Judge Paul Corupe likes his horror movies how he likes his salad dressing: Italian.
The Next Victim!
Of all the previously untapped genres that have exploded onto DVD, none have made quite as big an impact as giallos—those stylishly shot Italian thrillers with the hilarious, often completely nonsensical titles. A decade ago, few could even pronounce the term, but today, a steady stream of these sexy slashers has pushed them to the forefront of Euro-cult fandom. For outsiders, however, the genre itself is something of an acquired taste, as the films are often so focused on fetishizing the act of murder itself that minor contrivances like plot logic and believability often become the very first victims.
With a built-in audience that is easily forgiving of the inherent flaws of the genre, it's not really surprising that NoShame Films, a relatively new DVD outfit devoted to releasing the hidden gems of Italian cinema, would kick off their release schedule with a pair of giallos directed by Sergio Martino: The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh and The Case of the Scorpion's Tail. What I wasn't prepared for, however, is that The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh is actually not a bad little example of the genre at all—in fact, it's head and shoulders above many of the other giallos I've seen.
Facts of the Case
Mrs. Julie Wardh (Edwige Fenech, Strip Nude for Your Killer) has a vice, and a rather strange one at that: The sight of blood both repels and excites her, a quirk that she picked up from her old boyfriend Jean (Ivan Rassimov, Shock). Now married to international ambassador Neil (Alberto de Mendoza, A Lizard in a Woman's Skin), Julie is mortified one day to read in the newspaper about a black-gloved killer who has been carving up local ladies with his straight razor. With Neil often away, attending to his diplomatic duties, Julie finds herself doted on by both an unyielding Jean as well as a new flame, George (George Hilton, A Bullet for Sandoval). After she takes up with George, Julie is contacted by a blackmailer out to expose her affair. When the extortionist accidentally kills Julie's friend, thinking it is her, Mrs. Wardh leaves Neil and heads off to Spain with George, fearing for her safety. But she's not out of the woods yet, as the mysterious killer seems to have followed her.
As the 1970s began, Italian genre filmmaking was at its very height. Cinemas were flooded with a wide variety of pulpy movies, including spaghetti westerns, police thrillers, and sex comedies, many of which were cheaply produced and churned out by less-than-talented individuals. Sergio Martino, who dipped into all of these styles with films like Gambling City and Sex with a Smile as well as later giallos like All the Colors of the Dark, Your Vice Is a Closed Room and Only I Have the Key, and the celebrated Torso, was definitely one of finer directors to emerge at the time. The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh, one of Martino's very first films, is one of his best, as well as a standout for the giallo genre as a whole.
As tightly scripted thrillers, giallos are notoriously lacking, so it's really refreshing to see an example that actually doesn't stretch viewer disbelief to its absolute limit. That's not to say that the plot of The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh is as well structured as it could be, but at least you can follow it, and, along with the standard murder set pieces and the parade of unclothed Italian starlets, it does feature enough twists to keep things interesting. The film spends much of its time setting up each of the three men in Mrs. Wardh's life as killer candidates, but the suspense tends to come from the immediate danger of the stalk-and-slash scenes rather than from the machinations of the plot itself.
Substance aside, style is really the hallmark of the giallo, and The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh is no exception, featuring some remarkable art direction and cinematography. Particularly notable are Julie's psychedelic nightmares, including one of Jean smashing a bottle and sending a glittering shower of glass into the air, which is repeated several times to excellent effect. Martino handles himself well throughout the film, giving the audience exactly what they expect—skin and sin, with a handful of well-crafted murders. Nora Orlandi's groovy, ephemeral score also adds a little class to the proceedings.
Sleazy leading man George Hilton pulls off the perfect debonair charm as Mrs. Wardh's love interest, but the true stars of the film are Edwige Fenech and Ivan Rassimov, who are just unstoppable as the twisted ex-lovers. Fenech balances her character's strengths and weaknesses very well, and her descent into fear is wholly believable, while Rassimov is the evil highlight of the film, a vile sadist who stalks Julie in hopes that he can still win her back.
Giallos are quite often released on DVD by companies that truly care about the genre, and The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh benefits from an excellent presentation. The remastered 2:35 anamorphic image is quite striking, with bright and bold colors and only the rare artifact to be seen. The film can be watched either in Italian with English subtitles, or in English with the included dub track. The Italian version is slightly superior in sound and quality, with the English version changing the story around slightly to appeal to an American audience. Several worthwhile extras are included as well, starting with a brief introduction by Sergio Martino at the Venice Film Festival, which should be watched before the film. Afterwards, settle down with "Dark Fears behind the Door," the delightful and informative "making of" documentary, which features interviews with Martino, Edwige Fenech (who still looks incredible), George Hilton, and screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi, among others. (The story behind why the title was changed from "Mrs. Ward" to "Mrs. Wardh" is quite funny.) The Extras section also features the film's original theatrical trailer and a still gallery.
With a reputation as one of the best giallos ever made, this commendable release of The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh is certainly going to appeal to fans of the genre, but it's also recommended for giallo newcomers as well. With this DVD, NoShame has shown that it is a company to watch out for, especially if your name is Anchor Bay or Blue Underground.
Your guilt is a closed room, and only I have the verdict.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: NoShame Films
• Interview with Director Sergio Martino, Producer Luciano Martino, Writer Ernesto Gastaldi, and Stars George Hilton and Edwige Fenech
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