Patrick Still Lives is a piece of trashy nonsense from the Gabriele Crisanti production stable. Crisanti was a former production designer – on films such as No Diamonds for Ursula – who turned his hands to producing after working for and learning from Fortunato Misiano, the Sicilian producer who’d scored numerous successes in the melodrama and peplum genres. Like Misiano, Crisanti was an unashamed populist, who paid as much attention to the marketability of his product as the quality, and he churned out a slew of films that followed whatever popular trend was in the ascendant, starting the 70s with numerous decameroticons and then moving on to erotic comedies before, as the decade drew to a close, turning his attention to the horror genre.
Horror films had rather fallen out of fashion in Italy since their heyday in the early 60s. Aspects had been incorporated into the giallo, and the occasional oddity had been released, but apart from that they were seen as being difficult to distribute, and therefore not worth making. With the international success of US horror films such as The Exorcist and Dawn of the Dead, however, this changed, and Italian producers saw that there was money to be made by upping the ante: if these releases were partially successful because they were able to show blood and gore on screen, then let’s make films with even more blood and gore.
Crisanti was one of the cruder practitioners of the trend, which – as well as the general low budget of his productions – probably has something to do with his choice of collaborators. While Fabrizio de Angelis, a similar kind of producer, had the sense to pick talented directors (Lucio Fulci, Enzo Castellari) and writers (Dardano Sacchetti, Elisa Briganti), Crisanti made do with the likes of Andrea Bianchi and Mario Landi.
Landi, the director of two of his horror films – Patrick Still Lives and Giallo a Venezia – was actually an interesting case. A filmmaker of the old school, he was very much the type of steady, unimaginative hand that Misiano had used to favour, and indeed he’d first made his name with some low budget melodramas back in the 50s. Since then, though, he’d moved wholesale into the emerging TV medium, where he’d gained respect as a director of popular dramas, such as a phenomenally popular Maigret series in the 60s. And it was he who was the initiator of his two films with Crisanti, approaching him with some rough treatments. Seeing some moneymaking potential, Crisanti agreed to make them, calling in the prolific (and rather scattergun) writer Piero Regnoli to work on the scripts. Patrick Still Lives – a kind of unofficial sequel to the popular but now forgotten Australian film Patrick – was the second to hit the screens.
Five strangers – all of whom have their own dirty little secrets – are blackmailed into visiting a health spa run by the mysterious Professor Herschell (Sacha Piteoff). There’s an ex-prostitute (Mariangela Giordano), a crooked politician (Franco Silva), his slutty wife (Carmen Russo), a drug dealer (John Benedy) and a hit and run driver (Paolo Giusti). After spending an inordinate amount of time bickering and taking their clothes off (the ladies only), they start getting bumped off, one after another, by some kind of malignant invisible force.
It turns out that Herschell’s son, Patrick (Gianni Dei), has been lying in a coma for five years, the result of being hit on the head by a beer bottle thrown from a passing car (!). The Professor, meanwhile, has devised some cunning way of channeling Patrick’s telepathic power, so that he’s able move inanimate objects, make trees rustle, lift the skirt of the attractive secretary (Anna Veneziano) and project some hokey superimposed eyes on the screen whenever things are getting dull. Unsurprisingly enough, it turns out that the offending beer bottle had been lobbed by one of the aforementioned characters – the Professor hasn’t been able to find out which – and Patrick wants his revenge.
Well, the most positive thing to say about this is that it’s all rather good fun. It’s a load of old rubbish, of course, but at least it doesn’t try to be anything more than it is, and just about everybody responsible seems to have taken the approach that even if it’s irredeemable crap, it certainly shouldn’t be boring irredeemable crap. So you get lashings of nudity, bad dialogue and outrageous violence (including the notorious poker up the vagina sequence, which is so ludicrous it’s almost priceless). All of which were the key elements in most of Crisanti’s other horror productions as well, which similarly dispensed with such fripperies as style, characterization and logic.
But, that apart, it’s pretty bad. Regnoli’s script is just dreadful, and surely didn’t take more than an afternoon to knock off: sub-plots are left unexamined, the whole thing makes no sense, and there are a couple of lengthy passages where hardly anything happens. Landi’s direction is functional at best; his bog-standard approach would work fine on TV, but on film it’s less effective and rather stilted. But then, it’s hard to do much with such an obviously limited budget – it’s all set in what looks like the dingiest health spa possible -and Andrea Bianchi did a lot worse with Burial Ground and Malabimba.
Given this, perhaps not much could be expected of the performers, and on the whole they’re pretty forgettable. Anna Veneziano (who I believe made nothing else) and Paolo Giusti (who actually had quite a decent career) are particularly culpable, instilling their characters with absolutely no sign of life. Gianni Dei somehow manages to overact without being able to do anything more that lie in his bad staring into space – but as he says, he was never paid for these films and did them purely for fun, so why not. Sacha Pitoeff was bought in by the distributors who wanted a foreign star to increase sales, although their definition of the word star may have been somewhat loose: after his key role in Last Year in Marienbad he’d done very little else of note. He was a pretty strange looking guy in Marienbad, and here he looks particularly weird, but seeing him wander around a similarly deserted building does create a certain kind of resonance (although Resnais this ain’t). Mariangela Giordano was always game, and she’s the most natural performer on display here, getting the usual violent demise that she always seemed to suffer in Crisanti films.
For anyone wanting to know why Sra Giordano put up with so much grief on behalf of Sr Crisanti, the answer is simple: the two of them were in a relationship for twelve years, throughout the seventies and during the period in which they made their notorious collaborations. As Giordano recounted in an interview in Shock Express:
“Looking back, I shouldn’t have done them. But I was in love with Gabriele, I would have done anything for him. Now I can see how the increasingly gruesome ways in which he had me killed in them was a reflection of the breakdown of our relationship.
When I’m filming I throw myself into the role and I don’t think about the ramifications of what I’m doing. It’s like I have an alter ego. While I never have a problem over what actions I’m doing at the time, sometimes I have looked back in astonishment and thought ‘Did I really do that? Did it look that vulgar?’
Patrick Still Lives is the worst instance of how shocked I was in retrospect by something I’d done on film. That poker scene is so disgusting, so terrible, only Gabriele could have sweet talked me into actually doing it! I played an old maid who arrives in the kitchen (again!) and is attacked by a possessed poker. It took two days to film that scene, and because the poker had to keep thrusting between my legs before it came out the top of my head, it got more and more painful as we kept going. And it was cold and freezing. I don’t know why Gabriele always insisted on making these movies during winter.”
But at least the poor woman did have some respite:
“That [the catfight with Russo] was fun. All my pent up rage at Gabriele is in that brawl.” She also recollects that:”…Carmen Russo was strange. Well, in my opinion she was strange. She had big breasts. She’d studied dance, but walked with these big feet. I found her strange”.
Despite her obvious shortcomings as an actress, Russo went on to become probably the most famous of all the performers involved, starring in a number of saucy comedies and becoming a familiar figure on Italian TV. According to Crisanti, she used her salary from the film to pay for substantial plastic surgery (‘this was the last film she did with her real face’).