Reviews & Commentary

What Have They Done to Solange (1972)

Also known as
Cosa avete fatto a Solange? (original), Terror in the Woods, The School That Couldn't Scream, The Secret of the Green Pins, Who's Next?
Bruno Di Geronimo, Massimo Dallamano, Peter M. Thouet (screenplay) and Edgar Wallace (novel)
Massimo Dallamano
Fabio Testi, Cristina Galbó, Karin Baal, Joachim Fuchsberger, Günther Stoll, Claudia Butenuth, Camille Keaton
Joe D'Amato

A gym teacher and Italian professor at a girls’ high school, Enrico Rosseni (Fabio Testi), is out on a river with his student/lover, Elizabeth (Cristina Galbó), when the lover sees a girl being chased on the river bank. Rosseni is dismissive, but when he hears a news report about the body of a girl being found by the river the next morning, he realises he’s gotten himself involved in a murder, and finds himself under the watchful eye of Inspector Barth (Joachim Fuchsberger) of the Scotland Yard. Then more young girls are found brutally murdered and Inspector Barth’s and Rosseni’s investigations lead them to an overwhelming question: What did they do to Solange (Camille Keaton), and how exactly is it connected to the murders?

The Italian “giallo” (it. yellow) has its origins in literature (the name alludes to the characteristic yellow covers of pulp novels), and can in film be said to be like a cross between a whodunnit and a slasher film. Like other European exploitation films of the 70s, gialli often have threadbare plots that serve as little more than an excuse to show naked women getting murdered. Thankfully, Massimo Dallamo is a bit smarter than the average exploitation auteur, and instead of making the plot incidental to the exploitation he does the opposite: What Have They Done to Solange? is pretty much a straight whodunnit with an overlay of exploitation, and all the better for it. And, as you can probably tell from the screencaps, it’s quite a good-looking film, thanks to Joe D’Amato’s quite fine cinematography. And unlike a lot of his exploitation peers, Dallamano is a fairly restrained director, saving his zooms and Dutch angles for when they really matter. Being a bit more workmanlike than the Rollins and Francos of the world, he also doesn’t bore you to death with atmospheric shoe-leather and artsy montages. Ennio Morricone’s score tends toward ’70s pseudo-jazz but really shines whenever he gets to score something violent.

The film makes a half-hearted attempt at Hitchcock’s old standard of an innocent man trying to exonerate himself, but Rosseni is never a suspect for more than a scene or two. However, like many Hitchcock protagonists, Rosseni is morally guilty because of his affair with a student (though his colleagues are oddly laissez-faire about it). Dallamano tries, unconvincingly, to retcon Rosseni’s relationship to Elizabeth as platonic about half-way through the film and has him get back together with his wife (Karin Baal, who does what she can with a thankless role). It’s an attempt at making him more sympathetic, but if anything, the easy out just makes me like him less. Not to mention the fact that he’s dismissive and patronizing to his girlfriend and openly hostile to his wife.

Maybe Inspector Barth should have been the protagonist; he’s competent, amiable, and even manages to pull off the old Columbo standard, “Just one more thing.” Give him some personal issues and some back-story, and you’ve got yourself a lead. I just wish he didn’t let Rosseni meddle so much with the investigation. In fact, putting a big obstacle in the form of dismissive and suspicious authorities in Rosseni’s way would go a long way toward making him more likeable. If there’s one thing I remember from screen-writing classes, it’s that the surest way of making the audience root for a character is to give her some opposition.

Easier to root for is the titular Solange. Deeply traumatised and near-catatonic, she might be the perfect role for Camille Keaton’s affect-less delivery — and I say this as an admirer of her acting. She’s a bit underutilised here (if understandably so, given the story’s structure), but her odd, fragile presence carries any scene she’s in.

Despite relying on the tired old slasher cliché (which I suppose wasn’t as tired in ’72) that sexually active girls have to die, and despite the unsympathetic protagonist, What Have They Done to Solange? is a surprisingly clever whodunnit, with an ending (where exploitation films tend to falter) that’s much more organic and believable, and affecting, than I ever hoped.

Written by Kalle on Friday April 2, 2010
Permalink - Category: Film - Tags: 1970s, giallo, camille-keaton

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