A pair of sexy, young hippies, Dick (Ray Lovelock) and Ingrid (Ornella Muti), finance their cross-continental travels by selling naked snapshots of the latter. Wrongly suspected as bank robbers, the two find refuge at a large, isolated villa belonging to middle-aged socialite, Barbara Slater (Irene Papas). The neurotic, older woman cosies up to the free-loving hippie couple, but the morning after they discover she harbours some dark secrets, including a dead body in her car. Realising they’re being played for patsies, Dick and Ingrid hold their host captive, but the resulting cat and mouse games are destined for a violent end.
Before his career nosedived into splatter-horror trash with Nightmare City (1980) and Cannibal Ferox (1981), Umberto Lenzi made glossy gialli like Paranoia (1968), So Sweet So Perverse (1969) and A Quiet Place to Kill (1970). Often revolving around wealthy women driven insane by scheming madmen and starring Hollywood sex siren Carroll Baker, these Italian thrillers were quite successful in their day. The trend was wearing itself out by the time Lenzi reworked the formula with Oasis of Fear - also known as Dirty Pictures - a sexy giallo infused with a post-1968 spirit.
Exploitation filmmakers were typically more comfortable dealing with the fag end of the sixties when hippie idealism was dying out amidst much cynicism and sexual decadence. Lenzi casts his freewheeling young anti-heroes adrift in sensation-seeking Europe, where old ladies ogle the outsized genitals on marble statues around Rome, just as lecherous goats gawp at Ingrid’s shapely bottom.
With Ingrid a dreamy lovechild who happily hands a kite taped with wads of cash to a impoverished child and Dick prone to spinning outrageous lies about their hippie exploits, the youngsters are both innocent and shrewd, both exploiters and the exploited. Their tendency to live life as a fun and games marks them as doomed. While they’re canny enough to turn the tables on Barbara, Dick can’t bring himself to commit real cruelty. The older woman has no such qualms. While not quite a long-lost classic, this evolves into an interesting chamber piece, and Lenzi delivers psychological drama and a number of tense sequences.
The script strives for philosophical depth, yet like Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup (1966), Tonino Valerii’s Queens of Evil (1971) - which also stars Lovelock - and Fernando Di Leo’s To Be Twenty (1975), offers a middle-aged filmmaker’s sour view of youth and vitality, prone to epigrammatic dialogue (“Don’t pay attention to her, she’s just expressing youth’s innate distrust of authority…”) amidst trendy optical flourishes.
Although Lenzi later disparaged his young leads as “too squeaky clean”, Lovelock and Muti are eye-catching, engaging antiheroes. Muti, who evolved into a fairly accomplished actress - alongside her memorable turn as Princess Aura in Flash Gordon (1980) - is particularly adorable when she dons an Indian saree and tiara and fans will delight in her scorching, sitar-scored striptease. Her character’s slow-burning jealousy of Barbara is less convincing, particularly as the miscast Irene Papas continually looks uncomfortable, whether grooving it up on the dance floor or orally pleasuring the young lothario. The distinguished actress understandably refused to do nudity, so Lenzi segues to a shapely body double for these softcore love scenes. While laced with intrigue and titillation, the film refuses to address icy Barbara’s motivations and she wavers between pensive and hysterical. Coupled with a fatalistic streak that renders the Bonnie & Clyde (1967) style climax a foregone conclusion, Oasis of Fear is worth a watch but rather gimmicky and soulless.
Prolific, workmanlike Italian director and writer who dabbled in most genres throughout his 40 year career. Started work as a film critic before making his directing debut in 1961 with the sea-faring adventure flick Queen of the Seas. The two decades years saw Lenzi churn out westerns, historical dramas, Bond-esquespy yarns and giallo thrillers among others.
It was his 1972 proto-cannibal film Deep River Savages that led to the best known phase of his career, with notorious gore-epics Cannibal Ferox and Eaten Alive and zombie shlocker Nightmare City quickly becoming favourites amongst fans of spaghetti splatter. Continued to plug away in the horror genre before retiring in 1996.