The affirmative opinion amongst genre fans is that quality ‘giallo’ films peaked during the 1970’s. It is no secret that the quintessential releases of the sub-genre were distributed during that time. The masters of giallo cinema, Mario Bava and Dario Argento lay the groundwork for a succession of directorial peers who attempted to make their own stamp on the genre.
Mario Bava’s son, Lamberto served as an assistant director on his father’s films before taking the directorial reigns for himself at the cusp of the 1980’s with his first Italian horror feature, Macabre. With vast experience working on some of the giallo genre’s most notable titles courtesy of his father, Lamberto echoed the tropes that became highly familiar in giallo while bringing in his own unusual tone to his films. As we will discuss with his second feature film, ‘A Blade in the Dark’, Lamberto achieved the knack for creating intensely suspenseful sequences and nasty gory set pieces, which remains the most resonating aspect of the 1983 murder mystery.
‘A Blade in the Dark’ is an underrated offering into the giallo film canon. As it progresses the more captivating and intensifying it becomes. The opening sequence is striking with its dingy setting depicting children in peril. It begins with young boy being coerced into venturing down a dark stairwell for ominous reasons by some mean-spirited kids. It transpires that the scene we have just witnessed is part of a horror film, which leads to the introduction of the protagonist, movie composer Bruno (Andrea Occhipinti) who is working on a score for his filmmaker friend Angela (Fabiola Toledo) as she directs her latest fright flick.
Isolated in a rented property, Bruno gets to work on his chillingly beautiful piano piece when he is targeted by a deranged killer, hell-bent on slaughter. The killer pulls no punches, going as far as sabotaging Bruno’s work to a destructive effect, in an attempt to prevent him from discovering the lunatic’s true identity. A nerve-shredding, cat and mouse game ensues which sets the stage for murders of the most brutal kind.
The early 80’s saw a growing trend in post-modern horror, which allowed directors to break the fourth wall, offering up a distinctive commentary within their movies. As Argento did with Tenebrae by focusing on a crime author unwittingly alluring a crazed killer obsessed by his novel, Lamberto employs a similar plot device with ‘A Blade in the Dark’. There is nothing scarier for a genre filmmaker than the idea of real killings emulating the fictional world of the film. The meta-narrative tactic became more prevalent in horror as time went on; especially during the 1990’s however at this time it provided a fresh perspective on how audiences consumed horror. Lamberto continued this trait when he went on to make his cult classic and consequential film, Demons in 1985.
The amplified level of suspense is what works well in ‘A Blade in the Dark’. While hiding from an attacker in a closet is hardly treading new ground its a technique that places the audience on a knife-edge as they eagerly await to see whether the victim will outsmart the killer or ultimately become brown bread! Lamberto adopts the traits employed by Argento; he displays enough malice on screen in order to create a visceral reaction in his viewer but leaves plenty to the imagination with innovative camera work. Lamberto literally goes in for the kill with his murder scenes, the most effective being the death of Angela, the roommate of Katia, victim numero uno. In a prolonged sequence, Angela is swimming in the villa pool before heading to the bathroom to wash her hair. This is where the film’s grizzliest scene takes place. Not only that, a significant clue about the killer’s identity is revealed as the leather gloves are off and the killer is seen bare-handed with painted red-nails, indicating that the culprit is a female. Lamberto clearly wanted to push the plot along quickly with the inclusion of the reveal during the second death scene. Nevertheless, it adds to the intrigue by implying the perpetrator could be a woman.
Soon the narrative begins to thread together calling back to the opening scene in which the young boy in Laura’s film is insulted by his peers with chants of “you’re a female”. It is discovered that Laura’s film is autobiographical based on an enigmatic woman named Linda. In a diary entry, Bruno discovered that Linda has a secret and that it is “terrifying”. This reveal adds another layer of fear as the audience is invited to play a “guessing game” as the plot develops. The stock character or “characters” of the hapless detective is notably absent from the film resulting in questionable motivations for our protagonist and suspension of disbelief. Bruno takes on the role of an amateur sleuth instead of notifying the authorities that there is a dangerous maniac on the loose! The aspect of ridiculousness is heightened as he brings about his own sense of possibly preventable doom.
The representation of gender in ‘A Blade in the Dark’ is rather dubious. Bear in mind, this was the early 80’s and several films of this kind treated trans-gender people as an unknown, feared entity. In 2017 the attitude presented feels extremely dated but it’s a reflection of the ignorance at that time; take Sleepaway Camp (1983) for instance, it never felt that any malice was intended in its portrayal of trans-gender people but was conveyed more for the shock value which also seems to be the case here. On a more positive, unexpected note, it is interesting how Bava represents a female giallo director with the character of Laura.
At this point, Italian Horror Cinema was vastly male dominated. As discussed at the beginning of this article, the juggernauts of the genre are Argento, Bava and Sergio Martino with the only female director springing to mind being Zeda Muller, an indie Australian filmmaker who recently wrote and directed a homage to both the giallo and German expressionism with her first feature, 13 Dolls in Darkness. This unfortunately highlights the lack of prominent female talent within this sub-genre. Of course, there have been powerful women associated with giallo, striking actresses Daria Nicolodi and Edwige Fenech for example but when it comes to female giallo directors they are practically non existent. Lamberto embedded a welcome portrayal by including a strong, creative heroine in addition to the female victims used as fodder for the killer.
Lamberto Bava’s ‘A Blade in the Dark’ is a memorable giallo in its own way. Its most remarkable aspects are its score and intriguing plot devices. It does however lack some weight and plausibility but that should not detract too much from the entertainment factor.
A Blade in the Dark will be screened at the Abertoir Horror Film Festival on Saturday the 18th November at 18:30pm. Following the film will be a conversation with the master himself, Lamberto Bava. For more information, visit: http://abertoir.co.uk/whats-on/schedule