Plot: girls in a Parisian brothel are brutally murdered by unseen assailant.
Even for those in the know of such things director Ferdinando Merighi is a nobody. Judging from the company he kept it’s not exactly a surprise. His association as assistant director to legendary hack Alfonso Brescia is enough to kill anybody’s prospect of a career. Was he responsible for making Kill Rommel! (1969) as halfway tolerable as it was? If it wasn’t for The French Sex Murders (released back at home in Italy as Casa d'appuntamento or Appointment House, a euphemism for brothel, and under a similar title in France) nobody would even remember Merighi today. Over the years The French Sex Murders has garnered a something of a reputation. Mostly for being a poor man’s giallo, one that has the propensity to lose itself in psychedelic diversions whenever the screenplay experiences a lull. What is certain is that it has become retroactively famous (or infamous) for the sheer concentration of talent, both on-screen and off. The French Sex Murders manages the daunting task of being both unequivocally wretched and terminally boring no matter how many starlets take their clothes off generously. To its credit, what this stylish but ultimately hollow aberration does feature is an exploitation ensemble cast that has remained unsurpassed, before or since. Some were on the way up, others were on the way down, and the rest was probably content just to be there no matter how impoverished the production.
In a Parisian bordello run by Madame Colette (Anita Ekberg) jewel thief Antoine Gottvalles (Pietro Martellanza, as Peter Martell) gets into an argument with his prostitute girlfriend Francine Boulert (Barbara Bouchet) and ends up murdering her in a fit of rage before fleeing the premises. In short order Gottvalles is tried, sentenced and convicted in what appears to be a very open-and-shut case. The thief insists that he’s being wrongfully imprisoned and vows to have his revenge, in this life or the next. He manages to force an escape but is accidently decapitated by a tractor-trailer during his improvised getaway. Law enforcement and authorities consider the case closed until another of Madame Colette’s prostitutes, Tina (Piera Viotti), ends up gruesomely murdered. There are plenty of shady figures who could all have motives for murder. First there’s author Randall (Renato Romano) who is in the midst of writing an exposé on prostitution in Paris, then there’s prostitute-lounge singer Marianne (Rosalba Neri), Gottvalle’s former paramour, who is currently having a relationship with nightclub owner Pepe (Rolf Eden). There’s magistrate George (William Alexander) who convicted Gottvalles for the first homicide. George is in a tryst with Eleonora (Evelyne Kraft, as Evelyne Elgar), the former lover of professor Theodore Waldemar (Howard Vernon), much against the latter’s will. Who are the mysterious hooded figures that frequent the house of appointments? Is Gottvalles’ curse really happening – or is there another murderer in their midst? Inspector Fontaine (Robert Sacchi) is here to crack the case.
Where else are you going to see Anita Ekberg, Rosalba Neri, Barbara Bouchet, Evelyne Kraft, Piera Viotti, and Flavia Keyt together? For good measure Humphrey Bogart imitator Robert Sacchi and Jess Franco regular Howard Vernon are also on hand. By the time Anita Ekberg came to do The French Sex Murders she was a long way from La Dolce Vita (1960), the pulpy excess of the Terence Young Arabian Nights romp Zarak (1956) (wherein she performed a tantalizing bellydance) and the grimey, decaying atmosphere from Amando de Ossorio’s superb Malenka, the Vampire’s Niece (1969). Former peplum and spaghetti western fixture Rosalba Neri was reinventing herself as a sex kitten with roles in Top Sensation (1969), Lady Frankenstein (1971), The Beast Kills In Cold Blood (1971), and The Devil’s Wedding Night (1973). German-born Barbara Bouchet started out as a model and tried to break into Hollywood for a few years. After playing Miss Moneypenny in the Val Guest James Bond spoof Casino Royale (1967) and appearing in the Star Trek (1966-1969) season two episode “By Any Other Name” in 1968 Bouchet moved to Italy. There she became a fixture in commedia sexy all’Italiana, giallo murder mysteries and poliziotteschi. In that capacity she appeared in diverse offerings as The Man with Icy Eyes (1971), Black Belly Of the Tarantula (1971), Amuck (1972) (with Neri), The Red Queen Kills Seven Times (1972), Don’t Torture A Duckling (1972) and Wife on Vacation… Lover in Town (1980).
In the new millennium Bouchet appeared in the Martin Scorsese crime epic Gangs of New York (2002). East-European import Evelyne Kraft debuted in The French Sex Murders and from there would move on to the West German The Love Bug (1968) knockoff Superbug, the Wild One (1973), the Shaw Bros giant monster extravaganza The Mighty Peking Man (1977) and the Franz Josef Gottlieb made-for-TV horror comedy Lady Dracula (1977) (which, admittedly, is very funny). Flavia Keyt might not command the same kind of notoriety as German softsex superstar Ulrike Butz but by 1972 she had starred in three Graf Porno (1969-1970) romps, The Long Swift Sword of Siegfried (1971) (with Sybil Danning) and would figure into Joe Sarno’s gothic horror throwback Vampire Ecstasy (1973) as well as a West German Emmanuelle (1974) knockoff from Hubert Frank called Vanessa (1977) (with Olivia Pascal). Keyt’s bid with the mainstream came with the season 3 episode “Kalkutta” of Derrick (1974-1998) in 1976. Robert Sacchi appeared in a bit part in Die Hard 2 (1990). Eva Astor and Piera Viotti were relative nobodies compared to the rest of the cast. Piera was the sister of Patricia Viotti from The Night Of the Damned (1971) and Eva Astor was to become a minor star in the German Lederhosen sex comedy cycle. There’s even a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from trash pillar Gordon Mitchell as a drunk patron that harasses Piera Viotti in the nightclub where Neri moonlights as a lounge singer.
Behind the camera there’s legendary American shlock producer Dick Randall contributing to the screenplay. Randall co-wrote the screenplay to Lady Frankenstein (1971) and produced The Mad Butcher Of Vienna (1971), Supersonic Man (1979), and Pieces (1982), among others. The film was edited by Bruno Mattei and co-produced by none other than Daniel and Marius Lesoeur from Eurociné! Mattei edited a great many Jess Franco films in the sixties and who just two years prior had made his directorial debut. In 1980 Mattei would partner with director/writer Claudio Fragasso and for the next two decades the dynamic duo would expell some of the absolute worst of Italian exploitation from their creative colon. On his own (usually with Fragasso writing) Mattei unleashed The Other Hell (1980), Rats: Night of Terror (1984), Strike Commando (1987), Zombi 3 (1988) (which he took over from an ailing Lucio Fulci), the Predator (1987) imitation Robowar (1988), The Terminator (1984) cash-in Shocking Dark (1989), and Desideri (1990) with a pre-Melrose Place (1992-1999) and the made-for-TV thriller Mikey (1992) Josie Bissett. Bruno Nicolai was another Franco regular who scored a few gialli and his talents can be heard in Eugenie (1970), The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave (1971), Vampyros Lesbos (1971), She Killed In Ecstasy (1971), All Colors Of the Dark (1972), Nightmares Come at Night (1972), The Red Queen Kills Seven Times (1972), and Eugenie de Sade (1973), among many others. Nicolai’s score for The French Sex Murders recycles cues and stings from All Colors Of the Dark (1972). Is there an unspoken convention in Italian cinema that all madames in fictional brothels are to be called Colette? There was also one in Tinto Brass’ Paprika (1991).
Special effects artisan Carlo Rambaldi had worked (albeit uncredited) on Mario Bava’s Planet Of the Vampires (1965) and Roger Vadim’s Barbarella (1968) as well as the gialli A Lizard in a Woman's Skin (1971) and Dario Argento’s Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971) and Deep Red (1975). The turning point for Rambaldi came with the Dino de Laurentiis production King Kong (1976) which led him to Hollywood for Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Alien (1979), E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), and Dune (1984). Everybody has to start somewhere and Carlo Rambaldi managed to transcend his humble roots. Given the budgetary constraints Rambaldi is able to lend an air of legitimacy to what is otherwise a dreary and convoluted exercise in the giallo genre. Suffice to say The French Sex Murders shows Rambaldi’s handiwork in its rough, embryonal stages. Ferdinando Merighi hasn’t much in way of an individual style and manifests no creativity to speak of. The French Sex Murders is technically sound and prone to engage in psychotronic diversions whenever the screenplay hits a wall, which is often enough. Merighi makes Andrea Bianchi, Claudio Fragasso, Umberto Lenzi, Luigi Cozzi, Ciro Ippolito, and Alfonso Brescia look competent in comparison. Since this was an international co-production (between Italy, France and West Germany) each country had a cut highlighting its domestic stars. Retroactively this meant that there was no possibility of a director’s cut and most restored editions are composites cobbled together from whatever footage was on hand from each regional cut.
The French Sex Murders is what happens when the marginally talented are given a production that requires a degree of finesse. Under the auspices of a better director a movie becomes more than a mere sum of its parts. The French Sex Murders somehow manages to be terminally boring and completely deranged in equal measure. It has an early example of the eye gouging that would become de rigeur in Italian exploitation, its women are either undressed, dying or both at once and the plot is sufficiently labyrinthine and convoluted as per the known giallo genre standard. A typical giallo is a highly stylized murder mystery with high end fashion, beautiful women, groovy music and over-the-top murder setpieces. None of which The French Sex Murders really has, except for the beautiful women. The French Sex Murders never comes within the proximity of Argento’s best and couldn’t hold a candle to Mario Bava’s worst. It is and was an opportunistic cheapie thrown together quickly to capitalize on the giallo cycle. Barbara Bouchet and Rosalba Neri were in a much better giallo in 1972 and that was Amuck from director Silvio Amadio, he who famously directed (and courted) his muse Gloria Guida in commedia sexy all’italiana offerings as That Malicious Age (1975).