By Tristan Bishop
I’ve been a fan of Italian genre cinema for around 25 years – every since I caught a TV showing of Mario Bava’s Black Sunday as an impressionable youth – and as such I tend to believe I’ve seen most of the best that the Italian golden age (around 1960-1986) has to offer. Very occasionally, however, a film will slip through the cracks – often due to it previously not having been available in English, and my understanding of Italian being very poor. They Have Changed Their Face (sometimes translated as They’ve Changed Faces – a title which I prefer) is one of these. Director Corrado Farina only made two feature films – One, the sexy, psychedelic comic book adaptation Baba Yaga (1973) is fairly well known to English-speaking fans due to a release by Shameless, but They Have Changed Their Face has previously remained only available in, I believe, Italian and German. Thankfully, Cigarette Burns, who have arranged screenings of all sorts of exploitation gems (often on original prints) are bringing this film to show on the big screen in the UK for the first time.
Alberto Valle (Giuliano Disperati) works at Auto Avio Motors on the tenth floor. On arriving one morning he finds himself summoned to his boss’s office, who informs him that the vice president has asked to see him, and that all his other meetings for the day have been canceled. Somewhat surprised, Alberto heads to the 19th floor, whereupon the Vice President takes him on to the 20th floor to meet the CEO. After asking him to pour himself a drink (surely a little early?), the CEO asks Alberto if he is able to leave straight away to meet the owner of the company, one Mr Giovanni Nosferatu (seriously, the warning bells should be ringing at this point) at his villa in the mountains. Alberto agrees, and sets off straight away. The villa is a little difficult to locate, however, and the locals in this forlorn, misty part of the world don’t seem to be keen on speaking to Alberto – especially when the name of Nosferatu is mentioned. However he soon stumbles across a strange, topless girl, who offers to give him directions to the nearest petrol station in exchange for a lift. On discovering the entrance to the villa, the girl decides to wait for Alberto as she has ‘fallen in love with him’.
Nosferatu’s villa is a strange proposition – from the outside a rundown mansion, but inside an ultra-modern (for the early 70’s), minimalist pad, surrounded by a huge park patrolled by voiceless men in tiny cars. Alberto is greeted at the door by Nosferatu’s secretary, Corinna (Geraldine Hooper from Argento’s Deep Red) , who takes care of Alberto (in more ways than one). When he finally meets Nosferatu, the company owner turns out to be a welcoming older gentleman (Played by Adolfo Celi, best known as Emilio Largo in Thunderball, who was astonishingly only 48 at the time) who is working on food technologies (‘I have invented gastronomic socialism’) and is keen to promote Alberto to the CEO of Auto Avio Motors – but at what price? And is that a dead body that Alberto spies in the grounds of the villa?
If you hadn’t already worked it out, Farina’s debut feature is a modern twist on the vampire story – but with capitalism instead of literal blood-sucking. On one hand the angry, paranoid message of the film is very much of the early seventies, but on the other hand there could be nothing more fitting with the mood of the world today than an anti-globalization parable – and it’s hard not to see the figure of, say, Rupert Murdoch in Celi’s portrayal of Nosferatu. That’s not to paint They Have Changed Their Face as just a sharp political satire however – it’s also a wonderfully atmospheric gothic horror movie. The scenes set in the mountains where Alberto is searching for the villa have a foggy, moody look that matches the most poetic moments of Georges Franju or Jean Rollin, whilst the bright whites of the interiors point more towards the stark science fiction of 2001 than the saturated colours of Mario Bava and his imitators. In fact the contrast between the old, mountainous world of mists and terrified villagers, and the gleaming technological ‘present’ serves to underline the themes of the film – that the monsters are no longer controlling us by traditional means.
Special mentions must be given to the performances of Celi – who gives a wonderfully bland yet menacing portrayal of total evil, and Geraldine Hooper, whose strange looks are convincingly bewitching, and fans of early seventies soundtracks will get a real kick out of the proggy, organ and choir heavy music by Amedeo Tommasi. But the film as a whole is quite unlike anything else you’ve ever seen – intelligent, creepy and, at times, wryly humorous, so do yourself a favour and get to the Barbican on the 16th September (tickets available here).
Read on for Tristan’s Q&A with Corrado Farina…
BAH: Hello Mr Farina. Since we’re discussing the first showing of They Have Changed Their Face in the UK, I wonder if you can tell me about the original release of the film. Did I do well? Did the critics like it?
Corrado Farina: The film won the Locarno Film Festival but really divided opinions. There was much negative criticism, especially from left-wing newspapers, which accused the film of making up problems and of substantial connivance with the “system”. In the cinema it was released, but did badly, and at the time no-one saw it. Only years later, thanks to VHS and DVD, it began to circulate among fans and gradually became a small cult.
BAH: The film steadily Has Been Gaining a cult reputation among English-speaking audiences on the Internet in recent years (despite it having never Been released in English before, to my knowledge). Have you been aware of this or is it a surprise?
Corrado Farina: It was a pleasant surprise, especially considering that no one has ever made a version in English.
BAH: Adolfo Celi is a familiar face to fans of European cinema, and gives a wonderful, subtle performance here. What are your memories of working with him?
Corrado Farina: Excellent. Adolfo was a very nice man and a serious professional, very well-known at the time thanks to the character of Largo (…from Thunderball) but he wasn’t afraid to take a project as “at risk” as ours. And that speaks volumes about his character.
BAH: Were you influenced by any other films or filmmakers making When They Have Changed Their Face?
Corrado Farina: Yes of course. Terence Fisher and Mario Bava first of all, but only for their first films. But the myth of the vampire was just a starting point to get to say my opinion on the contemporary world. Do not forget that we were in 1970, in the middle of protests, and I arrived from advertising – just like the star of “I’ll never forget what’s His Name”, (A Michael Winner film from 1967 starring Orson Welles and Oliver Reed) another film which at the time was seminal for me.
BAH: Both They Have Changed Their Face and Baba Yaga are very individual films, made at a time When most Italian film was either a spaghetti western, a giallo or a crime thriller. Was it hard to get such unusual films made?
Corrado Farina: Very, very hard. In fact they would not get made at all today.
BAH: Finally, Which is your favourite of your two feature films, and why?
Corrado Farina: In my opinion They Have Changed Their Face – it is rougher but also, to its budget and its meaning, more successful. Maybe because it’s my first-born, it is also what I love most. With Baba Yaga my intention was to go much further in the search for a common language for “film-comics”, and therefore I consider it only partially successful, a bit because of me and a little because certain graphics solutions would become possible only after years , thanks to computerized special effects.
BAH: Thank you very much for taking the time to speak to us, Mr. Farina!
Corrado Farina: You’re welcome, my friends! Thank you for your esteem to my movies.