I’ve never been hitchhiking. I’ve never picked up a hitchhiker. I never will. You can call that callous or unadventurous if you like, but it’s never going to happen. I understand some folks hitchhike out of necessity; they’re down on their luck, broke, or what have you. But if film has taught me anything, it’s that hitchhiking never turns out okay. I’m sure this is paranoia fueled by negative reinforcement in genre narratives more than anything else, as I’m also sure that the vast majority of hitchhikers and people who pick them up are nice people, their time together passing uneventfully as one person helps a fellow in need and gains a little companionship for a brief stretch of time. But let’s face it. If you allow someone into your car or get into a car with a complete stranger, you make yourself vulnerable. Agree with me or not, but there are more than a few people in this world who want to take advantage of this kind of vulnerability, be it for money or because of some psychosis. Again, it’s not because I totally lack empathy, but I tend to cling to the old adage of better safe than sorry. Then again, I haven’t had my coffee this morning, so I’m feeling particularly misanthropic.
Speaking of hitchhikers, Max (George Willing) and his unnamed female companion (Daniela Caroli) get picked up on the road by the shady-looking Alfiero (Claudio Biava). He whisks them off to the estate of Dr. Antonio Genovese (Enzo Tarascio) and his wife (and Alfiero’s sister) Nina (Marina Malfatti). There they meet other “strays” Al recently picked up: a gypsy (Barbara Marzano), a prostitute (Dominique Boschero), and a drunk (Lucio Dalla), all of whom are perfectly content to lap up the Genoveses’ hospitality, and all of whom have no idea what’s really in store for them (hint: it’s death).
Riccardo Ghione’s The Bloodstained Lawn (aka Red Stained Lawn aka Il Prato Macchiato Di Rosso) has absolutely nothing to do with a bloodstained lawn (unlike, say, Blood Beach) outside of the direct reference Max makes to the title as he and his girlfriend saunter past a field teeming with red flowers. That said, the film does have a lot to do with blood, as you would expect. As it opens, an UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) Agent (Nino Castelnuovo) opens a crate of wine and smashes a bottle open to watch blood, not vino, drain out. The first thought that sprang to my mind was that this film was about vampires, and in a certain, non-literal way, it is. Like the lion’s share of cinematic vampires, Nina and Alfiero are cold, detached, vaguely Eastern European (blonde, pale, enjoying the works of Wagner, et cetera), and aristocratic. Similar to the eponymous Martin, they don’t bite their victims, they don’t burn in sunlight, and they aren’t afraid of crosses, but they do prey on other people and drain their blood in order to survive. Yet, they don’t drink the blood for sustenance. They sell the blood on the black market in order to grow and maintain their wealth.
Class war, then, is a heavy element of the film. The Genoveses don’t prey on just anyone. They prey on the perceived dregs of society, people no one will miss, whose disappearances won’t raise suspicions (except over there at UNESCO). More than this, the people they take in are outcasts in their behaviors. The prostitute is apathetic, thinking that everyone just wants to have sex, and for her, this is nothing more than a business transaction. The gypsy is a thief, and she has a slightly crazed look in her eyes, like a wild animal. The drunk has a cacoethes for booze that makes him do just odd things with the stuff, including, but not limited to, trying to pour wine in his eye because “it’s thirsty.” The drifters are essentially hippies; smoking weed, getting naked wherever, throwing silky blankets around their room, playing acoustic guitar, you name it. All of them are beneath Nina and Alfiero, who feel that they are of “a superior race.” The monkey in the middle, so to speak, is Antonio. While he is aligned with the “Aryan” siblings, he is not completely like them (his penchant for clown-esque bowties being the first and most prominent visual indicator of this). Antonio invents machines that are looked down on by Nina and Alfiero as nothing more than toys, despite some of their practical (but still science-fiction-y) uses. He tries to hide the drunk in a small clubhouse out on the estate (clearly intended for children). Unlike Nina and Alfiero, Antonio actually gets excited about things. He tries to maintain his distance from the human flotsam in his manse, but he simply can’t help himself. At a key moment, Antonio is overcome with lust for the prostitute (to the point of allowing his signature neckwear to be untied), losing his composure and caressing her body, fawning over it. Being called out on it, he recomposes himself and refers to the revelers as “worms.” His mind is with Nina and her brother (to a point), but his heart is with the quirkier members of society.
Although Antonio has some empathy for the outsiders, he is still crazily obsessed with machines. Further than this, he believes that machines will perfect humanity, make them immortal. He avers that nature is fundamentally flawed, and only he can fix it. By this thinking, the rejects in his house are imperfect, and this imperfection needs to be punished/purged. That being said, these same rejects are the ones who appreciate Antonio’s machines (or at least fake an interest), so the achievement of his goal would actually eliminate the very people who would respect it. Interestingly, it’s the struggle between Antonio’s heart and head, his own imperfection, that makes him seek to remove this uniqueness. In this sense he is obliviously self-destructive.
Despite The Bloodstained Lawn’s offbeat aspects, it gets dragged down by having a story that’s pure vanilla, in execution if not in plot specifics. After the initial mystery of the blood in the wine bottles piques the interest, the story then bares just about all of its surprises, and the rest becomes a waiting game. Additionally, the subplot with the UNESCO Agent is bland, dry stuff that kills the film’s pace and doesn’t add anything at all to the proceedings, other than to provide an excuse to cut away from the estate and stretch the film’s running time. And speaking of dry and bland, the only engaging character in the film is Antonio, all the others merely living down to their stereotypes and amping them up to the level of cardboard (maybe corrugated cardboard, but cardboard nonetheless). It’s unfortunate, because there is a lot of material to mine with these characters and their situations, but they are nothing more than their exterior tics in this film. Still, this is a film worth seeing, even if only for its superficial peculiarities.
MVT: The weird atmosphere is intriguing enough to maintain some interest, even though it practically begs you to pay attention to it, like a child putting on a magic show (or Antonio showing off his inventions).
Make or Break: The party in the “ballroom” (you should see the entrance) is visually striking, and its metaphor using distorted mirrors adds a (somewhat obvious but still valuable) level of substance to the film’s themes.