The TSL’s Horror Grindhouse: Spasmo (dir by Umberto Lenzi)


Yesterday, Italian horror fans were saddened to hear of the passing of director Umberto Lenzi.

Over the course of his long career, Lenzi worked in almost every possible genre of Italian film.  He directed spy films.  He directed westerns.  He did a few comedies.  He directed two movies about Robin Hood.  In the wake of the international success of The French Connection, he was one of the leading directors of Italian crime films.  Among fans of Italian horror, he is best known for his cannibal films and his work in the giallo genre.  He even directed the first fast-zombie film, Nightmare City, a film that very well may have served as an inspiration for 28 Days Later.  According the imdb, Lenzi is credited with directing 65 films.  Some of them were good.  Many of them, if we’re to be honest, were rather forgettable.

But none were as strange as 1974’s Spasmo.

Attempting to detail the plot of Spasmo is a challenge.   Even by the twisty standards of the giallo genre, the mystery at the heart of Spasmo is a complicated one. According to Troy Howarth’s So Deadly, So Perverse Volume Two, even Lenzi admitted that Spasmo‘s storyline made no sense.  Add to that, Spasmo features so many twists and turns that it’s difficult to judge just how much of the movie’s plot you can safely describe before you start spoiling the film.

Spasmo tells the story of a man named Christian (Robert Hoffman).  While Christian is out walking on the beach with his girlfriend, they come across a woman lying face down in the surf.  The woman is named Barbara (Suzy Kendall) and, though she declines to explain why she was lying in the middle of the beach, Christian still becomes obsessed with her.  Barbara runs off but then he just happens to run into her at a party that’s being held on a boat.  Christian may be with his girlfriend and Barbara may be with her boyfriend but they end up leaving together.  Barbara says she will make love to Christian but only if he shaves his beard.

Meanwhile, lingerie-clad mannequins are being found on the beach.

Christian ends up getting attacked by a man named Tatum.  Christian shoots Tatum but then the body disappears.  Christian and Barbara hide out at a lighthouse.  There’s another couple at the lighthouse and where they came from is never quite clear.  They say that a dead body has recently been discovered but, when Christian demands to know what they mean, they say that they’re just joking.  Later, Christian thinks that he sees Tatum walking around but, just as suddenly, Tatum’s gone.

Christian is convinced that his brother, Fritz (Ivan Rassimov) can help him.  Barbara says that there is no hope.  We know better than to trust Fritz because he’s played by Ivan Rassimov.  Possessing the best hair in Italian horror, Ivan Rassimov almost always played the heel…

Meanwhile, mannequins continue to be found on the beach.

That may sound like I’ve described a lot of plot but I’ve actually only begun to scratch the surface.  Even by the standards of Italian thrillers, Spasmo is chaotic.  The film may not make any sense but it’s never boring.  Between the mannequins and the murders, it’s pretty much impossible to follow the plot but who cares?  As directed by Lenzi, Spasmo plays out like a dream, full of surreal images and memorably weird performances.  Robert Hoffman and Suzy Kendall are ideally cast while Ivan Rassimov is wonderfully slick and enigmatic as Fritz.  Spasmo is a film that keeps you guessing.  Whether it keeps you guessing because the plot is clever or because the plot itself is deliberately designed (and filmed) to make no sense is something that viewers will have to determine for themselves.  Personally, I think it’s a little of both.

Lenzi may not have cared much for Spasmo but it’s one of his most memorable films.

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