‘I have to look for some worms for my darlings.’
A young woman is strangled in her bathtub, and her body shipped to an exclusive girls’ school in a trunk. Shortly afterwards, one of the students is sceretly murdered and, while the search for her goes on, the killer is already lining up the next target…
Early Giallo thriller from Italian director Antonio Margheriti (credited as usual as ‘Anthony Dawson’) that leans far more heavily toward the murder-mystery aspect of the sub-genre. This approach differs from the later incarnation, which featured far more graphic violence and nudity and paved the way for the American slasher horrors of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Yes, the setup is classic exploitation: a private girls finishing school with a ready-made roster of eye-candy and potential victims. However, the emphasis is on the story and guessing the killer’s identity, rather than the more sensational elements of the situation.
It’s vacation time at the St. Hilda’s School for Girls, but, unfortunately, not all the students have left for the holidays. You see, it’s tough being a daughter of privilege; parents are often too busy making millions to bother with you. So, spring break involves lounging around by the pool in the beautiful Italian countryside, playing a spot of tennis if you want and contemplating the contents of your large checking account. But there’s a summer romance in the air for pretty young redhead Lucille (Eleanora Brown), and it’s getting a little bit serious. Unfortunately, the object of her affection is handsome Richard Barrett (Mark Damon), and he happens to be the school’s riding instructor. Headmistress Miss Transfield (Vivian Stapleton) and new teacher Ms Clay (Ludmilla Lvova) are not likely to approve of this extra-curricular activity. After all, it’s not likely to stay under wraps for long with kookie gossip-monger Jill (Sally Smith) prowling the campus looking for excitement.
However, there’s far more serious intrigue afoot with the sudden disappearance of classmate Betty Ann (Caterina Trentini). This development brings the forces of law and order, represented here by veteran British character actor Michael Rennie and his assistant Franco de Rosa.
The investigation proceeds quickly, with suspicion falling first on resident gardener/handyman/peeping tom Luciano Pigozzi. After him, it’s the suddenly absent Damon, eccentric Professor André (Aldo De Carellis) and skin-diving instructor Di Brazzi (Giovanni Di Benedetto). It’s worth mentioning here that this school has a somewhat unique curriculum: skin-diving, tennis, horse riding and fencing. Maybe all finishing schools are like that; I wouldn’t know. Back at the plot, the clues and killings pile up and Margheriti does a good job of lining up all the suspects. When we get to the final reveal, it may not be all that original, but at least it makes sense. All the threads are securely tied, even if how the killer expected to get away with it is another mystery entirely! Once the murderous scheme is concluded, it wouldn’t be remotely difficult for any detective to put the pieces together.
This is a decent thriller, delivered with consummate professionalism in all departments. Fans of better known Giallo pictures are likely to be disappointed by the (very) discreet nudity and the almost bloodless kills, but there’s still plenty to enjoy here. Horror maestro Mario Bava was involved with the genesis of the project, originally titled ‘Cry Nightmare’, and it’s interesting to speculate how his visual genius might have shot these locations. Still, director Margheriti was a capable, if not always inspired, hand on the tiller.
Margheriti has a long and extraordinarily variable filmography, including science-fiction: ‘Assignment: Outer Space’ (1960), ‘The Wild, Wild Planet’ (1966) (a personal favourite of mine), toga pictures like ‘The Fall of Rome’ (1963), horrors such as the under-rated ‘The Long Hair of Death’ (1965), Eurospy flicks ‘Lightning Bolt’ (1966) and ‘Killers Are Challenged’ (1966), and a couple of Hercules pictures, including ‘Ursus, il terrore dei kirghisi’ (1964). He also tackled Vietnam-based action films, crime dramas, Westerns, a rom-com, a driving movie with Joey Travolta, some Indiana Jones rip-offs, a knock-off of ‘The Abyss’ (1989) without a budget, and finished off his career making films starring ex-undisputed World Middleweight Boxing Champion Marvelous Marvin Hagler. He also co-directed Andy Warhol’s notorious ‘Flesh For Frankenstein’ (1973) and was solo in the canvas seat for the epic ‘Yor, The Hunter From The Future’ (1983), which still awaits recognition as one of the greatest films of all time.
Margheriti might have been a directorial ‘gun for hire’, following whatever trend was out there, but, if you want a crash course in the history of cult cinema, you could do worse than check out his filmography; he pretty much did it all. The same can also be said for veteran character actor Pigozzi, who plays the tree-hugging janitor here. He often worked for Margheriti and has many other interesting, and sometimes bizarre, credits to his name, such as ‘Devilman Story’ (1967).
The strongest element of this project, though, turns out to be a nice surprise, both in the writing and performance. It’s the character of Jill, played by Sally Smith. At first, she seems like the irritating comedy-relief; bitching about the other girls, playing inane pranks and generaly getting on the nerves of everyone involved, including the audience. But when Rennie arrives, she develops a crush on him (despite the significant age difference). This could have been allowed to become creepy, but instead both actors pull it off with quiet wit and natural charm. Smith begins her own investigation to help out, and, by the end of the film has emerged as the heroine, showing smarts and bravery in equal measure. It’s an excellent, well-judged turn by Smith that makes you wish the movie had been centred on her character, rather than spending so much time with Brown and Damon. They aren’t weak in the acting department, but their roles are not as well-developed and interesting.
Smith didn’t have an extensive screen career, mostly playing on British TV before this, including an episode of ‘The Avengers’. She appeared in only one more film before taking a break of over 20 years, but this new phase included only a few scattered credits at the end of the 1980s and the start of the 90s.
Brown had a major supporting role in director Vittorio De Sica’s ‘Two Women’ (1960), which starred Jean-Paul Belmondo and an Oscar-winning Sophia Loren. This film seemed to be her final role as she retired from the business at the age of 30. However, a couple of producer’s credits in the last couple of years have been followed by a part in ‘Un Amore Così Grande’ (2018); a film released half a century after this one. Now that is one hell of a career break! Interesting that both leading women pretty much quite the business after this film. Perhaps filming was not a happy experience.
American Damon began his career on TV but soon graduated to leads in small movies, including the surprise smash hit ‘House of Usher’ (1960) with Vincent Price. After his career stateside failed to take off, he tried his luck in Europe, appearing mostly in Spaghetti Westerns, but also landing the lead in the Eurospy picture ‘Agente segreto 777 – Operazione Mistero’ (1965). Moving into the producer’s chair later in the following decade, he quickly racked up a diverse list of credits including big hits ‘The NeverEnding Story’ (1984), ‘Clan of The Cave Bear’ (1986), ‘9½ Weeks’ (1986), ‘Short Circuit’ (1986) and cult favourite ‘The Lost Boys’ (1987). Subsequent decades found him involved in less notable projects such as ‘Beastmaster 2: Through the Portal of Time’ (1991), ‘The Second Jungle Book: Mowgli & Baloo’ (1997) and the execrable ‘Feardotcom’ (2002). But he bounced back with ‘Monster’ (2003) which featured an Oscar-winning Charlize Theron and has half a dozen future projects lined up at the time of writing.
A thoroughly professional, efficient thriller that’s not likely to be a favourite of those who enjoy the more extreme examples of the Giallo experience.