Early in my giallo education, I watched a movie that I fully expected to hate – Sergio Martino’s Torso – and was pleasantly surprised. Since then, I’ve seen at least one other of Martino’s films, the delightfully-titled All the Colors of the Dark, which I also enjoyed.
According to the backs of the boxes in this three-volume set, Martino made a total of six gialli in the course of his career. I believe, by that math, I’ve now seen five of them, thanks to the Sergio Martino Collection from Arrow Video, which introduced me to the following three titles in the director’s idiosyncratic oeuvre.
“He’s got a charming smile for a monster.” – The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail (1971)
Not quite Martino’s first foray into the waters of giallo – the one I still haven’t seen, The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh,hit earlier the same year – The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail nonetheless beat the examples I’m more familiar with to theaters by a year or two. And while there are the obligatory stalk and slay sequences, complete with a more-than-usually lithe and athletic black gloved killer in a skin tight body suit, it feels less like what we’ve come to expect from a giallo than it does a more by-the-numbers crime thriller.
The back of the box offers the suggestion that “arguably no other giallo” taps into the European “desire to experience the glamour of the jet set lifestyle” than The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail, which kicks off in London before jetting off to Athens, mentioning France and Tokyo along the way. In proper Hitchcock fashion, we’re first introduced to Evelyn Stewart, who would be our protagonist in a flick that wasn’t as interested in red herrings and twists.
Her husband has died in a plane explosion, and she’s off to Athens to collect his generous life insurance payout. Unfortunately for her, others have their eyes on that money, too, and she’s knocked off by the film’s midpoint, to be replaced by our obligatory civilian sleuths, George Hilton as an insurance investigator, and Anita Strindberg as a reporter.
Neither they nor the police really do much to solve the crime, however. Mostly, they just wander around waiting for the next clue – or body – to drop. The final reveal of the killer’s identity makes at least some of this make sense, but that does little enough to excuse how much it bogs down the previous 90 minutes or so. Yet, for all its meandering, there’s a real charm to this laid-back giallo, one that several of Martino’s other films also possess… and that really solid score by Bruno Nicolai doesn’t hurt, either.
“How do you intend to exorcise Satan?”– Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972)
Almost as much as black-gloved killers, brutal murder set-pieces, and bottles of J&B scotch, gialli are often known for their elaborate titles. But there are elaborate titles and then there’s Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key. It’s basically nonsense, where the actual plot of the film is concerned, but dang if it’s not memorable.
For the most part, Your Vice Is a Locked Room isn’t really much of a giallo, either. As an extended riff on Poe’s “The Black Cat,” it’s really more of a sleazy Italian gothic melodrama, with the most obligatory of murder mysteries tacked on and largely abandoned by the midpoint, when it also introduces Edwige Fenech, who had previously worked with Martino in several of his other flicks. Here, Fenech steals the show as the world’s most duplicitous sexy niece, who plays both sides of the dysfunctional central relationship against one another for no discernable reason other than because she can.
It’s all in the service of padding out Poe’s plot to feature length, but all the hippie parties, decaying manor houses, stripteases, sex romps, eye trauma, spousal abuse, and so on can only do so much to keep something so fundamentally threadbare going, and Your Vice never entirely finds its feet until its somewhat absurd climax that is nonetheless exactly what you know it has to be, if you’ve ever read or seen any version of “The Black Cat.”
I mentioned earlier that I had seen a couple of other Sergio Martino films before digging into this set, and interestingly the two I had seen are sandwiched on either side of Your Vice. The supernatural gothic giallo All the Colors of the Dark – which boasts maybe the most perfect giallo title of all time – came out earlier in the same year, while the much more “straight” Torso was released in 1973. Interestingly, this flick actually feels a lot like a midpoint between those two, both of which I enjoyed more, for various reasons.
“Trouble doesn’t only happen outside.” – The Suspicious Death of a Minor (1975)
Maybe the most impressive thing about this boxed set from Arrow is how much each of the three films feels like its own thing, in spite of all being by the same director and, ostensibly, at least, in the same genre. Where Scorpion’s Tail was a jet-setting Hitchcock-esque murder mystery and Your Vice Is a Locked Room was a decadent gothic reimagining of Edgar Allan Poe, this is a straight-up crime flick, with a plot that could have been lifted right out of a noir.
What begins with the eponymous death spirals into a story of prostitution, drugs, and kidnapping for profit that dovetails two (or more) seemingly unrelated plots and showcases rot that reaches to the highest levels of power. There’s ostensibly a killer knocking off people who know too much here and there, but this is less a giallo and more, I’m told, a “poliziotteschi” – another Italian subgenre, albeit one about which I know almost nothing.
Besides similarities in style, about the only thing The Suspicious Death of a Minor shares with its set-mates is that we’re really not introduced to the main plot until we’re well into the film. For much of the movie we’re left up in the air, as characters come and go, and the real identity of our main protagonist remains elusive.
This is less a “whodunit” than a “whydunit,” with the identity of the killer obvious from the start. It’s how the titular death connects to everything else that the movie is working out. This is also a flick that lives and dies by the (considerable) ability of frequent Martino collaborator Claudio Cassinelli to carry it, along with his sidekick played by Adolfo Caruso, in one of the only four film roles he’s credited with on IMDb.
Despite being the longest movie in this set, The Suspicious Death of a Minor never drags and is filled with oddly delightful moments, such as a comedic car chase sequence that’s straight out of vaudeville. Of course, things get grimy by the end, but the touch is light until then and the music by Luciano Michelini is a blast, even if some of the themes are repeated somewhat ad nauseum.
Ultimately, like a lot of Arrow Video sets, this one is pricey for the casual movie watcher, but more than worth it for the fan, and it produces a nice sampling of what the giallo genre was capable of, showcasing three very different atypical examples of the form, all produced by the same sure hand.
Besides his work as Monster Ambassador here at Signal Horizon, Orrin Grey is the author of several books about monsters, ghosts, and sometimes the ghosts of monsters, and a film writer with bylines at Unwinnable and others. His stories have appeared in dozens of anthologies, including Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year and he is the author of two collections of essays on vintage horror film.