Lust not, wont not, Judge Gordon Sullivan.
Loneliness can be a nightmare.
The Italian giallo film derives its name from the fact that the initial stories were adapted and/or influenced by a series of successful paperback novels that had distinctive yellow covers (giallo being Italian for yellow). These books started out as translations of now-classic British and American mysteries from the likes of Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler, but grew into a homegrown set of gruesome stories of mayhem and murder. Then the films started, with Dario Argento perhaps chief among the directors who took those grue-soaked stories of murder and gave them an edge of psychological horror and sleazy eroticism. These films became hugely influential, especially for fans of horror. So influential, in fact, that even those on a lower budget want to emulate their favorite genre films. City of Lust was originally titled Yellow in homage to the genre, and it does its best to use a tiny budget to conjure some of the magic of the Italian masters. Though it doesn't quite succeed, there's something undeniably interesting about the film.
Arianna (Margaret Grace) is a cosmetologist with a dark past who seems to wander through her days with little connection to others. One day she decides to call a phone sex hotline and finds herself connecting with the woman on the other end of the phone. Though their connection deepens, Arianna starts to notice her life getting stranger, and then people around her start to die.
City of Lust feels quite a bit like checklist filmmaking. Because the giallo isn't a tradition native to America, filmmakers have to reverse-engineer what makes a film part of the genre if they want to emulate it. City of Lust often feels like writer/director David Holcombe tried to create this kind of list. We've got a psychologically damaged woman with a dark past at the center of a mystery story. We've got a bit of sleazy eroticism in the form of a lesbian connection facilitated by a phone sex line—are those even still a thing in 2013? We've got an attempt at stylish visuals in the form of a mobile camera that seems to take up a first person point of view. We've got the bold colors, especially reds, we expect of the genre. Finally, of course, there's the violence these sleazy movies have prepared us for.
The main problem with City of Lust is that it just doesn't have the budget to really make the material sing. Though masters like Dario Argento have never benefited from huge budgets, they had the funds to do a sturdy job because they knew that it's hard for a horror film to lose money. Also the Italian production context insured that there were plenty of decent actors around who would be willing to appear in a giallo film. The combination means that directors like Argento had the funds to stage a crazy camera move as well as the ability to put a decent actor in front of said camera. Not so much with City of Lust. Thought advances in technology mean that smaller, lighter cameras allow for lots of movement, much of what's in front of the camera looks too cheap to be believable. It's not so bad in more intimate scenes, but when there's a "crowd" it looks like the filmmakers invited some friends over to an apartment to stand in for a "club." The actors, for the most part, aren't particularly stellar. It's not any worse than the average low budget horror film, but the psychological aspects of the giallo demand a slightly different approach than the usual zombie or slasher flick.
But even with a huge budget, City of Lust probably still wouldn't really succeed. The film is just a bit too complicated and not assured enough in its style. Some of that is no doubt due to the budgetary constraints, but some of the problems (like issues with flashback structure) can and should be taken care of during the script stage.
And yet, there's something surprisingly compelling about the film. Part of it is definitely Holcombe direction, which often hits interesting compositions with the mobile camera. Even if the budget isn't there to realize everything perfectly, the film still showcases an eye that would benefit from further encouragement. Also Margaret Grace (making her feature debut according to IMDb) is the acting highlight of the film. Her Arianna is difficult to look away from despite the sometimes lackluster character development.
The film gets a surprisingly decent DVD release as well. The 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer is fine for the material. The production has a shot-on-prosumer-equipment vibe, so clarity, color accuracy and black levels aren't stellar. None of that is the fault of the transfer, though, and the film is totally watchable. The film's stereo audio is similarly fine; dialogue is generally easy to hear, even if clarity is limited by location/equipment. Subtitles are helpfully included, which is a rarity for a film of this budget and very much appreciated. Extras include a bunch of bonus footage. We get fundraising videos, deleted/extended scenes, bloopers, behind the scenes shots, and clips from rehearsal. Theatrical and teaser trailers are also available. A commentary might have been a nice addition, but otherwise this material gives a pretty solid picture of what it was like to make City of Lust.
City of Lust is the kind of low budget feature that will probably only appeal to die-hard fans of small-scale horror. It shows some serious potential for these filmmakers, but is definitely hampered by a small budget. Those willing to give it a shot get a strong DVD release in the bargain.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Brain Damage Films
• Deleted Scenes
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