Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Exploitation Sleaze: The Pyjama Girl Case

Blue Underground Presents The Pyjama Girl Case // 1977 // 102 Minutes // Not Rated

Reviewed by Steve Evans

“Based on the infamous real-life murder case that shocked the world!”
~ From the promotional poster.

Well, maybe it shocked the world in the 1930s when the killing occurred in Australia. Today, The Pyjama Girl Case is just another perverse Giallo (pronounced Jah-low) flick of sex and murder, resurrected by the cult-minded folks at DVD distributor Blue Underground. Beautiful starlet Dalila Di Lazzaro (Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein) spends most of her time prancing around nekkid, which is a glorious sight to behold. As a homicide detective, aging Oscar-winner Ray Milland (The Lost Weekend) wanders the back streets of Sydney and mutters in a slurred voice as though drunk, while Mel Ferrer (Nightmare City) exudes the sort of slippery charm that was his specialty. Still, despite all the kinky shenanigans and violent death, the 102-minute running time feels twice as long.

The Pyjama Girl Case is a representative example of the Giallo, or “yellow film” in Italian – so named for the distinctive yellow covers of the pulp fiction paperbacks first published in the 1930s when the genre came into vogue. Giallo films are preoccupied with savagely violent murder, flavored with a syrupy erotica that can be off-putting to viewers who don’t know what they’re getting into. Lurid and over-the-top, these films were hugely popular from the late 1960s through the 1970s in European cinemas and the grindhouses of major U.S. cities. Like most entries in this odd genre, The Pyjama Girl Case is gorgeously photographed, which is a polite way of saying Giallo films are trash polished to a high lustre.

A bit of plot…
The badly burned body of a young woman is discovered on a beach in Sydney, her face battered beyond recognition. The police find a few grains of rice on the body, which is dressed only in yellow pyjamas embroidered in an Oriental motif. Retired homicide detective Timpson (Milland) is called in to help crack the case. He suggests a novel solution: preserve the corpse in a glass case and put it on public display (?!) to see if anyone can identify the victim.

The detective’s investigations are intercut with the lusty adventures of Linda (Di Lazzaro), who divides her time between a sugar-daddy doctor (Ferrer); a German émigré who works in a glass factory; and her Italian husband, a simple man who waits on tables for a living. Nymphomaniacs would be embarrassed by Linda’s nocturnal exertions. With three men on the hook and as many more leering on the sidelines, Linda seems oblivious to the fact that she’s stirring up a cauldron of resentment, testosterone and wounded male pride.

What’s on the Disc, Steve?
I’ll tell ya. Filmed on location in Sydney and New South Wales, this Italian-made thriller is based on a horrific 1934 murder in Australia. Author and historian Robert Evans, who wrote a book on the case, is featured in a 30-minute documentary included as an extra on this disc. It is easily more interesting than the movie. The documentary includes some genuinely gruesome photographs of the real crime scene and the victim’s body, as well as film footage from the 1930s and a discussion of several esoteric theories on whodunit before settling on a likely culprit — or at least the guy the Sydney police finally busted for the crime a decade after it occurred. For those who are game, this is fascinating stuff. I was reminded of crime novelist James Ellroy’s grim memoir, “My Dark Places.”

As for the feature film, writer-director Flavio Mogherini (Lunatics and Lovers) demonstrates a talent for composing beautiful shots with fluid camerawork. The cinematography by Carlo Carlini underscores the isolation of key characters — the detective, as he goes about his solitary work; the men in Linda’s life for whom she seems to be the sole reason for their existence; and Linda herself, who remains an enigma. Loneliness is a major theme in this picture. Too bad it falls apart at the script level.

Structurally, the narrative is ludicrous and the acting is across-the-board lazy — especially by the normally reliable Milland, who seems to be slumming for a paycheck. This is still a step up from some of his previous B-movie work, especially the aptly-named Frogs from 1972. (Tagline: Cold green skin against soft warm flesh...a croak...a scream!) Aye, Milland followed a curious career trajectory.

I can’t find fault with Di Lazzaro, since accusing her of any acting ability would just be silly. She looks good in or out of her clothes, though, and that is clearly one of the film’s key selling points.

This is a film undone by a bad script. The awkwardly structured narrative is a cheat, revealing clues that come out of nowhere at the climax and would be virtually impossible for viewers to have guessed during the film. This does not make the movie clever, merely tricky. Worse, a key plot thread that appears to run concurrently with the main action is actually revealed late in the game to be a flashback. And like many exploitation films of the Giallo genre, there are flashbacks within flashbacks; a loony technique that compounds the confusion. It takes a real pro to dance on the edge of reality and manipulate the medium to suit a densely plotted story like The Pyjama Girl Case. Mogherini is no pro.

The obvious standard for comparison is Hitchcock, who was a master at misdirection and fooling the audience. But he always played by the rules and supplied all the evidence needed to solve a mystery. Need proof? Just watch Psycho a few times. Or Frenzy. The clues are hidden in plain sight. Not so with The Pyjama Girl Case. A viewer would have to be almost clairvoyant to understand the plot, which twists around like a corkscrew without going anywhere (the lousy dubbing certainly doesn’t help, although subtitles would). Perhaps that’s beside the point, as Giallo films are not known for realistic plot developments.

Only masochists will be able to tolerate the movie’s two cringe-inducing songs, performed by some tiresome broad named Amanda Lear. She sounds like Marlene Dietrich, or maybe Madeline Kahn, about to succumb from an overdose of sleeping pills. This is gawdawful noise, punctuated by a pulsing synthesizer score by composer Riz Ortolani (Mondo Cane). There may be some consumer benefit, as you need only crank up the soundtrack on this sucker to get rid of unwelcome house guests — they'll bug out like cockroaches with the lights coming on.

Besides the short documentary, extras include a trailer and The Pyjama Girl, an eight-page graphic novel by Eddie Campbell, the creator of From Hell. I glanced at the thin comic book and concluded it wasn’t worth close inspection.

There are technical issues with the disc, including occasional pixilation, noticeable edge enhancement, and an undernourished audio track. Especially annoying is the lack of subtitles which would help viewers muddle through the dialogue, much of it badly dubbed from Italian. Even Milland’s dialogue appears to have been dubbed, or at least looped. I’m virtually positive that’s not his voice on the soundtrack half the time.

Fans of Giallo horror-crime thrillers might argue that the journey through the plot is more important than the destination. While that may be true of life, when it comes to cinema I disagree. Any screenwriter who goes to this much trouble to jerk an audience around with plot twists and bizarre characters ought to deliver a mind-blowing climax. Instead, this picture flames out in a sputter of unanswered questions and confusing character motivations. Writer-director Mogherini may harbor grand ambitions for the material but he cannot conceal the trashiness of his execution.

Guilty pleasures abound, but viewers may feel abused by the outrageously clumsy plot twist behind this tiresome murder mystery. The Pyjama Girl Case might be worth a look just to see Di Lazzaro nude, except that she’s also on full display in the Warhol-produced Frankenstein flick from 1973, mentioned earlier. That’s a helluva lot more entertaining than this Neapolitan mess filmed Down Under.

Copyright © 2009 by Cinematic Cteve // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

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