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.

A Bay of Blood/Twitch of the Death Nerve/Ecologia del delitto (1971)

When one kills contrary to the laws of nature, one becomes a monster.’

The landowner of a desirable real estate property is murdered one night, only for her assassin to be almost immediately killed in turn by an unseen assailant. Other visitors to the remote bay area are slaughtered one by one during a reign of terror…

Groundbreaking Giallo thriller from horror maestro Mario Bava that laid out the template for every summer camp slasher to come, with a long line of victims out in the woods meeting their maker in various creative and gory ways. Although it did not spark an immediate string of copycat movies, a decade of grindhouse and midnight movie shows significantly influenced the horror film of the 1980s.

The film opens with wheelchair user Countess Federica Donati (Isa Miranda) going from room to in her luxurious mansion on a dark and stormy night. It’s a scene that will feel very familiar to followers of the director’s work; the opulent fittings and splashes of rich colour combine to give a gothic feel, almost promoting the notion of a period piece. The kill, when it comes, is swift and brutal as Miranda is strangled with a thin cord hung from the ceiling. The first clue we get that this will be something a little different is how the camera lingers on Miranda’s dead face for some uncomfortably long moments; indeed, Bava cuts back to it several times during the scene.

However, it’s the next few moments that have more significance. The killer removes his black gloves, and we see his face! Straight away, Bava is setting out his stall; this will not be a story along the lines of Dario Argento’s international smash hit ‘The Bird With The Crystal Plumage’ (1970). The audience doesn’t know it yet, but the murderer is Miranda’s husband, Count Filippo (Giovanni Nuvoletti). He doesn’t get much time to savour the satisfaction of a job well done, however, as he has an unfortunate interaction with a blade wielded by a figure who does remain unseen. We then see the action from the point of view of the new killer as he drags Nuvoletti’s body away, Miranda’s hanging corpse retreating slowly in the centre of the shot. It is possible to interpret this as the director sending another message to the audience; this is goodbye to the Bava you have known, from now on, I’m giving you something new.

We’re then introduced to some characters that would become only too familiar to moviegoers of the 1980s and beyond: the horny teenagers out to have fun at a remote, secluded spot. We only get four of them here because they’re not an essential part of the plot, and we do have to get to that eventually! There’s the brash, confident jock, Luca (Guido Boccaccini), shy, nerdy Roberto (Roberto Bonanni), sex-mad Sylvie (Paola Montenero) and exchange student Louise (Brigitte Skay). To be fair to Bava’s film, these characters are not the cliches they were to become, but, yes, they are in the movie just to be killed. Gratuitously. Skay discovers Nuvoletti’s corpse while skinny-dipping in the bay, and the quartet get up close and personal with various hardware implements soon afterwards. Skay gets a lot of credit for those watery scenes, by the way, as the film was shot in January. Apparently, she fought off the freezing temperatures with lots and lots of vodka.

Once we’ve got all that out of the way, we finally meet the film’s main protagonists; Nuvoletti’s daughter, Renata (Claudine Auger) and her husband, Alberto (Luigi Pistilli). Their initial introduction displays Bava’s wonderful knack for visual shorthand. The couple is spying on fisherman Simon (Claudio Camaso) and bug hunter Paolo Fosatti (Leopoldo Trieste) using binoculars. Pistilli is crouching behind a bush, but Auger is standing in plain sight in a power stance. She demands the binoculars, and he hands them up to her. It’s a perfect visual metaphor for their relationship and gives the audience an immediate grasp of their characters without any need for exposition or dialogue.

Along with the protagonists comes a better understanding of the plot. The bay area was owned by Miranda, having been in her family for generations. Nuvoletti wanted to develop it as a tourist spot and, despite misgivings, she went along with the idea, allowing him to build a gas station and a nightclub. However, it soon became apparent that Nuvoletti had no intention of mending his gambling, womanising ways, so she pulled the plug on his scheme. The proposed development looks like a once in a lifetime opportunity to neighbour Franco Ventura (Chris Avram), who is not above pimping out girlfriend/secretary Laura (Anna Maria Rosati) in his underhanded scheme to obtain title rights to the bay. Auger is also keen on claiming the property as her rightful inheritance, but fisherman Camaso puts a crimp in her plans by turning out to be the Countess’ illegitimate son from back in the day. All of which provides almost the entire cast with reasons for wanting everyone else out of the way.

According to writer Dardano Sacchetti who worked on the script in its early stages, the labyrinthine plot was of considerably less interest to Bava than thinking up new ways for the characters to die. The finished film does bear that out with some highly creative and mostly convincing kills delivered in more graphic terms than seen previously in cinema. The scene where teenagers Boccaccini and Montenero are pinned to the bed mid-copulation was even referenced directly by director Steve Miner in ‘Friday the 13th Part 2’ (1981). There’s also a particularly nasty impalement at the climax, which is probably the best example of why the film has a lasting impact. It’s not that Bava soaks the screen with blood and guts; it’s more about the length of time that his characters take to die. Instead of the actor giving up the ghost after a brief struggle (and falling out of shot), Bava shows the body’s persistent fight for life even when the outcome is obvious and inevitable. It’s the realism that clinches it.

Fans of Bava’s older works who do not care for this new approach can still take comfort in some of his old tricks and filmmaking technique, though. The shooting location, owned by producer Giuseppe Zaccariello, didn’t have enough trees, so Bava waved branches in front of the camera. The exterior shot of Miranda’s mansion was achieved by Bava’s usual method of lining up the camera at an empty piece of shoreline and shooting through a plate of glass with a cut out of a house stuck to it. If those practical FX sound like they look terrible, then it’s the usual testament to Bava’s genius that they are totally convincing.

The film was not well received on release, particularly by critics, who were upset by the level of violence. Horror star Christopher Lee, who had worked with Bava in the early 1960s, was apparently ‘completely revolted’ by the movie when he attended the world premiere at the Avoriaz Film Festival. Viewed from half a century later, it isn’t easy to understand that reaction, but, of course, a modern-day audience is far more acclimatised to such sights on screen. What may have upset people on a more subconscious level, though, is the film’s pessimistic vision of humanity. There are no good guys here, and even Pistilli’s character, who has an aversion to violence, embraces it in the final act as a means to an end. It’s also notable that the only affection between his character and wife Auger occurs after the killing is over, and he has ‘proved his worth’ by participation.

However, the film is laced with some dark humour, although it is easy to miss it in the cavalcade of murder. After the last interloping teenagers are finally rubbed out, Bava’s camera zooms to the front of their dune buggy. The headlights and the curve of the radiator grille form a smiley face. There’s also an appearance by the wonderful Laura Betti, who appeared so effectively in the director’s earlier film ‘Hatchet For The Honeymoon’ (1969). Here, she plays the entomologist’s flaky wife as a drunken Oracle, fumbling through her Tarot deck, bitching about the neighbours and rocking black ringlets that seem a conscious nod to the popular conception of seers of Ancient Greece. And then there’s that final twist at the end, which comes so entirely out of left field. What could it be apart from a last, ironic joke?

Although the screenplay gives the cast little to work with in terms of character development, the actors deliver economical and efficient work given those limitations. Auger is imperious as the wife-from-hell and her interplay with Pistilli, who gets the only character arc in the film, is convincing and well-played. Betti is a delight in her brief scenes, and her interactions with husband Trieste provide a little light in Bava’s dark world. The standout, however, is Camaso, who brings a repressed fury to his moments of emotional turmoil and a strange detachment otherwise, notably when he shares some memorable moments with a squid.

Pistilli was no stranger to the Giallo, appearing in significant milestone ‘The Sweet Body of Deborah/Il dolce corpo di Deborah’ (1968) with Hollywood refugee Carrol Baker. He could also be found representing law and order in ‘The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail/La coda dello scorpione’ (1971) and ‘The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire/L’iguana dalla lingua di fuoco’ (1971). However, he’s best remembered for his work in Spaghetti Western fans with notable roles in Sergio Corbucci’s ‘The Great Silence/Il grande silenzio’ (1968) and two episodes in Sergio Leone’s ‘Dollars Trilogy’: ‘For A Few Dollars More’ (1965) and ‘The Good, The Bad and the Ugly’ (1966).

Auger was a former beauty queen who got her big break as Sean Connery’s ‘Bond Girl’ Domino in ‘Thunderball’ (1965). After that, she went on to a long and varied career on the European screen, escaping from roles relying on her looks and later transitioning into character parts. Camaso’s real name was Claudio Volonté, and he was the younger brother of Gian Maria Volonté, an actor now synonymous with the Spaghetti Western. In the 1960s, Camaso was accused of involvement in bomb plots against the Italian Communist Party and at the Vatican but was exonerated. In 1977, he stabbed a friend to death who intervened in an argument the drunken actor was having with his wife. While awaiting trial, he committed suicide in prison.

Bava’s controversial Giallo throws a long shadow over the horror genre that’s still visible today. It’s slick, efficient and hits all of its targets with supreme confidence. It’s essential viewing, of course, but I find it a far easier film to admire than to like.

The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire/L’iguana dalla lingua di fuoco (1971)

‘You get worse by the day, your ass-cellency!’

A woman’s corpse is found in the boot of a limousine owned by an embassy in Dublin. The head of the police investigation decides to use a disgraced former colleague to delve into the lives of the foreign ambassador and his family. However, the killings escalate until the unofficial agent’s own loved ones are under threat…

Sloppy, disappointing Giallo from veteran director Riccardo Freda, who chose to take his name off the film and instead hide behind the pseudonym of Willy Pareto. He also co-wrote the screenplay along with Sandro Continenza, despite the alleged participation of others and source material by a writer called Richard Mann, which doesn’t seem to exist.

The diplomatic life can be an awful bore, what with all those meetings, stuffy receptions and making small talk with an endless procession of faceless dignitaries and minor officials. So you might think Ambassador Sobiesky (Anton Diffring) would welcome any kind of distraction. His bored wife, Mrs Sobiesky (Valentina Cortese), certainly would. But finding the mutilated corpse of a dead blonde in the trunk of the company car is not what either had in mind. Identification is impossible as her face has been burned off with acid. Apparently. In actual fact, some of her features are still intact, so a quick chat with missing persons and a check of fingerprints and dental records might do the job, but such ideas seem beyond lead investigator Inspector Lawrence (Arthur O’Sullivan).

Instead, it’s a much better plan to turn everything over to disgraced former copper Ex-Detective John Norton (Luigi Pistilli). He can pick up the ambassador’s daughter Helen (Dagmar Lassander) at a local pub, take her to bed and solve the case that way. Unfortunately, the venue’s singer Dominique Boschero is also Diffring’s mistress, and she turns up with her throat slit the same night after he hands her a payoff. In fact, it seems that Diffring is being blackmailed by almost everyone, including his wife’s son from a former marriage, Marc (Werner Pochath), who needs to fund a ritzy lifestyle with his friend Emmet Bergin. And how do Lassander’s sometime boyfriend Walter (Sergio Doria) and shifty chauffeur Mandel (Renato Romano) fit into the puzzle?

Both the florid title and the exploits of a black-gloved killer in Dublin are a none-too-subtle attempt to ride the coat-tails of Dario Argento’s smash hit ‘The Bird with the Crystal Plumage’ (1969). The alleged novel on which the film was based is called ‘A Room Without A Door’. That’s a title that bears about as much relevance as the wonderful one that eventually got the job. The film does attempt to justify it via an analogy given by Lawrence, but it’s as slapdash and flimsy as the rest of the script. The inclusion of a family for Pistilli is an unusual touch, and his grandmother’s attempts to solve the case with some friendly advice play like a throwback to the more comedic elements of ‘Scotland Yard Vs Dr. Mabuse/Scotland Yard Jagt Dr. Mabuse’ (1963).

Unfortunately, the story is thin and not well-thought-out. The killer is not hard to identify, and the motivation behind the slaying spree is weak at best. Similarly, a significant element of the slayer’s MO has no logical justification and feels like it’s been lifted wholesale from other, more creative films. Lawrence choosing to involve Pisitlll in the investigation is also utterly baffling. Complete accuracy in films regarding police procedures can’t be expected, of course, but at the very least, their actions need to have some credibility. The idea that a high-ranking officer dealing with a murder case would employ an ex-detective to work it is a little hard to swallow. Especially given that the man in question is known as ‘The Executioner’ and was only recently booted off the force. For beating up a suspect so badly that the desperate man committed suicide. By grabbing the detective’s gun. And this is a murder case that may lead to an international incident! A little credibility goes a long way, and the complete lack travels in the opposite direction.

But the film’s major sin is its’ unforgivable waste of some excellent acting talent. It’s always a pleasure to see Diffring play the autocrat, but here he disappears for long stretches of the action. Lassander mostly just gets to play the damsel in distress, and Boschero has barely five minutes of screen time. Similarly wasted is the wonderful Cortese, whose picture career spanned half a century and included notable leads in ‘The House on Telegraph Hill’ (1951) and Jules Dassin’s all-time classic Film Noir ‘Thieves’ Highway’ (1949). Later on, she progressed to character roles, appearing to memorable effect in Mario Bava’s ‘The Girl Who Knew Too Much’ (1963) and surrealist Giallo ‘The Possessed/La donna del Lago (1965). François Truffaut’s ‘Day for Night’ (1973) and Terry Gilliam’s notorious ‘The Adventures of Baron Munchausen’ (1988) followed among many others.

What virtues the film does have are rooted in Freda’s use of his locations. Whether it’s the bustling streets of Dublin or the mountain slopes of Switzerland, there are some excellent visuals, and these generate a tangible sense of place. All of the exterior work is good; it’s just unfortunate that filming back at the studios in Rome is necessarily more plot-focused, and that’s where things fall apart. Freda was a veteran filmmaker with over 40 titles to his name by the early 1970s. His career had begun with successful historical dramas such as ‘The Black Eagle’ (1946), an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s ‘Les Misérables/Caccia all’uomo’ (1948) starring Cortese and sword and sandal pictures like ‘Spartacus the Gladiator’ (1953). Later in the decade, he tried to resuscitate Italian horror with their first post-war fright flick, ‘I vampiri’ (1957), although he did walk off the set and the film had to be finished by friend and colleague Mario Bava. Further horrors followed with the beautifully shot ‘The Terror of Dr Hichcock/L’orribile Segreto del Dr. Hichcock’ (1962) and ‘The Ghost/Lo spettro’ (1963), both starring Barbara Steele, but the quality of his projects began to decline afterwards.

Despite good professional credentials and some well-shot sequences, the silly, messy story derails this enterprise.

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.