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Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Killer Reserved Nine Seats (1974) review


Rosanna Schiaffino (Vivian), Chris Avram (Patrick Davenant), Eva Czemerys (Rebecca Davenant), Lucretia Love (Doris), Paola Senatore (Lynn Davenant), Gaetano Russo (Duncan Foster), Andrea Scotti (Albert), Eduardo Filiponi (Man in the Nehru Jacket), Howard Ross (Russell), Janet Agren (Kim)

Directed by Giuseppe Bennati

"The actors are present... and now the play can start."

***WARNING! This review contains nude images***

The Short Version: The sins of the father are visited on his descendants in this Italian Giallo modeled on Agatha Christie's 'Ten Little Indians' about nine high-society types being bumped off while locked inside an abandoned playhouse. Bennati's stylish thriller collides with the paranormal barely 30 minutes in, teases the audience with it, before finally embracing its ghostly underpinnings during the finale. Till the curtain closes it's all a big mystery as to the identity of the killer wearing one of the eeriest masks that rivals those of all your finer slasher epics. Often surreal in a dark fairy tale sort of way, Bennati's directorial tour de force is a nice melding of erotic mystery and the supernatural; so reserve your seat for this haunted play.

Nine men and women on various levels of the social strata assemble at an abandoned theater owned by the ultra wealthy Patrick Davenant. After a massacre occurred there some 100 years earlier, it's alleged to have an ancient curse attached to it. A short time into their night of debauchery and scheming, the high-end visitors find themselves trapped inside while a masked killer picks them off one by one.

A lesser known Gialli when compared to the works of Argento and Bava, KILLER is a sumptuously mounted, beautifully photographed piece of Italian cinema gifting its audience with more than a few moments of genuine goosebumpery. Benatti's horror film is a nightmarish descent into the darkest recesses of man's psyche; it's a mystery why it isn't a more well known affair. The script, thick with exposition, finds common ground with exploitation elements like gratuitous nudity, lesbianism and an incest plot device that is the backbone of the narrative.

Outside of one particularly cruel set piece, the violence--one of the elements the Giallo is known for--is mostly subdued. Bennati is more interested in building a sense of dread whether through the black-cloaked, masked murderer, an ancient curse manifesting itself after a century hiatus, or the duplicitous plotting of the upscale victims-to-be. Stalking them all is the aforementioned mysterious figure whose face is adorned with one of the most unsettling masks imaginable. Be mindful, though, that the killer isn't the only presence with murder on their mind. Complicit in the mayhem is the ominous, maze-like theater.....

Described by Russell (Howard Ross) as "Dracula's summer home", the supernatural atmosphere of Gothic horrors is creeping around every corner of the labyrinthine theater; it's found in various objects and possibly residing in one of the bodily forms trapped inside for the night. In a deviation from the genre norm, the film marries the typical 'black-gloved killer' trope with the haunted castle scenario of numerous Italo terror tales of years prior. The latter is personified in the form of doors locking on their own; paintings whose portraits magically change; and a fantastic bit of camera trickery (you'll know it when you see it) that confirms one character is more than what they seem. 

Whatever the film cost to make, the production got an enormous boost of value by shooting inside the Teatro Gentile da Fabriano in the town of Fabriano, in the Marche region of Italy. A 19th century medieval playhouse, it was built in 1869 after a previous theater, The Aurora, was destroyed by fire in 1863. Named after the famous Italian Gothic painter, Gentile da Fabriano (1370–1427), the theater opened in 1884.

Giuseppe Aquari's camera gives the viewer a guided tour of every nook and cranny within the foundation of the theater; not only the main levels and boxes, but backstage and beneath the establishment where the (scripted) tombs of the Davenant's are located. It's here, beneath the catacombs, where the Gothic ambiance strangles the viewer till the big reveal in the closing minutes. The filmmakers put on quite a show by allowing the theater to be as much of a player as the doomed cast.

Michele Soavi might of been inspired by Bennati's unique approach when he made STAGE FRIGHT (1987). Putting the two side-by-side, both films are indigenous to the times in which they were made. KILLER has a high erotic quotient, less reliance on blood and gore, and is in the thriller vein; while STAGE FRIGHT owes more to the slashers of the decade with an escaped lunatic picking off his victims with various sharp implements. KILLER does show signs of classic slasher archetypes like a masked killer and a few scenes where said stabber is lurking undetected behind an intended victim.

Other films with similar themes include the Euro horrors of Renato Polselli's IL MOSTRO DELL'OPERA (1964) and Pete Walker's THE FLESH AND BLOOD SHOW (1973).

"They used to say that one of my ancestors, many, many centuries ago... was a feudal prince, a powerful land-owner. It seems he came to realize that those of his court that he'd always trusted and were apparently loyal wanted him dead. So one day he decided to throw a banquet... in this theater. He killed them all... one by one. Exactly what happened no one knows. But ever since my family has been under a curse... once every 100 years...."

Romanian actor Chris Avram is Patrick Davenant, the wealthy businessman whose circle of friends aren't all that friendly to him. Each of the nine has a backstory--some of which are more sordid than others. There's actually ten characters within the walls of the enormous theater; a few of which are more sinister than we are initially aware. The elder Davenant is the most conflicted of the bunch. He's had a few of the fur-wearing women in his bed... including his daughter! Some of them, though, have moved on from laying down with him, to laying him in his grave.

Among the gala cast is Rosanna Schiaffino. She receives top billing; which makes sense considering she was a fairly big name after appearing in several Hollywood productions like THE VICTORS (1963) and THE LONG SHIPS (1964). As Vivian, she's something of a stand-out with her elegant portrayal of Patrick's ex-wife; he having split once he realized she had a previous life as a prostitute. Schiaffino is quite good in the role, not only put-upon by her ex-husband, but by some of the others she's inadvertently forced to spend the night with.

The sensual Paola Senatore (Janet Agren's sister in Umberto Lenzi's trashy Jim Jones-cannibal combo, EATEN ALIVE! [1980]) plays Patrick's daughter and, as we realize before the film has even gotten warm, one of his handful of love interests. Most of the female cast strip away from their expensive clothing, but Ms. Senatore stops the show with her curtain-raising, robe-dropping gyrations in front of a mirror late in the picture. 

A younger Janet Agren, later of Lenzi's EATEN ALIVE! (1980), Fulci's CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD (1980), and HANDS OF STEEL (1986), is yet another of Patrick's romantic entanglements. In this case, she's engaged to be his wife, but prefers the arms of her former lover--the less monetarily inclined Russell, played by Sword & Sandal and Euro-western actor Howard Ross.

With so many pluses and virtually zero minuses, KILLER benefits once more by Carlo Savina's snappy score. Everything from the melancholic main theme; to the 'boogie down' cue of Senatore's hot n' heavy wardrobe malfunction; to the menacing sounds of horror, these are all very easy on the ears.

A unique entry in the genre, this is a must-own for Giallo fans. The thickening plot interwoven with the supernatural elements can get modestly confusing at times, but multiple viewings reveal additional clues that add to the maddening fun of the whole thing. This was the last film in Benatti's career, and his first and only Giallo... a shame he didn't return to the 'whodunit' well again. Worthy of its good notices, with its great cast and an impressive setting inside the Teatro Gentile da Fabriano, an unsettling night of horror is guaranteed at this show.

This review is representative of the Camera Obscura R2 DVD (also available in bluray). Specs and Extras: 1.85:1 16x9 anamorphic widescreen; Italian and English language; English and German subs; Audio commentary; interview with writer Biagio Proietti; interview with Howard Ross; Italian and English trailer; photo gallery; booklet (all extras have English subtitles).

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