Umberto Lenzi, 1972
Starring: Carroll Baker, Ida Galli, George Rigaud
Martha, a young woman who has been mute since witnessing the death of her parents in a train accident years ago, is excited about the arrival of her cousin Jenny, who has been travelling the world as a famous singer. Jenny arrives, via train, to Martha’s home in the Pyrenees with her wealthy uncle. But her visit is cut short one dark night when she goes to investigate a strange sound in the garage and is murdered. The small village is thrown into a panic, as she is the second young blonde woman found murdered that night and local police believe Satanists are responsible when they find an amulet at the scene of the crime.
This Italian-Spanish coproduction is the fourth collaboration between director Umberto Lenzi and American star Carroll Baker, though it is a marked contrast to Orgasmo, So Sweet… So Perverse, and Paranoia, all of which are erotic thrillers centered on a threesome gone wrong. Instead, Knife of Ice offers up very little sexual material and the only remotely erotic element is the skimpy nightgown worn by Italian star and giallo regular Ida Galli (La dolce vita, The Leopard, Hercules in the Haunted World) in her brief role as Jenny. Jenny’s appearance is not dissimilar to Janet Leigh’s lengthier turn in Psycho. This introduction of a major star who is then suddenly killed off, does come as quite a shock and in that sense, Knife of Ice is one of his most successful thrillers. By shedding the predictable formula of his early films (including the three with Carroll Baker and 1971’s Oasis of Fear), Lenzi manages to deliver a fairly gripping film with a number of effective red herrings and a surprising twist. He creates a paranoid world closing in around the mute, helpless Martha, where seemingly every character is a potential killer.
SPOILERS IN THIS ENTIRE PARAGRAPH: Fascinatingly, the actual murderer is revealed, at the absolute last minute, to be Martha herself in a twist that I perhaps should have seen coming, but didn’t. This is an early example of what would become a fairly popular trope in Italian horror, the female murderer. These characters can be found throughout Argento’s films in particular – though notably one of the earliest examples is Fulci’s Lizard in a Woman’s Skin. The majority of the characters are inspired to kill because of a traumatic past experience. A deeply embedded psychosis eventually emerges thanks to some trigger, one that seems slight, but brings about a violent change in personality.
Knife of Ice is also part of a handful of films released in 1972 that include an odd plot device. The police – and often the protagonists themselves – are thrown off the track of the killer, because they come to believe that the murders are being committed by a group of Satanists. Martha and Jenny’s Uncle Ralph (George Rigaud of Eyeball, Horror Express, The Case of the Bloody Iris) just happens to be an expert on the field and can help the police when they come across Satanic imagery and a drugged out Satan worshipper with psychotic eyes. Fulci’s Don’t Torture a Duckling and Sergio Martino’s All the Colors of the Dark have similar uses for devil worshippers or practitioners of black magic. This was also the same year for satanic horror films Dracula A.D. 1972, Virgin Witch, Bava’s Baron Blood, and others, following a genre craze that began in the ‘60s and came to a head the following year with The Exorcist.
The appearance of the satanic character (Spanish actor Mario Pardo) gives this film a mildly psychedelic, swinging ‘60s vibe that runs rampant throughout Lenzi’s earlier thrillers, but otherwise, this is a tame, mannered film that could be set almost any time after the ‘40s. Though there are four deaths, violence and gore are non-existent, with one notable and strange exception. Martha has flashbacks of a bull-fighting match she attended with Jenny some undisclosed time in the past. The horrified Martha watches as bull fighters attack and kill the bull (a real scene of animal violence, for the squeamish), while Jenny practically salivates with bloodlust beside her. This disturbing hint of what can only be described as sexual menaced is enhanced by the apparent guilt and/or sinister behavior of nearly all the male characters, including Martha’s doctor (Franco Fantasia), her driver (Eduardo Fajardo), and her uncle. It’s a shame this element wasn’t further developed.
The film’s final attribute worth mentioning are the strangely Gothic visuals, which replace the standard giallo use of vibrant, modern art-inspired set design and over-the-top use of primary colors. Knife of Ice primarily takes place in an old villa right next to a crumbling cemetery. The basement of the house resembles a crypt seen later in the film and the lovely, mountain-side town is beset with waves of fog several times a day, adding a built-in plot device. This restrained performance from Baker is one of her best and her lack of dialogue – combined with conservative, juvenile dresses and repressed mannerisms – make her seem far younger than 41.
This mannered, restrained giallo will not be for everyone, but Knife of Ice should please fans of elaborately plotted murder mysteries and thrillers with a Gothic atmosphere. It’s available on DVD and comes recommended, but don’t be fooled by the title. Though the original Italian, Il coltello di ghiaccio does translate directly to Knife of Ice, it’s connection to the plot is flimsy at best and refers to the Edgar Allen Poe quote that opens the film: “Fear is a knife of ice which penetrates the senses down to the depth of conscience.” This is obviously a reference to the identity of the killer and their motivations, as well as to the film’s Gothic imagery – though it doesn’t seem like this is actually something written by Poe, unless it was re-translated into English from a skewed Italian translation. I’d love to have the chance to ask Lenzi where this came from, as he’s still alive and kicking as I write this.