Flares Du Mal: Armando Crispino’s AUTOPSY Reviewed

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DVD. Region 1. Anchor Bay. Unrated.

There are certain set elements that giallophiles demand from their favoured genre and they tend to comprise visually stylish direction, lashings of violence, a female cast that runs to eye candy and eccentric plotting. Autopsy (1975) features an androgynous female lead (in the gamine form of Mimsy Farmer) and Armando  Crispino’s direction of it is not particularly stylish (unless regularly inserting shots of solar activity is your idea of style) but some of its imagery tested my tolerance for gore (which is pretty high) and when it comes to kooky plotting in Italian Whodunnits, this one  grabs the garibaldi biscuit!

Try this for size… Simona Sanna (Farmer) is a pathologist working overtime at the main mortuary in Rome, where an epidemic of suicides has broken out… Romans in 1975 are kicking the bucket more frequently than celebrities in 2016 and apparently this is attributable to the effect of powerful solar flares. The strain is exacerbating Simona’s long standing psychosexual malaise to the point where she starts hallucinating that cadavers are getting up off their slabs, menacing her and having it off with each other. What’s at the root of this here psychosexual malaise? It’s suggested that her antique dealer father Gianni (the eternally slithery Massimo Serato) has been taking more than a paternal interest in her. Whatever, Simona’s frigidity is causing problems between her and her boyfriend(ish) Riccardo (Ray Lovelock… rather than listing Lovelock’s many Freudstein-friendly credits now, I’ll direct you to his IMDB page here.) Even his collection of hand-tinted fin-de-siecle porno slides can’t seem to get Simona’s juices flowing. One of Daddy Direst’s many conquests, Betty Lennox (Gaby Wagner) befriends Simona, shortly before turning up on one of her gurneys, having apparently blown her brains out on the beach. Betty’s brother Paul (Barry Primus) arrives to tell Simona that, despite evidence to the contrary, his sister was murdered: “You know your corpses but I know my souls!” and well he might, given that he’s a priest. Hang on though, he’s not just a priest… he’s a former racing driver who took holy orders after killing a bunch of spectators when his car crashed at Le Mans. Oh, did I forgot to mention that Riccardo, in the rare  moments when he’s not hanging around on top of Boromini’s tower taking photographs, is a racing driver too?

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After digesting that little lot, you won’t find it too much of a stretch to take on board that when Simona’s father is paralysed after jumping(?) from a high window, he attempts to warn her about the killer’s identity by using an “eye blink” machine that was devised to help one of the people who got run over by Fr Lennox… or that one of the major characters is an epileptic whose anti-seizure medication just happens to be the antidote to a paralysing drug the killer administered to him in an attempt to stage his “suicide.” What were the odds on that, eh? Well, Simona could probably have predicted it, as she’s doing her doctoral dissertation on the suddenly topical question of genuine versus faked suicides. At one point her research takes her to a Crime Museum (managed by yet another of her father’s many mistresses), where the tasteless tableaux are set up in such a way as to shoot each other’s heads (and nearly Simona’s) off… and so the fanciful plot contrivances continue to pile up until the culprit (or an unconvincing mannequin likeness thereof) follows in Boromini’s fatal footsteps and takes a tumble off that tower.

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If James Cameron evidenced a complete lack of perspective when he used that nuclear explosion to back light a kiss between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis in True Lies,  Crispino and frequent script collaborator Lucio Battistrada have topped him here. Flying in the face of all the outre narrative devices outlined above, the killer’s motives are ultimately revealed to be disappointingly banal (blackmail and a contested inheritance)… despite the amplification of a hint from the opening of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it turns out that the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves. But did the culprit really need a suicide epidemic amid which to conceal his murders? Well no, but it gives Crispino the pretext to ramp up the oppressive atmosphere of his film to rarely matched levels of queasy uneasiness. The opening montage that establishes the self-inflicted snuffathon is pretty amusing stuff, actually… I had a particularly good chuckle over the dapper dude who unceremoniously pulls a plastic bag over his head before plunging into the Tiber and the guy who cheerfully immolates himself in his car… reminds me of some of the jolly antics in Don Sharp’s Psychomania (1973). Things take a turn for the distinctly grotesque though when Crispino shares with us Simona’s collection of grisly post mortem photos. “Don’t tell me you get off on this stuff!” the shocked Betty asks Simona (a question that would be more usefully addressed to the mandatory perverted morgue worker Ivo, played by Ernesto Colli) and indeed, some of the photos look disturbingly authentic. Maybe not, though… those Italian FXperts could always mock up a convincing bit of bodily mayhem. Nevertheless, Joseph Brenner extracted predictable mileage of such alleged authenticity for the film’s U.S. release, packing out the drive-ins and grind houses in the process.

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As well as being an entertainingly tall tale and mini-masterpiece of morbidity, Autopsy also represents a significant entry in that most niche of movie sub-genres, the “Mimsy Farmer going bonkers” flick. After a string of low ranking Hollywood roles, Farmer made her name in Barbet Schroeder’s More (1969) as the doomed dope fiend Estelle. Her vulnerability in this picture convinced diverse Italian auteurs to employ her in similar roles. She’s suitably fragile in Argento’s Four Flies In Grey Velvet (1971) and generates pathos aplenty in Francesco Barilli’s The Perfume Of The Lady in Black (1974)… even Lucio Fulci takes a half-assed stab at getting a signature performance out of her in his endearingly goofy Poe adaptation The Black Cat (1981.) Farmer’s emoting in all of these was underscored and enhanced no end by tremendous musical accompaniment from the likes of Ennio Morrione (Autopsy and Four Flies), Pino Donaggio (The Black Cat) and Nicola Giovani (The Perfume Of The Lady), not to mention The Pink Floyd (More.)

Extras on this Anchor Bay DVD edition constitute two trailers, the American one for “Autopsy” and an international one under the guise of “The Victim”, a title that neatly encapsulates Farmer’s ongoing screen persona (the film is also known as Macchie Solari / Sun Spots, Tension, Corpse, The Magician and Tarot… no, I have no idea why!) Crispino’s film looks and sounds OK for a DVD release of this vintage. I’m not in a position to say whether it looked or sounded any better when it followed many of its fellow Anchor Bay titles to a subsequent release on the Blue Underground label. Unlike many of those, it shows no sign of re-emerging on Blu-ray just yet. Four Flies, The Black Cat and More have all been available in this format for some time and Perfume Of The Lady In Black is on the way from 88 Films… perhaps they’d like to extend a similar upgrade to Autopsy?

I’ll be keeping my eye out for that…

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