What Have You Done to Solange? Review
On the surface, What Have You Done to Solange?, or to use its original Italian title Cosa Avete Fatto a Solange?, is just one of an almost uncountable number of gialli released in the 1970s, riding on the coat-tails of the success of Dario Argento's The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. It has everything you would expect (and hope) to find in such a film: a baffling whodunit, an overshadowing of the proceedings by childhood trauma, weak dubbing, nubile naked girls, and of course, my personal favourite, the black-gloved killer. Solange, however, is difficult to dismiss as a generic clone or mere entertainment. It has a way of getting under your skin and sticking in your mind long after the closing credits have finished rolling.
Enrico (Fabio Testi), an Italian working as a teacher in an all-girl Catholic school in London, is having an affair with one of his students, Elizabeth (Cristina Galbó). One day, while Enrico is trying to get into her pants on a rowing boat floating down the river, she catches sight of a young girl running from a mysterious figure, and then the flash of a knife. It soon turns out that a girl has indeed been murdered, stabbed through the vagina. The students begin to drop like flies, falling victim to the same treatment, and it becomes clear that the targets were all connected to an unknown horrific event that took place a year ago involving another girl, the mysterious (and untraceable) Solange. Naturally, after lying about his whereabouts at the time of the first murder, to avoid the wrath of his wife, fellow schoolteacher Herta (Karin Baal), Enrico soon finds himself on the list of suspects and must fight to clear his name.
Right from the start, with the orange-tinted opening credits which feature a group of schoolgirls cycling through the idyllic countryside in slow motion, a deceptively tranquil atmosphere is established. As we all know, however, appearances can be misleading, and this continues throughout much of the film. We are being urged to look at things a little more closely, since who knows what terrible things could be happening just out of eyeshot? I will be neither the first nor the last critic to draw attention to the parallels between the act of stabbing someone and the act of sexual penetration. Solange cements this link by featuring a protagonist who kills his victims by stabbing them in the vagina and then leaving them to bleed to death. One perfect example of how director/co-writer Massimo Dallamano illustrates this link is in an extremely effectively edited scene where the killer is shown preparing to "penetrate" a victim with his knife. As he thrusts the weapon forward, we cut to a close-up of Elizabeth experiencing what initially appears to be an orgasm. It turns out, however, to be a nightmare, which creates an even more Freudian situation that I very much doubt I'm qualified to get into! This is a perfect example of the sadistic atmosphere that engulfs the film. The fact that the killer will perform such an attack, going for a taboo area as opposed to the decapitations, knives through the heart and disembowelments that are somehow more "acceptable", creates a genuine feeling of unease.
As is so often the case in gialli, the actors are mere tools that enable the director to relay the necessary exposition and carry the plot forward. While many of them are perfectly capable, including Joachim Fuchsberger as the sceptical Inspector Barth, the post-dubbing gives them little opportunity to flex their muscles. The wildcard here is Solange, played by Camille Keaton, grand-niece of Buster and the same woman who, a few years later, would crop up in Meir Zarchi's controversial (and misunderstood) rape-revenge shocker I Spit on Your Grave. Although she only appears towards the end of the movie, and has no dialogue at all, she is an incredibly effective presence, with her wide eyes and open-mouthed, childlike stare achieving more than words ever could. Cristina Galbó, on the other hand, while relatively effective at portraying Elizabeth's carefree demeanour, and very nice to look at, appears a little too old at times to be believable as a sixteen-year-old girl (although much of this is probably to do with the voice she has been dubbed with).
The cinematography is credited to Aristide Massaccesi, which is in fact the real name of the notorious porn director Joe D'Amato (who has, in scores of films, been listed with what seems like every other name under the sun). It's relatively accomplished, although no doubt helped somewhat by the 2.35:1 aspect ratio that has been used by many directors and cinematographers to give their films a faux "epicness", masking unimaginative composition behind the wide field of view. The camera has a decidedly Peeping Tom motive, with a couple of scenes where it pans slowly throughout a shower room packed with naked teenage girls. These are actually undeniably welcome inclusions, as they provide a nice break from the violence of the rest of the film, where the nudity becomes somewhat less enjoyable. It's actually quite difficult to believe just how sleazy the film manages to be, as Dallamano wastes no opportunity to get out his actresses' breasts - and more. (I'm not saying this is a bad thing.)
Like many gialli of this period, Solange also features a solid score by Ennio Morricone, that is alternately pumping and mesmerizing. While not necessarily his best work, it is highly effective throughout and gives the film a distinctly classy feel. The use of London as a location is also genuinely unusual. While I expect that most readers will be familiar with the city, at least from film and television, it takes on a genuinely different look and feel when presented in the context of a film that is decidedly mainland European in flavour. Spotting the various landmarks in unusual situations actually makes for a rather fun distraction when watching this film. Also interesting is the level of restraint Dallamano shows when it comes to portraying the violence of the film. While the modus operandi of the killer is horrific, very little of this is actually shown on-screen. This has actually been true of a number of the gialli I have seen, which leads me to believe that their reputation for excessive violence is somewhat exaggerated. (Then again, I have only seen one film by Lucio Fulci, so perhaps my point of view is somewhat skewed.)
The film's final frames are open-ended, showing us that there are no easy answers. The best gialli ask us to do more than just sit and watch it passively, and therefore What Have You Done to Solange? is about as good as it gets as far as this type of film goes. While not perfect, it is a highly engaging and at times powerful film that rivals much of the work of Dario Argento himself. It has a great air of mystery, sleaze and horror, as well as a great denouement and a genuinely disturbing motive for the killer. If you are a fan of gialli and haven't yet seen this gem, seek it out immediately.
Media Blasters presents What Have You Done to Solange? anamorphically in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Unfortunately, the transfer has been encoded interlaced, strongly suggesting that it was sourced from magnetic tape, laserdisc or some other non-film material. The transfer looks okay, but the interlacing doesn't really help the clarity. It is consistently too soft, and fast motion shots, especially pans, look a bit jittery. The end result is certainly watchable, but it's not particularly satisfying. Solange was originally announced as part of Anchor Bay's line-up but was unceremoniously cancelled, which is a shame as I believe they would probably have done a better job of the transfer.
Sensibly, the original mono English mix is the track included, presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 format. As I always say, the Italian audio track (with optional English subtitles) should really be included for these films, since despite the fact that they are generally shot silent with the expectation of being dubbed into English (hence, the lip movements more or less match up to the English dialogue), the Italian variants frequently sound more sincere than their English counterparts.
The audio is fairly serviceable. It certainly shows its age, and is somewhat limited by the quality of the recording - the dialogue and music both sound quite scratchy and muffled at times - but it's always comprehensible. Media Blasters, it would seem, think that they are Anchor Bay, since they neglect to include subtitles of any kind.
A great deal of effort has been put into the packaging and making it look like something out of the past. The highly effective front cover has been doctored slightly to make it look worn-out and battered, and the back cover is effectively laid out with a collage of stills from the film. It all looks great, despite "anamorphic" being mispelled as "animorphic".
Inside there is an excellent 12-page booklet featuring yet more stills, as well as biographies of Massimo Dallamano, Ennio Morricone, Fabio Testi and Camille Keaton, and a short essay about the film by Robert Marcucci. Chapter listings are also included on the back cover.
The menu design is excellent, much like the packaging. It is also easy to use and doesn't feature any pointless transitions or the usual fluff that crops up on DVD releases all too often.
Unfortunately the bonus material on offer is decidedly limited. An Art Gallery, featuring various still photographs and advertisement tie-ins, an interesting and effective Theatrical Trailer, and Bonus Trailers for Sweet House of Horror, Spasmo, House on the Edge of the Park and House of Clocks are all that are included on the disc itself.
What Have You Done to Solange? is a seminal giallo, presented on a less than satisfactory DVD, but the quality of the film itself shines through. With a better release looking unlikely, at least in the near future, and the UK release reportedly looking even worse than this one, this Media Blasters release looks like the one to go for.