‘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.