All the Colors of the Dark/Tutti i colori del buio (1972)

‘Tea, for me, is still a social practice.’

A beautiful woman is plagued by nightmares after the car accident that took her unborn baby’s life. Despite psychiatric help, she finds herself stalked by the blue-eyed killer from her dreams…

One of the signature examples of the Giallo horror thriller, this entry comes from experienced hands, director Sergio Martino and scriptwriter Ernesto Gastaldi. It also stars Giallo power couple Edwige Fenech and George Hilton and such a cast of familiar faces in the supporting roles that it’s almost a ‘Who’s Who’ of these Italian horror thrillers.

Young couple Jane Harrison and Richard Steele (Fenech and Hilton) are going through a bad patch. A recent car accident resulted in the miscarriage of their first child, and conjugal relations are off the table due to her fragile emotional state. Hilton insists that her nightmares are down to the crash and its consequences, but she believes they are connected to her mother’s murder, which occurred when she was a child. If all that isn’t bad enough, she starts to see the blue-eyed killer of her dreams (Ivan Rassimov) when she’s awake.

Getting little help from the insensitive Hilton, she turns to psychiatrist Dr Burton (George Rigaud), who is recommended by her sister Barbara (Nieves Navarro, appearing under her usual pseudonym of Susan Scott). Unfortunately, the head doctor is not a lot of help, and Fenech is freaked out after seeing Rassimov sitting in his waiting room. Feeling friendless and desperate, she encounters neighbour Mary Weil (Marina Malfatti), who suggests alternative therapy courtesy of a strange cult led by the charismatic J.P. McBrian (Julián Ugarte). At her first meeting, Fenech finds herself participating in a ritualistic blood orgy, but is it actually happening or has she finally lost her grip on reality?

Mixing elements of the Giallo with the more traditional cinematic horrors of satanism feels like an inevitable development in the early 1970s. There’s a definite flavour of Roman Polanski’s hit ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ (1968) to the proceedings, particularly in the notion of devil worship taking place in the modern, urban world. However, Gastaldi’s script avoids drawing too close a parallel to the specifics of that film, concentrating instead on Fenech and her questionable perceptions of reality, half-echoing a theme from one of Polanski’s earlier projects, ‘Repulsion’ (1965).

This psychological approach allows Martino to pull out all the stylistic tricks in his filmmaking arsenal. Working with cinematographer Giancarlo Ferrando, he melds a striking colour palette with exaggerated camera angles and a variety of lenses, distorting images at times and seamlessly integrating this unusual visual tapestry with Bruno Nicolai’s excellent score. Crucially, none of these flourishes come across as forced or distracting, instead creating a genuinely unsettling atmosphere of trauma and dread, serving the narrative instead of overwhelming it. Martino knows just how far to go and no further, something reflected in his handling of the story, which pulls back just before the ambiguities of its events might become frustrating to the audience.

The film’s other outstanding component is Fenech, who displays the necessary emotional vulnerability tempered with raw intensity. It’s a perfectly judged performance, which never strikes a false note. Whether it was star quality, superb instincts or faultless acting mechanics, she was an expert in delivering a sympathetic, fully-rounded heroine that lesser talents would have found difficult to bring to life. It was a skill she’d displayed already as the somewhat passive lead of classic Giallo ‘The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh/Lo strano vizio della signora Wardh’ (1971). That project had also come from director Martino and writer Gastaldi and had featured Hilton and Rassimov in the cast.

Unfortunately, this is not a perfect film by any means. Its main weaknesses come from the screenplay, which is surprising given Gastaldi’s involvement. Although co-credited with screenwriter Sauro Scavolinia and with a story attributed to Santiago Moncada, Gastaldi has been keen to claim sole authorship in later years. The problem is that Ugarte’s cult never feels fully integrated with the rest of the story, and the final revelations lack credibility and leave too many details unclear. It’s a complex and intriguing situation, which ends up resolved by some of the most commonplace tropes of the Giallo, although it should be acknowledged that Gastaldi had created many of those tropes in the first place. It’s a disappointing conclusion, even though the writer does deserve credit for sidestepping most of the usual big-screen cliches about satanism.

Although the film focuses primarily on Fenech, the rest of the cast provides exemplary support. Ugarte is sufficiently magnetic to convince as the cult leader, Navarro is a fine ice queen, and Rassimov’s evil stare, supplied with the aid of uncomfortable blue contact lenses, is appropriately chilling. Arguably, Hilton is underused, but his uncanny ability to look both ruggedly handsome and deeply sinister at the same time is always an asset in a film where his character is suspect. There’s one interaction that he shares with Navarro that is an excellent example of how to mislead an audience. There are also brief appearances by cult movie stalwarts Dominique Boschero as Fenech’s mother in flashbacks, Luciano Pigozzi as a lawyer and Tom Felleghy as a police inspector.

Martino also makes excellent use of the London locations without resorting to the usual, tiresome device of showing famous landmarks. This is a cold, ancient city filled with classical stone buildings, narrow twisted streets and abandoned public parks carpeted with dead leaves. However, some unfortunate geographical issues relate to Fenech’s trip on the Underground. She briefly seems to get caught in some kind of time loop at Aldwych Station before she disembarks quickly at Holland Park. Aldwych Station was still in use when the film was made, but even allowing for anomalies to the space-time continuum, her quick ride is still quite an achievement considering the stations were at least five miles apart.

The project was a family affair to some extent, with Fenech married to the director’s brother, Luciano, who worked on this as one of the producers. The trio went on to collaborate on a couple of the sex comedies that became Fenech’s stock in trade for the rest of the decade, and Luciano elbowed his brother out of the director’s chair for ‘Exploits of a Sexy Seducer/La vergine, il toro e il capricorno’ (1977). Sergio was spending most of his time at that point on gritty crime dramas starring Luc Merenda but eventually moved into the science-fiction arena with films such as ‘Island of the Fishmen/L’isola degli uomini pesce’ (1979) and ‘2019: After the Fall of New York’ (1983). In later years, Fenech became a producer in her own right, mostly on Italian TV movies, but also fulfilling the role on Al Pacino’s big screen adaptation of Shakespeare’s ‘The Merchant of Venice’ (2004).

A high-quality Giallo, but possessing a script that falls a little short.

Goliath at the Conquest of Baghdad/Golia alla conquista di Bagdad/Goliath at the Conquest of Damascus (1965)

‘Greetings from the mountain of black fire!’

A dispossessed Sultan plans to wed his daughter to a neighbouring Prince. The couple are not only in love; the prospective bridegroom also has an army that can restore his kingdom. The Sultan sends word to his old friend, Goliath, to help escort her to the wedding, but the big man arrives too late to prevent her from being kidnapped…

The fifth and final of the brief series of Peplum films casting the biblical giant as a rival to Steve Reeves’ ‘Hercules’ (1957). After being portrayed in turn by Reeves himself, Brad Harris, Gordon Scott and Alan Steel (real name Sergio Ciani), the baton passed to Rock Stevens. He was barely pausing for breath after starring in ‘Hercules Against the Tyrants of Babylon/Ercole contro i tiranni di Babilonia’ (1964).

The film begins with Princess Miriam (Anna Maria Polani) being escorted through the desert in a sedan chair by the armed guards of her father, ex-Sultan of Baghdad, Selim (Mino Doro). In the world of Peplum, this is an open invitation to be attacked, and a group of notorious bandits, led by Bhalek (Andrea Aureli), duly oblige. However, in a shocking twist, muscleman Goliath (Stevens) turns up too late to the party to save Polani and for the two to fall instantly in love. Instead, he can only despatch a few of the brigands and save the life of troop leader Fedele Gentile. Polani has been carried off, and her kidnappers have disappeared.

These fiendish machinations are the work of the devious Thor (Piero Lulli), who now occupies Doro’s throne in Baghdad. By taking Polani off the board, he has scuppered Doro’s attempt to join forces with the army of King Saud (Daniele Vargas), who isn’t that concerned with developments. After all, it’s only his son, Prince Phir (Marino Masé), who has a thing for Polani. Seeing all his careful plans threatened with ruin, Doro asks Stevens to infiltrate the bandit gang and rescue his daughter, and the big man is only too willing to oblige. Prime Minister Kaitchev (Arturo Dominici) opposes this and has no time for Stevens. He is not a spy, of course, perish the thought. Lulli and Aureli are just amazingly good at guessing what our heroes are going to do next.

By the time of this film’s production, the Italian muscleman craze was in its’ death throes. It had been seven years since Steve Reeves had burst onto international screens, and domestic producers had flooded the market with over 60 features starring various legendary heroes since. So, it’s hardly surprising that the genre was showing a lot of wear and tear, with familiar storylines leaning heavily into well-established tropes and little effort made to put a new spin on the material. So the outcome of Steven’s mission is never in doubt and all the steps along his journey and well-signposted in advance.

Showing extraordinary stealth abilities by following one of the group across the desert unseen, Stevens rocks up at bandit HQ and makes a bid for membership by beating up a few of Aureli’s goons. This subtle plan is a surefire hit with the bandit leader, and he’s immediately trusted with carrying a vital message to Lulli in far-off Baghdad. Reaching the city, he meets up with Doro’s undercover forces in the town, led by the wealthy Yssour (Mario Petri) and his woman, Fatma (Helga Liné). His loyalty to the cause is tested by a half-hearted attempt at seduction by the lady of the house, but it’s fair to say the beautiful Liné wouldn’t need to make much of an effort to snare most men on the planet. After passing that test, he returns to Aureli’s camp to break Polani and her paramour Masé out of jail. Any potential difficulties are then cleaned up by a large number of invading soldiers, appearing courtesy of another movie.

Co-writer and director Domenico Paolella probably jumped into this project directly after wrapping ‘Hercules Against the Tyrants of Babylon/Ercole contro i tiranni di Babilonia’ (1964). Both films starred not only Stevens but also Petri, Liné, Polani and Dominici. Paolella was joined again on scriptwriting duties by Luciano Martino, with the uncredited addition of Ernesto Gastaldi for this film. These collaborators became significant players later on in the Giallo sub-genre, with Gastaldi in particular authoring screenplays for some of its’ best and most famous examples. Paolella, however, slipped a little under the radar in subsequent years with his most notable following credits being unwieldy Eurospy ‘Agente S 03: Operazione Atlantide’ (1965) and a couple of the more sober entries in the short-lived nunsploitation craze, most notably ‘Story of a Cloistered Nun’ (1973).

Most will recognise Rock Stevens from more than 150 episodes of the smash-hit TV show ‘Mission: Impossible’, where he appeared under his more familiar name of Peter Lupus. Although he struggled to maintain that level of visibility, he also appeared as Nor(d)berg in the cult comedy ‘Police Squad!’ with Leslie Nielsen, being replaced in the ‘Naked Gun’ movie series by O.J. Simpson. Liné was most probably the hardest working actress in European cinema in the 1960s and 1970s. She assembled a fearsome list of credits in genre cinema, although she was often wasted in minor roles far beneath her abilities. Her prodigious work ethic was prompted by a far more critical job: being a real-life single mother.

When the film was released in America, the title switched the location of the action from Baghdad to Damascus. Although this would be an understandable decision if it were made now, given the former’s place in world events over the last few decades, it seems a curious decision for the early 1960s. Just as puzzling was why Goliath didn’t get the almost obligatory name-change to Hercules.

A weak and predictable effort from the last days of a popular craze that had run its course.

The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail/La coda dello scorpione (1971)

‘He must’ve been peeling a pear when his knife slipped.’

A faithless wife receives a million-dollar life insurance payout when her husband dies in a plane crash. Several people believe that she was somehow responsible and, when she goes to pick up the money in Athens, various mysterious characters start to close in…

After director Sergio Martino took his bow in the Giallo arena with ‘The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh‘ (1971), it was less than eight months before he delivered his second entry. Also produced by brother Luciano, it again featured a writing team that included Eduardo Manzanos and genre leader Ernesto Gastaldi.

When a commercial airliner explodes mid-flight, the beautiful Lisa Baumer (Evelyn Stewart) isn’t too bothered when she finds out that her husband, Kurt (Fulvio Mingozzi), was on the passenger list. After all, it wasn’t that much of a marriage; he was constantly on the move because of business, leaving her alone in London to amuse herself with a string of lovers. In fact, there’s a considerable upside. A few months earlier, he’d taken out a million-dollar life insurance policy with her as the sole beneficiary.

However, newfound wealth comes with its own problems. Before leaving England, Stewart is stalked by one of her ex-playmates, who has an incriminating letter in which she wished her husband dead. Going to pay him off, she instead finds him dying in a pool of blood. Fleeing to Athens to collect the cash, she’s pursued by both insurance investigator Peter Lynch (George Hilton) and Interpol agent John Stanley (Alberto de Mendoza). If all that’s not bad enough, Mingozzi’s ex-lover Lara Florakis (Janine Reynaud) and her strongarm friend Sharif (Luis Barboo) want their share of the booty.

What follows is the tangled web of murder, mystery and misdirection typical of the sub-genre. Was the explosion on the plane an accident or sabotage? Who killed the blackmailer in London? Was Reynaud really Mingozzi’s lover? Is the businessman actually still alive? Does de Mendoza have a hidden agenda? Do Stewart and Hilton have a previous relationship, and does journalist Cléo Dupont (Anita Strindberg) have an ulterior motive in getting close to him? Question after question for Inspector Stavros (Luigi Pistilli) as the money disappears and the corpses begin piling up.

This is a quality Giallo, but with an impact slightly compromised by some structural and pacing issues. These were most probably caused by a hurried production. The original cut of the film ran short, and reshoots with Stewart took place in London. These scenes never fully integrate into the story and make for a rather extended first act. This means that Strindberg appears surprisingly late in proceedings, considering that she is a pivotal character and, at times, the drama does seem a little unfocused.

Nevertheless, the film has some definite virtues. On the technical side, we have wonderfully crisp cinematography from Emilio Foriscot, and Bruno Nicolai’s score is excellent. The director also ups the horror content with more explicit kills, even if the makeup effects leave a little to be desired on occasion. One of the murders proves to be the film’s outstanding sequence; another tour de force of editing, camerawork and direction that stands up to comparison with equivalent scenes in ‘The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh’ (1971). It’s also pleasing to report that, despite some niggles with the story in hindsight, the writers conjure a logical and satisfying conclusion when the audience could be forgiven for thinking that such an outcome is looking unlikely.

Performances are solid, with a lot of the cast already experienced in this type of project, despite the Giallo not yet reaching its heyday. Hilton and de Mendoza return from ‘The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh’ (1971), and the former appeared in ‘The Sweet Body of Deborah’ (1968) along with Stewart and Pistilli. Reynaud had starred in ‘Assassino senza volto/Killer Without A Face’ (1968) and ‘Run, Psycho, Run’ (1968), and Strindberg was a brief, but memorable, part of Lucio Fulci’s ‘A Lizard In A Woman’s Skin’ (1971). Almost the entire cast went on to further notable Gialli credits over the next few years.

The unwieldy structure holds the film back a little, but it’s still a highly enjoyable Giallo with memorable moments.

The Sweet Body of Deborah/Il Dolce Corpo Di Deborah (1968)

The Sweet Body of Deborah (1968)‘And now watch out, I like to eat little girls.’

A bridegroom takes his American wife to his old home town of Geneva on their honeymoon. When they arrive, he discovers that his ex-lover has committed suicide and it’s not long before the couple are being subjected to strange happenings and mysterious threats…

The ltalian ‘Giallo’ movie is now recognised as a precursor to the American slasher craze kicked off in earnest by John Carpenter’s ‘Halloween’ (1978), but the term originally simply referred to a ‘murder mystery’ and this film falls squarely into that category. So there’s a notable absence of the familiar tropes we expect when viewing films from that sub-genre today, but nevertheless this was an important steeping stone in their development, although not so much for what actually appears on the screen.

Handsome Swiss hunk Jean Sorel is showing new wife Carroll Baker the sights of Europe when they stopover in his old stomping ground on the shores of Lake Geneva. A seemingly chance encounter with old friend Philip (Liugi Pistilli) turns nasty when Pistilli informs him of the suspected suicide of Sorel’s ex-girlfriend Suzanne (Evelyn Stewart) in a car accident.

The Sweet Body of Deborah (1968)

‘Shake it Baby!’

At Stewart’s abandoned old home, they hear spooky music and Baker gets a phone call threatening her life. Believing Pistilli was in love with Stewart and is seeking vengeance, the couple rent an isolated villa in the country, but it seems they can’t escape Sorel’s shady past. And what’s their dangerously handsome next door neighbour George Hilton got to do with it all?

The film starts rather slowly with Sorrel and Baker as loving newlyweds. The intention is to establish character and get the audience invested, which is a fine idea. Unfortunately, both Baker and Sorel seem disengaged with the material and there is little chemistry between them. After their visit to the spooky old house, suspicion raises its ugly head on both sides and the cracks in their relationship begin to show. Their quiet sense of distrust in each other is nicely played and these are probably the film’s best scenes.

So, after a somewhat rocky opening, toward the half way point things seem to be building up nicely. But then there’s no more story development until the last 15 minutes when all the threads come together. It’s this lengthy and very dull second act that really derails the film. To its’ credit, we still not exactly sure of what’s happening until pretty near the conclusion but when the pieces fall into place it’s not exactly a surprise and an attempt at an additional twist at the end is rather ambiguous and makes little sense.

The Sweet Body of Deborah (1968)

 In the 60s people really knew how to party… 

Director Romolo Guerrieri is keen to catch that 1960’s zeitgeist by dressing Baker in funky outfits and employing some ill-advised (if pretty) slo-mo in some of the romantic flashbacks. The musical soundtrack by Nora Orlandi is very much of its time and there’s a slightly odd sequence where Baker and Sorel play ‘Twister’ in their back garden to the sound of a marching band!

Considering all this is a fairly tepid experience, then why is it an important step in the development of the ‘Giallo’ as we know it today? Because of the people that were involved – on both sides of the camera. Writer Ernesto Gastaldi (who co-authored the screenplay) was already becoming the ‘go-to guy’ for these kind of convoluted thrillers and co-writer/producer Luciano Martino went onto fulfil the same roles on several notable examples, including ‘So Sweet…So Perverse’ (1969) and ‘The Strange Vice of Mrs Wrath’ (1971). That last film was directed by his brother Sergio who served as production manager on this film and actually starred Hilton who top-lined several other similar projects in subsequent years. And the same can be said of Pistilli and Sorel! Perhaps it just shows how tightly knit the Italian film industry was at the time.

Baker was a Hollywood actress who had fame almost as soon as she stepped in front of the camera with a featured role in the James Dean epic ‘Giant’ (1956) and an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of the title character of Elia Kazan’s ‘Baby Doll’ (1956). Partly due to the nature of that role and the national controversy which the film provoked, she found it hard to get decent roles afterwards and often argued with producers and studios to escape type-casting. When big budget biopic ‘Harlow’ (1965) was a box office disaster (and her performance in the title role panned by critics) her stateside career was effectively over and, after a short break, she relocated to the continent. Subsequent to this film, she made a string of ‘Giallo’ pictures: ‘So Sweet…So Perverse’ (1969), ‘Orgasmo’ (1969), ‘A Quiet Place To Kill’ (1970) and ‘The Fourth Victim’ (1971) among others.

This is not a bad thriller by any means, but a dull middle section betrays the lack of an interesting plot and there’s not enough suspense or surprise to satisfy mystery fans. And those familiar with the more extreme elements of later ‘Giallo’ pictures are likely to be severely disappointed.