Renato Polselli, 1972
Starring: Mickey Hargitay, Rita Calderoni, Raul Lovecchio
Dr. Herbert Lyutak has a dark secret. He likes to pick up nubile young women and murder them, because it’s the only way he can get a sexual charge. His beautiful, devoted wife – who is willing to put up with a good amount of pain and sadism – finds a bloody shirt in the wash, but keeps it a secret. Herbert is able to remain at large for some time – possibly because he works as a criminal psychologist consulting the police on complex murder cases – but he is eventually recognized by a witness and turns himself in. He is imprisoned, but the murders continue and the police – and Herbert himself – are at a complete loss. Did he really commit the crimes?
That synopsis is only just a taste of the pleasures to come in Renato Polselli’s (The Vampire and the Ballerina, The Reincarnation of Isabel) Delirium, possible the only giallo title to accurately reflect what the film is about. I can only loosely call this a giallo film, but it’s so spectacular that I would be remiss not to include it in my current series. At its heart, this is basically an utterly perverse, demented love story – sort of amour fou meets giallo and Eurocult. It’s basically impossible to discuss this element without giving away some SPOILERS. Marcia -- expertly played by Rita Calderoni (The Reincarnation of Isabel) – is not the typical giallo wife, as she is hopelessly devoted to her husband despite his faults. It is Marcia who begins killing after Herbert’s arrest in order to clear his name. But she is not a calculating killer. She’s descending rapidly into madness during – and perhaps because of – these sequences.
Though it is rare, some giallo films do resolve the central mystery by fingering two killers (I think it would be rude to cite examples), Delirium makes a surprising move by revealing the film’s killer moments into the film – and then also revealing that Herbert is a police department consultant. The fact that he works for the police is a nice early twist and was fairly uncommon back in the early ‘70s – though now, thanks to Manhunter, Silence of the Lambs, Dexter, and an endless stream of serial killer-obsessed crime dramas, it’s common knowledge that some killers feed off a connection to the investigation of their own murders.
This marks a rare performance from the handsome, Hungarian-American former Mr. Universe and ex-Mr. Jayne Mansfield (and father of Law & Order SVU’s Olivia Benson), Mickey Hargitay. He had a short film career, appearing in a few B-movies with Mansfield, as well as some horror movies like The Bloody Pit of Horror and Lady Frankenstein. Personally, I would have liked to see him in more of these and he really gives it his all in Delirium. He’s not the greatest actor, but there’s something about him that hovers between likable and unsettling, which works perfectly here as Herbert is a thoroughly sympathetic murderer. He wants to stop killing and willingly turns himself into the police.
While the first half of the film follows Herbert very closely, Marcia becomes the central figure of the film’s second half and Polselli brilliantly follows her into madness. He makes it clear that unfulfilled desire at the root of both Herbert and Marcia’s varying forms on insanity. Their close, deeply romantic relationship can never be consummated, which drives them both to obsession and murder. Wracked with guilt and repressed lust, Marcia has sex-fueled visions that are among the film’s visual high points. She and Herbert also engage in some effectively hot S&M scenes and these become increasingly more hysterical and hallucinatory as the film progresses.
Delirium comes very highly recommended. It’s certainly not for everyone, but it’s my favorite kind of movie. Not only does it live up to its title and include a lot of scantily-clad women, but it is particularly leg-friendly and basically everyone except Herbert sports a miniskirt of some kind. There’s also a wonderful array of wacked-out side characters, including the typically inane, useless police inspectors, a maid who follows Herbert around and masturbates, and Christa Barrymore in a role that must be seen to be believed. It’s sad that she only appeared in two films (this and Polselli’s follow up, The Reincarnation of Isabel, which reunites much of the cast of Delirium).
Available on DVD, there are actually two versions of the film, the international release – which has more sexual content – and the American version, which includes a weird subplot about how Hargitay is a Vietnam vet and the trauma drives him to kill. It completely nixes the masturbating maid. While it’s fairly standard for European horror films of this period to have a different cut for American audiences, the two version of Delirium are so different that it’s impossible to really say which is the definitive version, though I obviously prefer the European cut.