Ginger Nuts of Horror
There are films that will not die, no matter how many stakes are hammered into their heart by movie critics.
"Hanno Cambiato Faccia" ("They Have Changed Their Face") filmed in 1971 by Corrado Farina, a director whose previous experience had been with TV commercials, is one of these impossible-to-kill flicks and it happens to be my favorite Italian horror.
An obvious product of late ‘60s/early ‘70s sensibilities and passions, “Hanno Cambiato Faccia” is hard-hitting and political, arthouse but cheap, intelligent and yet blunt, and at times rather tasteless in its all-out attack on its target of choice.
It is a horror without monsters, gore or jump-on-your-seat scares, a satire without laughs, and it builds a growing sense of hopelessness and alienation that the viewer will bring home after the end credits.
The true missing link between Murnau and Carpenter (or between Marx and MacLuhan), "Hanno Cambiato Faccia" won a Golden Leopard at the Locarno Film festival in 1971, and yet it is today almost completely forgotten.
Opening in smog-shrouded industrial town Turin (Italy), the movie follows Alberto Valle (Giovanni Esperanti), a mid-level employee of the AAM (Auto Avio Motors), as he is taken from his routine, faceless job and invited to the out-of-town villa of the company's sole owner, Ing. Giovanni Nosferatu.
Flattered and intimidated, Alberto Valle drives to the decrepit Nosferatu villa in a misty, wintry landscape of winding roads and deserted villages. As per vampire movie tradition, the locals are scared when they find out what Alberto's destination is. Along the way, he picks up hippie hitch hiker Laura (Francesca Modigliani), an uninhibited young woman whose main ambition is to travel the world without a destination, and would happily share the road with Alberto.
But Alberto is a good and loyal employee, and he ditches Laura to enter the strange world of Giovanni Nosferatu: a villa that is as ramshackle and decrepit on the outside as it is coolly modernistic on the inside. On a surreal note (the first of many) the villa is surrounded by a park patrolled by white FIAT 500 city-cars driven by white-suited drivers that "are not paid to talk".
Alberto meets the vaguely alien, androgynous Corinna (Geraldine Hooper), Nosferatu's live-in secretary, and finally the man himself - a suave and yet cheerfully cynical tycoon that "has big things in mind for Alberto".
Seduced by Corinna, Alberto is finally offered the post of CEO of AAM.
Things get surreal and disquieting, fast: Nosferatu's mansion comes with innuendo-laden built-in commercials for the products of Nosferatu's many industries: step into the shower, and sexy voices will start to promote the new shampoo. Nosferatu's hobbies include pistol shooting against human shapes that cry out when hit. Guests and hosts dine on synthetic TV dinners that are "bland by design" not to distract or overstimulate the users.
In the basement, recorded tapes of voices chanting chilling slogans (“Men, you force them to work and they will say thank you”, “Today’s children are tomorrow’s specialized consumers”) play while babies in cradles listen. A ledger collects photographs of these "hothouse children" with notes on their future positions within Nosferatu's organization. There’s a photo of Alberto as an infant, too, in there, and a note about the fact that he will become CEO of AAM.
The dazed village priest asks Alberto to leave his church - a church in which Corinna won’t enter. And in the dilapidated crypt, Giovanni Nosferatu's tomb carries his birth date as 1801, but no date of death.
Guests arrive at the villa, and what starts as a posh cocktail party turns into a marketing meeting in which representatives of Church, State and Nosferatu subsidiaries plan how to use sex and lies to sell environmentally unsafe detergents and mass-market LSD as a solution for consumers' ennui.
Confronting Nosferatu in his den, Alberto kills him and tries to escape, only to be confronted, outside of the villa's gates, by Laura - she's been seduced and raped by Nosferatu, and now she is a level-headed secretary in a big company, and dreams of a husband, children, a routine settled life. She has no time for Alberto, and is embarrassed by her former dreams of freedom.
Accepting defeat, Alberto follows Corinna back to the villa, where the undead and undying Nosferatu is waiting to welcome the new CEO of his company.
Vampirism as a metaphor for capitalist greed is nothing new (Marx himself used the concept), nor is the portrayal of the rich as monsters (see Brian Yuzna’s "Society"), but "Hanno Cambiato Faccia" hits deeper, especially given its time and place.
Built like a classic vampire movie and shot in a style that is reminiscent of many Italian “giallos” and horror B-movies, Farina's work is an obvious - probably a too obvious - attack on FIAT, the Turin-based car industry that deeply influenced, and conditioned the economic and political development of Italy after World War II. And to anyone (like this writer) growing up in Turin, in a family of FIAT employees living in FIAT-built apartments and driving FIAT cars, going to schools sponsored by FIAT and vacationing in FIAT-owned facilities, with a prospected future as a FIAT employee, the idea of an industry nurturing infants to become future soulless and obedient workers and consumers, is chillingly believable.
The simplicity of the mise-en-scene, the plain and naturalistic direction, the muted colors of the exteriors and the deadpan delivery of the actors, everything contributes to the sense of dread and alienation. “Hanno Cambiato Faccia” shows us a universe in which the lives of men and women are made meaningless by evil.
Farina is particularly hard on those he sees as members of our society that have sold out to Nosferatu’s seduction – and the character of the film director at the party, that name-checks Goddard and Fellini but then shoots tits-and-ass commercials, is clearly Farina mocking his own job as a sold-out manipulator of the masses.
On top of all of this violent attack on highly identifiable targets, Adolfo Celi (famous for his role as a Bond villain in “Thunderball”) plays Giovanni Nosferatu as an obvious reference to Giovanni Agnelli, owner of FIAT - both are suave, elegant, surrounded by beautiful women. Both walk with a limp, both live in a secluded villa in the hills outside of Turin. Both entertain the hoi-polloi and have a foot in culture and one in politics. Both are untouchable.
Still today, in 2017, it is impossible for an Italian viewer to watch this movie and not wonder how they got away with it.
But maybe they did not, and if the satire hit home, hard, it is also true the movie that had been hailed as a masterpiece at the Locarno Film Festival was badly panned by critics and disappeared without a trace from the history of Italian cinema, and is today remembered in its country of origin by a handful of horror buffs.
And yet it was reviewed by the New York Times in 2008, and in 2015 it was featured in a special event at the Barbican theater in London, as a seminal movie about money and power. It was shown together with John Carpenter's They Live, with which shares a common theme and a certain savagery. Indeed, the chanting voices indoctrinating the children in the Nosferatu basement repeat many of the same concepts that the subliminal alien advertisements relay through billboards in Carpenter’s film.
Meanwhile, in Turin, in the 1990s, the authorities found out that FIAT had used former members of the secret services to build detailed files on the company’s employees and their family members.
As Alberto Valle realizes at the end of the movie, “myths did not die out, they have just changed their face.”