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Scorpion Releasing // R // July 7, 2015 // Region 0
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted August 15, 2015 | E-mail the Author
No good deed goes unpunished, as Christian (Robert Hoffmann) soon learns after rushing towards the lifeless figure draped across the rocky shoreline. Barbara (Suzy Kendall), as luck would have it, isn't dead -- merely unconscious for reasons she can't quite recall -- and she vanishes nearly as quickly as she'd appeared. Christian can't resist the urge to follow the breadcrumbs Barbara had left behind, and before long, they're reunited on a stranger's yacht. Okay, okay, Christian's not exactly the most gallant guy you'll ever meet -- he first encountered Barbara with his girlfriend, and hours later, he's trying to bed this woman he believes to be a prostitute -- but that's no cause for murder. As Barbara writhes around the other room in skimpy lingerie, her would-be lover is duking it out in the bathroom with an assassin. Christian was just trying to scare up some strange, and instead, he's gotten himself ensnared in some sort of conspiracy. No matter where he and Barbara flee, someone is always watching...waiting.

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Spasmo is kind of a challenge to sum up in a few short sentences. Despite often being classified as a giallo, this film by Umberto Lenzi dispenses with virtually all the genre's most iconic conventions. There's a heavily sexual undercurrent but very little nudity or outright sex. No psychopath in black leather gloves is stalking his prey, very little blood is spilled, and action and overt violence of any kind are surprisingly sparse. For much of the film, we're kept in the dark about why Christian and Barbara are being so doggedly pursued. Spasmo takes pains to ensure that its viewers feel as confused and disoriented as Christian so often does.

"Confused" and "disoriented" really are the right words for it too, as Spasmo has a well-earned reputation for being incomprehensible. The conspiracy is sprawling and all-encompassing, to the point where Christian can't really trust anyone he encounters or anything he sees. When all is eventually explained, it makes sense that, doesn't make sense. Still, while the opening moments of the film are instantly engrossing and the many twists throughout its third act are gloriously gonzo, surprisingly little in between succeeds as a thriller. Christian is easily misled and prone to making one life-changing, head-smackingly moronic decision after another. While that's very much by design, it doesn't make for a wildly compelling lead either. The meat of the conspiracy as it unfolds is slow, disjointed, and uninvolving, devoid of the intensity and inescapable paranoia that defined so many thrillers throughout the 1970s. Christian's girlfriend (the achingly gorgeous Maria Pia Conte) vanishes for most of the movie, and Ivan Rassimov's character is critical to the film but doesn't appear until its final half hour.

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The twists and turns in those final thirty minutes go a long way towards redeeming Spasmo, though, with nearly every moment throughout its final act being fiercely imaginative and unrepentantly insane. In much the same way as his Nightmare City ends the same way it begins, director/co-writer Umberto Lenzi indulges a certain fascination with circular imagery here as well. The screenplay is peppered with such intriguingly strange dialogue as "I have a razor in my room. It's big, sharp, and sexy!" (you see, Barbara won't spread her legs for Christian unless he shaves off his beard because...?!?!) and "hey, you remind me of a dying chicken!" I actually wish that there were more of that. Spasmo is legendary for being absurdly convoluted and generally bizarre -- I haven't even mentioned the lifelike dolls that are continually found "murdered" throughout the film -- but too much of it falls kind of flat, with a habit of tediously lingering on insignificant details or less memorable scenes.

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Reception to Spasmo has been about as divisive as an Italian thriller can get. Ask any three Eurocult fanatics what they think, and one will rave about how this adventurous thriller shatters so many genre tropes, another will cackle about how enthrallingly strange Spasmo is from beginning to (especially!) end, and the third will grouse and groan about the muddled, incomprehensible narrative. Honestly, I view that profoundly mixed reaction as a plus; I'd rather see something this defiantly unusual on Blu-ray than a mid-tier giallo disinterestedly marching in lockstep with convention. Although I can't say that I found Spasmo to be consistently satisfying, this oddity is still very much worth seeking out, and I'm thrilled that Scorpion Releasing has brought a film this daring and different to the format.

The scan for Spasmo was fielded by LVR Video and Post in Italy, and like seemingly everything to pass through their hands, the image is riddled with CRT noise. The overall texture -- especially for those with particularly large displays or are prone to sitting closer than average -- just doesn't look right. Still, if any company the world over wants to show Spasmo in high-def -- Blu-ray, broadcast, streaming, whatever -- it has to be based on LVR's flawed transfer. It's that or nothing. That leaves the fine folks at Scorpion Releasing with two options. They could either release the noisy presentation as-is, or they could try to rein in that texture with some tasteful noise reduction at the risk of a little clarity and detail. Which route did Scorpion opt for? Both, as it turns out:

OriginalNoise Reduced
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That's right: Spasmo arrives on a dual-layer Blu-ray disc, dedicating almost every available byte to two feature-length AVC encodes. That's astonishing in the best possible way, and offering viewers a choice like this might even be without precedent. The noise reduced version is presented by default, and the 'unfixed' version is listed just beneath it on the main menu. It's also worth noting that the processing has been handled with great restraint. Spasmo hasn't been filtered into a waxy nightmare like Fox's re-release of Predator; I'd expect that most viewers could toggle back and forth between the two without being able to spot much of a difference. The 'unfixed' version looks to my eyes to have a cleaner encode, which comes as a pleasant surprise, and it's my preferred presentation overall.

Although I've found LVR's trademark CRT noise to be extremely distracting throughout many other Eurocult Blu-ray releases, I honestly didn't find it to be too much of an issue in Spasmo. It's glaring in these screenshots, yes, but that odd texture largely reads as film grain from a normal viewing distance. The noise can look a little strange in motion, though, and there are a number of scenes where it's more pronounced and look as if they'd been filmed through wire mesh. Wear and damage have been cleaned up nicely, and Spasmo's palette is wonderfully robust. The image is reasonably well-defined and detailed, especially compared to many other LVR-sourced presentations.

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No matter which version you choose, Spasmo looks reasonably impressive. I couldn't even venture a guess as to how many LVR-sourced Blu-ray discs I've watched over the past few years, but this one easily ranks among the best looking of that lot, and Scorpion Releasing has done a spectacular job with the elements they've been saddled with.

Spasmo features a pair of 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks in two-channel mono: one in English and the other in Italian. English subtitles are offered for the Italian track, and it appears to be a transcription of the English dialogue rather than a full translation. As is the case with virtually every Italian production of this era, all of the dialogue was recorded in post-production, so either language is an equally valid choice. I personally found myself preferring the Italian recording. Aside from being a bit more full-bodied than the English track, the Italian performances strike me as more compelling. Barbara's dialogue in English sounds like someone asked my Aunt Peggy from Wisconsin to affect a British accent, for instance, and it's ridiculous to the point of distraction. The fidelity of the English track is solid, though, even if it doesn't boast quite the bite of the Italian version. Background noise is modest and generally unintrusive in both cases, and a handful of clicks and pops don't get in the way too much either. Again, regardless of which language you wind up selecting, Spasmo is a check in the 'Win' column.

  • Umberto Lenzi Interview (13 min.; SD): This conversation with Spasmo's director and co-writer has been carried over from Shriek Show's 2003 DVD release, although judging by Lenzi's rant against his films being cropped for VHS, it might even date back to another era altogether. The interview opens by noting how Spasmo breaks away from many of the conventions traditionally associated with gialli. Lenzi also speaks about the psychological elements as well as the consequences of chasing wealth and power that Spasmo shares with several of his other films. Among the other topics of conversation are taking over the project from Lucio Fulci, introducing the 'doll' element throughout his own extensive rewrite, the inserts that George Romero is rumored to have shot for the American release, and even titling it with a single word in the era of Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key. Well worth a look.
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  • Trailer (3 min.; HD): An English language trailer rounds out the extras.

Spasmo also boasts a reversible cover. The striking, topless artwork featured on most retailers' sites is actually on the interior, at least on my copy, and the default cover has a clawed hand busting through a mannequin's head. The dreadful artwork from Shriek Show's DVD is, thankfully, nowhere to be found. It's very much worth nothing that this is an all-region release as well.

It's long been rumored that George Romero shot ten minutes' worth of gore to punch up Spasmo for its American release, but none of that footage is included here, and it's not entirely clear if those gruesome inserts ever really existed.

The Final Word
Spasmo isn't exactly my kind of thriller, but I'm still deeply impressed that Scorpion Releasing has brought such an unconventional giallo to Blu-ray. Offering viewers the choice between presentations with and without additional noise reduction is a first, as far as I know, and that's greatly appreciated as well. Though I wish the Italian licensor had turned to an better-outfitted house to field the transfer, Scorpion has done a marvelous job polishing Spasmo for Blu-ray, and I have no doubt that this is an essential upgrade over Shriek Show's DVD from well over a decade ago. Highly recommended for Eurocult enthusiasts who know and love this off-kilter psychological thriller of Umberto Lenzi's; the uninitiated may want to opt for a rental first, although the reasonable asking price takes some of the sting out of a purchase sight-unseen.
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