Diabolik

Color, 1970, 96m.
Directed by Luciano Ercoli
Starring Dagmar Lassander, Pier Paolo Capponi, Susan Scott, Simón Andreu
Camera Obscura (Germany R2 PAL), Blue Underground (US R0 NTSC), CineKult (Italy R2 PAL) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)


The first of a wonderfully stylish and quirky giallo trilogy by director Luciano Ercoli and prolific writer Ernesto Gastaldi, The Forbidden Photos of a Lady above Suspicion arrived in 1970 as the genre was breaking through to mainstream popularity thanks to the likes of Dario Argento, Umberto Lenzi and Sergio Martino. Though Ercoli's three shockers (including the later Death Walks at Midnight and Death Walks on High Heels) weren't distributed as widely as many of their peers, his marvelously twisty plots and keen eye for colorful scope compositions is already in evidence here.

This film's real trump card is a dynamic and sexy lead role for busy actress Dagmar Lassander at the height of her beauty, fresh off her memorable turns in The Frightened Woman and Hatchet for the Honeymoon. Here she's Minou, a married woman whose often-absent husband, Peter (The Cat o' Nine Tails' Capponi), leaves her alone to wallow in lurid daydreams and booze binges. One night while strolling on the beach she's approached by a menacing stranger (Andreu) who holds her on the sharp end of a knife-equipped cane and growls threats about her husband, whom he could implicate in a murder. Afterwards Minou relaxes with her friend Dominique (regular Ercoli muse Susan Scott), who mentions that one of Peter's colleagues was recently found dead under mysterious circumstances; even stranger, she shows off a series of erotic photographs, which highlight the strange blackmailer -- who soon starts tormenting Minou with phone calls and clandestine meetings in which he names her body as the price he requires for silence. Of course, these events only prove to be the beginning of Minou's descent into degradation, with covert dirty pictures and numerous plot twists whipping the story back and forth until the obligatory surprise finale.

Buoyed by one of Ennio Morricone's finest '70s scores (later memorably sampled by Super Furry Animals), Forbidden Photos doesn't really explore the same psychosexual cinematic terrain forged by maestros Bava and Argento; instead Ercoli goes for a deeply subjective internal approach (the amount of bloodshed is less than your average episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents), with the heroine's dubious sanity and everyone else's shady motives creating a disorienting puzzle that paves the way for future mind-warping giallo oddities like Spasmo. Though not overly explicit, the erotic passages are still heady stuff thanks to the vivid color schemes and wild decor, including the first memorable encounter with Lassander and Andreu in a red-lit room lined with plaster hands. Oddly enough, the title seems like an attempt to recall the same year's Oscar-winning Italian film Investigation of a Citizen above Suspicion, but you'd have to look pretty hard for any similarities.

The first DVD came in 2006 from Blue Underground in America, which presents Forbidden Photos in a gorgeous, very colorful transfer that shows off every delicious bit of art direction in nice clarity. Past Forbidden PhotosEuropean VHS editions tended to fudge a bit with the aspect ratio, but here the full scope ratio is perfectly preserved. The mono English track (which typically matches the actors' lips movements better in some scenes than others) sounds clear and well-balanced for what it is. Extras include the wonderfully lounge-friendly theatrical trailer and a 9-minute featurette, "Forbidden Screenplays," in which a jovial Gastaldi talks about his beginnings as a screenwriter, the shooting conditions in Italy at the time, and various ploys used to get the film's more sensational material around the censors-- namely doing the kinkiest bits as flashbacks so the viewer can fill in any gaps. Blue Underground later reissued the film as part of an Italian thriller triple feature with The Fifth Cord and The Pyjama Girl Case.

Not surprisingly, the film began to gain for more attention thanks to its wider availability and started popping up on fans' lists of their favorite '70s gialli. A 2012 revisit from dedicated genre label Camera Obscura proved to be another in their line of excellent Italian releases, containing the striking packaging and extensive features we've come to expect. The transfer itself appears to be similar to the American one but benefits from the uptick in resolution provided by PAL, while the dual-layered disc also lets the film breathe a bit more with a generous high bit rate. Here the English dub is ditched in favor of the Italian and German audio tracks with optional English and German subtitles; the Italian subtitled version is especially fascinating and makes for the classiest viewing experience of all available options.

Extras commence with "Shooting Forbidden Photos," a 35-minute featurette in which Ercoli (speaking Italian) and Scott (speaking Spanish) reminisce about getting their (sometimes ignoble) starts in the Italian movie business and working on this film, including choosing the right locations and getting in the right mind-set for the characters. The 14-minute "Venus Plus" is a new interview with Gastaldi, who covers his own career from starting as a ghostwriter to working with the conventions of the giallo genre, such as coming up with silly reasons for characters to split up with a mad killer on the loose. You also get the English trailer and a gallery of posters, video sleeves, and stills, plus liner notes ("A Hand-Kiss from Mrs. Hercules") by Christian Kessler in both English and German. He sketches out the basics of the participants, ponders the mystery of the film's apparently aborted German theatrical release and dubbing participants, and the meaning of its German-translated title, "Women Tortured to Insanity!" Definitely worth an upgrade for giallo fans and a worthy addition to the Camera Obscura line of excellent special editions.

Updated review on January 3, 2013.