Wednesday, March 27, 2019

LSD: Flesh of Devil, aka LSD: Inferno Per Poshi Dollari (Italy, 1967)

Given LSD: Flesh of Devil’s (sic) fervent anti-LSD rhetoric—“the most powerful hallucinating agent yet known” says one character, the effects of which on the human mind are “terrifying”—you’d hardly know that the drug was still legal in the U.S. at the time. But LSD: Flesh of Devil was not made in the U.S.; it was made in Italy, and, as such, takes a very Italian viewpoint on its titular scourge. Devilish the drug may be, it seems to say, but watching someone under its influence is pure comedy.

The film begins admirably, with lady secret agent Sheila (Mariella Zanetti) in mid pursuit of a shady jewelry dealer named Alex Corey (Isarco Ravaioli), who is acting as a drug courier for an effete crime lord named Korba (Mario Valgoli). Aiding Sheila is her partner, secret agent Rex Miller, who watches the chase through a periscope from his hiding place within a repurposed tanker truck. Finally, upon Rex’s direction, a sniper takes Corey out. His car crashes and, of course, explodes, whereupon Miller runs over and pulls his presumably contraband-filled brief case from the flames. Then he and Shiela go back to their hotel room and screw—because, hey, this is an Italian spy movie from the 60s; what do you want?

Rex Miller is played by Guy Madison, the American cowboy star-turned-Italian exploitation hero who we previously saw in The Devil’s Man, a Eurospy film memorable for both its pitiful impoverishment and the elliptical minimalism necessitated by same. The usually straight-laced Madison makes LSD: Flesh of Devil all the more interesting for some of the goofy stuff he has to do in it.

Miller’s plan is to impersonate Corey and make the delivery to Korba, who is just part of a much larger drug smuggling operation headed by one Mr. X (Adriano Micantoni), who must have been last in line when the diabolical pseudonyms were being handed out. Miller hopes by this means to infiltrate the gang and unmask its leader. In this he is superficially successful, although Korba remains suspicious, perhaps because Miller is too rugged and handsome for such a dissolute profession.

LSD: Flesh of Devil is at its arguable best when depicting the effects of LSD. This usually happens when Korba and his gang test their product on an unwitting innocent, but the most outstanding instance is during Miller’s briefing, when he is shown a newsreel-type film of an entire army platoon who have been dosed with LSD as part of a military “experiment.” While some of these soldiers are inexplicably frozen in place like statues, others, made gay by the drug, are dancing with one another and skipping arm-in-arm like children. Others writhe on the ground and others pray on their knees, while those remaining slam their hands to both sides of their head and scream. This appeared to me to be improvised by the young actors, who were no doubt making the most of this opportunity to demonstrate their grasp of The Method.

When a subjective view of the LSD experience is called for, it is accomplished with lots of red gels and the crude superimposition of dime store fright masks atop the actors faces. At other times what looks like either a white flower of a piece of popcorn is superimposed over the actors to make it look like their heads are exploding into bloom. Timothy Leary was obviously not consulted.

Perhaps because so many show business types had used LSD by 1967—often at the behest of their overpaid psychoanalysts—the movie industry seemed to be unable to keep a straight face where the drug was concerned. How else would you explain something like Jackie Gleason’s notorious 1968 drug comedy Skidoo? In the case of LSD: Flesh of Devil, director Massimo Mida seems to feel honor bound to take the tone of a highschool scare film while at the same time being unable to keep from snickering behind his hand at the drug’s imagined propensity to make uptight people act silly. To use a dated analogy, it makes the whole thing come off like an uneasy combination of a Dragnet episode and a Laugh-in sketch.

Anyway, once accepted by Korba and his men, Miller manages to exacerbate tensions between them and the gang of a Turkish drug lord named Cioglu. In this he finds an unexpected ally in Virgnia Blair, Korba’s assistant, who is played by Operation White Shark’s Franca Polesello. As the genre demands, his cover is blown soon afterward, and the combined forces of Korba, Cioglu and Mr. X close in on him – though not before he is able to call in a massive raid by the police. This allows LSD: Flesh of Devil to end with a scene in which dozens of people shoot at each other while helicopters fly around overhead.

Though, of course, that’s not how it ends. Because after that there is a comedic coda in which the characters played by Madison and Polesello are accidentally “dosed” with LSD, forcing the actors to caper around spacily in a manner that they imagine a person who was tripping balls would. Their colleagues watch them and laugh knowingly. As you would.

If LSD: Flesh of Devil’s treatment of its subject sounds dated and corny, it is. But it is also the one thing that prevents the film from being what it might otherwise be: a fairly by-the-numbers Eurospy entry. For, as beloved as the Eurospy genre is, its films often fall victim to a kind of rote sameness which makes any whiff of novelty—be it a startlingly low budget or a confused stab at cultural vogueishness--more than welcome. In the case of this film, it’s the next best thing to watching it on drugs.

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