A Blade in the Dark (La Casa con la Scala nel Buio, 1983)

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“…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.