Drawing acknowledged inspiration from Robert Siodmak's classic proto-proto-slasher The Spiral Staircase, the last of Umberto Lenzi's gialli with Carroll Baker differs from its predecessors in replacing financially motivated conspiracies to murder with an insane killer.
Though a strong entry on the whole, the film is marred by an awkward opening sequence and not entirely convincing surprise ending – not in itself necessarily a bad thing nor particularly rare within the filone, but not well enough executed to really work except as a demonstration of Chion's cathartic “screaming point” notion. (Knife of Ice is also of interest in terms of Chion's positing of the mute – the voiceless presence – as antithesis of the acousmetre – the bodiless voice – and as a companion piece / counterpoint to the likes of Cat o' Nine Tails and Crimes of the Black Cat as yet another giallo exploration of disability and its effects upon our experience of the world.)
Nice sentiment, shame about the misspelling
A reminder that Lenzi was also the man who brought you Cannibal Ferox and a neat demonstration of the attraction / repulsion dynamics of horror?
It's all about reading the signs
We begin with a series of bullfights. They're not entirely gratuitous, insofar as the different reactions of cousins Jenny (Evelyn Stewart) and Martha (Baker) to the killing of the animals – or, more positively, the skill and bravery of the toreros – seems intended to provide us with insights into their respective personalities, but do add an unpleasant element that sits somewhat uncomfortably with the more restrained approach found elsewhere in the film; treat it as a historical artefact, a demonstration of what passed for representative displays of Spanishness to tourists in the dying days of the Franco regime, and it shouldn't impact too much on the film in toto.
Following the bullfight – an incident some months in the past, as it soon turns out – we learn that Martha is mute following a traumatic incident when she was 13 years old, in which her parents died in a train crash. She has never been able to near the railway since – until today, that is, as she goes to meet her cousin at the station, who is returning to the family villa following a successful singing tour – i.e. Jenny found her voice and Martha lost hers.
The rhetoric of the close up and rack focus
On the way back home, their chauffeur Marcos (Eduardo Fajardo) is forced to stop the car as its engine is overheating. While he goes to fetch help, a strange looking man suddenly appears out of the fog and stares at the women menacingly, but disappears before Marcos returns; he did not see the man, he tells them.
At the villa we are introduced to the rest of the family and their associates. There is uncle Ralph (George Rigaud), with a dodgy heart and an interest in the occult; housekeeper Mrs Britain; Father Martin and his young ward, Christina – whose birthday it is – and Martha's physician, Dr Laurent.
That night Jenny is disturbed by a noise, goes to investigate and its then dispatched by an unidentified black-gloved knife wielder.
Before and after
The body is soon discovered – but not before a well-executed suspense sequence that also builds suspicion as to who knows what – and the police called in. Their questions establish the chauffeur, housekeeper and doctor as suspects - or red herrings, of course – whilst the fact that this is the second body to have been found in dubious circumstances in the past 24 hours points to the presence of a maniac in the locality.
Lenzi's representation of the killer's depredations is uncharacteristically restrained.
Mark of the Devil I, II and III as an occult subplot develops
At Jenny's funeral Martha is disturbed by the sight of the mystery man in the bushes, but he disappears before she can alert any of the others to his presence. There is, however, a potential clue in the form of a satanic pendant, while the man's wild-eyed stare makes the inspector think that he may also be a drug addict.
More worryingly the inspector also conjectures that the killer, whoever he or she may be – perhaps satanist equals drug addict equals killer is too neat an equation for Lenzi – has a particular interest in blondes and that Martha may well be next on his agenda...
The screaming point #1 - Martha uses the car horn to alert the others to her grim discovery of Jenny's body
The screaming point #2 - what will Martha do this time? Note that unlike the knife-wielder who dispatched Jenny this figure is not wearing black gloves
Well written, directed and performed in the main – Baker is particularly impressive in her mute role – Knife of Ice is a thoroughly professional piece of work marred primarily by that ending. This said, the journey there, the process of figuring out whodunnit amidst all the potentially meaningful exchanges – “Yes, I have an idea who might have committed these crimes – but then who doesn't? Why don't you ask Father Martin's opinion?” – is an enjoyable one.
Though perhaps relying on the zoom-in and extreme close-up a touch too often and over-indulging in flashback montages for some viewers, Lenzi elsewhere demonstrates an admirable facility for prolonged suspense sequences where something may be lurking in the shadows or the fog or not.
Little dots of yellow that didn't have to be there
Indeed, its perhaps this general excessiveness that ultimately makes the film work: when everything is so hysterical and histrionic, everyone becomes a suspect and every look, gesture, word or element of mise-en-scene overdetermined with possible significance.