Saturday, September 27, 2008

LAST HOUSE ON THE BEACH (1978) d. Franco Prosperi

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

When the topic of Italy comes up in casual conversation, one instantly thinks of that country’s spectacular history and ancient culture, their incomparable food and wines, as well as their trend-setting fashions and the jet setting lifestyle of its celebrities. There will even be some people “in the know” that will be able to speak with authority when it comes to the merits of Italian cinema. However, there aren’t many initiates to Italy’s glorious exploitation films from the 1960s, 70s and early 80s where stylishness and sleaze were grafted in a way that has yet to be eclipsed. There was no country on Earth that could equal Italy for their lascivious and gratuitous combination of panache, pulchritude and perversity in a manner that was so very chic and yet made one’s skin crawl. Over a 20-25 year period, Italian thrillers, horror films, westerns and even science fiction exuded sexuality, savagery and sickening salaciousness like no others and yet those who came to appreciate those films could not always admit that guilty pleasure, for Italian exploitation cinema pushed boundaries of acceptability right to the edge. LAST HOUSE ON THE BEACH is exactly that type of film for its heady mix of violence, rape and revenge.

LAST HOUSE ON THE BEACH is the story of three bank robbers, Aldo, Walter and Nino, who pull off a vicious and daring daylight heist and then go looking for a hideout in the hills overlooking the coasts near Rome. They discover a beautiful and spacious villa owned by a religious school and find that a nun, Sister Cristina, and her five beautiful female students are staying there, practicing for an upcoming Shakespearean play and studying for exams. What ensues is a lengthy ordeal of torment and molestation of the girls and Sister Cristina at the hands of their captors until finally the tables can be turned.

What starts off as a competently shot, somewhat patiently told and partly reserved film with overtones of potential debauchery carefully hidden in the very thoughtfully composed sequences, steadily gains power and punishing profundity as the simplistic story moves forward. At no time during the movie's narrative are there surprises or twists in the plot, and there is no reason for any to exist. LAST HOUSE ON THE BEACH is all about gritting your teeth and girding your loins against what is coming. Even though the scenes of abuse and abasement are done with a lighter hand than misery-fests like I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE, the filming techniques and shot composition, coupled with the emotive musical score make each scene carry just as much weight. Whether it is the use of fish-eye lenses, slow-motion photography, asymmetrical framing, unsettling close ups on eyes or thoughtfully arranged editing, the result is a film that slides into your stomach like a razor sharp and ultra-thin blade, delivering the same kind of incredibly stunning impact. No one likes to admit they enjoy a film like LAST HOUSE ON THE BEACH, but its appeal is also impossible to deny. As each step is taken on the plot path, you grow to hate the miscreants and wish fervently for their dispatch. Whether they are acting like feral wolves following a potential kill or infantile bullies intimidating others through mindless blunt force, they are despicable to the core and the viewer is led forcibly to draw a bitter conclusion that these pustules must be eliminated. When it comes to the fairer sex, despite the static nature of their characters, as well as their helplessness and petulant submissiveness, a viewer can’t help but feel pain every time one of the school girls or Sister Cristina herself is subjected to intensifying debasement. Their final revenge is a dish served as sweetly as any sugary delicacy at the end of a fine repast.

What makes LAST HOUSE ON THE BEACH even more of a rare find is how it works on other levels too. The interior and exterior settings are simply stunning for a low budget exploitation film. All of the rooms of the villa are draped in fashionable and exotic décor of the Mediterranean and they whisper “sophistication” in a way that only European cinema once had. Even better are the sweeping vistas of the sun-drenched Italian coast. There is a overwhelmingly heart-breaking quality to the azure blues of sea and sky as well as the buttery yellows of the sun and the luxuriant greens of the flora that is unique to Italy’s coast. One thing that certainly doesn’t hurt is the pristine and wonderfully crisp super wide-screen transfer of the film print done by Severin Films. Coupled with the splendid architecture of the interiors, the glorious hues and atmospheric exquisiteness of the Italian seascape provide a compelling contrast to the slightly seedy beauty of the often bikini-clad young lovelies and the far too often gruesome physiognomy of the male antagonists. All through the last half of LAST HOUSE ON THE BEACH, there is the stark juxtaposition of wide-eyed, tormented and tear-streaked faces of tender innocents side by side with the leering and depraved visages of their enemies, all the while set against the backdrop of Italy’s splendid panoramas, creating a surprisingly sublimity. Added to that is Roberto Pedragio’s haunting, often disturbing score that combines funk, techno-synthesizers and disco/rock influences to create a sound that slithers into a sinuous sickness throughout the story and the sickening scenes of sadism. There is no way to shake off the sensory snares that enmesh you in a web that steadily draws each and every viewer into the dark heart of this film.

The extras menu of this little known flick may not seem deep to the average movie-lover, but those who know how hard such fare is to come by appreciate that what has been created and found is very worthwhile. There is a 30 minute interview with star Ray Lovelock called “Holy Beauty vs. The Evil Beasts”. Mr. Lovelock, who played the lead character of Aldo, discusses everything from his personal history, to relationships on the set, the production of the film and the music for the movie and does it with a flair typical of continental Europe. Getting any European film star to reflect upon and recall their memories of those times of lost glory is a boon and every time I see an interview like this, I am thankful for small companies like Severin Films and the pains they take to bring forth such goodness. In addition to the interview featurette, there is an Italian and a German trailer for LAST HOUSE ON THE BEACH, both of which are quite interesting for the fact that each trailer shows some pretty graphic content that obviously was seen in European cinemas. It is always fascinating to me what was allowed to be viewed by the “general public” on “The Continent” and compare it to what was considered passable here.

LAST HOUSE ON THE BEACH is the kind of film that should be made today, but so often isn’t. Not only does it look great and sound just as good, it is a film that combines loveliness and ugliness in such a way that it achieves a bizarre kind of artistry. One wouldn’t normally think of such a term in the context of exploitation cinema, but that is the end result. In today’s repulsively “politically correct” world, most people wouldn’t dare to apply the moniker “art” to a film like LAST HOUSE ON THE BEACH, but it is apropos. Just because it deals with subjects that we don’t normally equate with art, doesn’t mean that such an achievement is impossible. Brutality and beauty often co-exist in a symbiosis that is not easy to assimilate. If you can absorb and thoughtfully process the less pleasant, then you can bask in the splendor of the other.

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