Judge Bryan Pope is whispering to you now: "Thissss... film... sssuckssss..."
Why are you so afraid of Luca? He just wants us to love him.
At all costs.
Regarded in some circles as a forgotten masterpiece of '70s-era Italian gothic storytelling, A Whisper in the Dark is a beautiful but tedious contribution to the horror genre.
Facts of the Case
Young Martino (Alessandro Poggi) lives with his parents, sisters and governess on a sprawling Venetian villa, but he is lonely. He has no friends, save for Luca, a naughty boy with a penchant for turning up where he's not wanted and planting unpleasant surprises for those who anger him. No, Luca isn't well liked, and Martino's family would just as soon be rid of him. There's just one problem.
Luca is dead.
Not only that, but Martino's mother begins to suspect that Martino's malicious "friend" may be the spirit of the child she lost during her last pregnancy.
A Whisper in the Dark benefits immeasurably from its creepy premise, even if the premise isn't altogether original (1972's The Other covered similar ground, and did it better). The very concept of a person reaching out from beyond the grave with nefarious intentions will always, always provide fertile ground for producing a witch's cauldron of scares, especially if that person happens to be a child who died before birth. A good ghost story never goes out of style—you just have to know how to do it right.
Marcello Aliprandi's film wastes no time in introducing its ghost, Luca. It establishes his presence early on, often in interesting, unexpected, even matter-of-fact ways. Martino has reserved a seat for Luca at the breakfast table, and he quietly places toast and jam before the empty chair. Martino has secret, sinister conversations with Luca while locked in his bedroom, and it's clear that Martino's family, with the exception of his father and grandmother, hesitates to dismiss Luca's existence entirely. They may tease Martino about his "imaginary friend" (only Martino's mother suspects Luca's true origin), but something tells them it's not wise to make Luca angry, because an angry Luca can turn nasty fast. Anger Luca, and one might find one's self, say, getting crunched between a ferry and a dock.
During these early moments, Whisper finds the right tone for its ghost story, and other small moments are equally effective (an ominous red balloon floats gingerly across the grounds, a child's swing seems to move at will) But like so many horror films from the 1970s, what it really wants is to dig its fingers into domestic turmoil and dissect a passionless marriage and a crumbling family. Indeed, this family is falling apart more quickly than the ancient mansion in which it lives. The father's extramarital activities are beginning to wear on his marriage, and the mother is a basket case trapped in the iron grip of her domineering queen bee of a mother. And, above it all, hangs the specter of their dead child.
The theme of a family shattered by loss (of love, trust, child or whatever) and haunted by demons both inner and outer is not new to horror. Far from it. As genre fans will be quick to point out, it has resulted in some of the most memorable spook films in cinematic history, including Cat People, Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist, The Omen, The Shining and Don't Look Now. Let's consider that last one for a moment, since Whisper sees fit to borrow so liberally from it in terms of both story and style. Like Nicolas Roeg's chiller, which was released three years earlier, Whisper frequently pauses to caress the foreboding, ornate Italian architecture; it features one of Pino Donaggio's lush piano-and-strings compositions; and it includes an extended lovemaking sequence. Hell, there's even a brief excursion over the bridges and through the back alleys of Venice (alas, no knife-wielding dwarf in a raincoat). And then there's that floating red balloon, which instantly recalls Roeg's infamous red slicker.
But make no mistake: A Whisper in the Dark is no Don't Look Now. In Roeg's film, a child's death was the catalyst that allowed Roeg to pick through the already dying embers of a marriage and find love doused by sadness. You sense it in the characters' small gestures and in their eyes. You hear it screaming in their hushed conversations. The entire film is an orgy of pain and grief. In Whisper, screenwriters Maria Teresa Rienzi and Nicolò Rienzi avoid such subtleties, instead painting the wounded marriage in broad strokes and relying on the easy villains of lies and infidelity. But why the lies? Why the infidelity? Whisper shows us the symptoms, but it never pinpoints the disease. Also, while Rienzi and Rienzi wisely blanket their story with an unsettling veil of ambiguity (you don't always know whether characters are victims of Luca's handiwork or simple circumstance), the film's few, utterly nonthreatening jolts are so poorly conceived and ineptly staged by Aliprandi that they fizzle on impact (Martino's twin sisters teeter on the edge of a balcony, a toad pokes its head out of one terrified woman's bathwater).
If the film's most unforgivable sin is its inability to elicit chills, its inability to hit the right notes with the performances finishes a close second.The cast, which includes American actors John Phillip Law as Martino's father and Joseph Cotton as a psychiatrist brought on board to shed some light on Luca, but who instead spends most of his time taking bubble baths, is stilted and clearly does not know how to play the material. Lucretia Love is on hand to show some skin, but she wrecks her scenes each time she opens her mouth. As Martino, Poggi is appropriately sullen, his performance only occasionally marred by shrill outbursts (nothing compared to the two harpies who portray his sisters). Only the lovely Nathalie Delon, as Martino's mother, stands out with her sympathetic, nuanced performance.
NoShame Films has restored A Whisper in the Dark from its original negatives, and the results are astounding. Celebrated Italian cinematographer Claudio Cirillo's gorgeous compositions (the film was shot at the Villa Condulmer in Mogliano, Veneto) and muted color scheme are beautifully preserved. The Dolby 2.0 Mono works well, nicely balancing the dialogue and Donaggio's score. The package includes English and Italian tracks. Most of the film was recorded in English, making the English track a smoother viewing experience. English subtitles are also provided, but be warned: they seldom match the English audio track, and the effect is jarring.
The package contains one substantial feature, the 32-minute "Whispering Corridors." Although the packaging describes the program as an interview with Cirillo, it's actually a half-hour, one-way conversation in which Cirillo discusses his career leading up to the making of this film. Dry, but also a rarity, as Cirillo rarely grants interviews. That alone should be enough to intrigue enthusiasts of Italian cinema. Also included is a brief introduction by Cirillo, the film's original theatrical, a still gallery, and liner notes. The notes contain an essay on Italian gothic films, as well as talent bios for Law and Cotton.
Atmospheric but never frightening, and crippled by mostly amateurish performances, A Whisper in the Dark doesn't dive deeply enough into the treacherous waters of familial loss and betrayal, at least not enough to justify its cult status. Not recommended.
NoShame Films is commended for producing a fine package, but they're encouraged to focus their time, talents and resources on worthier films in the future.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: NoShame Films
• Introduction by Cinematographer Claudio Cirillo
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