Born in Rome, July 19, 1938, Sergio Martino began his movie career in 1963, working as an assistant to a clutch of respected names including Mario Bava, Mauro Bolognini and Brunello Rondi. After graduating to the post of production manager and various script-writing assignments, he finally got the chance to direct Mille Peccati…Nessuna Virtu/Wages of Sin (1969). Coming at the tail end of the Mondo cycle, this tabloid-style documentary – complete with ludicrous English commentary by Edmund Purdom – was released in Britain under the catch-penny title Mondo Sex. Martino next tried his hand at a western with Arizona Si Scateno…E Li Fece Fuori Tutti!/Arizona Colt Returns (1970), but returned to the Mondo format with America così nuda, così violenta/Naked and Violenta (1970), again produced by his brother Luciano’s Devon Film company.
By this time, Dario Argento’s The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (1969) had made its presence felt at the box-office. Luciano Martino had already secured a foothold in horror history as co-writer of Bava’s extraordinary La Frusta e il Corpo/The Whip and the Body (1963) and Elio Scardamaglia’s La Lama Nel Corpo/The Murder Clinic (1966). Now, with his brother at the directorial controls, he followed his commercial instincts in the terror-filled arena. Interestingly enough, the real antecedent of their first collaborative giallo does not appear to be Argento’s picture, more Romolo Guerrieri’s convoluted Carroll Baker starrer Il Dolce Corpo Di Deborah/The Sweet Body of Deborah (1968) which Luciano had co-produced, with Mino Loy, the year before Crystal Plumage went into production.
Lensed in 1970, Lo Strano Vizio Della Signora Wardh/The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh (1971) fills the contours of The Sweet Body of Deborah with the sweet, sticky blood of the slasher movie proper. This torpid tale of a diplomat’s wife, (Edwige Fenech), with a secret blood fetish driving her into carnal frenzy wrote large the direction Martino would take with his chain of cheeky chillers. Utilizing a host of audience double-crossing tricks – Ivan Rassimov faking his own suicide – and a gruesome sub-plot featuring a sadistic razor-killer, screenwriters Eduardo M. Brochero and Ernesto Gastaldi fashioned a typically episodic script allowing Martino ample opportunity to play to the gallery.
In Vienna there is a series of murders, committed by an unknown killer. Julie Wardh, a mentally fragile American socialite and heiress to the Wardh’s retailing fortune, is targeted by this unknown assassin through blackmail letters. Julie suspects her ex-lover Jean to be the man behind the letters but does not wish to confide in her husband Neil. Instead Julie falls for, and confides in, a cavalier by the name of George whom she takes as her new lover. As events unfold Julie is reminded of her past sadomasochistic love affair with Jean. All the while suspicions are raised against both George and Neil as the possible culprits. Who is the killer and what does he want from Julie?
Very appropriately for a film which begins by quoting Sigmund Freud, Mrs. Ward carries a strong undercurrent of sexual menace which forcefully comes to the surface during Fenech’s violently erotic dream sequences. Along with a crisply suspenseful segment – Fenech and her husband, (Alberto de Mendoza), explore Rassimov’s animal-filled house – these interludes represent the picture at its most effective.
One wonderful moment has a slow-motion shower of broken glass, (beautifully photographed by Emilio Foriscot), cascade sensuously over the heroine’s prone body. This atmosphere of sinful indulgence is enhanced perfectly by Nora Orlandi’s haunting score. Orlandi, a vocal contributor on many Stelvio Cipriani composed soundtracks, deploys motifs reminiscent of Spaghetti Westerns, heavy with shimmering organs and eerily distorted voices. As if taking cues, Martino extends the Cinecitta Cowboy theme into the visual fabric when veteran saddle-soap star George Hilton confronts Rassimov in the arid Spanish countryside.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Mrs. Ward is the function of the maniacal slasher. Superficially he seems to be a red herring; Hilton wants rid of his heiress cousin, (Cristina Airoldi), and is prepared to take advantage of the psychopath’s reign of terror. However, he’s also considerably important to the sinister subtext. His murderous attacks on a selection of pretty blondes are all contained in the first two thirds – precisely the sections where the Freudian underpinnings are most powerful. In the same way Argento briefly allowed Daria Nicolodi’s character to come under suspicion in Deep Red (1975). Fenech is implicated as Airoldi’s killer when Rassimov reveals her prurient predilections to the police. Significantly, when the maniac meets his demise at the hands of a potential victim, the piece shifts gear moving into more conventional thriller territory as the action transfers from Vienna to Spain. Once more the slasher reverts to red herring status as we discover that de Mendoza, who is in league with Hilton, actually slaughtered Airoldi using copycat methods.
Martino’s next giallo venture was an Italian Spanish co-production between Devon Film and Madrid’s Copercines. Although more straightforward than Mrs.Wardh thematically, La Coda Dello Scorpione/The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail (1971) is no less grisly, featuring several strikingly shot, lively murders. Uraguayan heart-throb George Hilton took the lead again, but this time his glamorous co-star was Swedish ice-queen Anita Strindberg. Boasting attractive Greek locations, the unspectacular plot of this glossy mystery revolves around a million dollar insurance deal and the bloody exertions of English insurance investigator Peter Lynch, (Hilton), willing to eliminate anyone who comes between him and the money.
A widow named Lisa (Ida Galli) inherits a small fortune when her husband dies in a freak jet crash. However, before she can escape to a retreat with her secret lover, the widow is brutally slashed to death and the money stolen. Now an insurance investigator (George Hilton) and his journalist love interest (Anita Strindberg) must figure out exactly who is murdering anyone involved with the late widow, and why. A strange gold cufflink holds the key to the mystery.
Deprived of the perverse central impulse of Mrs. Ward, Martino sensibly exploits the bare story mechanics to create some eye-catching effects. The suspense highlight, stunningly captured by Emilio Foriscot’s sumptuous Technochrome photography, is Jesus Franco starlet Janine Reynaud’s death during a thunderstorm. Crosscutting between shots of a front door lock, and her running towards it in slow-motion, Martino expertly succeeds in setting the nerves on edge, ending on a note of Grand Guignol with the terrified woman being chased around her apartment. Trapped against a window, she dies smearing her blood across the rain-splattered glass after the rubber-suited assassin slits her throat with a switchblade. Martino also provides a jolting gory climax when Hilton bumps off his villainous accomplice: as an uptempo Sousa-style march blares from the TV, the two men begin a vicious fight culminating in Hilton ramming a broken bottle into his victim’s eye before piercing him through the heart.
The ‘Scorpion’ of the title is actually a cuff-link providing the police with a vital clue to the puzzle. But this entomological reference could also be perceived as the key to the movie’s stylistic thread. Martino has described his Seventies gialli as being “A little bit like Hitchcock”, but of all his films, this one bears closest comparison to the work of Argento – the Italian Hitchcock’. The subjective camera creeping up the steps to Reynaud’s house, the gleaming knife blade punching a hole in her door, the bizarrely angled shots, and loving close-ups of the murderer’s black leather gloves, all carry an Argentoesque flavor. As if to underline the point, Bruno Nicolai’s excellent score even borrows the characteristic ‘strangulated trumpet’ sound effect from both the Crystal Plumage and The Cat O’Nine Tails soundtracks!
Certain moments also betray Martino’s admiration for Mario Bava. The foreground placement of decorative ironwork and a brief scene where Hilton and Evelyn Stewart, (aka Ida Galli), take refuge in an old theatre’s cluttered props room adds a pleasingly baroque touch. Although the presence of a painfully thin Strindberg doesn’t really compensate for the absence of curvaceous Fenech, Martino’s second chiller is still a highly watchable effort. Extra pleasure is afforded by the baleful appearance of another Franco acolyte, Luis Barboo, who meets a sticky end when his hands are slashed while hanging from Reynaud’s roof.
Martino’s subsequent project placed heavy emphasis on the supernatural and gothic elements of its busy damsel in distress’ plot. Set in London, Tutti i Colori Del Buio/All the Colours of Darkness (1972), documents the terror campaign Susan Scott, (aka Nieves Navarro), wages on her neurotic younger sister, (Edwige Fenech) – an insidious play on the traumatic memories of their mother’s murder and the employment of various sleazeballs to pose as members of a crazed Satanic sect.
Jane lives in London with Richard, her boyfriend. When she was five, her mother was murdered, and she recently lost a baby in a car crash. She’s plagued by nightmares of a knife-wielding, blue-eyed man. Richard, a pharmaceutical salesman, thinks the cure is vitamins; Jane’s sister Barbara, who works for a psychiatrist, recommends analysis; a neighbor Jane’s just met promises that if Jane participates in a Black Mass, all her fears will disappear. Jane tries the Mass, but it seems to bring her nightmares to life.
The twist ending introduces a genuinely paranormal aspect as the cold chill of fear awakens Fenech’s dormant psychic capabilities. Rising manfully to the challenge, Martino responds to this material with an energetic arsenal of stylized effects – zip panning, shock cuts and, my favorite, throbbing zooms. The deliriously surreal opening montage – a hideous old hag moving like a clockwork doll, another with a grotesquely swollen stomach, a dagger plunging into a screaming woman’s body, and a rapid track, in negative), down a country lane. Similarly, the black magic orgies staged to frighten Fenech are a nightmarish delight with leering faces pressing into the camera lens and Eugenio Alabiso’s mannered editing creating maximum disorientation. The less hyperbolic passages, particularly the domestic scenes between Fenech and her live-in lover, (George Hilton), have a faintly claustrophobic quality. This, coupled with the allusion to a miscarriage Fenech’s character has suffered as a result of a car crash, adds a sickly sense of masterful unease to the proceedings – a bleakness echoed by the Autumnal English locations, moodily photographed by Giancarlo Ferrando who shares a credit with Miguel F. Mila.
Blessed with one of Bruno Nicolai’s best ever scores – a necromantic symphony laced with doom laden sitar, hypnotic chants and paranoid strings – the sensitive main theme later appeared on the soundtrack of the tatty Dick Randall produced Anita Ekberg vehicle Casa D’Appuntamento/The French Sex Murders (1972)
After his brief flirtation with the supernatural on Tutti i Colori Del Buio/All the Colours of Darkness (1972). Sergio Martino departed from the classic giallo format even further with Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972) later the same year, However, despite claiming Edgar Allan Poe as its inspiration, this was yet another typically Seventies stew of slickly shot sleaze and tabloid terrori. Screenwriters Adriano Bolzone, Sauro Scavolini and the ubiquitous Emesto Gastaldi gleefully helping themselves to a few plot twists from ‘The Black Cat’ and using them to cram some familiar Spaghetti Shocker themes into the framework of a gothic chamber-piece. Even the unwieldy Italian title is a direct quote from Martino’s premiere psycho-saga The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh (1971). And once again the stupendous Edwige Fenech was on hand to swing her famous pendulums in this bloody pit of horror!
By way of compensation, the script is thickly layered with allusions to incest and sexual impotence, with some bitchy one-liners punctuating the relentlessly sordid atmosphere. Martino sensibly concentrates on the tangled web of his characters’ obsessions but, whereas Mrs. Ward’s indulgence was streaked with a sadistic glamour, here everything is tinged with degeneracy and decay. In an obvious bid for variety, we’re treated to some noisy footage of a motorbike race although this only increases the sense of claustrophobic gloom, (evocatively caught by Giancarlo Ferrando’s excellent Eastmancolor photography), once we return to the decrepit mansion and its environs.
Comparing very favorably with other ‘Old Dark House chillers of the period – Francisco Lara Polop’s La Mansion De La Niebla/Murder Mansion (1972) or Antonio Margheriti’s La Morte Negli Occhi Del Gatto/Seven Dead in the Cat’s Eye (1973) Martino’s movie does contain some genuine shock effects. A couple of gruesome set-piece murders keep things lively, and the sight of a slimy mass of sheep’s eyes spilling across a table adds an appropriate frisson of disgust. In fact, eyes are a recurring motif throughout, with tight close-ups of a cat’s face being crisply spliced in at regular intervals – a device Lucio Fulci picked up on for his own IL Gatto Nero/The Black Cat (1981). Attilio Vincioni’s rigorously clean editing and Bruno Nicolai’s stately score are also noteworthy, lending an edge to the proceedings several American International stagey Poe adaptations lack.
Dubbed with rather more care than usual, there is also the unarguable benefit of uniformly good performances from the leading players. Strindberg and Pistilli had appeared together in Martino’s The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail (1971), but that had been a more traditional giallo’, with characterization rushed over in favour of baroque violence and a convoluted plot. Your Vice gives them much more to get their teeth into, with Pistilli’s gruff slobbishness providing a neat foil to Strindberg’s brittle Scandinavian psychosis. Fenech is as delightful as ever although she occupies comparatively little screen time. Interestingly, her character is deployed as a catalyst rather than a focus – she’s not required to carry the weight of the movie as in previous Martino projects.
I Corpi Presentano Tracce Di Violenza Carnale/Torso (1973) was one of a trio of films Martino helmed for Carlo Ponti’s CC Champion company. Probably his best known giallo’, this features a masked maniac with a penchant for dismembering his victims by hacksaw. After cutting a swathe through a clutch of ‘with it’ art students, he’s finally revealed to be their mild-mannered lecturer John Richardson, traumatized as a child by his brother’s accidental death.
A string of appalling lust murders shocks the University of Perugia as a sadistic serial killer strangles to death beautiful college girls with a red and black scarf.
In spite of the narrative emphasis placed on the mutilations, (or the emphasis placed on the mutilations of the narrative in less liberal territories!), the real theme of Carnal Violence is voyeurism: root cause of the homicidal mayhem. Richardson’s brother dies as a result of his desire to commit a voyeuristic act, and the initial murders occur because the victims, (Patrizia Adiutori and Cristina Airoldi). secretly photograph an illicit sex session with their killer. Martino frequently places the viewer in the role of the leering Peeping Tom, filling the frame with low angled shots of girls in short skirts or hot pants, and peering intrusively at love-making couples. What makes this all rather disturbing is the recurrent image of a doll’s eye being poked out and the explicit eye gouging which seems to have survived intact in most prints. As many horror movies trade on the notion that the pleasures of the flesh can only lead to the destruction of the flesh, perhaps it’s an unconscious hint that we should pay with more than our money for wallowing in such guilty pleasures.
Notwithstanding the presence of Suzy Kendall, who can always be relied on to slow things down to a snail’s pace, Carnal Violence delivers the goods with minimum fuss and maximum entertainment. Ciancarlo Ferrando again contributes some superb photography, with the misty hues of the swampy woodlands being particularly impressive. Martino orchestrates the suspense with his usual endearing vitality, craftily employing Guido and Maurizio de Angelis’ menacing score to cover any dead spots in the action. The tense final section, with Richardson playing cat and mouse with the injured Kendall. is especially well handled and just as effective as the comparable passage in Argento’s much-praised The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (1969) in which the same ‘actress’ is trapped in her apartment by a demented assailant. Released in Britain in 1975 as Torso, this atmospheric shocker played U.K. grind-houses in a 90 minute version, two minutes short of the Italian running time.
After diversifying into other horror sub-genres, directing cop thrillers, a string of comedies and a late, but excellent, entry in the Spaghetti Western stakes – Mannaja: A Man Called Blade (1977) – Martino returned to the giallo’ field with Assassinio Al Cimitero Etrusco/Murder in the Etruscan Cemetery (1982). An Italian/French co-production between Dania Film, Medusa, IM. PEX. CI. and Les Films Jacques Letienne, this was originally made as a TV series called Il Misterio Degli Etruschi. A 96 minute theatrical version of the latter was also prepared and seen in America as The Scorpion with Two Tails (1982).
Hated by Martino, which explains why the direction is credited to the pseudonym Christian Plummer, this harks back to All the Colours of Darkness by introducing paranormal elements into its basic thriller plot. Elvire Audray – an anemic blonde Fenech imitation – stars as the wife of Etruscanologist John Saxon. When he’s murdered, she travels to Italy, but is plagued by visions of writhing maggots and barbaric executions where victims have their necks broken. The scriptwriters, (including Ernesto Gastaldi and his Libido starlet Maria Chianetta), pad out their drug smuggling story with hints of magic and reincarnation. But it’s only the competently staged bursts of action and the hallucinatory passages that hold the interest.
As can be expected, the film is well mounted, and the sight of corpses with their heads grotesquely twisted round retains a powerful impact. Nevertheless, it remains a decidedly minor addition to Martino’s portfolio. Affected in parts by a somewhat sluggish pace, Murder in the Etruscan Cemetery is actually reminiscent of a Fulci piece; an impression reinforced by the use of music from Fabio Frizzi’s City of the Living Dead score and the revamping of Sciotti’s The House by the Cemetery artwork for the Italian promotional campaign.
Alongside his sadly under-appreciated gialli’, Sergio Martino had another crack at the horror whip with a trio of features employing a similarly lush tropical setting to Ruggero Deodato’s UItimo Mondo Cannibale/Cannibal (1976). The first of these was La Montagna Del Dio Cannibale/The Mountain of the Cannibal God (1978), starring Ursula Andress, Stacy Keach, Claudio Cassinelli and Antonio Marsina. But anyone expecting the grainy realism of Deodato’s powerful Cannibal Holocaust (1979), or the grotesque pandering of Umberto Lenzi’s miserable Cannibal Ferox (1981), is in for a big surprise. Despite having helmed two lurid shockumentaries in the ‘Mondo’ mould at the dawn of his directorial career, Martino’s addition to the cannibal subgenre resembles a glossy slice of action adventure in the H. Rider Haggard style. Of course, the de rigeur offal munching and ghoulish primitive rites are served up for our delectation, but the presence of Andress star of Hammer’s captivating She (1965) – and Giancarlo Ferrando’s spectacular location camerawork lend a veneer of panoramic opulence totally at odds with the downbeat grubbiness of other entries in the cycle.
Set in New Guinea, but shot in Sri Lanka, La Montagna finds Andress, accompanied by Keach and Co., scouring the undergrowth supposedly in search of her missing husband though actually more intent on locating a rich vein of uranium. To its detriment, the screenplay which Martino co-authored with Cesare Frugoni, a co-writer on Mario Bava’s Cani Arrabbiati/Wild Dogs (1974), tries to incorporate more ideas than its structure will allow. This results in the narrative is so essential to the success of the adventure format being compromised, leaving the plotline cluttered with several divergent threads. For example, Keach’s past tribulations at the hands of a jungle tribe are hardly developed beyond their initial mention. That said, the amiably unsubtle handling of generic conventions keeps it all afloat and the action builds to an impressively orchestrated climax.
“I think La Montagna is a very nice movie at the beginning”, claimed Martino. “But I really don’t like the ending when you can see all those cannibals eating entrails. Unfortunately, the producer forced me to shoot all those scenes because he wanted something violent and bloody for that sort of movie”. Taking these misgivings into account, Martino deserves commendation for the unflinching vigour he brings to the movie’s gruesome final third. The script’s most interesting conceit reveals the titular deity to be the rotting remains of Andress’ husband -still-functioning Geiger counter nestling neatly in his putrefying chest. The glamorous former Bond girl also inspires veneration in her cannibal captors and is ritually smeared with the decomposing flesh of her hollowed-out hubby.
Eugenio Alabiso’s slick editing really comes into its own as scenes of weird worship are intercut with shots of Andress’ brother, being dismembered and turned into a high-protein lunch. The visceral impact of this section sits a trifle uneasily besides the more exotic feel of the preceding footage and it’s perhaps this unevenness of tone which has contributed to its unfair relegation to the realms of the routine.
In spite of a relatively small budget, this Dania Film/Medusa co-production is lavishly mounted and the leading players acquit themselves with stolid professionalism although Keach is given very little to do. Andress, who previously worked with Martino on the comedy Spogliamoci Cosi’…Senza Pudor/Sex with a Smile II/Love in Four Easy Lessons (1976) responds to her role with an effective display of mini-series melodramatics. As Third World cannibal connoisseur Steve Bisette has pointed out, her Amazonian looks are the perfect embodiment of the iconoclastic ‘White Goddess’ – a staple feature of the literary and cinematic traditions from which this jungle juice cocktail is derived. Rivaling their work on Martino’s Torso (1973), Guido and Maurizio de Angelis provide another evocative score, enabling the director to establish an unexpectedly eerie tension at several points and adding a macabre dimension to the wildlife montage beneath the opening credits.
Incidentally, economy-conscious no-hoper Umberto Lenzi spliced huge chunks of La Montagna into his soapy Janet Agren starrer Mangiati Vivi/Eaten Alive (1980), while Ursula’s undressed indignities were further paraded on a softporn compilation video tape! Shown to British audiences in predictably pruned form as Prisoner of the Cannibal God, Martino’s engaging blend of audacious visuals and pulp serial hokum fell foul of the ‘Video Nasties’ debacle.
Martino’s next offering was apparently conceived as an imitation of Don Taylor’s lumpen 1977 remake of the H.G. Wells classic The Island of Dr. Moreau and obviously aimed at a younger audience than usual. Yet L’Isola Degli Uomini Pesce/The Island of the Fishmen (1979), ranks as one of Italy’s most enchanting fantasy films. Based on an outline furnished by Cesare Frugoni and producer Luciano Martino. (the director’s brother). it relates the ordeals of a clutch of shipwrecked convicts, and their dashing officer-in-charge. Claudio Cassinelli, on an uncharted Caribbean island in the late 19th. century. The island eventually proves to hide the physically and mentally sick Dr. Marvin, (Joseph Cotten), who surgically transforms humans into amphibious monsters. Echoing Wells original Dr. Moreau conception, Cotten conducts his experiments with the most benign of intentions – in this case solving projected over-population problems by initiating a return to sea habitation.
Starting out from this classic , situation of hapless strangers entering an exclusive, hostile world, Martino develops the tale with consummate panache. Unlike La Montagna, the script’s various borrowings dovetail neatly together, and the ominous references to black magic and the living dead recall the dark obsessions of Victorian sensationalist fiction. Undoubtedly one of his most cohesively realized works, Fishmen is also one of the most romantic, although it still delivers plenty of flamboyant, swashbuckling action. The American release version, (tastefully titled Screamers (1979) included new footage in an attempt to increase the gore quotient. The movie proper actually contains very little blood-letting, indicative of a warmer, juvenile-orientated approach.
On the other hand, always mindful of prevailing trends, Martino does sneak in a crazed voodoo ceremony – complete with chicken sacrifice presided over by Beryl Cunningham. The fishmen themselves have a disturbingly embryonic quality lending a nightmarish touch to the sequence where Cotten’s devoted daughter. Barbara Bach dispenses a tranquilizing drug to the creatures as they rise up from the water. The mid-stages of the biological metamorphosis supply the surreal centre-piece for another stand-out scene. In Cotten’s secret laboratory, Cassinelli recognizes a half-mutated monstrosity as one of his prisoners, and uses a handy scalpel to put the poor unfortunate out of his misery. A special mention must go to Richard Johnson who turns in an elegantly sinister performance as the island’s meglomaniac owner. Cynically exploiting the fishmen to retrieve the lost treasures of Atlantis, he suffers a satisfyingly Bava-esque death when their claws color the waters of the underground caves with the crimson hues of his blood! Naturally, the movie would sell short its generic roots if it didn’t let rip with an explosive finale. And Martino enthusiastically obliges with a well-shot flurry of modest budget mayhem just as effective as any. thing glimpsed in more substantially funded projects.
Another co-production from the Dania/Medusa stable. Fishmen is easily the best of Martino’s adventure/fantasy crossovers. As for the U.S. version, the additional material was the responsibility of director Miller Drake and cinematographer Gary Graver. British distributors New Realm at least had the decency to retain most of Luciano Michelini’s haunting score, but augmented it with strident orchestral effects courtesy of Sandy Berman.
Martino rounded off his unofficial exotica trilogy with Il Fiume Del Grande Caimano/The River of the Great Alligator (1979), a straight-forward monster movie which plundered elements of Jaws and its ilk. Bach and Cassinelli were reteamed for this faintly cheesy tale of a plush jungle holiday complex menaced by a giant reptile, dubbed The Great God Kruna’ by local tribes people. Lacking the exuberance which made Fishmen so special, The Great Alligator is nevertheless a watchable effort. The buildups to the monster’s appearance are efficiently suspenseful and Martino mirrors the stylistic tricks of his early ‘gialli’ with an atmospheric use of slow motion, freeze-frames and red filters. The alligator itself is not especially convincing, so its numerous attacks principally derive their impact from Eugenio Alabiso’s taut cutting and judicious camera placement. The most memorable moment is Kruna’s disruption of a kitschy riverboat disco with shrieking American tourists ending up as antipasti.
Despite conforming to Martino’s consistently high standards with regards photography, production design and music, The Great Alligator is my least favorite of all his fantasies. It certainly has some cherished exploitation performers amongst the cast: Romano Puppo, Enzo Fisichella, Bobby Rhodes and Silvia Collatina. But even a ludicrous Richard Johnson cameo, and the sight of Mel Ferrer with a flaming spear in his chest, fail to to lift it above the slightly superior routine level. Still, it’s far preferable to an overblown Steven Spielberg movie any day of the week.
Never shown theatrically in Britain, The Great Alligator was consigned to the wasteland of a video only release. A similar fate befell Martino’s later fantasy/sci-fi projects 2019 Dopo La Caduta Di New York/2019 After the Fall of New York (1983) and Vendetta Dal Futuro/Hands of Steel (1986). The making of Hands of Steel proved traumatic for Martino as his close friend, and frequent collaborator. Claudio Cassinelli was tragically killed in a helicopter crash during shooting. Recently however, Martino has renewed his working relationship with Edwige Fenech on the comedy Delitti privati (TV Mini-Series 1993), and it’s my fervent hope this talented duo return to the horror genre proper in the not-too-distant future. For Martino’s art is unique in the annals of Italian fantasy cinema, and should not only be recognized as such, but should also earn him a well-deserved placement amongst the accepted greats.
Interview with director Sergio Martino:
How did you get you start in the movies?
Sergio Martino: Cinema has always been my family heritage. My grandfather [Gennaro Righelli] was a director who did the first Italian sound movie [1930’s La canzone dell’amore) and had great success with that. So since we were kids, Luciano and I breathed the air of moviemaking, and my grandfather often took us to the set. Luciano, who was older than me, wrote some screenplays and started to work as an assistant director, while I went to university to become a geologist—but never completed my studies, as Luciano began involving me in his work. That was a very prolific time for Italian genre cinema Pietro Francisci had already done many Hercules movies, Sergio Leone was making his Westerns and Mario Bava was shooting some of his best Gothic horrors, so it was easy to get into that business.
This was one of a number of “mondo” movies made at the time.
Sergio Martino: Exactly. I made that one as well as America Cosi Muda… Cosi Violenta. This was a particular type of picture that met with much success in Italy, because during this period there were not so many documentaries on television, not so many chances to journey around the world. Not like there are today. I made two of these documentaries and then I made my first Western, Arizona Colt Returns (1970). This was already near the end of the spaghetti Western’s popularity-after that I decided to make a thriller.
So it was your decision to go into that genre?
Sergio Martino: In my company, we did several of these-Il Dolce Corpo di Deborah Sweet Body of Deborah (1969), on which I was just an organizer-and before that we did La Frusta e il Corpo [The Whip and the Body, a.k.a. What?] with Mario Bava.
That was some years earlier, in 1963. Were you an assistant on that?
Sergio Martino: No, I was just around the production, since my brother Luciano was a producer. But during this period I got a chance to see this type of story, which I found I liked very much.
What did you think of Bava?
Sergio Martino: He was the kind of director who liked to do his job with as little film as possible and a good stopwatch. He would never shoot something he felt was unnecessary. Very, very well-planned. There was an Italian actor in that who, like me, did not have a good grasp of English, so Bava had a very big problem doing the close-up on him. In Italy, we film everything silent so that we can dub it later for export, so Bava was having a hard time with this close-up. To save time, he decided to start panning across the set while the actor was talking! Clever, clever. I remember his technical ability, his expertise in constructing scale models and how skilfully he used lighting and camera positioning to make up for certain deficiencies in the acting department. He had previously worked as a cinematographer, so he knew that a shaft of light or a lower positioning of the camera could heighten the dramatic impact of a line. Also, he knew exactly what he wanted to shoot and would never shoot anything superfluous. If a film was to last ninety minutes, he would scarcely bother to shoot any more than that.
After this, you became a full-fledged assistant. Who did you assist?
Sergio Martino: Directors like Mauro Bolognini, who is a very big director. Nice person. After that I wrote a script for a Western-Per 100,000 Dollari ti Ammazzo for Giovanni Fago. Then I began to make my own movies—started a big corporation with Ernesto Gastaldi, who was then the primary writer.
What memories do you have of your gialli from the early ’70s?
Sergio Martino: At that time, thrillers were very popular, even before the successful movies by Dario Argento. Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh was my first, and I believe it presented some new and original situations, like the sequence in the park we shot in Vienna-a scene that, with minor changes, has subsequently been duplicated by other directors. For The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail, I did borrow some situations and rhythms from Costa-Gavras’ Z (1969), while All the Colors of the Dark wasn’t particularly inventive or original, as we were trying to capitalize on the success of Rosemary’s Baby. I don’t particularly like it, but thanks to that film I was introduced to Carlo Ponti, who subsequently produced Torso, which in my opinion is my best giallo, along with Strange Vice. I do believe some of my gialli feature excessively gruesome scenes we could have avoided, but sometimes, over the years, including them was a trick to pass the censors, as we could take those parts out and show them we had made cuts. Unfortunately, in the following years, when society became more permissive, those scenes were restored by distributors, and now they are even shown on television.
Your films are all fairly complex, thematically and story-wise. Do you credit that to your relationship with Gastaldi?
Sergio Martino: And Dardano Sacchetti, among others.
How is it working with them?
Sergio Martino: Gastaldi is a writer in the American style-no nonsense. Sacchetti is more European, in the same way as Argento or Fulci. He did many films for Fulci, actually. When I finally have the script, I change what I need to change-I alter several sequences to focus any ideas I may have, both for themes and budget.
Your visual style, especially in your thrillers, is aggressively subjective. Is that something that is initially in the script?
Sergio Martino: If it isn’t initially, I make sure it is eventually. I don’t like scripts where everything’s like radio. Too much talk is no good.
The phrase “Your vice is a locked room and only I have the key” appears in a mysterious note on a bunch of flowers, apparently sent by a killer, in a scene from Strange Vice…
Sergio Martino: Yes; Ernesto Gastaldi wrote the screenplays for both films, and after the success of Strange Vice, we decided to make a connection between the two by using that phrase, which the audience liked very much, as a title. It was ascribed to Edgar Allan Poe, but I don’t believe it was actually one of his.
What’s an example of script that pleased you immediately?
Sergio Martino: La Coda della Scorpione The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail (1971). That was Gastaldi, a giallo that was suggested by the success of Argento’s Bird With the Crystal Plumage.
Always an animal in the title…
Sergio Martino: Yes. We all had to have animals in our titles! I like this film.
You made it after The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh (1970) without your regular actress Edwige Fenech.
Sergio Martino: Yes, Edwige was pregnant at the time. But I think it still has good moments, even without her.
There are some extraordinary sequences in Scorpion’s Tail. I understand your admiration for Argento; however, there are sequences from your films that he has definitely echoed.
Sergio Martino: This is possible…
You play with sound a lot, creating incredible tension-as in the elevator sequence in All the Colors of the Dark (1972)
Sergio Martino: Yes! And the garden sequence of The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh. The girl in the garden. No music, just the sound of the trees. The sounds you hear at sunset. There’s as good an impression [as, if not better than, if it had music, because the terror is there in real life. Audiences react to what is more real than to what is less real. Sometimes the intrusion of soundtrack music makes it obviously less real. That takes away from the terror.
Rome’s a small town… It’s great the way you create such a paranoia around all those handsome, square-jawed actors George Hilton, Ivan Rassimov—they could be lovers one minute, stark raving maniacs a minute later.
Sergio Martino: All those early thrillers were just takes on Diabolique. Never knowing who was double-crossing whom, elaborate secret murder plots, odd sexual natures…
In Scorpion’s Tail, there are several actors who were Jess Franco regulars: Janine Reynaud, Anita Strindberg and Luis Barboo.
Sergio Martino: Yes. Scorpion’s Tail was a Spanish co-production. I remember Barboo. A nice actor who I used in my first Western, and when it came time to do Scorpion’s Tail, I remembered him to be the right type. I like that period of films in Spain. Very exciting for me, that whole era of my early films. So many terrific chances to work all over Europe. I don’t think it’s possible to have that situation ever again. Janine Reynaud I had known for a while; she had been in Le Spie Uccidono a Beirut/ Secret Agent Fireball (1965), which I wrote some years before.
A actress you worked with frequently was Edwige Fenech. How did your relationship with her begin?
Sergio Martino: I saw her when I was doing some dubbing in a studio one time. I immediately thought that she was an incredibly beautiful girl and that she could be a big star. What she does best in the movies is comedy. At the same time, she is very physical-maybe not really as petite a body as a heroine for thrillers needs, but particularly in They’re Coming to Get You!, she was wonderful. That film gave her a very big chance. She is still a great friend of mine. She had a relationship with my brother Luciano; I introduced her to him, and she was like a wife to him for 10 years. In that period she did a series of movies for us, with me and with other directors.
Edwige Fenech was so sexy in your movies and although she did other great movies she made her best with you. During this period would you describe her as a muse?
Sergio Martino: In fact, when I wrote a character before principal photography, back in the 70’s, I thought of a blonde with a sickly face, matching the worst stereotypes. After a few years, I realised that I was wrong because Edwige gave her characters more sensuality, made them more special, and more believable in a way. The results were most surprising, and the fact that she still is this icon for newer generations proved us right.
She was announced as starring in the sequel to Island Of The Fishmen but she wasn’t in it, why?
Sergio Martino: It’s a kind of fairytale that uses repertory footage from Island Of The Fishmen and 2019. La Fenech did not appear in the film, because at the last moment she decided that she couldn’t face wearing a heavy costume in the equatorial climate that we would be shooting in. I think that she made the right decision, though it was a shame not to work with her.
So the project choices were simply a matter of supply and demand?
Sergio Martino: For sure. When I did Torso, I was very impressed with one movie See No Evil, with Mia Farrow. I really wanted to do something similar. The audience was very shocked by the style I used in Torso, since it was very different from that which Argento used in his thrillers. That one sequence in particular [Kendall at the door when I saw the film in Rome, people ducked and hid their eyes and clapped. Nice reaction.
Let me ask you about Torso (1974)
Sergio Martino: This is one of the stories I like very much-one I worked on with Gastaldi. It was a very big success in the United States as well as Italy. Cut, though, in many countries.
This film stands as your masterpiece. Very impressive subjective storytelling. So many characters, and you suture the audience so tightly into each individual’s point of view that, by the climax, the tension is unbearable.
Sergio Martino: Thank you. One sequence that I like very much, which was my idea, was one where Suzy Kendall is on one side of the door unaware that the killer is inside the house actually on the other side of the door! That is one of the sequences that I am most proud of. No dialogue-not a word. But it is very…
Sergio Martino: Yes. Very cruel. And exciting
How did you come up with the Italian title, I corpi presentano tracce di violenza carnale (The Bodies Present Traces of Carnal Violence)?
Sergio Martino: That was chosen, almost by necessity, by the distributor, to give it more horrific resonance. My original title was Rosso come l’amore, Nero come il terrore (Red as Love, Black as Terror]; then I considered I corpi non presentano tracce di violenza carnale (The Bodies Do Not Present Traces of Carnal Violence), as the story was about a murderer who hated women and was unable to lay his hands on them due to a trauma sustained as a child. Then the distributor convinced us to remove non, in order to make the title more morbid—but because of that, we had to shoot all the scenes where the characters talk about the killer’s impotence!
What was the inspiration for Torso?
Sergio Martino: I got the idea for the plot when I saw the British movie See No Evil, and when I read a cruel story in the news about a man who had killed his siblings. Every day, he went to their house, collected bits of their corpses and discarded them by throwing them in landfills around the area. Setting it at the Perugia University for Foreigners was Carlo Ponti’s idea, as he thought it would give the film international appeal.
Torso is definitely a breaking point from your other thrillers of the time.
Sergio Martino: My feeling at the time between The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh and Torso was that I had to try to come up with new sensations. New ways to manipulate an audience. In Mrs. Wardh, I did something that Argento had done before, but with Torso, I was very, very impressed with a (then) current headline. A Roman man had killed an entire family in their home. He would go about his business during the day and when he would return to the house, he would chop up the bodies-he had kept them there and take a different body part, each day, to bury in a garden in Rome. Other times, he was a good family man, a father; he would take his son to get ice cream at the same garden. For me, this seemed extraordinary—that one man could do such a horrible thing and at the same time behave so normally that no one could catch on. Today, I would like to do a movie more specifically about this kind of man. One where the real killer is a man like us. Maybe he kills some people and then has another life with his family. There was a film like that…
With Torso you started using Guido and Maurizio de Angelis as composers.
Sergio Martino: Yes. Excellent musicians. They brought an entirely new feeling to the picture, and it was this feeling, as opposed to what was usually done in soundtracks at the time, that prompted me to work with them on several other movies after Torso. Very long collaboration.
The visual structure of Torso is so intricate and witty. Like that wonderfully ironic pan across the classroom, and nearly anyone who gets their own close-up is dead by the movie’s end.
Sergio Martino: This is true. It’s scenes like this concepts—that Ernesto Gastaldi and I are always trying to give to an audience. Many chances for the audience to guess who could be the killer. This also makes for an entertaining game to play between the horror
Do you agree with the assessment that Torso represents a transition from the stylish gialli of the ’60s and early ’70s to the brutal-“splatter movies” that came later?
Sergio Martino: I don’t really know how to answer that, because I don’t recall the kind of films that were being made at the same time or just afterwards… in fact I followed Torso up with a comedy and two tearjerkers.
Did your career go in the direction you wanted after Torso?
Sergio Martino: Yes. I think so. I like to change always as a director. I’ve tried to do comedy, dramas, thrillers—all different types of film. If you always try to do the same movie, by the end, you are stagnated. At the moment, I would like to do a big thriller. . But the problem now in Italy is to get the budget big enough to do a properly mounted thriller so that it could be successful abroad.
Is it true you went to Hong Kong to do a film with Bruce Lee?
Sergio Martino: Yes, absolutely. Tonino Cervi, a producer who also occasionally directed, and I were interested in Bruce Lee, who at that time was at the beginning of his career, and starting to become known in Europe. We went to Carlo Ponti, asking to cast Lee in my next film, then went to Hong Kong to meet and discuss the project with him. Lee asked for $2 million to accept the role, which seemed a crazy and impossible request at the time-though I thought he was probably worth it, as his worldwide fame was growing.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t the one who had that money, and the project was cancelled. We stayed in Hong Kong for about four days, as guests of the Shaw Brothers, and when I met Bruce Lee, he impressed me. He reminded me of Muhammad Ali; he was very exuberant and kept saying, “I am the strongest man in the world,” and he did have a great physique. Sadly, he died a few months later, under mysterious circumstances; he was very healthy, and didn’t eat any meat or drink wine. I was very surprised when I was told of his passing.
Presumably you used international actors like Marty Feldman, for example, in Sex With A Smile, to try and make the Italian comedy a less domestic affair and more saleable abroad?
Sergio Martino: Yes, obviously. Marty Feldman in particular was a great comic. In fact, at this time Italian comedies did have a certain amount of international success, and actors like Buzzanca and La Fenech became quite marketable.
Your cop films have often been criticized for being “fascistic”.
Sergio Martino: I remember that in Italy at the start of the seventies there were moves in parliament to disarm the police, and sociologists were arguing against putting people in prison. But the man in the street wanted strong, decisive action against crime. All the cop films of the time had this same theme, like the American films of Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson are they, then, “fascistic”?
Even though you’ve been recognized for your thrillers, you actually have done even more comedies and action films.
Sergio Martino: Many action films. Like The Violent Professionals (1973) Maybe these aren’t as well-known outside Italy because the situations are specifically Italian-they were made during a time of great political problems here. So they were great successes mainly in Europe.
What are your memories of the westerns you made?
Sergio Martino: Arizona Colt Returns (1970) was my first non documentary film. I remember with nostalgia how green I was in those days, I think that with A Man Called Blade I made a good film with some beautiful sequences, though it came a little too lore in the great “spaghetti westen”. I always enjoyed American westerns and so it was a type of filmmaking I was very fond of. I wish I had had the opportunity to make more of them.
You made some of your pictures on exotic locations; what do you remember about those places?
Sergio Martino: We filmed Mountain of the Cannibal God in Sri Lanka and Malaysia, which was one of the most interesting experiences of my life. Even though it was hard work, it allowed me to visit some very unspoiled areas. To reach the cavern seen at the end of the movie, we had to hike up a mountain to a place where the temperature was 100 degrees with 80 percent humidity. We went back to Sri Lanka for The Great Alligator, but that time was easier because the script required fewer locations. Still, we made that film during monsoon season, so sudden storms and heavy rains forced us to stop shooting and change the schedule. For Island of the Fishmen, however, we didn’t go very far, as the main set was built in the Grotta di Nettuno in Sardinia. During filming, there was a big storm that completely destroyed the ship we had built inside that cavern; luckily, we had just completed all the scenes with it the day before.
What inspired Cannibal God?
Sergio Martino: At that moment, I thought it was important to do something spectacular, something adventurous, something fantasy. My inspiration was really King Solomon’s Mines with Stewart Granger. One woman looking for her husband.
In your adventure trilogy-Cannibal God, L’Isola Degli Uomini Pesce (Island of the Fish Men, a.k.a. Screamers, 1979) and Il Fiume del Grande Caimano (The Great Alligator, 1980)—women are objects of deification.
Sergio Martino: That’s definitely intentional. I remember a sequence from Screamers where Barbara Bach is riding on the white horse. She gives a special impression-beautiful and mysterious at the same time.
Ursula Andress doesn’t come off quite as mysterious in Cannibal God…
Sergio Martino: Colder, but as the story continues, you see it is for a reason. But Barbara Bach was special. I like also the women in After the Fall of New York . That picture was just a version of Sleeping Beauty…nice. But back to Barbara Bach-in her first movies…
Were you surprised that your brother Luciano put some of your footage from Mountain Of The Cannibal God into Umberto Lenzi’s Eaten Alive?
Sergio Martino: Not at all. It’s the logic of commercial production. Would it be more just to shoot another scene of violence to animals? So it seems right to me to re-use he footage, as it suited the purposes of hot film so well. I think it is all to his credit that he did this.
How did your brother feel about all the sex and violence that you put her through in those films?
Sergio Martino: He was the producer… No, that was what made a successful picture at that time. It was understood. Now, I don’t think she would do them again today. But she liked the films she made with us. In Italy, she has become a tremendous actress on television. She is one of those lucky actors who can get parts for her age.
So scenes like the snake eating the monkey-you didn’t shoot those?
Sergio Martino: No. I shot them. But I didn’t feel right about doing them. I like the first part of Cannibal God, but the last part…? Maybe it’s too much, I don’t know. In Torso, if I were to do that movie over again, maybe I would do something different in the last part-maybe without such a graphic effect. Of course, the style of that time has changed. If I have a chance in the future to do a movie like that, my idea is to place E more importance on the sound. Because the sound can express more than just seeing.
Like your thrillers, the film bears a definite sadness or melancholy. Cannibal God is not a gung-ho, feel-good experience like, say, an Indiana Jones film.
Sergio Martino: Perhaps this melancholy is one part of my feeling. You’ve hit on something here maybe this is my signature as a director!
Richard Johnson gave a nice performance in Screamers. How was he to work with?
Sergio Martino: Nice actor. Nice person. Very sly. Very ironic way of acting. Everything he does-especially if he has to do something really dramatic, he finds a way of performing it ironically.
How did you feel about the American release of Screamers?
Sergio Martino: Roger Corman bought my movie and did something very strange to it. Right? When I saw that (version), I remember being so surprised! It was amusing.
You should find that amusing. The new scenes were photographed by Gary Graver-a man who shot for Orson Welles!
Sergio Martino: I can see the influence! I did another Fish Men movie recently for TV. This was also amusing, because I created a new story and used effects from both After the Fall of New York and – Screamers—I did a nice story about two children. If you see it, you will be surprised to see these two movies rolled into one. I like it very much. I spent four weeks in Santo Domingo, and it has a very big-budget look. To do the same special effects now that we did back in ’78 or ’83 is too expensive for an Italian budget. It’s unheard of today.
In 2019: After the Fall of New York (1983), you tried to put a new slant on the hackneyed “After The Bomb” scenario, with Wagnerian allusions, and so on…
Sergio Martino: To be honest, although the Wagnerian ‘tone is a suggestion that pleases me, I’m not sure how intentional it was. Sometimes these things just happen. I added some original ideas to that, like the romantic subplot about the survivors of a nuclear catastrophe seeking the last fertile woman on Earth. I showed a destroyed New York, it was another change of genre for me, and an enthusiastic one, and the budget we had was comparatively high: $1 million allowed us to build some great sets. Obviously the movie was deeply inspired by Escape from New York, but I also tried to recreate the atmosphere from Blade Runner. At that time, distributors believed that science fiction movies could not take place in Italy, because it wasn’t a credible location! Therefore, Italian directors weren’t considered suitable for them, so some of my colleagues and I began to use pseudonyms. An American name also suggested that a picture could be a sequel made by the same people who did the original. In France, 2019 had great success, probably because the audience thought it was an American film. Producer Fulvio Lucisano saw it in Paris and wondered who the hell Martin Dolman was; when he realized it was me, he was very surprised and called me, and offered me some television projects to direct, which I did.
Why do you prefer to use two American-sounding pseudonyms (“Martin Dolman” and “Christian Plummer”) instead of the customary one?
Sergio Martino: The name “Plummer” was used only for the abridged version of Etruscan Cemetery, the feature that we salvaged from the TV series. At this fime there were so many films by “Martin Dolman on the market, we thought that another pseudonym was in order, so as molto devalue the name, Sergio Martino.
The filming of Hands of Steel (1986) saw the tragic death of actor Claudio Cassinelli; how did that happen?
Sergio Martino: It was a sad and terrible experience for all of us. We had been flying in a helicopter across the Grand Canyon and above the Colorado River, filming the incredible scenery. Claudio and the pilot had almost completed all the shots we needed, and although it wasn’t required, he wanted to fly under a bridge, as he thought it would be more spectacular. I tried hard to dissuade him, but we had all overcome any fear of flying and he was very excited, there was no wind and it looked like everything was fine. Unfortunately, the helicopter hit the bridge and crashed, and Claudio and the pilot died instantly. I did many movies with Claudio; he was a good friend and a fine actor, a gentleman. His death was a sad loss. The insurance company offered the opportunity to reshoot Claudio’s scenes with another actor, but to remove him seemed like a betrayal, so I figured out a way to preserve his presence in the film. We altered the script to use the scenes we had already done with him, and introduced a new character so we could incorporate Claudio’s sequences.
The Scorpion with Two Tails/Murder in an Etruscan Cemetery (1982) and Delitti Privati/Private Crimes (TV Mini-Series 1993), in their different ways, are “TV gialli.” Is the genre suited to this medium?
Sergio Martino: In a TV series, which runs longer than a feature, it’s more difficult to keep suspicion moving between the various characters. The plot must be much more intricate to hold the viewer’s interest and persuade them to tune in next time. In the case of Delitti Privati, I think we managed this quite well.
Sergio Stivaletti worked on Etruscan Cemetery and other of your movies. How do you rate this FX man-turned-director?
Sergio Martino: He’s a young man with a fantastic talent I think that it’s a good move for him to start directing, and I’m sure that he will be successful Giovanni Lombardo Radice from Etruscan Cemetery told me that he found you a very “cold” director, but later realized that you had made him give one of his best performances. Do you have a set way of working with actors?
I think that the rapport between director and actors is determined, above all, by the quality of the story and by adherence to the truth of the characters’ motivations. In genre films the stories are often very mechanical and the characters are moved not by true reactions to the situation, but by the necessities of moving the story along For example, why, in giallo films, do so many beautiful and vulnerable girls sleep alone in sinister, isolated castles instead of comfortable and secure hotels in the towns nearby? Because otherwise, it would not be possible to generate any suspense. The characters are motivated by the will of the writer and the director. In this respect it is difficult to communicate to the actors how they should be interpreting their roles, when it’s mainly a matter of mechanics. Perhaps my “cold attitude” towards actors in certain films was determined a little by my own natural timidity, but also from my awareness of the limitations on creative possibilities in these circumstances, where all you want from them is a routine “fearful” expression or whatever. If Lombardo Radice believes that this brought out the best in him as an actor, so much the better.
Did you work with a Spanish crew on Scorpion’s Tail?
Sergio Martino: There were Spanish actors and crew on that and on Next Victim—the two weeks that I shot in Spain. Just as good as the Italian crews. I just shot in Germany for a project, and they were very good too. Some things are different, but mostly they have all been very good. But that was a wonderful time, shooting All the Colors of the Dark, Scorpion’s Tail…I like all these movies. Another film that people speak very highly of but I don’t care for too much is Your Vice Is a Closed Room and Only I Have the Key, a.k.a. Excite Me, 1972. Just [based on a story by Edgar Allan Poe-“The Black Cat.” I read something nice from England about this movie; I don’t like it, though. One of mine that I thought was a good thriller was Delitti Privati , a four-part picture for TV big success.
It has strong atmosphere. And any movie where John Saxon’s head spins around 360 degrees must be OK…
Sergio Martino: My head was spinning while making it! You know, it was originally a very long serial, many parts, and I was told by the producers-it was not done by my company-that it was to be shortened, then shortened again, then again. It doesn’t make much sense now. Perhaps it never made much sense.
Why do you think Italian genre cinema tried so hard, particularly in the ’70s and ’80s, to imitate American films?
Sergio Martino: I believe it’s because the stories depicted by Hollywood have become universal even if certain elements don’t belong to our culture, like Halloween while audiences overseas are not interested in stories that are typically Italian. So if we wanted to sell our pictures around the world, particularly action or horror movies, we had to use American locations and situations.
On the other hand, some of your films have been imitated by Hollywood…
Sergio Martino: Yes; Giovannona Long-Thigh was a nice comedy starring Edwige Fenech, where a manager asks his secretary to hire a prostitute to play the role of his wife, and to offer her to a politician in exchange for helping him cover up some disreputable affairs; Pretty Woman is basically the same story.
How would you define the term giallo” and assess the Italian Friller’s influence on the thriller genre internationally?
Sergio Martino: It’s obvious that directors like Romero and De Palma have been influenced by their viewings of Italian gialli. In essence, these are thrillers based not only on the intricacies of uncovering the identity of the culprits, but also on the use – and, at times misuse of violent imagery. As for myself, the biggest influence on my own gialli has been Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques.
I think that influence is very obvious in a film like Your Vice Is A Locked Door. What are your favourite and least favourite of your own entries in this genre?
Sergio Martino: My least favorite would certainly be Murder In The Etruscan Cemetery. My favorites are All The Colours Of Darkness, and, my absolute favourite the sequence at the end of Torso in which Suzy Kendall is locked in the room, being stalked by the killer. I think that I was very successful in generating a lot of suspense there. Suzy Kendall is an excellent actress, and at that time she was very bankable, internationally.
How did you find the experience of working with Carlo Ponti?
Sergio Martino: It was a very positive experience. There was a great deal of trust between us. I was then a very young director, and not particularly self-confident. W’s fair to say that I became one of his pupils. Unfortunately we only made a few films together, three, and all successful. Soon after this, he had his tax problems, and could not work as a producer in Italy for a long time. A pity from my point of view, but above all for the Italian film business, because he was one of the most
intelligent producers we ever had
What did you think of the alterations that American distributors made to your films, e.g. Joseph Brenner with Torso, the way that All The Colours Of Darkness lost its opening nightmare sequence in America, and the way that more gore was added to Island Of The Fishmen?
Sergio Martino: For a long time, I was not even aware of this. I was later told that these changes were made to make the films more appealing to an American audience. It’s not that the distributors found the content of these films below par, just that different audiences are looking for different things.
What did critics not understand about your work at the time you were prolific?
Sergio Martino: I think I mentioned this before: the Italian film critics, solely from an artistic point of view, tended to review movies with arthouse themes. Not the movies that filled the theatres, with all their capacities to draw the audience in with action and suspense. Their reviews were subordinated to these prerogatives, without understanding that cinema needed such attractive films that made money, to appeal to the public and get more financing: mortifying the value of these movies. Besides, when the early 80’s American cinema, with computer generated effects that increased in quality became more and more spectacular, our own genre films with a lack of economical help and technological improvement, never had a chance to offer an alternative.
How do you adjust to life when things slowdown in film making?
Sergio Martino: My movie “2019 : After the fall of New York” was, I believe, the last Italian genre film to be released theatrically in the United States, and it was successful in several European countries, especially in France. A few years later, I also had international success with a movie playing during World War II named “Casablanca Express.” Moreover, after the decline of action films and gialli, I did a lot of romantic films and particularly comedies, with great success in Italy. I also crossed my cinematographic career with numerous TV series until 2011. It was my choice to stop, for various reasons, like the passing of my brother. My career is highly associated with my first cinematographic experience “Wages of sin”, but the original title translated from Italian would be: ”Thousand sins, no virtue.” A film critic ironically described my career with this title. He claimed that I made so many movies (sins) but with no quality at all (virtue). Last year, when I recalled this episode, I named my biography “Thousand sins… No virtue?” The intention behind this question mark added to the title means that maybe after all, this kind of cinema stayed in our minds as engaging, but mostly provoked interest even for new generations, which means that it certainly had some virtue.