The Giallo Project – Sergio Martino Pt. 2

All The Colors Of The Dark (Tutti I Colori Del Buio) (Italy, 1972), is, I think, more of what Americans think of when they think of 70s European giallo movies – dream sequences, a terrified woman, a stalker in a trenchcoat, a knife, a spurt of blood, suspects who don’t seem like suspects (which means they’re all suspects), and a psychedelic satanic orgy or two thrown in for good measure. Here, in their third collaboration, Martino and Ernesto Gastaldi (and co-writer Sauro Scavolini) have fashioned a good old-fashioned Saturday-night horror-thriller, ripe with paranoia and lurid sex-and-violence set-pieces. But the story is not nearly as crisp, nor the psychology nearly as foundational, as those elements were in his previous two films (discussed in Part I here).

credit: doomedmoviethon.com

credit: monstermoviemusic.blogspot.com

After a pretty tame title credit roll (a quiet lagoon in the country somewhere surrounded by trees, slowly moving from dusk to nighttime), the film itself opens with a pretty off-putting dream sequence involving pregnant women (one beautiful, one not-so-much), an old man in drag as a child’s doll in a frilly white dress (very Baby Jane), and a mysterious sinister blue-eyed man with a knife. Even if we eventually figure out the meanings of these tableaux, the ill-conceived sequence itself is rarely referred to again, save for that sinister blue-eyed guy with the knife. (It looks like an outtake from an old Avengers episode.) We simply need to take Jane Harrison’s (Edwige Fenech) word and manner at face value concerning these nightmares she’s having – they are reoccurring, and they are draining her emotionally. They draw on a few events in Jane’s recent life – the mysterious murder of her mother some years ago, and a serious auto accident that Richard , her longtime boyfriend (George Hilton), got them into that cost them the child they were expecting at the time. Richard feels that Jane just needs time, their love, his support and a healthy dose of vitamins (he’s a pharmaceuticals salesman) to get past it all. Jane’s sister, Barbara, is the receptionist for a very successful psychiatrist, Dr. Burton, and insists that she let him help her. (Susan Scott, known in earlier films by her real name, Nieves Navarro, plays Barbara, and she’ll appear frequently in later gialli directed by her husband, Luciano Ercoli.) The kindly but serious-minded Dr. Burton (George Rigaud) is, indeed, helpful, and Jane plans to return for regular sessions. But Jane also meets an intriguing new neighbor, the elegantly discreet Mary (Marina Malfatti, another giallo semi-regular), whose attendance at Black Masses in an elaborate castle on the outskirts of town have rid her of a lot of her own personal demons. Hey, Jane, c’mon along! And, of course, she does.

Mary (Marina Malfatti) in 'All The Colors Of The Dark.'  credit: notrecinema.com

Mary (Marina Malfatti) in ‘All The Colors Of The Dark.’ credit: notrecinema.com

In previous films, Gastaldi would have taken the time necessary to justify a lot of Jane’s decisions based on her own character’s history (this was well-orchestrated in The Strange Vice Of Mrs. Wardh.). He sets up an interesting crosscurrent or two – Richard and Barbara clearly loathe each other; protective big sister vs. boyfriend she doesn’t have much use for. Jane doesn’t trust Richard to take her nightmares seriously, but her own stabs at resolution seem both passive and flailing, almost purely fear-driven, helped along by frequent reappearances of the sinister blue-eyed guy (Ivan Rassimov, playing the looming–evil-shadow-guy yet again; the film to see Rassimov excel in is Massimo Dallamano’s Mafia Junction, also released as Superbitch, also released as Blue Movie Blackmail [*sigh*] a superior police thriller, or, as the Italians say, poliziotteschi). We had a pretty good sense of Julie Wardh’s present life, and the decisions that created it, in that previous film, but there are very open questions here of how Jane Harrison ended up with Richard to begin with, what her own real relationship is to her sister, and why she has no problem with drinking dead dog’s blood and essentially being gang-raped at a co-ed Black Mass in a castle basement. Wai…wha… Huh?! Well, yeah – it’s mercifully softcore (although the dog thing’s a little disturbing), but that’s clearly what occurs. Nonetheless, its tonic properties are apparent where Richard and Jane are concerned – having had previous trouble with ‘The Tune,’ they rediscover the ‘Sheet Music’ again after Jane’s little pagan-orgy adventure.

Jane Harrison (Edwige Fenech) in 'All The Colors Of The Dark.'  credit: avereventanni.tumblr.com

Jane Harrison (Edwige Fenech) in ‘All The Colors Of The Dark.’ credit: avereventanni.tumblr.com

A few days later, Jane again joins Mary for another visit to the bacchanal-in-the-basement, but gets a nasty surprise – Mary has brought Jane to the group to replace her, which enables Mary to fulfill her wish to shuffle off of this mortal coil, which requires Jane to be the one to send her off. And in her hand is That Knife from the nightmares…

Eventually we learn that a lot of these weird things have deeper, and more practical, histories than Jane is aware of – Mom’s murder featuring prominently – but a lot of other stuff just stays weird, and oddly unmotivated. Sinister blue-eyed guy turns out to be one of the Black Mass-ers; it might’ve made more sense for him to help lure her there than to terrorize her, and at one point even try to kill her, for the first half of the film. Jane’s fear is what makes it easy for Mary to ingratiate herself, so, oddly, his mission is somewhat accomplished, but his role overall is pretty murky. We also learn a thing or two about Barbara that throws a bunch of her character’s logic out the window as well. And if the script didn’t designate some degree of importance to Richard’s character, we wouldn’t have much idea of what he’s doing there at all. Fenech does her usual reliable good work here – her performance is a big element of the pervasive tone of paranoia and suspense, and it’s harder than one might think to be The Girl Who’s Scared All Of The Time without boring hell out of us after twenty minutes. As big dumb scary-fun B-grade sexy-sexy entertainment, All The Colors Of The Dark is very good, and is much better than a lot of the seventies product we’ll be faced with later on. But based on Martino and Gastaldi’s previous high standards, it’s one of the lesser of the big five.

Barbara (Susan Scott) in 'All The Colors Of The Dark.'  credit: doomedmoviethon.com

Barbara (Susan Scott) in ‘All The Colors Of The Dark.’ credit: doomedmoviethon.com

 

Martino’s Your Vice Is A Locked Room and Only I Have The Key (Il Tuo Vizio É Una Stanza Chiusa E Solo Io Ne Ho La Chiave) (Italy, 1972) isn’t nearly as concerned with the volume of the body count as it is the psychological intrigues that lead to murders in the first place. Martino stretches the form even more; the grisly deaths are directly tied in to the psychology and motives of the players, and there are superb twists at the end, including a tip of the hat to our old pal Edgar Allen Poe.

Oliviero (Luigi Pistilli) and Irene (Anita Strindberg) in 'Your Vice Is A Locked Room...'  credit: chillingscenesofdreadfulvillainy.blogspot.fr

Oliviero (Luigi Pistilli) and Irene (Anita Strindberg) in ‘Your Vice Is A Locked Room…’ credit: chillingscenesofdreadfulvillainy.blogspot.fr

Martino, Gastaldi, Sauro Scavolini and Adriano Bolzoni subvert a number of thriller clichés here. Oliviero Ruvigny (Luigi Pistilli) had some early success as a novelist, then went into teaching, and now simply languishes on his rural estate, drunk, high and sweaty, living off of the inheritance left to him by his mother, a famous Italian film actress. He graciously (if sloppily) holds court with the nearby commune hippies who drink his booze, eat his food and regale him with nude dancing and earnest but annoying protest songs. He’s cringe-inducingly cruel to his beautiful wife Irene (Anita Strindberg, doing some A-level scenery chewing here), and regularly sleeps around with the local girls. So the big question, of course, is how can Irene stand it? But just when you think we’re trapped in a tedious Antonioni knock-off, the small village is struck with a nasty slasher killing involving a young girl Oliviero may have been involved with; Irene immediately suspects Oliviero, which, of course, enrages him. But when their young and beautiful housekeeper, Brenda (Angela La Vorgna) suffers the same bloody fate in their own upstairs hallway, Irene helps him to dispose of the body! Is she an irretrievable Stockholm-er, or are their darker intrigues afoot? Ratcheting up the thickening plot, Oliviero’s young niece Floriana (Edwige Fenech, with a short, stylish bob haircut) settles in for a surprise visit. She sizes things up pretty quickly and goes to her own kind of work, comforting the tormented Irene, derisively but promiscuously belittling the sodden Oliviero, and striking out on her own to bed a local or two herself. It’s a refreshing change for Fenech, portraying one of the villains rather than a potential victim. Floriana’s the id – the unattached pleasure-seeker – to Irene’s ego – sacrificing herself to the goal of a later-imagined payoff of some sort, although it ain’t about money – Oliviero, it’s mentioned, is already starting to sell off furniture to raise cash.

Oliviero (Luigi Pistilli) can't resist his young niece, Floriana (Edwige Fenech) in 'Your Vice Is A Locked Room...'  credit: horrordigital.com

Oliviero (Luigi Pistilli) can’t resist his young niece, Floriana (Edwige Fenech) in ‘Your Vice Is A Locked Room…’ credit: horrordigital.com

Martino and his fellow writers smear their Oedipal, incestuous, misogynistic, voyeuristic and sado-masochistic conceits across the film with a trowel. Oliviero keeps his mother’s black cat, named Satan, as his pet, while Irene keeps a small dove-cote, which is predictably raided by you-know-who. Both Irene and Floriana treat Oliviero’s sexual congress with his late mother as a foregone conclusion, which just seems to motivate the opportunistic Floriana as much as disturb her. And the first three murder victims – one of Oliviero’s former-student side projects, Brenda the housekeeper and a newly-arrived local prostitute – are clearly being punished for their forthright sexuality.

Your Vice Is A Locked Room and Only I Have The Key is an impressive showcase for the best, and the worst, of the Italian giallo. Its plot structure is admirably and compellingly twisty-turny, the lead performances are very good, and it’s genuinely scary and thrilling. The psychological gamesmanship of the three leads is the real engine of the plot, rather than just violence and sex. But some, understandably, will be put off by the persistent misogyny – Oliviero, in his way, gets off easy, while the women in the film Get Theirs in more disturbing ways, even in the later cases where a kind of justice is being served. We’re starting to move away from Argento’s sparingly-used POV techniques to heighten our empathy for the potential victim, and towards directors’ using similar techniques to build unhealthy anticipation for the inevitable kill.

Floriana (Edwige Fenech) has some hairstyling tips for Irene (Anita Strindberg) in 'Your Vice Is A Locked Room...'  credit:20filmwords.wordpress.com

Floriana (Edwige Fenech) has some hairstyling tips for Irene (Anita Strindberg) in ‘Your Vice Is A Locked Room…’ credit:20filmwords.wordpress.com

I enjoyed the film overall, despite these caveats. Giancarlo Ferrando’s cinematography here is quite wonderful, although Bruno Nicolai’s (usually eccentric) musical score leans a little muzak-y. Of course, the film is lousy with alternative titles provided by wildly grasping distributors – Gently Before She Dies, Eye of the Black Cat and, my favorite, Excite Me (!). But posterity has left us with the best title, which is nicked from one of the notes Julie Wardh receives with her flowers from the insidious Jean in our first film. I would put consensus down that Your Vice Is A Locked Room and Only I Have The Key and The Strange Vice Of Mrs. Wardh, my own favorites, are generally tied for second in the estimation of Martino’s giallo fans. And the popular pick for #1…?

 

Carla Brait, Angela Covello, Tina Aumont, Suzi Kendall and Cristina Airoldi in 'Torso.'  credit: ragazzo-dimmi.blogspot.com

Carla Brait, Angela Covello, Tina Aumont, Suzi Kendall and Cristina Airoldi in ‘Torso.’ credit: ragazzo-dimmi.blogspot.com

As Mario Bava’s Bay Of Blood spawned the Friday the 13th series, and its countless offshoots, Martino’s Torso (I Corpi Presentano Tracce Di Violenza Carnale, which translates as The Bodies Show Signs Of Carnal Violence – me, I’m OK with the long titles…) (Italy, 1973) was the template for seemingly hundreds of Co-Eds In Peril movies. Up until now, the Martino / Gastaldi films featured adults contending with the psychologically distorted remnants of their youthful past, or adults contending with the practical dangers of deranging greed, following the Bava / Argento model. This was one of the first films to feature victims – a series of young girls – who are essentially punished for their potential to end up socially and / or sexually well-adjusted, and our killer, wrapped in customary black and wielding customary cutting instruments, takes extreme measures to prevent that from happening and/or punish them for their prerogatives. (Bava’s Hatchet For The Honeymoon touched on this somewhat, but not with Martino / Gastaldi’s obvious fervor.)

Jane, Dani, Flo, Carol. Katia and Ursula (respectively, Suzi Kendall, Tina Aumont, Patrizia Adiutori, Cristina Airoldi, Angela Covello and Carla Brait) are all great friends at their fine arts school in Perugia. Jane is an American who has taught art history before (she’s older than the others) and is pursuing further study in Italy, and Dani lives with her Uncle while she’s in school. They love their classes, and, in an early scene, debate the qualities of the paintings of Perugino with their handsome art professor, Franz (John Richardson) (‘Perugino’ was the painter Pietro Vannucci’s nickname, as he was raised in that region of Umbria). Being a little older, Jane hits it off with Professore Franz, but he’s good about being a gentleman about it. The other girls contend with a little more drama in their lives: Dani is being pursued, annoyingly to her, by Stefano (Roberto Bisacco), whose preppy smugness hides some pretty severe masculine insecurities. Katia and Ursula are just fine – they’re a happy intimate couple. Carol, however, has less discerning luck with men – we learn that she’s carrying on an affair with Dani’s uncle, and she’s fallen in with a few surly pot-smoking locals who take more license with her than propriety might allow. Flo is smart and attractive, and, that night, hooks up with fellow student Sean for a little parking pillow talk under a freeway underpass. Distressingly, Flo and Sean then become the first murder victims of the perpetrator who subsequently pursues them all. Carol’s death follows soon after, as she abandons two of her male party pals at an out-of-the-way pot-fest, and walks through the woods back to civilization in a soporific haze – easy pickings to become the second victim.

Dani (Tina Aumont) in 'Torso.'  credit: planetaua.net

Dani (Tina Aumont) in ‘Torso.’ credit: planetaua.net

The police conspicuously alert the school’s student body that the three victims came from among their ranks, and urge them to help find the killer. The main clue is fabric remnants of a particular red-and-black scarf found under the fingernails of both female victims. Dani recalls that scarf, and wracks her brain to remember whom she saw wearing it. Dani’s uncle is leaving the city for Paris on a business trip, and suggests that Dani and all of her friends repair to his rural country villa to escape the oppressive fear that the Perugia murders have fostered. Dani, Carol and Katia take the train out to the country – Jane will drive out to join them later after taking care of some unavoidable business.

Jane (Suzi Kendall) in 'Torso.'  credit: cultmovieforums.com

Jane (Suzi Kendall) in ‘Torso.’ credit: cultmovieforums.com

So, as with most conventional murder thrillers, we have the black-gloved assassino, a short but involving list of potential victims, and a wide assortment of possible perpetrators – the wheedling Stefano in pursuit of Dani’s favors, the Uncle with something to hide, the surly stoners who took advantage of Carol, a guy we catch glimpses of in Perugia who turns out to be a doctor in the small rural village to which they’ve taken refuge (Luc Merenda) – hell, let’s throw in the art professor as well, though it seems more notable that Jane herself doesn’t seem nearly as upset by the murders as her friends are. What exactly is that business she needed to attend to before joining them? Which of these suspects would be an acquaintance of the street vendor who sells the scarves, and whom meets a grisly fate of his own?

'Torso.'  credit: projectdeadpost.com

‘Torso.’ credit: projectdeadpost.com

I won’t spoil the details of what happens at the villa, other than to say that the killer, naturally, follows them there, that extraordinarily nasty things happen (pushing the envelope of ‘nasty things that typically happen in gialli’), that one of the girls falls and twists her ankle, and that the final half-hour of the film is one of the most artfully constructed sequences of squirm-inducing suspense since mid-sixties Hitchcock. The good parts are great parts, but, like Your Vice…, I have mixed feelings about the misogynistic bent of the film, despite the artistry of the presentation. I just think the women in Your Vice… are a more even match for what they’re up against.

One other note – the opening credits sequence of Your Vice Is A Locked Room and Only I Have The Key is a gauzy depiction of a lovemaking couple (seemingly Irene and Oliviero) that doesn’t have a hell of a lot to do with the events of the film thereafter. However, the opening credit sequence of Torso, another filtered and abstracted mélange of intimately intertwined flesh, turns out to be crucial to the later events of this film. I’ll leave it to you to discover why that’s true.

'Torso.'  credit: notrecinema.com

‘Torso.’ credit: notrecinema.com

Sergio Martino’s giallo films are all excellent murder-melodramas that seamlessly blend the stylistic breakthroughs of later Hitchcock, Mario Bava and Dario Argento without sacrificing Martino’s own strong directorial personality. To sum up: The Strange Vice Of Mrs. Wardh and Your Vice Is A Locked Room and Only I Have The Key are my personal favorites, and The Case Of The Scorpion’s Tail, while less sensationalized, is very underrated. Torso was more problematic for me, but is undoubtedly a must-see for the giallo genre in general. And All The Colors Of The Dark, while not holding together as well as the others, still contains some jaw-dropping sequences that would delight any late-Saturday-night viewers, and would be an ideal drive-in movie if there were still drive-ins. And it’s well worth seeking out both Edwige Fenech and Anita Strindberg’s other work – they were all over the Italian B-movie industry in the 1970s, and we’re sure to encounter them later on.

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