Rino Di Silvestro's THE RED LIGHT GIRLS has the dubious distinction of being, perhaps, one of the worst gialli ever made. In fact, it's barely even a giallo – with the action (if you can call it that) revolving around a single murder.
Certainly, the subject matter of a killer at large amongst roadside prostitutes on the outskirts of Rome had potential. The opening shots are nicely evocative of ‘love’ among the ruins, showing the women plying their trade at night; complemented by a suitably woozy soundtrack.
Giselle (Gabriella Lepori), a pretty young hooker, is new at the game, and the other prostitutes have had little to do with her. She takes a trick into the bushes; where we see she is not alone as a middle-aged man is watching the pair have sex. However, after her trick leaves she is confronted by an unseen assailant. The screen cuts to black and the next thing we see is her body on the mortuary table. She has been stabbed twice.
The girl's killing is investigated by the police, headed up by Inspector Macaluso (Aldo Giuffre'), who sports an almost impenetrable accent. They discover that Giselle was a student by day, and was paying her way by walking the streets at night. They break the news to her fiancée, Michele (Elio Zamuto) in hilariously gruff fashion: “She's been killed”. He swears he had no idea of her double life, and says he was working at a boutique owned by a Mrs North (Magda Konopka).
As they delve deeper into the murky underworld of prostitution, they are tipped off that one of the older hookers, Primavera (Maria Fiore), may have some inside information on what went on and who might be a suspect. Their investigation becomes even more urgent as more bodies in hotpants begin to hit the floor…
Well, that's what you would expect from a giallo – and rightly so – but you'll be sorely disappointed if you expect that from THE RED LIGHT GIRLS. There is one other murder – when another prostitute, Benedetta (Orchidea de Santis), is gang raped. However, this has nothing to do with the first murder, but is a random attack by a biker gang. Benedetta's pimps get their revenge on the, er, ring leader by sticking a beer bottle up his arse (which somehow manages to kill him!).
The central section of the film meanders incoherently, with barely connected scenes or vignettes of varying comic or sleazy hue. In one, a transvestite hooker is nonplussed to find that his trick is more interested in dressing up in women's clothing and dancing around the room – leading her to bemoan, “Are there any real men left anymore?” In another, a fellow prostitute is surprised to find that her trick has a secret room fitted out as a Satanic temple, and wears nothing but a giant false nose! This is all very well, but it kills the story stone cold dead. Tonally the film is all over the place – and structurally it’s a mess.
Even worse – in some versions of the film – are crude porn inserts that are about as sexy as watching paint dry. THE RED LIGHT GIRLS was not alone in this regard. Other giallo were, in theory, spiced up by similarly low rent bump and grind. Another example being the endearingly dreadful, but still rather better SO SWEET, SO DEAD (1972), which was released to American porno cinemas with sex inserts as PENETRATION. Quite what the wipe-clean raincoat brigade thought of some grainy footage of what looks like a very short chippolata nestling in a black toupee being unenthusiastically milked by a woman with breasts like pita breads is anyone's guess. Certainly, if the would-be comedic vignettes stop the action dead, then these ill-advised – and resolutely unerotic – interludes pretty much put it into reverse.
As might be expected, mid-70s Italian cinema was the land before political correctness. And, of course, we can often take guilty pleasure in that. The usual sweaty Italian machismo is present and correct. One cop leers after a woman's backside, “What an ass she's got!” (complete with Boing!-Boing!-Boing! music as she wiggles out of view).
To add to the confusion, sections of the film are seemingly aiming for realism – or at least soap opera theatrics. It opens with a prostitute being interviewed and asked what she fears most, she answers thoughtfully: “Syphilis and solitude”. Elsewhere, it turns out that one of the prostitutes is an heiress and just turns tricks for fun (one of her fellow hookers says: “Leave her alone, she's just a nympho!”); whilst another woman can only get off joining in with other couples having sex. Of course, this is more akin to male wish fulfillment than a stab at reality.
However, reportedly, Di Silvestro said he got fan mail from Italian prostitutes at the time, because of the supposedly realistic portrayal of their trade. This seems unlikely, unless hookers then loved their jobs unreservedly and spent their evenings dancing round a camp fire when they weren't dolling out blow jobs! When the film isn't being sleazy, it does manage an intermittently enjoyable level of camp – but it's highly unlikely it is particularly authentic.
Much time is given to the love triangle between Primavera, her young lover and her daughter. Fiore – who plays the increasingly desperate, ageing prostitute and mother hen – was probably best known for Renato Castellani's neo-realist classic DUE SOLDI DI SPERANZA (1952). She's pretty good here, as a woman desperate to hang onto her beauty and youth by taking younger lovers (her performance gives the film's closing shots a certain poignancy that's resolutely missing from the rest of the movie).
Towards the end of the film, giallo fans will spot genre-regular Lucianno Rossi as an unpleasant photographer and blackmailer, who is somehow linked to the first murder. Yes, after nearly an hour of meandering, someone clearly poked Di Silvestro, and the director – rather unconvincingly – attempts to tie up the loose ends and solve Giselle's murder in the most perfunctory way imaginable.
THE RED LIGHT GIRLS is an utter failure as a giallo. This late in the day, film makers were looking for ways to broaden its appeal in a frankly over-saturated market. Massimo Dallamano, for example, grafted the basic giallo plot onto a cop thriller with electrifying results in the same year's WHAT HAVE THEY DONE TO YOUR DAUGHTERS?, but this falters at pretty much every step. Of course, fans of Euro sleaze and camp 70s fashions will find a few reasons to sit through it (as will fans of more obscure Euro starlets – including the wonderfully named Felicita Fanny), but, frankly, it’s scant pickings.
Thankfully, Di Silvestro's next project – the delightfully loopy WEREWOLF WOMAN (1976) – is still pretty abysmal, but much more entertaining.
female:2 / male:1
1) Female stabbed to death
2) Female killed (method unseen)
3) Male killed by beer bottle up anus