Fashion & Italian Horror: Dial Help (1988)

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Today I'm going to spare you all from another excessively long fashion post by attempting to do a condensed version of my usual feature (ha this didn't actually happen). This time round we're heading to 1988 for a slice of supernatural tinged horror from the man who brought you Cannibal Holocaust, The House on the Edge of the Park and Phantom of Death. Yes, ladies and gentleman that's right, we're covering our first Ruggero Deodato film, 1988's Dial Help.

Now first things first, this film is pretty much universally HATED by Italian horror fans. The ridiculous concept of haunted/possessed phones, Charlotte Lewis' ropey acting skills and the low budget and late eighties look of the entire production. How could the man who brought us Cannibal Holocaust - a film famous for its biting social commentary and brutal depictions of violence make something as bland and nonsensical as Dial Help only 7 years later? Yet strangely, despite the level of vitriol levelled at Dial Help I can't help but love this ludicrous tale of phones possessed by the deceased operators of a Lonely Hearts telephone line and I partly attribute that to the very late eighties look of the entire production.

From a fashion perspective, films from the late eighties/early nineties always fascinate me. Being born in 1989, I guess I have an affinity for some of the fashions of the time period and I have fond memories of my Mum and her friends wearing some of the styles of fashion you inevitably see in these sorts of films (obviously not what Charlotte wears in in the bathroom scene!) For me, the late 80s/early 90s look is at the opposite spectrum to the Italian giallo of the late 60s/early 70s. Where the fashions in those early gialli were full of colour, garishly patterned fabrics and outlandish fashion design, the late eighties/early nineties gialli were characterised by simpler, more low key looks. Whereas the looks of 70s gialli seemed to belong to models, photographers and ladies of leisure, the looks of late eighties and early nineties gialli belonged to young professional woman  - the fantastical element of gialli had been replaced by a more realistic aesthetic.

Limited colour palette for Dial Help (1988)

As you can see from the above colour palette, Dial Help's costume design is made up of a limited number of block colours. Creams and blacks are the colours that dominate the film and are in keeping with the more stripped back style of the time period. Charlotte Lewis as model Jenny wears monochrome clothing throughout the film with the exception of a blue jumper in one scene and a yellow towel that she wears around her neck in another. I included the yellow in the colour palette as a sickly coloured yellow is very prominent throughout the film in terms of set design i.e. Jenny's bathroom, taxis, the pay phones etc. as well as the towel that she briefly wears. The colour palette of the clothing and the clothing itself is very muted and the set design props and lighting are much more prominent than the costume design. Blue and red lighting is heavily used throughout the film and the scenes lit in this colour scheme are perhaps the most striking moments in a film that is aesthetically rather bland.

In my opinion this more muted approach to costuming and set design really hindered a lot of gialli productions of this era making them visually unappealing and outwith the typical excessive style of the genre. Yes, this was indicative of the lower budgets and limited resources of the late eighties but it was also an overall change in fashion which now viewed the styles of the seventies as severely outdated. Dial Help shows how Italian cinema of the late eighties moved away from the fantastical styles of the past and began to reflect a more modern, simplistic look. Despite the styles featured in Dial Help (as well as early nineties fare such as The Washing Machine, Craving Desire and The Girl From Cortina) being widely unpopular amongst genre fans and not considered to be in keeping with the genre, I personally feel it's unfair to criticise the changing style of the Italian thriller; fashions and culture change and the look we associate with the golden period of the giallo couldn't realistically carry on forever. A genre famed for showcasing Italian design had to keep displaying the latest fashions which meant discarding the modernist style. Unfortunately, that modern style didn't really fit with the aesthetic of the classic giallo and left us with films that never quite lived up to their predecessors stylistically. Of course that's not to say that Dial Help was a ground breaking or even a good film, because it wasn't, but it does show a change that is of interest to any one with a passing interest in the stylistic changes throughout the genre. Again, the late eighties/early nineties gialli really embodied this new contrasting aesthetic. I personally like this change of style and feel it brings something a bit different to these films but for many, that late 80s/early 90s aesthetic was the antithesis of what gialli should look like. It's certainly interesting to look at the Italian thrillers of this period and compare them to their counterparts of previous decades - the fantastical, glamorous style associated with the genre has well and truly gone by this point in time.

Charlotte Lewis as Jenny is your typical giallo protagonist - she's a fashion model from London who moves to Italy for work (like Jennifer from 1972's Case of the Bloody Iris) and fits that classic giallo role of an outsider in a foreign country. Despite being the classic archetype of a giallo leading lady, she dresses fairly conservatively and like many young women of the time in simple styles. Jenny has a glamorous profession yet she is never dressed up to the nines or wearing clothes that could be considered out of place for where she is or what she's doing. This is very much at odds with your typical giallo model who is a walking canvas for extravagant fashion designs. Jenny's wardrobe designed by costume designer Giovanna Deodato (presumably a relative of Ruggero) is a mix of oversized pieces with tight lyrca/bodycon skirts and dresses. This is very much in keeping with the fashions of the time where oversized masculine tailoring was very popular among young women. The eighties were famous for the popularity of shoulder pads (see Lamberto Bava's 1987 Delirium for numerous examples) and Dial Help featured this trend in an albeit more restrained fashion. Shoulder pads were still a fashion staple into the early 1990s but by 1988 instead of inserting them into jackets with heavy beading, jewel colours and avant garde tailoring, they were put into jackets in neutral colours with masculine cuts. This is evident in Jenny's signature jacket which is a mini check jacket in black and cream. This is worn over a turtleneck, in its first scene over a cream one and in its second appearance over a black one. Jenny wears another jacket later on in the film borrowed by her love interest yet it looks very similar to the one worn earlier in the film demonstrating the similarities between mens and womens fashion of the time.

As previously mentioned a popular style of the time was to mix masculine tailoring with form fitting feminine fashion. Materials like lyrca were very popular in achieving that skin tight look. Typically you'd find these garments in black to give the wearer the most figure flattering look acting as a silhouette of the feminine form. Charlotte Lewis as Jenny wears this trend twice throughout the film initially in her first scene where she teams her oversized jacket and turtleneck with a black bodycon skirt and tights. The second time she wears this look is in a nightclub/party scene where she wears a form fitting black mini dress which was a popular nighttime look of this period. The classic black vest dress is such a simple look yet its so effective in this scene and Charlotte Lewis looks absolutely incredible - she doesn't need a lot of make up, an intricate hairstyle or elaborate jewellery. The dress perfectly showcases her enviable figure and that's enough for the film to really sell Jenny as a model - we don't need to see her in over the top fashions to know that she's hot property. If anything its refreshing to see a model in a film who doesn't walk around like life is one big catwalk.

We couldn't talk about Dial:Help without mentioning the scene the film is most famous for and is undoubtedly what made so many men take the time to rent it on VHS. Of course I'm talking about the scene in which Charlotte Lewis strips down to her lacy basque and suspenders and then proceeds to writhe around in a bath that looks suspiciously like it's been filled with piss. I guess it shows that good underwear doesn't date.

Other trends featured in the film that are very indicative of the time period are sweats (we see Jenny wear oversized blue sweats early on), large buckled belts, black leather backpacks, black calf length boot and straight leg black denim jeans. In many ways I associate this film with trends that I typically think of as being early nineties and it just goes to show how ahead of the curve Italy was in regards to fashion. When I think of 1990s fashion trends I think of Italian fashion houses such as Versace and Moschino and its clear from watching films of this period that the Italians were far more ahead of the curve than us Brits (or Americans) in costume design. I was surprised when I watched Dial Help because it went against my expectations of what later eighties style was which is why when I think of this film I always seem to class it as a nineties giallo as it feels like it has far more in common with the aesthetic of the nineties than the eighties. 

There's less for me to say about Dial Help compared to my usual fashion posts but I thought it was worth discussing as it's interesting to look at different styles featured in Italian horror and I thought this neglected time period needed a little bit of love. Perhaps a review of Dial Help will be coming soon so I can discuss how fucking TERRIFYING the man in the underground is. To conclude this post I'd like to share my inspiration for choosing Dial Help for my latest entry in the Fashion & Italian Horror series and that is this jacket that I just bought from ASOS. Not to be worn when answering a dubious pay phone...

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