A mental institute that keeps unguarded medieval weapons lying about the rec room illustrates the differences between American and European psychotherapy
Working in the tough-as-nails poliziotteschi genre that sprung into action in the early 1970s, Fernando Di Leo directed several very good films and at least one great film, possibly more. He cut his teeth during the 1960s as a screenwriter, collaborating with a team of scripters — as was common for Italian films — on a posse of spaghetti westerns, including Sergio Leone’s landmark Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More starring American actor Clint Eastwood as well as Sergio Corbucci’s influential classic Django starring Italian idol Franco Nero. In 1964 Di Leo co-directed a film called Gli eroi di ieri… oggi… domani, and in 1968 got his first solo directing job on the WWII adventure Rose rosse per il führer (aka Red Roses for the Führer and Code Name, Red Roses). He toiled away for another few years until, in 1972, he wrote and directed Caliber 9, rightfully considered one of the best crime films of the 1970s. He followed up with The Italian Connection that same year, then The Boss in 1973. Like Caliber 9, they are considered high water marks in global crime cinema. But in 1971, he still had to pay some dues, and Slaughter Hotel extracts a high fee indeed.
It’s Di Leo’s only giallo (unless you count Naked Violence, which walked the line between giallo and poliziotteschi), but not his only sex film. And make no mistake about it: despite the title and the poster art, Slaughter Hotel is a sex film. In its final few minutes, Slaughter Hotel decides to be a murder thriller, but that last-minute shift in tone is an afterthought. It plays for the most part like one of Jess Franco’s lesser efforts, or something that would have come out much later from bottom-of-the-bucket production house Eurocine. Despite coming out in 1971 — a banner year for giallo — it has more in common with late-cycle entries like The Sister of Ursula, Play Motel, and Giallo in Venice that focused on sex rather than thrills or style.
By Di Leo’s own admission in interviews, he considered the entire thing trash from the very beginning. The script, on which he worked with Nino Latino (who had previously collaborated with Di Leo on Naked Violence and A Wrong Way to Love) was absurd, set in a mental hospital bristling with unsecured medieval weapons and implements of torture. Di Leo admitted he knew nothing about mental hospitals and had no desire to learn for a film this silly, but it seems like even someone with almost no knowledge whatsoever of such places would guess that they didn’t leave halberds and iron maidens and crossbows lying around in the rec room. Seriously, it’s like this asylum doubles as Vincent Price’s castle from The Pit and the Pendulum. You half expect the killer walking up the stairs to bump into Price on his way down, lisping “Oh, good! I see you found the halberd!” Having saddled himself with a script this ridiculous, Di Leo figured he might as well take the whole thing over-the-top. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have a knack for absurdism. Rather than exploiting the innate ludicrous nature of the film and turning into satire, he turns in a flat, listless film padded out to feature-length by endless, repetitive masturbation scenes.
The film begins with a fake-out, as we follow a madman who, for some reason, is wearing a cape (as if anyone needs a reason to don a dashing cape) as he stalks the grounds of the sinister-looking Gothic mansion that serves as the sanatorium. Somehow, despite having well-lit halls (the lighting throughout the film is indifferent and bright, which is a plus for seeing things, a minus for mood), no one notices this armed intruder clomping up and down the stairs. He pauses to spy on a beautiful woman — British-born Eurocult mainstay Margaret Lee (whose eye make-up in this film is exquisite) — writhing around in the nude. Lee was a Eurospy staple during the 1960s, appearing in, among others, From the Orient with Fury, Le Tigre se parfume à la dynamite, Secret Agent Super Dragon, and the divinely daft Dick Smart 2.007. Ever the working actor, she also racked up a number of krimi, giallo, and horror credits from both Europe and the UK, including Double Face, Jess Franco’s Venus in Furs and The Bloody Judge, and Psycho-Circus alongside Christopher Lee. She wasn’t as well-known for sex films, though she did appear in a film with the enticing title Excuse Me, Padre, Are You Horny? Unfortunately Slaughter Hotel, while willingly exposing her flesh, gives her little else to do besides stand to the side looking aghast. For much of the film, she simply vanishes despite the fact that she is, ostensibly, the main character…in a film, mind you, that can’t be bothered to actually have a main character.
The killer’s voyeuristic prowl-about is interrupted when Lee, in the throes of self-administered ecstasy, accidentally hits the “summon nurse” button, forcing the nefarious fiend to flee less he be found. And that is the last you will see of the killer or any element of giallo until the final few minutes of the film. From here on, the film introduces a procession of beautiful women who will get naked and lie around, pawing themselves for the leering camera at such length that one, incredulously, finds oneself urging it to move along. Rendering such scenes tedious is a talent of sorts, but not one of which I’d consider myself an admirer. Among the women inhabiting this most curious of sanatoriums are: Mara (Jane Garret), a woman on the verge of recovering from agoraphobia; Ruth (Gioia Desideri), a woman prone to the occasional murderous outburst; Margaret Lee’s aforementioned Cheryl Hume, nearly cured of suicidal tendencies and just waiting around for her release papers; and because this is a sleazy Italian film, a nymphomaniac played by the glorious, irrepressible Rosalba Neri. All of these women, from the harmless to the horny to the homicidal are allowed to roam freely, without supervision, and are, as mentioned, afforded full access to the hospital’s impressive store of maces, axes, and swords.
Speaking of full access, the hospital’s staff affords themselves full access to the patients in their charge, which has to be at least as egregious a violation of basic sanatorium regulations as is the unsecured armory. Wild-maned doctor Francis Clay (a disappointingly subdued Klaus Kinski) is carrying on an affair with Margaret Lee’s Cheryl. Nurse Helen (Monica Strebel) is similarly carrying on a tryst with her patient Mara. Ironically, Rosalba Neri’s nymphomaniac is the only one not getting laid, despite how hard she tries. Among Slaughter Hotel‘s sundry baffling accomplishments is making one ask, “Will no one make love to Rosalba Neri???” Also, what fun is it to cast Klaus Kinski in your film and then have him be well-behaved? By Di Leo’s account, despite Kinski’s reputation, the famously insane actor was mild and easy to work with, which might be the problem. Sane Kinski is sad Kinski. Granted, he’s a prime suspect to be the killer, but only because he’s Klaus Kinski — which is almost a cheat. If you are making a “whodunnit,” putting Kinski in the film means you get an automatic red herring without putting effort into it. He is a suspect in any perverse crime simply by dint of being Klaus Kinski. Not that the whodunnit aspect of Slaughter Hotel is the focus of the film.
Neri’s quest for sex takes up the bulk of the film’s middle section. As long-winded as this part of the movie may be, it’s hard to work up much anger at Rosalba Neri frequently appearing on-screen to remove her clothes and roll around. She tries unsuccessfully to seduce her own brother when he pops around for a visit. When confronted by a doctor who is disappointed by her empowered female libido, she boldly proclaims that she’s not crazy; she just enjoys making love and thinks the taboo against promiscuity is absurd. He advises her to take a cold shower, because as should be obvious by their willingness to sleep with their patients, this mental hospital is staffed by the very finest. She has better luck with the scythe-wielding gardener, but even he is worn out by her insatiable appetite. Trying the old “slap the woman into submission” only earns him a wallop upside his head. When two beefy orderlies arrive to subdue her, she tries to make love to them as well. Rosalba Neri is the only one giving her all in this film that doesn’t really deserve her talents.
Neri was and remains one of the great icons of Eurocult film, on the Mount Rushmore of leading ladies alongside Edwige Fenech, Barbara Bouchet, and for some reason Teddy Roosevelt. She started at a young age and appeared frequently throughout the 1960s in sword and sandal films, including a few lavish “Hollywood on the Tiber” productions, including Esther and the King directed by Raoul Walsh (with an assist from Mario Bava) and El Cid starring Charlton Heston. Sure, they were small roles, but they helped her build a career. When Italians started taking advantage of all the expensive ancient world props Americans left lying around after one of their films, Neri moved into femme fatale, princess, and queen roles in pepla. Later, she made appearances in Eurospy films including SuperSeven Calling Cairo, The Spy with Ten Faces, and Password: Kill Agent Gordon.
Following the career trajectory of pretty much everyone in European cult cinema, she then moved into spaghetti westerns and, in 1969, made her first high-profile appearance in a sex film when she starred in Jess Franco’s women in captivity opus 99 Women. From there, she split her time between sex romps and horror, including Top Sensation (alongside Edwige Fenech), Amuck with Barbara Bouchet, Jess Franco’s Marquis de Sade’s Justine, and Lady Frankenstein. Neri’s involvement in Slaughter Hotel, and her willingness to put energy into a role that no one would have blamed her for phoning in, goes a long way to making the film tolerable. As it was with Fernando Di Leo, this is not one of Rosalba’s better films. Unlike Di Leo, however, she still brings her “A” game, throwing herself into her role with a gusto and can-do attitude lacking in just about everyone else (though the more explicit, um, let’s call them “gynecological” shots use a body —or part of a body — double).
When we’re not hanging out with the frustrated Neri or watching nurses and patients play what might liberally be referred to as croquet (but is mostly just women trotting around swatting wooden balls at random; Di Leo apparently knew as much about croquet as he did asylums), we’re watching the courtship dance between Nurse Helen and Mara. This involves a lot of caressing, kissing, ass massage, and Slaughter Hotel being what it is, masturbation. Which, admittedly, is not a bad way to spend an evening, but only if you are a participant. Watching from afar has appeal for a while, but eventually it becomes a bit like listening to someone telling you about a lurid dream they had, rather than having the lurid dream yourself. That said, there is a surprising amount of tenderness in the relationship — unprofessional though it may be — between the two women. Di Leo, even when he’s just going through the motions, stumbles upon moments of competency. Along with Neri’s fiery performance, the film’s interludes with Mara and Helen elevate it above similar sex thrillers like the aforementioned The Sister of Ursula. Jane Garret didn’t have much of a career. In fact, she apparently didn’t have any career beyond Slaughter Hotel. Monica Strebel put together a few more cult film credits but never rose to the rank of a Rosalba Neri. A shame. She has the look of a gorgeously haunted 1920s heroine who would be kidnapped and carried across an expressionistic set by Conrad Veidt.
Still, let’s not overstate the appeal of Slaughter Hotel. The sex scenes go on far longer than they should, and for the most part the film has no interest in developing a plot, tension, or any reason to progress from one scene tot he next beyond some minimum duration Di Leo determined for each scene. It staggers from one sex scene to the next, punctuating them with scenes of Klaus Kinski smoking or standing around in a hall — which, again, would be scary if you discovered him doing that in your hall at home, but here’s it’s just more filler. Eventually the killer has had enough and finally shows up to propel this meandering slice of sleaze into the realm of the giallo, more or less (less). In true giallo fashion, the black-gloved killer is revealed to be someone who was basically absent from the entire movie until the very end. rather than bringing his own implements of annihilation, he greedily paws through the hospital’s collection, selecting one (and showing it lovingly to the camera, to kill a few more minutes; far more minutes are killed in this film than people), using it, then considerately returning it to its rightful shelf. Despite that fact that dozens of people seem to be up and about and all the lights are on, no one stumbles across the killer as he ponders his options.
After a couple brutal but not at all graphic murders, someone eventually screams, which brings the staff running. Now alert to the fact that someone has foiled their security measures (which were, of course, no security measures), Kinski, the other doctors, and the local cops devise exactly the sort of plan you’d expect this bunch of yardbirds to come up with. Cheryl will stand around in the rec room of medieval weapons while everyone else hides in the hall. When the killer comes for her — which he will inevitably do since she is one of the last characters with a name — they’ll all leap out and yell “gotcha!” The plan goes off well except for the small detail that the room full of cops and doctors can’t seem to block the passage of a single guy. The killer hauls ass around the hospital, swinging a mace wildly and brutalizing a dorm room full of nurses, which is really going to put a damper on the morrow’s croquet game. This single shot, ludicrous in the extreme, lasts a few seconds and accounts for the bulk of Slaughter Hotel‘s slaughter. All things considered, it was far less shocking than watching poor Margaret Lee try to run her fingers through Kinski’s unkempt, strawlike nest of hair.
Perhaps the most un-giallo thing about Slaughter Hotel is that, despite how hastily sketched the characters are, none of them are unlikable. There is no sniping, no unbridled venom being slug between the characters. There’s empathy (though not from that “take a cold shower” doctor), even if its expression violates the spirit of most doctor-patient relationships. Even the woman prone to occasionally trying to hit people with sticks isn’t the sort of spiteful, irredeemable monster we would come to expect from people populating a giallo film. Sure, the killer is a fiend, but that’s the killer for you. Everyone else is, within the confines of this admittedly ridiculous and illogical world, relatively decent. This means that when certain characters meet their violent demise in the final act, it packs a little more emotional punch than if we were just watching a parade of vile scumbags getting offed. It’s an odd and unexpected accomplishment for a film that is, in almost every other regard, a bit of a chore.
By 1971, filmmakers who had labored under decades of oppressive censorship laws suddenly found themselves with undreamt of levels of leeway when it came to sex and violence. Once Ralph Bates and Ollie Reed knocked the door open while wrestling nude, there was no putting the genie back in its clothes. As often happens with newfound freedoms and Totino’s Pizza Rolls, some folks over-indulged just a bit. Divorced from the expectation that it will be a stylish giallo like many others that were released in 1971, Slaughter Hotel manages to be at once tiresome and mesmerizing. Di Leo’s direction showcases none of the flare that would emerge in his work just a year later. He manages to point the camera, turn on some lights, and keep things in focus, but that’s about it. To call the film slow-paced would imply that it has any sort of pace at all. Instead, it’s more of a sex scene highlight reel with no cohesive narrative, no mitigating sense of logique fantastique. It just sort of is. And yet, despite the mind-numbing nature of the film’s parade of flesh and masturbation, despite the overall sordid nature of the whole affair…there is something about Slaughter Hotel that keeps me from dismissing it out of hand. Like those Totino’s Pizza Rolls, it may be a bit over-indulgent in its excesses, but I’d rather have the Pizza Rolls than not.