Romano Scavolini, 1972
Starring: Ida Galli, Ivan Rassimov, Luigi Pistilli
As a young girl, Marialè witnesses her father kill her mother and mother’s lover and then turn the gun on himself. Years later, the adult Marialè is married to the abusive Paolo, who drugs her and keeps her prisoner in her family castle. Unbeknownst to him, she has invited a group of friends to the castle for a weekend-long party, including the handsome Massimo. Even though the butler tries to turn them away, Paolo eventually relents. They throw a costume party, where Marialè wears the white, bloodstained dress her mother died in, setting in motion a hallucinogenic nightmare and a weekend of bloodshed.
Also known as Spirits of Death, director Romano Scavolini’s relatively unknown film is surprisingly creepy and it’s gone too long without an audience. Sort of a combination between Fellini, Ken Russell, and Sergio Martino’s Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972), the film stumbles occasionally but remains compelling from start to finish. The opening scene where Marialè’s mother meets her death at the hands of her husband is a hard act to follow, but A White Dress for Marialè keeps things chugging along thanks to some solid direction, a fittingly zany script, interesting cinematography, and assured performances.
One of my favorite giallo actors, Ivan Rassimov, plays against type as the film’s hero, a sensitive artist whose romance with Marialè seems inevitable. He’s also basically the only male character who isn’t a complete bastard. This Serbo-Italian dreamboat was in everything from Bava’s Planet of the Vampires to spaghetti westerns and several of Sergio Martino’s giallo films, usually as a twisted, psychotic murderer or, at best, menacing love interest. This is the only film I’ve seen him in where he’s more lamb than lion. He makes a nice counterpoint to the subdued, almost ghost-like Ida Galli, always a lovely sight, but not very often a strong physical presence. She is perhaps the most accomplished of a cast, with a resume ranging from classics like La Dolce Vita and The Leopard to Bava’s Hercules in the Haunted World and The Whip and the Body to spaghetti westerns, war films, and a mess of giallo efforts.
Luigi Pistilli, who is always excellent, is compelling despite the fact that he plays an abusive husband. Cast in spaghetti western classics like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and The Great Silence, Pistilli was one of the giallo genre’s most talented actors. He appeared in everything from The Cast of the Scorpion’s Tale and The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire, Bay of Blood, and Italian crime films like Caliber 9, his role here is surprisingly close to the scoundrel Oliviero of Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key. He abuses his wife and, like Marialé’s character, is tormented by the memory of his dead mother. Martino’s film also includes a bacchanalia scene that ends with insanity and murder. I’d love to discover an interview that explains (or denies) the connection between these two films, seemingly made back-to-back.
Though these three lead performances from Galli, Rassimov, and Pistilli provide the film with a secure base, what really makes it stand out is the wacky second half. The dinner party erupts into a costumed affair where the characters take various outfits off of mannequins in the castle’s creepy underground chambers – and yes, this is yet another giallo that makes effective use of plastic mannequins, though it doesn’t dwell on them. Their fete temporarily has a ‘60s feel – possibly a brief nod to the throwback style of the giallo films of Umberto Lenzi – with rock music, face painting, and other activities that wouldn’t feel out of place at a hippy love fest. But soon the quirky guests are knocked off by a killer. It is around this midway point that the film slows down and drags a bit. It adapts a more conventional “old dark house” style murder mystery plot, though this is fortunately abandoned by the conclusion.
The film suggests in a vague sort of way that the dinner guests have been possessed by the spirits of the dead (the American title), but really Scavolini just does away with logic all together, letting the narrative roam where it pleases. There are some fittingly nightmarish scenes that take place during a booming storm and in certain moments, it reminded me of Juan Lopez Moctezuma’s even more Dionysian The Mansion of Madness, made a year earlier. These experimental scenes will likely divide the audiences, though they boast some of the film’s most striking imagery.
A White Dress for Marialè comes recommended, particularly for anyone who likes a dash (or two) of the surreal with their thrillers or giallo films. Though it’s still not particularly available for US audiences, you can pick it up on Blu-ray from German company Camera Obscura, thankfully in stock at Diabolik DVD. It includes plenty of juicy special features and hopefully soon this interesting, strange little film will get a similar treatment on region 1 Blu-ray.