John Harrington is quite, quite mad. Unusually, however, he is perfectly aware of and comfortable with this situation: “Paranoiac – an enchanting word and so full of possibilities!”
His compulsion to murder young brides is also therapeutic, each fresh victim bringing him closer to understanding a childhood trauma by revealing another crucial detail of this Freudian primal scene.
Tiring of his wife, own Mildred, John seeks a divorce. But having worked hard to make the bridal wear business John inherited from his beloved mother into a success, Mildred is unwilling to accede to his demands, expressing a firm belief that their marriage is of the “till death do us part” variety.
Thus John decides to do away with Mildred.
In an unexpected twist on the till death do us part theme, she then returns as a ghost to haunt him, this making his craziness more outwardly manifest insofar as no-one else can see her or thus who John is talking to...
If this wasn't bad enough, the police are becoming increasingly suspicious that he is the bride killer. All the victims can, after all, be traced back to the House of Harrington in one way or another.
While John points out that there are 200 weddings a day in Paris this only makes things worse, making the coincidence seem all the more striking, design rather than accident...
Bava's involvement in the project extended beyond the direction to cinematography and the title design, in which the Red Sign of madness over Harrington is a recurring motif
Mario Bava's 1969 return to the giallo may have also witnessed a return to the fashion setting of Blood and Black Lace and the theme of the discrepancy between the public face of the bourgeois and the monster lying beneath, but it does so with a very different tone to its predecessor.
The real train and the simulacrum
From the outset, as the director cuts from stock-type footage of a real train – a train on which the as-yet-unidentified Harrington as just killed once more – to a very obvious model (whilst the audio continues as before) before then revealing that Harrington is now at home playing with his toys, it is clear that Il Rosso segno della follia / Hatchet for the Honeymoon is more light-hearted and tongue-in-cheek than deadly serious.
The oh-so Freudian motif of the stairs in John's haunted memories
Rather than presenting the killer as an un-knowable, masked Other as in Blood and Black Lace, Bava instead draws us in to identifying with him through extensive use of voice-over and subjective camera and a more abstract, less explicit manner.
Like Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux – identified by Tim Lucas in his liner notes on the Image Entertainment DVD as a key intertext for the film – you come to understand why he kills, becoming unable to condemn even if you do not condone.
The superficially charming John Harrington wouldn't hurt a fly – until, having saved it from drowing, he feeds it to his parrot...
But there are also differences between the two characters and films: whereas Chaplin sought to comment on the ironies and inequities of a world that accepts at the societal scale what it denies at the individual – kill one man and you are a murderer, kill a million and you are a conqueror – Bava is less concerned with making such a grand(iose) statement. However, insofar as this was also the kind of subtext that many critics felt out of place in Leone's The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, the Good's remark that “I've never seen so many men wasted so badly” an admission that in the scheme of things he and the other rogues are, like Verdoux, “merely amateurs,” perhaps this is no bad thing as a wise acknowledgement by Bava of the kind of limitations he was working under.
John's ideal women – mannequins preserved in a state of perfection, unable to answer him back
Yet, other subtexts are undoubtedly there if one wants to search for them. Harrington's quest for self-knowledge that will ultimately prove self-destructive has clear echoes of the Oedipus myth – arguably the first detective narrative and protagonist – itself given a consciously idiosyncratic interpretation by Pasolini the previous year.
With an elegant score by Sante Romitelli, considerable camp / kitsch charm and three attractive female presences in the forms of Dagmar Lassander, Femi Benussi as models / victims who fall into the House of Harrington's ambit and Laura Betti – reinforcing the Pasolini connection, having approached Bava to express her interest in working with him on the back of her award-winning performance in Medea - as Mildred, perhaps Hatchet for the Honeymoon's only real weakness is that from a generic perspective the resolution of its central enigma is all too predictable.
But given the aforementioned opening sequences, perhaps this was entirely the point: if Pasolini's Oedipus Rex represents the most subversive take on a classical text in the Italian cinema of the 1960s (“I have never dreamt of making love with my mother, rather I have dreamt, if at all, of making love with my father...”) might not Hatchet for the Honeymoon be the equivalent ne plus ultra for the giallo, circa 1969?