Monday, 17 June 2013

The Crisanti Connection

The late 1970’s-early 1980’s was a golden era in Italian horror cinema as directors such as Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci and Ruggero Deodato were setting box offices on fire with the most famous/infamous movies of their careers. At the same time, producer Gabriele Crisanti, noting the success of his fellow countryman, sensed an opportunity and jumped on the bandwagon.  Along with a small stable of regular collaborators, Crisanti quickly churned out almost a dozen low-grade potboilers which gave the target audience exactly what they wanted – blood, boobs and bush in spades. His works from the period – MALABIMBA, GIALLO IN VENICE, PATRICK STILL LIVES, BURIAL GROUND and SATAN’S BABY DOLL – all share a number of common factors. Plots take a back seat in favour of cheaply executed but bloody and graphic jack-in-the-box gore scenes, gratuitous sex and nudity  (often juxtaposed with sexually violent deaths), and an all-round grimy, sleazy atmosphere. The characters are often unlikable bickering oddballs who are hacked up off one by one – set to occasionally recycled locations and music. Crisanti’s productions are also notorious for going where even seasoned genre practitioners wouldn’t go – incest, female masturbation and genital violence are all filmed in lingering close-ups.  Now for a closer look at Crisanti and his key collaborators Mario Landi and Mariangela Giordano.
Gabriele Crisanti began his career as a production designer before turning to producing in the late 1960’s. Always astute of the marketability of his product, Crisanti rapidly turned out film after film of whatever what was in vogue with audiences at the time, hoping to Xerox the profit of the trend’s pioneer titles.  Beginning the 1970’s with decameroticons, he then veered to erotic comedies in the mid 70’s, before winding up the decade by venturing into the horror market.
Crisanti’s first production in this field was an exorcism/nunsploitation cash-in, MALABIMBA (1979), the sordid tale of an innocent young girl becoming possessed by evil spirits after a séance gone wrong and embarking on a sex-fuelled rampage, with her father, uncle and the family nun amongst her depraved targets. Crisanti’s girlfriend at the time, Mariangela Giordano, played the role of the nun, and subsequently went on to act in all of Crisanti’s horror projects.

An elegant looking but uninhibited actress with classic Mediterranean features, Mariangela Giordano participated in some of the most unforgettably shocking scenes in Eurohorror history throughout her filmography with Crisanti (a poker entering her vagina in close-up and exiting via her mouth in Patrick Still Lives; her nipple being bitten off by her zombified, incestuous son in Burial Ground, to name just a few...) Unlike other Italian exploitation starlets, Giordano was a capable actress, often injecting a wide range of expressions and emotions into one-dimensional characters initially solely written in as eye candy and/or cannon fodder. Her obvious dedication to her craft and willingness to appear in such extreme scenes has a simple reason – because of her devotion to Crisanti. “Looking back, I shouldn’t have done them. But I was in love with Gabriele. I would have done anything for him. Now I can see how the increasingly gruesome ways in which he had me killed in them was a reflection of the breakdown of our relationship. PATRICK STILL LIVES is the worst instance of how shocked I was in retrospect by something I’d done on film. That poker scene is so disgusting, so terrible, only Gabriele could have sweet talked me into actually doing it! It took two days to film that scene, and because the poker had to keep thrusting between my legs before it came out the top of my head, it got more and more painful as we kept going. And it was cold and freezing. I don’t know why Gabriele always insisted on making these movies during winter.”

Giordano was also not exempt from a ultra-gruesome demise in Crisanti’s next venture, GIALLO IN VENICE (1979), a grubby, brutal giallo choosing to up the ante on explicit sex and violence rather then the stylish flourishes that usually punctuate the genre. The plot involves the murder of a young couple, a subsequent investigation uncovering the kinky sex-and-drug fuelled lifestyle of the pair, and a killer on a bloody rampage, thus providing the filmmaker to pack in its 91 minutes masturbation, buggery, voyeurism, prostitution, rape, whipping, double rape...and Giordano the victim of the most sadistic killing – having her leg messily sawed off after being tied nude to a kitchen table.
GIALLO IN VENICE was directed by Mario Landi, a former television director who had filmed a number of successful dramas for that medium in the 1960’s. Keen to return to feature filmmaking (he had helmed a couple of low-budget melodramas in the early 1950’s), Landi approached Gabriele Crisanti with treatments of GIALLO and his next effort, PATRICK STILL LIVES (1980). Recognising that the projects had moneymaking potential and could easily be shot in his quick, economical trademark style, Crisanti signed on Landi, who’s functional, workmanlike static direction is all too obviously much more suited to a TV studio; this is painfully obvious in the endless unprepossessing close-up shots of the title character’s zombie-like face (and flaring nostrils) in PATRICK STILL LIVES.   

PATRICK STILL LIVES, an unauthorised ‘sequel’ to the much more sedate genre sleeper PATRICK (1978), bears little resemblance to its predecessor. Aside from the title and the titular character possessing psychic powers, any similarities end there. Using their tried and tested formula, Landi and Crisanti instead chose to push the exploitative angle to the limit and tack the threadbare plot together with bloody creative kills and extraneous nudity. A blink and you’ll miss it pre-credit sequence shows Patrick and his father, Dr.Herschell, waiting for help on a roadside as their car has broken down. A liquor bottle thrown from a passing vehicle hits Patrick in the head, resulting in him being left in a permanently bedridden, comatose state. Three years later, Dr.Herschell, the head of “Herschell Wellness Resort” invites a handful of seemingly random people to stay there as all-expenses paid guests – a politician and his wife, a prostitute and her drug-dealing pimp, and an athlete. It soon transpires that the doctor is hell-bent on getting revenge on whoever was responsible for ruining his son’s life, and he has narrowed down the list of suspects to the group he’s invited to his retreat (not exactly the most sympathetic bunch – they spend much of their time bitching, griping and slapping each other around). In addition, Dr.Herschell has been cultivating Patrick’s psychic abilities to assist with his murderous vengeance. Patrick’s brain has been wired to those of a trio of hardened criminals, and the criminals’ evil ‘energies’ are sent through to Patrick. The doctor commands Patrick use these energies to kill off each guest one by one – everything from boiling water to decapitating car windows to crotch-grawing German Shepards comes into play here. And as mentioned earlier, a highlight/lowlight is the long suffering Mariangela Giordano having a self-levitating poker rammed up a certain orifice – a scene which was not in the original script. Gabiele Crisanti included it after a particularly bad argument with Giordano to teach her a lesson apparently (!!!) However Patrick has something other than murder on his mind when tended to by his father’s stunning assistant Lydia, He wills her to strip, hump a bedpost and masturbate (in a lengthy and graphic sequence). The film concludes abruptly (i.e. Landi and co CBF’ed including a proper ending) with Patrick suffering a crisis of conscience as to his actions as he is in love with Lydia, and after more murder and mayhem, Patrick and Lydia are the sole survivors, presumably to live happily ever after. Yes, PATRICK STILL LIVES is as stupid and ridiculous as it sounds – and the oft-repeated 1950’s standard effect of Patrick’s bulging eyes superimposed on the screen as a “warning” of impending danger and corny theremin ‘sci-fi’- sounding music just add to the ludicrousness, but if you’re in the mood for ultra sleazy, ultra cheesy fun, you can’t go wrong.

Crisanti’s next production is his most well-known – BURIAL GROUND (1981). Quick to catch on the massive success of zombie films at the time such as DAWN OF THE DEAD and ZOMBIE, Crisanti wasted no time in securing another low-budget sleazemeister, Andrea Bianchi.  Via utilising the apocalyptic nihilism of the zombie genre and blending it in with their own misanthropic, perverse filmmaking universe, the pair created a derivative but watchably strange undead saga. Professor Ayres discovers an ancient Etruscan tomb beneath his sprawling villa and in doing so, unleashes a horde of rotten, worm-infested and bloodthirsty zombies who immediately chow down on the professor. Meanwhile, three couples arrive at the villa who have been invited as Professor Ayres’ guests so he could show them the tomb. However they have no idea of his demise and settle in, awaiting his arrival. One of the couples, George and Evelyn (Mariangela Giordano), have brought their son Michael (the legendary Peter Bark) with them. Michael is not only extremely odd in appearance (the character is meant to be about 12 years old but looks like a 40-year old dwarf with a bad toupee) but also in manner – he has a very disturbing Oedipedial fixation towards his mother, spying on her during sex and trying to feel her up all which culminates in...I’ll save this for later. The main characters frolic around the villa, completely oblivious that the living dead are creeping up all around them. Before long though the guests discover the reason for Professor Ayres’ ‘disappearance’ and are having to have to fend off the zombies, who, interestingly enough, have the ability to operate power tools, throw knives, and use battering rams to bash through doors. One by one the guests are zombified, entrails are ripped out and consumed and the body count piles up – until we get to THAT notorious scene which I guarantee will stay burned in your mind forever.  Featuring guess who? You’re right, poor Mariangela Giordano. Evelyn, one of the last survivors, is thrilled to see Michael is still apparently alive. In her delirium she fails to see he is well and truly a zombie, and when she sees him eyeing her breasts she has no qualms about offering him one to suckle “Just like when you were a baby...” But Evelyn’s ecstasy quickly turns to agony when Michael chops down on her tit, ripping the whole thing off (hmm the aftermath of another Crisanti/Giordano row perhaps?) While on paper BURIAL GROUND would sound like a unimaginative pointless, by-the-numbers zombie quickie, Crisanti’s team have worked their dubious ‘magic’ yet again.

The combination of truly rancid-looking, wormy zombies, the incest subplot, and buckets of queasy gore create a unforgettably fetid atmosphere with an effective sense of doom from the beginning, even managing to override the typically atrocious dubbing, sub-porno standard acting (with the exception of Giordano), and – again – the absolute minimum in terms of plot and characterisation).

For his final genre effort SATAN’S BABY DOLL (1982), Crisanti decided to remake his earlier production MALABIMBA, hiring XXX director Mario Bianchi (no relation to Andrea Bianchi) this time around. It’s clearly obvious by this time Cristiani had tired of the horror genre by not even bothering to imitate the latest box-office smash, but instead commissioning a uninspired reboot of a not particularly classic film released only three years previously. Bianchi himself isn’t particularly proud of the film, citing a miniscule budget as the main hindrance: “When Crisanti, the producer, called me I was enthusiastic. I never had done anything like it. But, as I said, the problem was that we were working on a very low budget. In Rome we call them ‘pizza e fichi’. We had very little time to do the shooting. You judge the results for yourself. The budget was so small that it was impossible for Crisanti to lose money on the film.”
In an ancient castle owned by the Aguilar family, young Miria Aguliar, the virginal 16 year old daughter of Antonio, a violent, jealous bully and the late, promiscuous Maria, is possessed by the restless spirit of her recently deceased mother (who’s body is kept in the castle’s crypt). Other residents of the castle are Antonio’s mute, voyeuristic wheelchair-bound brother Ignazio, Sol (Mariangelo Giordano) a comely nun who also acts as Ignazio’s caretaker (and the object of his voyeurism), and Isidoro, a strange manservant who regularly conducts black magic rituals in the basement. Maria’s death was caused by Antonio murdering her in a jealous rage after discovering Maria had been sleeping around with most of the castle’s occupants including Sol (cue pondering lesbian sex scene flashback). Maria also dabbled in Satanism when she was alive, and has the ability to channel her vengeful spirit into her daughter in order to eliminate those who were both directly or indirectly involved in her death. Under her mother’s evil command, Miria goes about seducing and killing all those around her.

Probably the least memorable title in Crisanti’s filmography, SATAN’S BABY DOLL is somewhat dull and plodding, pretty much a uninvolving supernatural soap opera, but it has enough sick/weird touches and decaying, morbid Gothic atmosphere to keep the viewer watching for its brief 73 minute running time. The usual Crisanti trademarks of odd, dysfunctional characters and incest themes still works to some extent. And for those inclined, there’s the usual extraneous female nudity and masturbation scenes. Last but not least is the killer psychedelic rock score by Nico Catanese (surprisingly his sole composing credit).
Though often poorly acted and executed, with style, characterisation and logic conveniently bypassed, the genre films of Gabriele Crisanti and his collaborators never pretend to be anything that they aren’t  - derivative trash – but at least Crisanti and co have gone out of their way to ensure that their output was entertaining derivative trash, with a shock factor that still packs a punch today. Unashamedly outrageous and audacious, utilising a simple formula (‘So THE EXORCIST and DAWN OF THE DEAD had blood and gore in them? Well we can do better that that – we’ll put ten times the amount of blood and gore in. And put in lots of hot naked women too!’), combined with typically Italianesque gothic settings and music, these films have their own unique appeal. Depending on the viewer’s sensibilities they’ll either love or hate the films. Best watched with a six pack, a willingness to forgive massive plot holes and NO politically correct expectations whatsoever!


  1. Excellent article. It should be noted that many of these titles were written by Piero Regnoli, whom generated the entire Italian horror revivial in 1957 with his script for I VAMPIRI, directed by Riccardo Freda and Mario Bava. By the time he was employed by Cristiani he was deep into hackdom and worked for years under a variety of beards including Dean Craig and others.

  2. Thanks, glad you liked the article. Thanks also for this extra info, needless to say looking at his filmography he was incredibly prolific (writing assumably for a pittance, especially by the time of the Crisanti era).