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In the year following his masterpiece giallo The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh (1971), Director Sergio Martino returned to the genre with this sordid tale of the Italian aristocracy gone wrong.
“Of course, you'd much rather be drinking from my skull.” Kick-starting under the oil-painted gaze of the recently deceased matriarch of the Rouvigny family, Martino introduces us to the excesses of the Italian aristocracy, housed within a crumbling and hollow mansion. As free-loving guests from a nearby commune enjoy the free booze, and a grope of slave/servant Brenda, the bitter marriage of Oliviero (Luigi Pistilli, The Good The Bad & The Ugly) and Irina (Anita Strindberg, Who Saw Her Die) is laid bare to all without a care in Oliviero's mind.
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“Which mother was the real mother for you? Mad Mary or Bloody Mary?” Irina holds great contempt for her academic husband – gripped within a booze-and-drug-fuelled creative paralysis – but their marriage is an abusive one, and she is always on the receiving end of Oliviero's frustration. His affairs are well known to her, as are his sexual dysfunctions and perverse turn-ons – but is she just as perverse as he? After the party has broken up, and interrupting him being serviced by the maid, she presents herself to him in his mother's dress, and receives Oliviero's own version of tough love in return.
“We rather doubt she died of a broken heart.” Naturally, there's a killer on the loose, but when one of Oliviero's former students (and lovers) is found with her throat slashed, Irina begins to suspect that her hate-filled, impotent, drunkard husband is the culprit. From this point on, the Rouvigny's life takes one dark turn after another, particularly when Brenda turns up dead and wearing Oliviero's mother's dress. They can't possibly go to the police – who are already investigating the case and sniffing around Oliviero without any actual evidence – and so Irina is dragged into being complicit in hiding the body in the wine cellar.
“A writer's mind is always wandering.” As Irina's torment begins to boil over – exacerbated by the feud she has with “Satan”, Oliviero's forever-hissing and most beloved cat – she descends into a state of perpetual high tension hysterics. This is a woman wound ever tighter – a woman trapped in a hateful marriage – a woman with murder on her mind, for she could be the next victim at any moment.
“Sex is a very demanding occupation.” Perhaps a visit from their niece Floriana (Edwige Fenech, Phantom of Death, Strip Nude For Your Killer) will provide a little comfort? She's a free-wheeler, a sultry sex-pot, and she spent six months in a commune where every man and every woman is freely available to one another – and she's not even adverse to the advances of her own Uncle Oliviero, who is rumoured to have slept with his own dearly departed mother – but what are Floriana's motives? Entering into a semi-secret incestuous relationship with them both, will she become another victim, or is she just interested in her inheritance?
“Come on, you're not going to tell me that the homicide squad is a hotbed of humour?!” Populated with arresting performances – most notably from Strindberg (Almost Human) – Martino's film is a dark and twisted tale. Irina is endlessly high strung, with Strindberg's piercing blue eyes and sharp features painting a picture of fear, confusion, and sickness across the screen. Pistilli (A Bay of Blood) brandishes Oliviero as a filthy rotter, but whether you should fear him or pity him remains a question throughout, while Fenech's Floriana is the giallo equivalent of a femme fatale. The role marked an unusual turn from Fenech (The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh), who was more commonly seen baring her flesh in saucy sex comedies, or inhabiting numerous heroines in superior gialli. Then, of course, there is the mystery of silent stalker Walter (and his dodgy wig), as played by an under-used Ivan Rassimov (The Man From Deep River).
“Does it arouse you to think you're sleeping beside a killer?” Inspired by Edgar Allen Poe's “The Black Cat”, Ernesto Gastaldi's script – written with Adriano Bolzoni and Sauro Scavolini – is the embodiment of savage 70s satire. The Rouvigny's are seemingly rich, but they're creatively void and their roof is caving in; they're selling furniture to make ends meet, but expensive jewels and priceless vintage wines gather dust, neglected. The police – as per the norm – are ineffectual (the conclusion to their murder investigation strikes a particularly sardonic note); coincidence and bad luck are more likely to provide results than actual detective work, and masculinity is routinely cut down to size. A dark heart even beats behind the closed doors of provincial Italian society – new arrival Giovana (who is introduced arse-first to the viewer) is seemingly about to be pimped out, by her own Aunt, to someone of social or political importance. Here, prostitution is subtly clashed with notions of religion and childhood innocence, while the proletariat ravenously spread salacious gossip about their lusted-after financial betters.
“You see a lot more when you're willing to look.” While not as visually exuberant as the utterly gorgeous The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh, Martino's crisp sense of direction feeds exploitation hungers and intellectual fascinations, within an on-going series of well composed frames by Giancarlo Ferrando. Attilio Vincioni's near-subliminal edits add a final dash of spice to the mix. There are moments of crimson-splashing violence to accompany Irina's spiralling madness, with blood-spewing wounds abound, albeit nothing as cumulatively brutal as the serial killings in Martino's gore-drenched 1973 giallo Torso.
“Between her hysteria, and your sex fixations, I can't take either of you any more.” Taking the title from one of the murderer's notes in …Mrs Wardh, some consider this to be Martino's masterpiece, and while it proves to be a deliciously devious outing, my money still rests firmly on his dreamy and perfectly crafted 1971 giallo. Still, Your Vice Is A Locked Room And Only I Have The Key (otherwise known as Eye of the Black Cat, or Excite Me) pushes all the right buttons for fans of giallo flicks – especially in the performances (fans of Anita Strindberg will be extremely well catered for here) – and is one of the best examples of the genre.