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Case Number 03029: Small Claims Court

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Olivia (1981)

Image Entertainment // 1981 // 84 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron (Retired) // June 20th, 2003

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All Rise...

Editor's Note

Our reviews of Olivia (2009) (published September 2nd, 2009), Olivia: Merry Christmas, Olivia (published November 14th, 2010), and Olivia: Princess for a Day (published September 4th, 2011) are also available.

The Charge

Her love can kill you

The Case

After watching her prostitute mother get call-girled to death by a decadent, deranged GI, Olivia grows up to be a disturbed, depressed child bride. At twenty, she's locked in a loveless, abusive marriage that requires her to cook breakfast in the morning (the horror!) and walk the dog at night (there ought to be a law!) Eventually, the torment of matrimony leads Olivia to channel her dead mother's voice. And Moms wants to steer our lost lovely into a life of street walking and/or serial killing. Indeed, while her Andy Capp in training hubby is busy welding random pieces of pipe together, Olivia is slaughtering sex fiends. One night, she meets up with an American viaduct buyer named Mike and they begin a passionate affair. Apparently, apparition Mommy approves of the arrangement, but no sooner is Olivia happy and whole of personality when her soldering sod of an old man catches her mid-infidelity. Something lethal happens that moves the entire plot, the characters, and London Bridge itself, to Arizona. There, Mike runs into a woman that looks like Olivia. There, a woman who looks like Olivia acts like she just might be Olivia. There, a character that we thought was dead returns to continue his belligerent, battering ways. More bodies pile up and eventually, we learn that life, either in a dry heat or a fog, is tough when your dead mother's man-hating mantra keeps badgering you in the belfry. Just ask Olivia.

Let's get the "granteds" for this movie out of the way right up front. Granted, it was made over 22 years ago, when terror was more subdued and a director could get away with a slower pace and less flamboyant killings. Granted, it was an attempt at a more psychological than visceral horror experience. Granted, this is nothing more than a prostitute's Psycho mixed with DePalma's Obsession and British landmarks. Granted, lead actress Suzanna Love seems lost in a daze of bad wigs, mixed accents, and unsure motives. And granted, her co-star, Robert Walker Jr., seems mere moments away from succumbing to some life-threatening disease that is telegraphed all over his pained, cracking face. But this doesn't mean Olivia is a bad movie. Far from it. It just means Olivia is a misguided attempt at creating an erotic thriller that allows ancillary issues to muddle up the main drive of the film. When it should be scary or sexy, Olivia is casual and pointless. Obviously influenced by the Giallo style of Argento or Bava, director Ulli Lummel lets the camera settle and focus on peculiar point of view shots to hopefully build up the suspense. The scenes of young Olivia spying on her whore mother through a static peephole gobo have an unsettlingly quality. The information limited in the peripheral of the screen leaves us to wonder about what is happening outside our sightline and the imagination starts to run wild. But when nothing really does happen (Mommy's murder takes place outside the clever POV shot), the entire visual scheme seems like a gigantic grift. We were set up for nothing. This is a main problem with Olivia. It's a film that positions several potential sequences of mayhem or menace, but it fails to pay off on any of them.

Casting causes a great many of the other troubles with Olivia. As our leading lady, Suzanna Love is indeed an emotional void, unable to scare or care up even the smallest amount of sympathy from the audience. Her insane internal monologues with Mommy sound like Norman Bates warming up for a motivational speaking engagement. You half expect Martin Balsam to come walking up the flat's stairwell. Love's Olivia may be complex, but nothing about her acting lets us into that private world, leaving us stranded in the uninteresting set pieces of the film's creators. It's never good to base an entire film around an uninvolving character, good or evil. As a love interest, Robert Walker Jr. looks, frankly, uncomfortable in his role as dashing leading man. He does appear gaunt and unwell. Maybe he had issues in his personal life. Maybe he suffers from disintegrating DNA. But he also is never given a decent character to wrap his aging acting chops around. His bridge expert Mike comes across as vaguely incompetent and arrogant without any good reason. When confronted by several snooty members of some London Bridge conservation society, he acts less like an expert and more like a mischievous schoolboy caught by the headmaster for talking about structural load bearings. But the minute he sees Olivia, he's like a Spaniel in a snausages factory, pawing at her hoping to find the meaty middle. And director Ulli Lummel fails to understand the first rule of a sexy fright flick. If Olivia is a threat, she needs to be a loose cannon, ready to pop off at any time. Instead, she is so passive that it takes repeated acts of personal humiliation and internal voice venting before she works up the wantons to off someone. Like the main character, Olivia the movie is submissive to the point of inertness. It is a passionless lesson in lethargic story, sex, and scare development.

Image offers Olivia in a decent DVD package that skips many of the standard digital disc bonuses for a good picture, decent sound, and a wonderfully insightful interview with director Lummel. On the visual end of the spectrum, Olivia is remastered, uncut, and reconfigured into its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio that indeed preserves the director's decidedly artistic frames. The movie has a definitive European flatness that renders the colors a little dull and lifeless, but overall the image is first rate. As is the sound. Though presented in Dolby Digital Mono, Olivia has a soundtrack filled with somber moments, quiet dialogue, and ambient atmosphere. All of it comes across effectively (if a tad under amplified by Image—you do have to turn up your system's volume a bit to hear everything offered). Finally, there is that very telling interview with filmmaker Ulli Lummel, who discusses in great detail the reasons for and the relative success of (in his opinion) the film. It's fascinating to note that all of the London Bridge material, even the parts supposedly in the UK, were filmed in Arizona. Also captivating is Lummel's self-righteous indignation that his movie is nothing less than a Hitchcockian classic. Lummel is not so much deluded as he is personally linked (deeply) to the movie's financial success; he bankrolled all of his films himself. Of course he's going to make it sound like a lost classic, but viewers of this DVD will know better.

Olivia is a film that starts off promisingly and ends pointlessly. In between are scenes of great imprecision filled with characters and actors unable to breathe life into a mostly comatose script. Olivia could have been a decent slasher flick. It has all the components, but none of the competence.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 67

Perp Profile

Studio: Image Entertainment
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
• English
Running Time: 84 Minutes
Release Year: 1981
MPAA Rating: Unrated
• Erotic
• Horror

Distinguishing Marks

• Video Interview with Director/Writer/Producer Ulli Lommel


• IMDb

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