AKA La casa con la scala nel buio (original Italian title), House of the Dark Stairway
Directed by Lamberto Bava
Starring Andrea Occhipinti, Michele Soavi, Lara Naszinsky/Lamberti, Fabiola Toledo, Anny Papa, Stanko Molnar, Valeria Cavalli
There are a great many things that I admire about the Italians. Their fabulous cuisine, gorgeous land and cityscapes, beautiful men and women, fantastic contributions to the worlds of culture both high and low, and the family ties which for them run so deep. In the case of the Bava family, their contributions to the world of cinema run all the way back to the silent era. Eugenino Bava, born June 4th 1886, is regarded as the godfather of special effects photography within the Italian film industry, working on cinematography and special effects on such early historical epics as the 1912 version of Quo Vadis? and 1914’s Cabiria, a film which hold the distinction of being the first motion picture to be screened on the grounds of the White House, for then president Woodrow Wilson. Three years before his death in 1966, he worked as a mask sculptor for his son Mario on his Horror anthology classic Black Sabbath, meaning he is the one responsible for the grotesque faces that appear in the the ‘Drop of Water‘ and ‘Wuldurdak‘ episodes of that film. Mario Bava of course should require no introduction. The godfather of Italian Horror, he cemented the Italian Gothic and Giallo genres and left the blueprint for the slasher movies to follow. He took his son Lamberto under his wing, allowing him to cut his teeth as an assistant director on such productions as Danger:Diabolik (1966), A Bay of Blood (1971), and Shock (1977). After further assistant work for Ruggero Deodato and Dario Argento, Lamberto made his debut in the director’s chair with 1980’s Macabre, a delightfully twisted tale of sexual depravity with all the black humour his father was known for. After viewing his son’s film, Mario reportedly told him, “Now, I can die in peace.” In the shadow of his fathers legacy, he was never going to reach the same influential levels, but nevertheless, his workmanlike output has resulted in a collection of hits which have left their mark on Horror-Cult-Genre world. Most well known is his Demons duology, a hugely entertaining pair of imaginative splatter films. Today I am taking a look at his second film as director, the 1983 Giallo A Blade in the Dark. An example of the 80’s Giallo renaissance, it updates the body count scenario which his father pioneered in Blood and Black Lace to the 1980s.
During the 1980’s, a number of Horror films began to emerge which dealt with Horror fiction or Horror films themselves as part of their narrative. Whether it was David Winters’ The Last Horror Film, Lucio Fulci’s A Cat in the Brain, or Dario Argento inserting author surrogates of himself into Tenebre and Opera, this trend brought a post-modern freshness to a genre that was becoming saturated with imitations and would come to a head the follow decade with Wes Craven’s A New Nightmare and Scream. In this case, A Blade in the Dark is a horror film about a composer who is composing music for a horror film. Bruno (Andrea Occhippinti) temporarily moves into a villia so he can get some peace and concentrate on his work. In the Horror film he is composing the score to, a young boy is taunted into descending the stairs in a creepy old house by two bullies after their tennis ball falls down them. A scream is heard and ball bounces back up the stairs at the bullies, leaving bloody marks on the wall behind them. This is more or less the only part of the film within a film we ever see. It isn’t long before murders begin to occur around the villia in which Bruno is working. It soon transpires through Sandra (Anny Papa), the film’s director, that the murders and what occurs in her film may somehow be intertwined. While it’s use of a Horor film within a Horror film is more primitive than the post-modern deconstruction that other films would set out to achieve, it is nevertheless a unique and interesting element to add to the Giallo formula that helps that the film feel fresh.
It’s obvious that A Blade in the Dark was a low-budget production. The fact that it mostly takes place around one villa belies that fact it was written specially to be shot around this location (In fact, it was originally written as a TV miniseries in 4 parts until it’s gory excess turned TV executives away from it.) Fortunately, like his father before him, Bava knows how to make limited resources work to his advantage. Night time scenes of Bruno alone in the villia, with his score for the fictional film becoming the score for the actual film, and effectively atmospheric and claustrophobic. The idea to base a Giallo around one or a couple of locations, thereby increasing the sense of impending dread, is fantastic and I’m surprised I haven’t seen it done more often. The only over example I can think is Lamberto’s father Mario’s ‘The Telephone‘ segment of his Black Sabbath anthology. That segment is often considered one of the earliest examples of the Giallo form, so what do you know…the Bava legacy comes full circle. Another area in which Lamberto continues his father’s legacy here is in the brutal murder scenes; devastating assaults on the female form which echo Blood and Black Lace two decades earlier. Most notably there is a bathroom murder in the middle of the film which is particularly grueling, involving a pair of scissors and a plastic bag.
The biggest problem that I had with A Blade in the Dark is the twist/reveal as to the killers identity is far too obvious and easy to see coming. In fact this is the first time when watching a Giallo where I have been able to successfully guess the killer’s identity before the end of the film. In the last act the film reaches a point where all the main suspects are killed off in a succession that makes the reveal of the killer inevitable. This is a moot point, and might just more be me bragging than anything else. It didn’t really distract from my enjoyment of the film as a whole.
A Blade in the Dark is a must see for any fan of Gialli. Working on the template his father established with Blood and Black Lace, Lamberto Bava brings the Giallo into the 1980s with fresh ideas and an abundance of bloodshed. I’m sure if Mario had lived to see this film, he would have been proud.