Sunday, October 27, 2013

ITALIAN HORROR BLOGATHON: What Have They Done to Your Daughters?

Posted as part of the Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies 4th Italian Horror Blogathon.

Okay, I’m probably stretching it a bit including this in the Italian Horror Blogathon, since it’s more of a polizia than anything else, but it was marketed strongly as a giallo and contains enough elements of that genre that you can just about make a case for it. As usual with 70s Italian exploitationers, the English language title isn’t an exact translation. It was released in Italy as ‘La polizia chiede aiuto’, i.e. ‘The Police Ask for Help’, which makes it sound more like one of “Milano” polizias – Lenzi’s ‘Milano odio: la polizia non puo sparare’ (retitled as ‘Almost Human’ for foreign distribution) or Martino’s ‘Milano trema: la polizia vuole giustizia’. The sleazier, more suggestive ‘What Have They Done to Your Daughters’ (hereinafter ‘WHTDtYD’ in the interests of brevity) suggests that it’s a sequel to Massimo Dallamano’s earlier, traditionally structured giallo ‘What Have You Done to Solange?’ It isn’t, but there are similarities. 

‘WHTDtYD’ starts in urgent style with Inspector Valentini (Mario Adorf) kicking down a door and finding a department store mannequin the naked body of a schoolgirl hanging from the rafters. He’s there on an anonymous tip-off and within minutes a peeping tom from an adjacent building has given the police their first break. Apparently, the guy’s been spying on the young lady question – swiftly identified as Silvia Polvesi (Sherry Buchanan) – for some time now, and taking pictures.

The post-mortem on 15-year-old but sexually precocious Silvia reveals “semen in the vagina, anus and stomach”. It’s a pull-no-punches line of dialogue, delivered with almost callous detachment, and it sets the scene for much of what follows. ‘WHTDtYD’ soon reveals itself as a sordid drama about the lengths high-profile individuals will go to cover up their involvement in a schoolgirl prostitution ring.

Let me just repeat that last bit: schoolgirl prostitution ring.

At this point in the review, I wouldn’t blame you if you’d formed an opinion of ‘WHTDtYD’ as on par with ‘Strip Nude for Your Killer’ or ‘The Sister of Ursula’ in terms of grubbiness, seediness and all-round venality. But with the exception of one topless scene from Buchanan, Dallamano keeps the underage nookie offscreen relying on the discovery of some audio tapes to provide the details of what the girls are coerced into.

The first half of the film is a fairly standard procedural. Once the post-mortem confirms that Silvia was killed elsewhere and the hanging was staged to approximate a suicide, Valentini is joined in the investigation new-to-the-job DA Vittoria Stori (Giovanna Ralli) and cynical old-school cop Inspector Silvestri (Claudio Cassinelli) – leading, as they variously take centre stage or fade into the background, to a never-resolved uncertainty as to who the actual protagonist is. Valentini has a daughter of Silvia’s age who turns out to have a level of involvement that suggests Valentini going off on a personal quest for the truth a la George C Scott in ‘Hardcore’; however, this potential dramatic development is left unexplored.

Bracing Silvia’s parents – Marina Berti and a long-in-the-tooth Farley Granger – our dogged investigators learn that Mrs Polvesi, frustrated at her daughter’s blithe attitude to promiscuity and refusal to tell her parents who she’s seeing, has hired a private eye to keep tabs on her. Said gumshoe is discovered in a car boot, neatly vivisected and wrapped in plastic bags. This occasions one of the film’s starkest images, after his less than grieving widow ignores the pathologist’s admonition that she should only look at the face. “Take the sheet off, I want to see how the cheating bastard died,” she responds. The sheet is yanked back: his corpse is arranged in a grisly pattern, like one of those 3D jigsaw puzzles. But with viscera.

From the severed shamus, Silvestri backtracks to his hospitalised secretary Rosa (Micaela Pignatelli) and all of a sudden ‘WHTDtYD’ gets its giallo funk on and the rest of the film is a race against time – or rather a race against a hatchet wielding nutjob in biker leathers and an identity-obscuring crash helmet – to link the clues and interview the witnesses before they’re despatched in bluntly violent fashion.

Dallamano has already established a pacy rhythm to the film – even the office-based scenes are sharply edited montages of information being ripped off teleprinters, phones slammed down, doors yanked open, and quick-march walk ‘n’ talk exposition as coppers negotiate corridors; that, or whip-pan camerawork during terse Q&A scenes. With the appearance of the biker/killer, Dallamano pulls out the action stops, and delivers a tense pursuit through a hospital which ends with a graphic use of the aforementioned cleaver; a motorcycle chase that takes in the urban sprawl, open three-lane highways, a quarry and a railway tunnel; and a white-knuckle sequence where the killer stalks Vittoria through an underground car park. Granted, this last steals heavily from ‘The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh’, made four years earlier. Having said that, ‘WHTDtYD’ was happily ripped off a year later when the black-clad biker-as-killer iconography was recycled by Andrea Bianchi in ‘Strip Nude for Your Killer’.

It’s fair to say, in fact, that there isn’t much going on in ‘WHTDtYD’ that’s remotely original – and the denouement is a tad anti-climactic. True, it makes a salient point about people in high places being essentially inviolate, but it hardly does so with the élan of, say, ‘Chinatown’. Still, ‘WHTDtYD’ crackles with energy, exercises commendable stringency where it could easily have lapsed into outright sleaze, and remains a highly entertaining genre hybrid. It also boasts a score by Stelvio Cipriani that is magnificently inappropriate, in its soft romantic sighings, to absolutely every single thing that happens onscreen.


Kevin J. Olson said...

Brilliant piece here, Neil. I'm really looking forward to watching this one, considering I loved its unofficial predecessor, What Have You Done to Solange?, so much.

It's sad that Dallamano died in that unfortunate car accident. I would have loved to see what he could have done during the 1980's boom period.

I find myself having the same reaction to a lot of these polizia/giallo hybrids: seen one you've pretty much seen them all. But there's some little gem of a moment here or there that makes the whole discovery worth while. There are just so many of these types of films in Italian horror that I'm not quite sure I'll ever get to them all, but it's fun trying.

I've watched more of these hybrid type films than any other year I've done this blogathon, and it got me thinking about a possible blogathon idea for later this year that would focus on polizia films. I don't know how many would be interested, but it could be fun.

Neil Fulwood said...

Thanks for the comment, Kevin. Completely agreed: the "sameness" of a lot of these films hardly matters when you've got so many incidental pleasures: lunatic set design (did everyone in Italy in the 70s hire LSD users as interior decorators?), protracted chases or murder scenes, groovy and often utterly inappropriate soundtracks (hey, folks, we're shooting a brutal killing, let's put some lounge jazz on!)

I like the idea of a polizia blogathon. Consider me on board if you decide to do it.

Kevin J. Olson said...

I think it's Five Dolls for an August Moon, but my God the set design on that was bordering on distracting. You're right, it's as if they hired LSD users to design it! Hehe. And, yes, the music...funk-ay.

Neil Fulwood said...

I first saw 'Five Dolls' after a session down the pub and had to switch it off, I was getting that disoriented! My old Redemption video copy got lost in a house move a few years ago, but if I can get my hands on a DVD copy in the next few weeks, I might just feature it in my November/December "Winter of Discontent" retrospective.