Tuesday, February 01, 2011

The Italian Job (Part Two)

Well, I've finally gotten around to watching those other two Italian exploitation films I had on DVD and, as promised, here's my take on them. First up, is Oasis of Fear, which, despite its title, has nothing to do with deserts. This one promises to be as sleazy as Strip Nude for Your Killer, as it kicks off with a pair of beautiful young early 1970s free love type people financing their trip around Europe by peddling hardcore porn. However, once the money, and their supplies of jazz mags, have all gone, they resort instead to selling nude pictures (taken in photo booths) of the girl. So far, so sleazy. Not to mention slightly psychedelic and swinging. However, the film then takes a left turn, as, having been arrested for indecency by the Italian police, the couple find themselves on the run, mistaken for bank robbers and robbed by motorcyclists. Seeking somewhere to lie low, they stumble upon an isolated villa (the 'oasis' of the title), where they find themselves confronted by the female occupant, who is always on the phone to her lawyer and perpetually waiting for her husband to come home. At first hostile, she suddenly changes tack and becomes friendly to the intruders, indulging some swinging sex and drug taking with them.

It is at this point that the film completely changes gear and turns into a Hitchcockian thriller, as it turns out the woman in the villa has, in cahoots with her lawyer who is also her lover, murdered her husband, and has seen an opportunity to frame the two young hipsters. Once they realise what is going on, a battle of wits between them and the woman ensues, as they try to make their escape, whilst framing her for the murder she actually has committed. And thereby hangs my problem with Oasis of Fear, after a start that promises some kind of outre sleaze-fest, it instead settles down into a relatively conventional thriller. Which isn't to say that it is a bad film, it's actually a perfectly entertaining ninety minutes or so. As with all Italian films, it's beautifully shot on sun-drenched locations, and it has a decent cast, headed by the great Ray Lovelock, star of such exploitation classics as The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue. Despite his name, (which is his own, not a stage name), Lovelock is actually Italian. Apparently, his father was a British soldier who settled in Italy after the war. His leading lady is the lovely Ornella Muti who, a few years later, would play a pervy Princess Aura in the 1980 Flash Gordon remake. It also features Greek actress and singer Irene Papas as the villainess. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film is the way it casually dispels the myth that everywhere else in Europe was more sexually liberated than the UK in the 1970s: the couple buy their pornography in London and sell it all over the continent.

All of which brings us to Venus in Furs, not the 1969 Jesus Franco movie, but the Massimo Dallamano version made the same year. Unlike the Franco film, this version claims to be the 'true' adaptation of Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch's notorious classic, although it does update the action to 1969. Well, it does more or less follow the plot of the source novel but, in truth, this is a prime example of Euro-porn masquerading as art. From the outset, it is clear that the movie's aim is to present us with as much bare flesh, (some naked breasts get groped under the opening titles), and kinky sex, (a lot of bottoms get thrashed with riding crops, branches and the like), as possible. The fact that it is supposedly based on a literary classic which explores deviant sexuality, (Masoch gave his name to masochism), usefully gives it all a veneer of respectability. Whilst the film follows the basic plot of its source material - depraved rich bloke who can only get sexual satisfaction from the pain of rejection and betrayal marries a beautiful woman and encourages her to have affairs with other men, while he watches - it can't resist coarsening it for contemporary audiences. For instance, the turning point of the book comes when the wife, Wanda, finds a lover - a Byronic hero called Alexis - who she wants to submit to, throwing her relationship to her husband into crisis. In the film, the lover becomes a hugely mustachioed hairy biker called Bruno. There's nothing heroic about him - he's merely brutish, and dominates Wanda through his sexual prowess alone. Clearly, the director is attempting to retain audience sympathy for the husband, by making his usurper such a bastard.

Even the ending is designed to be as exploitative as possible, with the humiliated and rejected husband going off and finding a submissive prostitute who will beat him to his heart's content. Cue more bare-arsed thrashings. The moral, if there is one, seems to be that there's nothing wrong with a bit of physical abuse to spice up your sex life, but psycho-sexual humiliation, well, that's just kinky - the kind of filthy perversion which can only do you harm! Once again, it's beautifully photographed and lit. Indeed, the whole thing does manage to convey a real atmosphere of sheer perversity. As with all the other Italian exploitation movies I've seen lately, you end up feeling that there's no way such films could possibly be made in the UK. Not because of considerations like censorship, taste or morality, but simply because UK film makers wouldn't have been able to make them in any style other than 'dark, nasty and depressing. Films can't help but be influenced by the environment in which they are made - with all their sun-drenched locations, colourful milieus and stylish back drops, even exploitation films made in Italy can't help but come over as slick and glossy. Their treatment of the subject matter is also significantly different. British sex films, for instance, either focus on the sweaty mechanics of sexual activity, or snigger at it like smutty schoolboys. Venus in Furs, by contrast, presents sex as something almost mystical, rather than simply a physical act. Eroticism, rather than mere copulation, is clearly the focus. So, there you have it - my thoughts on Italian exploitation films. I've exhausted my stock of such pictures for now, but if I watch any more, I'll be sure to let you know all about them. Hopefully, I've piqued your interest, and you'll check some out for yourselves, (all the titles I've mentioned are available from HMV and Amazon). Go on - believe me, they're far more interesting the average crap you'll find in your local multiplex!



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