Lamberto Bava, 1983
Starring: Andrea Occhipinti, Anny Papa, Fabiola Toledo, Michele Soavi, Valeria Cavalli
While working on the score for a new horror movie, Bruno is staying in an eerie villa rented for him by Sandra, the director, who wants to be sure the proper mood is invoked. Her film includes scenes of young boys bullying one and daring him to follow a bouncing ball down into a cellar, where something horrible occurs. But Bruno’s daily life begins to mirror the film, as strange women — alleging to be friends with the previous tenant, Linda — show up and then disappear just as quickly. It seems that someone is murdering Bruno’s houseguests and he, his girlfriend Julia, and Sandra struggle to figure out the identity of the killer before they are next.
Lamberto Bava’s second film, A Blade in the Dark, is a marked improvement on his first, Macabre. Written by star giallo screenwriters Elisa Briganti (Zombie, The House by the Cemetery, 1990: The Bronx Warriors) and the prolific Dardano Sacchetti (everything from Bay of Blood to The Psychic, Zombie, City of the Living Dead, The Beyond, and so on), this a departure from the slow-burn psychological horror of Macabre and compared to the latter, A Blade in the Dark ups the gore level considerably. There are some effective death scenes, plenty of suspense, and the film is almost surprisingly violent. It’s not as stylized as traditional giallo films, and feels sort of like Dressed to Kill (1980) meets Tenebre (1982).
Like both of those films, this is concerned with ideas of identity, sexuality, and gender. It has a surprising number of female characters and it often feels like Bruno (Andrea Occhipinti from New York Ripper and Conquest) is the stationary male element in a cast of revolving women. Likely a nod back to old dark house films, this takes place mostly in the rented villa, which is large enough to be an effective set piece. Like those old dark house films, there is something unsettling about staying in a borrowed space, a strange house which is only a temporary home. All throughout the film, women have an unnerving habit of just showing up at the house, intruding on his private space.
The former tenant, Linda, haunts the film. Her stuff is still stored in the villa, while her friends Katia (Valeria Cavalli of Double Team) and Angela (Fabiola Toledo of Demons) let themselves in the house with warning or invitation. Katia hides in the closet and surprises Bruno (!) and is later killed for her trouble. Angela, who swims in the pool and randomly uses the shower, is murdered in the bathroom and her death is one of the film’s violent centerpieces. Bava builds on the frightening thought of a murder occurring in your own home with little evidence remaining. Like the beginning of several other giallo films, some of the suspense revolves around the audience knowing that certain characters have been murdered, while the protagonist only guesses at the truth and finds scant evidence — like unexplained blood on his pants leg and pearls in the sink.
His girlfriend Julia (Lara Naszinsky) is also something of a red herring. She comes and goes as abruptly as the other women and in one scene is found skulking around the house with a knife. She exhibits a lot of suspicious behavior, such as walking around the villa early in the morning, lying about abandoning her job, and so on. The horror director, Sandra, is also surprisingly female and has apparently based her movie on Linda’s mysterious, traumatic past. This has notes of Scream and Berberian Sound Studio, as there are numerous self-referential discussions of the horror genre, not to mention that two of the main characters are a horror director and a score writer. Later, someone is killed by being strangled to death with a strip of film. Both A Blade in the Dark and Demons involve horror films as a main feature of the plot and this is one of A Blade in the Dark’s more enjoyable elements.
SPOILERS: And speaking of other horror films, the killer is ultimately revealed to be a transvestite. Though numerous visual clues promise a female killer (high heels, painted fingernails, some hilarious yet prissy cleaning up after one of the murders), the identity of a tormented, confused male is revealed. This is part of an ongoing tradition in horror with films like Psycho, Dressed to Kill, and Silence of the Lambs, where anxiety about sexuality and identity results in male-female killers. This is also a common trope in giallo films, such as Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Deep Red, Sister of Ursula, and Pensione paura, to name only a few.
A Blade in the Dark is flawed, but it’s well worth watching. Pick it up on DVD. And even though the numerous enjoyable female performances make up the bulk of the film, keep an eye out for genre regulars Stanko Molnar (Macabre) as the creepy groundkeeper, director/actor/extraordinaire Michele Soavi (Stagefright) as the landlord, and Giovanni Frezza (House by the Cemetery) as a child in the film-within-the-film from the opening scene. The film moves at a decent pace, correcting one of Macabre’s faults right there, has well-used suspenseful scenes, moments of the over-the-top violence, and an effective, pleasant little mystery. Plenty of nonsensical things happening could be viewed as silly — and there is frequently plenty to laugh at — but it also opens the film up to a level of unpredictability, which Bava Jr uses to his advantage. And I’m always going to find whispering as part of the plot/soundtrack incredibly disturbing. It’s used very well here.