Indiana Jones and the Peril at Delphi

Indiana Jones and the Peril at Delphi

1991, Rob MacGregor

Indy, Henry, follow me! I know the way!”

And so, give or take a line, did the Indiana Jones trilogy ride off into the sunset. Or so we thought at the time. What started in 1981 with Raiders of the Lost Ark — which, if pressed, I may very well name as my favorite movie (it’s that or Casablanca) — and then continued with the imperfect but still enjoyable Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, wrapped in 1989 with the release of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It was a fitting conclusion to the series, balancing humor and adventure with heart and thrills. Yes, it left some questions unanswered — what the heck happened to Marion — but by and large, it was a fitting swan song for America’s favorite two-fisted, globe-trotting archaeologist, Dr. Henry Jones, Jr.

It did not remain Indy’s swan song for long.

In March of 1992, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles debuted on the ABC television network. As the name makes plain, the series told the story of Indiana Jones as a teen and young man (and occasionally a boy). Soldier, spy, world traveler — the show was meant to be an educational program for teens and young adults, and as is usually the case with such shows, young Indiana Jones manages to meet just about every famous person he could during the 1910s, which is sometimes a bit much. And speaking of a bit much, that’s how ABC felt about the show’s budget. It was a massively expensive undertaking, and the fact that it was aimed at kids when the core Indiana Jones audience that had grown up with the film was in college, meant that it garnered low ratings. It was canceled in 1993. Except for a few made-for-television movies based on the series, it would be a long time before audiences saw Indiana Jones in action again on any screen, big or small.

However, sandwiched between The Last Crusade and the first episode of the Chronicles, there was Indiana Jones and the Peril at Delphi.

After the movies wrapped, and while the series was in development, Indiana Jones co-creator George Lucas decided he wanted to commission a series of Indiana Jones novels. He turned to author Rob MacGregor, who had penned the novelization of The Last Crusade. MacGregor had expressed mild disappointment that much of what appeared in the novelization ultimately had to be cut from the film for time and to achieve the tighter focus desired by director Steve Spielberg. Thus, MacGregor was excited about the opportunity to dig deep into the world of Indiana Jones. Obviously, there were a lot of stories that could be told. But Lucas had a set of restrictions he placed on MacGregor. For starters, the books should be prequels, not sequels, to the movies. Second, they should be, like the soon-to-debut TV series, educational and aimed at a younger audience. None of the grit and gore of the movies (that stuff was always Spielberg’s thing). Third, MacGregor did not have permission to use any of the characters from the movies other than Indy and Marcus Brody. Others could be mentioned, but they could not appear.

Lucas had similarly hedged his bets years earlier when he hired Alan Dean Foster to write the first Star Wars continuation novel, Splinter in the MInd’s Eye. Foster was told to write a book that could serve as a potential sequel to Star Wars, but because Lucas did not expect the movie to be a huge hit, what Foster came up with had to be able to make for a cheap movie (no space stuff, for starters). And since it was assumed Harrison Ford would not return for a potential second movie, Foster was not allowed to include the character who would emerge as the most popular in the series (and, of course, be played by Harrison Ford, the same man who played Indiana Jones). Subsequent Star Wars novels would also operate under restrictions planned primarily to make sure nothing in the books would conflict with what might be on screen in a sequel. As Lucas, Spielberg, and Ford had not completely ruled out a fourth Indiana Jones film, it was simpler to keep MacGregor within certain boundaries. No worries, because the life of Indiana Jones, even before the movies, was full of thrills.

So MacGregor, who was himself a well-rounded globetrotter with a keen interest in history and archaeology, set about the task. In 1991, he delivered Indiana Jones and the Peril at Delphi, set in 1922 (with a prelude in 1920) and featuring an Indiana Jones fresh out of college and dutifully studying for his future career as…a linguist. Obviously, that career trajectory is not going to last, and by the end of the book, Indy has course-corrected toward archaeology, if of a somewhat unorthodox fashion. The book begins in 1920, on the eve of Indy’s graduation from the University of Chicago. He’s a dedicated student but not without a wild streak. He and his pal, Jack Shannon, are avid fans of barrelhouse piano this dangerous new music called jazz. He’s also not above a bit of mischief, as evidenced by a brief run-in with a sleazy bootlegger and a stunt he pulls for graduation that involves hanging effigies of the Founding Fathers to make a nuanced political point. Although his favorite history professor turns Jones in, the man also argues for clemency, allowing the young rascal to graduate and continue his studies in Paris.

And two years later, we catch up with Indy in Paris, studying with a beautiful (as is always the case) professor named Dorian Belecamus who, despite Indy having no experience in archaeology, enlists his aid on an excavation in Greece. A recent earthquake has further damaged the ruins of the Temple of Apollo, once home to the legendary Oracle of Delphi. But the quake has also revealed a new artifact, an ancient tablet, stuck midway down a deep crevasse. Against the advice of Jack Shannon and his own better judgment — everyone gets the feeling that there’s more to the trip than Dorian is letting one — Jones agrees, if for no other reason than he was in a bit of a funk anyway, and he’s sort of hot for teacher.

It seems everyone was right to have misgivings about the excursion. Jones is promptly seduced by Dorian, but his happiness about that turn of events is offset by the number of mysterious people who keep popping up to stare, menace, and occasionally attempt to kill him. Before too long, young Indy is caught up in dual plots to resurrect the glory of ancient Delphi and assassinate the king of Greece. He also drinks a lot of retsina (a traditional Greek wine made from pine sap).

As a pulpy adventure, Peril at Delphi is pretty entertaining. As an Indiana Jones adventure, well, there’s not a whole lot of the Indiana Jones we know (and are led to expect by the cover art, which depicts Raiders-era Indy), and there’s not a whole lot of the action one would expect. It’s also very light on the mystical, but then, so was Raiders until the big ghost jamboree at the end. MacGregor errs on the side of educational, per George Lucas’ decree. However, while that means this book is a lot more talking than it is adventure, MacGregor delivers history lessons about ancient Greece (and hot jazz) in entertaining fashion, so it all goes down pretty easy.

It’s not all kid stuff, either. Jones does get lucky with his older teacher, after all, and he does a fair bit of drinking. And “light on action” doesn’t mean there’s no action. Indy does at least have his whip, after all, and he gets to dangle from a rope in a pit while holding a torch, which is one of his favorite things. As the book progresses toward the conclusion, it goes in for more a good many fistfights and car chases. After all, you can’t expect action-adventure Indy to spring out of college fully-formed. As a light adventure to help Indy kick off his archaeology career, it’s a breezy good time that fulfills George Lucas’ wishes and also manages to be a fun foray into the early days of Indiana Jones.

Apollo’s Temple at Delphi
Pythia in ancient Greece
Consultation of the Oracle. From The Oracle, by Biacca Camillo Miola, 1880


Archaeological Notes

I’ll try to include a few of these for every book, provided topics make themselves available. This is a slightly deeper dive into some of the scene-setting elements MacGregor mentions throughout the novel. Cocktails and Capers being what it is, the focus will primarily be on the movies, music, and booze that pops up in Indy’s life.

Jones, Dreamland, and Jazz

While running wild in Chicago with his college roommate and aspiring cornet player Jack Shannon, the two name-drop several jazz musicians, including Johnny Dunn, Jabbo Smith, King Oliver, Earl Hines, and Johnny Dodds — legends all of the early jazz scene. As the legend goes, jazz as a musical form started in New Orleans, but many of the best musicians quickly left to seek their fortunes in two cities that offered the best prospects for black artists: New York and Chicago. In the Roaring ’20s, the Harlem Renaissance was in full swing, but at first, established black musicians were unhappy about this wild new sound from down south, with its odd syncopated rhythms and lack of rules. Despite their misgivings, jazz soon came to define the era so much so that we simply know it as the Jazz Age today.

Jones later mentions Dreamland, the most famous and elegant jazz club in 1920s Chicago. But he also talks about barrelhouse piano, “called barrelhouse piano because the small bars where it was played served liquor directly out of kegs.” That and his willingness to go on a side adventure for a pint of rotgut booze sold by a seedy bootlegger means Jones, probably at the behest of his jazzhead pal Jack, has frequently more than his fair share of speakeasy and shady backroom joints.

The Perils of Pauline

Duringn his Paris derive, Jones considers dropping into a movie house to see The Perils of Pauline, at the time one of the most popular movie serials in the world. It starred adventurous young actress Pearl White, who made a name for herself in a series of stunt-filled adventure serials to which the Indiana Jones franchise (and all stunt-filled action films) owes a tremendous debt. Among other things, Perils and the serials of Pearl White gave birth to the term “cliffhanger,” because Pearl would literally hang from a cliff. If you want to know more about Pearl White and The Perils of Pauline, I happen to know a pretty good book titled Cocktails and Capers that discusses the series and the life of its star.

Drinking with Indy

The Indiana Jones series has never been a “drinking” series the way James Bond is (unless you count Belloq’s “family label”). But from his misadventure procuring a bottle of bootleg booze to his keeping up with compatriots in Paris and Greece, Jones and The Peril at Delphi manages to cover a few notable alcohols.

Retsina is the star of the book. It’s a traditional Greek drink with a history spanning at least 2,000 years. It’s a white resinated wine, which means it picks up some of its flavor from exposure to pine sap. In the ancient days, this happened when jars containing wine were sealed with pine resin to keep them from going bad. The resin would infuse the wine with some of its characteristics. Modern retsina has the resin added directly to the wine must (the raw, crushed juice created early in the winemaking process). A tavern keeper in the village below Delphi also mentions “aretsinoto,” which is just Greek white wine without resin. Although any country could conceivably make a resinated wine, “retsina” is now a protected designation reserved for products from Greece (in the same way anyone can make brandy but only a particular region in France can produce “cognac”). You might not be able to find it anywhere and everywhere, but Greece does export a fair amount of retsina to the United States. My local recommends Ritinitis Nobilis.

Indy eventually acquires a taste for retsina, but he’s less forgiving of the brash licorice taste of Greece’s national spirit, ouzo. Ouzo falls into a class of spirit that gains its dominant flavor from anise. It’s similar to Sambuca (Italy),  Pernod (France), raki (Turkey, and also mentioned in The Peril at Delphi) and absinthe. Indiana Jones may not care for it, but another globetrotting adventurer — James Bond — drinks a ton of the stuff during his own Greek adventure, Colonel Sun. Metaxa Ouzo and Ouzo No. 12 are two of the most common brands in the United States. Speaking of which, Indy also contends with more than a few pours of Pernod while in Paris. Absinthe having been outlawed in 1915, on account of its wormwood content and the wildly-exaggerated reports of “hallucinogenic thujone,” Pernod was the most popular replacement and is still widely available today.

On the train to Greece, Dorian introduces Indy to a cocktail called the French 75. A wildly popular drink that has enjoyed quite a renaissance recently, its exact origin is, like those of many famous cocktails, confusing and often contradictory, with different sources citing entirely different stories and timelines. It is named in honor of the French 75mm cannon, a staple of the French army during World War I. It was so named either to honor the field gun or because it hit you like a shell from said field gun. A more fanciful version of the story claims that the cocktail was invented on the battlefield, either by soldiers or by aviators, who finding themselves well-stocked with gin, Champagne, sugar, and lemon combined the ingredients in a spent 75mm artillery shell. That almost certainly didn’t happen, but it’s a pretty good tale, and one savvy bartenders were quick to embrace.

Origin aside (we’ll let Difford’s Guide deal with sorting out that mess), the cocktail that began life in 1915 as the soixante quinze (seventy-five) has undergone a number of changes over the years, depending on changing tastes, the practical availability of one spirit over another, and the occasional need of a journalist to guess at what he was drinking (or remember what the bartender told him). Most different from today’s version is the absence of Champagne. Instead, the early 75 uses apple brandy — applejack in the US, Calvados in France. The brandy was dropped and the Champagne introduced either in 1919 or in 1927, depending on who you read and what they are using as a source.

If Indy is enjoying one in 1922, he’s possibly drinking a version created by a bartender named Henry Tepe of Henry’s Bar (which was right around the corner from Harry’s Bar, run by Harry MacElhone, another bartender often attributed as the creator of the French 75). Tepe’s version appeared in print in the 1922 guide Cocktails, How to Mix Them, compiled by Robert Vermiere. However, that version still lacked Champagne and used Calvados, and Peril at Delphi describes the drink as containing “Champagne and vodka.” That’s called a French 76, and it debuted in the 1990s (the same time, incidentally, as Rob MacGregor was writing the book, so I can understand where he might have been led astray).

To be safe, I’m including several versions, with the last one being the most common today, though at the suggestion of cocktail historian Jeffrey Morgenthaler, I’m opting to skip the Champagne flute (a late addition to the game) and serve the drink in a Collins glass over ice. It was, after all, a variation on a Tom Collins, at least eventually. That’s cocktail history, folks! You try to piece together bits of disparate and often conflicting info until you assemble a reasonably believable hypothesis. And if you are wrong…well, at least you have a pretty good drink.

Soixante Quinze

  • 2/3 oz London dry gin
  • 2/3 oz Laird’s applejack
  • 1/3 oz grenadine
  • 1/6 oz fresh lemon juice
  • 1/2 oz chilled water

Combine all ingredients in a shaker with ice and shake well. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

75 (Vermiere/Tepe)

  • 1 1/3 oz London dry gin
  • 2/3 oz Calvados
  • 1/6 oz fresh lemon juice
  • 1/4 oz grenadine

Combine all ingredients in a shaker with ice, shake well, and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

75 (MacElhone)

  • 1 1/3 oz Calvados
  • 2/3 oz London dry gin
  • 1/6 oz grenadine
  • 2 dashes absinthe or Pernod

Combine all ingredients in a shaker with ice. Shake well and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

French 75

  • 2 oz London dry gin
  • 1 oz fresh lemon juice
  • 3/4  oz simple syrup
  • 3 oz Champagne

Combine gin, lemon juice, and simple syrup in a shaker with ice. Shake well and strain into an ice-filled Collins glass. Top up with Champagne. Garnish with a lemon twist. If you don’t want it over ice, then use a chilled coupe glass.

King Oliver and His Orchestra
Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five, featuring Armstrong, Johnny St. Cyr, Johnny Dodds, Kid Ory, and Lil Hardin Armstrong
Pearly White and the invention of the “cliffhanger”
Retsina: Greek pine sap wine
More ouzo than Indiana Jones would ever want
One version of the French 75
Another version of the French 75

I, The Jury

I, The Jury

1947, Mickey Spillane

When people who don’t have much first-hand experience with reading hardboiled detective fiction imitate the “so I socked that chump in the jaw, then I socked his dame in the jaw, too, just ’cause she looked like she was asking for it and might like it” style, they’re imitating Mickey Spillane. When it comes to elevating tough-guy talk to sublime and absurd levels, it’s hard to beat Spillane. Every sentence is boiling over with hate and disgust. Every thought is of violence. Motivation for his signature creation, private detective Mike Hammer, ranges from vengeance to rage to hate with not much in between. Spillane’s prose is punchy, abrupt, and maybe not that good — but that doesn’t mean it isn’t effective. Immersing oneself in the world of Mike Hammer is to come out needing a shower, filled slightly with loathing. But for some reason, you’ll go back. Mike Hammer is a gruesome accident you can’t help but glance at, a blister on the inside of your mouth you bite just to spite yourself. He is hate incarnate. And he’s the hero.

With a back story that couldn’t have been more perfect if it had been fiction, Mickey Spillane was the born-in-Brooklyn, raised-in-Jersey son of an Irish bartender. He worked as a lifeguard in Queens, a salesman in Gimbels department store, and somehow fell into a job as a trampoline artist for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus before joining the Army Air Corps on December 8, 1941. He wrote for comic books and, in 1945, when he and his wife were trying to finance a new home, figured he might as well give novel-writing a go. The result was I, the Jury, which he reportedly dashed off in 19 days, leveraging a character he’d previously developed for a “Mike Danger” comic book that never got off the ground. I, the Jury was poorly received by critics, to say the least. It also sold millions of copies, as these things have a way of doing. As Spillane once said, “You can sell a lot more peanuts than caviar.”

In I, the Jury, Mike Danger became Mike Hammer, a war veteran and ex-cop (like every detective of the era) with a chip on his shoulder and a grudge against pretty much everyone and everything in the world, except maybe his secretary/love interest, Velda. As the novels opens, Hammer is called to the scene of a murder, but not just any murder. The victim is an old war buddy of his, Jack Williams, who lost an arm saving Hammer’s ass on some godforsaken island in the Pacific. And he wasn’t just murdered; he was shot in the gut and then left to bleed out, a particularly cruel, painful, slow way to die. Hammer, whose default setting is one of teeth-grinding rage, vows to track down the killer and kill them in the same way.

Naturally, there’s a list of suspects that grows as Hammer pries into the murky past of the man who sacrificed an arm to save a life. First and foremost is Williams’ wife, Myrna, a pretty, fragile young thing with a history of suicide attempts and addiction. And then there’s the lovely Bellamy twins, one of whom is a nymphomaniac. Or maybe it was Hal Kines, a shady student of psychiatrist Charlotte Manning, who happened to be treating Myrna. Or the shifty lawyer, Harmon Wilder, and his assistant. Or maybe it’s someone else entirely. Whoever it is, rest assured that Hammer’s neck veins will throb with white-hot hatred as he works his way through the list of suspects, fantasizing about how he will torture, brutalize, and eventually kill whoever’s responsible for Jack’s death.

Raymond Chandler wrote detective fiction that was heavy with a world-weary sense of existential loneliness, communicated in haunting, poetic prose that was shockingly beautiful. He used it to guide his own detective, Philip Marlowe, through a maze of seedy, surreal California locations and subcultures, often entangling Marlowe with some family of ultra-wealthy lunatics. Spillane does much the same thing with Mike Hammer, only instead of world-weariness there’s wrath, and instead of poetry there’s terse, journalistic writing born from Spillane’s background in comics, where you have a very limited amount of space to do your job. It’s a style that, while obviously not as lyrical or contemplative as Chandler’s, is no less effective within context. There’s no time for waxing poetic. It’s a perfect match for the seething cauldron of fury that is Mike Hammer.

Post-War America was a stew of optimism, exhaustion, trauma, hope, and uncertainty. The war so big and so devastating that we can barely conceive of its scale was support it all out, make the world a better, safer, brighter place. Instead, everything came out fractured and damaged. That darkness lurking beneath the shiny things is where Mike Hammer exists. Where Philip Marlowe was a warrior with a broken heart, who fought the hopeless good fight because somewhere, beneath it all, he still believed there was good in the world, Mike Hammer is a warrior with no heart, hollowed out (whether it was the author’s intention or not) by the violence and unable to see the light in which Marlowe has faith. Like Marlowe, the case takes Hammer on an odyssey through some truly bizarre places, including a sun-dappled retreat for the filthy rich, and crosses his path with all sorts of crazy people. Some he’ll have sex with, some he’ll sock in the jaw, and some he’ll do both to. For Hammer, there is only ugliness, and the only way to meet it is with even uglier ugliness.

Spillane isn’t presenting him as an anti-hero, however, or even as particularly damaged. As far Spillane is concerned, this violent, out-of-control detective is a righteous crusader in a world of evil and filth, a white knight even though his every thought is about how he can hurt someone. For Hammer, due process and civil rights were just liberal commie nonsense that the weak and the wicked wielded to abuse right-living, right-thinking American men and women. Every act of violence against those who transgressed against Mike Hammer and the morals he championed was, as far as he and the author were concerned, justified. He’s not a guy you are going to like, but that doesn’t stop him from being an interesting character.

Lots of old detective fiction requires the more socially conscious modern reader to roll with some distasteful words and attitudes here and there. This one…even more so — and this is Mickey Spillane on his best behavior! For all that one may find offensive, if one so chooses, there is just as much that is thrilling, if at times in a sick sort of way. Spillane was no poet, but he certainly knew how to write an engaging potboiler. Spillane only wants to deliver fast-paced sex and violence with a gut-punch style. It’s blunt, ugly stuff, but it’s possessed of a visceral appeal that has made it the de facto “voice” to imitate when writing hardboiled pulp fiction. It certainly struck a chord with readers, who turned it into one of the best-selling books of the era despite the eye-rolling of critics. I, the Jury is the kind of slim pulp paperback you can polish off in a day, a single commute if the trains are delayed (and they are). Afterward, you might feel a bit dirty and disgusted, but sometimes it’s good to feel dirty and disgusting.

Strip Nude for Your Killer

Strip Nude for Your Killer

1975, Italy. Directed by Andrea Bianchi

Strip Nude for Your Killer (Nude per l’assassino) may be scummy, but it wastes no time letting you know exactly where you stand. The first shot is a full frontal nude shot of a woman in a doctor’s office, legs spread in medical stirrups, with a doctor’s face firmly planted between her thighs. If this image — and keep in mind that it is quickly revealed she’s in the middle of an abortion — offends or insults you, then it’s best to just skip ahead to some other movie. Perhaps Dario Argento’s Deep Red. It’s really good, and as far as giallo goes, it’s pretty clean. At least it doesn’t start off with a close-up of a woman getting an abortion. From this auspicious opening salvo, Strip Nude for Your Killer has the woman suffer a heart attack, causing the doctor and his pal to bring the woman back to her home and leave her in the bathtub in hopes that the police will just chalk it up to a heart attack without noticing the abortion thing.

From there, the film picks up at a photography studio staffed primarily by snide, condescending people who all seem to hate each other. Among them are star photographers Carlo (Nino Castelnuovo) and Magda (Edwige Fenech), who are involved with each other though Carlo is by no means a one-lady man. The other cast members all have names too, but there’s not much point in remembering them since, 1) they’re all basically the same character, and 2) they’re all going to die anyway. And sure enough, it doesn’t take too long before someone is stalking the employees of the studio and killing them off. Signature murders include the stabbing of a woman who, upon realizing a prowler may be in the house and all her co-workers are getting murdered, investigates while completely nude except for a pair of clunky platform clogs; and then there’s the one where, after charmingly attempting to rape a co-worker before going impotent, we get ample shots of an enormously fat man in his sagging tighty whities and black dress socks, clutching a deflated blow-up doll in one hand and a kitchen knife in the other while he cries uncontrollably. Tasteful!

Eventually, the cast is whittled down to a few potential suspects, including Carlo and Magda. The two of them take it upon themselves to investigate the murder, though it’s possible on of them is actually the culprit. For some reason, any time they turn up a clue, they make a big fuss about how they couldn’t possibly go to the police with it, even though there’s no actual reason they couldn’t go to the police beyond the fact that the film depends on the concept of the amateur sleuth working outside the bounds of the police. Well, that and because writer-director Andrea Bianchi sort of blows at writing stories. When the killer is finally revealed…well it’s best for anyone watching this movie to master the use of the phrase, “Oh, come on!” Strip Nude for Your Killer isn’t quite so bad as to have the killer be someone that hasn’t been in the movie until the point they are revealed to be the killer (“Why, it was his brother we’ve never seen all along!”), but it’s close.

And there’s plenty more “Oh, come on!” moments to keep your eyes rolling. Like the part where Magda goes to retrieve film from Carlo’s studio that presumably has pictures of the killer on it. While there, the lights go out, and Magda hears someone else sneaking around. So, knowing that everyone who works at your studio is being murdered, knowing that you have a piece of evidence that could reveal the killer, and knowing that the killer knows you have this and also knows where it is, when you are in this place, and the lights go out all of a sudden, do you instantly think, “It is entirely likely this killer who has been stalking us has now arrived here!” or do you think, “Surely it must be nothing more than fuse that happened to blow at this precise moment.”

Strip Nude for Your Killer definitely requires a healthy sense of humor to get through. Director Andrea Bianchi does not possess the stylistic flourishes that make many other bad giallo worth watching even when their plots are of dubious merit. What Bianchi lacks in terms of inventive direction he attempts to make up for with sleaze, and at least on that level, he’s a Viking. Before you even start the movie, you can guess what sort of ride you’re in for. Some titles make lascivious promises the movie can’t keep, but Strip Nude for Your Killer is not one of them. Here’s a film that plays a botched abortion for cheap titillation and ends with a joke about a guy strangling his girlfriend and sodomizing her against her will. In between, you get frequent male and female nudity, plenty of slasher gore (usually in the form of the aftermath of a murder), and an all-around level of scumminess that becomes so thick it takes on the properties of camp excess. John Waters would surely appreciate the ludicrousness of it all. That gleeful willingness to reel about in the muck with such reckless disregard for even the most frayed threads of decent taste keeps Strip Nude for Your Killer from being offensive. It’s far too idiotic to be taken with that degree of seriousness. This movie is like stumbling upon a hobo jerking off behind a dumpster. Sure you can get offended, but honestly, what’s the point?

One of the fun things about giallo is that they actively invite psychoanalysis. Regardless of how shoddy and shallow the product may be, if it just follows the template close enough, it can piggyback on the psychological groundwork of Bava, who himself was nodding to Hitchcock. It’s like buying meaning wholesale, or shopping at Hot Topic instead of making your own punk clothes. Bianchi had absolutely nothing to say with Strip Nude for Your Killer. He wanted to make a sleazy murder mystery and get Edwige Fenech naked as often as possible, plus show a fat guy in saggy underpants. And that’s exactly what he did.

But because, by 1975, so many giallo had been made and the cliches of the genre were so well established, he didn’t have to put any thought at all into having things film nerds could pick up on in the never-ending quest to artistically justify even the basest and greediest of crap. Strip Nude for Your Killer is rife with the standard giallo themes, the most obvious of which is the deceptive nature of observation. You could even justify the tasteless opening by saying that Bianchi is intentionally duping the audience into thinking they’re getting a bit of cheesecake right off the bat, only to spoil it by introducing a dramatic and tragic revelation regarding the nature of the nudity we are observing. You would, I think, be full of shit if you did this, but you could still do it.

Later in the film, the roll of film with the killer’s identity is brought into play, under the assumption that a photograph of a murder in progress is irrefutable proof. Once again, however, very little is what it appears to be. Edwige spends much of the movie poring over photographs of the victim, an old magnifying glass plastered to her face as a visual homage to the dime store detective novels from which the giallo film grew (and also as a fine example of how magnifying glasses aren’t designed work). In Strip Nude for Your Killer as in many other far superior giallo, the protagonist spends a great deal of time examining and re-examining something that seems perfectly clear but is later revealed to hold a significance no one recognized. Bianchi is obviously just copying what he’s seen before, but it’s still kind of fun and one of the reasons bad giallo are often still enjoyable to dissect.

There is one big reason, at least above the simple blanket “because it’s Italian giallo,” to watch Strip Nude for Your Killer, and that’s the appearance, usually nude or in little more than panties and an unbuttoned men’s dress shirt, of Edwige Fenech, a staple of both Italian sex comedies and the giallo film. She brought to the game a dangerous combination of acting talent, comedic timing, a willingness to drop her robe for pretty much no reason. She split her time evenly between exceptional giallo like All the Colors of the Dark and other films with director Sergio Martino, and dodgy nonsense like Strip Nude for Your Killer and The Case of the Bloody Iris. She was always game though, and never looked to be half-assing it even when her primary role was to show half her ass. In Strip Nude for Your Killer, she’s about as close as you’re going to get to a likable character, even though she’s condescending and nasty to people. But when you’re surrounded by the likes of mean-spirited S&M lesbians, a guy who thinks anal rape is hilarious, a fat crying guy who also thinks rape is the way to a woman’s heart, and someone who is killing a bunch of people — well, it’s not hard to look like the good guy.

If you are looking for a good and proper introduction to the world of Italian murder mysteries, Strip Nude for Your Killer is not your movie. You want to be watching The Bird with the Crystal Plumage or Blood and Black Lace or All the Colors of the Dark. Still, if you are already prepared for the peculiarities of sloppy Italian filmmaking, Strip Nude for Your Killer is surprisingly enjoyable. Even though it’s poorly written, even though it’s relentlessly tasteless (actually, because it’s relentlessly tasteless), even though it has very few points you could single out as being good other than Edwige Fenech, and even though it’s packed full of gratuitously seedy garbage (once again, what I mean is because it’s packed full of gratuitous, seedy garbage), it ultimately entertains on that level that might make you feel like you need a shower afterward.

The Sister of Ursula

The Sister of Ursula

1978, Italy. Directed by Enzo Milioni

By 1978, the giallo cycle was pretty much over. Beginning more or less with Mario Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963) and Blood and Black Lace (1964), then hitting a crescendo with Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) and Deep Red (1975), the lurid blend of style, old fashioned whodunit, sex, and violence was regarded as somewhat old hat as the horror film shifted its obsession away from giallo and toward their next natural progression, the slasher film. For the most part, and with a few notable exceptions, post-1978 giallo were like glammy, prancing hair metal bands who hit the scene a month after Nirvana. They were the Danger Danger or Von Groove of the giallo world. Mind you, the Italians weren’t going to let a good thing go until they drained it of every last drop of blood and then some, especially since the giallo formula could be so easily tweaked to deliver a slasher (and indeed the distinction between the two is blurry, though gialli generally have an older cast wearing cooler clothes) or a sexploitation film.

As far back as 1971’s Slaughter Hotel, the giallo had been flirting with explicit sexuality. The primary difference between then and 1978, the year in which The Sister of Ursula (La sorella di Ursula) was released, is that Slaughter Hotel, for all its absurdity and ill-considered medieval weapons displays, still tried to be a somewhat stylish murder mystery in between all the sex. Director Fernando Di Leo might have been slumming it compared to the usual quality of his work, which was generally quite high, but even when he was making a bad film, he couldn’t actually make a bad film. He was to much the professional and too talented as a director. Not so for Enzo Milioni, the director of The Sister for Ursula and very little else. This is his rookie outing, and although he does manage to complete the film, there’s not much more to be said about it than that. The murders are silly, the pace is off, and Milioni has no idea what to do when he isn’t filming long scenes of sex, masturbation, and star Stefania D’Amario undressing in ways that take far longer than it would take a normal human to accomplish the same task. The Sister of Ursula is happy to drop the “thriller” part of erotic thriller and concentrate on the erotic tot he degree that it’s not even particularly erotic. Even when it does get down to the business of murder, it’s a decidedly sexual take on the act, given the movie’s rather unique choice of murder weapons.

Austrian sisters Ursula (Barbara Magnolfi, Sergio Martino’s The Suspicious Death of a Minor, Argento’s Suspiria) and Dagmar (Stefania D’Amario, Lucio Fuli’s Zombie and Umberto Lenzi’s Nightmare City) have come to Italy’s Amalfi Coast in search of their mother, who left them when they were young. Their father has just died, and the sisters want to share their inheritance with their absent mother. Their effort to find their mother is relegated mostly to hanging out at the hotel, seeing nightclub acts, and occasionally perching on the balcony or down on the beach. Ursula has been particularly affected by the death of their father, a fragile mental state that is expressed mostly by having Barbara Magnolfi sneer at and insult everyone while pouting like a child. Dagmar does her best to care for and tolerate her sister’s outbursts, which is oddly compassionate in a genre where most trauma is met with reactions like “So you were raped by a sex maniac who killed your boyfriend, get over it.” But don’t worry. Dagmar’s empathy for her sister will not be reflected in the way she or anyone else reacts to the murders that are about to spoil everyone’s holiday.

The hotel the sisters have checked into is a typical “Italian sexploitation film” hotbed of sleazy activity being perpetrated by shady characters. Local hunk Filippo (Marc Porel, Lucio Fulci’s Don’t Torture a Duckling and The Psychic) splits his time between romancing hotel lounge singer Stella Shining (Yvonne Harlow) and shooting heroin, which is provided to him by the hotel’s manager, who supplements his resort income by dealing smack so that he can keep himself well stocked in cravats and velour leisure suits. The manager’s wife Vanessa (Anna Zinnemann, a seasoned veteran of the Italian exploitation racket who has appeared in the fumetti caper Il marchio di Kriminal; the spaghetti western Shoot the Living and Pray for the Dead; gialli The Bloodstained Butterfly and Hallucination Strip; and Eurocrime films Gang War in Naples, Day of Violence, and The Big Racket) is carrying on a lesbian affair with local young hot thing Jenny (Antiniska Nemour). Pretty much everyone else in the hotel seems to be moonlighting as a prostitute. However, the rooms are clean, the lobby is nice, and the lounge seems lovely. In other words, it’s a fun place until the murders start happening.

The first victim of the mysterious maniac is a curvy prostitute, but others follow. Soon a pattern emerges: a woman will engage in a very lengthy and repetitive sex scene, either with themselves or someone else, then while they’re basking in the post-coital glow and puffing a cigarette, someone will show up to murder them, making sure that the focus of their ire is the genital region. Although The Sister of Ursula contains sex scenes that flirt with the pornographic, they are still mostly composed of the tried and true elements of giallo sex scenes, which is lots of people mashing their noses against one another’s collar bones while the camera lingers lovingly on elbows, crotches, and parts of the body filmed in such extreme close-up that not even a skilled anatomist would be able to discern what they are. On the plus side, the film boasts a lot of attractive people willing to put pretty much everything out there. On the minus, the scenes themselves go on for interminable length and repeat themselves, like a long-lasting lover who is, despite his stamina, not actually good at lovemaking.

This seems to have been the only way Enzo Milioni could achieve a feature length run time. Everything goes on for several minutes longer than it needs to. Even for someone more than happy to just sit back and watch the flesh, it gets to be monotonous. This is basically a sex film masquerading as giallo, and as such it’s primary job is to deliver sex and nudity. In one of the film’s early scenes, Stefania D’Amario’s Dagmar strips and changes into a robe while Ursula unpacks her suitcase. There is a difference between stripping and changing clothes. One takes a while, involves some skill and artistry. The other is a task to be complete. Dagmar takes as long to change into her robe — caressing her own sides and striking poses for no one other than, one assumes, her sister — as most people would take to actually fashion a dressing down from scratch. And lest you think some incestuous lesbian incitement is going on, rest assured that’s not the case. Dagmar goes about her business oblivious to the fact that Ursula is lingering around. But at least Dagmar is naked when she gamely kills five or six minutes of the film’s run time. For her part Ursula is absorbed by the fascinating task of removing things from her luggage, staring at each item, rotating it in her hands, and finally putting it down so she can move on to the next item.

Other of the sex scenes seem to have been conceived not just by someone who has never has sex, and not just by someone who has never masturbated, but by someone who actually isn’t human at all and has no idea how the human body works, but has had some of the primary functions summarized for them. This manifests primarily in a scene in which Dagmar, having nothing better to do with her time, pleasures herself with a gold chain — but not in the way you might guess, which would involve some degree of insertion or at least the application of pressure. No, instead she mostly just sort of lightly drags the chain across the top of her pubic hair, which is enough to send her into the throes of ecstasy and devour another five or six minutes of movie. Hey, everyone has their thing. It’s a rare accomplishment for a sex scene to reach the point where even a dedicated swinger and aficionado of perversion sighs and says, “You know, maybe we could just move on.”

If this seems needlessly and too graphically focused on the sexuality of the film, there’s a reason for that. Although The Sister of Ursula contains several murders, few of them elicit much response from anyone in the cast, and if they can’t be bothered to care, then why should the viewer? The Amalfi Coast is admittedly a pleasure seeker’s paradise, and a certain amount of laissez-faire is expected in matters. But even the most laid back den of hedonism seems like it might start to attract attention after a third murder victim turns up in one of its rooms. Sure, the hotel has a nice view, a pretty good floor show, and lots of prostitutes; but when those prostitutes keep getting murdered, surely that results in a few early check-outs. At the very least, one would think the police would do something more than show up every other murder and proclaim, “Well, these things happen.” Dagmar and Ursula must have gotten a really great rate on that room, because no amount of discovering horribly mutilated bodies can convince them to pack up. Even in the world of the giallo, where no one reacts to anything in the way an actual human would, the blasé attitude of everyone toward the piles of corpses borders on the ludicrous.

Speaking of ludicrous, given the genital nature of the violence inflicted on the film’s victims, one might expect it to be unsettling while it’s being unsavory. It never rises to that level, however, content to wallow about comfortably in its own absurd filth. The reveal of the killer is shocking only in that it turns out to be the most obvious suspect, and the one the film has been hinting at the entire time. It’s like expecting a curve ball only to have the pitcher throw it slow and right down the middle. And then there’s the reveal of murder weapon, which for most of the film is seen only as a shadow which becomes a little clearer with each killing until finally, the film whips it out proudly for all to marvel at. Rather than being shocking, however, it’s simply idiotic, and one can’t help but wonder exactly how you go about murdering someone with that particular implement.

Stefania D’Amario goes about the business of being the film’s lead with reasonable commitment. She’s not trying too hard, but it’s not a role that asks her to try hard. Her primary functions are to get naked and roll her eyes at what a nutcase her sister has become. She’s competent at doing both of these things, and toward the film’s finale she even gets to do a little acting, albeit acting of the “bug out your eyes and scream” variety. Barbara Magnolfi plays Ursula less a damaged, fragile woman and more as just a hateful, spiteful brat who, just because this film isn’t weird enough, also possesses the power of limited precognition. which she uses mostly to hiss at Filippo and Dagmar that Filippo is a scumbag who will end up killing Ursula. For his part int he whole sordid affair, Marc Porel as Filippo actually turns in a pretty good performance. Actually, no one in this movie is bad. It’s the movie itself that is bad. Most of them obviously have no idea what was going on, but that just makes them easy to relate to. The majority of them are there to be introduced during a meandering sex scene, then killed in the next scene. Oddly for a giallo, especially one this sleazy, most of the characters aren’t horrible human beings, with the possible exception of Ursula herself, and even she has a trauma that temper her foul mood.

Enzo Milioni was a director of no particular skill, and he enjoyed a career to match that skill. he circled the bottom of the barrel during a time in Italian exploitation filmmaking when the previous bottom of the barrel had drifted to the top. No one realized how good we had it in the early 1970s when the worst of the genre was still somewhat inventive. Milioni has nothing to offer as a writer or director, and one suspects based both on the thinness of the finished movie and the disengaged presence of actors who are trying to do their best with nothing, that the script for The Sister of Ursula ran no more than a couple pages and consisted mostly of “insert sex scene here.” During the decade he was active as a director, he only managed five films in an industry where some directors produced than number in a single year. His career as a writer was longer but not much more prolific and, like his stints as director, at best aspired to one day attain mediocrity. Even the cinematography by Vittorio Bernini is grubby. The Amalfi Coast is the sort of location that does most of the work for you. You just have to point your camera and get the proper exposure, and just as this film over-exposes during its sex scenes, so too is the travelogue footage spoiled by too much light, rendering the sky washed out and yellowish-white when it should be blue and beautiful. Maybe it was the weather. Bernini has some interesting ideas about how and where to place his camera, but for whatever reason, it never achieves the level of sophistication or style it should.

Other than marveling at the sheer stupidity of it all, there’s little to recommend in The Sister of Ursula. Well, OK, the music, composed by Mimi Uva (who, like most of the crew of this film, had no real career to speak of), is actually pretty good in that “cocktail lounge meets funk” way. Truly determined (or is it “demented”) fans of Eurocult cinema will find it easy if monotonous going, like having sex with a prostitute who can’t quite be bothered to pretend like she isn’t bored. It gets the job done, or at least a certain type of job, but there’s not much to recommend beyond that. If you are a fellow traveler in the world of the giallo film, especially its murkier, dirtier alleyways, then you might, like me, find The Sister of Ursula to be harmlessly tedious. It’s like watching a Luciano Ercoli film without that director’s flare for fashion and cinematography. For that matter, the whole affair is a bit like a Jess Franco film without that director’s flare. Contemplate that one on the Tree of Woe. Sex scenes, the Italian coast, outlandish murders — everything about The Sister of Ursula seems to operate under the directive of “Well, this should be good, but we’re going to mess it up.”

The Case of the Bloody Iris

The Case of the Bloody Iris

1972, Italy. Directed by Giuliano Carnimeo

The joke is often made (or it has been here, at any rate) that giallo are populated by people who are, to put it mildly, not of the best quality. The kind of people who will make love and then roll over and engage pillow talk like, “I can’t believe my sister was raped and murdered by a sex maniac on this bed just yesterday.” The kind of people who will say to someone who just suffered through a terrible trauma, “Well really, I don’t understand why you’re so upset. Your daughter was murdered, so what?” Girl murdered in the elevator? The proper giallo response is to huff and complain that now you have to take the stairs. It often seems like characters in giallo are incapable of reacting with anything even remotely resembling human emotion—except, that is, for contempt. At times it can become so exaggerated that one thinks surely it’s being done on purpose and for a specific reason. A comment on the self-centered “me, me, me” attitude of the 1970s? A critique of the shallow, disposable way in which people live their lives? A screenwriter who has some issues to work out? Whatever the case, when it comes to truly loathsome characters in giallo, few can match Giuliano Carnimeo’s The Case of the Bloody Iris (Perché quelle strane gocce di sangue sul corpo di Jennifer?), a film in which pretty much everyone is hateful or stupid; or more often, hateful and stupid.

The misanthropy kicks in right away, when a murdered girl is discovered in the elevator of a high-rise apartment and people react by complaining that they’ll be late for work. Or they just sort of wander off, muttering to themselves about how inconvenient it is. Someone eventually calls the police, because they show up and show that, even by the standards of giallo where the cops are usually incompetent and useless, they’re going to be doubly so here with an added dose of belligerence and side of racism. One of the people inconvenienced by the murder is dancer Mizar Harrington (Carla Brait, who the sharp-eyed might recognize as the leader of the tap dancing show tunes gang in Enzo G. Castellari’s bizarre 1990: The Bronx Warriors), who works at one of those strip clubs typical of Italian films of this vintage, where the floor show is ridiculously complicated and arty. Her act involves challenging a man from the audience to wrestle her for three minutes (during which time, her outfit will be ripped away piece by piece). If he succeeds, he gets…well, who knows? No one has ever beat her and her strange combination of modern dance and judo. When she herself turns up dead the next morning (murdered in her bathtub, in a scene lifted almost frame for frame from Blood and Black Lace), the consensus among the lazy, racial slur slinging cops is that it must have been someone from the club who was upset that he got his ass kicked.

Meanwhile, real estate agent Andrea (George Hilton) now has to unload Mizar’s apartment. He signs it over to two models, Jennifer (Edwige Fenech) and Marilyn (Paola Quattrini), who might be the single worst human being on the planet. You’d think that the murder of two women in in the building, one of them at least a casual acquaintance of Jennifer and Marilyn, would discourage them from taking the apartment. Or that it would at least warrant some sort of police presence. You’d be wrong on both accounts. I guess apartments in Rome are as hard to come by as they are in New York. The two women move in, and Marilyn in particular seems practically aroused to be showering in the same place her friend was strangled to death. She constantly makes disparaging remarks about dead Mizar and frequently mocks the fact that women have been murdered in this place. Jennifer is less of a miserable human being, but she makes up for it with nigh incomprehensible levels of stupidity.

Before too long, a masked killer is sneaking into the apartment to whisper threats at her, and Jennifer’s reaction is to…do nothing. Seriously, they don’t even bother to lock the doors or windows after a killer has used them multiple times. One can understand, given the quality of police work on display, why she wouldn’t call the cops, but consistently leaving her balcony door wide open just seems irresponsible the first time, and downright suicidal after the second. The police exploit this lack of survival instinct by encouraging Jennifer to stay in the apartment in hopes that it will help them ensnare the killer. But once they pose this plan, they never do anything else. They never stake the apartment out. They never assign any sort of protection to Jennifer. In fact, they’re openly hostile to her for no reason, and when she does get around to calling them for help, they blow her off, insult her, and call her hysterical.

But then, that’s just par fro the course in this film, which hits its crescendo of mind-bending stupidity when Andrea, on the run, asks Jennifer to meet him in a labyrinthine auto junkyard. At night. Knowing that she is being stalked by at least two separate murderous maniacs. And she agrees, wandering around the sprawling yard between shadowy piles of cars because Andrea couldn’t be bothered to be more specific with exactly where in the yard she should find him, or why they couldn’t have done this in a less dangerous setting where she is less likely to discover she is being chased while Andrea never shows up. You know, for that alone he deserves to be accused of the crimes.

Profoundly idiotic Commissioner Enci (Giampiero Albertini), when he can be bothered to tear himself away from stealing postage stamps from crime scenes,  is convinced Andrea must be the killer, so all police activity (which amounts to one bumbling detective) revolves around half-assedly following Andrea around town instead of watching the place where the killer shows up basically every night to torment Jennifer. As a red herring, Andrea is pretty weak, but in a film like this, you take what you can get. He’s joined by the creepy old lady down the hall who seems to have a secret hidden in her apartment, and a friendly lesbian whose father disapproves of her sexual orientation. There’s also a flamboyant gay photographer (who, as far as gay caricatures in Italian films of the 1970s go, is actually pretty mild) and Jennifer’s sleazy ex-husband who initiated her into a freaky orgy cult and insists that she return to the fold (obviously cashing in on of All the Colors of the Dark, in which Edwige Fenech gets involved with a Satanic cult). he tries to pitch his cause by assaulting Jennifer on the street, leaving torn up flowers in her apartment to let her know he broke in (thought, really, who hasn’t at this point?), and sweating profusely while screaming threats. As far as orgymeisters go, there are probably better out there to be had.

Having a film full of appalling, callous people was nothing new even in 1972. Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace is populated by a cast of characters with nary a single redeeming trait between them, as was his return to the giallo, 1971’s Bay of Blood. Generally though, films that thrived on monstrous people tried to make up for it in some other way. Bava’s two films, for example, serve as an exuberant evisceration (sometimes literally) of the rich and self-important who are all too willing to destroy others to get what they want. In Bay of Blood, the bloody carnage was tempered by a streak of black humor as absurdity piled upon absurdity until even the most shocking violence could hardly be taken seriously. Other films made up for their spiteful, unsympathetic characters through visual artistry, an abundance of style, or a clever, fast-paced story.

The Case of the Bloody Iris has none of these things. Perhaps it’s attempting some social commentary or stab at absurdity; but if so, it doesn’t execute those concepts very well. The pace of the story is off, lingering endlessly on dull things (the bumbling cop following George Hilton’s Andrea around) while rushing through or glossing over things that might actually have been interesting if given half the chance. It relies far too much on people acting illogically simply because the screenplay demands it of them. It introduces twists then loses interest in them, choosing instead to wander down cul-de-sacs littered with go-nowhere plot filler, then backtracking and repeating itself.

It does manage a few positive points, however. Edwige Fenech is arrayed in a truly glorious cape, and as always (both clothed and unclothed) she looks fantastic and gives the role her all. She doesn’t inhabit an especially likable character, but at least she’s not actively taunting the dead like her atrocious ro0mate (though to be fair to actress Paola Quattrini, she plays the ghastly Marilyn with unabashed gusto). George Hilton turns in a competent if unmemorable performance (kind of his trademark) as an increasingly harried man accused of murder.

As for the rest of the cast, they may all be playing horrible people but at lest they’re doing it enthusiastically. Giuliano Carnimeo’s direction (with an assist from Sergio Martino, working as director of photography) is neither here nor there, efficiently framing the film without bringing much in the way of inventiveness or style. One murder in particular, on a crowded city street in broad daylight, is executed with cleverness and flair. That scene deserves a much better movie surrounding it. The reveal of the killer is satisfying — rare even in very good giallo, so doubly surprising in this otherwise lesser film. Even at a reasonable 94 minutes, The Case of the Bloody Iris can feel tiresome and repetitive, making it a case only seasoned giallo and Edwige Fenech fans would bother attempting to solve.

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage

1970, Italy. Directed by Dario Argento

In the wake of Mario Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Much (1963) and Blood and Black Lace (1964), the two films that are rightfully credit with launching the giallo genre or style (however you may define it), several movies were made that more or less fit within the giallo wheelhouse, either by conforming to the formula established by Bava or by adding some additional key piece to the puzzle that would eventually form the complete giallo picture. For many, the final piece of that puzzle was placed into the now complete picture in 1970 when screenwriter Dario Argento settled into the director’s chair for the first time. His debut film, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo), is the Goldfinger of giallo. Goldfinger wasn’t the first James Bond movie, but it was the one that synthesized all the elements into what was recognizable as the iconic “James Bond film.” It became and, in fact, remains, the template for subsequent Bond adventures and for what people stereotypically think of when they think of a James Bond film. In much the same way, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is the film in which all of the raw material pioneered during the 1960s was forged into the finished formula that would define giallo throughout the 1970s and beyond.

Tony Musante (from the Frank Sinatra film The Detective, the saucy Argento-scripted Metti, una sera a cena, and the superior spaghetti western The Mercenary) stars as Sam Dalmas, an American writer living a quasi-Bohemian lifestyle in Rome with his girlfriend Julia (Suzy Kendall, also in the Eurospy spoof The Liquidator , the excellent British horror film Circus of Fear, and two more giallo: Sergio Martino’s Torso and Umberto Lenzi’s Spasmo). They’re prepping to leave their current apartment when, on his way home one night, Sam passes by a brightly lit art gallery and stumbles upon an attempted murder in progress. Unlike many people in later giallo, he attempts to help, but the gallery’s security doors won’t allow him to enter. In fact, he becomes trapped in a little alcove between the inner and outer doors, unable to physically intercede in the struggle between a figure in a black trench coat and the desperate young woman (Eva Renzi, Funeral in Berlin) while also unable to run for help. With nothing else to do, he bangs helplessly on the glass until the trench coat-clad figure flees, leaving Renzi’s Monica wounded but alive.

When police are finally summoned, they quickly dismiss the idea of Sam as a suspect but want him to stick around since he’s the only eye-witness. Sam agrees, but he’s not as confident in his eyes as he would like to be. He can’t shake the feeling that he witnessed something, some small detail in the scene, that is of importance. But try as he might, he can’t conjure up what it might have been, no matter how often he replays the scene in his head. Hoping to jostle free the elusive detail, Sam launches his own investigation parallel to the official inquiry by the police. His sleuthing begins with a disturbing painting connected to the murder of another young woman whose death might be connected to what Sam witnessed that night at the art gallery. No sooner has Sam started digging into the case than he and Julia are getting threatening phone calls and, as he refuses to let go of finding that one detail that could unlock the entire case, actual attempts on their lives.

The idea that human perception of events is often faulty, or at least incomplete, is a core concept of many giallo films, including a few others by Dario Argento, who uses it to great effect here as well as in his later, highly regarded giallo masterpiece Profondo Rosso (Deep Red). At times, “things are not what they seem” is something of a cheat for the director, but even when that’s the case, it’s not terribly important. It’s the core concept that is important, and anyone whose heard a story about a particular event told by different people, all of whom were present, knows how common it is for the details to differ in sometimes dramatic fashion, or for someone to be convinced utterly they saw or experienced something they did not. Science, both pop and real, is full of experiments that reveal how easy it is to get the human brain to conspire against itself, for senses, perception, and memory to be out of sync. And for anyone who has been aggravated by having something “on the tip of their tongue” — which is probably just about everyone — yet stubbornly impossible to force into remembrance, Sam’s predicament makes him an easy character with which to sympathize, especially since he genuinely wants to help but finds himself stymied by his own particular brand of lethologica.

Sam’s inability to worry that detail from his memory is symptomatic of the film’s greater subversion of the classic male hero and the “man of action” archetype. In a country and a time when machismo was treasured, Sam is a man who leaps into action and proves incapable of getting the job done. His attempts to be the hero are undercut at every step by Argento, beginning with Sam witnessing a crime he is impotent to prevent. From there, his frustration continues, bordering on the sexual, as he struggles and fails to remember that elusive something from the gallery. When he does finally recall it, the release comes far too late and barely even matters. Even during Sam’s final showdown with the killer, he is rendered helpless, pinned under a sculpture and only amble wriggle around in distress. Conversely, the film’s two most prominent women, rendered powerless by traditional socially enforced gender roles, who prove much more effective. Two women, Julia and Monica, who have been marginalized and preyed upon accomplish what the men in the film — Sam, the police, Monica’s husband — fail to do.

Despite, or perhaps because of, his inefficacy as a macho hero, Sam is a reasonably likable lead, his occasional flashes of arrogance and sexism tempered by the fact that he rarely succeeds at what his male hero status has him attempt. He’s like a sidekick who wandered into the lead role by accident and is doing his best to play the part. Even when a man does contribute something significant to the plot — solving the film’s most important clue, and the one that lends the film its ornate title —  it’s not Sam or the police, but a superfluous buddy of Sam’s. However ineffectual they may be, however, Argento never stoops to the level of making us feel contempt for  Sam or the police. They’re not malicious and incompetent the way they would be in many later giallo. They genuinely want to help, and they’re written as well-meaning and sympathetic; but they are locked into a certain way of thinking, a certain set of assumptions, that prevent them from doing so.

Tony Musante is good in the role of Sam, a giallo-typical foreign artist thrust into a bizarre situation full of strange characters (including, most outrageously, an eccentric artists who eats cats and, most offensively, a cartoonishly flamboyant gay art dealer who, at least, isn’t portrayed as a pervert or scumbag). It was common for giallo to feature British or American leads (the better to sell the film overseas). It was common in Italian film in general, since the popularity of filming at Cinecitta meant there were always Hollywood stars hanging around Rome, and since many US distributors (as well as Italian producers) wanted an internationally recognizable name and face. It didn’t even matter if you ended up with a cast that spoke half a dozen different languages. Italian films were rarely shot with synchronized sound, so you could have, for example, Jessica Harper speaking English while someone else spoke German and someone else spoke Italian, and by the time it was complete, it would all be dubbed into whatever language was needed (sometimes by the same cast, but often by a crew of voice actors, lending an additionally surreal layer to many films).

Argento excelled at picking talent that maybe wasn’t at the apex of their career but still had marquee value and skill (Musante in this; David Hemmings in Deep Red; Tony Franciosa is Tenebre). He surrounds Musante with a solid supporting cast, with British actress Suzy Kendall as Sam’s put-upon and preyed-upon girlfriend Julia. Her big scene, and perhaps the film’s most memorable outside of the gallery murder, demands a lot from her emotionally as she finds herself stranded in an apartment alone, with no power and no phone, as the killer chips away at the cheap front door with a knife. She is required to be both resourceful and hysterical, verging on the edge of collapse but still able to defend herself as the audience screams for her (perhaps unreasonably) to pull herself together. The viewer is thus rendered an impotent spectator yelling at the movie screen, a reflection of Sam trapped behind the glass in the beginning of the film.

It’s one of the few instances in which a giallo succeeds not just because it’s shocking, but because it’s gotten the viewer emotionally invested. This tense scene again illustrates the basic failure of both Sam (who is out of town on a fact-finding mission, leaving Julia alone despite knowing they are both being stalked) and the police (who are dutifully standing guard downstairs but still fail to prevent the killer from gaining entry and fail to hear Julia’s screams for help). When Sam does sort of save the day, it’s purely by accident.

Argento would go on to direct bolder, more visually dynamic films, including Deep Red and Tenebre, and arguably reaching his candy-colored crescendo with the supernatural chiller Suspiria, but he would rarely achieve the same level of empathy as he does in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. Visually, the film is nothing to dismiss despite not possessing the same degree of flamboyance as some of his later work. It lacks the psychedelic excess of Suspiria but is still an inventive film, looking much of the time like and using the same stark color palate with splashes of vibrant color as Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist, also released in 1970.

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is a remarkably assured directorial debut. Argento was no cinema neophyte, having worked on scripts for Sergio Leone among others, but first-time directors, especially ones coming to the job with a specific cinematic vision and budding visual flair, can tend to overdo it on their first outing, overindulging to the point where their visual language overwhelms the film rather than serving it. Argento, however, exercises an impressive degree of self-discipline, allowing his film to flourish without succumbing to excess (when he did finally go overboard, in Suspiria, it was still in the service of the film and, within that context, made perfect sense). The Bird with the Crystal Plumage might not have been the first giallo, but it is one of the most completely realized and best executed. It’s position as the template, as the face that launched the fleet, is rightfully earned. It remains to this day a highly regarded classic, and rightfully so. Decades after it’s release, and decades after legions of imitators, it still feels fresh, inventive, and shocking.

The Bloodstained Butterfly

The Bloodstained Butterfly

1971, Italy. Directed by Duccio Tessari

Coming to prominence around the same time and often revolving around similar subject matter, there was frequent crossover between the giallo and poliziotteschi genres. Poliziotteschi were Eurocrime films focusing on determined cops struggling to make a difference in a corrupt system, and like giallo the formative examples of the genre emerged in the 1960s, but the formula was perfected in the early years of the 1970s. Both genres delved into the world of murder, prostitution, kidnapping, and the vices of the rich and powerful. The primary difference is that in giallo, the police are rarely the driving force behind an investigation. That work is left up to some determined or desperate amateur. If the police are on hand (and some giallo seem to occur in an alternate universe where they don’t exist at all), they are often portrayed as incompetent and openly hostile toward victims, suspects, and the innocent alike. This could very well be a reflection of public impressions of police work in Italy during the 1970s, when crime and terrorism were rampant, and the authorities seem unable or uninterested in doing much about it.

Duccio Tessari’s The Bloodstained Butterfly is the odd giallo where not only are the police present, but they seem dedicated to their job (Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage features sympathetic police characters, but they are never the focus of the film). Although it boasts the elaborate murders and cast of red herrings one expects from the genre, it also surprises by spending at least as much time on police procedure, forensic science, and courtroom maneuvering. Like most giallo, it begins with the murder of a young woman. While no one witnesses the murder itself, which happens in a wooded park near twilight, several people catch a glimpse of the killer making a getaway (though none of them know they’re watching a killer at the time).

Working with eye witnesses and known associates and friends of the luckless young victim, police led by the dogged Inspector Berardi (Silvano Tranquilli, who starred as Edgar Allan Poe in Antonio Margheriti’s excellent Gothic chiller Castle of Blood as well as a slew of giallo, including Black Belly of the Tarantula, and a few top notch Eurocrime action films, including High Crime and Manhunt, directed by Enzo G. Castellari and Umberto Lenzi respectively), follow a trail of clues that lead to popular television talk show host Alessandro Marchi (Giancarlo Sbragia). The evidence against Alessandro is daunting, and his case isn’t necessarily helped by the fact that his legal defender is romancing his wife and would just as soon see Alessandro sent to prison. Of course, this being a giallo, there is a messy tangle of other likely culprits, including the lawyer Giulio Cordaro (Günther Stoll) and a nervous young man named Giorgio (Helmut Berger), the identity of whom isn’t immediately clear. Sarah (Wendy D’Olive), Alessandro’s daughter and a friend of the victim, plays the role of amateur detective, but unlike most giallo, her investigation is a sideshow. The bulk of the film sticks to the efforts of the police, the lawyers, and a team of forensic investigators whoa re able to take advantage of a wealth of new scientific crime fighting gear.

Like many early-cycle giallo, the film’s title is a riff on the trend started by Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage of including animals that usually end up playing a minor role, at best, in the plot itself. The Bloodstained Butterfly also follows Argento’s lead in making the limits of human perception central to the plot. Eye witnesses and circumstantial evidence that seems to result in a slam dunk case for the prosecution are revealed via a non-linear narrative to be more deceptive than they might initially appear. In the case of the two main eye witnesses, it is literally their ability to see that is called into question.

For the forensic scientists, it’s not the results of their tests that are questionable, but rather the way those results are interpreted and the way the preconceptions of investigators lead them to certain conclusions that, while seeming reasonable and perhaps even likely, are not explicitly confirmed. Forensic investigation was nothing new in itself in 1971 — people had been using science in pursuit of criminals since the 1800s — but the use of computers and other advanced electronic gear was still novel and, as is often the case with emerging technology in such an important field, the source of much trepidation both within police departments as well as the general public. Could you trust a machine to do a human’s job? Will it put the police out of business? Can we trust technology? The Bloodstained Butterfly isn’t a criticism of this technology in and of itself, but just as the reliability of the human eye is called into question, so to is the reliability of the human brain when it comes to interpreting the raw data generated by science. In this approach, The Bloodstained Butterfly takes a central theme from Argento but explores a much different avenue.

In fact, other than the basic theme of the questionability of perception and the general structure of the title, The Bloodstained Butterfly is very much its own sort of beast, very different in tone, structure, and plot from the Argento film that inspired it. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is infused with a certain rambunctious energy, a zest for what’s going on. Even when its central characters are in danger, there’s a sense of playful adventure as well. Lurking under the murder mystery of Argento’s picture, there is also an action film, full of chases set to thumping Ennio Morricone jazz. In contrast, The Bloodstained Butterfly is a much moodier, melancholy affair. With only a couple exceptions, most of the characters have something unsavory about them. They’re not exactly evil or unsympathetic, but there’s the sense that they’ve brought this awful suffering upon themselves. They all have something to hide, something about which they are ashamed, and they are willing to let other suffer in order to prevent themselves undergoing hardship. There’s a sense of doom looming over everything in The Bloodstained Butterfly, a feeling that a glum, depressing outcome is unavoidable.

A slower, more melancholy pace does not translate into a dull film, however. Director Duccio Tessari made his name directing a couple films in the popular “Ringo” spaghetti western series, but first and foremost he was a screenwriter, with dozens of scripts across a variety of genres under his belt before he set about making his first (and only) foray into the world of giallo. As was the case with films by the directing/screenwriting team of Sergio Martino and Ernesto Gastaldi, Tessari puts more emphasis on writing than would become the norm in subsequent films in the genre. Although the plot is twisty, it never becomes overly outrageous or illogical. Characters don’t always make good decisions, but they rarely made decisions just because the script demand sit of them. They stay well within the realm of believability.

British mystery writer Edgar Wallace gets a screenwriting credit for the film, though that was purely marketing. Wallace, who wrote primarily in the 1930s and was perhaps best known for writing the screenplay for 1933’s King Kong) became a sensation in Germany, where is labyrinthine plots and outlandish characters struck a chord with Weimar Republic Germans. During the war, his books were inevitably denounced by the Nazis and banned, but in the 1950s, he enjoyed a resurgence in Germany that resulted in a whole slew of film adaptations. Where as pre-War adaptations of Wallace stories were generally low-key affairs made in Great Britain, the German films of the 1950s were wild, bizarre, over the top, and once they started getting made in color, positively psychedelic. They are often considered progenitors of the giallo, as much responsible for the genre as the films of Alfred Hitchcock.

Given the nature of the stories, it’s inevitable that actual giallo would turn to Edgar Wallace — or rather, that they would invoke his name, if not his actual stories. There are several giallo that claim to be based on the works of Edgar Wallace. That was rarely the case, but there was still a certain commonality between giallo scripts and Wallace books. Tessari, collaborating with Gianfranco Clerici (who worked on the screenplays for several Lucio Fulci films as well as some poliziotteschi and the bizarre cop-vs-monster by way of Michael Mann film Miami Golem), puts substantial work into The Bloodstained Butterfly‘s script, crafting a deliberately paced but consistently interesting potboiler that plays with the structure of its narrative in a way that heightens the mystery without seeming like a cheat to the audience. For much of the film, the viewer may find themselves a bit at a loss when it comes to interpreting certain scenes and details. The central plot remains straight-forward, but the branches manage to be confusing without being frustrating. As it reaches the finale, all those disparate bits are clarified, making for a satisfying (if not totally surprising) final revelation.

Film production being what it was in the 1970s, it was common for Italian films to get financial backing from other countries, most often neighbors in Germany, France, and Spain (and sometimes, the US and the UK). As a trade-off, Italian filmmakers would remain sensitive to what might be popular in those countries at the time. They’d also generally be willing to bring on talent from other countries, either to satisfy financiers or to increase the potential success of a film across Europe.

That certainly seems to have been the case with The Bloodstained Butterfly, which leverages Edgar Wallace’s name (though, again, not one of his stories) as well as several high-profile German and Austrian actors. Helmut Berger was an Austrian who rose to prominence in Italy, gaining notoriety for his appearances in films by neorealist pioneer Luchino Visconti during the 1960s. In the 1970s, he started making more genre fair, including Massimo Dallamano’s Dorian Gray and, most controversially, Tinto Brass’ grotesque and controversial 1976 Nazi sexploitation film Salon Kitty. He even became a regular on the American television series Dynasty and had a part in Francis Ford Coppola’s ill-advised The Godfather: Part III.

He’s joined in The Bloodstained Butterfly by German actors Günther Stoll, who appeared in an actual Edgar Wallace krimi movie (1966’s The Hunchback of Soho) as well as one of the best giallo-meets-poliziotteschi, 1972’s What Have You Done to Solange?; and most famously, Wolfgang Preiss, who starred as the titular criminal mastermind in Fritz Lang’s The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse as well as many subsequent lesser Mabuse films (which were rushed out to capitalize on the success of the Edgar Wallace krimi). He also starred in the star-studded World War II epic The Longest Day, the German krimi The Mad Executioners, the Jean-Paul Belmondo/Jean Seberg thriller Backfire, and the WWII adventure Von Ryan’s Express starring Frank Sinatra. He was one of the most prolific and dependable actors in Europe, even if it seems like 90% of his roles were Nazis.

Preiss has a relatively minor (though not unimportant) role in The Bloodstained Butterfly as the chief prosecutor in the case against accused murderer Alessandro Marchi. Stoll has a much larger role as Alessandro’s seemingly dedicated though not-so-secretly sleazy defense attorney, just as Berger has a larger role as the would-be lover of Alessandro’s daughter and, quite possibly, poor murdered French exchange student Françoise (Carole André, whose fruitful career in genre cinema includes everything from Fellini’s Satyricon to Yor, The Hunter from the Future). The Bloodstained Butterfly doesn’t demand a lot from its cast beyond acting desperate, furtive, or melancholy, but within those confines, there’s no weak performances. At times, it can be a little difficult to remember who’s who as characters appear out of nowhere, disappear, and reappear as part of the film’s fractured timeline, but eventually one can sort it all out (this is a film that rewards repeat viewing).

The Bloodstained Butterfly, while certainly part of the giallo genre (or subgenre, or style, or whatever you might consider it; at times it’s as nebulous as “film noir”) as it was forming in the early years of the 1970s, is one of the more unique examples of the genre. Integrating aspects of the emerging poliziotteschi became more common as the decade and giallo developed, but this is one of the earliest examples of that oft-fruitful crossover. It would be done better in What Have You Done to Solange? and it’s quasi-sequel What Have They Done to Your Daughters?, both of which, like The Bloodstained Butterfly, claim a connection to Edgar Wallace that isn’t actually there. But saying The Bloodstained Butterfly isn’t as good as those other two films leaves a lot of room to still be pretty damn good, and Tessari’s “giallo meets police procedural plus courtroom drama” is a unique, entertaining (if sombre) addition to the giallo canon. It’s a shame Tessari didn’t stick around the genre for another film or two, but I suppose if you have to make just one film in the genre, you’ve done well if it’s as good as The Bloodstained Butterfly.

All the Colors of the Dark

All the Colors of the Dark

1972, Italy. Directed by Sergio Martino

Sergio Martino worked in every genre, as just about every Italian director of the 1970s and ’80s did, drifting from one to the next depending on what was popular at the time. His films were generally a cut or two above the rest. A little more care put into the script. A little more attention paid to the details of framing and pacing. They also tended to bring something a little more outré to the table. 2019: After the fall of New York, for instance, could have been just another Escape from New York rip-off. For much of its running time, it is (albeit a pretty good one). Then, out of nowhere, the last act goes into batshit insane territory.

Similarly, Martino’s 1972 giallo All the Colors of the Dark works within the confines of the genre (which was still relatively new in 1972 but, given the fecundity of the Italian film market, already contained quite a few films, established tropes, and expectations), but it takes the genre further afield than had previously been explored, resulting in a dizzying psychedelic combination of straight-forward stalker/murder mystery (the giallo’s stock in trade), hallucinogenic psycho-sexual experiment, and occult horror. It remains one of the best and most unique films to come from a genre that often managed to be at once utterly cookie cutter and totally unpredictable.

It was one of four giallo made by Martino between 1971 and 1972, three of which (The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh, All the Colors of the Dark, Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key) starred Edwige Fenech, perhaps the most iconic of all giallo regulars; and three of which (The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh, All the Colors of the Dark, and The Case of the Scorpion’s Tale) starred steely-eyed George Hilton. All of them were written by Ernesto Gastaldi (along with several other people, as was the style when it came to awarding screenwriting credits in Italian films), who also wrote the screenplay for Martino’s first film, the late-cycle spaghetti western Arizona Colt Returns. Which means despite Martino not beginning his feature film directing career until 1970, by the time he was making All the Colors of the Dark he already had what amounted to a stable of regulars who knew him and knew each other, which brings a level of plot and character development to the film that is often missing in giallo, where scripts are hastily written and characterization and logic takes a back seat to shocks and style.

Not that All the Colors of the Dark doesn’t contain the usual amount of inconceivably stupid decisions made “because the script demands them” (like narrowing escaping an ax murderer and not bothering to report it to anyone), but many of those decisions can be written off because the film is about someone who is going/has already gone insane and thus can’t be depended upon to make the most cogent calls. The movie also avoids the common pitfall of filling the film with nothing but despicable characters. For the most part, the good guys are decent (if a bit dense) people, though George Hilton’s Richard still exhibits the sort of unthinking callousness found in most giallo leading men. The most common expression of said callousness is knowing that his wife is either hallucinating being stalked by a murderer or is actually being stalked by a murderer, yet still Richard leaves her alone all the time and refuses to get her any help. He seems to behave that way out of sheer stupidity rather than active malice, but it still makes him easy to dislike. In the role of Richard, George Hilton gives his standard reasonably competent performance. But honestly, no one watches All the Colors of the Dark for George Hilton. Edwige Fenech is the main event.

Fenech was a seasoned pro by the time she started showing up in giallo, having previously starred in a number of sex comedies before appearing in Mario Bava’s kitschy murder mystery 5 Dolls for an August Moon. A year later, she starred in the first of her three Sergio Martino giallo, The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh, and quickly became one of the best known and most prolific genre actresses in the 1970s. She starred in several more murder movies and continued to work in the seemingly inexhaustible (and largely exhausting) sex comedy genre. Her easy charisma, natural likability, and to be honest, incredible beauty made her one of the most popular stars, and she remains to this day and much beloved genre film icon. All the Colors of the Dark is her best work, gracing her with her a character that does all the required screaming and fleeing but adds a layer or two on top of it that allows Fenech to flex a little acting muscle as her character becomes an increasingly unreliable narrator.

She plays Jane Harrison, who along with her boyfriend Richard (George Hilton) lives in a creepy apartment building in London (Maritno is not shy about admitting the influence of Rosemary’s Baby on both the location work and the occult plot). Although the couple is in love, she suffers from a double dose of trauma (one from her childhood, another more recent) that keeps her aloof in bed and prone to occasional bouts of hallucination. Her sister Barbara (Nieves Navarro, better known as Susan Scott and like Fenech a veteran of Italian cult cinema) urges Jane to see a doctor, but Richard has an aversion to psychotherapy, which he thinks is designed not to help people, but to make make sure the psychiatrist makes money. Against his wishes, Jane visits a doctor anyway, but doesn’t help. In fact, her hallucinations become more dangerous and more real than ever. That might be because they are real. Or are they? Whatever the case, a sinister guy with striking blue eyes (Ivan Rassimov) is following her everywhere and even tries to murder her with a hatchet. One would think the remnants of a mad hatchet attack outside a lawyer’s office would be easy to prove (he leaves quite a few marks in the woodwork), but Jane never bothers to report the incident to the police, and no one seems all that concerned.

With psychiatry apparently having accomplished nothing, Jane falls under the spell of her neighbor, Mary Weil (Marina Malfatti, another giallo pro), who suggests  where science fails, perhaps a nightmarish Satanic Black Mass and gang bang could succeed. Jane, already a proven fan of dumb decisions (or perhaps just wanting to impress her cool new friend), agrees. The ritual takes place in a big Victorian manor on the outskirts of town, and although Jane isn’t entirely enthusiastic, she comes back a second time. Only it turns out that Satanic sex cults aren’t as carefree as she thought, and soon she’s being urged to sacrifice Mary while also discovering that the man with blue eyes is part of the coven. It’s at this point that what little grasp Jane had on reality begins to slip away entirely, even as she discovers the source of a freakish nightmare she’s been having and uncovers a family secret that links her to this bizarre cult of cavorting devil worshipers.

With Jane’s notion of reality thusly done away with, Sergio Martino is free to go all in on the insanity, packing the remainder of the film with hallucinations, flashbacks, and nightmares without bothering to provide much in the way of clues as to when something is real and when it’s not, better reflecting Jane’s deteriorating state of mind (the 1968 British film If…. did the same thing — putting fantasies next to actual events without giving the audience any clue as to where one stopped and the other began). At some point, Martino just says “Oh, what the hell?” and throws precognition and ESP into the mix. The resulting film is a phantasmagoric blend of supernatural horror and straight-forward giallo thrills delivered with an abundance of style. The illogical behavior of many characters is easily dismissed given the nature of the narrative. Even failing to call the police when any normal human would seems forgivable given that the film establishes a world in which the police don’t seem to exist (at least until the very end, arriving to clean up rather than solve the mess). Red herrings are an integral part of any murder mystery, but here the killer is unmasked and likes to stare at people. It’s no mystery who the killer is, and so why he’s killing becomes the film’s central puzzle (or even if he’s killing or Jane is imaging the whole thing).

What Martino accomplishes with All the Colors of the Dark is a a film that delivers all the requisite elements of a giallo and then some. Concurrent with the popularity of giallo was the rise of devil worship and witchcraft movies thanks to the success of Rosemary’s Baby and the wave of “Satanic Panic” that followed in the wake of the Manson murders. Italy and Spain both produced a lot of devil cult films around this time, but Martino was one of the first to reckon that the two great tastes would taste great together. Having worked together multiple times, the team of Martino, Fenech, Hilton, and Gastaldi fire on all cylinders. Well, Martino, Gastaldi, and Fenech fire on all cylinders while George Hilton appears as a suitable slab of of beef.

Given a psychologically complex character, Fenech gets to do a lot, and she’s surrounded by fellow great ladies of giallo Susan Scott and Marina Malfatti. Woven through it all is a score by Bruno Nicolai that manages to be as sensual and soothing as it is disturbing. Given how nebulous the definition of giallo can be, and given that pretty much every director also directed other types of genre film, it wasn’t unusual for giallo to blend a few different genres (though usually that other genre was the closely related Eurocrime film). Nor was it all that uncommon for the narrative to be fractured, to be based upon the idea that human perception is flawed. All the Colors of the Dark, however, does it very well; does perhaps better than any other film in the genre. It’s not the most violent giallo. It’s not even the weirdest. But it’s certainly one of the best.