When most people think of the giallo, the Italian thriller sub-genre, they think of high body counts and knife-wielding, black-clad killers. Dario Argento popularized this type in 1970 with his debut The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. But that was by no means the first-ever giallo; the kind produced prior to Argento had a very different tone and tactic. Murder? Sure, there was murder. But these earlier gialli focused much more on seduction, creeping paranoia, and multiple double-crosses.
Umberto Lenzi is perhaps the king of this variety. His four-film run with American actress Carroll Baker is the focus of a slick-looking new Blu-ray from Severin Films.
The movies in this box set are truly some of the best and most influential in the giallo genre. Lenzi and Baker began their collaboration with 1969’s Orgasmo. Baker plays the wealthy American widow who moves into an Italian villa with the help of her lawyer. Once settled, she meets a mysterious handsome stranger (Lou Castel) and they begin an affair. Not long after, his sister (Colette Descombes) arrives. Except maybe she’s not his sister; maybe she’s his lover and they have other things in mind for the poor, fragile millionaire.
Orgasmo is a twisty, nightmarish film in which we’re never certain who is out to get whom. We’re not even sure if any of it is really happening like we think. The success of Orgasmo led to more, often very similar movies for Lenzi and Baker. So Sweet…So Perverse the same year finds Baker in more of the aggressor role, teaming up with (or double crossing) the emotionally unstable Erika Blanc. A Quiet Place to Kill from 1970 has Baker as a race car driver whose new boyfriend (Jean Sorel) convinces her to help kill his wife. And the final collaboration, Knife of Ice, has Baker as a mute woman stalked by a serial killer.
Funny story: Orgasmo is the European title; U.S. distributors had to re-title it because Orgasmo is so scandalous. They chose the title Paranoia, a fitting name. However, later Lenzi decided to make a movie actually called Paranoia, and obviously the U.S. couldn’t have two movies from director Umberto Lenzi and starring Carroll Baker called Paranoia, so that second movie got the U.S. re-title A Quiet Place to Kill. Thankfully, Severin isn’t calling either of these movies Paranoia in the box set.
A Quiet Place to Kill has never before seen a Blu-ray release in North America; the other three have never been on Blu-ray at all. So even just for the films themselves, Severin is giving us a real gift. But the company is very good about packing their releases with extra features. The first three films feature audio commentaries by some of the luminaries of Euro Cult scholarship; Alexandra Heller-Nicholas provides the track for the European cut of Orgasmo with Troy Howarth and Nathaniel Thompson on the U.S. cut. So Sweet…So Perverse has a track from author Kat Ellinger and A Quiet Place to Kill has one from author Samm Deighan (both favorite commentators of mine).
Other extras include interviews with Lenzi, who sadly passed away in 2017, screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi, and author Stephen Thrower. The set also includes two full audio CDs of soundtrack music. You can hear in the trailer above just how sumptuous and funky the scores for all of these movies are.
The four films Lenzi made with Baker represent some of the best in either of their filmographies. Lenzi directed many gialli including later entries like Seven Blood-Stained Orchids and Spasmo; gritty crime-action fare like Almost Human and The Tough Ones; and exceedingly schlocky faves like Cannibal Ferox and Nightmare City. But the director could be nuanced and chilling in addition to salacious. These films are clear evidence; clearly Carroll Baker had quite an impact.
The Complete Lenzi/Baker Giallo Collection set will hit retailers on June 30.
Featured Image: Severin