behaviour towards Kitty in the opening credits montage makes the parallel explicit.

Fast forward fourteen years and an appearance of the sinister figure of the red queen presages each of the murders. Is Evelyn striving for vengeance from beyond the grave or is the perpetrator more earthly? With its cast of suspicious characters, proliferation of motives and plethora of herrings as red as the titular monarch, ‘The Red Queen Kills Seven Times’ is what Agatha Christie would have written if she’d got drunk with M.R. James and Coco Chanel and decided that what her whodunits really needed was less in the way of Belgian detectives and genteel Englishwomen and a whole lot more cleavage and outré fashion choices.

Excepting a weirdly integrated rape scene (which serves the questionable narrative purpose of depicting an ostensibly villainous character at their darkest only to paint them, immediately afterwards, as a would-be saviour foiled at the crucial moment by the killer’s intervention), ‘The Red Queen Kills Seven Times’ is hugely entertaining, beautifully shot, playful in its circumvention of audience expectations and showcases an impressive talent on Miraglia’s part for misdirection and directorial sleight of hand. Two scenes in particular are amongst the best examples of cinematic find-the-lady that I’ve ever seen, one hinging on the ownership of a certain make and model of car, the other in the denouement where a revelation that most directors would be happy to end the movie on is superseded less than a minute later by a reveal that completely recontextualizes what came before.

If Miraglia never quite reached the heights of Bava or Argento at their finest, it’s only because he never quite goes for the grand guignol of, say, ‘Blood and Black Lace’ or ‘Deep Red’. His filmmaking style is more studied and (dare I say it?) classical whereas Bava and Argento are masters of feverish operatic baroque stylizations.

(Yes, I did just type “feverish operatic baroque stylizations” without any punctuation. No, I will not edit. Yes, I have been drinking.)

Ultimately, while my use of the Queen’s English perhaps deserves to be called into question, there should be no similar doubts about ‘The Red Queen Kills Seven Times’. It’s a minor classic of the genre, deliriously ludicrous in some places and genuinely intriguing in others. Plus it’s as packed with eye candy as a giallo can get without Edwige Fenech featuring in the cast.


Troy Olson said...

Awesome. I have heard of this being quite highly regarded amongst giallo fans and it sounds like you would agree. This looks very interesting and like quite a bit of fun. I shall be checking it out soon.

Neil Fulwood said...

I think you'll enjoy it. Look forward to comparing notes.