Welcome to the final part of our tour through the sexy-violent world of the Italian thriller. As in previous instalments, titles viewed in Italian-language only (i.e. for those discs without English subtitles/audio) will be marked “IT-LANG”. Films are listed by Italian title first, followed by the most commonly-known English title, with AKAs collected below them.
NOTE: The first four parts can be found at the following links:
D: Stelvio Massi. S: Roberto Gianviti, Gianfranco Clerici, Vincenzo Mannino. Cast: Francis Matthews, Pascale Rivault, Giorgio Albertazzi, Howard Ross [Renato Rossini], Katia Christine, Catherine Diamant, Gabriella Lepori, Maria Cumani Quasimodo, Ilona Staller, Ugo Bombognini. DVD (US): Cult Action.
Reflecting the genre’s interplay of the Cartesian with the baroque, the titles of many gialli display a near-esoteric fascination for the power of numerals, with 5, 7 and 9 being especially popular: The Fifth Cord, Five Dolls for an August Moon, Five Women for the Killer; The Devil with Seven Faces, Seven Shawls of Yellow Silk [Crimes of the Black Cat], Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eye, Seven Blood-Stained Orchids, Murder to the Tune of Seven Black Notes, Seven Murders for Scotland Yard; The Cat O’Nine Tails, The Killer Reserved Nine Seats, Nine Guests for a Crime. (Recite that lot often enough and you may summon Old Scratch himself – or at the very least, a black-gloved factotum with some old-school shaving tackle.) Hopefully invoking the bluntly-prescriptive Italian title of Mario Bava’s classic Blood & Black Lace (6 donne per l’assassino), DP-turned-director Stelvio Massi’s Five Women for the Killer is a largely-uninspired retread of very familiar ground with a script that could be best described as (ahem) by-the-numbers; the film is chiefly notable for its highly-explicit sexual violence, which by this stage of the game was the about only way these films could compete with each other.
Foreign correspondent Giorgio Pisani (Francis Matthews) returns home from his latest assignment to find his new wife Erika has died in childbirth, despite the best efforts of family friend Dr Lydia Franzi (Pascale Rivault). The child has been placed in intensive care at Lydia’s clinic, run by sardonic ladies’-man Professor Aldo Betti (Giorgio Albertazzi), who makes poor-taste gags about patient mortality within earshot of the bereaved. He’s also having a bit on the side with nurse Sofia (Gabriella Lepori), a scheming doxy who tells him she’s pregnant as part of a plan cooked-up with her ex-pimp boyfriend to extort money from the well-to-do Prof. Meanwhile, Giorgio is shocked to discover a report in his medical file confirming he’s sterile. But if the child isn’t his, then whose is it? Reeling from the implications, Giorgio picks up the first girl he finds (Ilona Staller) – quite literally, as she’s just missed being knocked down by a car – and goes back to her place. She’s no sooner started to put the moves on our stoical hero, casually revealing in passing that she’s pregnant, than bam! – we cut to her naked body discovered by the cops, sliced open from pubis to sternum. The police commissioner (Howard Ross) notes that the killer has carved some sort of fertility symbol on the girl’s belly, possibly Oriental in origin.
Giorgio becomes chief suspect when the cops find a copy of his book in the murdered girl’s room, the flyleaf carrying his handwritten inscription. And it’s not long before more pregnant women are turning up dead, mutilated in just the same way: first Oriana (Catherine Diamant), the wife of Erika’s ne’er-do-well brother, then the duplicitous Sofia. Lydia is also attacked but survives, the killer escaping through her kitchen window. But when the coroner’s report reveals that Sofia had faked her pregnancy, Giorgio begins to suspect that something doesn’t quite add up. Will he put the pieces together in time to save his new girlfriend – who (surely not!) has just told him she’s pregnant – from being killed like the rest…?
Illegitimate brothers, sex-pest professors, dodgy ex-diplomats and scummy ex-pimps – yes, the usual crowd of suspects have been gathered for our amusement, such as it is. Screenwriter Gianfranco Clerici’s C.V. spans the full width of the sensitivity spectrum, from the poignant (The Bloodstained Butterfly, 1972) to the grotesque (Cannibal Holocaust, 1979). With Five Women co-writer Roberto Gianviti he’d earlier penned Lucio Fulci’s best film, Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972), but his partnership with Vincenzo Mannino marked a turning point in his work: together, in 1974, they co-wrote both the Exorcist knock-off The Antichrist and Five Women for the Killer, and the two would later go on to write two of the more notoriously salacious late-period gialli, Deodato’s House of the Edge of the Park (1980) and Fulci’s The New York Ripper (1982). Maybe it’s simple coincidence, or a symptom of the continuing relaxation of film censorship, but from ’74 onwards Clerici’s scripts with Mannino were characterised by an unusual degree of sexual violence – hardly the most edifying of legacies, but I suppose even the best writers have to eat. (The imagery in Five Women is stomach-churning stuff, to be sure, though the details are glimpsed fairly briefly: quickfire editing aids the effects-work considerably, somewhat mitigating the pornographic impact.) The plot also includes a rather half-arsed nod to Argento (the protag convinced there’s a vital detail he’s forgotten), but it’s introduced too late in the game for it to be genuinely intriguing.
Bringing life to the workmanlike script, Five Women’s female cast proves (yet again) the tireless professionalism of 70s actresses in the face of lazy sexism. The victims obligingly strip off before being killed, and they’re never less than magnificent to behold. They’re also astonishingly fertile – every ten minutes, some woman or other is declaring she’s pregnant, a plot device that fast becomes nonsensical. (After finding the killer, the cops should really look into the local water supply.) Though the women characters are only two-dimensional, that’s at least one better than the men. Leading the herd is hero Francis Matthews – yes, he of Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966), Paul Temple (1969-71) et al – delivering a painfully stiff-necked performance as our “troubled and enigmatic” hero. Captain Scarlet displayed a broader range of facial emotion than Matthews does here; his highbrow reporter is neither interesting nor terribly sympathetic, a mask-like frown of pained confusion firmly in place from start to finish. Surrounded by nude ladies, he looks distinctly uncomfortable – as well he might be, given that his character is also screwing a hottie babysitter half his age. Howard Ross (a.k.a. Renato Rossini, of Naked Girl Killed in Park and The Killer Reserved Nine Seats) plays this week’s Nameless Cop, a thankless role devoid of flavour; Ugo Bombognini fares slightly better as his shabby, hangdog sidekick Palombo. (I wonder if he knows Fabio Testi’s sidekick, Starsky, from Rings of Fear? [Discuss, 20 marks.])
This would be director Stelvio Massi’s only giallo; though he does a competent enough job with the material he’s given, he’s not what you’d call a master stylist. He handles the killings with ruthless efficiency, but they’re completely lacking in outré flair; the genital stabbings are just nastily distasteful, making this one a tough sell for all but the hardest of hard-gore fans. (Curiously, one of the murders is shot in a darkened room lit by eerily strobing lights – very much like a similar sequence in the later Clerici/Mannino-scripted New York Ripper.) Massi’s very much of the realist school, which makes him a poor fit for an essentially absurdist genre like the giallo. Five Women for the Killer is absurd, true enough, but not in the truest, boundary-rending sense of the word: absurdity must be crafted with a deranged, purposeful ingenuity, rather than simply arising from a combination of laziness and happenstance. Like Umberto Lenzi, it would seem Massi’s talents were more suited to the poliziotteschi genre, hyper-violent cop-thrillers in the Dirty Harry vein; Mark il poliziotto/Blood, Sweat and Fear (1975) was the first of a highly-regarded trilogy starring Franco Gasparri, the success of which paved the way for later collaborations with stars Luc Merenda (The Last Round, Destruction Force) and Maurizio Merli (Magnum Cop, Convoy Busters).
Here’s another title rescued from obscurity by the grey market. Cult Action have sourced another decent-quality VHS master for their DVD-R release: slightly cropped to 1.78:1 (from its original Techniscope ratio of 2.35:1), it is at least anamorphically enhanced, and looks broadly acceptable for what it is. The film is presented in Italian language with English subtitles, which are riddled with typos and missing either key words or entire sentences. (But at least they’re there.) It’s difficult to imagine anyone stumping up the funds for a full restoration of this title – it’s too down-market for Camera Obscura, too graphic to pass uncut through UK outfits like 88 Films or Shameless, and too obscure to appeal to the US mass-market – so if you really need to scratch this itch, Cult Action’s disc may have to suffice.
A.k.a. Blade of the Ripper, Next!
D: Sergio Martino. S: Ernesto Gastaldi, Vittorio Caronia, Eduardo Manzanos Brochero. P: Luciano Martino, Antonio Crescenzi. Cast: Edwige Fenech [EdwigeSfenek], George Hilton, Cristina Airoldi [Conchita Airoldi], Manuel Gil, Carlo Alighiero, Ivan Rassimov, Alberto de Mendoza. UK dist (DVD): Shameless, (US) NoShame.
The Italian Gothic had Barbara Steele, but the giallo has Edwige Fenech – and that’s a winning hand in anyone’s book. This, the first and best of Edwige’s collaborations with i fratelli Martino (producer Luciano, director Sergio), was not her first giallo – she’d made Top Sensation the previous year, alongside fellow Euro-goddess Rosalba Neri (Amuck!) – but it was her first box-office smash, making her an Italian pop-cinema icon and winning her legions of admirers the world over. The 22-year-old actress, born Edwige Sfenek in French Algeria, first caught the eye of Luciano Martino after landing a small part in his production of Madame Bovary (1969). Martino had enjoyed a successful run of thrillers starring Carroll Baker, beginning with The Sweet Body of Deborah in 1968, but was keen to reinvent the formula with the injection of younger (and cheaper) blood – and in February 1970, Argento’s Bird with the Crystal Plumage showed him how to do just that. A huge worldwide hit, Bird kick-started the giallo’s Golden Age (characterised, broadly speaking, as a hyperreal blend of visual pizzazz and ritualised violence), and in January 1971, The Strange Vice became one of its first (and most successful) imitators.
Julie Wardh (Fenech) and her new husband Neil (Alberto de Mendoza) arrive in Vienna to begin their married life, but almost at once Julie is contacted by her former lover Jean (Ivan Rassimov), with whom she’d had an intense sadomasochistic affair. She married Neil to get away from Jean, but her cruel ex has no intention of letting her go that easily. He sends her bunches of flowers and sinister notes (“Your vice is a locked room and only I have the key”), and his black sports car seems to follow her everywhere she goes. Julie’s sexual confusion only worsens when she meets louche playboy George (George Hilton), who immediately makes a play for her. Feeling neglected by Neil, whose business interests keep him away from home, Julie willingly submits to George’s attentions.
But wouldn’t you know it, there’s a razor-wielding maniac at large in the city, busily slashing young women to death. The murderer drives a black car, and wears a leather jacket – just like a certain sadistic ex-boyfriend of Julie’s… When a mysterious blackmailer threatens to expose her affair with George, Julie suspects Jean is behind not just the murders but the blackmail as well; shortly afterwards she’s stalked through an underground car park by the killer and barely escapes with her life. Determined to confront Jean, George and Julie race round to his house – only to find him dead in his bath like Marat, his throat cut. When another girl is attacked, luckily killing her assailant, it seems the case is finally closed. Julie and George head off to Sitges for some carefree R&R – but Julie’s troubles have only just begun…
The sheer energy and vitality of this film are infectious. Director Sergio Martino’s objectives are evidently confluent with Rassimov’s: “Ecstasy, fear and a pounding heart.” Full marks on all counts, as The Strange Vice embodies all that’s wonderful about this strange niche, where sexual deviance and razor killings often seem no more than stylish peccadillos – mere refinements of the dolce vita, in a sense. (For what could be sweeter, to a broken mind, than the freedom to practice the art of killing?) If decadence is the name of the game, then Mrs Wardh is one of its star players – every scene is abuzz with prurient glee, a joyful celebration of Italy’s newfound freedoms: absurdly short mini-skirts, open-top sports cars, hip parties where girls strip each other nude… yes, this film knows what the good life looks like, all right. And it’s but a short step from sunlight to shadow: the film’s hot-blooded exuberance extends to its murder scenes, voyeuristic enough to incriminate us all. (The film opens with a quote from Freud: “The very fact that the commandment says ‘do not kill’ makes us aware and convinced that we are descended from an unbroken chain of generations of assassins for whom the love of murder was in their blood, as it is perhaps in ours too.”Nail on the head, I’d say.) If Argento was the first to explore this dark alley, Martino and Gastaldi weren’t too far behind. The Strange Vice may not be deep, but it’s sufficiently self-aware to know which impulses it’s tapping.
The post-Argento giallo is a study of surface and texture, a visualisation of sensation, and The Strange Vice is no exception. The film takes a suitably fetishistic delight in the world of appearance: mirrored sunglasses, shining razors; the bodywork of automobiles, the bodies of women;brightly-gleaming apartment walls, chic furnishings of fur and injection-moulded plastic; glossy locales straight from a brochure; paper dresses just begging to be torn. Not content with mere representation, Martino and his DPs (Emilio Foriscot, Floriano Trenker ) deform the image with mirrors and wide-angle lenses, flip it upside-down with rotating cameras, and send it crash-zoom crazy with a telephoto lens (the exclamation point of Italian film grammar). Relentlessly superficial? You bet, but there’s no denying it looks terrific. Incidentally, the film’s set-piece murder in Vienna’s Schönbrunn Park would later be restaged, to more grandiose effect, in Argento’s next film, 4 Flies on Grey Velvet (1971) – a foretaste of the reciprocal mimicry that would overtake the genre during the next few years.
In all this talk of directorial style, we mustn’t lose sight of one basic truth: that a good ninety per cent of Mrs Wardh’s success is down to Edwige Fenech, the most incandescent of all the fetish-actresses to emerge from Euro cinema. Her Julie Wardh is a powderkeg of suppressed desire; even her name seems oversexed, that final, redundant “h” like a post-coital sigh. Her flashback reveries (in which she recalls her carnal encounters with Rassimov) may seem little more than eroticised rape to some, and while it’s true that Seventies cinema had a less-than-enlightened attitude towards sexual violence, the fantasy scenes here are arguably justified in context: they’re intended not as an objective document of sexual abuse, but as the subjective memories of an overwrought woman, reeling from the sensory overload of a “vice”she can’t control. Emotional delirium is what Italian cinema does best, and these “ravishments” are really something; heavily stylised in slow motion, they have the hypnotic quality of a fever-dream. Though the images show fear and violence, the dilation of time (combined with Orlandi’s eerily seductive “Dies Irae” cue, later used in Tarantino’s Kill Bill 2) lends a languid feel of pleasurable reflection, nicely conveying the erotic discord of the character. Showered with gem-like shards of glass, lashed with rain and mud, it’s in these scenes of sensual abandon that Fenech is at her finest.
With her exotic gaze and awe-inspiring physique, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Edwige should have become the object of cult worship. But what’s the key to her enduring allure? The world is full of stunning actresses, after all, but few can match La Fenech’s power to entrance. Is it her life and vivacity, the sheer, joyous, punch-the-air quality of her screen presence? Or is it, simply, that most indefinable of things, star charisma? Well, perhaps. But it would be disingenuous to ignore another reason for her appeal, however poorly it reflects on her male fanbase. You don’t need to be Andrea Dworkin to read Edwige (in this film and others) as a crude fantasy construct, a passive damsel in need of masculine protection – a role the viewer is invited to assume, given the absence of reliable male hero-figures in these tales. And gender awareness be damned, it’s a role many of us have willingly taken, many times over, in the course of our obsession. In celebrating Edwige Fenech, then, are we endorsing a reductive stereotype of femininity, and thus impeding society’s progress towards gender equality? Only, I submit, if you’re the sort of idiot who can’t tell fantasy from reality. And to those who would deny us even the right to fantasy, I suggest they consider moving to a more favourable climate – North Korea, say. (Now stop asking stupid questions, and pass me that DVD of Strip Nude For Your Killer.)
With Edwige handling Demure Vulnerability duties, that leaves the posts of Sardonic Predator and Ironical Sex-Pest to fill – roles tailor-made, you might say, for Ivan Rassimov and George Hilton. As the reptilian sadist/control freak Jean, Rassimov is absolutely in his element, and would go on to play variations on this theme for the next decade or so. With his chiselled cheekbones and steely blue eyes, Rassimov is theSadean ideal made flesh; vain, cruel and sexually ambivalent, his smile suggests depths of corruption we can only imagine. The richly-tanned Yang to Rassimov’s Yin, Uruguayan-born George Hilton is suaveness itself as the playboy seducer, the first of many smooth medallion men to come. (“I like bothering women even when their husbands are around,” he remarks to a flustered Edwige, with a twitch of the eyebrow Roger Moore might envy.) After a key role in Fulci’s Massacre Time (1966), Hilton became a staple feature of the Spaghetti Western (Any Gun Can Play, A Bullet for Sandoval) before making his giallo debut in Luciano Martino’s Sweet Body of Deborah (1968), something of a dry run for his role here. After Strange Vice, he strolled into several near-identical parts for the Martinos – The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail, The Case of the Bloody Iris, All the Colours of the Dark – each with his trademark blend of rugged charm and moral ambiguity. Hilton and Rassimov make the perfect double-act, and with Edwige tossed between them like a leaf in a storm, all the ingredients of fine melodrama are in place. The icing on the cake is Nora Orlandi’s score, an achingly lovely series of themes (think “operatic loungecore”) that are as much a celebration of Edwige Fenech as they are of Mrs Wardh; simply put, it couldn’t be more perfect.
The Strange Vice has been blessed with a run of good luck on DVD, beginning with a non-English-friendly Italian disc from NoShame, sourced from the original negative. (This cut restores several extra snippets of nudity cut from the original cinema release, which should put the likes of Richard Dawkins in their place.) This transfer, anamorphically framed at 2.35:1, was the basis for all the discs that followed, first of which was NoShame’s own US edition; unfortunately, that release was marred by a crude PAL-to-NTSC standards conversion, making the image softer and less detailed than it should be. To its credit, the disc also included a good Making Of featurette, carrying interviews with Sergio and Luciano Martino, writer Ernesto Gastaldi, George Hilton and Edwige Fenech (still looking amazing), plus a booklet of liner notes; crucially, it also offered a choice of the English or Italian dub tracks, with optional English subtitles. But the best release to date, at least in terms of the feature presentation, is the UK release from Shameless Films (which, despite their name, have no ties to NoShame): here at last is the Italian restoration presented in PAL format, with the same choice of audio/subtitle options as the US disc. Supplements are limited to a brief featurette with Sergio Martino (an uncommonly modest and engaging interviewee) and the usual selection of Shameless trailers. Until a high-def edition comes along, the Shameless disc remains your best bet.
A.k.a. Revelations of a Sex Maniac to the Head of the Flying Squad, The Slasher is the Sex Maniac, Penetration
D: Roberto Bianchi Montero. S: Luigi Angelo, Italo Fasan, Roberto Bianchi Montero. P: Eugenio Florimonte. Cast: Farley Granger, Sylva Koscina, Silvano Tranquilli, Anabella Incontrera, Chris Avram, Femi Benussi, Susan Scott [Nieves Navarro], Krista Nell, Angela Covello. DVD (Italy): Cecchi Gori (IT-LANG), (Germany) Cinema Obscura.
On paper, So Sweet…So Dead reads like a minor gem: a sexy-giallo with oodles of sleaze, a Hollywood star slumming it in Europe and a fabulous cast of Euro starlets. All this, and a Giorgio Gaslini jazz score, too – pinch me, I’m dreaming! Well, you know what they say: if something seems too good to be true, it usually is. And such is the case here, alas – for despite its marvellous ensemble of screen talent, So Sweet…So Dead (great title) is a disappointingly dull and plodding thriller, essentially a bland police procedural beefed-up by a few seedy interludes which, absurdly gratuitous though they are, remain the sole reason for watching the film. While the usual elements are firmly in place – obsessive documentation of female bathroom habits, J&B product placement, grotesque supporting characters – it’s an oddly flavourless film, utterly lacking in suspense or excitement: it just ambles unhurriedly from one scene to the next, occasionally happening on some lurid highlight, like a pensioner lost in the red-light district. Par for the course, motivation is irrelevant; the killer’s spree is just an excuse to show as much naked female flesh as permissible, within the spurious context of a morality play.
The plot is as basic as they come. A black-gloved killer is picking off the adulterous wives of various bigwigs, leaving their razrezzed bodies littered with photographic proof of their liaisons. As the corpses pile up, police pathologist Dr Casali (Chris Avram) speculates that the murderer may be homosexual, impotent or jealous of his own wife’s infidelities – thanks, doc, that narrows it down to every red herring around Cinecittà. A maniac confesses to the crimes – but is he the culprit, or just out for attention? The real killer hastily contacts Inspector Capuana (Farley Granger) to claim the credit, offering to supply him with evidence that Capuana’s wife (Sylva Koscina) has betrayed him – and promising, furthermore, to kill her very soon…
So Sweet…So Dead is the coldly matter-of-fact flipside to the irresistibly glamorous gialli of Sergio and Luciano Martino (The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh, et al); though director Roberto Bianchi Montero seems to have been aiming for a stark documentary style, his flat compositions resemble more the aesthetic of TV cop-shows than cinéma verité. (The few hints of flair are supplied by the art department: a telephone clad in red denim, and a swimming-pool colonised by swans.) Montero’s realist intent is echoed in the convoluted Italian title, which strives to capture the flavour of a sensational newspaper headline; later gialli would emulate this conceit (Naked Girl Killed in Park, The Bodies Show Signs of Carnal Violence/Torso) to equally unpersuasive effect.
For Montero, So Sweet…So Dead was just another pit-stop along the exploitation racetrack. Prior to this, he’d tried his hand at Mondo Cane-style “documentaries” (Africa sexy, Sexy nudo, Sexy nel mondo), spaghetti westerns (Durango is Coming…Pay or Die), crime dramas (Eye of the Spider) and Eurospy quickies (Blueprint for a Massacre); this is undoubtedly his best-known film, and surely his most successful. He was 65 when he shot So Sweet, an age when most folk would be thinking of retiring – but Montero kept on going until his death in 1986, turning out a mixture of crime dramas (Una donna per 7 bastardi, La bravata), softcore porn (Caligula Erotica, Erotic Flash) and racy historicals (The Secret Nights of Lucrezia Borgia). You can’t fault his commitment, though if I had to turn up for work with Dagmar Lassander, Daniela Giordano, Rosalba Neri and Sirpa Lane, I daresay I might dredge up some enthusiasm, too.
That the film is entertaining at all is due, almost entirely, to the quality of the cast. Granger is fine, if somewhat dour, as the investigating cop – he enjoyed himself far more as the dissolute novelist in Silvio Amadio’s Amuck! the same year – but there’s more fun to be had from the supporting ensemble. As Granger’s faithless spouse, Sylva Koscina has less to do here than in Crimes of the Black Cat, but she certainly gets a memorable exit. The effortlessly chic (and euphonically-named) Annabella Incontrera was becoming quite the giallo veteran by 1972, having appeared in Black Belly of the Tarantula, Crimes of the Black Cat and Case of the Bloody Iris; rather like Evelyn Stewart [Ida Galli], she specialised in svelte society-types. At the opposite end of the spectrum is the wonderfully-trashy Femi Benussi, perhaps somewhat miscast as an upper-crust wife but great value nonetheless as one of the film’s earliest victims, chased along a lonely beach by the black-garbed killer – costumed, incidentally, exactly like the one in Bava’s Blood and Black Lace, right down to the featureless stockinged face-mask. (Benussi’s first screen credit was Massimo Pupillo’s Bloody Pit of Horror , a title which seems to have coloured her entire career; later gialli include Luigi Cozzi’s The Killer Must Kill Again, and Andrea Bianchi’s Strip Nude for Your Killer, both of which do exactly what they say on the tin.) Finally, Spanish beauty Susan Scott [a.k.a. Nieves Navarro] has a brief but exceedingly noteworthy cameo as Incontrera’s shameless neighbour – for more details of whom, read on.
Silvano Tranquilli, as Incontrera’s cheating spouse, is another familiar face: in films like Black Belly of the Tarantula, The Bloodstained Butterfly and The Double (all 1971), he was often cast as a bourgeois roué – which, surprise surprise, is exactly the role he has here, romping with the lovely Susan Scott (in a scene shot in two versions, a fairly-rude domestic edition and a racier export cut, which Italians could sample via the cineromanzo published in Cinesex Attualità [No.23, April 1973 – pictured opposite]). Finally, giallo sleazeball Luciano Rossi is hilarious as the cartoonish morgue attendant, cackling like a demon as he fondles the bodies of his female clients; given the killer’s photographic kinks, it goes without saying that Rossi also keeps candid snaps of his favourite corpses. Like many others, Rossi started off with supporting roles in spaghetti westerns (I Am Sartana…Trade Your Guns for a Coffin, Return of Sabata), before moving into gialli (Death Walks in High Heels, Death Walks at Midnight, Death Carries a Cane), poliziotteschi (The Violent Professionals) and Nazisploitation (Salon Kitty, Red Nights of the Gestapo); though I’d never noticed it, he was also, apparently, a hunchback (according to his IMDB bio, at least). Live and learn.
Fans of the film who missed out on Camera Obscura’s now-OOP collector’s DVD edition – a disc which commands fearsome prices on the second-hand market – there’s a substitute of sorts in the form of Cecchi Gori’s Italian DVD. Though the disc carries only Italian audio (with optional HoH subtitles), it’s sourced from the same high-quality master as the Camera Obscura release, and presented at an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 (anamorphically-enhanced). The image is sharp, bright and colourful; by contrast, the audio is marred by occasional crackling, but is otherwise acceptable. The only supplement is a 26-minute on-camera critique of the film by Claudio Bartolini, who delivers his authoritative spiel in front of a wall filled with mouth-watering locandine (all autographed). Though the piece is, of course, delivered in Italian, it’s worth a look for a glimpse of Susan Scott’s extended love scene (presented side-by-side with the Italian release version, for – ahem – scholarly comparison purposes). Incidentally, it should be noted here that the Camera Obscura edition incorporates the more explicit footage into the body of the film, making their version the most complete one available. (Puzzlingly, Cecchi Gori’s packaging utilises the poster art for a completely different giallo, Solamente nero/The Bloodstained Shadow ; while the illustration is nicely atmospheric, there’s no getting around the fact that it’s plain wrong.)
Note: The international release title (So Sweet…So Dead) seems like a comic rejoinder to a previous giallo, Umberto Lenzi’s So Sweet…So Perverse (1969). US distributors re-released the film twice more, first as The Slasher is the Sex Maniac, then (with added hardcore porn inserts, and the charming tagline “Some women deserve it!”) as Penetration – a version Farley Granger sued to have withdrawn, understandably enough.
A.k.a. They’re Coming to Get You, Day of the Maniac
D: Sergio Martino. S: Ernesto Gastaldi, Sauro Scavolini. P: Luciano Martino, Mino Loy. Cast: Edwige Fenech, George Hilton, Marina Malfatti, Ivan Rassimov, Susan Scott [Nieves Navarro], Alan Collins [Luciano Pigozzi], Julian Ugarte, Jorge Rigaud, Maria Cumani Quasimodo. DVD (US): Shriek Show.
With its autumnal London setting, stellar Euro-cast and a mind-bending final act involving a psychic twist, All the Colours of the Dark is first-rate nonsense from beginning to end, a return to flashily-entertaining form for the Martino-Fenech dream-team (after a detour into somewhat dour territory with Your Vice is a Locked Room). The premonition angle is utilised to far more skilful effect here than in scripter Ernesto Gastaldi’s Death Walks at Midnight the same year (1972), where it was simply a throwaway gimmick; under Sergio Martino’s confident direction, the viewer shares completely in Fenech’s descent into delirium, and while the basic setup owes more than a little to Rosemary’s Baby (1968), the reality-shifting acrobatics of the second half are really quite unique. (For popular cinema, at least: the closest analogue that springs to mind is the work of Philip K. Dick, especially The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch , whose blurring of hallucination and reality has yet to be bettered.) According to Martino, this aspect was cut in its entirety by the Italian distributor, fearing that audiences would find its ambiguities hopelessly confusing – a decision that says more about the intelligence of the distributor than that of the average Italian cinemagoer. (It’s worth remembering that the foreign locales we see in many of these titles – Dublin in The Iguana with a Tongue of Fire, Vienna in The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh, London and Greece in The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail, and so on – were mandated by the distributors, not primarily to add exotic production value, but because they felt Italian viewers would refuse to accept such stories set in their homeland. How they arrived at this conclusion, with Argento’s defiantly Roman gialli still raking in the cash, is a mystery as-yet unsolved.)
Jane Harrison (Edwige Fenech) is going through a rough patch, even by normal giallo standards: following a car crash in which she lost her unborn child, she’s developed a phobia for sex – experiencing lurid visions of a woman being stabbed repeatedly whenever she tries to make love. (How very Freudian.) Not only that, but she’s being stalked by a sinister man with piercing blue eyes (Ivan Rassimov) – the very same man she sees in her dreams, murdering a nude woman with a stiletto. To the chagrin of her lover Richard (George Hilton), Jane is persuaded by her sister Barbara (Susan Scott, a.k.a. Nieves Navarro) to see a shrink, Dr Burton (Jorge Rigaud), to whom she reveals that the woman in her nightmares is her mother, murdered when Jane was a child. Richard, who blames himself for the crash which caused Jane’s breakdown, remonstrates with Barbara for involving Jane in such quackery: “Psychologists just want to convince us that the world is populated by madmen.” A devotee of the Talking Cure, Barbara acidly cuts him down to size – but not before she’s given him a sneaky flash of her bits, proving herself an adept not just of Dr Freud but of Gypsy Rose Lee, too.
Meanwhile, the Blue-Eyed Stalker has upped his game, from sinister loitering to hands-on action; when he attacks her with a hatchet and a sheep’s skull, Jane barely escapes with her life. Things seem to be looking up, however, when Jane meets Mary (Marina Malfatti), a beautiful neighbour who’s just moved into the same apartment building. Finding her a willing confidante, Jane pours out her heart over a friendly cuppa; and by a stroke of good fortune, Mary has the ideal solution to her sexual problems, inviting Jane to attend (what else?) a Black Mass. Naturally, Jane agrees – well, it seems a perfectly level-headed suggestion – and the pair head out to a remote castle, where she’s promptly initiated into the ways of the Left-Hand Path by the seedy cult leader (Julian Ugarte) and his coven, an unsavoury assortment of painted drabs, oddballs and leering goons. Forced to drink the blood of a puppy – cockerels being rather déclassé these days – Jane is stripped and ravished by the whole gang, Mary included, and appears to find the experience a therapeutic one; immediately thereafter, she finds her sexual appetite restored, much to Richard’s satisfaction. But as Jane soon learns, happiness carries a hefty price tag. At the next Satanic session, the Ipsissimus hands her a knife – the same knife that was used to kill Jane’s mother – and orders her to kill Mary. Drugged and hysterical, Jane begs to be excused – but Mary herself is a willing party, and falls on the blade. Waking the next morning in the grounds of the castle, Jane again encounters her Blue-Eyed Stalker, who informs her with dark triumph: “Now you are one of us.” But as murderous visions begin to assail her and events start to spiral out of control, Jane finds it increasingly difficult to separate reality from illusion…
Buckle your seatbelts – you’re in for a loopy ride! This fresh iteration of the “Let’s Drive Edwige Nuts” formula benefits from a typically busy script from Ernesto Gastaldi, whose main brief in his collaborations with Sergio Martino seems to have been to devise ever-stranger vices for La Fenech, proceeding from violent coitus, through lesbian predation to wild group sex. Edwige spends much of the film in a state of high-pitched nervous collapse; that’s pretty tough to sustain for ninety-plus minutes, and the fact that she retains our sympathy for the full running-time is a testament to her star presence. Much of the credit goes to Martino, of course, who gives the film enough pace and excitement to paper over the essential emptiness of Fenech’s character; this is a crowd-pleasing thriller, remember, not Terms of Endearment. As he did in Mrs Wardh and The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail (1971), Martino hammers us with dizzying whip-pans, zooms and kaleidoscopic weirdness, and has particular fun with a Felliniesque nightmare sequence, full of painted drag queens, nude bambole (pregnant or knifed) and fish-eye lens distortions a-plenty. It’s a minor masterclass in stylisation on a budget, with set design that barely qualifies as minimal – just a black backdrop and one or two nursery props, like something Number Two might devise to torment McGoohan in The Prisoner. There’s grim irony, too, in the later image of an elderly couple dead at their breakfast table, fixed in a parody of cosy normality: she with a plate of toast and marmalade, he with his nose in the News of the World – both with their throats cut. It’s asplendidly eerie tableau, that might have sprung straight from the pages of hubby’s morning rag. (All that’s missing is a nude au pair.)
But it’s not all frenzied hysteria. There’s a certain subtlety to All the Colours of the Dark, which the lurid surface gloss can’t fully obscure – and while it may not qualify as haute cuisine, exactly, it does at least offer junk-food for thought. The film opens with an unusually sombre title sequence, showing night slowly falling on a placid lakeside scene. There’s no music, no distractions, just the ambient buzz of insects as the screen goes black. The sequence has no direct connection with what follows, but serves both as a mood-setting device and a visual metaphor for the mystery to come; though the darkness seems absolute, there are details, colours and textures within it we can only perceive by looking more deeply. Yes, you’ve guessed it: beneath all the conspiracies and surface complexity, there’s a subtext struggling to get out.
It’s in the film’s fevered third act, where Jane’s hallucinations threaten to overwhelm her, that this subtext, paradoxically, starts to become clear. The line between fantasy and reality is blurred to powerful effect, with a clever false climax that turns out to be a premonition of the future. The film ends on a highly ambiguous and suggestive note, inviting us to wonder what tomorrow holds not just for the survivors, but for the concept of morality itself. If the Satanists are simply madmen and hucksters, as we’re later told, how do we explain the very real powers which Jane has acquired? Might those abilities have lain dormant inside her from the start, requiring only a transgressive push to emerge fully-formed? If so, the abandonment of conventional morality could be seen as a socially-beneficial act. Perverse actions can yield positive outcomes, as Jane’s visions attest; maybe, if it is to achieve all it can, humanity must learn to embrace a more Sadean philosophy. That’s quite a subversive message for a mainstream thriller, though fully in keeping with the genre’s disdain for propriety.
The decision to reunite Edwige with her Mrs Wardh pals George Hilton and Ivan Rassimov is either an act of supreme artistic laziness, or a masterstroke of casting – you be the judge. All three essentially reprise the exact same roles, though (despite her second-billing to Hilton) Fenech’s more obviously the star of the show this time around. Hilton turns in variant #23 of his moody-and-suspicious routine, and very capable he is too; interestingly (and underlining the film’s moral revisionism), his character’s typical ruthlessness goes unpunished on this occasion. As for Rassimov, he’s not much more than a menacing cipher here – we don’t even learn his name until the show-and-tell ending – but if all your film needs is an omnipresent psycho with a Basilisk stare, Ivan’s your man. (His natural blue eyes are enhanced with contact lenses, making his gaze even more unnerving than usual.) Marina Malfatti brings a melancholy grace to her role as the tragic Mary, somehow retaining her poise while sporting the same hilarious plunging necklines that she wore in The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave, while Spanish knockout Susan Scott (Nieves Navarro) is coldly alluring in a brief but pivotal role as Jane’s hard-nosed sister. (It’s she who would have the gift of second sight later that year, in Luciano Ercoli’s Death Walks at Midnight.) Rounding out the cast is Italian Gothic fave Alan Collins (Luciano Pigozzi, of Baron Blood), with a literal walk-on part as a lawyer who delivers the final slab of exposition (including a last-minute disclosure about an inheritance, superfluous enough to constitute blatant misdirection). Lastly, Bruno Nicolai’s score hits some truly orgiastic high notes, especially in his marvellous Black Mass cue (“Sabba”) which will have you swaying and chanting like a true believer long after the film has ended. (Incidentally, parts of the soundtrack were later recycled for Dick Randall’s Casa d’appuntamento/The French Sex Murders ; watching that film is rather like seeing a Wartburg tricked-out with parts nicked from a Jag.)
Shriek Show’s region 1 DVD still holds up pretty well, despite its non-HD origins, though there’s no question that a fresh transfer would breathe new life into the image. It’s correctly framed at 2.35:1, with anamorphic enhancement and a choice of either the English-language dub or the original Italian track with English subtitles. (The latter aren’t perfect: large and yellow, with a few errors and omissions, but they do the job.) Supplements include brief interviews with Martino and Hilton, who are both clearly delighted with the recent boost to their reputations from a certain Q. Tarantino, a selection of trailers and a lengthy slide-show of images mainly devoted to Edwige Fenech, including a few saucy publicity shots and (most interestingly) the full French roman-photo of the film; as you might expect for a publication dedicated to the solitary vice, it greatly simplifies the plot’s latter stages, while taking care to present Edwige in her full glory. The attractive cover illustration is drawn from original Spanish poster art.