Horror, like any genre, contains multitudes of subgenres and styles, and of course our individual tastes will gravitate to some more than others. But do you have a particular subgenre that you feel like you really should enjoy, but in reality, leaves you feeling flat to the point where you feel like you’re somehow watching it the wrong way? For me, such is the case for the giallo, our Italian forefather to the slasher. I love a good slasher as much as anyone, but when I try and translate that to something like Suspiria or Bay of Blood, something is always missing. I’d chalk it up to just not being my thing, but when I hear passionate fans discuss it, I can’t shake the feeling that if I catch one at the right time, the gears will fall into place and the majesty of the giallo will be revealed.
With that in mind, this month I requested an assist from Daily Dead’s resident Italian gourmet, Patrick “The Sizzle” Bromley (Please be sure to call him that. Everyone does, and he really enjoys it). I explained that in my experience with Italian horror, I tended to enjoy more of the gonzo Italian films like Andrea Bianchi’s Burial Ground and Lamberto Bava’s Demons. When he came back with another movie from Bava’s filmography, 1983’s A Blade in the Dark, it seemed like a natural pick. Bava is a known entity for me, both as the son of one of the grandfathers of Italian horror, Mario Bava, and as the aforementioned filmmaker responsible for Demons, a movie that plays out like a meta-horror version of Evil Dead, but swaps out the cabin for a movie theater.
In A Blade in the Dark, Bava introduces Bruno (Andrea Occhipinti), a film composer who rents a secluded villa so that he can write the score for a new horror movie being made by friend and collaborator Sandra (Anny Papa). Bruno soon suspects that women he meets on the property are being killed by a mysterious woman named Linda, whose life seems linked to Sandra’s movie in ways that strain coincidence. Is Sandra involved? Could it have something to do with seedy groundskeeper Giovanni (Stanko Molnar), who works for Tony (Michele Soavi), the property’s owner? Hell, Bruno even has reason to suspect his girlfriend, Julia (Lara Lamberti).
I’m actually going to reveal the culprit in a spoiler-heavy section later on, as it’s important to my take on the movie, but first, some initial thoughts. In some ways, A Blade in the Dark falls into the same trappings as some of my previous experiences with giallos, where there are scenes that tend to drag, and could have benefitted from a healthy cut here and there. I’ve realized, however, that this isn’t an issue exclusive to giallos. Some American-made slashers also have a tendency to overstay their welcome, as any film of this ilk pushing more than 95 minutes is bound to test my patience. And with A Blade in the Dark coming in at 144 minutes, I really think Bava could have sped up some of the scenes with Bruno sitting around or creeping down a hallway.
An element that I did enjoy is that killers in giallos toy with their victims differently than in traditional American slashers, and by extension, the filmmakers toy with their audiences differently, too. In a slasher, much of the suspense builds in the stalking sequence, with a slow buildup to quick, splashy kill. In a giallo, the stalking tends to be a bit more mundane, but the kill sequence lingers in a way that makes the audience squirm. Such is the case in A Blade in the Dark, as one unfortunate victim is trapped in a small corner behind some chicken wire and has to helplessly writhe as the killer prods through the wire with a box cutter.
The aspect of giallos that is hardest for me to gauge are the performances. English dubbing essentially makes you judge the actor on screen as well as the voicework of the dubber. Something is always lost in translation between the two, as there is an uncanny aural valley that makes the acting seem stilted. That being said, I enjoyed Andrea Occhipinti’s work as our Final Guy Bruno, but this may only be due to him looking just like an Italian doppelgänger of Tom McBride, aka Mark from Friday the 13th Part 2 (congrats on making it to the end of the film without taking a machete to the face). I really found myself pulling for Sandra, who as a horror filmmaker was of course the most interesting person in the film. Giovanni and Julia, meanwhile, seemed to be in a competition to determine who could out-red herring the other until the final reveal (spoiler alert for next two paragraphs).
As it turns out (SPOILER ALERT), our killer is Tony, the owner of the villa who, much like Friday the 13th Part V’s Roy (that’s for you, Patrick), stayed in the periphery of the movie just enough so that you wouldn’t forget him completely before the big reveal. In creating a movie (within the movie) based on an incident early in Tony’s life, Sandra made up an ending that miraculously stumbled on the truth: Tony had a split personality in the form of Linda, and his compulsion to kill women served as a coping mechanism to deny the part of him that wants to be one. It seems that the early ’80s was the age of the “crazy transsexual,” with A Blade in the Dark, Dressed to Kill, and Sleepaway Camp all focused on a killer whose psychosis conflated with their sexual identity. I’m hoping those reading this won’t be too shocked when I say this is not at all accurate, and I’m hoping that’s the last we’ve seen of this particular trope.
One silly side effect of the trope is that Bava did indeed cast a man to play Linda during the kill sequences, with red nail polish filling in for the usual black gloves. When they dubbed to English, they decided to stay true to the film by having a man provide said dubbing, and the result is jarring in a manner similar to Burial Ground, in which a short adult man plays the role of a young boy. I’m not even going to try and explain that particular casting choice, suffice to say that Freud would be very proud (END OF SPOILERS).
Ultimately, I’m still not fully sold on giallos, but with A Blade in the Dark, I’m optimistic that I can acquire the taste for them. Snip a few minutes of filler scenes and revise the problematic elements of the story, and you’ve got yourself a fun serving of B-movie gelato. If you have suggestions for some other flavors you think I might like, fire them off in the comments below.