Saturday, April 7, 2012

Giallo Pudding: DARK BAR (1988)

Just when I think that if it's Italian, from the '80s, if I haven't seen it, I've at least heard of it, I stumble across something that I never knew existed. Most Italian genre films from the '80s were made for export and because of that they were shot either in English or mostly in English, then looped in post. This means, that unlike say, Russian genre product that is shot in Russian and distributed in Russia for Russian audiences, kiss my ass yankee, the Italian stuff got around. Even if it never saw the light of day in US theaters or on US video, most likely some country has a copy, and you would have at least heard of it via old school scribblers like Chris Poggiali, Steve Puchalski or hell, even Fangoria. So if you've heard of it, you're cool. I was freakin' clueless.

Starting with an incredibly cryptic plot, an apparently desperate Elizabeth (Barbara Cupisti) has some debts that are owed, a book to hide and some frantic phone calls to make. Her estranged sister Anna (Marina Suma) gets a phone call about a meeting at the Dark Bar at midnight, as does her seemingly partially estranged boyfriend Marco (Richard Hatch). While Anna blows it off, in order to blow her trombone at another club, Marco makes the appointment only to discover that Elizabeth is nowhere to be found. At the same time a man inconspicuously dressed in a black fedora and trench coat walks into the ladies room and shoots Elizabeth dead. Anna eventually finds out that her sister was murdered and hooks up with Marco in order to figure out who killed her. It doesn't take them very long as the killer has friends and they are hunting the hunters.

DARK BAR is the one and only feature film directed by Stelio Fiorenza, who cut his teeth as assistant director on a few obscure sleaze flicks (the most notable being Mario Gariazzo's '79 sex giallo PLAY MOTEL). For a first time writer-director, I really like where Fiorenza is going, but the road he travels is filled with pot-holes. Granted some of his issues can be chalked up to budgetary issues, but at the same time he seems like he has ADD and is off on tangents at the drop of a fedora.

Fiorenza creates an atmosphere that feels like it should be an off kilter, underground film with some amazingly cool shots, hand-held cameras and interesting locations and costumes. During the beginning of the film when Elizabeth is spending the last few hours of her life, there are some great details; a telephone shaped like a stilletto-heeled shoe, a black dress covered in eyes, the black dress on a white bathroom stall with red blood. Oblique, stylish angles combined with an almost cinema verite style makes the movie feel like it should be pushing the envelope with something. When Anna first meets up with Marco, she arrives at his presumed work, a small, remote and deserted screening room where he is setting up a projector. When Marco asks Anna to go down to the auditorium to check the sound, he finds out that the intercom has been cut and realizes that something is about to go wrong. It does, but Fiorenza doesn't really play the suspense out like he could have, nor does he go for a string of bloody murders as you'd expect. Then we are left with the dialogue that runs like this:
Marco: "What was your sister like?"
Anna: "I don't even know what I'm like!"

Fiorenza also feels like he is lifting a page from Alex Cox's REPO MAN (1984) with an almost surreal punk/new wave motif for the Dark Bar itself, which is really interesting, but completely undeveloped. Fiorenza decides he's also going to try to throw in a film noir angle as well. The villains are clad in black trench coats and fedoras and are working with a blind woman who is obsessed with listening to sea shells and is taken care of by a tarot-reading girl. This is yet another weird, but cool idea that he really doesn't completely follow through on. Once you discover what exactly is going on (there is no spoon-feeding of the plot here), it's rather banal. Worse still, Fiorenza doesn't or can't consistently create the lighting to reinforce that feeling of noir. Film noir requires the use of light to create deep shadows that lend immeasurable texture to the visuals, here we get an occasional scene, but mostly flood fills that chase away every shadow and kill the atmosphere almost completely. The juxtaposition between the punk, giallo and noir is really interesting, but it ends up being a collection of really interesting ideas rather than a great film. For instance, at the Dark Bar, there is a long sequence where a bartender slowly and deliberately uses a pair of ice tongs to place an eyeball in a very dirty martini. The drink is delivered, the recipient holds it while in conversation... and that is it. We move along and the sequence is completely forgotten about. Maybe it's Fiorenza tipping his hat to The Misfits, but who knows?

The saddest thing of all is that Fiorenza never got the opportunity to make another film. As far as I know, the only thing he has done is a short film in 1998 titled A STRANGE ENCOUNTER. With DARK BAR, it feels like he has a sack of great ingredients, but isn't quite a skilled enough as a cook to bring them together into a perfect dish. But just like cooks, filmmakers get better with practice (yeah, ok, Jess Franco did exactly the opposite) and I would have really liked to see him evolve. As it is, it's still worth checking out for the die-hard Italo-philes like... well, us.

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