Design & Italian Horror: Fair Game (1988)

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Fair Game (also known as Mamba) is a 1988 Italian horror-thriller film directed by Mario Orfini  starring Trudie Styler and Gregg Henry. It's a typical example of an Italian horror film from this period - it's fairly low budget and feels not to dissimilar to the televisual thrillers of the era. As par the course in Italian genre cinema, it features a fairly well known American actor (Gregg Henry of Body Double fame) but as always, savings to the production have been made elsewhere i.e. the small cast and limited locales. The premise of the film is fairly straightforward, Artist Eva (Trudie Styler) has separated from her clever but unhinged video game designer husband Gene, (Gregg Henry)  Enraged by his wife's actions, Gene seeks out an exotic animal dealer and procures a deadly mamba  (pumped full of hormones!!!) to enact revenge on his wife. Utilising technology from his job as a video game designer, Gene puts a tracker on both his wife and the snake and watches the ensuing game of cat and mouse through a computer simulation. The majority of the film's action hinges on Eva trying to evade the deadly snake in her labyrinthian apartment as Gene watches on from nearby.

Fair Game is a fairly lacklustre affair. Even in terms of Italian creature features from this period it's pretty bad and worse still, it makes for a pretty tedious watch. For a film categorised as a horror, there's little in the way of terror in the film's hour and 21 minute run time. The film's suspense is built around the threat of imminent danger to Eva but as the film's cast consists of three characters we know that our protagonist isn't going to come to any real harm which deadens any sense of danger - even the film's climax feels achingly predictable. There's a few "menacing" shots of the mamba snaking round Eva's apartment and Trudie Styler acting suitably histrionic but this does little to ramp up any sort of suspense/danger. Despite the film's many flaws there is one saving grace to Fair Game and thats the film's production design by Academy Award winning Italian art director, Ferdinando Scarfiotti. 

Scarfiotti's Magritte influenced Toys (1992)

Fair Game's sets were designed by renowned Italian art director, Ferdinando Scarfiotti. Scarfiotti is perhaps best known for his work on the 1987 Bertolucci film The Last Emperor (1987) for which he received an Academy Award for Best Art Design. Scarfiotti also served as the production designer for Bertolucci's The Sheltering Sky (1990) and The Conformist (1970) as well as acting as a supervising set designer for Last Tango in Paris (1972). Outside of his work with Bertolucci, Scarfiotti acted as visual consultant for seminal eighties films such as Brian De Palma's Scarface (1983) and Paul Schrader's American Gigolo (1980) and Cat People (1982). I'd argue that Scarfiotti's most identifiable work as a production designer is the 1992 Robin Williams film Toys. Heavily influenced by the work of surrealist artist, Ren√© Magritte, Scarfiotti combined elements of the artist's paintings with components of artistic movements such as Futurism and Modernism filtering them through a late eighties/early nineties postmodern aesthetic that included references to Ettore Sottsass's Memphis Milano collective. The Last Emperor may be responsible for Scarfiotti's Oscar but Toys is the film that cemented his reputation as a titan of production design. Scarfiotti's mark on cinema and art design is undeniable, he was a true visionary who had an incredible ability to create distinctive cinematic worlds with an eye for detail unrivalled by many of his contemporaries. Although Fair Game is not the best example of Scarfiotti's work (hampered by a smaller budget and limited premise) it's still a showcase of the art director's approach to set design and his interpretation of 1980s styles of the time. In honour of Scarfiotti's work, I'm going to examine some of the set design on display in Fair Game and how the film represents key trends of the era. 

As the majority of the Fair Game's action is contained to Eva's home, set design is integral in maintaining visual interest and variation. The architectural design of the apartment is the film's focal point and much of Fair Game's narrative hinges on Eva moving through the various spaces in her apartment in an attempt to evade the mamba. The apartment must act as a maze as well as a place of visual interest and the intricacies of Scarfiotti's design allows for the audience to discover new areas of the apartment that initially appear hidden. In order to achieve this, Scarfiotti breaks up a large almost warehouse like space with various partitions and architectural features. Considering the film's simplistic narrative this is particularly clever as Scafiotti's design creates various different spaces for Eva to explore, progressing the film's plot as she slowly moves through her labyrinthian home. The lack of obstructions i.e. doors makes for a more believable premise - Eva can't shut herself off from the creature, essentially finding herself trapped in a large open space. The strange architectural and interior design features create places for Eva to hide and for the mamba to lurk. I particularly like the wooden and steel rafters that the mamba slithers along creating danger from above. 

There's plenty of architectural and interior design elements that cement Fair Game as an example of late 1980s design in film. One of my favourite qualities of postmodern design is its playful nature and humorous and referential self awareness. Postmodernism typically associated with the late 1980s to early 1990s is often regarded as having a fake quality - it's almost set like and artificial in nature. You can attribute this to the simplification of classical design elements and the way in which they're combined with the simplicities of modernist principles. There's something almost jarring about classical elements of architecture simplified and replicated in more modern materials and styles i.e. the very fake looking marble columns. A particular example of postmodernist design in Fair Game is the kitchen partition consisting of a grid design that is typical of the works of postmodernists like Aldo Rossi (see the San Cataldo cemetery for reference) and the works of Maltese architect, Richard England. England in particular would construct buildings that would consist of different structures, often fusing classical elements like an ornate pediment with modernist qualities like functional square windows. You can see this idea on an interior design level above; a grid like screen contains the apartment's kitchen whereas on the other side of the room, two neoclassical columns stand for ornamental purposes, industrial rafters combine these two elements together and draw the eye from one end of the warehouse to the other. The screen cap above perhaps best represents the production design of the film as it shows the almost funhouse like quality of Eva's apartment. It's easy to see how the design of the apartment would lend itself to the cat and mouse game played between Eva and the mamba whilst showcasing some of the more overt elements of late 1980s interior design. 

Scarfiotti continues this funhouse element to production design in Eva's apartment with his use of side stepped stairs in contrasting colours. The exposed staircase evokes M C Escher's Relativity - a structure that seemingly leads nowhere. The screen grab above makes it look like the stairs continue on to the ceiling as opposed to a room or landing. This strange Escher like quality is emphasised by the platform at the top of the stairs that hangs over Eva's bed, a feature that has no real purpose other than to highlight the apartment's funhouse like feel. Further on in the film's narrative, it's revealed that these stairs lead to Eva's bathroom but as this is not obvious from the set design it creates a sort of spatial discrepancy. Things to do not appear as they seem in Eva's home - initially her apartment looks to be an open space but features like columns and screens hide and obscure areas or make them appear different from various angles. Again, Scarfiotti conceals and reveals through set design. Another scene shows Eva climbing two sets of ladders in order to reach the apartment's rafters again this creates a jarring feel to the film as we've been previously shown a staircase that reaches up to one level and is significantly smaller. Examining Scarfiotti's other work on a larger scale like Toys, this seems deliberate, he likes to play with perception and scale in order to create surreal worlds that feel at odds with reality. 

Interior design wise, Scarfiotti's work on Fair Game is partly reflective of a prominent design trend in the 1980s known as Southwestern. Southwestern design was heavily influenced by Native American, colonial Spanish and Texmex styles and influences. Typical design motifs that are associated with the style are Navajo/Ikat textile patterns (as evidenced in the couch throw in the picture above), tromp d'oil scenes of Southwestern locales, mixed wood architectural features, tiling, Native American artwork and the use of colours such as peach, apricot, red, orange, green and turquoise. Several of these design elements are apparent in Scarfiotti's design but the kitschiness of the design movement is paired back by combining it with elements of other 1980s design styles such as Memphis Milano. What's perhaps interesting about this choice of design style is that it echoes the film's opening scenes in the Mojave desert and emphasises the exotic nature of the creature at the heart of the film. It also feels fitting for a film that takes place in LA - perfectly melding west coast desert style with California cool. Unusually the film's set features a set of stairs leading to what appears to be a garden but is in actual fact a high walled courtyard full of oversized greenery. Again, this plays with your perception of the building's layout but it also frames the living area with a jungle like exterior again, evoking the exotic nature of the mamba's indigenous home. Of course, overblown greenery is another trend of 1980s design and typically utilised in Southwestern design schemes with an emphasis on bringing the outside in i.e. southern tromp d'oils, cattle motifs, horseshoes etc. Another film that embodies this Southwestern aesthetic is Donald Cammell's Arizona set White of the Eye (1987) which exhibits some of these interior design qualities although perhaps in a more overt fashion due to its desert setting. 

Fair Game's poster features Trudie Styler cowering on a black and white checkerboard floor. The checkerboard flooring is an inspired design choice and works particularly well with the Fair Game title as opposed to Mamba. I like how Scarfiotti and the film's poster art play up the game like element with a floor resembling a chess board. Obvious perhaps, but it works at driving home the film's central premise and Gene's job as a video game designer. It's unfortunate that nowadays black and white checkerboard floors have a certain connotation, every film that features one seems to be automatically tied to the masons, the illuminati and all of these dubious cultural conspiracy websites. There's so many examples of checkerboard floors in films from this period and although some would argue there's something sinister afoot, I'm more inclined to believe it's purely due to a design trend of the era. Look at the artwork of someone like Japanese artist, Yukio Kitta and you'll see this motif reflected time and time again. In fact, two films I associate with 1980s/1990s postmodern design sensibilities both have this design feature in them - Domino (1988) and Scissors (1991). There's also several examples of this sort of flooring peppered throughout television series, Miami Vice. The checkerboard floor is perhaps more reflective of 80s deco but as I mentioned above, different design elements of the era downplay the potential kitschiness/theme like nature of Southwestern design. The sleek marble checkerboard flooring contrasts nicely against Eva's  canary yellow table set and Ikat runner. Note the brightly coloured sculptures dotted around the table and kitchen which reflect Eva's postmodern sculptures. 

As previously mentioned, much of Fair Game's suspense and tension arises from Eva navigating her labyrinthian apartment as she attempts to evade a hormonal, aggressive mamba. Eva is trapped inside her apartment and this is humorously alluded to through the film's production design. In one scene, Eva covers her kitchen floor in flour before jumping on top of her fridge out of the mamba's way. As she cowers on the fridge, we see Eva framed by a large mint green window positioned at a slanted angle. Again the film's funhouse like feel is accentuated by an off kilter childish architectural feature. The windowpane looks out onto the apartment's brick exterior wall - a silly visual nod to Eva's imprisonment in her own home. Another sly wink to the audience in a typically postmodern way.
What's nice visually about this scene is that set design and costume design have worked in tandem  -the mint green window frame perfectly mirrors Eva's sweatshirt. 

Alongside the film's interior design there's some interesting furniture/design pieces on display. Eva's television cabinet is clearly influenced by Memphis Milano design with its triangular and circular lacquered shapes and use of the primary colour yellow echoing the playful nature of the design movement. Eva's desk lamp is also somewhat influenced by Memphis Milano design baring similarities to Robert Sonneman for George Kovacs desk lamp that paid homage to Ettore Sotsass and co. It's reminiscent of the work of collective member, Andrea Branzi with its use of the material lucite and its aqua tinged translucent light. The desk lamp also has elements of another eighties design style - 1980s deco which is reflected in its curved shape and column with stacked base. Finally, Eva's kettle feels somewhat postmodern in design - typically I associate postmodern appliances with Michael Grave for Alessi's conical kettle but there's several examples of unusual forms of kettle from this period. The squashed nature of the appliance with its industrial spout has a passing resemblance to Richard Sapper's 1982 9091 kettle for Alessi. The handle is evocative of a kettle bell which feels in keeping with the humorous, pun like nature of postmodernism. 

This blog entry perhaps suggests that Fair Game's production design is passe and a relic of an era that has long since passed but I'd personally argue that the film's art direction has similarities with interior design trends that we're seeing in 2017. Eighties postmodernism is slowly but surely gaining reappraisal and is now reaching a new level of appreciation with audiences. The resurgence of Memphis designs such as the Bacterio print, the listing of notorious British PoMo buildings like no1 Poultry and a tumblr fascination with "ugly house" design has stoked the fires for a full blown revival of design from this period. The contrasting colour palette and colour blocking in Eva's house wouldn't look out of place in the homes of hip twenty-somethings (see the millennial pink wall in the screen grab above contrasted with a cobalt blue steel rivet door and white walls and ceilings). Unusual forms like the appliances and fixtures above are becoming more common place - perhaps a reaction against stiff minimalism and Southwestern design pieces sit in Urban Outfitters alongside 80s marble and hexagonal jewellery boxes and Memphis notebooks. Truly, we are entering a PoMo, 1980s revival and Scarfiotti's production design is a perfect throwback to where some of these trends originated from.

Fair Game is by no means a great film but for those with an interest in Ferdinando Scarfiotti's career and approach to visual design it's well worth a watch. Fair Game is a surprisingly good example of Italian design of this era and dare I say reflective of some of the trends that have influenced interior design in 2017.

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  1. Interesting you mentioned White of the Eye. I don't think I've ever seen anyone bring that film up in the context of design, but I've seen many, rightfully so, acknowledge the Italian influence of the death scenes, the first one especially. It almost feels like a real estate video, the way the camera glides through the house and shows off all the cookery, ect... Funny how certain things influence each other, ie the giallo elements in White of the Eye, an American film, and the southwest influence on the design of this Italian film.

    These kind of pieces are excellent, by the way. They really highlight one of the major reasons why these types of films stick out so much. Keep them coming!

    1. Hi Tom,

      Thank you for leaving a reply on my post! I'm glad you've also noticed the importance of design/interiors in White of the Eye - it really struck me when I first watched it and it seems to be an underrated component of the film - I think in many ways, it's why the film feels so akin to an American take on the giallo, stylistically it seems to echo the genre's predilection with design and how design can heighten murder scenes through elaborate visual staging. I couldn't agree more with your observations on that initial death scene. It's always fascinating to see how eighties giallo influenced American films impacted on the giallo in the mid to latter half of the decade. The Body Double/Nothing Underneath comparison always comes to mind!

      Thank you for your really kind words on the piece. Comments like the one you've left really inspire me to keep writing pieces like this. I love your blog and look forward to delving further into your excellent writing.

    2. Well first off, thanks for your kind words on my little corner of the web. Coming from someone who runs a site of this caliber its encouraging to say the least.

      I'd like to add that I also find it interesting how the American's and Italian's kept influencing each other when the 90's rolled around and the erotic thriller craze was in full swing. For instance, I don't think its a stretch to say films like Basic Instinct or Jade have a strong Italian influence whereas on the Italian side of things movies like The Washing Machine and Craving Desire feel tailor made to resemble the American erotic thriller.

    3. No problem! That's very kind of you to say; it's always reassuring to hear praise from someone whose writing I admire.

      Definitely. It's what makes the later entries in the Italian thriller so fascinating and worthy of discussion. The American influence is evident but it's filtered through a thoroughly Italian sensibility which gives the films you've mentioned a unique feel. I've always felt that Colour of Night is very giallo like. I've half written a few posts about American gialli and 90s gialli influenced by the films you've mentioned but alas they are languishing in my drafts.


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