Director: Sergio Martino
Writer: Vittorio Caronia, Ernesto Gastaldi and Eduardo Manzanos Brochero
Release year: 1971
Italian title: ‘Lo Strano Vizio Della Signora Wardh’
Aka title: ‘Blade Of The Ripper’
When you think one of the men in your life is a serial killer it’s time to find new friends
Italian giallo stalwart, Edwige Fenech stars as Julie Wardh, a beautiful woman with a colourful past, trapped in a dull marriage and stalked by her sadistic ex-lover, Jean (Ivan Rassimov). All the while, a series of savage murders are taking place in the city eventually drawing Julie into a twisted game.
Giallo films are an interesting addition to cinematic history. In the most basic terms they could be described as murder-mysteries or whodunnits but unlike popular television examples such as A Touch of Frost and Inspector Morse, the giallo film-genre have much in common with the horror film genre, particularly slasher films, featuring often lurid depictions of sex and violence and consequently they become a much more visceral experience. Their humble origins began with a series of violent murder-mystery novels, usually published in Italy with a yellow cover from which they take their name – ‘giallo’ being the Italian word for yellow.
The giallo would have an understated influence on a slew of popular American films. The prominent horror film ‘Friday the 13th’ (1980) took influence from a number of Italian films, most notably Mario Bava’s ‘Bay of Blood’(1971). Brian De Palma’s ‘Dressed to Kill’ (1980) has been aptly described as an American giallo, utilising stylistic elements common to this style of film and it could be argued that the aesthetic blueprints for the slick mystery-slashers of the mid-90s, beginning with Wes Craven’s ‘Scream’ (1996) were taken from this little piece of niche-cinema mostly prevalent in the 1970s.
Giallo movies certainly aren’t for everybody. At their best they often lack coherency, instead favouring visual splendour over a compelling narrative and effective storytelling, while at their worst they can be a haphazard presentation of horrid characters engaged in tedious actions and meandering dialogue. Virtually the entire cycle suffers from budgetary constraints, leaving a number of entries lacking polish but despite the flaws that haunt the genre, there are a number of well-crafted, innovative and absorbing movies that succeed despite such limitations.
Italian director Sergio Martino’s first foray into the giallo is a luscious and vibrant picture, yet sleazy and brooding, brimming with violence, subversive sexuality, misogynism and treachery. Perhaps the most endearing quality of Martino’s film is the way in which it transcends the somewhat standard and overdone concept of the giallo’s black-gloved butcher (although it does have one of them) and is instead given a more plot-heavy approach. In essence, Martino takes the viewer by the hand and leads forth on a journey of discovery through a nightmarish world of questionable morality and despicable characters culminating in one of the more impressive finales this particular brand of film-making has to offer.
Ernesto Gastaldi’s screenplay takes an imaginative and ingenious approach to relaying both common and unique themes and one cannot doubt that ‘The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh’ is all the better for it. Clearly, this somewhat startling piece of cinema adds a welcome new intelligence to this class of film-making and aims to supplement such positive points with a strong coherency in a genre notorious for incoherency and illogic. It is this story, with its serpent like twists and strong nightmarish qualities, which leaves such a lasting impression upon the viewer. Perhaps the conclusion, like many of its contemporaries, lends itself to the fanciful but ‘The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh’ is such a well crafted addition to the genre that this is quite easily overlooked and perhaps even encouraged.
Giallo are often considered inherently visual experiences but ‘The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh’ places a significance on the aural elements. Martino may lack some of the visual flair of genre auteur Dario Argento or Italian horror Godfather Mario Bava, but the way in which he makes use of audio elements is virtually unsurpassed. Every footstep, door opening and creak is presented ominously; every shrill scream stabs at the viewer’s mind and every slash of the killer’s blade leaves a sickening impression. Such masterful use of simple auricular elements works to both thrill and engross as Martino seizes the onlooker by the throat and never once relents until the inventive and bleak climax. The enchanting musical score compliments such stylistic choices beautifully.
Alluring cinematography courtesy of Emilio Foriscot ensures that ‘The Strange Vice of Mrs Vice’ is not overly distant from its contemporaries. With an emphasis on making the important sequences as absorbing as possible, Martino and Foriscot merge their respective talents crafting an almost tangible atmosphere rife with a funereal gloom. Foriscot’s photography fully aids and develops Martino’s almost unique way of filming such harrowing scenes of violence. Martino also demonstrates a true understanding of the importance of suspense, creating palpable tension while Foriscot ensures with aplomb that the director’s efforts are fully supported.
‘The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh’ is not a beautiful film in the usual sense. There are no lavish shots of the breathtaking cities of Europe nor does one see any overt attempt to dazzle the viewer with aesthetic style. Instead, we are presented with a sleazy, bleak and repellent film brimming with atmosphere and brutality and from which one can take a vulgar sense of enjoyment. This is an example of repugnant beauty, the way in which a dark subject can be treated in such a manner that it becomes strangely absorbing. A few pacing problems aside, ‘The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh’ is a strong all-around offering for those interested in a slow-burn, mature mystery-horror movie.
Watch the ’71 trailer on YouTube.