THE HOWL (L'URLO) (1969)
D. TINTO BRASS
Most cult film fans know Tinto Brass either as the embittered director of CALIGULA (1978) or as the director of many an elegant softcore sex flick enamored with the female ass. His very early experimental, political assault films have been all but impossible to see up until very recently. Thanks to the fine folks at CULT EPICS we can finally have a look at these essential missing links in this passionate Italian filmmaker's filmography. But be forewarned THE HOWL (and the companion piece ATTRACTION - to be reviewed at another time-) are quite unlike his other films in any way shape or form.
From the very opening moments it is completely obvious we are not in the same playing field as the films we have come to expect from Mr. Brass, or any other movies from the Italian film industry of the late sixties in fact. There are some parallels to French agitprop cinema such as MR. FREEDOM and much of the American underground cinema that was flourishing at the time, but even at that, there is a distinct and assaultive flavor that rises from the first few frames of THE HOWL.
The movie begins with a young, beautiful woman named ANITA (Tina Aumont) quickly and desperately cleaning herself off in the shadows telling herself over and over "It's a trap. It's a trap" intercut with a young man explaining to the police that he is there to pick her up. Apparently she is some sort of young revolutionary who has been arrested and he is there to bail her out. Their scene is shot/edited in insanely fast cuts, and through horrendous distorting lenses that are often used for peepholes or looking glasses. Some shots shift from B/W to color. She explains to the young man who the police stripped her and "caressed her" with phallic objects while we are intercut with the flashback of the police strip searching her and raping her with a nightstick. This prompts the man to propose to the Anita. He squirrels through his datebook,riffling off days that are filled with work dates, and other bits of trivia until arriving at Sunday where there are a few hours they can actually marry.
They are at a makeshift alter in front of a delapitated building, Anita in Mime make up the wedding ceremony in progress. Anita becomes distracted, frightened and then runs away leaving her new husband to be at the Alter. She hops on a bus that is being pursued by a dozen or so police officers screaming for violence and blood. On the bus she meets a man named Coso (Gigi Prioetti) who explains to her how he is destruction incarnate, a killer, wiseman, saint sinner, etc. etc. He fucks her in the back of the bus then everyone on the bus goes crazy and destroys it before the bumbling police can. Together Anita and Coso will go on a journey into a phantasmagorical landscape of nightmares, political charges, sexual exploration, power struggles and emotional destruction. They will visit a brothel where every single sexual fetish and desire will be metted out from orgies, animal killing, to necrophilia to a family of self appointed saints who are actually cannibals.
The most nightmarish segment occurs in the mid section of the film when they come across a small section of town that is overrun by soldiers who are ruthlessly executing bystanders for no reason at all, while being following by a man dressed in a barrel and an American flag hat. The soldiers eventually corner Anita in an abandoned building while Coso is held up in conversation with a "left wing radical" talking about literally nothing. She is emerges from the building stripped and bloodied, clearly having been gang raped. During all the savagery of the preceding scenes is intercut with actual atrocity footage of WWII and the Korean War. .
After leaving this town they follow the broadcast rantings of a dictator to a military operation to find a literally wind up midget broadcasting the rantings of Stalin and Hitler with footage of the liberation of various prison camps being screened behind him. He falls and dies so Anita and Coso take up the broadcast, screaming for revolution instead.
After this point the movie sort of loses steam though with the duo sort of just wandering about from light hearted situation to situation none of which that have the emotional or visceral weight or impact of the earlier scenes. They dress as religion icons and steal a boat that they quickly crash. They get picked up and put on shore and end up in an insane asylum which they quickly ascend to leading, but Coso gets bored and they leave. They end up at a commune that resembles a hippie village with big boobed women wandered about free woshipping the sun and nature. etc. etc. etc.
Finally Anita finds herself being lured back to her wedding alter and Mime make up with her to be husband. Was this all a flight of fancy as she is about to be married? A commentary on the futility of love in the face of revolution and the breakdown of society?
What THE HOWL is, is about twenty five years before it's time as it predates the punk movement and MTV with the rapid fire editing, insane costumes and overt stylization that would become the norm in the age of rock videos. The films of Alexandro Jodorwosky and Derek Jarman would all come to use such material with a few years, and the French New Wave was toying with some of the ideas but not with the same viciousness that Tinto Brass shows here. The flirtation with near hardcore sexuality and pornography is also something that would not come into vogue until several years later.
While not always a successful film, THE HOWL is always a fascinating and original one. The CULT EPICS DVD looks as nice as a totally lost film can be expected too, with lots of film damage here and there and an occasional bit of washed out image. But the very experimental nature of the film itself kind of renders that kind of complaint almost moot as it seems to fit the fabric of the piece itself just fine. There is a commentary which I have not had a chance to listen to as of yet.
Review © Andy Copp