Color, 1974, 104m.
Directed by Giuseppe Bennati
Starring Rosanna Schiaffino, Chris Avram, Eva Czemerys, Lucretia Love, Janet Agren, Paola Senatore, Gaetano Russo, Howard Ross
Camera Obscura (Blu-ray & DVD) (Austria RB/R2 HD/PAL) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
The heyday of the wonderful strain of Italian thriller known as the giallo is strewn with stylish little gems never shown in most English-speaking countries, and one prime example is the slick, nastily effective The Killer Reserved Nine Seats. Sporting a lush Carlo Savina music score, a quirky stable of potential victims, and the can't-miss setting of a remote and creepy old theater, it's a veritable candy jar of illicit '70s delights.
A fleet of cars is seen pulling up over the opening credits at that aforementioned theater, the centerpiece of an abandoned gothic castle where, according to legend, horrible murders occur once every century. Chief among the new arrivals is Patrick Devenant (Bay of Blood's Avram), a wealthy bigwig who's been partying with some close family and friends (most of whom seem to be scheming to screw him over in one way or another). Also present are his fiancee, Kim (City of the Living Dead's Agren), a pair of glamorous lesbians (Czemerys and Love), and the obligatory sexist pig, Russell (New York Ripper's Ross). Right away everyone's making out in private, spouting Shakespeare quotes, and dodging falling wooden beams on the stage... but when Kim ends up with a knife in her back while acting out the finale from Romeo and Juliet, it's clear that there's a mad killer on the loose. Decked out in a black cloak and a creepy mask, he quickly makes short work of the cast with stabbings and double crosses turning the theater into a slaughterhouse.
Barely released and impossible to see in anything resembling a quality transfer for decades, The Killer Reserved Nine Seats is certainly a sleek piece of work but an interesting departure for the norms of 1974. The Argento/Martino-era fondness for high fashion and modern urban settings is traded here for an atmospheric throwback to the gothic horrors of the 1960s, even complete with torches, moldering crypts, and family curses. That said, it still indulges in some of the more extreme touches of the era by having all of the female cast members disrobe at some point and embellishing a couple of the murders with a fair amount of sadism, including the old crotch-stabbing trick and a grisly bit of crucifixion. Even by giallo standards the script is difficult to sort out at times given the numerous agendas going on, but if you forget trying to make sense of it all, the climax is a rousing series of nasty reversals with multiple characters trying to off each other all at once.
The decision to make this film the inaugural Blu-ray release from the laudable Camera Obscura was an unexpected but welcome one, and it goes without saying that this is a major revelation compared to the murky VHS copies fans have been swapping underground for years. The film is shot in fairly drab hues with occasional bursts of bright red to liven things up, so don't expect this to look like, say, Mondo Candido. (Oddly enough, at times this looks very similar to Pete Walker's theatrical slasher film, The Flesh and Blood Show.) That said, it's a pristine HD rendering of a film horrifically mistreated on home video up to this point, and the mono audio is also a major step up in terms of clarity. The film was shot in Italian so that option is definitely preferable (with optional English or German subtitles available), though the English dub included offers a very different translation and makes for far more amusingly lurid viewing. A handful of dialogue exchanges were never recorded in English, so those remain in Italian with a separate sub track for just those bits.
Chief among the extras is another good-natured and informative audio commentary by Marcus Stiglegger and Kai Naumann (in German with optional English subs), who as usual have a great rapport as they alternate in-depth discussions of the players in front of and behind the camera while dissecting many of the tropes of the giallo formula. The first featurette, "Writing with Biagio," spends 28 minutes with screenwriter Biagio Proietti, who talks about finding inspiration in Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians, the heyday of erotic cinema, the rules of the thriller genre, his two comedy directorial efforts, and his happiness writing for TV. Next is "Hanging with Howard," a genial 8-minute chat with actor Howard Ross about his fellow actors on this film (most of whom he liked) and his affection for his entire filmography, within which he regards all of the movies like children. The disc rounds out with the English and Italian trailers, a photo gallery, and fairly brief but useful liner notes in both languages by Christian Kessler. As usual for the company, the packaging is gorgeous and perfectly suits this welcome revival of a film far overdue for discovery.