Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key/Il tuo vizio è una stanza chiusa e solo io ne ho la chiave (1972)

‘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.

A White Dress for Marialé/Un bianco vestito per Marialé/Spirits of Death (1972)

‘Even hypocrisy is better than this dirty carnival.’

A beautiful woman and her lover are murdered in the woods by her husband. Thirty years later, a group of friends are invited to the isolated castle of a nobleman. As the weekend progresses, they are slaughtered one by one…

Stylish, offbeat Giallo from director Romano Scavolini, who some sources claim also had a hand in the script credited to Remigio Del Grosso and Giuseppe Mangione. The final results are somewhat divisive, to say the least.

A double murder-suicide takes place on a summer day in the woods, witnessed by a young child. Thirty years later, handsome playboy Massimo (Ivan Rassimov) arrives at the gates of the remote estate of nobleman Paolo (Luigi Pistilli). He has an invite for the weekend, but taciturn butler Osvaldo (Gengher Gatti) informs him at the gate that his master and mistress are away. However, other guests begin to arrive; dark-haired Mercedes (Pilar Velázquez) and her older man Jo (Giancarlo Bonuglia), as well as her estranged husband Sebastiano (Ezio Marano). The party is completed by the volatile Gustavo (Edilio Kim) and his inebriated girlfriend Semy (Shawn Robinson).

The guests are old friends of Pistilli’s wife, Marialé (Evelyn Stewart), who has been living in seclusion since her marriage into the nobility. Rassimov still holds a torch for her, and it appears that Pistilli may be keeping her in his castle against her will. After Pistilli admits the group, they begin to explore the underground chambers of his ancient residence and find a room filled with old medieval clothes. Painting their faces and putting on the costumes, they hold a masquerade banquet where the wine flows freely. However, as the evening progresses, the body count begins to rise.

From the outline of the plot, it seems that the audience is on very familiar territory with Scavolini’s film; a ‘closed circle’ whodunnit in the manner of Agatha Christie, but no doubt updated with the extravagant kills that usually come with the Giallo label. To an extent, that is the case, but there’s a different emphasis here that’s likely to divide opinion. Rather than focus on the murder aspect of his tale, the director seems far more interested in documenting the less-than-endearing traits and personalities of the weekend house party. These are a vain, arrogant bunch with a propensity to violence, gluttony and lust, all of which they are eager to indulge. Italian cinema of the period was often quick to decry the idle rich, presenting them as desensitised, vapid and hollow. Scavolini takes this further, displaying their base, animal instincts and desires.

This choice of focus largely sidelines the mystery aspect of proceedings. The audience has to wait until around the hour mark for anything to happen in that regard. In a way, Scavolini’s priorities are understandable. The slow pace is not a dealbreaker, but the plot is paper thin, and the characters are largely one-note. There’s no trail of breadcrumbs for the audience to follow in the direction of the killer’s identity, and the final revelations are severely underwhelming anyway. The cast is solid, however, with Stewart’s ethereal beauty and nuanced performance being the standout. We’re never quite sure where we are with Marialé, and her presence provides the little tension and drama the film possesses.

The most positive aspect, however, is how the film looks. It’s beautiful. Scavolini worked as his own cinematographer and delivers some truly stunning, quality work. Shots are exquisitely composed without being over-stylised or distracting, and the choice of lenses infuses the images with a wonderful richness and depth, particularly noticeable in the location scenes. The lighting of the interiors is also remarkable, the subtle use of colours evoking mood and atmosphere. In later life, Scavolini dismissed this project as simply a job, but there’s little doubt that he took pride in his work and was an accomplished visual artist.

Stewart was born Ida Galli during the Second World War near the mountains of Northern Italy. She acted under several names, but most often as Stewart. However, it was under her own name that she began her career, her most notable role being a small part in Federico Fellini’s multi-award-winning classic ‘La dolce vita’ (1960). Supporting parts followed for Mario Bava in ‘Hercules in the Haunted World/Ercole al centro della Terra’ (1961) and ‘The Whip and the Body/La frusta e il corpo’ (1963), as well as for Luchino Visconti in ‘The Leopard/Il gattopardo’ (1963). Moving into genre cinema, she began appearing regularly in Spaghetti Westerns before taking her Giallo bow in ‘The Sweet Body of Deborah/Il dolce corpo di Deborah’ (1968). Similar projects followed, such as ‘The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail/La coda dello scorpione’ (1971) and ‘Knife of Ice/Il coltello di ghiaccio’ (1972). One of her last roles was for Lucio Fulci in ‘The Psychic, Murder to the Tune of the Seven Black Notes/Sette note in nero’ (1977).

Some will be impressed; some will be bored, and others will feel that it’s a film all dressed up with nowhere to go.

Cross Current/Un omicidio perfetto a termine di legge (1971)

‘Marco, what are you doing with that stick?’

A wealthy sportsman struggles with his memory after surviving an emergency brain operation. He starts to wonder if the speedboat accident that necessitated the medical procedure was really an accident at all. Then an ex-employee turns up dead after arranging a to meet him…

Disappointing Giallo thriller from director Tonino Ricci that weds a flat, matter of fact approach to a story that only kicks into gear late on. This Italian-Spanish co-production needed five writers to bring it to the screen (including the director), but, sadly, they don’t seem to have had one worthwhile idea amongst them.

The big race does not end well for speedboat jockey Marco Breda (Phillipe Leroy) when his craft cracks up, and he plummets into the water. The impact results in a blood clot on the brain and an emergency intervention by Professor Mauri (Franco Fantasia). Leroy comes through the procedure but is left with some memory loss. Fantasia warns his wife Monica Breda (Elga Andersen) that he needs rest and relaxation for a successful convalescence.

Retreating to their luxury home, they spend time hanging out with Leroy’s business partner Burt (Ivan Rassimov), racing rival Tommy Brown (Franco Ressel), and Andersen’s best friend Terry (Rosanna Yanni). Leroy feels a little disorientated despite the familiar surroundings and is bothered by headaches. Things worsen when his ex-gardener Sante Foschi (Franco Balducci) asks for an urgent meeting. It seems that he has important information for sale. But the man turns up dead the following morning, apparently the victim of a hit and run driver. Police Inspector Baldini (Julio Peña) is unconvinced that it was an accident, and Leroy starts to think he may have committed murder during a memory blackout.

From there, the story takes us into familiar territory, the setup favoured by earlier Gialli such as ‘The Sweet Body of Deborah/Il dolce corpo di Deborah ‘(1968) and ‘A Quiet Place To Kill/Paranoia’ (1970). We have a small number of protagonists in one setting whose actions are predicated by hidden loyalties and apparent shifting relationship dynamics. The question quickly becomes who is doing what to whom and how will their various schemes play out in the final act.

Unfortunately, none of this is very gripping, even when one of the quintet is strangled in the boathouse early on. The script gives none of the cast any strong material that can be used to build an engaging character and the audience response to their respective fates is likely to be bored indifference. The film throws in a whole bunch of plot twists in the last ten minutes, none of which are very imaginative, although credible enough when taken in isolation. And then, with one final flourish, knocks over this fragile house of cards with one last revelation that pushes suspension of disbelief well beyond the breaking point.

Ricci worked as an assistant to horror maestro Mario Bava on ‘Erik the Conqueror’ (1961) and finished the 1970s with a couple of silly movies about aliens living in the Bermuda Triangle. A few years later, he jumped on the ‘Road Warrior’ bandwagon with actor Bruno Minniti as a cut-price ‘Mad Max’ in the post-apocalyptic world of ‘Rush the Assassion’ (1983) and ‘A Man Called Rage’ (1984). There was more than a whiff of ‘vanity project’ about both films, although the latter has some beautiful moments of glorious stupidity.

Leroy appeared in further Gialli, such as the obscure ‘Devil’s Ransom/Senza via d’uscita’ (1970) and the poorly regarded ‘Naked Girl Murdered In The Park/Ragazza tutta nuda assassinata nel parco’ (1973). By contrast, Rassimov made a genuinely memorable appearance with Edwige Fenech in Sergio Martino’s classic ‘The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh’ (1971). He teamed up with both its star and director again for the equally lauded ‘All The Colors of the Dark/Tuttid i colori del buio’ (1972) and ‘Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key/Il tuo vizio è una stanza chiusa e solo io ne ho la chiave’ (1972).

A slow trudge through a turgid mystery drama, crowned by an absurd ending.

The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh/Lo strano vizio della signora Wardh (1971)

‘And I was afraid I’d have to do without any bratwurst.’

A neglected diplomat’s wife returns to Vienna with her husband during a series of unsolved murders of young women. She takes a lover but gets a phone call threatening to expose the affair. She suspects the culprit maybe her old boyfriend with who she had a violent sexual relationship…

High-quality Italian-Spanish Giallo thriller that launched the career of director Sergio Martino and took leading lady Edwige Fenech to the next level. Previously Martino had delivered a little regarded Spaghetti Western and a trio of documentaries, and Fenech was best known for her beauty rather than her acting chops. She had primarily appeared in sexy comedies, although she’d made an undeniable impression in supporting roles in Giallo pictures ‘Top Sensation’ (1969) and Mario Bava’s ‘Five Dolls For An August Moon’ (1970).

Returning to Vienna, diplomat Neil Wardh (Alberto de Mendoza) is immediately rushed from the airport into a top-level meeting, leaving bored young wife Julie (Fenech) to go home in a taxi. On the way, she has a vivid flashback to her affair with the handsome but sadistic Jean (Ivan Rassimov). It’s a striking scene and the first sign that the audience is in for something special. It’s almost operatic in the way it combines slow motion, dissonant music and sexual violence as the two wrestle on the ground during a rainstorm.

‘Go away, my flashbacks are far more interesting than you…’

With hubby almost permanently absent at work, there’s little for Fenech to do now she’s back home but hang out with cynical, liberated BFF Carol (Conchita Airoldi). Apart from the usual round of shopping and afternoon tea, this involves attending a vaguely naughty party with the smart set where girls wear paper dresses and tear them off during a catfight. Here, she meets Airoldi’s cousin, the ruggedly handsome George Corro (George Hilton) who’s in town to claim an unexpected inheritance that he’s sharing with Airoldi. Fenech attempts to resist his charms, but Hilton is persistent, and self-restraint is not her forte. Unfortunately, Rassimov is still in town and sending her flowers, although his intentions could hardly be described as romantic. Meanwhile, young women are being brutally murdered with a razor by an unknown killer.

After her first night with Hilton, Fenech gets an anonymous phone call demanding money in exchange for silence about the affair. She suspects Rassimov is behind it and confesses all to her best friend. Airoldi goes in her place to deliver the blackmail payoff in a public park at sunset, but she is attacked with a razor and murdered. Fenech suspects Rassimov is the serial killer, of course, but the police find he has an unshakeable alibi. As events twist and turn, Fenech starts to believe she is marked for death.

‘A blackmail payoff? No problem, afterwards we can talk about men some more.’

An excellent mystery coupled with some beautiful visuals, an unflagging pace and good performances make for one of the finest examples of the Giallo sub-genre. Director Martino handles the material with flair and style, and the screenplay by old hand Ernesto Gastaldi is tight and well-disciplined. In terms of credibility, the complex plot takes one twist too many at the end, but it makes for a satisfying resolution. It’s also been such a highly enjoyable journey to get there that it hardly matters. The dubbing in the English language version is not great, and the viewing experience improved significantly by watching the subtitled original.

The film was a watershed moment for Fenech as an actress and a tricky assignment. After all, our weak-willed heroine takes almost no positive action throughout, even on her own behalf; perfectly happy to abdicate responsibility for her actions and let Airoldi deliver the blackmail payoff, even though it’s likely to be a dangerous task with a mad killer on the loose. She also needs constant validation from her relationships with men, and usually in a physical sense. There’s little attempt to address her character’s psychology or analyse her sexual needs, particularly concerning her violent relationship with Rassimov. This is showcased in another memorable flashback where the couple has sex in a blood-soaked bed filled with glass fragments from a broken wine bottle.

‘And they told me there was a wardrobe budget this time…’

It’s a challenging task to keep an audience onside with such a passive, flawed character, and it’s a testament to Fenech’s increasing skill as an actress that she remains sympathetic throughout. The poise and personality she displays is a marked improvement on her showing in previous roles. It proved a stepping stone to a remarkable cult film career that included starring roles in several notable Giallo films. She worked with Martino again on ‘All The Colours of the Dark (1972) and ‘Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key’ (1972). Other examples were ‘The Case of the Bloody Iris’ (1972) and ‘Strip Nude for Your Killer’ (1975). She also continued to appear in many sex comedies throughout the 1970s and early 1980s and eventually began a second career as a highly successful producer for Italian television.

The male members of the cast also deliver strong turns here, with all three principals displaying an economy of performance and quiet charisma that serves their characters and the story. Airoldi also makes something out of the ‘best friend’ who keeps her undies in the fridge; world-weary and carefree on the one hand, but also practical and loyal at heart. The scene where she is stalked at the payoff rendezvous is one of the film’s highlights; a tense and unsettling sequence where Martino’s camera deftly captures the isolation and vulnerability of the victim as she walks through the public grounds of Vienna’s famous Schönbrunn Palace.

‘Just because he forgot our anniversary last week….’

After the Giallo craze subsided, Martino carved out a long career in Italian cinema. He teamed with Fenech again for some of her sexy comedies, as well as delivering such cult titles as the controversial ‘Slave of the Cannibal God’ (1978), Dr Moreau knock-off ‘Island of the Fishmen’ (1979) and that glorious slab of sci-fi cheese ‘2019: After The Fall of New York’ (1983). Like Fenech, Hilton became primarily associated with the Giallo, appearing with her again in ‘All The Colours of the Dark (1972) and ‘The Case of the Bloody Iris’ (1972). He also appeared in Martino’s ‘The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail (1971), Tonino Valerii ‘My Dear Killer’ (1972), and Luigi Cozzi’s ‘The Killer Must Kill Again’ (1975).

As a side-note, if the spelling of the title character’s name seems a little odd, then it was allegedly because a woman approached producer Luciano Martino and asked that it be changed to spare her embarrassment! If this seems a little far-fetched, it isn’t easy to come up with an alternative explanation.

A highly accomplished, entertaining Giallo delivered by a fine cast and a talented director who displays a fine visual sensibility and storytelling prowess. Highly recommended.