To live under the shadow of a famous father must be very hard, especially so if you choose to follow in his footsteps; the fact that you’re born unto him is beyond your control, but to take the same path will bring a lifetime of comparisons, unjust or not. Such is the case with Lamberto Bava; toiling on some of Mario’s films as assistant director (and a couple of Argento’s as well) gave him the confidence to fly solo, and his second feature A Blade in the Dark (1983) is brimming with that confidence – and a bit of blood, too.
Released in its native Italy in August, Blade arrived stateside through Ascot Films, but not until ’86; perhaps this was done to capitalize on Bava’s success with the Argento-produced Demons from the previous year. Regardless of the reasoning, Blade holds its own as an impressive giallo from a filmmaker soon to hit his stride.
We open as a trio of youngsters creep into a mausoleum after dark for some shenanigans, and they come across a closed and foreboding door; when they open it, two of the boys challenge the third to go down the darkened stairs. When he initially refuses, they taunt him with cries of “you’re a female, you’re a female” over and over until he relents. However it’s not the boy who bounds back up the stairs, but rather a blood-caked tennis ball that ricochets off the wall between the terrified two.
This very same scene is also in the film that composer Bruno (Andrea Occhipinti – Conquest) is writing the score for in his newly rented, cavernous house; the director of the film, Sandra (Anny Papa – Monsignor), tells him that the previous tenant of the house, Linda, relayed some nightmarish stories that Sandra has now spun into (hopefully) movie magic. As Bruno gets to work, he’s disturbed by noises in the house; as well he should be, as someone is watching him, and dispatching anyone who comes near the property. Perhaps the missing final reel of the film holds a clue as to the killer’s motive?
Originally made as a four-part miniseries for Italian television, A Blade in the Dark was deemed too violent for airing, so it was released instead as a film; it certainly feels like a miniseries, with each death being spread out into quadrants that would tie neatly into whatever advertisements Italian TV would offer. Not that it’s slow, or even episodic; but it definitely is deliberate. Bava Jr. takes his time and effort to give morsels to the mystery; just enough to push you forward and follow along.
It is a fairly straightforward story once all the dust settles, something that can’t always be said about gialli; to be fair, this isn’t exactly a standard one in the first place. There is no police presence whatsoever, and whether this was due to budgetary constraints or streamlined storytelling (the hero has to solve it first, anyway), it makes the story much easier to follow. The essentially single setting helps too.
Well, somewhat easier; there are still red herrings galore, and women (and men) come and go from Bruno’s pad like a swinging open house mixer; it’s only when the same characters return are you able to mark them off on your handy Giallo Playbook. (What, you don’t have one? For shame.) A groundskeeper? Check. Nosy and pretty neighbor? Ditto. A friend of the director (I think – that Playbook page got ripped out by my grandson), the director herself, and the house owner played by soon to be real life director and Argento helper Michele Soavi (Stagefright). Some will live, some will die, all will be forgotten without the Playbook (she was a friend of the neighbor, maybe? Dammit, this is really going to bug me now).
Lamberto is clearly a fan of, and reverential to, the work of his father – and to Argento as well; he does skirt the obvious color palettes associated with both, but likes to keep his camera moving and intrusive – when you get slashed by a box cutter, you really get slashed by one. There is only one really vicious kill here, and if you’re squeamish about bathroom death scenes, well, this may cause you to use the outside hose to wash off instead.
The cruelty of the kills shouldn’t be dismissed, as they’re part and parcel of the genre. The sexual politics are left wanting, however; the killer’s reveal and reason for being are certainly trans phobic and falsely associated with “illness”, a product of the times (and just lazy writing by The Beyond’s Dardano Sacchetti) to be sure, but unfortunate nevertheless. Having the film hold the clues to the killer is a nice touch though, and a fitting tribute to Argento’s entanglement of death and art.
The cast is decent overall, but Occhipinti carries most of the film himself, wandering around his cavernous abode looking for clues, looking a lot like a beefy Topher Grace. He’s no David Hemmings, but he holds your interest and that’s enough.
A Blade in the Dark was Lamberto Bava’s warm up for Demons, rightfully revered for its over the top and frenetic take on zombiedom; that his most popular film was the furthest from his father’s oeuvre is perhaps telling. But there’s no shame in paying tribute to your father, especially one as influential as Mario; there’s even less shame to be found in knowing that you made a good one.
A Blade in the Dark is available on All Region DVD from Blue Underground, and Region 2 Blu-ray from 88 Films UK.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE (1972)