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After completing a pair of films with Andy Warhol, Ulli Lommel embarked on his most prolific and popular phase of his career as a director. This period of Lommel’s career is characterized almost exclusively by forays into the horror genre. These American films, often made in collaboration with his wife Suzanna Love, were sleazy hybrids of disparate horror traditions. Of these films Olivia (1983) stands out as the closest that Lommel ever came to realizing the formal strategies of his early feature The Tenderness Of Wolves (1973) within the tradition of the American horror film.

Elliptical movements through time and space function as surreal flourishes in Olivia that signal the intervention of the title character’s interiority into the linear narrative complex. This intervention is lifted from The Tenderness Of Wolves and employed in Olivia as a means to ground the spectator within the main character’s subjective perceptions. This strategy accomplishes the same effect as the fades to red that proceed the slow motion flashbacks in Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece Marnie (1964).

Like Marnie, Olivia is a film about a woman’s childhood trauma. Both films deal with mothers who are sex workers that are abused/murdered by clients. The title characters in both instances witness these atrocities which traumatize them and lead them to criminal activities as adults. But Lommel does not stop with Marnie in mining Hitchcock’s films for concepts. Lommel also barrows the use and meaning of the double from Vertigo (1958) to signal Olivia’s (Suzanna Love) commodification and oppression as an object of desire.

The stratagems of Vertigo and Marnie are united in Olivia as part of a cyclical complex of trauma and violent oppression that rules Olivia’s life. Her various outbursts of violence and changes in appearance are depicted as coping mechanisms and cathartic self assertions. The issue is that while Ulli Lommel clearly has some good ideas his own style seems to get in the way. Olivia is poorly paced and so many of Olivia’s appearances in the film are sexualized to the extent that she rarely achieves the pre-requisite agency and autonomy to execute Hitchcock’s brand of psychological portraiture.

It seems that when Lommel imported the dual personas of Vertigo into Olivia he also brought over that films notion of impotent masculinity that by its very nature must subjugate the feminine personality. The character Michael (Robert Walker Jr.) is the closest parallel to James Stewart’s Scottie in Olivia but he is neither manipulative nor violent enough to fill that role. Michael is more like Marnie‘s Mark Rutland (Sean Connery) which throws off the dramatic complex when the camera operates as a surrogate for Scottie, determined to fetishize and objectify Olivia.

Yet Olivia is compulsively watchable and wholly affecting despite these failures and peculiar choices. Lommel’s evocations of atmosphere and the central metaphor of London Bridge lend the film a unity and depth that manage to keep the proceedings engaging. Olivia is not The Tenderness Of Wolves but it is one of Lommel’s most ambitious and successful horror films. In some ways Olivia would be better as the second film on a triple bill with Marnie and Body Double (1984) so that the thematic preoccupations and aesthetic strategies of Hitchcock could be seen as they are distilled into two very different yet distinctly 80s spectacles of horror and suspense.