Thursday, May 21, 2009
The follow up film to his notorious and rather haunting Avere vent’anni (To Be Twenty), Fernando Di Leo’s 1979 production Vacanze per un Massacro (Madness) is one of his oddest and most peculiar films. A strange mixture of Last House on the Left and The Desperate Hours, Madness is not one of Di Leo’s strongest works but, like many of his films, it has a quality about it that lingers long after the credits have rolled.
Joe Dallesandro stars as Joe Brezzi, a career criminal who escapes from a maximum-security country prison as the film opens. Brezzi makes his way to a house where he stashed some stolen funds before he was sent away only to find a vacationing family residing there. The family is terrorized and manipulated by Brezzi who enlists them to help him find the treasure that has been buried under the fireplace in the house. Brezzi doesn’t know what he is for though as the family, made up of two sisters and one man they are both involved with, has their own catastrophic drama going on.
Di Leo’s surprising directorial choices, the intense performances of lead actors Dallesandro and Lorraine De Selle, and the wild adventurous score from famed Luis Enriquez Bacalov control Madness at every turn. If the film is finally a flawed work then it is mostly due to Di Leo’s script, adapted from a story by fellow genre director Mario Gariazzo, which never fully escapes the trappings of its more than slightly ‘been there-done that’ origins.
Despite the problems with the script, Di Leo manages to make Madness a rather sharp commentary on sexual manipulation and domination through his clever use of framing and shot selection, and with these always interesting choices Madness becomes a much more attention-grabbing work than it would have been in less intelligent hands. Shot on a shoe-string budget in a house Di Leo found in the Abruzzi Mountains, Madness is never less than compulsively watchable in its slim just under ninety minute running time.
Di Leo had just come off a stunning string of Italian police thrillers and both Madness and To Be Twenty seem to be deliberate steps away from that genre, as the truly versatile Di Leo was becoming pigeonholed in it. In Madness Di Leo is less interested in the mechanisms of the crime, as he was a production like the breathtaking Milano Calibro 9 (1972), and he is more interested in the corrupted psychologies of each one of his characters, especially De Selle’s Paola, the adulterous sister who stands as one of the most fascinating creations of Di Leo’s career.
Lorraine De Selle is one of Italian cinemas most interesting, if under-discussed, figures. Working these days as a successful producer, the uncompromising De Selle proved a rather unforgettable character in many of Italy’s most intense and controversial productions of the late seventies and early eighties. Her brave and sometimes shocking work is on hand in everything from Joe D’Amato’s Emanuelle in America, to Bruno Mattei’s S.S. Extermination Love Camp, to Ruggero Deodato’s House on the Edge of the Park to perhaps most memorably in Umberto Lenzi’s grueling Cannibal Ferox. De Selle was an extremely interesting actress, and Di Leo brings out the best in her as she delivers an emotionally (and physically) stripped and complex performance that elevates Madness at every turn.
Joe Dallesandro is just as good as the sociopath Brezzi. The final film in Joe’s impressive time as a key player in Italian genre film, finds him at his seductive and snarling best. He also brings a vulnerability and confusion to the role, something that is especially played well in the film’s most misogynistic and savage moments. Joining Dallesandro and De Selle in the film’s smaller roles are Gianne Macchia as the conniving and sex starved husband Sergio and Patrizia Behn as the smarter than she seems wife Liliana. Both are good, but the film finally belongs to Dallesandro and De Selle, and it is at its most successful in their scenes together.
Considering the film is essentially a four-character piece, Di Leo does a remarkable job at keeping it from feeling at all stage like. It’s a quick moving cinematic production that Di Leo simultaneously brings a claustrophobic and wide-open feel to. This is a smart director at work in this film, and it is a shame the rather weak storyline gets in the way of the considerable film making skills on hand. Di Leo is said to have considered this a minor work in his filmography but despite some flaws, Madness is a fascinating late period work from the director, and a Region 1 DVD would be extremely welcome.
Vacanze per un Massacro was available (it is apparently out of print at this point) on Italy’s RaroVideo label in an okay print that is cobbled together from a couple of different sources. Colors are faded and it isn’t one of Raro’s better discs but it is uncut, and it isn’t a bad way to view what is an extremely rare film from one of Italy’s most missed directors.