[review by JA Kerswell]
BODY PUZZLE was one of the last hoorays for the giallo genre. The giallo had gained popularity in the 1960s with seminal films by Mario Bava, such as THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1963) and BLOOD AND BLACK LACE (1964); before Dario Argento’s cross-over hit THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (1970) ushered in a wave of black leather gloved assassins. The giallo waned in popularity from its early-mid 1970s heyday through the 1980s and - like much of the Italian film industry itself - went into terminal decline in the 1990s. So, it seems fitting that Mario Bava’s son Lamberto paid tribute to the giallo in this high entertaining - if gloriously implausible - love-letter to the once all conquering genre.
|Tracy (Joanna Pacula) thinks something has gone off in her fridge ...|
Perhaps atypically, BODY PUZZLE isn’t a whodunit but more a why-they’re-doing-it? We see the killer (played by French actor François Montagut) murder a sweet shop owner with huge butcher’s knife and remove several body parts. In a prologue, the killer chases a mystery person on a motorbike who fatally crashes. This event appears to unhinge him, and sets off a murder spree where he takes body parts from his victims; all the while listening to Modest Mussorgsky’s dramatic classical piece Night on Bald Mountain on his Sony Walkman.
A young widow, Tracy (Joanna Pacula), attracts the attention of the killer, who leaves bloody body parts in her fridge freezer. She has no idea why she is being targeted and is further horrified when she is told that her late husband’s body has been stolen from the local cemetery. Detective Michele (Tomas Arana) is investigating the series of murders and questions Tracy about her involvement - especially as the killer seemingly had keys to her house. He discovers that she is also mourning the recent death of her brother and fears that she could be the killer’s next target. However, after moving to her parent’s palatial mansion and despite a heavy police presence, the killer continues toying with Tracy and leaving her gruesome gifts …
|The killer in Lamberto Bava's BODY PUZZLE doesn't let murder interupt his exercise regime!|
Detective Michele pieces the clues together along with the audience. In typical giallo style, this involves interviewing various people who provide plot details to keep the whole thing rolling along at a pace. It also gives an opportunity to feature some genre stars of yesteryear in cameos. This includes Giovanni Lombardo Radice as an entertainingly arch stable owner who knows a few things about Tracy’s husband’s double life. Radice had appeared in a similar role in Michele Soavi’s STAGEFRIGHT (1987) as well as a number of Lucio Fulci’s gut munchers in the early 1980s. The still-striking Erika Blanc - here playing a psychiatrist who doesn’t pay much heed to patient confidentiality - was a mainstay in the gallio’s hey-day, including Emilio Miraglia’s THE NIGHT EVELYN CAME OUT OF THE GRAVE (1971).
For someone who famously said that he didn’t much like making films where a killer pursues people with a knife, Lamberto Bava certainly had a flair for it. Perhaps more distinctively he also seems to have a lighter touch than, say, Dario Argento. Bava certainly wasn’t afraid to revel in the more preposterous aspects of the genre - something that fans love it so much for (and this makes a good companion piece to his mid-late1980s giallo output such as YOU’LL DIE AT MIDNIGHT (1986) and DELIRIUM (1987), which also revelled in the gallio’s inherent pulpy insanity). BODY PUZZLE features a number of outrageously playful and visually audacious set pieces, including a scene where the killer swims underwater in a local pool, knife out-stretched ahead of him, and castrates a lifeguard (he sends the severed penis to Tracy who mistakes it for a finger!). In a scene that veers deliciously close to bad taste, a school teacher for the blind is murdered in front of her class of unaware young children (one of whom gets a splash of blood in the face). Perhaps the film’s most notorious sequence (and perhaps a nod to the director’s earlier giallo A BLADE IN THE DARK (1983)) is the brutal murder of a woman in a shopping mall’s bathroom, where the killer lops off her hand and it splashes into a toilet bowl.
|In BODY PUZZLE fridge-freezers can be dangerous places!|
Whilst cleverly plotted, the film does rely on some quite shocking plot contrivances and poor police work that results in a case of mistaken identity that would have led to an inquiry in real life! Not only that, despite a heavy police presence to protect Tracy the killer is able to roll up whenever he wants and leave gifts at her front door - including a severed hand door-knocker. He even appears to be able to order pizza to the house! Bava’s playful tendencies appear (one incidental character is called Mario Fulci) and affection for the genre’s past throughout. It is testament to his abilities that the film doesn’t tip into parody - although it does come close at times. In the film’s most outrageously illogical moment, the killer hides in a chest freezer under ready meals (and a dead body) just on the off chance someone might open it! Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that BODY PUZZLE was released the same year as Paul Verhoeven’s BASIC INSTINCT, it does veer off sometimes into some half-hearted thriller eroticism, but thankfully only briefly. The film can, at times, be a little heavy-handed. An example being Tracy mentioning a dumb waiter so many times that it is hardly a surprise when the killer pops out of it at an opportune moment later in the film.
In an interview with Ultra Violent Magazine, Giovanni Lombardo Radice said he got on fine with Bava, but disliked Tomas Arana intensely and said he was a “pain in the ass”. But he didn’t provide any further details. For his part, Arana recalled in an interview with Phillip Escott in the liner notes for the excellent 88 Films Blu Ray release of the film that BODY PUZZLE was a lot of fun to make. He described Pacula as “neurotic”, but fun to work with. He recalled that the mansion, where Tracy is holed up, belonged to a man who was on house arrest after being accused of murdering his wife. He said Pacula turned down a dinner invitation from him! Arana was in the Whitney Houston / Kevin Costner blockbuster THE BODYGUARD the same year as Bava’s film.
|Lamberto Bava mixes bad taste, gallows humour and giallo thrills in BODY PUZZLE.|
BODY PUZZLE was originally intended to have been made in 1989 with Jasmine Maimone (DEMONS (1985)) in the role eventually taken by Pacula. But the project was delayed when Maimone unexpectedly quit acting that year. It was eventually produced with the backing of Pietro Bregni and Mario Bregni of Produzioni Altas Consorziate (P.A.C), who had produced Mario Bava’s giallo FIVE DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON (1970) (as well as Dario Argento’s SUSPIRIA (1977)). Modest Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain is used to great effect in the murder sequences, but apparently it had to replace Bava’s first choice of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana - which was nixed because Orff’s heirs objected (although it is not clear if that was just for the export version).
BODY PUZZLE was released in Italy in the summer of 1992 under the title MISTERIA (which simply translates as MYSTERY). The accompanying promotional artwork promoted as a “breathtaking” return to the thriller by the director. Italian newspaper La Stampa praised Bava for elevating the film above what it called “B movies”, saying that he created a film that was “fast and unpretentious” and was suspense - not fx - driven. Bizarrely, the film was released on video in the United States attributed to a Larry Louis rather than Bava. Often Italian film-makers were given anglicised pseudonyms for English speaking audiences to hide the fact the film had been made in Europe, but his pseudonym here sounds French. Now there a puzzle for you …
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female: 2 / male: 4
1) Male dies in motorcycle crash
2) Male stabbed to death and ear taken
3) Female has hand cut off and chest cavity gutted
4) Male castrated in pool and penis taken
5) Female has throat cut and eyes taken
6) Male dies in car crash