Guaranteed! The 8 greatest shocks ever filmed!’
A young model is brutally slain by a masked killer in the grounds of a major fashion house on a stormy night. Without an obvious motive for the crime, the police investigation flounders, but then another girl is killed. Is the culprit a crazed psychopath or is there something more behind the murders? It seems that everyone involved has got something to hide …
Massively influential horror thriller from Italian director Mario Bava which has rightly earned the status of a cult classic. The avalanche of Giallo thrillers that dominated the Italian film industry until the mid-1970s may have been unleashed by Dario Argento’s ‘The Bird with the Crystal Plumage’ (1969), but his debt to this film is clear. Its fingerprints are also all over the American slasher craze of the early 1980s, even if those films are painfully simplistic by comparison.
There are dark secrets aplenty at the fashion house owned by Contessa Cristiana (Eva Bartok) and managed by her lover, Massimo (Cameron Mitchell). The killing of top model Isabella (Francesca Ungaro) ignites a whirlwind of murder, violence and death. Next to go is blonde bombshell Nicole (Arianna Gorini) who has the misfortune to discovers Ungaro’s diary and is killed at the antique shop of her drug-addicted lover, Franco (the excellent Dante DiPaolo).
Too many suspects is a major issue for poor police Inspector Silvestri (Thomas Reiner). Possible motives and alibis make for a bewildering puzzle. Is designer Cesare (Luciano Pigozzi) the victim of a psychosexual obsession? What’s up with his pill-popping assistant Marco (Massimo Righi) and does the Marchese Morelli (Franco Ressel)’s relationship with dark haired model Greta (Lea Lander) play a part? Although the escalating violence of the crimes suggests a male perpetrator, suspicion also falls on models Peggy (Mary Arden) and Tao-Li (Claude Dantes) who have secrets of their own to protect.
The central mystery here may owe some debt to writers such as Agatha Christie, but it’s well-balanced and genuinely surprising, with twists and developments unsuspected right until the end. But what sets the film apart is the stylisation that Bava brings to the table, creating something little short of a visual masterpiece. Almost every shot is a perfect blend of technique, lighting and colour, evoking a unique atmosphere that drips with fear and menace, whilst still drawing the audience deeper into the mystery. The interiors are almost impossibly rich in detail, giving the impression that the director hand-selected every single prop on display, and positioned it on the set himself. Given that the film takes place in a world of haute couture, where appearance is everything, this approach is a perfect fit.
There are no main characters in the film either; it’s most definitely an ensemble piece. This provides further uncertainty as to how events will develop and heightens the tension. The fine cast is another plus; Mitchell is enigmatic, Bartok regal, and all the other players invest their roles with a distinct personality, Lander’s nervous beauty being the quiet standout. Mention must also be made that filming took place in English and it was actress Arden who tweaked the script’s dialogue to sound more natural. She was a top model herself, having appeared on the covers of Italian Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and in other top fashion magazines.
Bava began his career as a cinematographer and graduated to the director’s chair with gothic classic ‘The Mask of Satan/Black Sunday’ (1960); a reward for being a multi-talented ‘fix-it man’ on more than a few projects abandoned by other directors. Although this film was not a big hit at the time (and he followed it with a western!), it’s influence has become legendary. As per usual, all was achieved on a shoestring budget, dolly shots realised by placing the camera in a child’s red wagon and riding it around the set. This is particularly notable in the fashion show scenes where multiple characters move in and out and across the moving frame in what must have been tightly choreographed sequences.
Given the graphic nature of the kills on display, and some are still pretty strong, it was inevitable that the film was mangled by censors worldwide. There’s not too much blood on show here but, before this, murder on-screen was generally a ridiculous swift occurrence with victims barely putting up a fight. The women here are struggling for their lives with a far greater determination. This increases both the realism and the uncomfortable nature of those scenes for the audience.
The fact that the victims are beautiful women, mostly in some state of undress, has given rise to accusations of misogyny and objectifying women, but that’s a very superficial interpretation of the film. These female characters are objectified already, by the fashion industry in which they work, one that has caused many, many more real-life tragedies than a single motion picture could ever achieve. Bava portrays it as a world of artifice with a sleazy underbelly, brilliantly assisted by the moaning brass and jazzy touches of Carlo Rustichelli’s outstanding musical soundtrack. Additionally, Reiner’s ultimately fruitless investigation concludes that the killer is a ‘sex maniac’, but that’s not the case at all; each of the murders has a very specific motive woven into the complex narrative, and are driven by necessity rather than just bloodlust.
Mitchell worked with Bava on several pictures, although only two where he occupied the canvas seat, Viking epics ‘Erik The Conqueror’ (1961) and ‘Knives of the Avenger’ (1965) and went onto appear in many Cult Cinema titles, of extraordinarily variable quality. This was Barktok’s penultimate big-screen role as she was retired by the close of the decade. She was married four times, although two were marriages of convenience, and gave birth to one child, a daughter, in 1957. Although still married at the time to actor Curd Jürgens, she later claimed that the father was Frank Sinatra, with whom she had an affair when working on ‘Ten Thousand Bedrooms’ (1956), her only American picture. In the early 1950s, she worked in the UK, starring in a couple of minor science-fiction entries; ‘The Gamma People’ (1956) and ‘Spaceways’ (1953), an early Hammer production. Most of the other female members of the cast have few additional credits. Arden appeared in Giallo ‘A For Assassin’ (1966), the underwhelming adaptation of the successful stage play by genre stalwart Ernesto Gastaldi, but enjoyed far greater success as a prominent globe-trotting businesswoman after she retired from the screen.
A masterful exercise in filmmaking with a breathtaking visual tapestry, this groundbreaking work proved to be a significant influence on the horror genre as well as crystalising the elements of what modern audiences consider to be an Italian Giallo film. It’s an outstanding motion picture and the work of a true cinematic genius.
(This is a revised and expanded version of a post originally published on 3rd January 2017)
So Sweet So Dead/Rivelazioni di un maniaco sessuale al capo della squadra mobile (1972) – Mark David Welsh