Friday, October 26, 2012

Italian Horror Blogathon: A Blade in the Dark (aka La casa con la scala nel buio)

After working as an assistant on Dario Argento’s Tenebre, Lamberto Bava (Mario’s son) made this boring giallo/slasher hybrid, A Blade in the Dark. Unlike his debut film, Macabre, Bava the younger doesn’t show much in terms of originality, here, as he seems too content just making a lower-rent copy of the film he just left the set of. Bava gives us a film that essentially shows us that he paid enough attention as Argento’s AD to make a serviceable film that looks and feels like someone doing their best Argento impersonation.

The film opens with three kids walking into an ominous looking house. Two of the boys razz the other boy (the same freaky-looking kid who played Bob in Fulci’s The House by the Cemetery) about being a female (seriously, they taunt him with, “female, female; you are a female”) as they dare him to go down some steps that lead into the basement (sadly, Dr. Freudstein isn’t down there) to retrieve a ball. As the boy walks down the stairs, the camera stays on the two boys at the top of the stairs. Next, all we hear are the boy’s screams and the ball coming flying up the staircase hitting the wall and leaving a bloody imprint. A wild opening that showed promise and suggested that Bava was creating something surreal with A Blade in the Dark – a kind of supernatural slasher, perhaps; however, we come to find out that this is nothing more than a scene from a movie that composer Bruno (Andrea Occhipinti) is trying to score. It’s not a good sign for the filmmaker when the most tension he can elicit is from a fake movie within his own movie. But so it is with A Blade in the Dark.

What follows is an interesting idea that gets bogged down in the film’s ridiculous running time (110 minutes) and lack of style. Look, long horror movies aren’t universally awful, but even the best Italian horror stylists like Michele Soavi struggled to make their films interesting when they went over the 100 minute mark. But the difference between Bava’s film and something like Soavi’s The Sect (which runs 125 minutes)  is that there’s enough style in the latter to make up for the slog that is getting through such a film. A Blade in the Dark doesn’t have the style to make us forget about its running time; instead, it’s monotonous in tone and comes across as nothing more than a lesser director trying to be Argento. And it’s not even that Bava is inherently an awful director who lacks style; his Demons films are a helluva lot fun, and his demented and oddly brilliant Delirium: Photos of Gioia is a must see for all Italian horror fans. However, with this particular hybrid film, there are only a handful of moments that work.

Before I get too far ahead of myself, here, let’s talk about this plot: Bruno is a composer trying to piece together some music (I hope you like this music, too, because it plays all damn movie) for a new thriller (a genre he’s apprehensive about) when he discovers a picture of a naked woman that has been cut to shreds. As various women pop up in the film and introduce themselves to Bruno, strange things begin to happen around the villa. One night, Bruno is editing the track for the film when he hears a woman’s voice. Bruno tries to decipher what the woman is saying as it seems to be a clue to the strange and bloody occurrences happening in and around the villa.

Meanwhile, women come and go as Bava has his killer brutally dispatch his victims – and it is here that the film feels more like a slasher film than a giallo picture – while Bruno and the director of the film he’s working try to decipher the clues about the woman’s picture, her diary that they’ve found, and the voice on the music track. It all eventually leads to a ridiculous ending (hint: this came out three years after De Palma’s Dressed to Kill, and we all know well the Italian penchant for aping ideas better than their own) that is the type of plot-tidying up found in most gialli; in other words, it’s laughable as we find (SPOILER!!!!) that Tony (Michele Soavi), the owner of the villa Bruno is staying at, was also Linda – the woman in the picture and that wrote the diary. We even get this winner of a line explaining the whole thing for us: “He was hoping to kill the girl in himself.” Wow. Profound.

The film has no real thesis. It lacks any kind of narrative momentum, too. There are all kinds of characters that pop in and out for no other reason than to be Meat (again, this really feels like a slasher film) – none more obvious than the groundskeeper of the villa whose sole purpose is to spy on women as they undress in their rooms; he might as well have a sign around his neck that reads: “red herring.” And usually all of these things are in good fun, but I’ll tell you, the major difference between A Blade in the Dark and something like Tenebre (just to keep this within films we’ve already mentioned) is that Argento – despite all of his nastiness – is having fun and doing it with gusto. There’s nothing here that suggest Bava is having fun. The murder scenes are nasty and cruel, for the most part, and they lack an energy and élan found in Argento and Soavi’s hybrid films. I don’t care too much if films don’t have any kind of thesis or lack narrative momentum; however, there better be some style to move the thing along. Italian horror has never been about logical, easy-to-explain narratives, but when a film as plot heavy as A Blade in the Dark forces you to think more about the story than the images on the screen, then the film is bound to fail because Italian horror just isn’t designed to be held up to that kind of scrutiny.

A Blade in the Dark was originally conceived as a four-part miniseries for Italian television, but obviously it was way too violent for the TV censors, and so Bava was able to patchwork the four separate parts into a singular film. Knowing this going in, I thought this would help me with the film’s running time, but it didn’t; it’s just too long and deliberate to be the effective slasher/giallo it so badly wants to be. Bava would go on to be one of the first “major” Italian horror filmmakers to embrace television and all that it offered (read: money), and it’s clear that television is where he belongs. He just doesn’t have a great cinematic eye when he’s doing these straight slasher/giallo films, and he’s not helped by his screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti and the deliberate way the story is told.

Now, Sacchetti is famous for having written just about every famous Italian horror film; it’s an impressive list that includes: Twitch of the Death Nerve, Murder to the Tune of Seven Black Notes, Zombi 2, Cannibal Apocalypse, City of the Living Dead, The Beyond, The House by the Cemetery, The New York Ripper, Demons, Demons 2, and The Church. However, here’s the interesting thing about Sacchetti: he almost always collaborated, and when he did, it was with someone that could rein him in. Sacchetti was one of the best “idea” men working in Italian horror, but he was almost always paired up with an auteur that knew what they wanted and how to translate Sacchetti’s ideas into their own vision. Lamberto Bava, unfotuunately, is no Argento or Fulci or Soavi – he doesn’t have the vision to help alleviate some of the problems of following along with Sacchetti’s ideas. A Blade in the Dark could have been something had it decided to cut 30 minutes from the film and be just a brutal, violent hybrid slasher/giallo a la Twitch of the Death Nerve instead of trying to be a plot-heavy giallo reaching for something more a la Tenebre, the film that really seemed to inspire Bava (especially considering he worked on it).

There is one moment though – one brutally violent moment – and that is “the bathroom scene.” Anyone that has seen the film or read about it knows about this scene: a woman enters the bathroom only to find a knife going through her hand, pinning it down so she can’t move, while the killer places a plastic bag over her head, slamming it on the countertop repeatedly before finally slitting her throat. Off-screen we hear the deranged whimpers of the killer as they try to frantically clean up the massive amounts of blood left on the white tile. It’s brutal and gruesome (and obviously wanting to be the same kind of Grand Guignol moment that ends Tenebre) and so, so pointless. But it stands out as one of those compilation tape moments – something that Italian horror fans are enticed by and recognize for its gory significance even though the context that surrounds it is so prosaic – and that’s something in a film that is filled with so much nothing.  

Aside from this one scene, A Blade in the Dark is better left to die-hard fans of Italian horror. The poster art is horribly misleading (it looks like it promises to be some kind of supernatural slasher movie) as the film just plods along from one dull moment to the next. The opening is a nice touch (something Bava would return to later with his film within the film in Demons), but it’s hardly enough to sustain any kind of momentum. The setting of the villa is a fine setting indeed (I enjoyed, in a cheesy way, how at this secluded villa women kept popping up to interact with Bruno), but Bava doesn’t do enough with it to elicit any kind of tension from the isolated villa. The cast is wooden – the dubbed lines only compound the problems with the acting – and the aesthetics are too muted (again, Bava was perfectly suited for the silly horror movies he would make for Italian television; I even kind of liked his goofy, haunted house-like Graveyard Disturbance)  to really standout and elevate the film to even something of a curiosity. For better Bava, one should begin with his 1980 Macabre or his popular Demons films.

Extra Note: Michele Soavi has a small role in the film and acts as Bava’s Assistant Director. This would be one of the last Italian films that he would act as AD on before he left to make his own Italian horror masterpiece, Deliria.


  1. For all that this one is definitely in the lower regions of giallo's second division, it contains one of my favourite lines in the whole of cinema: "He developed a morbid fear of tennis balls bouncing in the night." Awesome!

    1. Oh man, I didn't even mention the tennis balls. That whole explanation was just hilariously awful. There's that whole bit at the end where the tennis balls are dumped out, and it's supposed to act as this false scare. Tennis balls. Ugh. Thanks for reminding me about that, Neil.

  2. You had me when you mentioned that the kid who played Bob was in the film. And now tennis balls too? If I can find this on YouTube it's going to be today's background noise!

    1. I think it's the same voice actor, too. You know, that voice that sounds NOTHING like a little kid. So who is worse: Michael from Burial Ground or Bob from The House by the Cemetery. Hehe. Enjoy the tennis balls.