‘Watch out, Robert! I’d be a difficult corpse.’
In the 1870s, a young nurse takes a new job at a private psychiatric clinic in the countryside. lt’s not long before she realises that the rambling old building holds a mysterious secret, and that the handsome doctor in charge may be involved with murder…
Much like Film Noir, it can be quite a challenge to provide an exact definition of the Italian Giallo sub-genre. Sure, there are some common touchstones; the hooded/masked killer whose identity is revealed at the climax, the beautiful women meeting graphic and bloody ends in the grip of his black gloved hands or at a slash from his wicked blade, and the psychological motivation behind his actions that often involve a flashback to a traumatic past or a perverse sexual hang-up. On the technical side, they usually mix sumptuous colour photography with striking interiors, props and set dressing. However, the plots don’t always stand up to close scrutiny and the casts were not usually required to portray a lot in the way of character development.
But the original definition of the phrase was somewhat broader. ‘Giallo’ is simply the Italian word for yellow and, in this instance, refers to a series of cheap paperbacks released nationally from 1929 by the Mondadori publishing company. They were such a hit with the public that many other houses joined in, mimicking the predominantly yellow cover designs. The Giallo was born. But if you’re getting excited about an obscure, radical and advanced branch of European literature, then l’m afraid you’re in for a big disappointment. These were not original works by forgotten authors, but simply re-prints of famous titles by American and British writers such as Raymond Chandler, Edgar Wallace and Agatha Christie! So, originally, the term ‘Giallo’ simply meant a ‘murder-mystery’ and this early example of the type still has a foot in that camp, although it is leaning towards the later films that we associate with the sub-genre today.
The story begins with pretty young blonde Mary (Barbara Wilson) taking a new job as a nurse at the remote psychiatric clinic run by Dr Vance (William Berger) and his wife (Mary Young). Although once seemingly destined for big things, a mysterious event in the past has condemned him to rural obscurity. Unsurprisingly, it’s a spooky old place and it’s not long before our young heroine is surrounded by strange events.
A hooded figure prowls the dark corridors, a mute patient checks out overnight (in more ways than one!) and there are heavy footsteps coming from the upper floors where only the doctor is allowed to go. Things get even more involved with the arrival of bad girl Giselle (Francoise Prévost), who tells an unlikely tale of getting lost in the woods after a coach accident. Matters quickly escalate into murder but just who is responsible and why?
Despite some solid and even mildly impressive aspects, this proves to be a somewhat half-baked concoction from director Elio Scardamaglia (hiding under the more American-friendly name of Michael Hamilton). On the positive side, we have the usual impressive interior locations, which were a distinct feature of European cinema at the time. Although underwhelming from the outside (a different location perhaps?), the clinic’s rambling maze of passages and chambers make a ﬁne backdrop to the action. There’s also excellent cinematography from Marcello Masciocchi, whose muted colour palette may not possess the lush tones and shadings of a Mario Bava production but still helps to create a few memorable images.
Unfortunately, the film has problems, and these can mostly be laid at the door of the underdeveloped script by Ernesto Gastaldi. The story may just about hang together, but not all that much happens over the course of the 90 minutes, and the cast are often left simply creeping or running around the old house to little obvious purpose.
Berger only has a tiny handful of patients and we get zero insight into any of their problems or the treatment he provides. They include a man who sleeps a lot, another who is prone to bouts of violence (could he be the killer?) and an old woman who cuddles a stuffed cat (probably not a viable suspect). Also, Prévost may not have wanted to go ‘to the coast’ with her mysterious coachman but it hardly seems sufficient reason to knock him unconscious and watch as he’s trampled to death by horses. Why does she do it? The movie never tells us or explains who she is, and the inevitable conclusion is that she there as another pretty face and to pad the running time. There’s also a rather ridiculous ‘love story’ sub-plot which comes almost completely out of left field and is never remotely convincing. The rather slapdash approach is a bit of a surprise, given that scriptwriter Gastaldi was fast becoming the ‘go-to guy’ for this sort of thing, and had provided both direction and screenplay for the far superior ‘Libido’ (1965).
Modern fans of the Giallo are also likely to be disappointed by the obvious absence of two of the sub-genre’s most obvious fundamentals. Despite being carried out with a straight razor, the kills are almost bloodless, and there really aren’t that many of them. Similarly, the fairer members of the cast get to keep their clothes on, which is quite a change in this type of endeavour. These choices probably reflect notions of morality and the censorship that was in place on the continent at the time, but it does make things seem rather tame by today’s standards.
A project with some merit but let down by a weak and uninspired script that gives the cast little to work with, and short changes its potential audience.