‘Should we take bets on who dies first? The dead person wins.’
A weekend party on a private island turns deadly when the guests are murdered one by one. The motive would seem to revolve around the secret formula that several of the party want to buy, but it appears that someone will stop at nothing to obtain it, even murder…
Somewhat nonsensical but beautifully crafted Giallo from horror maestro Mario Bava. It was another last-minute call to save a troubled production for the director, who delivers on the assignment thanks to his technical expertise and filmmaking genius. Earlier involvement, however, would undoubtedly have made for an even better result.
Multi-millionaire industrialist George Stark (Teodoro Corrà) is determined to buy the secret formula for a new revolutionary manufacturing resin from scientist Professor Farrell (William Berger). The boffin has just lost his business partner in a lab accident, so some rest and relaxation on Stark’s private island seem to be in order. Berger brings along wife Trudy (Ira von Fürstenberg) but the weekend party isn’t just a foursome with Stark’s marriage partner, artist Jill (Edith Meloni). Also present are Nick and Marie Chaney (Maurice Poli and Edwige Fenech) and Jack and Peggy Davidson (Howard Ross and Helena Ronee). Poli and Ross are also business tycoons interested in Berger’s new process, and the three have arranged to join forces to buy it from him. The list of potential suspects and victims is rounded out by houseboy Jacques (Mauro Bosco) and game warden’s daughter, Isabel (Ely Galleani).
The business triumvirate delivers their pitch to Berger, but he proclaims that he has no interest in money and quietly burns his notes. Fenech is busy enjoying the services of the hired help, while Meloni and von Fürstenberg try to keep their hands off each other, with the latter also the target of the amorous Poli. In short, if you’re looking for a murder motive other than financial, it’s probably best to assume that all the eight principals are likely spending quality time with each other in whatever combinations they fancy. And murder is afoot when Bosco turns up dead on the motorboat where he’d arranged another tryst with Fenech and later on, after the vessel disappears, as food for the crabs on the beach. Cut off from the mainland; one killing follows another, and the walk-in freezer starts to fill up with dead bodies.
Ultimately, the film is a triumph of technique over content. Bava’s visual sensibilities combined with the eye-catching sets, location, soundtrack and performances elevate a relatively poor screenplay to a level of entertainment the material does not merit. The director conjures beautiful images in both the studio and on location, the lighting, colours and framing of shots inside the beach house being particularly effective. The sets of Giulia Mafia and the production design of Giuseppe Aldrovandi allow Bava the space to position his actors, props and furniture into beautiful and striking compositions. The look is very much of its era, but it’s tasteful and economical. Less accomplished filmmakers of the period tended to overload their sets with pop art, objet d’art and clashing colours in a self-conscious effort to appear modern and relevant, but Bava and his team knew that less is more.
Conversely, Pietro Ulimiani delivers a score that delights in confounding expectations. Rather than supply music to create suspense, the composer favours a bizarre stew of electronic melodies, jaunty tunes and occasional flourishes of rock music to counterpoint the action on the screen. It’s a very bold choice, but it makes sense. These are not characters the audience is supposed to invest in emotionally; they are shallow, greedy and selfish. So an element of gleeful comedy in their imminent departure from the action is entirely appropriate.
The location filming was done on the beach at Tor Calendar, south of Anzio and featured in many of Bava’s films. He uses it brilliantly here, the camera prowling around the rocky shore, shooting through plants to suggest potential victims under surveillance, and showcasing some beautiful shots of the beach house on the cliff and the pier running out into the sea. Neither house nor jetty existed, of course; Bava painted the structures on a sheet of glass, lined it up in front of the camera and shot through it, creating an almost perfect illusion.
There are also some terrific set-pieces. Two men fight, knocking over a sculpture constructed from transparent, plastic spheres of different sizes. These balls bounce and tumble down a spiral staircase and across a tiled floor before falling into a bloodstained bubble bath containing a new victim. As the corpses pile up, they are hung up in polythene bags in the walk in-freezer beside sides of beef, apparently one of Bava’s ideas. There’s the almost wordless opening sequence where he introduces the entire cast of characters, not by telling us who they are, but by establishing something far more important: we’re not going to like any of them.
Unfortunately, Mario di Nardo’s slapdash script and the hurried production undermine a lot of Bava’s excellent work. The director turned the project down initially as he hated the screenplay, mainly because it was a thinly-disguised rehash of Agatha Christie’s ‘Ten Little Indians.’ Ironically, Christie was one of the authors published in Italy in the 1920s and 1930s in the wave of popular, cheap paperbacks that gave rise to the term ‘Giallo’ in the first place, so, in a way, she was an appropriate choice for adaptation. But Bava was not interested, and only agreed to consider the project if he was paid upfront. The producers went elsewhere, but their eventual choice pulled out at the eleventh hour, and they went back to Bava with a cheque. He accepted, even though the film was already cast and ready to begin shooting the following Monday morning; just two days away. As a result, Bava had no opportunity to rewrite the script or make any other significant changes.
At least that’s the way that Bava told it. Whether his account is entirely accurate is open to debate. He was known to exaggerate somewhat in interviews and always claimed that this was his worst picture. It’s clear that the production did come together very quickly, but not so fast that he couldn’t get previous collaborators Aldrovandi and cameraman Antonio Rinaldi on board. He was also able to achieve some remarkable optical effects with his matte paintings. Perhaps he could have got all this in place over a weekend, or even during production; the man was undoubtedly a genius, so anything is possible. One change he was able to make was to the end of the picture. It’s unlikely that we’ll ever know the details of di Nardo’s original conclusion, but Bava’s coda is unsatisfying at best.
So, what is wrong with the script? Simply put, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, and the more you think about it, the less sense it makes. For a start, there’s the setup. Industrialist Corrà invites Berger to the island getaway so he can get his hands on the secret formula. The businessman’s relationships with Poli and Ross are never clearly established, but the trio makes an initial combined offer of $1 million each. Poli attempts to double-cross his partners almost immediately by offering $6 million for the exclusive rights in secret, and Ross also wants the formula for himself. It’s clear that the three men know each other well, and, later on, Corrà is unsurprised by their treachery. Which begs a very obvious question: why invite them along in the first place?!
Sadly, that’s just the beginning of the script’s unsuccessful struggle with logic and clarity. Without delving too much into spoiler territory, we do seem to have more than one killer on our hands, but, if we do, then they seem to be acting independently of each other, which is amazingly convenient. Also, commentators reviewing the film have fingered different characters as the killer, or killers! It’s not because the film is deliberately ambiguous or clever, it just not well-written. The first killing is a complete mystery; whoever might be responsible. The only explanation provided is that everyone has to die to eliminate all potential witness, but it’s a pretty weak justification.
The most plausible explanation is that Bava was not interested in the plot’s mechanics but was more focused on the visual presentation. He had rewritten scripts during filming before, so it’s possible that he did the same here and the story just got away from him. But he can’t have disliked di Nardo’s work too much; he was the sole credited screenwriter on Bava’s next film; the comedy-western ‘Roy Colt and Winchester Jack’ (1970). Of course, too much time has passed to allow definitive answers to these kinds of questions, but it’s fun to speculate. Another interesting point is that very few characters die on-screen, and then almost bloodlessly. The discovery of each corpse is memorable, though; be they crab food washed up on the shore, tied to a tree in their underwear or shot in the forehead mid-conversation on a balcony.
What helps to keep the audience on board with the story and its contradictions is the cast’s performances. There are no real stand-outs but a solid ensemble, even if the characters are little more than roughly-sketched stereotypes. Von Fürstenberg was a real-life Italian princess who had married into Spanish royalty at just 15 years of age, divorced five years later and began her acting career in 1967. She starred in unusual Eurospy ‘Matchless’ (1967), caper movie ‘The Vatican Affair/A qualsiasi Prezzo’ (1968) with Walter Pigeon and Klaus Kinski, and was under-used in notable Giallo ‘The Fifth Cord’ (1971). Galleani was also born to the purple; the daughter of an Italian Count, she acted under several different names, most notably in Lucio Fulci’s trippy Giallo ‘A Lizard In A Woman’s Skin’ (1971).
Sit back, relax and prepare to enjoy an example of a director displaying his creativity, invention and skill. Just don’t try and work out exactly what’s going on. You might hurt yourself.