The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave
1972, Italy. Directed by Emilio P. Miraglia
Giallo often treat logic as a secondary consideration at best. Although inspired by the likes of Alfred Hitchcock and falling generally into the realm of the whodunnit, solving or even having given to you a satisfactory explanation for the crimes (usually murder) in a giallo film isn’t the point. If you think it is, then you’ll inevitably be disappointed when the killer is revealed to be some ancillary character who barely shows up in the rest of the film. Instead, what matters most to giallo is the presentation. The trip you take to the final revelation rather than the revelation itself. As such, assuring that the revelation makes sense is not high on the list of priorities for most of these films. However, they usually do attempt, at the very least, to entertain some vestige of logic, even if that logic is uniquely giallo and applicable only to a world in which everyone is a fashion model, stripper, or photographer and no one reacts with anything approaching even a semblance of how an actual human being might react. It is a world in which almost everyone is callous, cruel, cynical, and sadistic.
That said, Emilio P. Miraglia’s The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave is nonsensical even within the forgiving confines of giallo logic.
First and foremost is the fact that the film establishes its protagonist Alan (Anthony Steffen) is a serial killer who enjoys nothing so much as taking hookers and strippers back to his crumbling manor house, where he proceeds to terrorize, choke, and ultimately murder them, but not before making them put on sexy boots while he dons the soutane of a Catholic priest. While we quickly learn that Alan possesses a host of mental issues relating to past trauma, absolutely nothing in his past ever ends up being related to religion, priests, strangulation, or sexy boots. This isn’t even spoiler territory; the first thing he does in the film is pick up a prostitute and murder her.
One could be forgiven, then, for assuming that this movie will be about a woman who finds herself in the clutches of this murderous sex fiend, or about a world-weary inspector (or, this being giallo, a photographer or composer of minor concertos, since people like that tend to have better luck solving these mysteries than do the local gendarmes) racing against time to save a woman Alan has been menacing. Once could be forgiven, but one would also be wrong. Because Alan, it turns out, is the film’s protagonist, and the audience is meant to root for him during the coming mystery — a mystery in which his side gig as a serial killer is almost totally forgotten, or at least forgiven.
When the movie loses interest in Lord Alan Cunningham, serial killer, it focuses on Lord Alan Cunningham, melancholy swingin’ playboy whose wife, Evelyn, passed away some years ago and has left the colorful neckwear aficionado in a funk that can only be alleviated by attending orgiastic soirées thrown by his decadent relative George (Enzo Tarascio). It’s George who suggests Alan pop on down to the Kit Kat Club (because it is always the Kit Kat Club) to see their stunning new dancer Susan (Erika Blanc), who being a slinky redhead, George knows is just Alan’s type. The night goes about as one would expect when one of the participants is a murderous nutcase who is driven into a red rage by sexy redheads and the other participant is a sexy redhead. Unfortunately for Alan, Susan has more fight and flight in her than he was counting on, and she leads him on a merry nude foot chase throughout the castle and its surrounding woods, though it seems in the end Alan gets the better of her and, in his psychotic haze, disposes of her body by feeding it to his kennel of foxes.
Later, at one of George’s hedonistic fêtes, Alan meets Gladys (Marina Malfatti) and decides then and there to wed her, hoping that marriage to a nice woman he met at one of George’s pagan bacchanales will be the cure for his homicidal episodes and a way to forget poor, dead Evelyn (who, it is later revealed, died during a miscarriage). It seems like Gladys very well might be the cure to what ails Alan, and she seems incredibly tolerant of his eccentric affectations, like keeping a portrait of Evelyn prominently displayed in their living room and occasionally attempting to murder Gladys when she dons a red wig for no reason. But other than those few minor bumps in the road, life is improving. Alan’s paraplegic aunt Agatha (Joan C. Davis, who looks half the age of the man playing her nephew) moves in, as does sleazy good time guy George. They fix up the old schloss and hire a staff of blondes so as to avoid triggering Alan’s mania. Sure, Evelyn’s creepy brother is still slinking around in the woods, but you have to account for weird relatives even in a jolly life, right? Domestic bliss is interrupted however when the apparent specter of Evelyn starts lurking around the old castle, driving Alan to the brink of insanity while those around him are murdered.
Anthony Steffen is a bit of a slab in the role of Alan, but there are moments when his seeming disinterest and confusion augment the character. But it’s really the two women, Erika Blanc’s Susan and Marina Malfatti’s Gladys, and Enzo Tarascio’s leering lounge lizard George who carry the weight of the film. While Steffen struggles to make faces of anguish and confusion into the camera, his supporting cast go at things with gusto and are more than able to carry him through the tough spots. In Steffen’s defense, although he he’s not much of an actor, he does look resplendent in all those velvet jackets and colorful silk cravats. He may be a murderous lunatic, but he has lovely personal style.
Marina Malfatti is the film’s anchor, a woman thrust into a dangerous and bizarre situation where, at best, her husband is a psychotic murderer and, at worst, so is the ghost of his dead wife. This was one of her first giallo, but she became a staple in the genre, appearing in films like Umberto Lenzi’s Seven Blood-Stained Orchids, The Red Queen Kills Seven Times (also directed by Emilio P. Miraglia), and Sergio Martino’s excellent All the Colors of the Dark, another film that combines the giallo with the supernatural (or at least the supernatural seeming). Erika Blanc has a smaller role in Evelyn than Malfatti, but she was no less a genre pro, having cut her teeth as an extra in Eurospy films before bursting into the horror scene in Mario Bava’s exquisite Gothic chiller Kill, Baby…Kill! She did additional time in spaghetti westerns and, in the 1970s, settled into a solid horror and giallo groove with roles in films such as The Devil’s Nightmare, Human Cobras, The Red-Headed Corpse, and So Sweet… So Perverse.
Giallo trade in awful characters doing awful things to one another, and rarely do they serve up much in the way of sympathetic protagonists. But usually, no matter how big a creep, the nominal hero of the story has on his or her side, at the least, the fact that they aren’t slitting anyone’s throat, which makes them a little more acceptable than whatever black-gloved and raincoated killer us running amok. Not so in The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave, where the hero of the story murders about the same number of people as the murderer. In fact, the film’s only decent and sympathetic character is the hooker Alan assaults in the beginning of the film, so he might even be marginally worse than the mysterious murderous ghost.
One can’t help but wonder if this isn’t Emilio Miraglia toying with the conventions of the genre (which, even in 1971, were already solidifying), taking its cynicism to a somewhat illogical extreme. What’s even odder about the decision is that it kind of works. Eventually the film does convince you to rally behind Alan, at least until the movie is over and you remember that he’s a murderer himself. In a way, it’s a bit like the film itself. It seems like it shouldn’t be very good, and it has a lot of problems, but somehow at the end of things, one is mildly satisfied — provided one is already inured to the peculiarities of Italian horror in general and giallo in particular. This isn’t the sort of movie one shows to someone to initiate them into the cult of giallo.
Miraglia shoots for a combined ambiance, one part creaky Gothic castle and one part pop art modernism. Most of the time it succeeds, resulting in a film that has one foot in the cobweb-covered world of supernatural horror and the other in the decidedly secular, trendy setting of giallo — a bit like the old Dark Shadows television show, where men in Inverness coats and frilled shirts could rub elbows with women in go-go boots and miniskirts. Unfortunately, at times the film undermines its phantasmagorical mood by brightly lighting almost every scene, so that frantic chases through the mouldering labyrinth of dark castle chambers happens in a scene that looks like it’s taking place in a well-lit room. The only hint that the scene is meant to be taking place in the dark is the fact that one character wields a flashlight and they both stand directly in front of each other without “seeing” one another. On the one hand, it’s all a bit silly, like going to a strip club with all the lights turned on; on the other hand, given how strange the film is, it almost works. People stumbling around in brightly lit rooms as if they were pitch black is just one more nutty thing that defines the world of The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave.
Miraglia also seems to be playing with the concept of the red herring, turning it in on itself and, although there are numerous twists (so many, in fact, that the film can’t even be bothered to explain many of them), eventually revealing that the most obvious suspect is, in fact, the most obvious suspect, and the only reason one thinks it can’t possibly be that character is because it would be so glaringly obvious for it to be that character. Layered on top of that twist-by-not-twisting are plenty of other swerves and contrivances, at least one of which, involving wheelchair-bound Aunt Agatha, seems like it was about to take the movie toward an entirely different conclusion before Miraglia lost interest or just forgot or something and never bothers to follow up on the revelation.
There’s also a murder committed at a time when everyone revealed to be responsible for the film’s murders is otherwise occupied and accounted for, but the movie never bothers to try to explain that, either. It’s likely Miraglia didn’t even realize or remember it was a loose thread, or just didn’t care. Sometimes though, sloppy writing can lend a surreal quality to a film, and that’s the case here. The film assumes if it just keeps piling one eccentric thing after another, as well as a liberal dollop of nudity and typically awkward-looking giallo lovemaking, the desire for some sort of sensical outcome will be crushed. The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave is so interested in being bizarre that it hardly matters when it falls apart.