A sensual shocker and proto stalk ‘n’ slasher
Poe’s classic short story of Poetic justice, The Black Cat, has had many adaptations and interpretations over the years.Its dark vein of paranoia and sly comeuppance remains gripping no matter how many permutations the tale can go through. In the hands of Sergio (Torso) Martino it becomes a voyage into erotic manipulation and convoluted revenge, and a crucial turn in the baroque labyrinth of the giallo.With its highly literate but somewhat unwieldy title of Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key, this 1972 sensual shocker is a proto stalk ‘n’ slasher following on from the likes of Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace and, most pertinently, his Blood Bath, to which Vice really owes the biggest debt.
When Luigi Pistilli’s washed-out author, Oliviero, turns to the bottle (the ubiquitous J&B) and revels in drug-fuelled binges and decadent affairs left, right and centre, his aberrant behaviour seems to spark off a spate of sadistic killings. Young women are getting themselves carved-up, and the local police seem to have him in their sights. Oliviero’s rundown chateau becomes a battleground of desire, suspicion and violence between himself and his harshly treated and long-suffering wife, Irina (the exquisitely beautiful Anita Strindberg), and as more murders occur, the dysfunctional are forced to become complicit in nefarious deeds. But their emotionally overwrought dilemma is only going to get worse when Oliviero’s long-unseen niece Fiorina (the absolutely jaw-droppingly sexy Edwige Fenech) arrives out-of-the-blue and causes a sensual uproar for them both.
And all the while, that black cat that belonged to Oliviero’s late mother, whom he worshipped, is prowling about, nudging tensions and helping tighten the noose. Called Satan, this slinky little brute has an abject hatred for Irina ... but can do no wrong in the eyes of Oliviero. The atmosphere inside the chateau swiftly becomes combustible with sexual angst. Clearly, somebody is pulling the strings somewhere along the line. But who? And why?
Whilst Martino’s film is abundantly misogynistic on the surface, it cleverly reveals itself to be anything but with strangled femininity exposed as devilishly cunning when confronted by arrogant machismo . And whilst the narrative is deliberately cloying and emotionally claustrophobic, the plot capably opens up the proceedings to give breadth and scope with wider implications to the deadly goings-on and multiple locations beyond the ruined chateau.
Despite being an obvious reference point for future giallo pictures, Vice is actually very much its own thing. The familiar tropes of the Euro-slasher may be trotted out with vicious aplomb, but this always feels like an internal drama more akin to the other Poe staples that Roger Corman so marvellously delivered during the previous decade. This is a film about unhealthy family obsessions, taboo desires and collapsing mental states. The chateau, much like the crumbling edifices that dominate many of the Corman movies, and usually forming the external manifestation of the requisite Vincent Price character’s descent into madness, is exactly the same physical embodiment of Oliviero’s cracked psyche and the graphic illustration of his doomed relationship with Irina. Thus, Vice is probably much more of a psychological melodrama than a straight-up bodycount assemblage.
Indeed, Martino is not serving-up a particularly scary experience as the murders themselves, though quite brutal, actually seem like some vicious little asides hastily bolted onto a story more concerned with gender politics and cruel mindgames. This is no detriment, though. Quite the opposite, in fact, this only makes the proceedings all the more fascinating to watch as each new emotional atrocity unfolds.
The performances are terrific. Pistilli, so great in For a Few Dollars More, is intensely sleazy and grubbily attractive at the same time. He looks like James Caan here. We despise him, of course ... but we also find him strangely charismatic. Genre-babe, Fenech, is much more than just prime titillation. She reveals a calculating severity as well as that devastatingly seductive charm and unbridled sex appeal. But this is most assuredly Strindberg’s film, who bestows it with heart, soul, fragility and, in essential paradox to her aching vulnerability, an appealing savagery. Asides from the cat, itself, she also possesses the most entrancing eyes and I, for one, find it utterly impossible to wrest my own from them.
As an interesting side-note, something occurs very early on when Oliviero indulges in a bohemian party with the local counter-culture brigade that seems almost like a signpost for the notorious sex-dance that Britt Eckland performs for Edward Woodward’s virginal rozzer in The Wicker Man, which was released the following year. We, along with Pistilli, observe a luscious young woman undress and dance upon a table to the haunting lullaby another girl sings. The overall effect is like a diluted version of the powerful sequence to come in The Wicker Man. Thus, Vice, along with the great many inspirations that we see it carry from Bava and Corman as well as the clear influence it would have upon the genre as it unfolded in its wake, may also be responsible, however, tangentially, for helping to hone one of cinema’s most provocative and powerful scenes.
On the downside, the killings are undermined by some rather crude and unconvincing gore effects. But then this really isn’t the sort of slaughterfest that giallo is normally renowned for. As I have stated, this is more akin to the cerebral bludgeoning and mental dissolution of Poe’s more “haunted” works than it is to the elegant violence of Dario Argento.
Vice is a terrific little movie that successfully mingles sex and death with tempestuous psychology and marital anguish to deliver chills, mystery, arousal and twists in equal measure.
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