Riccardo Freda, 1981
Starring: Stefano Patrizi, Laura Gemser, John Richardson, Anita Strindberg
Michael, an actor with a troubled past – he killed his father when he was just a young child – decides to visit his estranged, ill mother in her foreboding country estate. He brings along his girlfriend, who he passes off as his assistant, as well as a small film crew to begin planning their latest movie. But soon, his friends begin falling prey to a mysterious killer. Is it the creepy butler, someone involved with the occult, his unstable mother, or one of his friends? Or, has the house trigged Michael’s repressed murderous impulses and encouraged him to kill again?
A cross between a giallo film, the emerging slasher movie subgenre (just two years old at that point), and the “old dark house” premise of one his previous horror films, Tragic Ceremony (1972), Murder Obsession is Freda’s last movie, but remains surprisingly enjoyable. By 1981 the giallo peak had been past for nearly a decade and Freda lovingly makes fun of its tropes with the film’s opening – a black-gloved killer strangles a woman to death until the camera reveals that it is just a film shoot. This is simply a foreshadowing of the dizzying twists and turns to come and of the violence. The death scenes here aren’t particularly stylish, in the way giallo films are, but they are blunt and surprisingly gory, more like a slasher film (the outdoor deaths add to this sense as well).
Despite a workmanlike pace that keeps things moving and a somewhat brusque attitude about the cinematography, the film is full of strange and atmospheric moments. Freda accomplishes much with flashbacks that may or may not be real, menacing dream sequences (including one that features a giant, fuzzy spider rivaling the spider effects from The Beyond or Nude for Satan), and the odd inclusion of supernatural elements. Like Tragic Ceremony, there is the suggestion that a cult is at work and séances and the possibility of psychic powers become entrenched in the plot by the midway point. Michael’s girlfriend dreams she is being sacrificed during a cult ritual and there is a scene where footprints from an invisible source trail across a dusty floor.
While many giallo films have blackmail, prostitution, or drug ring subplots meant to distract the audience away from the true identity and motivations of the killer, Fredo went a similar route with the supernatural. As in those other films, this fades away with little to no explanation and it becomes clear that the killer is all too human and generally suffers from a diseased mind, a twisted psychology. SPOILERS. In this case, Murder Obsession borrows something from The Mephisto Waltz (1971). In the latter, a man dies in a Satanic ritual and his spirit possesses the body of a young pianist. He uses the pianist’s body to have an affair with his daughter, an accomplished occultist with plenty of her own unwholesome appetites. In Murder Obsession, Michael’s mother has the mistaken belief that in killing her husband, he would reincarnate in Michael. Likely a product of her mania and not an actual supernatural plot, this explains her uncomfortable levels of affection with Michael – as well as the fact that she murdered any of his friends, girlfriends, or sex partners threatening to take his attention from her.
Murder Obsession also has an undeniable connection with Argento’s Deep Red. In the latter, it is implied that a child killed his father and has continued killing as a grown up. SPOILERS: Of course, the child has not killed at all, not even in his adult state, but his mentally unbalanced mother is to blame. Murder Obsession plays with these themes. The plot is upfront in admitting that young Michael killed his father and was sent to a home. But like Deep Red, his mother’s mentally instability is to blame for what was essentially a past misunderstanding and all crimes were committed solely by her.
The film also borrows a lot from Freda’s own work of the ‘70s. In Iguana with the Tongue of Fire, seemingly every character owns a pair of black sunglasses, a critical clue that makes a number of people appear to be suspects. In Murder Obsession, this device is improbably redirected to black leather gloves (one character even goes to bed with them on!), which can be found everywhere despite the casual setting and nice weather.
Despite its obvious budget issues and inane script, there are plenty of enjoyable things about Murder Obsession. Keep your eyes peeled for genre regulars like Laura Gemser (Black Emanuelle), who has some nude scenes like basically every other woman in this film. A somewhat aged Anita Strindberg (Who Saw Her Die?) plays Michael’s mother, while Silvia Dionisio (Live like a Cop, Die like a Man and Naked You Die) appears as his loyal but put upon girlfriend. John Richardson (Black Sunday) has perhaps the best role of all as the sinister butler. I can’t say much about lead Stefan Patrizi (Conversation Piece) who is utterly bland.
I can’t say that Murder Obsession is a must-see, but it is delightfully weird and fans of Eurohorror who like movies with dreamlike, nonsensical moments will find a lot to enjoy. Raro gave it a surprisingly great Blu-ray treatment and it’s almost worth buying just to support the release and restoration of such obscure oddities. Personally, I was sold on the giant spider.