Color, 1978, 99 mins. 11 secs.
Directed by Francesco Barilli
Starring Leonora Fani, Luc Merenda, Lidia Biondi, Francisco Rabal, Jole Fierro
Mondo Macabro (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9), Mondo Home Entertainment (DVD) (Italy R2 PAL), Filmax (DVD) (Spain R2 PAL) / WS (1.78:1)
The second of only two features directed by onetime actor Francesco Barilli (following his masterpiece The Perfume of the Lady in Black), Pensione Paura (or Hotel Fear) takes that earlier film's lead by using the atmosphere and conventions of the giallo for a story that ultimately falls a bit outside of its normal borders. Soaked in the trauma of Italy's ignoble (and, at the time, still fairly fresh) conduct during World War II, it's a visually sumptuous but psychologically harrowing experience that makes one wish Barilli's work had been seen widely enough to keep him working a bit longer.
At a lakeside country hotel complete with a bar and restaurant, young Rosa (Giallo in Venice's Fani) and her mother, Marta (Biondi), are left to their own devices running the place while Rosa's father is off fighting the war with the resistance. With planes buzzing overhead and power outages on a regular basis, they're forced to deal with a disreputable batch of customers to keep the place running while Marta maintains a relationship with her deserter lover (Dagon's Rabal) kept tucked away out of sight. Enter Rodolfo (The Violent Professionals' Merenda), an oily, fascist- connected sleazebag, and his equally sketchy sugar mama (Fierro), with the former putting the moves on Rosa at night in an attempt to take her virginity. Marta orders the pair out the following day, but when death strikes during a violent thunderstorm, Rosa's life becomes a far more challenging ordeal as she contends with more than a few hostile elements around her.
This Italian-Spanish co-production was barely seen outside those two countries in 1978 and has been something of a word-of-mouth favorite since then, without no official English-friendly release of any kind until the 2022 Blu-ray from Mondo Macabro. In fact, before that it was better known in some circles for its outstanding score by Adolfo Waitzman, who also scored A Bell from Hell and It's Nothing Mama, Just a Game. Though this isn't necessarily the smartest choice for Italian genre newcomers, it's a beautifully shot, atmospheric, and melancholy genre twister with a pair of outstanding performances by Fani (who really should've been utilized better after this) and a particularly slimy Merenda, both of whom give their roles an insane amount of commitment (including one very disturbing scene a lot of actors wouldn't touch).
A pair of European DVD releases of this film were nothing to get terribly excited about, featuring a flat letterboxed transfer that turned most of the dark scenes (of which there are many) into visual mud. The Mondo Macabro Blu-ray is a tremendous improvement, culled from a 2K restoration from the original negative with far more vibrant colors and, at last, fully legible night scenes. The film was shot without live sound (understandable in this given since, as noted in the extras, the filming location had a lot of overhead noise), so the Italian and Spanish DTS-HD MA 2.0 tracks were both crafted after the fact and sound fine here (with optional English subtitles). A new audio commentary by Fragments of Fear's Peter Jilmstad and Rachael Nisbet is a well articulated overview of the film including plenty of background info about the cast and crew, comparisons between this and Perfume, the state of giallo and horror cinema at the time, and the themes running underneath the nearrative."Madness in the Time of War" (30m7s) is a new interview with Barilli talking about his "capricious" approach, his reluctance to do a script that wasn't his own, his immediate attraction to the filming location, the problems he ran into during production, the distribution fiasco that sabotaged the release, and the response his gay friends had to Merenda's naked push-up scene. Barilli also pops up for an interview at London's Cine-Excess in 2015 (28m19s) with a more general overview of his career (including his time in TV and in front of the camera) as well as his two directorial efforts and his passions as a painter. In "I'm Not That Guy" (29m9s), Merenda appears for a new interview covering his attempts to move away from poliziotteschi, his approach to playing a "dreadful person" for the first time here, his reaction to seeing the film for the first time recently, the neck brace he was still wearing after an accident on Destruction Force, and his memories of the cast. Extra points for this being the only time you'll hear someone say "I don't know why I'm tripping on Verneuil." An interesting comparison between the Italian and Spanish versions (6m47s) illustrates a significant change in Rabal's character and the editorial changes it required, with Rosa's character also renamed to justify the sleazy title change to The Rape of Miss Julia. Finally the disc closes out with the lengthy (unsubtitled) Italian trailer and the usual Mondo Macabro promo reel.
Reviewed on May 22, 2022.