“Let’s Get Weird” is a series written by Jon Dobyns of electronic group Twitch The Ripper. In it, he reviews and shares his thoughts on some of the lesser known horror classics. Make sure to pick up their latest album Colorblind.
Call it an obsession, call it an infatuation, or frankly just call it a magnetic pull – but I am drawn to the vibe of the giallo era. “Vibe,” there isn’t a better word to describe it. From the hyper-stylized shots, to the ludicrous stories and chilling synth lines in the scores, gialli are more than just period pieces. In a great giallo everything lines up to create that perfect sense of mystery, murder, misery and, yes, vibe! However, there’s a charm to giallo that modern thrillers simply don’t capture. Perhaps the era has all to do with it. From beautiful countrysides to city grime, from haunting scores to ultraviolent Hitchcock-esque stories on acid that are peppered with all the flirtatious steaminess one can muster up. But of course not every film in the genre is solid gold. I’ll admit that some of the later pictures in this mold come across as vapid or dull. And the abundance of poor knockoffs and copycats just dilutes the pool of these clever, thought-out shockers. So for all the non-believers, I present proof you can strike gold in a silver mine. Director Sergio Martino gave us a debut that makes my top-five list of gialli, The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh.
While admiring the fan favorites, or at least mine, I get stuck in a whirlwind of genre classics. The Girl Who Knew Too Much, Blood and Black Lace, Deep Red, and The Black Belly of the Tarantula immediately come to mind for all fans. For myself, I consider them comfort flicks and I watch them regularly. True horror buffs know the directors who achieved levels of success and cult status for themselves.
But what about Sergio Martino? He might be a lesser name in the mainstream world, but he’s a genius in mine. Sergio produced a few titles that I consider some of the best and most creative of the genre. Martino kept me guessing who the black gloved killer really was in The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh. As he put me through the cinematic paces of his effective gialli, I was the one who spat my drink out during the unmasking scene.
Tormented and tragic, Julie Wardh holds a special place in the heart. Not just because of the performance provided by heartthrob Edwige Fenech, but because of the exquisite heartache she exudes. She endures nastiness with an uncontrollable on-screen presence that is so intriguing. And maybe it is simply the genuine sorrow you feel for her. Simultaneously terrified by and attracted to the sight of blood, Wardh is haunted by memories continuously playing over and over in her mind of a sadistic ex-lover. The mutual perversion comes to light as flashbacks of incidents progress and begin to take over her stability.
More clever than the typical movie thriller, this film has an atmosphere that is influenced as much as anything by an infectious and melodic score. As we jump through numerous unpredictable hoops set up by Martino, eerie pads and voices lay down a thick air that adds to the on-screen emotion each time the soundtrack hits. Contributing to this weird level of pure dismay, I find myself humming the tune time after time. Waiting for it to pick up again, the discomfort it represents begins to feel almost welcome as it sticks with you for days.
In keeping with the depraved theme, poor Julie has no idea that everyone in her life is out to get her. From her husband and ex to her new love interests, all are planning to get Julie out of the picture. Three mischievous bastards from her past, present and future are all in cahoots and believe they can perform the perfect crime while an unrelated maniac is on the loose. That’s the key to this abnormal giallo. The black gloved, straight razored maniac has nothing to do with the characters directly, but serves as a simple yet crucial diversion to their devious plans. With a killer on the loose these characters are only able to distract Julie, reducing her accusations to nothing more than delusions. In fear of her ex’s capacity for doing her harm, the near-death close encounters seem like obvious events to pin on her late aggressor. But as it seems more likely that Jean, her ex, may well be innocent, Mrs. Wardh appears to be at a loss. Playing the damsel in distress, and playing it well, Julie turns to a new lover. Not knowing his true intentions as they skip town on a getaway, she still is unable to escape her own personal pandemonium.
But while The Strange Vice of… as a whole may seem soapie at times, an unpredictable fulfillment of unforeseen raw nastiness lies deep at its the center. Martino does an excellent job of creating characters for viewers to truly despise. Tension builds in unsettling ways as we wait for the misogynistic psychopaths to finally get what they deserve. Unable to distinguish hallucination from reality, it’s not until the final 15 minutes that the fog begins to clear.
Many giallo films were fast tracked in the early 70s. But very few came close to being as inventive and exciting as Sergio Martino’s debut in the genre. The twists, the tension, the mystery – and without a doubt the score – combine to make it one of the more cunning thrillers that really holds up. The biggest problem I’ve always had with the lesser titles is that the stories tend to drag in the middle. Also, there is a certain predictability that comes with the empty motive, which causes too many dull moments. As the years passed, some of the more seasoned writer-directors continued their output of genre films, but somewhere along the way lost the initial vibe that helped distinguish them in the first place.
The later era aside, however, I still can only name a few filmmakers worthy enough to be put on the same pedestal as The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh.