A Blunder In the Dark

by Arthur B

Lamberto Bava's A Blade In the Dark is a stylish giallo ruined by a crass and offensive ending.
Sing along everyone, to the tune of That’s Amore:
Wheeeeen you’re stabbed in the eye
And you gruesomely die
That’s giallo!
Ahem. Giallo is a distinctive subgenre of Italian horror that emerged in the late 1960s, reached a peak of unusual artistic accomplishment in the 1970s, and degenerated (along with much of the rest of the Italian B-movie industry) into unmitigated trash in the 1980s. It’s a sort of heavily stylised precursor to the slasher movie, with a big emphasis on psychological horror, often a strong mystery element, and occasional whiffs of the supernatural.

The innovator of the genre is generally held to be the prolific Mario Bava. Like many Italian directors of his era, Bava’s filmography is massive and diverse, but his horror work was particularly important; having made a start as a cinematographer, he directed his second movie, I Vampiri, in 1956 after original director Riccardo Freda had a falling-out with the producers and walked out of the project, leaving Bava to complete the unfinished shoot in just two days. The end result wasn’t exactly distinguished, but it’s a historically important work because it was the first Italian horror movie to be released in the sound era; the genre had been banned under Mussolini, and though fascist-era restrictions had been eased there had been a question mark over whether the Italian market had any appetite for horror.

I Vampiri was part of a broader shift in the approach of Italian studios, where they would start to produce movies not aimed solely at the Italian market but at the broader European market - an approach which would lead to a boom in Italian cinema in the next few decades. From the Spaghetti Westerns to the giallo, Italian cinema would attract a wide cross-section of multilingual talent, thanks to the adoption of dubbing as a generally accepted practice in the Italian industry; directors would simply have actors read their lines in whichever language they were most comfortable with, and then dub everything into different languages for release. (That’s why most of the time you’re not really getting a more “authentic” experience if you watch Italian movies of this era with the Italian soundtrack and English subtitles - unlike anime, where the original material was all produced in Japanese and English dubs have often been shoddily-produced afterthoughts, there’s no One True Soundtrack and the Italian version is just as likely to incorporate dubbing as the English.)

Over this boom, Bava’s shadow loomed, particularly in the horror field. Bava created giallo as a refreshing departure from supernatural horror, which by the late 1960s had fallen into a bit of a tame, predictable rut; later, when Dario Argento took the giallo into darker, edgier, nastier territory in the 1970s, the aging Bava proved himself able to match Argento shock for shock. Towards the end of his life he co-directed his final two movies with his son, Lamberto Bava, and in 1980 was so pleased with Lamberto’s debut feature as a solo director, Macabre, that he joked he could die in peace - and then a few weeks later he did. Lamberto would assist Dario Argento with Tenebrae - arguably Argento’s best movie of the 1980s and one of the last truly artistically accomplished giallos - before producing his own take on giallo, A Blade In the Dark.

And here, as with much of the Italian industry in the 1980s, things badly go off the rails.

The movie opens with a some kids poking about some grey, ruined buildings. It seems to be some sort of childish hazing deal - they toss a ball down some stairs into a dark basement and make their wimpy blonde peer go down to get it. Instead, there’s a horrible scream from the child after he passes out of sight, and the ball is tossed back up the stairs full force. As the other two kids scatter, we see that the ball leaves behind bloodprints as it bounces off the walls…

After the credits the main plot begins. Our protagonist, Bruno (Andrea Occhipinti) and his buddy Tony (Michele Soavi) are discussing a rental arrangement - Tony’s going to go off on an extended business trip for the oil company that employs him, so Bruno’s going to rent Tony’s luxury villa whilst Tony’s away. Bruno is actually a soundtrack artist, and it turns out that he’s making the soundtrack of a horror movie - the first scene of which is the scene we saw before the opening credits. Bruno wonders whether he’s the right man for the job, but director Sandra (Anny Papa) believes that he is - particularly since he’s going to be living in a large, mostly empty villa, with all the spooky isolation that implies. But just how isolated is Bruno really? Someone is stalking about the house in his absence, watching him from the garden, waiting to strike. Could it have something to do with the previous tenant, the mysterious Linda? Bruno thinks it might - especially when on one of his soundtrack tapes he discovers his microphones faintly picked up someone whispering about how Linda has a secret that must not be uncovered...

Bava's use of lighting and scenery - particularly the modern interior of main character’s house - makes this feel like a very post-Tenebrae giallo. (In particular, director Sandra goes off on a monologue about darkness, which can only be a tip of the hat to Tenebrae.) Darkness is also a recurring presence within the film itself, both directly and indirectly (as when Bruno is told that the previous tenant, Linda, had a bunch of lightbulbs taken out because she preferred darkened rooms). There’s a bit towards the end where Bruno and one of his allies nearly attack each other due to being spooked by each others’ shadows.

Inevitably though, it feels rather more low-budget than Tenebrae - partially because this was never actually intended as a feature film. It was originally developed as a television series of four half-hour episodes, with the schtick being that there’d be a horrible murder at the end of each episode - however, Italian television stations balked at the gore, so it got recut as a feature film. Another consequence of this is that it feels rather too long - it weighs in at 110 minutes, which is a bit long for a giallo with a plot as ultimately thin as this one.

The movie is helped by the fact that it’s got a great setting - the direction does a great job of convincing us that the villa is much bigger than the few exterior shots would suggest, and the fact that it’s so large and Bruno is concentrating so much on his music makes it believable that a gruesome murder could take place elsewhere in the house without him hearing. The cavernous nature of the villa means that Bava can keep the film fairly sparse in terms of dialogue, since many scenes focus on capturing the characters in isolation, with Bruno and his various house guests rattling about in this maze that is much too big for them. The sequence of Bruno exploring the abandoned portions of the manor whilst unknown to him the killer is waiting to pounce on him, whilst Bruno’s own soundtrack music plays in the main room and eventually stops just before the jump scare is properly clever.

Another thing Bava gets some mileage out of is the whole film-within-a-film deal, which is a bit of a recurring thing with his work Bava - it shows up in both Demons movies, for instance. It seems to me that the films-within-films here and in Demons tend to all share a particular aesthetic: they’re more ostentatiously gothic than the films they appear in, their action unfolding in decaying, abandoned ruins rather than the modern, inhabited places the main action occupies. There’s shades of poetic justice in Sandra being strangled with footage from her own film, in which she exploited Linda’s past trauma in order to get a cheap horror flick out of it; Linda’s big secret is concealed in the last reel of the film-within-the-film, which gets hacked up by the killer - and it’s quite neat how Bruno and an editor colleague of his start piecing it back together and watch it just about where the last reel of this film would begin.

Unfortunately, at this point I’m going to need to totally spoiler the movie for the sake of calling out its conclusion, which is offensive to the point of ruining it. I’d put in spoiler space, except frankly you can see this coming from a mile off: the way Bava intercuts shots of the killer (who we know is female-presenting) with the children’s taunts from the opening scene (in which they yell at the scared kid “You’re a female!” in such an awkward way as to draw attention to it) should make the solution obvious to anyone who knows their giallo precedents - or, for that matter, their Hitchcock.

Yes, once again it turns out that the killer is a character who was introduced to us as a man but who has a female identity they use for their killing, and since Tony was the only man of any particular significance we’ve been introduced to in the movie it’s blatantly obvious that it’s him. (Especially considering that, you know, it’s his house.) Tony has been living as Linda at home discreetly for a while, but has been killing in order to keep that a secret - the first murder happened because nosy neighbour Katia (Valéria Cavalli), who had befriended Linda, had discovered Linda’s secret and then everything that followed was an attempt to cover it up. Soavi’s performance as Linda is frankly a bit mixed; on the one hand, Linda’s moans and sobs during one scene when she realises she’s killed some random innocent rather than her intended victim are haunting, but on the other hand Soavi’s Linda voice is outright silly, like a slightly more melodious and sing-song take on the voices the Monty Python team use when they crossdress for a sketch.

The overlong coda tries to wriggle out of the transphobic implications of this outcome by claiming that Tony wasn’t actually transgender so much as he was insecure in his masculinity, so he was doing all this shit as a means of asserting that he wasn’t scared and wasn’t a girl (as his last words imply), and he was dressing as a woman not because he identified as one so much as he felt like a fraud dressing as a man. I don’t really buy this, not least because it’s extremely clear that Tony had carefully constructed this identity as Linda and you’d think that if he wanted to assert his masculinity he’d do it in his masculine identity, not as a woman.

Of course, Psycho does much the same thing with its coda, in which the psychiatrist character tries to explain that Norman Bates isn’t trans. Such wrapping-up portions to explain the killer’s motives are staples of giallo - even Dario Argento wasn’t immune to riffing on Hitchcock in this respect - but, as with the one in Psycho, they tend to date badly, particularly as both the popular and academic understanding of transgender issues on the one hand and psychology and mental illness on the other develop beyond the then-fashionable ideas raised in such explanations. Even then, despite the fact that mere blunt denial can’t entirely excise Psycho of a whiff of transphobia, I think it makes its case much better than A Blade In the Dark does.

In particular, Psycho does some very crucial work to make it clear that simple gender identity cannot explain Norman’s behaviour. It underscores that Norman Bates’ cross-dressing has nothing to do with his personal self-image as Norman Bates, and everything to do with his delusion that he is his own mother. So far as I can make out (and I admit as a cisdude I am not brilliantly placed to judge), Norman Bates doesn’t really show any significant signs of dysphoria or wanting to identify as a woman - quite the opposite, he really just wants to be Norman Bates and he’d prefer it if Mother fucked off. Moreover, when he takes on the role of Mother he isn’t attempting to assert an identity for himself as a woman - he’s specifically expressing the delusion that he is a specific, real-life woman, who is a separate person from himself and who on some level he knows full well is dead. That’s a whole airplane full of baggage that can’t simply be reduced to “Norman is transgender”.

Note, indeed, how all this plays out in the context of a much wider range of behaviours - stealing and preserving Mother’s corpse and keeping it in his house, having conversations with her where she tells him off, and so on and so forth - which make it clear that Norman considered the two identities to be entirely and wholly separate from each other, even though one of them was just him play-acting through his overpowering resentment towards his mother. Throughout all of this Norman retains a self-image as Norman and it’s clear that his mother persona isn’t the version of himself that he would like to be or how he sees himself inside, but a nightmarish attempt to deflect guilt, an emotion which Norman is constitutionally incapable of processing in any other way. Indeed, the final retreat of the Norman Bates persona at the end of the movie seems to be another evasion tactic; just as “Mother” seems intent on pinning all the blame for the murders we’ve seen onscreen on Norman, Norman is psychologically speaking nowhere to be found, leaving “Mother” to carry the can. It’s a bit Lost Highway in that respect.

A Blade In the Dark establishes absolutely no real basis to believe that Tony’s issues are anything other than a transgender issue. More or less everything we learn about the secret of Linda undermines the assertion that Tony was not trans. Whereas Norman Bates found throwing on a basic dress and wig to be sufficient for being Mother, Linda’s clothing and makeup when she is presenting as female are far more elaborate, and it’s quite clear that she is trying to pass in a way that Norman Bates doesn’t really try to. It’s equally clear that Linda passes as a ciswoman just fine; in fact, Katia’s diary makes it absolutely clear that Linda had been living as a woman on a long-term basis and Katia was genuinely surprised to learn her secret. This behaviour is pretty much the only really distinctive and memorable thing we learn about Linda’s character, if you subtract the killing, so the one-liner about her not really being trans simply doesn’t wash, with the result that the movie comes across as substantially more transphobic than the not-exactly-innocent Psycho was.

This being the case, the armchair psychology explanation for the killings offered in the coda is downright absurd, and that dooms A Blade In the Dark to be one of those giallos which is kind of ruined by the ending - rather than placing what has come before in a nightmarish context, it just makes what has come before seem as trite and insulting as the explanation is.

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Comments (go to latest)
Robinson L at 00:36 on 2017-10-31
unlike anime, where the original material was all produced in Japanese and English dubs have often been shoddily-produced afterthoughts

Wow, zing.

From what I know of anime, that may be true of the 80s and 90s, but my understanding is that English dubs have greatly improved in quality over the past 2 decades or so, and my admittedly limited experience of anime supports this thesis. I’m surprised the resident anime fans haven’t been after you for that one.
Arthur B at 10:03 on 2017-10-31
The accepted wisdom still seemed to favour subs over dubs back in the 2000s when I was occasionally stopping by my university anime club, though things may well have changed. Either way my Googling suggests that there's still a remnant of people who greatly prefer subs over dubs simply because it's the "more authentic" version of the material, whereas the point I'm making here is that for the purposes of many Italian films the Italian soundtrack isn't necessarily "more authentic" than the English one.
Robinson L at 20:24 on 2017-10-31
My understanding from my position out on the sidelines is that there's still an ongoing debate over dubs versus subs in the community - but as you say, the pro-sub side seems to emphasize authenticity, which speaks directly to your argument. That's why I was surprised to see you throw in a dig at the production quality of anime dubs, which to my knowledge is not in question (except maybe among really hardcore sub supporters), and didn't seem to speak directly to the point you were trying to make.
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