Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: the year’s crop of Marvel movies, including the new X-Men: Days Of Future Past, has us thinking about comics adaptations from outside the superhero spectrum.
Danger: Diabolik (1968)
Diabolik, the original masked supercriminal of Italian comics, was created to corner a niche market: rail commuters. Comic books and magazines were too large to comfortably read on a packed train, so Angela Giussani, head of a small publishing house called Astorina, came up with the idea of printing comics in an address-book-sized format. They could be read one-handed, and would be small enough to fit in a jacket pocket.
Thus were born the fumetti neri (“black comics,” because Italians have a thing for color-coding genres), a whole sub-genre of discretely sized black-and-white comic books with pulpy plots and supercriminal anti-heroes. Diabolik was followed by Kriminal, Satanik, and, most notoriously, the lurid “photostory” series Killing. (The latter was big in Turkey, spawning several insane unauthorized movies.)
Film adaptations were inevitable. Umberto Lenzi’s Kriminal (1966) was the first, trading the simple monochrome style of the comics for groovy, full-color widescreen. Diabolik came to the screen under the aegis of super-producer Dino de Laurentiis, as part of a slate that included Barbarella.
Like its better-known, bigger-budgeted counterpart, Danger: Diabolik has an international cast and plenty of Space Age decor. It also has something the lugubrious Barbarella sorely lacks: a sense of infectious, amoral fun. Directed by Mario Bava, the premier garish stylist of Italian genre movies, it has become, in the five decades since its release, one of the definitive touchstones of Euro pulp, a decadently silly movie crammed with miniatures, op art, bachelor-pad lairs, less-than-convincing rear projection shots, and suspiciously colorful nighttime scenes, all soundtracked by Ennio Morricone’s lush exotica score.
Diabolik’s persona was sketchy even by the standards of fumetti neri. Unlike Kriminal, one of those rare examples of a knock-off that surpasses the original in ambition, the Diabolik comics made no attempt at maintaining continuity, or developing its three main characters—Diabolik, his lover Eva Kant, and their arch-nemesis Inspector Ginko—past a handful of identifying characteristics. Danger: Diabolik embraces the cartoony flatness of the source material, both in terms of visuals (Bava’s compositions resemble full-color panels) and characterization. As one of the movie’s most fervent Stateside boosters, Glenn Erickson, wrote in 1999: “Diabolik may barely achieve even one dimension, but does so with a clarity that makes audience identification simple. He’s the final distillation of the idea that we love criminals because we secretly admire the transgressions they represent.” Danger: Diabolik is an ode to those who steal from the rich, give to themselves, and look great doing it.
Availability: Though Danger: Diabolik is currently out of print on DVD, copies can be obtained through independent video stores (yes, they still exist) or rent-by-mail services like Netflix. Barring that, there’s always YouTube.