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Plot: in fascist Italy thirty-something Teresa awakens dormant sexual desires.

Giovanni “Tinto” Brass revived classy soft erotica in a time when the genre was considered all but extinct. From somewhere around the mid-sixties up until the late seventies the subgenre survived primarily thanks to the exploitation industry. In Italy erotica had died a protracted and torturous death at the hands of puerile commedia sexy all’Italiana (typically, but not always, featuring Gloria Guida and similar starlets) and just about every stripe of horror. Directors as Joe D’Amato, the Bianchi’s (Mario and Andrea), and Jean Rollin alternated between erotic horror and straight up porn proper. In Spain there was Jesús Franco who had singlehandedly kept erotica afloat - in both the hard and soft format - in the morass of mediocrity that is his 200-plus title repertoire. Brass’ second effort emerged around the time that the Spanish Cine-S was on the way out, and when American moguls as Zalman King reigned supreme on late night cable. After thirty years Italian exploitation had come to an abrupt and grinding halt but Tinto Brass was not just anybody. Brass was no ordinary smut peddler, no base sleaze merchant. Brass was, perhaps before everything else, a master technician.

Just like Hollywood darling Bernardo Bertolucci he too did not start making softcore erotica until working his way through the usual contract work in a variety of genres. Brass started off with a series of avant-garde and arthouse features in the sixties starring the likes of Vanessa Redgrave, Anita Sanders, and Tina Aumont. After the il sadiconazista Salon Kitty (1976) Brass did principal photography on the big budget Hollywood peplum Caligula (1979) which infamously was stolen right from under him by Penthouse producer Bob Guccione. Guccione had the gall to add hardcore inserts and re-edit it from a political satire into a sex romp. Understandably both Brass and writer Gore Vidal fiercely disavowed it with a veritable avalanche of lawsuits and counter-lawsuits ensuing in the immediate aftermath. With Caligula (1979) stuck in legal limbo for several years Bruno Corbucci used the expansive (and expensive) sets and filmed the peplum sex comedy Messalina, Messalina! (1977) (with Anneka Di Lorenzo) and Joe D’Amato responded with Caligula: the Untold Story (1982). Tinto worked with Paola Senatore before her infamous descent into hardcore pornography. While there were others The Key (1983) was where, for the first time, all of the hallmark Brass signatures coagulated into their known and beloved form. Brass’ first erotic feature set the gold standard to which all of his works would be measured.

Like any good filmmaker Brass quickly developed his own style and visual quirks. As Radley Metzger and Joseph W. Sarno before him Tinto specialized in languid, hyper-stylized arthouse erotica that pushed the limits of softcore as far as he possibly could, often bordering on hardcore. Bedrooms ostensibly are blue, usually full of mirrors (an oval one above the bed) or other reflective surfaces, and sets will be riddled with phallic symbols (whether that are candlesticks, sculptures, or J&B bottles, to name a few of the most obvious) of just about every kind; there will be a bright-lit dream sequence in a nod to Fellini and Tinto’s camera will often capture his women bending over, changing clothes, or simply urinating and using a bidet; men are an unfortunate but necessary hindrance in life and they usually exist only in two varieties: either they are wanton perverts out to dominate the female lead or the kind of sullen, dopey studious types that were and are part and parcel in Italian comedy. The lead women universally and uniformly are the kind of the scantily clad, sexually insatiable and omnivorous femme fatales existing only in the fevered imagination of the hetero male. An ever-looming presence in the Brass oeuvre is the pushback against the repressive mores imposed by the dictatorial church or state; the constant battle between the mere hollow and mechanical act of intercourse to satisfy the senses, and the gentle act of making love that comes with romantic love. In many of his films the man is typically a repressed moralist or a doofus plain uninterested in his hot-to-trot wife – and she will in turn embark on a liberating journey of serial fornication in which self-discovery and gratification with different men is integral to her self-realization. Sex is both banal in its mundanity and the most magical bond man and woman can share.

Brass had learned from the best (Pier Paolo Pasolini, Fernando di Leo, Brunello Rondi) and usually imbued his work with razor-sharp socio-political commentary and criticism. Tinto was vehemently opposed to censorship in whichever form and would combat it whenever possible in whatever way he saw fit. Brass was an iconoclast, a non-conformist, a subversive rebelling against the sacred institutions of church and state. His prime features through the 1980s and early 1990s were adaptations of erotic literature. In case of La Chiave (or The Key in the English world) that was Kagi by Junichiro Tanizaki. And while his best work may be rife with subtext, political and otherwise, he more than anything adored the female form – its shapes and curves. He’s frequently accused of being gynecological, almost medical, in the way he photographed his women. To which we’ll offer a dissenting voice and posit that Brass was a lot of things, but gynecological he was not. That’s strictly Jesús Franco territory and his frantic obsession with documenting every pore of Lina Romay’s nether-regions borders on the pathological. Sex, in the world of Brass, is a means to an end, a tool, a panacea to conserve, maintain, restore, or salvage that most sacred thing of all: marriage. And when Tinto really fires on all cylinders all of the above (or some recombinant thereof) is used to expose the rank hypocrisy of church, state, and society at large.

He also was in the habit of casting semi-forgotten exploitation starlets of yesteryear in supporting roles. Tinto obviously liked women of every sort, but preferred only a certain type: dark haired, doe-eyed, with a milky white complexion and full curves like the Aphrodite of Knidos. Brass sought not to launch the next big sex-crazed starlet but wanted a timeless beauty akin to vintage Italian belles as María Luisa Rolando, Graziella Granata, Rosanna Schiaffino, and imported beauties as Barbara Steele, Helga Liné, and Adriana Ambesi. More importantly, Brass liked his women the way nature had intended them. Unspoiled, unshaven, and not littered with tattoos and/or bodily modifications. Above all else, though, he had only one quintessential requirement: his girls had to have a plump posterior. After all, what’s more Italian than the adulation of ass? Mario Imperoli launched Gloria Guida and her legendary ass to superstardom with Blue Jeans (1975) some ten years before and The Key would do the same for Stefania Sandrelli.

Venice, 1940. Under the repressive nationalist regime of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini and his National Fascist Party Italy is on the brink of entering into World War II. Senior-aged Nino Rolfe (Frank Finlay) is not only a studious (and somewhat stuffy) English professor, the old patriarch also happens to be the director of the Biennale Foundation that organizes The Venice Biennale (La Biennale di Venezia) held annually in the Arsenale and Biennale Gardens in the sestieri of Castello. In other words, Rolfe is a busy man. As a result, he’s more preoccupied with his teaching and managerial duties than with the practical matters of his marriage. His much younger trophy wife Teresa (Stefania Sandrelli) operates a small pension in the heart of the city. She’s humble, chaste, and submissive to her husband. After twenty years, the couple find themselves in a romantic - and sexual impasse. The fire in their relationship has is subsided and to that end Nino keeps a diary in which he describes his most lustful desires. One day he deliberately leaves the key to said private drawer on the floor of his study.

Teresa finds the key to the drawer and takes to reading her husband’s secret diary. This in turn inspires her to write her own wherein she confesses to engaging in a steamy, illicit, and passionate affair with Laszlo Apony (Franco Branciaroli), the virile Hungarian boyfriend of her daughter Lisa (Barbara Cupisti). As the couple write diary entries to each other their reciprocal confessions reignite the raging fires of passion in their relationship once more. Nino’s diary has awakened a sexual beast previously dormant in his Teresa. Her unfettered sexuality and headstrong agency even manages to take him by surprise. During one of their more animated sexual games (Teresa orders him to wear her knickers, stockings and bra and make love to her and in another he drugs her into partaking in various kinky bedroom photo shoots) Nino suffers a debilitating stroke that leaves him bedridden and almost paralyzed. Upon reading her mother’s diary entries about her liaison with her boyfriend Laszlo to her dying father Lisa (who’s supportive of Mussolini’s fascist regime and administration), either directly or indirectly, contributes to the swifter passing of her pacifist father. The old professor’s funeral is held on 10 June 1940 around the same time as Mussolini announces Italy’s entry into World War II from the balcony of Palazzo Venezia.

At 37 Stefania Sandrelli was a good ten to fifteen years older than every Brass babe that would follow in her footsteps. At just 14 years old Stefania had starred in Luciano Salce’s The Fascist (1961) as well as Pietro Germi's Divorce Italian Style (1961) (opposite of Marcello Mastroianni) and Seduced and Abandoned (1963) (with Lando Buzzanca). In the sixties and seventies Sandrelli worked with directors Luigi Comencini, Ettore Scola, Carlo Vanzina, and Sergio Corbucci and on several occasions with Salce and Germi. In France she worked with Jean-Paul Belmondo and Claude Chabrol. Almost twenty years after Antonio Pietrangeli’s I Knew Her Well (1965) Sandrelli was amidst something of a career revival. In the prior decade she could be seen in the giallo The Black Belly of the Tarantula (1971), the comedy Alfredo Alfredo (1972) (opposite of Dustin Hoffman), Devil in the Brain (1972), and Bernardo Bertolucci’s legendary epic Novecento (1976). After Brass reinvigorated her career Stefania made appearances in the Bigas Luna romantic comedy Jamón Jamón (1992) (where a young Penélope Cruz exposed her own hams and gams), and then again with Bertolucci for the arthouse drama Stealing Beauty (1996) (back from the days when Liv Tyler was the Aerosmith girl, not the Hollywood A-lister). Sandrelli continues to act in Italy to this day. Winning multiple David di Donatello Awards in 2006 Stefania was given the Nastro d'Argento Lifetime Achievement Award by Sindacato Nazionale dei Giornalisti Cinematografici Italiani (Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists) as well as the Pietro Bianchi Prize at the Venice Film Festival as recent as last year, in 2022, for her contributions to the cinematic arts.

The Key heralded the last decade of the great Italian starlet with Sandrelli in company of illustrious contemporaries as Ania Pieroni, Cinzia Monreale, Eva Grimaldi, and Daniela Doria; Stefania however was in a class all her own. In the form of Serena Grandi and Donatella Damiani as well as lesser goddesses as Pamela Prati, Lara Wendel, Loredana Romito, Luciana Ottaviani, and Angela Cavagna the doe-eyed Italian sex kitten of yore was replaced by sex-crazed hourglass-figured models. Times were changing and Sandrelli was one of the last of her kind. By the time she came to undress in front of Brass’ loving camera Stefania not only was a dyed in the wool veteran of the screen but she was also a good fifteen years older than any of the Brass babes of the future. Sandrelli was already established when she worked with Brass, and she wore his stamp of approval with pride and joy. Brass explicitly wanted her (and nobody else) and he was willing to wait for Sandrelli to age into the role had envisioned for her. Being the consummate professional that she was Stefania never disowned The Key (1983) as erotic pulp from and for the arthouse. As near as we can tell it gave her career a second lease on life and for that reason (and others, in all likelihood) Stefania Sandrelli has always vigorously defended her association with old Tinto, il maestro of erotica. He acknowledged and thanked Sandrelli for her unyielding loyalty remarking that The Key (1983) demonstrated to everyone that, "she too can act with her ass." That might not sound like much but, as far as we can tell, Brass was never the complimentary type so miss Sandrelli getting his stamp of approval was something of a big deal.

Plot: struggling British model is haunted by malefic spirits of the dead.

By the late 1980s the Italian exploitation industry was on the verge of extinction. What little still sold internationally was anything coasting on the dying embers of genres previously profitable, mainly daft action, soft erotic dross and horror. The latter two converged in Minaccia d'amore (or Threat Of Love, for some reason released in the Anglo-Saxon world under the semi Hitchcock-ian title Dial: Help), a self-professed erotic thriller from Tinto Brass producer Giovanni Bertolucci that’s largely in line with what was popular at the time. That means that in effect it’s more of a supernatural horror. If it’s remembered for anything, it’s for Charlotte Lewis and if it has attained any sort of longevity that was thanks to Silvio Berlusconi infamously buying it for his Mediaset where it found a second life on Italian television where it was regularly broadcast.

Deodato learned his craft under Roberto Rossellini and Sergio Corbucci. Under Corbucci he assistant directed the peplum The Slave (1962) and the spaghetti western Django (1966). From there he went on to assistant direct another peplum under Antonio Margheriti. Having accumulated the necessary experience and expertise he ventured out on his with a now long forgotten fumetti. Everything would change in 1968. That year he was chosen to direct the sequel to Gungala, Virgin of the Jungle (1967) (that had made a star out of Kitty Swan). A trio of comedies that nobody really remembers followed and soon Ruggero was heeding the call of the burgeoning television market. It was only after 1973 that Deodato returned to the big screen with the giallo Waves Of Lust (1975) and the poliziottesco Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man (1976). Apparently somebody had taken notice of Deodato’s Gungala sequel as the German distributors offered him to direct what would become Last Cannibal World (1977), a spiritual and thematic follow-up to Man From Deep River (1972) that Lenzi had declined. Two years later Deodato would catapult himself to global infamy with Cannibal Holocaust (1980), an unsurpassed exercise in nihilism that remains just as shocking 40 years later.

That Cannibal Holocaust (1980) would cast a shadow over anything Deodato would do after was expected. The House On the Edge Of the Park (1980) was a senseless The Last House on the Left (1972) knock-off redeemed for the most part thanks to an all-star cast that included former Jean Rollin belle Annie Belle, Lorraine De Selle, and Brigitte Petronio as well as David Hess and Giovanni Lombardo Radice. For the sci-fi/post-nuke diversion Raiders Of Atlantis (1983) he dialed up the silliness to Luigi Cozzi levels and the entire thing felt almost Bruno Mattei-ish in how many different American properties it ripped off in just 90 minutes. Almost a decade later the reputation and legacy of Cannibal Holocaust (1980) was both inescapable and inarguable. Its shadow still loomed long and ominously over anything Deodato would lend his name to afterwards.

Compared to the American style slasher Body Count (1986) and the more slasher-ific giallo An Uncommon Crime (1987) (with Edwige Fenech and Michael York) from the year before Dial: Help is far more subdued and surprisingly atmospheric when it gets its ducks in a row. If comparisons must be made Lucio Fulci’s Manhattan Baby (1982) and Aenigma (1987) come close. Franco Ferrini had written a screenplay called Turno di note that he shopped around but “that no one wanted.” In 1983 Dario Argento "showed a certain interest" in it but not enough to attach himself to directing it thus landing it on Deodato’s desk. He liked the supernatural and fantasy element and set to filming it, with or without a decent budget. Ferrini would later write Phenomena (1985) and Opera (1987) for Argento as well as Demons (1985) and Demons 2 (1986) for Lamberto Bava and The Church (1989) for Michele Soavi, all of which Argento helped either writing or producing. The average moviegoer probably remembers him for co-writing Sergio Leone's nearly 4-hour crime epic Once Upon a Time in America (1984).

Jenny Cooper (Charlotte Lewis) is a British model struggling to make a living in the bustling, fast-moving city of Rome. Lovelorn and heartbroken she’s desperately trying to get a hold of an unnamed, unseen suitor. One night Jenny mistakenly dials the wrong number at a payphone reaching a closed down dating agency (“Loneliness does not exist, trust your heart to us!” screams a banner in the derelict office building). There Jenny’s desire awakens a diabolic force that has lain dormant all these years in the collected tape recordings of all the lonely hearts that called the agency. The force takes a liking to Jenny and soon starts to kill anybody and everybody that gets in its way. Nobody, especially not the police and law enforcement, puts any stock in Jenny’s stories. Not even her friend Carmen (Carola Stagnaro). Nobody believes her – except her shy, introverted, and considerate university student neighbor Riccardo (Marcello Modugno). She never noticed him until now because she was too self-absorbed and preoccupied. At a swank party Jenny is stressed out and her good musician friend Mole (Mattia Sbragia) offers to install a new phone in her apartment, check and adjust the switchboards accordingly, and locate the source of her distress by any means necessary. When people start dying mysterious and unexplained deaths her case eventually attracts the attention of Prof. Irving Klein (William Berger). Will Jenny be able to exorcise the demons before she too will fall victim to their malefic powers?

Charlotte Lewis was a British actress of Chilean-Iraqi descent who shot to superstardom virtually overnight by appearing in two widely-publicized productions, the first of which was Roman Polanski’s Academy Award-nominated swashbuckler Pirates (1986) and followed that with the Eddie Murphy fantasy comedy The Golden Child (1986). You’d imagine that a beginning like that would be a guarantee for a long and prosperous career in the A-list. Nothing could be further from the truth. Lewis too strangely got caught up in the tendrils of late-stage Italian exploitation just like Jennifer Connelly and Josie Bissett before her. Instead of following her Italian detour up with prestigious Hollywood projects instead she ended up in the Dolph Lundgren actioner Men of War (1994) and the Alyssa Milano erotic potboiler Embrace of the Vampire (1995). In truth, Lewis has far more renowned for her high-profile romantic liaisons moreso than her movies. Over the years she has been romantically linked with everybody from Eddie Murphy, Jim Carrey and Charlie Sheen to classical dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov and American rock/blues singer-songwriter Eric Clapton. She fell head over heels for Polanski but was rebuffed and almost instantly was romantically linked to famous ladies’ man Warren Beatty upon their introduction. At 21 miss Lewis was at the height of desirability and Deodato ensures everybody knows. Especially in the third act when Charlotte can be seen in skimpy lingerie and a brief bath scene. As far as 80s babes go miss Lewis bears some semblance to France’s Florence Guérin, a young Jennifer Connelly and Emmanuelle Béart circa Manon de Sources (1986).

Of all the Italian exploitation grandmasters perhaps Ruggero Deodato had the most peculiar career trajectory. Over the span of some six decades he only directed a modest twenty-something features the majority of which aren’t horror. Cannibal Holocaust (1980) is an uncontested classic and the original found footage flick. That it requires an iron stomach and that you’d like a shower afterwards is something that comes with the experience. We, personally, tend to gravitate more towards his Last Cannibal World (1977).

Lucio Fulci made gialli and zombie movies but never partook in the cannibal cycle. Ruggero Deodato was otherwise occupied in the South Asian jungles when the giallo exploded in popularity during the 1970s and neither did he contribute to the gothic horror revival during that time. He likewise sat out the domestic zombie craze in the following decade. Not that Deodato was sitting on his hands doing nothing. He continued churning out horrors of various stripe and across budgets. He wasn’t as versatile as, say, Sergio Martino or Giuseppe Vari nor did he specialize in action like Antonio Margheriti or produce late-stage domestic classics the way Lamberto Bava did. It’s no surprise then that Deodato turned to television once Italian exploitation had run its course. That he remains active to this day is to be applauded and something of a minor miracle when you think about it. Dial: Help might not look like it but it generates enough electricity to prove that old Ruggero hadn’t lost his touch.