This 1960 UK-France co-production was the third adaptation of French writer Maurice Renard’s novel of the same name. The first, THE HANDS OF ORLAC (Orlacs Hande), was made in Weimar Germany and released in 1924. The second, also known as MAD LOVE and starring Peter Lorre, was made in Hollywood and released in 1935.
These dates and details are significant insofar as they thus correspond with three key points in the history of the horror film: The 1920s pre-genre period of German Expressionism and Hollywood Gothic melodrama; the 1930s and the emergence of horror as a genre in Hollywood, with considerable input from German and British personnel; and the late 1950s reinvention of horror associated with Britain’s Hammer Films.
The 1960 HANDS OF ORLAC clearly shows a Hammer influence in its cast beyond first-billed Mel Ferrer, who plays Orlac. Christopher Lee is predictably the villain of the piece, while the supporting cast includes a plethora of British horror film talent including Donald Wolfit (BLOOD OF THE VAMPIRE, 1958), Donald Pleasance (THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS, 1959), Felix Aylmer (THE MUMMYy, 1959), Janina Faye (HORROR OF DRACULA, 1958) and David Peel (THE BRIDES OF DRACULA. 1960).
The Hammer influence does not, however, extend to the film’s actual approach. It’s not so much that it is a black-and-white film – PSYCHO and EYES WITHOUT A FACE (both 1960) managed to be modern in monochrome, after all – as that veteran director and co-writer Edmond Gréville, seem more comfortable operating in a 1930s than a 1950s idiom.
The story for those unfamiliar with it: After his hands are horribly maimed in accident, concert pianist Stephen Orlac comes to believe that he has been given the hands of a murderer – more specifically a strangler, as foregrounded in the alternative HANDS OF THE STRANGLER title – via a transplant.
This idea is actually something that can also be found, in an inverted form, in THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957) insofar as Peter Cushing’s Frankenstein seeks out a pianist’s hands to replace those of the hanged criminal whose body serves as the main basis for his creation. The crucial difference is that Hammer’s film didn’t exactly shy away from showing severed body parts and surgery. Here, by contrast, all this is skipped over. One minute Orlac has his accident; the next he’s waking up with his hands wrapped in bandages.
There is also exactly one murder scene in the entirety of THE HANDS OF ORLAC, a few minutes before the end. It leaves matters up to the imagination, a spreading pool of blood the indication that a magic trick involving sticking swords into a cabinet has gone wrong.
Again the more modern, explicit approach is lacking: There’s no shift from black-and-white to colour to emphasise the blood, as with JACK THE RIPPER (1959), while the position of the scene within the narrative means that there’s no exploitation of it (come and see a fatal ‘accident’), as with CIRCUS OF HORRORS (1959).
Much the same can be said of THE HANDS OF ORLAC’s attitude towards ‘sex’: Most notably, whereas Dany Carrell provided a brief flash of breast in MILL OF THE STONE WOMEN (1960), she doesn’t oblige us here.
Despite the datedness of the filmmakers’ approach, there are some moments when THE HANDS OF ORLAC is inadvertently modern almost despite itself, such as the frequent use of mirror-based compositions and the strangler’s fetishistic gloves, both of which seem to foreshadow 1970s gialli.
One place where the filmmakers make a more conscious effort to be contemporary is in their choice of a jazz-based score. While this makes for a nice contrast with the diegetic classical pieces played by Orlac, it doesn’t really help in terms of creating the right kind of atmosphere. Nor is it distinctive enough to be memorable, in the manner of Maurice Jarre’s deliberately idiosyncratic scoring for EYES WITHOUT A FACE.
It’s the perfect summation of THE HANDS OF ORLAC’s position: There were many classic horror films released in 1960, but it isn’t one of them.
THE HANDS OF ORLAC (1960). Directed by Edmon T. Greville. Adaptation by John Baines and Edmond T. Greville, dialogue by Greville; based on the novel by Marice rand. Cast: Mel Ferrer, Christopher Lee, Dany Carrel, Lucile Saint-Simon, Felix Aylmer, Peter Reynolds, Basil Sydney, Campbell Singer, Donald Wolfit, Donald Pleasence.
This 1960 UK-France co-production was the third adaptation of French writer Maurice Renard’s novel of the same name. The first, THE HANDS OF ORLAC (Orlacs Hande), was made in Weimar Germany and released in 1924. The second, also known as MAD LOVE and starring Peter Lorre, was made in Hollywood and released in 1935.
Although THE VAMPIRE AND THE BALLERINA (originally L’amanti del Vampiro [“The Vampire’s Lover]) is certainly not the most important continental European or even Italian horror film made in 1960, it is nevertheless of significance for a number of reasons. In the first place, it marks the directorial debut of Renato Polselli. Polselli is one of the more intriguing and under-examined figures in European cinefantastique. A philosophy graduate whose films express a distinctive, personal take on psychology, sexuality and morality, striving for freedom from convention and hypocrisy, he continually explored and pushed the boundaries of acceptability.
Though THE VAMPIRE AND THE BALLERINA is relatively tame today, it nevertheless part of a continuum that saw Polselli gravitate towards ever weirder and wilder reaches of erotic and even outright pornographic horror over the next two decades. This is apparent from the fact that the film, like many of the director’s later works, suffered from distribution difficulties, not being released in Italy until 1962. Unfortunately by this time, THE VAMPIRE AND THE BALLERINA’s impact was inevitably diluted, given that both Mario Bava’s BLACK SUNDAY and Piero Regnoli’s (decidedly similar) THE PLAYGIRLS AND THE VAMPIRE had been released during the interim.
THE VAMPIRE AND THE BALLERINA also gave prolific screenwriter and occasional director Ernesto Gastaldi his first credit in both capacities, co-writing the script and serving as assistant director.
The film co-stars Walter Brandi. His period as a leading Italian genre actor was short-lived; his other key appearances are in PLAYGIRLS AND THE VAMPIRE (also 1960) and SLAUGHTER OF THE VAMPIRES (1962). He nevertheless maintained an association with the filone cinema, working as production manager on a number of Bruno Mattei’s productions in the 1980s, including the notorious zombie entry HELL OF THE LIVING DEAD.
Much like BLACK SUNDAY and THE PLAYGIRLS AND THE VAMPIRE, THE VAMPIRE AND THE BALLERINA itself presents an early working through of the modern Gothic formula established a few years earlier Freda’s I VAMPIRI and Hammer’s CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and HORROR OF DRACULA. Like Freda and Regnoli’s films, THE VAMPIRE AND THE BALLERINA is shot in black-and-white yet has a contemporary setting, in which the very existence of vampire seems an absurd, atavistic throwback.
This is accentuated in the opening sequences, which contrast the fatalistic world of the rural peasants (“Another victim; nothing can help her now”) with the scepticism of ballet-cum-burlesque dance troupe from the city (“Vampires seem so romantic in a way.” “Sure, you would think so, except that they only exist in movies.”)
Failing to heed the locals’ advice, some of the troupe stop at the supposedly deserted castle to take shelter from a storm. Predictably, they ignore the hints dropped by the Countess (“I don’t care for the world you live in – it is not my world”) and her striking resemblance to a 400 year old ancestress depicted in a portrait, precipitating the usual stalking and staking scenarios and confusions over who is what.
While things are eventually resolved in favour of the living over the undead and good over evil, Polselli nevertheless throws some provocative things our way.
Unlike the classic Dracula scenario, in which the Count is clearly dominant over his non-aristocratic female brides-slaves, THE VAMPIRE AND THE BALLERINA presents a cross-cutting of class and gender dynamics: Countess Alda was turned into a vampire by her servant, Herman, but seeks an escape from her unlife that he refuses to grant. Their relationship is thus characterised by a certain perversity born of mutual dependency, each alternately the master and slave and in need of the other’s recognition in a fundamentally sado-masochistic manner. (Hegel relevant to Italian schlock horror shock!)
The director also gives us a reworking of the famous burial scene from Dreyer’s VAMPYR, complete with coffins-eye view shot. Besides being a powerful image in its own right, it also serves as a reminder of the longer tradition of the European fantastique cinema and the impossibility of clearly delineating the better of its products as either ‘art’ or ‘trash’.
Here it’s also about knowing how to make a ‘proper’ film, one that follows the rules, but of making a choice not to. Though THE VAMPIRE AND THE BALLERINA is certainly more classical and conventional than Polselli’s later work, the traces are there. The film can also thereby be related to wider developments in the cinema around 1960. This was, after all, also the time of Godard’s BREATHLESS, Antonioni’s L’AVVENTURA, and other more self-consciously modernist films.
THE VAMPIRE AND THE BALLERINA (a.k.a. L’amanti del Vampiro [“The Vampire’s Lover], 1960). Directed by Renato Polselli. Written by Ernesto Gastaldi, Giuseppe Pellegrini, Renato Polselli. Cast, Helene Remy, Tina Gloriani, Water Brandi, Isarco Ravaioli, Gino Turini, Pier Ugo Gragnani, Brigitte Castor, Lut Maryk, Maria Luisa Rolando.
That THE AVENGER (Der Racher) is perhaps mostly a footnote in the history of the West German krimi* film can be attributed to its production circumstances. Rather than being part of the Rialto or CCC series, it was Kurt Ulrich Filmproduktion’s only contribution to the cycle, one that they were not able to follow up on account of Rialto’s proven ownership of the film rights to the Edgar Wallace source novels.
The film nevertheless proved influential in other ways. No fewer than three krimi regulars made their genre debuts: Heinz Drache, Siegfried Schurenberg, and Klaus Kinski. Each also plays the type of role in which they would thereafter typically be cast: the detective, the old duffer, and the general-purpose villain, victim, and/or red herring.
THE AVENGER also features one of the classic Wallace monsters in Bhag (Al Hoosman’s), identified as a giant mute servant from the jungles of Borneo. Variously referred to in the English-language version under review as a “negro”, “a demented creature”, “an animal from the jungle”, and “the best servant in the world: he doesn’t think, he doesn’t speak, he doesn’t answer”, the character also inevitably dates the film as the product of earlier, less politically correct times.
By contrast the film’s self-reflexivity feels modern: The investigation takes place amidst the making of a film, leading to the incidental recording of an apparently insignificant detail that actually prefigures Antonioni’s modernist anti-thriller BLOW-UP by a good half-dozen years. During the shoot, director Jackson also tires of the diva antics of his leading lady, prompting him to promote ingénue and extra Ruth Sanders into the role in a move that recalls Argento’s OPERA over a quarter-century later; it is, as Jackson remarks, the sort of incredible thing which only happens in the movies.
Mostly, however, it’s pretty familiar stuff and, as such, holds up about as well or badly as any of the early 1960s black-and-white krimis: even at the time they presented a curiously anachronistic vision of England that was probably more 1920 than 1960. Paradoxically, however, this means that today they haven’t dated anywhere near as badly as their later colour counterparts, which tried to be swinging and hip – with, for instance, a Scotland Yard man called Sergeant Pepper.
We open in media res. A maniac known as The Executioner has struck on no fewer than 12 occasions. The first eleven victims were career criminals, but the most recent was a gentleman apparently beyond reproach – exactly the thing to spur the authorities into real action in the Wallace universe.
The crimes have at least given special investigator Michae Brixan (Heinz Drache) some clues to work with: The killer is extremely strong, having beheaded his victims with a single blow from a heavy blade; uses a typewriter on which a couple of the keys are distinctively out of alignment, and posts cryptic messages in the newspaper under the name of “the Benefactor”.
Posing as a journalist sent to cover the making of the film within the film, Brixen soon has a number of suspects, including Bhag – albeit probably only as the instrument of his white master Sir Gregory Penn – and Kinski’s neurotic screenwriter, Voss, whose typewriter appears to have been used for writing the Benefactor’s messages.
In the usual fashion, this surfeit of suspects only serves to complicate things. So too do the typically quirky supporting characters, like harmless old eccentric Longman and a swordsman who seems to have stepped out of a Chinese wuxia film (one especially ‘what the!’ moment here is vaguely reminiscent of Juan Piquer Simon’s PIECES, of all things). There is also the inevitable romantic subplot-complication that develops between the investigator and the ingénue.
THE AVENGER’s director Karl Anton was a veteran whose career dated back to the 1920s. If this implies a certain competence and familiarity with the expressionist idiom, his style also comes across as somewhat old-fashioned in the main, though he does use the zoom lens to augment the shock of finding a severed head in a box on a couple of occasions.
In sum, THE AVENGER is perhaps not the prime example of a 1960 krimi film – that surely remains DEAD EYES OF LONDONG, which also showcases the talents of Alfred Vohrer, a more prolific krimi director – but THE AVENGER certainly deserves to be better known and given the restored DVD treatment.
THE AVENGER (Der Rache, 1960). Directed by Karl Anton. Screenplay by Gustav Kampendonk & Rudolf Katscher, based upon the novel by Edgar Wallace. Cast: Heinz Drache, Ingrid van Bergen, Benno Sterzenbach, Ina Dusha, Ludwig Linkmann, Siegfried Schurenberg, Kalus Kinski, Rainer Brandt, Friedrich Schonfelder, Al Hoosmann.
- “Krimi” is a German word used to denote the literary and cinematic genre dedicated to , stories of detective work and crime-solving, often with lurid, melodramatic, or horrific overtones. It is roughly analogous to the Italian giallo.
Marked by unpleasant violence and quesitonable humor, Argento’s latest thriller sees the director following his own dark muse, regardless of whether the audience tags along.
Dario Argento’s films have always divided critical and audience opinions. To his supporters, he’s one of the cinema’s supreme visual stylists, his work further marked by a constant willingness to experiment with new technologies and techniques. To his detractors, there’s little substance to his films, which are also commonly accused of being badly written and acted and marred by gratuitous violence. Since around the time of PHENOMENA (1985) the detractors have assumed the upper hand, with even many of the director’s avowed fans asserting that his work just isn’t what it used to be.
They are right, but whether this represents an actual decline or the continuing creative evolution of Argento’s filmmaking is another matter. Much of the reason Trauma (1993), The Stendhal Syndrome (1995), The Phantom of the Opera (1998) and The Card Player (2004) do not appeal to fans weaned on the likes of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), Deep Red (1975) and Suspiria (1977) is that they do not conform to the expectations established by these early works. Take The Card Player: Amongst other things, it is deliberately, even excessively, restrained. The violent set piece, a main stock in trade of the director, is avoided to concentrate our attentions on the consequences of violence instead.
GIALLO (2009) is not going to settle these debates one way or the other. It does, however, fit with their general pattern – the main exceptions being the latter day crowd-pleaser Sleepless (2001) and would-be crowd-pleaser The Third Mother (2007) – by seeing Argento take his own dark path without paying much heed whether an audience is following.
The first thing about the film that must be addressed is its title. As is well-known, Giallo means “yellow” in Italian and has come to refer generically to a particular kind of horror-thriller, of which Argento’s earliest films established him as the leading practitioner. Given this and the highly self-referential approach taken by later works like Tenebre (1982), Opera (1987) and Do You Like Hitchcock (2005), we might expect GIALLO to offer more in the way of comment on the form than it does, perhaps even being prefaced by an explanatory definition of what giallo is in the manner of Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Instead, GIALLO is the nickname of the obligatory maniac. The name derives from his disfiguring skin condition, one that has left him fuelled with a hatred for beautiful young women. His modus operandi is to abduct them in his taxi, take them to his lair, and slowly mutilate them to death.
The other key dramatis personae are Celine (Elsa Pataky), Linda (Emmanuelle Seigner) and Inspector Enzo Avolfi (Adrien Brody). Celine is Yellow’s latest victim, Linda her sister. Avolfi is the enigmatic Manhunter-type figure assigned the case on a kind of ‘it takes one to know one’ or ‘poacher turned gamekeeper’ basis; the Thomas Harris reference seems appropriate given that the production company behind GIALLO is Hannibal [as in Lektor] Film.
GIALLO’s key traits are violence and unpleasantness (arguably bordering upon the ‘torture porn’ variety), and humour. It is a rather uneasy combination, especially since it is not always particularly well signalled whether we are supposed to be laughing. In general, I feel that we are, that the film is intended as something of a self-parody. But even if this is the case, it is clear that Argento’s failure to make this crystal clear is detrimental to GIALLO’s overall effectiveness.
Two points of comparison come immediately to mind. The first is the aforementioned Phantom of the Opera, notable for Julian Sands’ mask-less, “rock star” Phantom and the general hostility it invoked among fans and non-fans alike. The second, suggested by Seigner’s presence, is Roman Polanski’s Bitter Moon (1992) – another of those “Is it intentionally ‘bad’, or just bad?” films.
There is some evidence for the ‘in-quotes’ position, though the fact that we have to look for it again points to the more fundamental problem. In particular, Brody’s ‘bad’ work has to be considered in the light of his Oscar-winning performance on Polanski’s The Pianist (2002), as a strong indication that he is one of the more capable actors Argento has collaborated with. And collaboration is the operative term here. Amongst Brody’s other roles was that of Executive Producer on GIALLO. As such, he and Argento had to have agreed upon the seemingly paradoxical over-the-top yet dead-pan way he was going to play things, for better or worse.
If a returning-the-favour reference to Juno is a throwaway, those to Japanese culture (a pre-Celine tourist victim; the hentai-type manga used by Yellow to fuel his perverse imaginings, and the more up-market volume of Araki art-or-porn photography purchased by Avolfi) may point to Argento’s growing interest here, as previously seen in the J-Horror, Gothic Lolita witch of The Three Mothers (2008). Or these references may be a way of trying to ensure distribution for GIALLO in Japan, traditionally an important marketplace for the director. Again, it’s up to the viewer to interpret, positively or negatively.
Visually, the film is middling Argento, more imaginative and stylish than most directors but hardly comparable to a Suspiria, Inferno (1980) or Opera. Aurally, it is less distinguished, with Marco Werba’s score lacking the memorable qualities of Ennio Morricone, Goblin or Claudio Simonetti’s work.
In sum, GIALLO is very much of a piece with the majority of Argento’s films of the later 1980s, 1990s and 2000s in its personal, take-it-or-leave-it nature. I took to it, but you may not. Whatever the case, hopefully you are at least in a position to make a better informed decision than a few hundred words ago.
“…an engaging and well-crafted murder mystery.”
Hired to score a low-budget horror movie, Bruno (Andrea Occhipinti – from Fulci’s THE NEW YORK RIPPER) rents an isolated luxury villa for the month. The atmosphere of the place soon gets to him. Going to investigate a noise, he finds a young woman, Katya, who leaps out of the closet at him, frightened (she claims) by a spider. Acting strangely, Katya asks if Bruno is a friend of the previous tenant, Linda, then makes her exit as Bruno answers a phone call from landlord Tony (Michele Soavi – previously seen in director Lamberto Bava’s DEMONS). Intrigued, Bruno searches and finds Katya’s diary, containing cyptic references to Linda and her “fascinating” secret, in the closet.
Going back to work, Bruno is oblivious to the mayhem outside as an unseen figure attacks Katya with a knife, trapping and dispatching her in the basement. Playing back a tape, Bruno then notices a voice, which he soon isolates as that of Linda. Another noise draws him outside, only for another telephone call to draws him back inside again – just as he was about to find Katya’s corpse. Picking up the phone, there is no answer from the other end.
Noticing bloodstains on his trousers, Bruno goes outside again and discovers others in the undergrowth; by this time Katya’s body has been removed. Bruno’s search of the grounds thus reveals nothing other than the absence of the caretaker from his quarters (later to be found furtively moving a heavy bag of rubbish from the basement and collecting crime clippings from newspapers), along with more telltale marks in the basement. The sound of his music draws Bruno back to the studio room, where he finds his tapes mangled.
Bruno’s girlfriend, Giulia, then shows up. Giulia explains that she had tried to phone, but the line went dead. She asks whether Bruno has noticed the strange smell emanating from the pool. He hadn’t, but when recounting his encounter with Katya, finds Giulia takes it as a confession of infidelity and angrily departs almost as soon as she had arrived.
Conducting a more thorough search of the house, Bruno finds a locked door in the basement. At this point Tony shows up. He explains that the room contains some of Linda’s belongings, but he can have it opened up if Bruno wants her things moved. Before Bruno can ask further questions they are interrupted by yet another phone call. While Tony makes his exit (“I’d better go; I have to change”), Bruno answers. On the other end is a woman, who threatens him. Fortunately it is only Sandra, making a prank call.
Sometime later Angela, a friend of Katya’s shows up, and asks if she can use the pool; Linda had always let her do so. Her behaviour is somewhat strange – though Bruno, keen to get on with his work, thinks little of it.
Angela notices a knife at the bottom of the pool. This discovery leads to her murder as an unidentified figure selects a knife from the kitchen and kills Angela in the bathroom. Oblivious to all this, Bruno only later notices the missing knife and a blood-encrusted gash in the bathroom that fits its blade perfectly. This prompts another exploration of the house and the recording of a message in which Bruno summarises the facts of the case thus far, plus his fears that he may be cracking up or targeted as the next victim…
Sandra shows up and suggests the killer likely would not have had the time to remove the bodies. As Bruno has already conducted a number of searches, exhausting almost all other possibilities, attention turns to the locked room containing Linda’s things. On hearing the name, Sandra mentions once knowing a Linda herself, although it would surely be too much of a coincidence were she the same person – the kind of thing that could only happen in “a bad movie.”
The foregoing is admittedly a somewhat longer plot précis than would be usual. Hopefully it can be forgiven on grounds of giving a good indication of A BLADE IN THE DARK‘s particular strengths and weaknesses. This is an engaging and well-crafted murder mystery. Bava and his writers play mostly fair with us as far as suspects and red herrings, making it possible to enjoy a repeat viewing after you know the who and the why of the ‘done it’. Suspense and shocks are well handled, with the nastiness of the latter perhaps a surprise when you consider A BLADE IN THE DARK‘s (Italian) television origins.
Unfortunately these also account for some of A BLADE IN THE DARK‘s weaker aspects. In particular the narrative is rather too extended and rather too episodic: Just how many times does Bruno go exploring only to be distracted at an (in)opportune moment? The murder scenes are also too neatly timed to coincide with what would have been the ends of parts one, two and three, and these scenes are followed, again somewhat obviously, by recapitulations of the story at the points corresponding to the starts of parts two, three and four.
What a precis cannot convey, however, is the sheer assurance of Bava junior’s direction. The elegant camera movements as he explores the environments of the house, all surfaces, textures and minute details, are very much in the manner of his mentor Dario Argento – giallo fans will recognise the villa from Tenebre (1983), where it also served as the haunt of a killer – albeit here without quite the same extravangance and ambition. Budgetary and other constraints obviously precluded Louma crane experimentation, for instance.
The De Angelis brothers’ effective synthesiser-led score is another asset. Though derivative of Goblin, it gains a certain justification in these self-same terms as being exactly what an early 1980s Italian horror film ought to sound like; again Tenebre provides an obvious point of reference and comparison.
One of the major pleasures of the film for the fan of Italian horror – i.e. the kind of person likely to read this review and to be the main market for the DVD – is what we can term its palimpsestic qualities. This fancy theoretical word is just another way of referring to those traces of other texts (films) whose ghostly presences can be felt, much like the voice on Bruno’s tape. Besides Tenebre, we might also mention the likes of 1975’s Deep Red (composer turns amateur investigator, the haunted “house of the screaming child”); Antonio Bido’s 1977 Watch Me Before I Kill (the composer as investigator, plus his use of sound mixing equipment to isolate the clue-fragment), and Fulci’s 1981 The House by the Cemetery (another haunted house, plus the casting of child actor Giovanni Frezza, who here appears in the film-within-the-film).
Again, something similar could be said the similarly self-referential Tenebre. But there is also a key difference. Tenebre’s self-consciousness is of a deadly serious sort. Argento seems to have wanted it to function as the ultimate giallo circa 1982, the last definitive word on 20 years of genre production. Coming after this, A BLADE IN THE DARK‘s game-playing is ironically more akin to that found within the film that started it all, namely Mario Bava’s The Girl Who Knew too Much (1963) – a film which also functions, not coincidentally, as key intertext for Tenebre via the shared presence of John Saxon and the self-referential importance of giallo literature. In other words A BLADE IN THE DARK is a fun and entertaining film that is not meant to be taken too seriously or dissected in dry quasi-academic terms. That one can do so is a plus, but ultimately less important.
A BLADE IN THE DARK (La Casa con la Scala Nel Buio [House of the Dark Stairway”], 1983). Directed by Lamberto Bava. Written by Elisa Briganti, Dardano Sacchetti. Cast: Andrea Occipinti (a.k.a. Andrew Painter), Anny Papa, Fabiola Toledo, MIchele Soavi, Valeria Cavalli, Stanko Molnar, Lara Lamberti.
With a new DVD now available, Cinefantastique asks Giallo Fever’s Keith Brown to give us the low-down on Sergio Martino’s 1971 giallo thriller – “a well made suspense film that moves along briskly.”
As a maniac picks up and murders a prostitute in the vicinity of Vienna airport, a jet plane carrying, amongst others, businessman Neil Wardh (Alberto De Mendoza) and his wife Julie (Edwige Fenech) descends. For Julie the return to the city brings back memories of her former lover Jean (Ivan Rassimov), with whom she had an intense sado-masochistic relationship.
A couple of nights later Julie attends a party along with her friend Carol; Neil is occupied with business, as usual. Carol introduces Julie to her cousin George (George Hilton) who has recently arrived from Australia to claim his part of an inheritance left them by a recently deceased uncle. The charming George, who admits he enjoys seducing wives away from their husbands, makes an immediately favourable impression on Julie. He’s younger and more exciting than Neil yet not as dangerous as Jean – who also turns up at the party and announces his own intentions to reclaim Julie. Later the same night, the maniac strikes again, killing another of the party guests. La dolce vita becoming la dolce morte, again.
With Neil continuing to be absent more than he is present, Julie is soon drawn – not altogether unwillingly, it has to be said – into an affair with George. Unfortunately, someone else knows their secret, photographs them making love, and telephones to demand 20,000 Schillings from her. Carol agrees to pay off the blackmailer in a city park, only to be murdered there by an unidentified, razor-wielding attacker. Later the maniac makes an attempt on Julie’s life in a basement car park…
The Italian popular cinema from the mid-1950s to mid-1980s was dominated by the filone principle, by which a successful film would lead to a flood of imitators from producers keen to cash in before public tastes changed again. In the case of the western it was Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964) that (first) did this. In the case of the giallo or Italian style thriller – the kind of film we are talking about here – it was Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970).
Independently of one another, Italian screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi (who co-scripted this film) and British academic critic Christopher Wagstaff have discussed filone films with reference to hats. They suggest that the real difference between many filone films comes down to little more than their paradigmatic choices of headgear. Giallo killers were fedoras, their western counterparts cowboy hats, for instance.
That this theory does not apply too well to BLADE OF THE RIPPER (1971, known in its native Italy as Lo Strano Vizio della Signora Wardh [“The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh”]) helps affirm its status as one of the more genuine gialli; though Hilton had appeared in numerous westerns in the years immediately preceding the film, and director Sergio Martino had made the western Arizona Colt Returns the previous year, westernisms do not show through in their performance and direction, except by design. In particular, it is worth noting that Hilton’s outfit includes cowboy boots and a light-coloured tassled jacket that would not have looked too out of place on Charles Bronson’s Harmonica in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968).
This leads to a perhaps surprising point of comparison as, like Claudia Cardinale’s Jill McBain, Fenech’s Julie Wardh (the ‘h’ added to ensure that no real-life reference was made) likewise has three men in her life, each of whom also appears one to have been assigned a particular role: One to love her (Neil), one to take her (George), and one to kill her (Jean).
If it goes without saying that The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh is not at the level of Once Upon a Time in the West, it is nevertheless a well made suspense film that moves along briskly and sure-footedly. Indeed, it is probably my favourite of the five gialli Martino made between 1971 and 1973, at which point his attentions turned towards the cop film and comedy.
His other Fenech-Hilton-Rassimov entry, All the Colours of the Dark (1972) suffers by comparison for not quite playing it as fair, as a vital visual detail to which one of the characters is party is withheld from us. Though there are certainly some sleights of hand and strategic withholdings of information here, particularly in the final third of the story, when the action shifts from Vienna to Spain, The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh holds up better on repeat viewings. There is even the odd little detail that might not be picked up on the first time round, like the seemingly casual checking of a watch.
Fenech and Rassimov also appear in the Martino-directed, Gastaldi-scripted Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972, again), which takes its lengthy title from one of the messages sent by Jean to Julie. While worth a look, Your Vice is a bit too convolved for its own good, lacks a sympathetic center, and at one point sees the narrative grind to a halt for an over-extended motorbike race sequence. (That some motorbike racing is shown on TV here perhaps suggests someone involved in the productions had a thing for it; fortunately, the TV is soon switched off.)
Fenech and Hilton’s third giallo appearance together was in another Gastaldi-scripted entry, The Case of the Bloody Iris (1972, yet again). In the film, also produced by Luciano Martino, Sergio’s brother and Fenech’s then-partner, the actress’s character again suffers from the unwanted attentions of a possessive former lover. While again a useful compendium of giallo motifs, it is decidedly trashier, with director Giuliano Carnimeo trying that bit too hard for his and the film’s own good. Here, by contrast Martino knows when to go for it – the suspense and murder set pieces, the dream and nightmare sequences, many imaginatively framed shots – and when to hold back, take a more functional approach, and let his actors or the writers take the lead.
Fortunately both performances and dialogue are better than might be expected, particularly in the Italian version. Fenech again shows her talents extended beyond taking her clothes off at the least provocation, while Hilton, De Mendoza and Rassimov each play their roles beautifully. The script, meanwhile, has nice threads running through it, based around such themes as Adam and Eve or original sin and the fall of man, beginning with a quotation attributed to Sigmund Freud.
One of the film’s set pieces, the build-up to and murder of Carol, eerily prefigures and compares admirably to a similar sequence in Argento’s Four Flies on Grey Velvet (released in December 1971, 11 months after The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh); if Martino generally preferred to emphasise quantity of productions, sometimes this was not to the detriment of quality.
Another area where The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh impresses is its use of sound design and music. Two examples of this are the subjective shift that takes place in the Nora Orlandi ‘party music’ cue as Julie spots Jean across the room, and the use of a heartbeat effect during a tense life-or-death scene late on.
Noshame’s Region 1 DVD of The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh has been out of print for some time and accordingly commands a price premium. The new DVD from Mya – released on February 9, under the alternate American title Blade of the Ripper – is thus welcome for those unable to find or afford the Noshame edition. Those who have it will have no reason to double-dip, however. For Mya’s anamorphic widescreen transfer appears to come from exactly the same source but lacks the interviews with Fenech, Hilton, Sergio Martino and Gastaldi.
- Running time: 96 minutes
- Single layer, interlaced
- Dolby Digital mono in English and Italian
- English subtitles
- Italian Theatrical trailer (without subtitles)
- Stills & poster gallery
THE STRANGE VICE OF MRS. WARD (Lo Strano Vizio della Signora Wardh, a.k.a. BLADE OF THE RIPPER, 1971). Directed by Sergio martino, Screenplay by Vittorio Caronia, Ernesto Gastaldi, Eduardo Manzanos Brochero; story by Borchero. Cast: George Hilton, Edwige Fenech, Conchita Airoldi, Manuel Gil, Carlo Alighiero, Ivan Rassimov, Alberto De Mendoza, Bruno Corazzari.
EDITOR’S NOTE: As Cole, the reluctant time traveller played by Bruce Willis in TWELVE MONKEYS notes, time changes our perception of movies. When you re-view a film, it seems different, but it is the viewer, not the film, that has actually changed. This observation prompts our posting of this review. Dario Argento’s directorial debut, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage was reviewed by John R. Duvoli in the very first issue of Cinefantastique magazine (Fall 1970). With the title being released on Blu-ray disc today, we offer this reappraisal by Keith Brown of the excellent Giallo Fever website.
It’s difficult to know where to start with this film, which has something of the character of an obsession for me and whose influence has reverberated through nearly 40 years of horror and thriller productions, in Italy and internationally.
A remarkably assured début, it has few of the characteristics of calling card or apprentice-work, with an ending that Argento has arguably never quite managed to equal in terms of shock and surprise, if not necessarily absolute, overall impact.
The truly remarkable thing, in fact, may be to learn that at the time of the film Argento regarded himself primarily as a screenwriter, being more interested in showcasing his abilities in that field than as a director, on account of having become frustrated with the way in which his scripts were (mis)handled by others. The film’s critical and commercial success and the rapid calls for more of the same charted an unexpected course for his subsequent career.
Though his films are sometimes accused of being empty formalist exercises in which style supplants substance, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage helps demonstrate that, from the outset, Argento’s cinematic universe is in fact one in which the two are more often than not inextricably intertwined, each informing the other and unimaginable without it.
Sam Dalmas, an American writer currently residing in Rome, is witness to an attempted murder in an open-plan art gallery. Rushing to Monica Ranieri’s assistance, he manages to frighten off her attacker, but is then trapped between the gallery’s inner and outer doors and rendered helpless until the police, in the form of Inspector Morisini and his men, arrive.
Confiscating Dalmas’s passport, Morisini informs Dalmas that he believes the same attacker to have murdered three young women in the past month, and that Dalmas’s eye-witness testimony could prove to be the crucialbreak needed.
The killer obviously seems to think so, too, first trying to scare and then kill Dalmas off. Unexpectedly, however, this only has the effect of compelling the amateur sleuth to delve ever-deeper into the shocking truth of the case, a compulsion that serves to place those around him, most notably girlfriend Giulia, in grave danger.
The key theme in the film is in fact how expectations and preconceptions can lead us astray. This is most obvious in the centrepiece gallery sequence that impels the narrative (what lies behind this nagging doubt that Dalmas has about what he witnessed?) but also runs through the likes of the police procedural scenes, as Morisini endeavours to fix (in both senses of that term) the meanings of various clues to the killer’s identity, and the delicious punchline to the yellow-jacketed assassin’s unsuccessful attempt on Dalmas’s life.
Perhaps the most remarkable instance of this, however, is the singular failure of Dalmas’s obsessive attempts to resolve the enigma by understanding what he actually saw, these proving a red herring for both character and audience alike when considered in the light of the titular McGuffin and the vital aural clue it provides for his friend Carlo.
The irony is compounded by the fact that Dalmas has just spent the last few months working on a book on the preservation of rare birds, like that with the crystal plumage, for Carlo and his associates. Perhaps if he had been more genuinely committed to this project, and not treated it as a work for hire – i.e. the difference between Argento and Dalmas, if not Argento and Musante (the actor’s method approach and need to know what was motivating his character at every stage is famously a source of friction between the two) – he would have been able to solve the case himself?
Hitchcock also, of course, famously experienced difficulties with method trained actors – an incidental detail, perhaps, but another one that helps further establish connections between the “master of suspense” and his Italian counterpart. Equally, however, while there is no doubt that the “Italian Hitchcock” sobriquet that soon became attached to Argento was useful to his career, it can also be seen as a limitation. Read as a Hitchcock imitator, it is naturally the case that Argento’s films could never hope to equal those of the original.
Something is missing, as John R. Duvoli astutely recognises in his review – even if in his criticism of the putative illogicality of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage he fails to apply the same standards to Hitchcock’s Psycho.
But read as his own film-maker Argento, borrows not only from Hitchcock but also from Lang, Antonioni, Bava, Freda and others and, more importantly, plays these filmmakers off against one another, establishing his own distinctive identity and aesthetic.
In terms of the giallo specifically – a form that Duvoli does not mention, his reference to the krimi perhaps serving to indicate what was on the cultural radar at the time and, in retrospect, the moment at which the initiative passed from the German to the Italian Euro-thriller – the key to the importance of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage lies in the way in which it combines the modernist and the populist, moving from A(ntonioni) to B(ava) and back again to tell a story that engages the spectator intellectually and emotionally.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: As part of our on-going celebration of Mario Bava this week, we enlisted the aid of Keith Brown, who writes voluminously – and, more important, fascinatingly – on the subject of Italian cinema.]
An Appreciation by Keith Brown of Giallo Fever
If there’s one word which encapsulates the world of Mario Bava’s cinema for me it would probably be irony. Here was someone who virtually had to be pushed into the director’s chair to make his official debut at the age of 45, but thereafter seemed unable to say “no” to just about any project that came his way, racking up 20 or so directorial credits in not quite as many years. Here was someone who went from the poverty-row circumstances of PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES (1965) and KILL BABY KILL (1966) to the major league with Dino de Laurentiis on DIABOLIK (1968), only to find that he wasn’t comfortable actually having money and time available. Here was someone who was given a clean bill of health by his doctor days before his fatal heart attack in April 1980. Here was someone who contrived to die the same week as Hitchcock so that his passing went almost unnoticed, yet he has since been heralded by the likes of Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino and Tim Burton. And, above all, here is someone whose films continually show up the distance between appearances and reality to delight, surprise and shock you: the apparent junkie in BLOOD AND BLACK LACE (1964) who turns out to be an innocent diabetic; the sinister seeming witch in KILL BABAY KILL whose ministrations are in fact purely beneficient (and whose malign counterpart is the virtual definition of innocence); or, above all, the countless figures whose conceal the basest of desires behind a facade.
Bava worked as a cinematographer and general cinematic jack-of-all-trades prior to making his directorial debut. The two most important films of this period are Freda’s I VAMPIRI (1956) and CALTIKI THE IMMORTAL MONSTER (1959) as on each occasion Bava was charged with completing the film after director Ricardo Freda abandoned ship.
Production circumstances and genre aside, I VAMPIRI and CALTIKI are different: In hindsight I Vampiri emerges as the home-grown founding text for the next quarter century of Italian horror production, freely mixing mad science; gothic and detective thriller motifs. CALTIKI by contrast presents its makers’ engagment with foreign traditions, borrowing liberally from THE BLOB and the Hammer ‘X’ films THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT and X THE UNKNOWN but giving them a distinctively Italian-style makeover in a way that was to also become familiar over the coming years, most obviously with the spaghetti westerns of the 1960s.
It has sometimes been suggested that Bava would never make another film as good as his debut, BLACK SUNDAY (1960). Whether or not you agree with this statement – personally I don’t – it is a fitting testament to the sheer impact of the film itself, whose post-Hammer shocks, beginning with the hammering of a spiked mask onto the witch Asa’s face, were sufficient for it to be denied a release in the UK for close on ten years. BLACK SUNDAY’s other key claim to fame is, of course, that of inaugurating the career of Barbara Steele, the fetish star of 1960s Italian horror, who plays what was to be the first of many dualistic-cum-schizophrenic sado-masochistic roles as the re-incarnated witch and her innocent target Katia.
Had Bava done nothing other than realise Steele’s potential his place in the history books would have been assured. As it was, however, he did much more, following the hallucinatory horror-peplum HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD (1961), starring Christopher Lee as the Dracula-esque Lyco, with the first giallo to really be worthy of the name, THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1963).The first of Bava’s Hitchcockian films, THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH is also one of his most ironic, self-reflexively exploring issues of fiction and reality as a habitual reader of murder mysteries finds herself plunged into a not dissimilar scenario shortly after arriving in Rome for a holiday and proceeds to misread just about every clue placed before her while somehow muddling through to a happy ending.
There were to be no happy endings in the anthology film BLACK SABBATH. Released in the same year as THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH and THE WHIP AND THE BODY in what was something of an annus mirabilis for Bava, the film makes yet another significant contribution to the formation of modern horror as the first in which evil wins. Yet it also does so in a way that is different from the later likes of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, presenting itself as artificial rather than real. As Boris Karloff, the monster and master of ceremonies, remind us in the coda, there are really no such things as vampires; it’s “only a movie, only a movie…”
Though Steele would have been ideal for the role of Nevenka Menliff in THE WHIP AND THE BODY opposite Lee’s prodigal son who everyone else wishes would just go away, Daliah Lavi proves about as good a substitute as could be imagined. One of Bava’s most challenging films, dealing with themes of sadomasochism and amour fou in a serious and mature manner, critical reaction to the film was muted on account of the drastically recut matinee audience friendly versions which circulated internationally. Never has a retitling – WHAT – been more apt.
It’s impossible to say anything new about BLOOD AND BLACK LACE (1964): It’s the giallo by which all others are measured and which, for better or worse, inaugurated the body count film. It’s also a stunningly brutal and beautiful work that few if any of its innumerable imitators have been able to match on either counts, let alone surpass on one or both or in terms of overall cinematic intelligence and aptitude.
Unfortunately for Bava audiences in Italy and elsewhere were not quite ready for the giallo at this time, prompting a move into the spaghetti western with THE ROAD TO FORT ALAMO (1964), generally regarded as one of his lesser and less successful films; much the same can be said of Bava’s other ventures into the filone, RINGO FROM NEBRASKA (1966) and ROY COLT AND WINCHESTER JACK (1970).
That Bava found science-fiction more to his liking is evident from PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES (1965). Outdoing ALIEN on a budget that stretched to little more than a couple of papier mache rocks and some dry ice for the alien planet and space Nazi costumes for the crews of the crashed spaceships, the film also features a delicious, characteristically oh-so-Bava sting in the tale…
The following year saw no fewer than four films from Bava: the aforementioned Ringo from Nebraska; the ill-advised Vincent Price vehicle DR GOLDFOOT AND THE GIRL BOMBS; the spaghetti-esque historical adventure KNIVES OF THE AVENGER, which saw Bava reuinted with BLOOD AND BLACK LACE leading man Cameron Mitchell, and KILL BABY KILL. Though its title may be stupid, the film is anything but, cleverly blending giallo and Gothic motifs as the rational scientific investigative hero is forced to realise that the reality of the supernatural, epitomised by the oft-quoted scene in which he pursues a ghostly child and himself through the castle chambers.
The commercial high point of Bava’s career was the aforementioned DIABOLIK. Though hampered by De Laurentiis’s absurd desire to tame the Giussani sisters’ character for the censor and the box-office Bava’s evident understanding of the fumetti aesthetic shines through, resulting in a pop-art masterpiece that’s been identified as the most faithful comics book adaptation by artist and cult film scholar Steve Bissette and referenced by the likes of Burton’s BATMAN and Roman Coppola’s CQ.
Following DIABOLIK Bava made three intriguing gialli in as many years, the Hitchcockian A HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON (1969) and the BLOOD AND BLACK LACE deconstructions FIVE DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON and A BAY OF BLOOD (1971). Benfitting or suffering from a surfeit of modish designs (look up kitsch or camp in the dictionary and you can almost imagine any frame from Five Dolls appearing as an illustration) and stylistic tropes, they’re films which play with the thriller form and the audience’s expectations. Thus in A HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON our protagonist immediately informs us that he’s a schizophrenic killer, who murders newlyweds and brides to be because with each fresh crime he recalls a bit more of a traumatic incident from his past. Yet the resolution to this trauma is obvious to any viewer who knows their Freud. Similarly in A BAY OF BLOOD we’re given so many suspects, murderers and victims that it soon becomes impossible, if not irrelevant, whodunit. Just about everyone does it or has it done to them, until there were none – and all for a bay whose poisonous nature is foregrounded by a credits sequence into which a fly (a recurring creature in Bava’s work, also showing up in an episode of BLACK SABBATH and HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON) suddenly drops dead.
1972 was a pivotal year for Bava, not so much for the two films he made – the underrated FOUR TIMES THAT NIGHT, which reworks Rashomon as a sex comedy and was almost blocked from release by his former mentor Freda, and the old fashioned if effective gothic romp Baron Blood – as for inaugurating his relationship with Italian-American independent producer Alfredo Leone.
Having produced BARON BLOOD, Leone gave Bava virtual carte blanche on his next film, LISA AND THE DEVIL (1973). It was to be a dream project that quickly turned into a nightmare as Leone held off selling the rights to the film in the hope of better offers, only for prospective buyers to then see the film and realise that its poetic art-horror approach was not what they were after for the grindhouse and drive-in crowds anyway. Seeking to recover his losses, Leone had Bava reluctantly retool the film into the cod-EXORCIST shocker HOUSE OF EXORCISM, the less about which said the better. (Saying that you prefer HOUSE OF EXORCISM to LISA AND THE DEVIL is probably the ultimate heresy as far as the Bava fan is concerned, so if you’re feeling brave at one of the retrospective screenings…)
Bava’s next project was even more ill-fated. KIDNAPPED a.k.a. RABID DOGS a.k.a. SEMAFORO ROSSO (1974/1998) is the film that should have re-established his place at the forefront of the Italian popular cinema, showing that he could do hard-hitting, realistic crime actioners with the best of them whilst still accomodating that distinctive ironic touch. Unfortunately his backers ran out of money and the uncompleted film was impounded, not to be released for over 20 years. The film has been described as RESERVOIR DOGS meets LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT in a moving car. It’s not a bad description and indeed almost undersells it: rough around the edges though the reconstructions may be, KIDNAPPED is that good.
SHOCK followed in 1977. Bava’s last film as a director, it saw his son and long-time assistant Lamberto taking an increasing role and thus presents an intriguing baton-passing from father to son, as a kind of transition point from such forerunners as THE WHIP AND THE BODY, KILL BABY KILL and LISA AND THE DEVIL to its successor MACABRE (1980). Bava’s last work as a cinema magician was providing special effects for Dario Argento’s INFERNO (1980), on which Lamberto served as assistant director. The elder statesman of Italian macabre cinema helped his younger successor make the Italian-produced movie look as though it was set in New York, and he conjured up a wonderful scene of one of the Three Mothers of Darkness materializing out of a mirror. Appropriately, the staging of the shot recalled a similar set-up in BLACK SUNDAY, bringing the Bava horror legacy full circle.