I cherish a good giallo film. For those unfamiliar with this sub-genre, it’s like a slasher, but with an emphasis on police procedure and a dash of Italian Vogue. (Not to mention the ubiquitous gloved killer.) Starting in the mid ‘60s, they revved up the violence, leading to the watershed of Twitch of the Death Nerve (1971), where Mario Bava singlehandedly invented the “body count” that transferred across the water and led us to Haddonfield and Camp Crystal Lake.
But some gialli still let their freak flags fly, bringing us to The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave (1971), a film that blends bodies, bodices, castles, the supernatural, possible gas lighting, nudity, and triple crosses into an overflowing bath of ideas that is a lot of fun to splash around in. Not all the water stays in the tub, but there’s still plenty enough for a good soak.
Released in Italy in August, and hitting New York in July of ’72, Evelyn toured the Drive-In circuit and grindhouses and did quite well based on the amazing poster art – a woman with a skull face thrusting a disembodied male head toward the viewer. Truly terrific artwork, and unlike many posters of the day, not completely unrelated to the film itself – although trying to squeeze in everything it offers would have been impossible. And Evelyn is the gift that keeps on bleeding.
Lord Alan Cunningham (Anthony Steffen – Killer Fish) has some mental issues. Just released from an institution, Alan is tortured by memories of his late wife Evelyn, who was caught cheating on Alan with an unknown lover, and then died during childbirth. To ease his unchecked rage against her, he hires strippers and hookers who resemble Evelyn (red hair and all) to accompany him to his castle, where he tortures and kills them. (Left turn from giallo – no police investigation into their disappearances.) Feeling his sanity slipping away (you think?), Alan takes the advice of his cousin Farley (Umberto Raho – The Last Man on Earth), who suggests that Alan should remarry someone who looks just like Evelyn to get over his hatred of women in general, and Evelyn in particular. (That’s a solid plan.)
Amazingly, it actually works. Alan marries Gladys (Marina Malfatti – The Red Queen Kills Seven Times) and they settle down into domestic bliss. This is short lived, however, as Gladys is convinced that Evelyn faked her death to be with her lover, and the suspicious coupling of Alan’s wheelchair bound aunt and Evelyn’s brother seems to bear this out. Oh, and Alan has visions of Evelyn herself, culminating in a graveside visit he isn’t expecting. Is Evelyn back from the dead, or is someone after Alan’s vast fortune?
Evelyn has so much going on; I had to reread plot descriptions just to suss out what the hell I saw. Not only because of the sheer amount of players, but also due to the wealth of motivations for their actions. And if you think a straightforward giallo can be confusing, try adding a supernatural element that ducks in and out between the carnage just to throw any sense of balance out the window. Which isn’t to say that the film lacks in engagement; far from it. Director Emilio Miraglia (The Red Queen…) indulges in gothic bondage in the first third during Mike’s red headed rampage; switches gears into spectral melodrama with Evelyn sightings and head games (oh, and still more murders by an unknown assailant), and then a home stretch where, if I were one of the players, I’d be toting notes just to see if I was the killer.
What does it all add up to? Well, it’s definitely a giallo; the mood, aesthetic, and the kills all lean towards that particular model. However, Miraglia possesses a good grasp of the more abstract; flashbacks of Evelyn, in slow motion, racing through the woods towards her lover emit an eerie, dreamlike quality separate from the rest of the film. Meanwhile, the castle scenes reflect an appreciation of ‘60s gothic dramas, at least in their outward appearance. But ultimately, the giallo wins out; greed is an overwhelming factor in assessing its place in the genre, something it has in common with Bava’s classic Twitch. And, much like that film, it really has no protagonist. (Although Twitch is more insidious in its reveal.)
Let’s not forget that Alan starts off the film as a killer; not only that, but every character has an agenda. I often feel that some gialli are just trying to replicate (and update) Agatha Christie’s novel And Then There Were None (1939); a parlor game filled with hidden motives and secret desires, except the loosening of morals results in a seedier spread. Steffen’s charming portrayal of Alan reveals a man who wants to do the right thing, but is continually tortured by the phantasms of his past. That doesn’t necessarily make him sympathetic, but it does give the viewer something to cling to for the duration.
Ultimately, The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave works because it keeps viewers on their toes by mixing in the surreal with the mysterious, spinning around on itself until the stabilizing final frames. Does it play fair? I guess, if you can sort out the facts. But where’s the fun in that? This is Italian horror, where logic is at a premium on a good day. Just lay back and let it wash over you, and make sure you wipe the floor when you’re done.
The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave is available on Blu-ray as part of the Killer Dames: Two Gothic Chillers set from Arrow Video.