= Highest Rating
to viewing this disc I was familiar with Italian
director Umberto Lenzi only through the trashy
'80s exploitation flicks Eaten
Alive and Nightmare
City. Those films are certainly not what one
would classify as great cinema —
at best they're cheesy, sleazy "so bad it's good"
entertainment. Thus this earlier Lenzi effort,
the 1971 giallo Seven Blood-Stained
Orchids, came as a pleasant surprise. (Why
there's a hyphen in the "bloodstained" portion
of the title is a mystery, but that's how it reads
in the credits.) While not a topflight/essential
example of the genre Orchids
is a very well-directed film, demonstrating that
Lenzi — with the
proper inspiration and resources, at least —
wasn't always a hack.
The plot concerns a serial killer of women
who leaves silver half-moon medallions with each
corpse as a calling card. After two such crimes
the Rome police aren't sure if the killings are
random or somehow connected. When Julia (cute
'n' sexy Uschi Glas) is attacked and almost stabbed
to death by a black-gloved maniac, the cops announce
to the press that she later died of her wounds.
They suspect the assault was the work of the Half-moon
Killer but no medallion was left at the scene.
(The attacker was interrupted before he could
finish.) Sure enough, once newspapers publish
the details of Julia's 'death' a gift box containing
one of the medallions is mailed to her address.
She was intended as the third victim.
It turns out that the first victim, a prostitute,
was once a maid at the resort hotel owned by Julia's
family. A connection, or just coincidence? Julia's
fashion designer husband, Mario (Antonio Sabato),
wants to know why his wife was targeted. Typical
of the giallo formula, the couple decides to launch
their own investigation while the police fumble
down a blind alley. She recognizes the medallion
as a key ring fob belonging to a man she encountered
almost two years earlier at the family hotel.
She can't recall the face, only that the key ring's
owner was an American. Mario and Julia check out
the hotel and hit upon a vital clue: a guest registry
with a ripped out page corresponding to the time
she remembered seeing the American. They discover
that the Half-moon Killer's second victim, an
artist found strangled in her apartment, was staying
at the hotel that very week. Could all the women
present at the hotel during that period be candidates
for murder? And why does the killer want them
dead? What is the significance of the medallions?
Our amateur detectives share what they've learned
with the police. The cops provide protection for
the endangered women but despite their efforts
the killer strikes again and again. Then, while
Mario pursues inquiries into the identity of the
mysterious American, the newspapers find out that
Julia is still alive — publishing the news with
a big splash that the murderer can't fail to notice...
Orchids features a linear, Krimi-inspired
whodunit plotline that (while still improbable)
actually makes sense from beginning to end, something
a lot of other gialli can't claim. This is its
major strength, as played out on Lenzi's canvas.
The director doesn't exhibit the visual razzle-dazzle
of a Bava or Argento but the film contains a number
of interesting compositions and a surplus of style.
He's obviously enamored of the zoom lens; fortunately,
it's used judiciously and appropriately. The murder
set-pieces are nicely done, too, genuinely building
suspense. Gore is actually rather tame. Since
the killer uses varying methods to slay his victims
(including such bloodless pursuits as strangling
and drowning) there's really not a lot of the
red stuff on hand. The only exception to this
is the 'Death by Drill' sequence, featuring a
few quick shots of an obvious dummy spurting copious
amounts of fake blood. (The film barely
merits EC's "Blood 'n' Guts" icon.)
Lenzi front-loads most of the sleazier elements
so the first 30 minutes are pure giallo goodness.
It'll be enough to keep you interested through
the middle act, which gets a bit sluggish as we
follow Mario on his solo sleuthing. (Sabato is
the weakest link of the film, essaying a totally
bland and uninteresting character made even more
problematic by having a dubbed English voice that
doesn't really seem to match his appearance. It's
too bad the über-cute Uschi Glas, as Julia,
couldn't have taken a more prominent role in solving
the mystery. She's very appealing.) Things pick
up again as Mario wades through the red herrings
to zero in on the culprit. The police, of course,
are useless. Then a brunette Marisa Mell (Danger:
Diabolik) shows up in a double role as twin
sisters, one of whom receives the Black and Decker
treatment. The flick is firmly back in gear. But
surprisingly, the climactic struggle that ends
the movie is not particularly well-staged or edited.
Considering the quality of what's come before
it's something of a letdown.
On balance, though, any self-respecting giallo
fan will want to see this. It's a very good, but
not great, example of the genre. It's certainly
the best film by Lenzi I've yet seen, and has
me curious about his other pre-Cannibal
Shriek Show's widescreen transfer looks remarkably
good considering the super-obscurity of this film.
(It's never been seen in the U.S. until now.) I
didn't notice any major blemishes and color levels
looked fine. As do many European titles from this
period, however, sound quality takes a back seat
to the visual. Though dialog is clear and there's
no distortion in even the loudest sections of the
score, the mono track is very flat and canned sounding.
It gets the job done, but no more.
For extras, Shriek Show serves up the (spoiler-laden)
theatrical trailer, a small image gallery (posters,
production stills, lobby cards), and two short video
interviews. The briefest of these, running about
3 minutes, features actress Gabriella Giorgelli,
who played the buxom prostitute murdered in the
film's opening set-piece (and looking like she's
done some hard livin' in the past 30-odd years).
She doesn't add much to the experience other than
to see her topless scene again. The longer (7 min.)
piece has director Umberto Lenzi answering questions
about the script, the actors, and production of
Seven Blood-Stained Orchids.
(The discussion is in Italian with English subs.)
Both Lenzi and the interviewer give the film more
praise than it deserves, but their chat will be
of interest to aficionados of European exploitation
cinema. Scrolling on-screen liner notes provide
even more background on the director's career. Finally,
the disc is topped off with bonus trailers of Shriek
Show releases (and Lenzi films) Eaten
Alive and Spasmo.
(Note: Incredibly, the title of the DVD's main feature
is misspelled ["Blood-Stianed"]
on the Trailer menu screen.) 3/28/03