Friday, 8 May 2015

A Spaghetti Thriller: What Have They Done To Your Daughters? (1974)

From the 60s through the 80s, Italian genre cinema was a major force in the international market. Sword and sandal movies, James Bond ripoffs, war movies, westerns -- anything that was popular was sure to have a spaghetti equivalent.  The one major exception, which has no real equivalent elsewhere, is the uniquely Italian genre known as giallo (or gialli). 

Giallo were a genre of Italian murder-mystery thrillers popular in the late 60s and early 70s. Usually garish in their uses of colour and content, they laid the groundwork for the slasher genre with their emphasis on violent murder set pieces over strong plot and characterisation. While there are several examples which are considered horror classics (directed by the likes of Mario Bava, Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento), most gialli are like spaghetti westerns -- for every Fistful of Dollars, there are a hundred flops. What Have They Done To Your Daughters? is a rare example of a gaillo that manages to rise above the dreck to emerge as a rather mature, well-developed thriller. 

Juggling themes of political corruption, institutionalised sexism and exploitation of minors, What Have They Done To Your Daughters? is more like a political drama than a cheap exploitation movie. Partly that may be down to the talent behind the camera. The director was Massimo Dallamano, formerly a cinematographer who was responsible for Sergio Leone's Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More with Clint Eastwood. Sadly, Dallamano died in 1976, before he could really build his filmography. What Have They Done To Your Daughters? is a fine example of his directorial talents and it is a shame he did not get more opportunities to show what he could do.

The story begins with the discovery of a dead high school girl hanging in an attic. To our heroes, a female assistant district attorney and the policeman in charge of the case, it soon becomes clear that what appears to be a suicide is really a murder, and the victim is a part of an underground network of human trafficking with links going straight to the top. As the police scramble to figure out what is going on, they also have to contend with the enforcer of the network, a mysterious killer dressed as a motorcyclist who goes about silencing anyone who gets close to exposing the truth.

With its controversial subject matter, it is a testament to the filmmakers that the film never sensationalises the crimes at its heart. Director Dallamano prefers to allude to the preferences of the sex ring's clientele rather than show them, and the film is better for it -- this movie is ultimately meant to be a genre piece, and it would have come off as sleazy and exploitive to elaborate on this aspect of the story.

The violence, while stronger than what you would expect from a Hollywood picture of the same era, is relatively muted compared to most giallo. Apart from a rather shocking bit involving a hand meeting a cleaver, Dallamano focuses on the suspense, which gives the flashes of violence a real punch. 

While it does boast a more serious pedigree than other gialli of the same period, What Have They Done To Your Daughters? never forgets that it is primarily a thriller and Dallamano goes to town on the more conventional suspense and action elements of the story. The film features a fantastically suspenseful cat-and-mouse chase in an underground parking garage, in which our heroine tries to evade the murderous enforcer. There is another tense sequence in which the motorcyclist breaks into a hospital and threatens a police witness. 

There is also a car chase which can stand up with anything of the same period. Dallamano puts his camera behind the handlebars of the killer's motorcycle as he leads the police on a hair-raising chase through the centre of town, weaving through a maze of back alleys and side streets. What makes all these set pieces work is that they fit seamlessly into the story, rather than just being chucked in randomly.  
With its cynical portrayal of an upper class that preys upon the people at the bottom, the film feels very 70s but also rather timeless. The film's ending is rather ambiguous. Although the enforcer is ultimately stopped and the network collapses, the revelation of who its clientele is is hushed up because of the potential political fallout. The enforcer, although a powerful and singular antagonist, is little more than a pawn of a greater, more insidious evil. Our heroes are forced to pick up the pieces without the satisfaction of ultimately rooting out what is genuinely rotten in the society they are meant to protect.

The film is available on region-free DVD, and well worth a look.

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