In the early 1970s, Sergio Martino directed a memorable clutch of gialli – twisty murder mysteries featuring slasher killers and imperilled heroines in cosmopolitan, upscale settings (cf: Lo strano vizio della Signora Wardh/Blade of the Ripper, La coda della scorpione/The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail, Tutto i colori del buio/All the Colours of the Dark, I corpi presentanto tracce di iolenza carnale/Torso). This was the last in the bunch, taking its weird title from a throwaway line in a threatening letter sent in Signora Wardh. The picture segues from pop-decadent drama about nasty rich people, skips through familiar serial murders, flirts heavily with the plot of Les Diaboliques, trots out that cynical bit about conspirators killing each other off la ronde-style (as in Mario Bava’s Antefatto) and winds up with a sex-change version of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Black Cat. It is restless also in its hopping from one apparent protagonist to the next. First up is Oliviero Rouvigny (Luigi Pistilli), a blocked writer who cheats on his gauntly glamorous, red-headed wife Irina (Anita Strindberg) with various women (a bookshop clerk, a black maid who is treated abominably) who are murdered while has blackouts which prompt him to believe he might be the killer. This section is full of extravagantly unpleasant behaviour, with upperclass layabouts sniping verbally at each other while unaffected by the killings – an odd, unsettling bit has a whole party full of young things (there’s a hippie camp near the grounds of the usual mansion) clapping and singing a spiritual to Oliviero after he’s made some racist-sexist remarks about the maid (Angela la Vorgna). Dalila di Lazzaro has a bit as a blonde girl who gets up on a table and strips, ‘decadent’ business that derives distantly from La Dolce Vita.
About half-way through, after the slaughter of an absurdly-dressed hooker (Enrica Bonaccorti), a psycho-killer is apprehended in the act, and it seems Oliviero is let off the hook for the murders. The first traces of Poe’s story creep in with Satan the cat, who shows up in some nightmares and gets into Irina’s dovecote, prompting her to pick up some scissors and gouge out one of the cat’s eyes in a gruesome (if fakey) close-up. Sallow, artistically impotent stud Oliviero is perversely obsessed with his late actress mother, and is taunted about their perhaps-incestuous relationship (she is visibly present as a portrait in which she is costumed in her greatest role, Mary, Queen of Scots), which leads to many quarrels with Irina, as grey-haired mystery man Walter (Ivan Rassimov) lurks as a perhaps-imaginary menacer. Then, in comes the winsome Floriana (Edwige Fenech), Oliviero’s niece, who shakes things up by sleeping with Irina, a motocross enthusiast milkman (Riccardo Salvino) and Oliviero, and models some amazing ‘70s fashions. In gialli, Fenech usually played an innocent who was either being persecuted or playing detective, but here she’s as grasping and sneaky as everyone else. After her campaign of seduction is complete, Floriana seems to manipulate Irina into murdering her husband, then helps to wall him up with the dead maid in the cellar in a replay of the classic Diaboliques two-women-coping-with-the-corpse trope.
Only it turns out Irina didn’t need manipulating since the murder was all a part of her plan – and Walter (her lover) spreads oil on a mountain road just as Floriana and her motorcycle-racing boyfriend are speeding off with Oliviero’s mother’s jewels, in a tricksily-edited crash sequence which makes play of a sexy billboard, trickling oil and the rush to death. Walter burns the two corpses but is then shoved off a mountain by a cackling Irina – when you’re the only person who can incriminate a co-conspirator, it’s often not a good idea to celebrate the conclusion of a campaign of mass murder in a high place. Irina returns to the family villa only to find the police summoned by a busybody rag and bone lady (Nerina Montagnani) who has filed a complaint about Irina’s mistreatment of the cat (!) – whereupon we get Poe’s mewing-behind-the-new-plaster-in-the-wine-cellar gambit and the expected payoff. The strangest aspect of the piece as a Poe adaptation is that from the outset we assume Oliviero –drunken writer and introspective miserable bastard – will be the protagonist who does the killing and walling, but it turns out to be his wife, the victim in the story.
With funky Bruno Nicolai music and visuals which suggest a general air of moral collapse and psychological fracturing, this is one of those Italian thrillers that’s so cynical as to be almost comical. Some detours, like the sharply-dropped hippie sub-plot, are entertaining, and the blunt yoking together of comic relief and exploitable sex/horror in the murder of the daffy prostitute ought to get some sort of prize for blatantly delivering the exploitation goods. However, the reel or so wasted on a trip to a dirt-bike course to watch a race where nothing interesting happens – seriously, what is the gold-digging sexpot doing with the bloody milkman? – could easily have been devoted to something else. Gialli usually get tagged as psycho-thrillers, but they tend to evoke the Hitchcock of Dial M for Murder rather than Psycho: nasty murders are committed within rotten marriages for financial gain and sheer meanness rather than homicidal mania. Indeed, this is such a genre-confused item that the UK theatrical distributor simply shoved it out as a sex film (under the title Excite Me) – which was done with a couple of other gialli (not least Alla ricerca del piacere/Hot Bed of Sex and the later Fenech vehicle Nude per l’assassino/Strip Nude for Your Killer) in the ‘70s. Other markets got titles suggesting a horror film (Eyes of the Black Cat) or a sexy mystery (Gently Before She Dies).