Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh (1971): or, It's In the Blood

I've decided I really, *really* like director Sergio Martino. In the few films of his I've watched for the site, he always seems to bring the stylish visuals, the neat compositions, and a much-appreciated Bava-esque use of color that always gives me a little ocular-induced frisson of pleasure. Seven Deaths in the Cat's Eye was a cool old-dark-house gothic chiller that in retrospect deserved a bit more than the 2 thumb rating I originally gave it, and All the Colors of the Dark was a super-cool Rosemary's Baby-influenced Satanic Panic flick with some really striking images and gorgeous cinematography.

(Note: astute commenters have pointed out that my original attribution of Seven Deaths in the Cat's Eye to Martino was incorrect--it was in fact Antonio Margheriti who directed that flick. Honest mistake: Martino/Martini, Margheriti/Margarita. That'll teach me to drink and review. :) )

Plus, I can thank Martino and that last movie for introducing me to the pants-straining wonders of Eurohottie Extraordinaire Edwige Fenech for the first time--a favor for which I can never adequately express the depths of my depraved gratitude.

Sure, Sergio gave me a bit of an upset tummy with his cannibal-cinema effort Slave of the Cannibal God, a flick that displayed none of the qualities I was praising a few sentences ago and thus I found not at all to my taste. (HAW!) But after watching today's entry, Martino's justly revered 1971 giallo The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh, I'm prepared to declare his Keach-filled cannibalsplitationer an unfortunate misstep in an otherwise sterling filmography. Because Strange Vice, with its wonderful shots, gorgeous colors, intricate and sometimes exuberant overplotting, and more Naked Edwige than you can shake yer stick at (almost), is a real winner by just about any Mad Movie standard.

Let's cut to the chase...

We open with a typically stylish scene in which a streetwalker working near an airport is picked up by a faceless john wearing black leather gloves--yeah, don't get too attached to THIS character. They park on the side of the road and the girl takes off her shirt, giving us the first of the film's excellent and EXTREMELY COPIOUS instances of nudity. Rather than being impressed by her substantial charms, iykwim, her client immediately unfolds a straight razor and slashes her to death! A Pollack-style splash of tempera-paint blood on the inside of the black windshield is a nice stylistic flourish, tossing us into the movie on just the right gory, artistic tone.

After a very pointed epigraph from Sigmund Freud ("The very fact that the commandment says 'do not kill' makes us aware and convinced that we are descended from an unbroken chain of generations of assassins for whom the love of murder was in their blood, as it is perhaps in ours too"), we find busy-busy businessman Neil Wardh (Alberto de Mendoza) arriving at the airport, accompanied by the missus, Julie Wardh, played of course by the incomparably hot Edwige Fenech. Edwige is ROCKIN' the headscarf/turban-look, and is not at all upset that her husband can't accompany her to the hotel before heading to a financial meeting. She's a modern woman, after all--she has her own things to do.

The Lady Swami sees self-pleasuring in your future...

On the way to the hotel, Julie learns about the recent rash of razor-slashings that are all over the news in town. At a rain-soaked stop at a traffic light, Edwige goes all soft-focus and remembers a tumultuous encounter with ex-lover Jean (the sublimely creepy and oddly handsome Ivan Rassimov), also in a rainstorm, in which Jean literally beats Julie into sexy submission. It's another very stylish scene, with the rain streaking down over slow-motion blows, Edwige's blouse ripped open, and a long-range shot of Jean forcing his attentions on her supine form on the ground beside his distinctive black sports car. When a smack bloodies Julie's lip, the feel and taste of the red stuff turns her protests into violent passion--our first glimpse of the "strange vice" of the film's title.

Arriving at the hotel, Julie notices a strangely familiar sports car parked outside--what are the chances? Unnerved, she flees into the luxury suite her husband has reserved for them, which has the kind of 70s decor I can only dream about--broad horizontally striped wallpaper, tinted bubble-pane windows on the doors and even in the hallways, and a glass-topped sitting table whose center is a Lazy Susan of Boozin'. Sweet, indeed. Edwige wastes no time stripping off for a shower, giving us more toplessness and a bare bottom shot to die for. Again, suh-weet.

Wow! Just LOOK at that wallpaper!

Before she can get wet, though, the porter knocks with a bouquet of flowers and a card from a mysterious admirer: "The worst part of you is the best thing you have, and will always be mine.--Jean." Okay, maybe *not* so mysterious. Anyway, with her possessive and violent ex-master following her around Europe, Julie obviously has more immediate concerns than the razor-slasher to worry about...or does she?

Three days later Mr. Wardh has *still* not made the time to relax and cavort with his bored young wife (IDIOT!), so Julie goes to a party given by her ditzy socialite friend Carol (Conchita Airoldi). There she meets Carol's cousin and co-inheritor of the family fortune George (the eponymous and ubiquitous George Hilton), who seems en- rather than dis- couraged at the sight of Julie's wedding ring. Jean makes an appearance as well, leering evilly at Julie while two Italian models rip each others' paper dresses off for a good-natured, squealing naked catfight in the middle of the room! Yes, it's that kind of party. Where's the mashed potatoes at?

Ivan the Terrible

As she's leaving the party Jean catches up with Julie and makes his intentions clear: he wants to get together for a little slap-and-tickle, minus the tickle. At just that moment Mr. Wardh finally shows up and confronts his former rival. At one point he pops Jean one in the jaw, leading to some excellent acting from Ivan as he first gets all bestial and angry looking, then slowly calms down before letting loose a wonderful eeevil laugh. It recalls a similar scene from Bela Lugosi in Dracula, and that's a huge complement.

Back at the hotel Julie has another flashback to her problematic relationship with Jean, this one much more in the style of the freaky surreal sequences Martino did so well in All the Colors of the Dark. We get some cool fish-eye lens work as Jean towers over the sprawled Julie, first pouring a glass of champagne on her bosoms (nice) and then smashing the bottle on a table, sending a shower of gem-like shards of glass raining down on her! (NOT nice!) He uses the broken bottleneck to cut off Julie's shirt, also leaving a bleeding scratch on her torso, the sight of which again seems to push Mrs. Wardh from terror to desire. Obviously sex and fear and blood are all mixed up in poor Julie's psyche, and when Jean falls on top of her and they begin making love on a bed of broken glass, her back is soon dotted red with small cuts. Strange days indeed.

Most Peculiar, Mama

Meanwhile, the Razor Slasher continues to cut a swath through the city's Beautiful and Naked, including one of the paper-dress girls from the party where Julie saw Jean, who goes out in a boobtacular homage to that famous Psycho shower scene. Julie's unhappiness in her marriage comes front and center, as she confesses to Carol, "I've got to escape from myself!" Fortunately for us stage one of the escape plan involves entering into a torrid affair with George, which climaxes (IYKWIM) in an extended lovemaking session on a couch in George's flat, giving us some more amazing Fenech-nudity, including a tantalizing cheek-spread just before Martino cuts away. Unfortunately they do this in full view of a picture window, where a dark figure watches, obviously angry about the whole thing.

I don't want to reveal too much more about the plot, as the movie takes this set up and goes on a narrative version of Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. Will the Razor Slasher be revealed to be the violently jealous, jilted Jean, the obvious choice? Will it turn out to be Mr. Wardh, who perhaps knows more about his wife's dalliances than he lets on? Could it be (gasp!) her new lover George, who seems too good to be true and probably is? The flick gives motives and opportunity to all, and the way it pulls all the threads together in the end will please some and frustrate others, but at least it's never boring.

I would like to talk a little about some of the things Martino does right, though, as he really flexes some cinematographic muscles here. The director keeps a tight rein on the story, and the editing and pacing keep things going forward at a good speed, even if not always in a straight line. He also puts together some very stylish compositions. A scene where Carol goes to meet a blackmailer in Julie's stead at a botanical garden is both beautiful and tense, and a later scene where the killer stalks Julie through a darkened parking garage recalls some of the gorgeously geometrically lined shots from All the Colors of the Dark. (In fact, at times in that movie Martino may have been visually "quoting" himself). The flashbacks are great in their trippiness too, though not approaching AtCotD's weirdness, and a late confrontation between George and Jean in a desert-like setting looks like it could have come straight out of a super-stylized spaghetti western--a genre I'm sure Martino dabbled in at least once.

Here's Looking at You

As for the "strange vice" of that memorable title, I was surprised it didn't figure more prominently into the actual machinations of the plot than it did. Whether you interpret Julie's vice to be straight S&M or full-out hematomania, it's an intriguing aspect of her character that I felt could have been explored (and exploited) more fully. As it is, the vice is used to explain her attraction to the otherwise repugnant Jean, which is fine as far as it goes. But in this case, I think it could have profitably gone further.

The acting is good from just about everybody involved. Ivan Rassimov is a real villain's villain, with his reptilian looks and snarling voice injecting menace and creepiness into every scene. (His blonde locks seem to get several shades lighter in some scenes, which I take to mean he is in fact a chameleonic reptoid alien.) Hilton is not as good, but passable enough. And Edwige is mesmerizing as usual, though for my money not quite as believably terrified here as in All the Colors of the Dark. But as a Nef Double-D (Naked Edwige Fenech Delivery Device), Strange Vice has it all over that later film.

Nothin' Strange About It

As for the rest of the cast, a lot of them are female, most of them are HAWT, and *all* of them get nekkid. In fact, this movie has one of the higher noodz-per-minute ratios of any movie I've seen recently. Nuff said?

Much as I liked Strange Vice, if I had to pick a favorite Martino joint right now, I'd still go with All the Colors of the Dark. I'm just a sucker for a good hippie devil cult, so sue me. But that's in no way to diminish the goodness of this flick, which more than earns its 2.75 thumbs rating. If you like giallo and love Edwige Fenech (and as for that latter point, who doesn't, eh?), you should really give it a look. And I'll be looking for more Sergio Martino flicks in the future.


Postscript--Someone who's a better mixologist than I should really see if he or she can create a Sergio Martino-themed cocktail, called (naturally) the Sergio Martini. It should have vibrant colors, not *too* much taste, and after you drink it you should feel happy and dizzy. And be naked. Get to work, people, and send me your recipes!

Bonus Material: Added Edwige--because too much is never enough.



Ah, there is something about those babes from the 70's isn't there? Is it the curves without surgical enhancement? That something lurking behind their eyes? Or is it that they have pubic hair?

Wiser men than me will have to answer that one.

And on a more serious note, my tastes in horror rarely take me into the giallo genre but your articles have intrigued me enough where I might start giving them a try.

Tenebrous Kate said...

I'll confess--I kept hoping Julie and Jean would work it out in the end. Sort of a Sadean story with a happy ending to warm the cockles of my black little heart. Cos I'm pretty sure when you use the word "problematic" to describe their relationship, you actually mean "super fucking hott." I am STILL waiting for someone to send me flowers with a vaguely sinister and uber-sexy card attached.

As to Martino, like a lot of the Eurodirectors, he was in it for a living, and he made silly trash as well as sublime trash. Personally, I dig his 80s actionsploitation stuff in a TOTALLY different way from his gialli.

Richard of DM said...

This is one of the best gialli ever. You've got to do Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key next. You will NOT regret it.

The Vicar of VHS said...

@Al Bruno III--I think points "a" and "b" are right on. As to "c"--well, imo sometimes there's something to be said for progress. ;)

FWIW, I've never been a *huge* giallo fan, but Martino's style here and in All the Colors of the Dark I find very appealing. Plus both have Edwidge Fenech. So, yeah--ZANG.

@Tenebrous Kate--if I were a woman and had to choose between Ivan and George Hilton's blandness, I think I might also be willing to take a few slaps in the exchange. As to the flowers/cards, remember this is the Internet--be careful what you wish for! ;)

@Richard--You probably know that in this movie one of the creepy cards with flowers that TK references actually reads "Your vice is a room locked from the inside, and only I have the key--Love, Jean." :) Martino liked the line so much, he had to make another movie! I'll definitely look for that one. :)


well Vicar, what can I say? In the case of "C" (and that sounds dirtier than it should!)being exposed to the work of Christy Canyon helped turn me against all but the most rudimentary forms of landscaping.

What an odd subject for a horror blog...

The Vicar of VHS said...

>>What an odd subject for a horror blog...'ve READ *this* blog, right? ;)


True. I just didn't want to drag you into the 'bush leagues'.

Nyuck nyuck.

The Duke of DVD said...

Ahh, 70's Eurobabes. I like to refer to them as "free-range bush", and Ms. Edwidge exemplifies this like none other. I firmly believe that the giallo genre was conceived merely as a vehicle by which the directors shooting them could have sex with their stars. Thusly I awaken to the daily horror of not being a 1970's Italian giallo director.

Once again, Vicar, you bring us the sleazy goods. Reading this makes me want to break out one of my giallo boxed sets and watch "Strip Nude For Your Killer", because what else would you do?

Anonymous said...

Easily my favorite giallo and better than Argento's work from the same period IMO. I second "Your vice is a locked key...", slightly weaker than this one and "All the colours..", but still vintage Martino and very fun.

I'm pretty sure "Seven deaths in the cats eye" was directed by Margheriti and not Martino though - the Gothic style certainly doesn't seem very "martino-like" to me.

The Flying Maciste Brothers said...

Yes, SEVEN DEAD, is indeed Margheriti, and more a gothic than a giallo...

Nice write-up on MRS. WARDH, an astonishing piece of work.

Have you seen TORSO? That is anybody's masterpiece. A strong, visually and structurally complex thriller that still is unsung despite the nice Anchor Bay and Shameless releases (both have differing footage). When I interviewed him for Fangoria when I was in Rome some years ago he definitely agreed with me. He had been very impressed with Richard Fleischer's SEE NO EVIL (BLIND TERROR) and the influence is obvious. MRS. WARDH is equally complex, but if you like this one, then his successive '70's thrillers only improve and mount on the complexities. He is one of the few genre directors who wasn't afraid of playing with formula and mounting subtext within genre product. He is a consummate, conscientious filmmaker -- very aware of the various levels of audience he is obligated to entertain (from those seeking simple entertainment to those with more intellectual needs) and very willing to work his ass off to do it. I can honestly say that not one of his films from that era has ever let me down. But TORSO is the real jewel in the crown (and not just because of the surfeit of dummy-deaths!).

- Howard

The Flying Maciste Brothers said...

I know...I know... you SAID SEVEN DEAD was a's the Vivarin kickin' in! Forgive.

The Vicar of VHS said...

Thank you, Anonymous and Macistes, for pointing out the error of my attribution. I don't know where I got the idea that "SEVEN DEATHS" was Martino. Mea culpa--I will fix it in the review....when I get around to it. :)

And Howard, I'm very jealous that you got the interview Martino! Though obviously you know your stuff more than I--I would probably have embarassed myself by asking him what it was like working with Barbara Steele on "Black Sunday." :S

Thanks for commenting!

Jay Clarke said...

I concur with the recommend for Your Vice Is A Locked Room... It was the first film I saw with Edwige Fenech and I was instantly smitten. Martino is great, he's uses just the right amount of style and sleaze.

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