Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: With the Denzel Washington thriller The Little Things hitting theaters and HBO Max, we’re looking back at other movies about detectives hunting serial killers.
Between the simplifying force of history and the way the human brain processes information, most artistic movements end up getting boiled down to one or two big names. Your average Jeopardy! watcher, for instance, can get by on knowing what grunge rock is and that it was performed by Nirvana and Pearl Jam. For the oft-homaged breed of lurid Italian slasher pictures known as giallo, Dario Argento is the clear Kurt Cobain, with Mario Bava or maybe Lucio Fulci as the equivalent Eddie Vedder. Only once curious audiences start looking into the deep cuts will they find Massimo Dallamano, who graduated from being Sergio Leone’s cinematographer on the first two installments of his Dollars trilogy to become an accomplished and varied genre filmmaker in his own right during the ’60s and ’70s. Perhaps because Dallamano covered so much ground—a spaghetti Western, an opulent Dorian Gray adaptation, an erotic chamber piece, the poliziottesco crime flick memorably titled Super Bitch—his name hasn’t been quite so synonymous with giallo. But he’s still responsible for one of its most stylish, affecting, and inventively lecherous specimens.
What Have You Done To Solange? follows the tried-and-true template of a murder falling into the lap of a handsome guy with an interesting job, which forces him to play amateur sleuth in order to clear his name. Our man is professor Henry Rosseni (Fabio Testi, resplendent in a tightly manicured beard), a ladykiller in what he hopes to prove is a non-literal capacity. He can’t be the one who stabbed that blushing student in the genitals, he insists after witnessing the incident, because he was nearby getting it on with a different student at the time. When she turns up mutilated as well, he has no choice but to come clean to his “frigid” wife (Karin Baal), the simplest of the film’s many conflicts between sexual urges and the fallout of violence. That intersection grows more complicated once Henry tracks the trail of bodies to a clandestine orgy cult well-stocked with nubile coeds, and the back-alley abortionist servicing the members who need it.
The winding plotline commingles traumas and the deranged reactions to them in one delectable pop-psych stew, ultimately leading to Solange herself, portrayed by eventual I Spit On Your Grave star Camille Keaton in her screen debut. (Recommended by the director’s pal Franco Zeffirelli, she was a good fit for the frail, pallid look Dallamano envisioned.) Keaton plays a survivor unable to channel her grief into a cleansing rage, internalizing a past horror until it renders her a haunted shell of a woman. She drifts through the final act like a specter, the starlet’s performance of benumbed, paralyzed pain made all the more potent for its placement in a film with such a freewheeling attitude about blood and skin.
That collision between baroque exploitation and a sober counterpoint finds a nifty parallel in the unusual production design, which pits the stately shooting locations of London against the more expressionistic whims of the film’s Italian and West German producers. Such regular giallo mainstays as black leather gloves and unsettling villain’s-POV shots gel with off-kilter visions of pastoral life; the opening credits pair footage of bicycling ingénues with Ennio Morricone’s creeping score, a juxtaposition recently imitated by Peter Strickland in The Duke Of Burgundy.
Nicolas Winding Refn also numbers among What Have You Done To Solange’s admirers, having floated now-abandoned plans to remake the film in 2016. Though Dallamano’s influence may be mostly limited to fellow cineastes—he’s a grindhouse weirdo’s grindhouse weirdo—the filmmaker has left a singular mark on his corner of a compact niche. Few other directors could make the tragic quite so sexy, or the sexy so meaningfully tragic.