Umberto Lenzi’s DIRTY PICTURES(a.k.a. AN IDEAL PLACE TO KILL, a.k.a. OASIS OF FEAR) screened in a fairly well-preserved print provided by the American Genre Film Archive at the Alamo Drafthouse in May. Audiences were treated to an unconventional gem from Lenzi, known for the many giallos he has directed. This is a giallo in a very different form; it opens as a ‘sixties ode to hippies, free love, and yes, dirty pictures (and self-made pornography) before taking a left turn for the weird and mysterious.
This film seems like a completely different animal when it opens with Bruno Lauzi’s upbeat, poppy score and two young, mischievous hippies in the form of Brit Dick Butler (Ray Lovelace) and his underaged Danish girlfriend Ingrid (Ornella Muti). Good-looking, carefree, and believing they are truly invincible, they jet around small-town Italy buying pornography and then selling the titular dirty pictures taken by Ingrid. When the police catch wind of their schemes, they take off in a stolen car only to run out of petrol. Of course, their solution to siphon petrol embodies the well-intentioned jabs Lenzi takes at hippies throughout the film: they consider themselves completely self-reliant and free of the mercy of traditional employment, yet they make their living through exploitation and petty thievery. Here comes the twist: they get caught stealing petrol from an upper-class Italian woman Barbara (Irene Papas), who, after her initial shock, invites them to stay the night in her luxurious villa.
The dynamic between this gruesome threesome is the film’s finest hour. Barbara initially seems naive letting the young people stay and eat at her place believing them to be poor unfortunates, but she has ulterior motives at play that soon come to light. The entertaining night at the villa includes a power play between the three characters that includes seduction, crime, and deception at every turn. It is to Lenzi’s credit that this sequence at the “oasis” is thick with suspense, and it is difficult to guess who will get the upper hand. It is here where the film really feels like a true giallo, though it is tame for the genre and especially tame for Lenzi (who has also directed CANNIBAL FEROXand NIGHTMARE CITY). It is relatively free of blood and gore, but heavy on sexiness and suggestiveness.
DIRTY PICTURES deserves to be seen, especially by horror fans. As an early giallo, it proves that psychological chess moves can be just as interesting to watch as stabbings, that sexual desire filtered through smarts is captivating. It presents a unique view of hippies, offering both an affectionate document and a wicked indictment of the sixties counterculture movement, as the ending and the fate of Dick and Ingrid prove. A definite product of its time and uniquely positioned right before the genre was to be associated with extreme violence, it proves the tension part of the equation is just as important, and maybe even more interesting at times.