‘Maybe you’d prefer to drink from my empty skull.’
A dissolute writer is suspected by the police after one of his ex-students is brutally murdered. His maid meets the same fate afterwards, and realising that this will almost certainly mean arrest and conviction for the crimes, he persuades his wife to help him hide the corpse in their wine cellar…
High-quality Giallo from director Sergio Martino, who sprinkles his tale of suspicion and murder with more than a touch of Edgar Allan Poe. The Italian film industry was pumping out these horror thrillers by the dozen in the early 1970s, and all the main cast and crew here had plenty of previous experience in the field.
Things are not working out too well for Oliviero Rouvigny (Luigi Pistilli). Once a celebrated author, he has not published in years, even teaching opportunities vanishing due to his lack of output. As a member of the nobility, he doesn’t have to worry about money, but that’s a double-edged sword. Walled up in his crumbling villa, he’s taken to the bottle, inviting local hippies around for group debauchery and knocking about long-suffering wife Irina (Anita Strindberg). He’s also having an affair with ex-student Fausta (Daniela Giordano), and when she turns up with her throat cut, local Inspector Farla (Franco Nebbia) inevitably begins looking his way. Fortunately, Strindberg backs up his dodgy alibi.
But there’s much worse to come. The unhappy couple’s maid, Brenda (Angela La Vorgna), is mysteriously murdered at the villa a few nights later, putting Pistilli’s head firmly in the noose. But he proclaims his innocence and persuades Strindberg to help conceal the body in the cellar. The girl’s disappearance seems to draw little attention, but then Pistilli gets a telegram from his niece Floriana (Edwige Fenech) inviting herself for an extended visit. She’s already on her way, so the conspirators must grin and bear it. However, once she arrives, it becomes increasingly clear that she has more on her mind than just a casual holiday. The villa seems to be under surveillance too, but just who is mystery man Walter (Ivan Rassimov) and what are his intentions?
Unlike Martino’s previous excursions into Giallo territory, this project leans more toward the traditional murder mystery. Events are almost entirely centred on Pistilli’s villa, the cast is small, and the action is focused firmly on the three principals. Rather than the escalating body count suggested by the first act, this is more of an exercise in suspense and intrigue. Martino lays out his slow breadcrumb trail of clues, courtesy of the screenplay by Ernesto Gastaldi, Adriano Bolzoni and Sauro Scavolini. When developments and revelations arrive in the final act, they are logical and satisfying. However, it’s probable that the final twist won’t surprise anyone with a passing knowledge of the horror genre.
Best of all, though, is the work delivered in front of the camera. Pistilli is superb as the twisted Oliviero, often drunk, fixated on his dead mother, protective of her black cat (named Satan!) and permanently teetering on the edge of an outburst, be it violent, sexual or both. Going toe to toe with him are the women in his life; Strindberg outstanding as the beaten-down wife with a core of steel, and Fenech note-perfect as the playful, promiscuous Floriana, whose actions progressively indicate a much darker agenda than is first suggested. Her character plays husband and wife off against each other, first just sleeping with both of them, but eventually suggesting that they kill each other. The dynamic between the trio is a tricky balance to strike in the context of a mystery plot where motivations and plans have to remain hidden. Still, all three deliver with force or subtlety as and when the situation requires it.
In the spirit of the low-key nature of the drama, Martino shows admirable restraint in his direction while still displaying a fine eye for composition and tone. The murders are gory but brief, although it could be argued that this is not so much to heighten their impact as to hide some rather inadequate FX work. Still, the camera movement is particularly good; hand-held for the violent scenes, more elegant moves reserved to build suspense and emphasise the claustrophobic surroundings.
If there’s not all that much here for the committed gore-hound, then Martino compensates for the lack of blood with plenty of sex. Not only do we get to see quite a lot of Fenech and Strindberg, including a shared scene, but there’s an undercurrent of sexual violence and perversion present throughout. It’s implied that Oliviero slept with his mother, and he forces himself on Strindberg a couple of times, once after attempting to stab her in a cage of doves in clear sight of anyone who might be passing by. Servant La Vorgna tries on an old dress that belonged to Pistilli’s mother, something which is clearly pushing her buttons, only to be slaughtered in the process. No judgement here, but this is a household with a lot of issues!
Despite the film’s undoubted strengths, a few flaws hold it back from the first rank of the Giallo thriller. These mainly revolve around the film’s second act. Yes, the story is designed as a slow burn, but there’s a feeling of marking time at this point. Fenech’s liaison with delivery boy and motorbike racer Dario (Riccardo Salvino) is the main culprit, and although it does play into the story’s eventual outcome, it could have been integrated a little more into the overall plot or discarded altogether. The police investigation also seems strangely half-hearted. Yes, there’s a somewhat contrived development halfway through that takes the heat off Pistilli, but is no one in authority interested when the only servant of a murder suspect suddenly up and leaves the district without a word to anyone? The Poe references also feel a little forced at times, although it only becomes obvious towards the end of the film.
Martino began his film career in various behind-the-scenes roles, including a few projects as an assistant director, before taking the plunge as the man with the megaphone on Spaghetti Western ‘Arizona Colt, Hired Gun/Arizona si scatenò… e li fece fuori tutti!’ (1970). A year later, he delivered the outstanding Giallo ‘The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh/Lo strano vizio della signora Wardh’ (1971), which again starred Fenech. That film provided the title for this one, with the phrase appearing in a threatening note that she receives at one point in the story. Further Gialli followed and included two of the sub-genre’s most prominent examples, ‘All the Colors of the Dark/Tutti i colori del buio’ (1972) and ‘Torso/I corpi presentano tracce di violenza carnale’ (1973). He subsequently worked in comedy and crime drama but was also responsible for the controversial jungle exploitation of ‘Slave of the Cannibal God/La montagna del dio cannibale’ (1977) and the less contentious ‘Island of the Fishmen/L’isola degli uomini pesce’ (1979). Later, he ventured into the post-nuclear wasteland with the stupidly enjoyable ‘2019: After the Fall of New York/2019 – Dopo la caduta di New York’ (1983) and the rather dreary ‘Hands of Steel/Vendetta dal futuro’ (1986). He retired from the business in 2012.
A strong mystery thriller, elevated further by a trio of excellent lead performances.