26 October 2012

ITALIAN HORROR: MAMA'S BOY

Part of the Italian Horror Blogathon at Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies

As is true of so many gialli - the violent, stylised murder mysteries made in Italy during the '60s and '70s that were the first real flowering of horror in that country's redoubtable genre filmmaking trenches - the best part about 1972's Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key is its title, and that would obviously be true even if the movie inside of that title was one of the lost masterpieces of world cinema. Which is not the case - it is a good, probably even a great example of the genre, though a bit light on the florid visual gestures that are typical of the very best gialli, particularly those made by masters of the florid Mario Bava (who essentially invented and perfected the giallo) and Dario Argento (who pushed it to its farthest limits) - and I will confess that my particular interest in reviewing it at this point anyway had less to do with anything I'd heard for or against its quality, and more because it is, after all, titled Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key, such a mightily gushing stream of words that even its awkward initialism YVIALRAOIHTK is longer than the titles of a great many worthy motion pictures.

Based in the most marginal and superficial way upon Edgar Allan Poe's "The Black Cat", Your Vice... (as I shall hereafter call it in deference to keeping even the most cursory review below 4000 words) is, like pretty much every giallo before it or after it, about distorted sexuality, in this case belonging to Oliviero Rouvigny (Luigi Pistilli), a man who has not psychologically recovered from the death of his dear, dear, dear, dear mother, who has left behind her a collection of archly old-fashioned dresses, a mean-spirited black cat named Satan, and a whole trunkful of unresolved Oedipal issues. None of which are terribly exciting to his wife, Irina (Anita Strindberg), who despises the cat and is in turn despised by it, and who spends an inordinate amount of time on the receiving end of Oliviero's nasty jokes, of which we see one in particular perpetrated at a strange party in which the Rouvignys host a number of young counter-culture types, apparently for no reason other than to make Irina uncomfortable.

Of course, this kind of situation can't last for very long, and what breaks is when one of the several mistresses Oliviero parades more or less directly in Irina's face is found dead - well, "found" dead, but of course we in the audience got to see her die at the hands of a gloved figure hidden in a giant coat and hat, wielding a short, curved knife. The police instantly suspect Oliviero, who huffily insists upon his innocence, with Irina covering for his alibi of being quietly at home, although they both know damn well that he was nowhere near the house at the time of the murders. When, shortly thereafter, Irinia stumbles upon their maid, and another of Oliviero's fuckbuddies, Brenda (Angela La Vorgna) dead in their very house - wearing one of Mama Rouvigny's prized dresses - with her breasts hanging out - it's extremely hard for her to avoid leaping to the obvious solution that Oliviero killed both of his mistresses as part of his weird boredom-induced drive towards ever kinkier, nastier behavior, and when he snottily insists on hiding the maid's body in a wall in the wine cellar, mostly because he doesn't want to have to deal with the police, that seems to pretty much confirm things.

Except that it doesn't confirm things at all: the police end up finding the killer of the first girl, making all due apologies to Oliviero, and things would be back to normal, except that the husband and wife, already suffering from one of the worst conceivable marriages, have descended into two private hells of paranoia and mistrust, with Oliviero growing increasingly savage even at his nicest; and when his niece, Floriana (Edwige Fenech) puts in a surprise visit, she and Irina commiserate over his brutality, start up an affair of their own, and concoct a plot to kill him and remove his wanton cruelty from their lives once and for all.

That, anyway, is enough of a plot synopsis to hang your hat on, not enough to spoil anything worth spoiling and more than is necessary to make the rest of my review coherent; but it was important that I get to the point in the story where Floriana shows up, because that would enable me to speak of Edwige Fenech, a giallo icon who, unfathomably, has never once shown up on the pages of this blog. I can beg no excuse for this other than the most perfunctory kind of oversight, for of course Fenech is a titanic figure in the genre - not a terrifically great actress, nor an outrageously sexy one (by the standards of a country whose cinema produced sexy women like none other in history), but who has an undefinable Something that dominates the camera and makes every scene and shot she's in all about her, even if the actress isn't asking for it. Surely, Your Vice... has a lot going for it all throughout, but it makes a huge leap the moment she appears, bringing an electric sexual energy along with and turning a rather nicely swerving murder mystery into a giddy, warped exercise in inexplicable psychology.

Not that the movie wants for those things without Fenech - she merely cranks a simmering movie up to a boil - particular as far as sexuality goes; for Your Vice..., a befits its title, is very fascinated by the illicit behaviors of its characters, and contains quite a few scenes of naked people flopping all over each other or themselves. Very nearly all gialli incorporate or imply sex, certainly, and quite a few display their share of naked female breasts, but Your Vice... goes much further than nearly any other giallo I have myself seen, without ever seeming salacious for the sake of it. For it is a film about what dysfunctional mother-fixated sexuality does to a man who may or may not be killing his mistresses, and thus at least all the nudity feels thematically earned, if not necessarily moreso than in other, more chaste gialli.

For that matter, Your Vice... is already a great deal more interested in human beings than many other gialli, and that perhaps explains why it emphasises sex more: because it genuinely tries to explore what makes these characters work. I gather that this is typical of director Sergio Martino, whose films in the genre are held to be more grounded and coherent than most (this is, I shamefacedly confess, the only one I've seen - in fact, the only other Martino film I'm familiar with is the unfortunate Mountain of the Cannibal God). Certainly, Your Vice... is interested in characterisation more than nearly any other giallo I can immediately name, especially Oliviero and Irina's and Martino bends a great deal of energy to establishing who they are both in terms of scripted behavior and by his extremely clever framing: the film might altogether lack the flourishes of color found in Bava, or the excessively Baroque touches of Argento, but it is a stunningly well-photographed movie, in which the tiniest details of who is foregrounded or which direction they're facing or which angle we stand in relative to them, communicate volumes of psychological meaning in tiny little bursts. Like in this pair of frames, in which a single focus rack and one turn of the head establishes more clearly than pages of dialogue could how tenuously the relationship between Oliviero and the literally shoved-aside Irina already is, at an early point in the film


It is very fortunate for the film that Martino's interest in exploring character, rather than vibrantly excessive genre theatrics, was met by a generally terrific cast: Strindberg and Pistilli especially are called upon to express a great deal more shading and complexity than you typically see in a "stalk the women and kill them" type of murder mystery, but nobody in the whole film fails to live up to the level the director requires of them.

The trade-off to all of this is that the grandeur of more famous gialli is nowhere to be found: this is a film of small behaviors and close-ups, and deaths that are both shocking and intense but not as imaginatively bloody as many of its stablemates, nor as craftily horrifying (in fact, I question whether the film meets the definition of horror at all, except for the informal rule that all gialli are automatically counted in that genre). It's not without its extreme moments - there is a bevy of eye-related gore moments, prefiguring Lucio Fulci's great fetishisation of eye violence around the end of the '70s and beginning of the '80s, and a crawling sense of dread starts to become really pervasive right around the time that Irina and Floriana begin to hatch their plan and the plot begins to start opening up in the random explosion of twists and reveals that are the only place where Your Vice... taps into the narrative arbitrariness that we typically associate with Italian horror; and even at its most arbitrary, the film still makes its share of good psychological sense.

It's probably not fair to describe as "grounded" any film with the kind of ragged, uneasy editing and loopy score by Bruno Nicolai, lurching from funk to Baroque harpsichords without a twitch of restraint, that Your Vice... has, but grounded it is, all the same; grounded, at least, in that its concerns are more with human behavior than style, and with considering the consequences of events that in most A-list gialli would serve solely as shocking moments for the heck of it. It is legitimately intelligent and psychologically meaningful, not just psychologically exploitative, and that is certainly not something I ever expected to stumble across in an Italian genre movie of any vintage. Indulgent title it may have, but everything else about this fine, tight, tense movie is the very opposite of indulgence.

5 comments:

KingKubrick said...

Hey, Tim just wanted to say thanks for putting up the link to Hugo's blogathon. My tradition is to watch at least one horror movie a day in Halloween (it's my fav time of year). I've been hitting the Italian horror pretty hard this season and especially today. I've been getting better acquainted with Bava. Just finished The Whip and The Body. I didn't really realize the depth and breadth of Italian horror especially the Giallo until I tuned into the blogathan. There's a lot to see.

Bava was a goddamn genius. There aren't many filmmakers who have quite such a distinctive visual style or acuity.

Kevin J. Olson said...

It is legitimately intelligent and psychologically meaningful, not just psychologically exploitative, and that is certainly not something I ever expected to stumble across in an Italian genre movie of any vintage. Indulgent title it may have, but everything else about this fine, tight, tense movie is the very opposite of indulgence.

You hit on something here that has always stood out to me in regards to Martino. I think what love most about Martino -- who is unfairly marginalized when it comes to important Italian horror filmmakers -- is that he's able to elevate the most lurid aspects of the subgenre with what you describe above. Torso is the perfect example of this: a proto-slasher that clearly wants us to notice all of the nude college girls, but it doesn't take the POV of the killer and it doesn't linger on the violence. In fact, it's almost as if Martino is getting us to notice how these "objects" are going to be harmed (playing with the viewer's expectations of the horror film) by focusing so much attention on them. I guarantee had Torso been released in the middle of the slasher glut, people would be talking about what a brilliant postmodern attack it is on the slasher film. But since it's more along the lines of Twitch of the Death Nerve and a portent to what Bob Clark would popularize a few years later, it's kind of a forgotten gem. I think it perfectly does what you describe here.

Why do I bring up this other Martino film in a comment about Your Vice...? Because this is one of the few Martino films I've yet to see; I'm looking forward to caching up with this one now. This sounds a lot like what I love about Torso.

Tim said...

KingKubrick- Glad to have helped in your education. It's a wonderful world. But of course the real thanks must go to...

Kevin- Like I say in the essay, my Martino consists of a cannibal movie, and that's not the best way to experience any Italian horror director. I'm definitely eager to dig deeper into his filmography, and it sounds like Torso would be a great place to start. Unless you have a better idea?

Kevin J. Olson said...

I think Torso would pique your interest the most because of its connection to so many tropes that would be used in slasher films; however, it's much grimier than his straight gialli, and if you want something that is more in line with Your Vice... seems to be, then I would recommend The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh (also starring the gorgeous Fenech) and The Case of the Scorpion's Tale (not to be confused with his awful 1982 The Scorpion with Two Tales, which I reviewed for last year's blogathon).

Aother one of his that I haven't seen is the apparently wacky/gonzo All the Colors of the Dark which I'm told has some pretty amazing setpieces (and more Fenech) that mix the giallo with a kind of occult theme.

Anyway, there ya have it.

Troy Olson said...

Not much to add that Kevin didn't already say, but I'll second his recommendation of either TORSO or THE STRANGE VICE OF MRS WARDH, which both show that Martino defintely had some talent in crafting a good thriller.