Sunday, November 13, 2016

WINTER OF DISCONTENT: Eye in the Labyrinth

Architecture porn is as integral to the giallo as operatic death scenes, bottles of J&B and winsome brunettes in peril, and just to make sure he’s got our attention from the off director Mario Caiano doubles down on the architecture porn in the opening sequence as psychiatrist Luca (Horst Frank) flees a knife-wielding assailant through the stark angles of a deserted building constructed in the brutalist style. His escape attempt fails. A knife rises and falls. Red gushes.

Turns out it’s a dream from which Luca’s girlfriend Julie (Rosemary Dexter) – Caiano doubles down on the winsome brunette factor, as well – awakes in a state of agitation. She gets even more agitated when she realises he’s disappeared. Enquiries at his clinic end with a deranged patient shouting a single word over and over. Cross-referencing it with a note in Luca’s appointments diary, Julie realises it’s the name of a small town and takes off to find him.

Arriving at said village, she’s coolly appraised by ex-pat American Frank (Adolfo Celli), and almost lured to her death by a manipulative local who directs her to a dangerously unstable building. If the opening sequence was giallo 101 architecture fetishism, then Julie’s hesitant exploration of the ruined house is the diametric opposite. It is to David Hemming’s 15-minute interrogation of a supposedly empty villa in ‘Deep Red’ what a three-minute punk single is to grand Italian opera.

Not that Julie seems to be doing herself any favours, engaging with all manner of dubious characters seemingly on a whim, and allowing herself to be led from situation to situation in wide-eyed complicity. Her attempt at amateur sleuthing is as if Nancy Drew were ten years older with a massive reduction in both IQ and the length of her skirts.

Eventually, she finds herself at the house of stern eccentric Gerda (Alida Valli), who seems to have some history with Frank. Gerda is playing host to a group of oddballs including gigolo Louis (Michael Maien), photographer Toni (Sybil Danning), actor Thomas (Gigi Rizzi), nervous and shifty Eugene (Franco Ressel) and mentally deficient teenager Saro (Benjamin Lev) who enjoys spying on pretty girls and painting weird canvases. Repeated close-ups of his latest opus and Frank’s clunky exposition that Saro has no imagination and can only paint what he sees point to a big clue. Or is it a red herring?

The coastal setting of ‘Eye in the Labryinth’ is apposite: entire shoals of red herring drift through the film. From the weird townspeople who are basically just there to wrongfoot you until Julie gets to Gerda’s villa, to the cat and mouse shenanigans at the villa itself, the narrative is less an exercise in plotting than an extended shell game. Indeed, the focus almost imperceptibly shifts from Julie to Frank as the amateur sleuth, the latter furthering his own agenda as he probes information from Gerda’s house guests.

Not that Frank ever becomes the default hero. When he’s not busy saving Julie from assassination attempts, he’s unsubtly trying to force himself on her. Nor does anyone else on the guest list emerge as even remotely sympathetic, particularly when it comes to light that Luca was known to them and all of them had good reason to wish him ill. Revelations about Luca quickly reveal him as a total bastard, at which point the film makes a sharp swerve from Agatha-Christie-with-topless-sunbathing and goes careering off in the direction of Roeg/Cammell style psychological head-fuckery. All of it accompanied by the most out of place lounge jazz soundtrack this side of the filmography of Jess Franco.

Caiano isn’t a name readily associated with gialli – he’s probably better known for a run of polizia in the vein of Fernando di Leo and the grubby exploitationer ‘Nazi Love Camp 27’ – but he does sterling work here, maintaining an excellent pace and getting the most out of the location work. ‘Eye of the Labyrinth’ is an incongruously sun-dappled example of the genre, and this as much as anything contributes to the film’s woozy and slightly disconnected aesthetic. An aesthetic that’s entirely in the service of the final reel.

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