Umberto Lenzi’s psychological thriller starts with two effective rug-pulls. In the pre-credits scene, a young couple race down to the beach in the moonlight; stopping in the lee of a deserted beach house, they start making out. Lenzi’s camera frames the dangling feet of a hanged body behind them. A scream rings out as the girl turns and catches sight of it. The mood soured, they go to investigate. It’s a mannequin. An engine revs and a car roars off.
Post credits, Christian (Robert Hoffmann) and his on-off artist girlfriend Xenia (Maria Pia Conte) are walking along a beach when they spot a body lying face down. Xenia is horrified and hangs back; Christian goes to investigate. The body turns out to be very much alive; a victim of sunstroke who had momentarily passed out. She introduces herself as Barbara (Suzy Kendall) and Christian offers to fetch a flask of whisky from his car to help revive her. Barbara disappears, however, leaving behind an item by which Christian tracks her to a yacht owned by Barbara’s moneyed and much older boyfriend Alex (Mario Erpichini).
These sequences bookend two minutes of credits interspersed with rapid, disorientating cuts to a series of mannequins in macabre and sexualized tableaux. Their relevance is something that Lenzi doesn’t reveal until the very last scene; a nasty, morbid coda to an hour and a half of not-what-it-seems plotting.
Christian becomes obsessed with Barbara and poor old Xenia is unceremoniously sidelined. Gate-crashing a party at Alex’s yacht (or should that be “gangplank-crashing”?), Christian and Barbara lose no time in stealing away to a motel. Barbara insists that Christian shave off his distinctive beard before they get it on – a request that seems to have greater motive than simple comfort on Barbara’s part, particularly when Christian’s clean-shaven industrialist brother Fritz (Ivan Rassimov) comes into the picture – and while Christian is busying himself in the bathroom with scissors and electric razor, he is attacked by gun-toting thug Tatum (Adolfo Lastretti). During the struggle, the gun discharges and Christian is left with a body, his prints on the gun and Alex outside wanting Barbara back and Christian out of the picture.
Returning to the motel after a heated discussion with Barbara and Alex back at the yacht, Christian is disturbed to find the body missing. Meanwhile, more mannequins in death poses are turning up. Barbara flees Alex’s possessive influence and holes up with Christian in a holiday home she claims belongs to a friend of hers but is being occupied by the saturnine Malcolm (Guido Alberti) and his much younger consort Clorinda (Monica Monet). Christian comes to believe that he’s met Clorinda before and that she has something to do with his brother. As a plethora of unsettling events play out, Christian tries to hang on to his sanity while dealing with Alex’s benign influence and the possibility that the psychotic Tatum might not be dead after all.
‘Spasmo’ – a compellingly blunt title – plays out as utterly baffling for its first hour. Nothing quite connects; there seems to be little or no logic to narrative developments. Character dynamics are curious. Who exactly is the catalyst for the weird shit that happens: Barbara or Christian? Why does the mysterious Malcolm take such an interest? What’s the deal with Clorinda and Christian’s brother?
Things start clicking into place after an assassination attempt that plays out unexpectedly, sending Christian on a desperate chase to piece the remaining clues together. Everything is explained by the end credits, but Lenzi seems hellbent – right up to the end – to monkey with audience expectations. His determinism in this respect is entirely commendable, although it does make ‘Spasmo’ something of a hard slog in places, certainly in the middle section where the accretion of elliptical and seemingly uncontextualized incidents threaten to become infuriating.
The final third of the film more than compensates, however. The performances are uniformly good, with Kendall in particular taking a character who could have been unbearably histrionic and instead honing the characterization beyond what the often utilitarian script gives her to work with. It’s stylishly shot by Guglielmo Mancori, who makes excellent use of locations varying from swanky yachts and beach houses to abandoned quarries and industrial works. And those mannequins – carrying on a giallo tradition established by Mario Bava’s ‘Blood and Black Lace’ – bring a creepy visual element that’s all their own.