‘There was something devilish about him, maybe because he was a psychiatrist.’
A young woman embarks on a journey to track down her friend, a doctor, who has apparently vanished. The trail leads to a remote lakeside community and a villa occupied by various artists. All of them claim never to have seen her friend, but she soon has good reason to think otherwise…
Slow burn Giallo thriller from co-writer and director Mario Caiano that was a co-production between Italy and West Germany. Famous faces Alida Valli and Bond villain Adolfo Celo grace the cast, and a story that places a naive protagonist at the mercy of a rogue’s gallery of questionable characters.
When her boyfriend, Dr Luca (Horst Frank), fails to show up at his office after a short trip, Julie (Rosemary Dexter) is concerned. A note in his diary suggests that he may have gone to a remote lake, so she follows and starts asking questions around the local area. She’s given a lead by a mysterious man named Antonio (Gaetano Donati), who takes her to a ruined building, claiming someone lives there who can help. But it’s deserted, and part of the structure falls, almost killing her.
A friendlier local named Frank (Adolfo Celi) suggests she try her luck at the isolated villa owned by middle-aged millionairess Gerda (an intense Alida Valli). This house has a seemingly permanent population of oddballs and idlers. There’s Eugene (Franco Ressel), who obsessively records everyday conversations on a tape machine and Toni (Sybil Danning), who takes photographs of feet. Theatrical double act Thomas and Corrine (Gigi Rizzi and Peter Kranz) have a big, personal secret, and handsome toyboy Louis (Michael Maien) spends his nights in Valli’s bed. Dexter is keen to move on with her search, but Celi suggests that their sworn ignorance about the good doctor may not be the entire truth.
Director Mario Caiano starts his film with an impressive sequence. A man in black flees down empty passages of white stone, apparently pursued by a killer. Extreme camera angles and lighting combine to deliver a sense of hyper-reality and disorientation. When Dexter wakes up, it’s revealed as only a nightmare, but it’s only the beginning. She remains off-balance throughout the entire story, placing her trust in the wrong people and persistently ignoring some pretty obvious red flags. The character is not likeable or sympathetic, and when she finally takes action, she makes bad choices. It’s a testament to DeXter’s clever and skilful performance that the audience stays engaged and on her side.
The solution to the mystery makes sense, but Caiaino has dropped a few too many clues on the way, and certain aspects are a little difficult to swallow. The problems revolve mainly around the involvement of Saro (Benjamin Lev), an adolescent artist who lives at the orphanage run by Celi’s mistress (Elisa Mainardi). His behaviour makes little sense, given his possession of the solution to the mystery. Still, his eventual fate does make for the film’s standout scene.
Gorehounds and those looking for an escalating body count are likely to be disappointed here, with Caiano’s focusing more on the psychological and mystery elements than horror. There are also few visual flourishes after Dexter’s opening nightmare, and little extravagance elsewhere, aside from the overstated score by Roberto Nicolosi. His music does work well at times, creating some unsettling moments, but at others, it’s merely an unfortunate distraction. The cast is good across the board, with Dexter showing up well against the more seasoned principals. Celi was an expert in playing outwardly friendly characters with a barely concealed sinister edge, and it’s good to see him go up against Valli as the manipulative Gerda. Ressel scores as the creepy Eugene in support, and Danning is fine in an early role, although there’s little sign of the tough persona she would bring to so many ‘B’ movies in the era of video home rental.
Caiano was a journeyman director whose career mirrored many other craftsmen in the Italian film industry in the latter half of the 20th Century. He began in the ‘sword and sandal’ arena with entries such as ‘Ulisse contro Ercole/Ulysses vs Hercules/Ulysses Against Hercules’ (1962) and ‘Goliath and the Rebel Slave/Goliath e la schiava ribelle/The Tyrant of Lydia Against the Son of Hercules/Arrow of the Avenger’ (1963). He also tried his hand at both the gothic horror with ‘Nightmare Castle/Amanti d’oltretomba/The Faceless Monster’ (1965) and the Eurospy with ‘Spies Strike Silently/Le Spie Uccidono In Silenzio’ (1966). Perhaps he was best known for a series of Spaghetti Westerns, though, material for which he showed more affinity, particularly with action scenes such as the excellent climax to ‘A Coffin for the Sheriff/Una bara per lo sceriffo/Lone and Angry Man’ (1965). Along with many others, he was working almost exclusively in television by the 1980s as the domestic film industry wrestled with serious financial problems.
Valli was born into the nobility in 1921 and was of Austrian, Italian and Slovenian descent, although she always identified as Italian. After a short spell in acting school, she was on the screen at age 15 and scored her first significant success in the comedy ‘Mille lire al mese’ (1939). Breaking into more dramatic roles with her award-winning performance in ‘Piccolo mondo antico’ (1941), she was brought to Hollywood after the war by famous producer David O. Selznick. Her career never really took off in America, although she was unforgettable as the haunted Anna Schmidt in Carol Reed’s iconic ‘The Third Man’ (1949). Back in Europe, she enjoyed great success in Luchino Visconti’s ‘Senso’ (1954) and Georges Franju’s superb ‘Eyes Without a Face/Les yeux sans visage’ (1960), among many other prestigious projects. In later years, she appeared in Mario Bava’s ‘Lisa and the Devil/El diablo se lleva a los muertos’ (1974) and the Dario Argento classic ‘Suspiria’ (1977).
Solid, professional Giallo with a few interesting elements.