Sunday, 10 June 2007

La Casa con la scala nel buio / A Blade in the Dark

Hired to score a low budget horror movie, Bruno (Andrea Occhipinti / Andrew Painter) rents an isolated luxury villa for the month. The ambience of the place soon gets to him as, going to investigate a noise from the basement, he is finds a young woman, Katya, who literally leaps out the closet at him, frightened – she says – by a spider. Acting strangely, Katya asks if Bruno is a friend of the previous tenant, Linda, then makes her exit as Bruno answers a phone call from landlord Tony (Michele Soavi). Curiosity piqued, Bruno searches around and finds Katya's diary in the closet, containing cyptic references to Linda and her “fascinating” secret.


Giovanni Frezza in the film-within-the-film


The house, reminiscent of Tenebrae


The New York Ripper meets Lucio Fontana, as the killer slashes up an image of sexualised femininity

Returning to his work, Bruno remains oblivious to the mayhem outside as an unseen figure attacks Katya with a craft knife, finally cornering and dispatching her in the basement. Playing back his tape, Bruno then notices a voice, which he isolates as that of the mysterious Linda. Another noise draws him outside, only for another telephone call to draws him back inside again – this just as he looked about to literally bump into Katya's corpse. Picking up the phone, there is no answer from the other end...






Echoes of Deep Red as Bruno tries to work

Noticing bloodstains on his trousers, Bruno goes outside yet again and discovers others in the undergrowth. By this time Katya's body has been removed, however, and so his search of the grounds reveals nothing other than the absence of the caretaker from his quarters – we have a suspect; all the more so when he is later found furtively moving a heavy bag of rubbish from the basement and to have an enthusiasm for collecting newspaper crime clippings – and some more telltale marks in the basement, before the sound of his music playing draws Bruno back to his studio, where he finds his tapes mangled.




Effective compositions in a film full of them


As with his father's Blood and Black Lace, a diary holds the secret

Bruno's girlfriend, Giulia, then shows up unexpectedly. She had tried to phone, she explains, but the line went dead. She also asks whether Bruno has noticed the strange smell emanating from the pool. He hadn't but when he recounts his own strange encounter with Katya, Giulia takes it as a confession of infidelity and angrily departs almost as soon as she had arrived...

Conducting a more thorough search of the house, Bruno finds a locked door in the basement at which point Tony shows up. He explains that the room contains some of Linda's belongings but that he can have it opened up if Bruno wants her things moved. Before Bruno can ask any other questions they are interrupted by yet another phone call. While Tony makes his exit – “I'd better go; I have to change”– Bruno answers. On the other end is a woman, who threatens him. It is only Sandra, making a prank call...




Classic giallo imagery; note Katya's yellow skirt


The killer's weapon, held first-person shooter style like the axe in a similar scene in Tenebrae


Those stairs look familiar...

Sometime later Angela, a friend of Katya's shows up, asking if she can use the pool. The previous occupant, Linda, always let her do so, she explains. Her behaviour is again somewhat strange though Bruno, keen to get on with his work, thinks little of it or the revelation that Katya had apparently come to the villa to retrieve her diary.

As she swims Angela notices a knife at the bottom of the pool. It is a discovery that leads to her death as an unidentified figure selects a knife from the kitchen – “the usual phallic cutlery” indeed – and dispatches Angela in the bathroom. Oblivious to all this, Bruno later notices the misplaced knife and, more worryingly, a blood-encrusted gash in the bathroom that fits its blade perfectly, thus prompting yet another exploration of the house and the recording of a message in which Bruno summarises the facts of the case and his fears that he may be cracking up and / or the next victim...

Sandra arrives and suggests that the killer likely would not have had the time to remove the bodies, such that they are still probaby hidden somewhere in the grounds. Given that Bruno has already conducted a number of searches that have exhausted almost all the possibilities, attention turns to the locked room containing Linda's things. On hearing the name, Sandra mentions once knowing a Linda herself, although it would surely be too much of a coincidence were she the same person – the kind of thing that could only happen in “a bad movie”...


Under the soles of your shoes...




Tony's yellow tie and Angela's yellow bag

Going to investigate, they find the room unlocked. It contains various boxes and a suitcase. The boxes contain books, not body parts. The chest contains tennis balls – a sight which bemuses Bruno and horrifies Sandra, as she realises that this Linda and the one she once knew, the one who inspired her film – a film “A childhood trauma turning a normal person into a monster” – are likely one and the same...

Upstairs there is a noise...

A somewhat long precis admittedly but also one that, I would argue, gives some indication as to A Blade in the Dark's particular strengths and weaknesses. Foremost among the former are a engaging and economical mystery – virtually all the action takes place in one location, while the filmmakers play mostly fair with us as far as suspects and red herrings go – with well-handled suspense and shocks, whose nastiness belies the film's television origins. This also unfortunately, also accounts for many of the the latter in terms of a somewhat over-extended narrative – even reading the above, how many times does Bruno explore the house or go answer the phone at an (in)opportune moment? – and a slighty too episodic structure in which a murders at the end of parts one, two and three are followed by recapitulations of “the story so far” at the start of parts two, three and four.


Knife in the water; cinematographer Gianlorenzo Battaglia was a specialist in underwater photography having also worked on the ballroom sequence in Inferno among others.




Angela's murder and the killer's non-black gloved hand cleaning up afterwards

What it does not convey, however, is the general assurance of Lamberto Bava's direction, with lots of elegant camera movements as he explores the environments of the house, all surfaces, textures and minute details a la Argento, albeit without quite that same extravangance and sense of defamiliarisation, with budgetary constraints obviously precluding Louma crane experimentation.

The De Angelis brothers' effective synthesiser-led score is another asset. While derivative of Goblin it also gains a certain justification in these selfsame terms as being exactly what an early 1980s Italian horror film should sound like.

Indeed, one of the major pleasures of the film for the genre-aware viewer – i.e. most of us – is what a theoretically inclined commentator might term its palimpsestic qualities, those traces of other films – Tenebrae, The House by the Cemetery, Deep Red etc. – that repeatedly show through.

Again something similar could be said about Argento's films, Tenebrae in particular. But there is also, I think a vital difference. Whereas Tenebrae's self-consciousness is of a deadly serious sort, in that Argento seems to have intended it as the ultimate giallo, the final word on 20 years of filone production, A Blade in the Dark simply aspires to be an entertaining diversion, its game-playing more akin to that found within the film that started it all, The Girl Who Knew too Much; in this respect, at least, Lamberto Bava is more like his father...

2 comments:

N. Kuiper said...

I like this film, although it does feel sort of "limited", i.e. one location, slow tempo. What really made an impression on me was the opening film-within-the-film scene. I actually thought it was sort of shocking and effective, and it put me in the right mood.

K H Brown said...

The opening scene is one of its strongest points in my opinion. It reminds me a bit of Armand Mastroianni's slasher He Knows You're Alone, although there the characters are revealed to be watching a film in the cinema and I'm sure there must be an Italian precedent somewhere given that the giallo was so self-aware right from opening of The Girl Who Knew too Much, where Nora Davis is reading a giallo paperback on the plane. (In The Crimes of the Black Cat Anthony Steffen's protagonist is also scoring a film, but he's blind.)