I am proud to say that I have never managed to sit through the entirety of “Mannequin” nor have I seen so much as a minute of “Mannequin 2”. Given this, my submission of Umberto Lenzi’s “Spasmo” as the greatest mannequin and sex doll fetish movie of all time might ring a little hollow. I base my contention on a good number of Giallo and Franco films where mannequins play a sizable part in the metaphor and character exposition. And while some films may do the metaphor more adeptly, nothing comes close to the ubiquity of the human effigies that are on display in “Spasmo”.
“Spasmo” starts on a sight-seeing trip through the luxuriant Tuscan coast. Christian Bauman and a female friend stumble upon a mysterious woman named Barbara who has passed out on a beach. Barbara vanishes quickly, but not before bewitching Christian and leaving behind an embossed thermos that he uses to track her to her rich beau’s yacht. Upon reuniting, Christian and Barbara retreat to a nearby motel where she explains that he must shave in order for the evening to progress any further. And as luck would have it Barbara keeps an electric razor on her for just such occasions.
As he is shaving, Christian is accosted by a hitman but manages to wrestle the gun away and shoot him. Barbara convinces him that they should flee but her rich beau shows up unexpectedly and whisks them both off for a warning and a scotch. When he realizes that he left his gold chain behind Christian rushes back to the motel. He arrives to find that the hitman’s body is missing. Barbara catches up with him and the two decide to hide out at her friend’s castello on the coast.
At the castle, they encounter a May/ December couple and attempt to tell their story. Soon enough the dead hitman reappears, Barbara disappears, Christian discovers that he knows the woman in the couple and decides to force sex upon her. Christian’s fragile psyche fractures, he kills the hitman, and follows a trail of dead bodies back to his brother Fritz, who is now running the family plastics business. The two meet for a final confrontation that lays bare all of the brothers’ skeletons.
I love the title of this film, I have even contemplated naming my future child “Spasmo”. I would look at it as a springboard for developing advanced coping skills and a way of accommodating decreasingly inventive generations of bullies who no longer possess the requisite wit to rise from vulgarians to true slander artists. I have also given thought about vanity plates, a lower lip tattoo or coral implants in my forehead that spell out “Spasmo”. What stops me, apart from having a sensible wife, is that “Spasmo” the film is nowhere near as vigorous as the name suggests. In fact, apart from a pre-“Memento” subtext about subjective reality and the nature of memory and identity it’s a pretty flaccid movie, or given the mannequin presence, perhaps “stiff” is a better way to describe it.
The material has the making of a good Giallo, lots of red herrings and more than a few stylized clues as to the eventual outcome. But “Spasmo” doesn’t pulse with life or creep under your skin; it isn’t a fashion rich freak-out, or an unyielding piece of slow terror. Which is all fine if you are giving the audience enough significant action to pull them through but “Spasmo” is light on blood and mostly devoid of sensuality. The performances are also unremarkable. Suzy Kendall, who is not a sex pot, wrestles against her everywoman style (to no success at all) in trying to play a femme fatale. Robert Hoffman as Christian is given far too much screen time and Ivan Rassimov is granted too little.
The movie does have some fantastic technical aspects. Guglielmo Mancori shoots the hell out of this thing for Umberto Lenzi. The wide shots are gorgeous and the shifting depth of field, Dutch angles and smash zooms breathe some much needed life into the stagnant plot. The location, a peninsula between the Ligurian and Tyrrhenian seas is also breathtakingly shot. Another noteworthy aspect is Ennio Morricone’s score. The Master’s effort here is good not great; but this is just proof that even an average Morricone score can generate tension when the montage and performance fall short.
The aforementioned Mannequins and rubber dolls maybe the most effective part of the film. They pop up impaled, hung and molested throughout the story and they represent the only genuinely unsettling part of the movie. Unfortunately, while an under realized subplot about a serial mannequin mutilator roaming the dark Italian forests may make “Spasmo” the greatest effigy exploitation movie ever, it also serves to highlight what is lacking in the rest of the movie. It’s not a bad film just a little lifeless.