The Killer Must Kill Again

"The Killer Must Kill Again" is a lousy name for a very good film. It's one of those titles that suffers in translation -- like Jess Franco's Les cauchemars naissent la nuit, which was given the mind-bogglingly stupid translation Nightmares Come at Night. The typically marquee-stretching Italian version (L'assassino è costretta ad uccidere ancora) may sound a little better, but it's equally awkward. The movie's original title, The Spider, is neither catchier nor more appropriate. That's a shame, because The Killer Must Kill Again is one of the best Italian thrillers, and deserves a wider audience than its clunky title is likely to attract.

Be warned that this review contains what I think might be a few spoilers. If you don't know anything at all about the movie, I recommend you stop reading now, go get the DVD (without reading the jacket notes), and watch it for yourself. I envy you the chance to experience, without preparation, the classic "Holy crap!" moment that sets the plot in motion. For the rest of us, giallo afficonados who've known the film by reputation for years, this review will probably contain few surprises.

The architect Mainardi (George Hilton!) hates his wife. If he weren't so accustomed to living off her family's money, he would leave her and go off with one of his current girlfriends. In fact, that's exactly what he threatens to do when he stalks off after a particularly nasty argument. However, when he stops near a dock to telephone his mistress from the road, he sees something ghastly: a man arranges a young girl's corpse in a car, then pushes the car into the river.

We've seen this man before, in the pre-credits sequence, carrying the dead girl's body out to the car and stopping for a quick fondle before driving off. We never find out what the man's name is (though his initials are D.A. [possibly a tribute to Dario Argento]); we never find out who the girl was, or why the man killed her. We know that murder excites him, to the point where disposing of the body becomes a mere thoughtless formality. The rest we can imagine, from the killer's hard features and the cold brutality in his eyes (the nameless killer is played by the wonderful Michel Antoine, who also plays the pre-zombie Svejk in Fulci's The Beyond. Antoine's looks alone would be enough to place him among the most terrifying screen murderers; but he's also a very good actor, who makes his killer one of the most memorable characters in the giallo repertoire).

Just as the killer has finished pushing the car into the water, as he stops to light a cigarette, Mainardi pins him in the glare of his headlights. We might expect the killer to either run away or attack Mainardi. He does neither; Mainardi takes the monogrammed lighter from the killer's hand and lights his cigarette for him. Mainardi promises to keep silent about what he's seen, and in fact reward the killer handsomely, if he would just do him a certain favor...

The killer's carelessness in getting rid of his victim, and his apathy at being approached by the only witness to he deed, might be dismissed as a result of poor writing. After all, we had to get the mechanics of the plot set in motion, and this seems like a simple (if lazy) way of doing so. Those of us familiar with the conventions of Italian thrillers know to expect sloppy writing in setups like this.

But there's much more going on here than plot convenience: when the civilized brute walks up to the uncivilized brute and lights his cigarette, it feels more like a sleazy back-alley pickup than the start of a conventional thriller. The unhealthy sexual vibe of the movie gets worse when Mainardi, having convinced the other man to kill his wife, comes back to the woman he was on the verge of abandoning and has sex with her -- he's as turned on by the thought of her imminent death as the killer seemed to be after the murder of the girl in the prologue. The movie has barely begun, and already it's established a terrible feeling of unease. The ambiguity of the connections between the characters continues throughout the film: the relationships between husband and wife, or between lovers, or even between the killer and his prospective victims aren't as simple as they might appear to be.

After making up with his wife so unexpectedly, Mainardi tells her that a colleague of his will be dropping by in the evening. He then arranges to be in a very public place for the rest of the night. The killer drops by with his prearranged story, and Mrs. Mainardi, in spite of her misgivings, lets him in. The camera cuts back and forth with increasing speed between Mainardi, telling jokes to his friends at a party, and the killer, who is playing a slow and unsettling game with his victim. As the crucial moment approaches, the cuts away to Mainardi shorten to the lengths of a few frames. We see him laughing, grinning, toasting his friends, and then we cut away in mid-laugh or in mid-toast back to the house and the life-and-death struggle playing out in it. It's a crude way of pointing up the monstrosity of the murder plot, but in context it works very effectively.

Once the woman is dead, the killer pulls the Mainardis' expensive car up in front of the house. He carries the corpse out to the car and drops it in the trunk. Then he goes back and begins cleaning up the traces he's left behind, being careful to keep the suggestion that some sort of struggle has gone on. The idea is to make it look as though Mrs. Mainardi has been kidnapped, rather than killed. Later on, the killer is to pretend to demand a ransom from Mainardi. Mainardi will get the money from his wife's family, pay off the killer, and pocket the rest.

When the killer has finished wiping off his fingerprints and arranging the remaining evidence the way he wants it to be found, he goes back outside...

... and finds that someone has stolen the car.

And there it is: the moment I wish I hadn't been prepared for... the moment the movie turns into something completely different.

The actual theft of the car, with its silent passenger hidden in the back, is shown to us by quick cuts as the killer is cleaning the crime scene. All we see is a hand at a gear shift, or a steering wheel turning; we don't see who's stealing the car, and in fact the cuts are so quick and unexpected that it takes us a moment to realize what must be going on. Thus our sense of shock is almost as great as that of the killer when he finds that his plans have been interrupted.

The killer's dilemma is obvious. This was supposed to have looked like a kidnapping. If the body is found now, in the boot of Mainardi's own car, then the plan is ruined. The killer has no choice but to follow and find the car, before the thieves find out what they really have in the trunk. Though he's been particularly careless in his actions up until this point, once he realizes what he needs to do, he becomes unexpectedly cunning.

(OK: this being an Italian thriller from the early 1970's, he has substantial help from all the coincidences, and the sheer stupidity of the people around him. Nevertheless... )

When we're finally introduced to the car thieves, they turn out to be a young boy and girl named Luca and Laura. They're bored, and broke -- a couple of middle-class kids looking for some excitement. All they really want is to go to the beach; so when they happened to stumble on a luxurious car sitting unattended with the keys in the ignition, they didn't hesitate to jump in and speed away. They're far from being professional thieves, although circumstances force them to improvise -- for instance, when they're nearly out of gas but have no money to buy more. At first, luck seems to be on their side, but in their inexperience and naïveté they leave a very obvious trail behind them. Unbeknownst to them, the killer is looking for them -- and with such an easy trail to follow, he's getting closer and closer...

Gradually, we find out why Luca and Laura want to get to the beach: it's because they're trying to find the ideal spot for Laura to surrender her virginity. Thus they're looking for a private, secluded spot, with as few people around as possible. So, conveniently enough for the movie, our would-be car thieves end up on a grey, cold-looking stretch of gravel, in the shadow of one of the dreariest, most sinister abandoned villas anyone's ever seen. When the kids break into the villa, they find it to be the former haunt of an artist and/or taxidermist; the house is crammed with enough eerie props and shadowy corners to make the ideal place for -- say -- a showdown with a mad killer.

And where are the police during all this, you ask? Mostly concerned with Mainardi. Since the fake kidnapping setup wasn't finished when the killer abandoned it, and since his hot-wiring a vehicle to pursue Luca and Laura attracted so much attention, the police arrived on the scene almost immediately. Noting the inconsistency between the setup for the crime and its execution, the police sense that Mainardi may have had a hand in it.

There are several very interesting things about this grim giallo. Among the most amazing is the fact that it manages to be very disturbing, and at times terrifying, with almost no bloodshed. When blood does flow (briefly, toward the end of the film), it comes as an even greater shock, because we suddenly realize how little gore we've seen up until this point.

Though there isn't much blood, there is a rape scene which is very unpleasant; but to the movie's credit it's meant to be unpleasant. It's actually one of the least objectionable rape scenes I've ever seen: it's not explicit, nor is it shot in a particularly exploitative way. It's intercut with a sex scene going on elsewhere at the same time (which is relatively explicit); the effect is to drain all the voyeuristic pleasure out of the consensual scene, and turn them both into images of horror and disgust. Most importantly, the act has consequences, and those consequences not only determine what's going to happen for the rest of the movie, they also pose disturbing implications for the way the story is likely to continue once the movie is over.

In this film full of unpleasant characters who do unpleasant things to each other, there are really only two who engage the audience's sympathy. One is Laura, whose innocence we realize even though we're not given much opportunity to see her as a fully-developed character. The other relatively-innocent character, oddly enough, is the killer himself. Even though he's a rapist and a murderer -- and even though we get the idea that he may switch the order of his crimes from time to time -- he's much more sympathetic in his way than either Mainardi or Luca, who in my opinion are the true villains of the film.

The murderer is not a mere killing machine. Given the chance to kill certain characters who cross his path, he chooses not to, although this causes problems for him later on. And unlike most giallo killers, he's not particularly skilled at butchery: his pursuit of a victim late in the film is clumsy, and the effort of killing leaves him exhausted both physically and emotionally. And even though at one point he rapes Laura -- that's the scene mentioned above -- this horrible act is really a humanizing moment for him. I know this seems like a shocking thing to say; it's an equally shocking thing to realize as you watch it. I suspect you'd have to see the scene in order to understand what I mean here; you get the feeling (thanks to skillful directing, editing and acting) that this is for him an act of tenderness, or as close to an act of tenderness as he can ever approach. Here again the film is astonishing: we're continually unsettled by things we don't see explicitly, but when we do see something monstrous happening on screen, it's more poignant than horrible. When Laura gets the chance to turn the tables on the murderer toward the end of the movie, we feel the same bizarre sense of tenderness underlying the extreme violence.

Most surprising of all is how much technical skill is on display in the film. I don't mean that there are any bravura tricks on display: there are no astonishing camera acrobatics of the kind pioneered by Dario Argento; there are no artfully prepared set pieces that showcase the butchery (though the oddly decorated villa comes close). The skill evident in so much of the movie is a subtler sort than we expect from this genre.

For starters, the plot makes sense. All right, it doesn't make total sense: the killer's transformation from thug to skilled tracker is a bit of a stretch. But overall, the story is much more believable than usual. People do what they do for reasons we understand. Though the characters are superficially drawn, at least they remain true to the sketchy outlines they're given. Even the police don't come off as complete idiots: they may be useless at tracking a stolen car, but they see through Mainardi's much more serious plot immediately. Also, the killer's identity is known to the audience from the beginning, so there are no clumsy attempts at fooling us with ludicrous red herrings, hidden identities and last-minute surprises.

As for the photography, the editing, the screen compositions, the soundtrack -- they're all excellent. Even the jarring jump-cuts that break up the texture at several points in the movie are used judiciously, to enhance the narrative rather than create a spectacular effect.

All this technical skill is concentrated on one goal: to scare the hell out of the audience. The Killer Must Kill Again creates and sustains a level of tension that all too many gialli never achieve even for a moment. The film makers seem to have understood, as few other giallo creators ever have, that it's much more frightening to put believable characters in believably threatening situations than it is to soak the screen in gore. Thus they are able to heighten the tension to an amazing degree, even though they've populated the film with some extremely unsympathetic characters (actually, one of the most important characters turns out to be the late Mrs. Mainardi, who makes a tremendous impression by her absence: time and time again, it seems as though someone is about to find her in the trunk; time and time again, the discovery is put off a little longer).

Now for the biggest surprise: the director of this movie, whose craftsmanship outdoes even Argento's at times, is... Luigi Cozzi.

Yes, that Luigi Cozzi. The director of the Lou Ferrigno Hercules films. The man who gave us Caroline Munro as a dashing space pirate, who looks out of the window of her star cruiser at an approaching craft and says in surprise: "It's a space ship!" (Starcrash, 1979). The man who gave us singing olives from outer space that make people explode when they touch them (Alien Contamination, 1980). The man who was apparently kidnapped and replaced by pod people from the planet Pyun shortly after The Killer Must Kill Again was made.

How does one go from such a competent and assured feature film debut... to Starcrash, or Paganini Horror? How can a man express himself as clearly and intelligently as Cozzi does in the extras on Mondo Macabro's superb DVD... and yet be responsible for incoherent crap like The Adventures of Hercules? No giallo plot ever had a mystery this deep, nor had a twist this unsettling. I have no idea how such a thing could happen, but I will say this: if you have the slightest reservation about seeing The Killer Must Kill Again based on Cozzi's participation, put your doubts aside and see it at once. You'll never think of Luigi Cozzi the same way again.

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