Review: Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have The Key (1972)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #783

Also known as Gently Before She Dies, Eye of the Black Cat, Excite Me!
Number of Views: One
Release Date: August 4, 1972
Sub-Genre: Giallo/Psychological Drama
Country of Origin: Italy
Running Time: 96 minutes
Director: Sergio Martino
Producer: Luciano Martino
Screenplay: Adriano Bolzoni, Ernesto Gastaldi, Sauro Scavolini
Based on The Black Cat by Edgar Allan Poe
Cinematography: Giancarlo Ferrando
Score: Bruno Nicolai
Editing: Attilio Vincioni
Studio: Lea Film
Distributors: Cinefear, Arrow Video (Blu-Ray)
Stars: Edwige Fenech, Anita Strindberg, Luigi Pistilli, Ivan Rassimov, Franco Nebbia, Riccardo Salvino, Angela La Vorgna, Enrica Bonaccorti, Daniela Giordano, Ermelinda De Felice

Suggested Audio Jukebox

[1] Riz Ortolani “Il Corpo di Linda”

[2] Bruno Nicolai “Il tuo vizio è una stanza chiusa e solo io ne ho la chiave”

[3] Bruno Nicolai “The Killer’s Death”

[4] Bruno Nicolai “Main Theme”

 

God bless the Italians. Without them, we may never have been gifted the American slasher and my adolescence would’ve been some way less pleasurable. Thirty years on, I’m astonished by just how many Italian gialli have miraculously escaped my attention and I’d imagine that’d likely have something to do with availability. Many of them never even made it to these shores and there were normally so many alternative titles that you couldn’t even begin to differentiate. It certainly hasn’t been intentional as this sub-genre happens to tick every box rather tidily.

One black-gloved psychopath
Multiple scoops of stylized brutality
Oodle upon oodle of sexual perversion
Complete disinterest in logical narrative

That’s four damn good reasons why I should hang my head in shame for allowing so many giallo to slip through my net until recently. However, my favorite thing about this movement, the thing with the power to make me squeal with delight like a swine more than anything else, is the unbridled lunacy of their titles. Please allow me to reel a few off for shit-laced giggles – The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail, Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eye, Short Night of Glass Dolls, The House with Laughing Windows, Strip Nude for Your Killer, Four Flies on Grey Velvet, A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, Don’t Torture a Duckling, Seven Bloodstained Orchids, Death Carries a Cane and the gloriously yolky Death Laid an Egg. How’s that little lot for an entrée? Indeed, my all-time darling film title, Twitch of The Death Nerve, originated from the Peninsula and whoever is responsible for giallo branding deserves a lifetime achievement award, in my opinion.

One of the tougher titles to toss casually into conversation at dinner parties without getting your face slapped is Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key from 1972. We have Sergio Martino to thank for this one and, while we’re at it, let’s offer him a bonus grazie for having a hand in defining the blueprint numerous others would soon follow. Among his more celebrated works are All the Colors of the Dark, Torso (which Quentin Tarantino has a lifetime itch for), and the above unmentionable which I couldn’t possibly recite again in such close proximity as it’d niggle the stickler in me. Actually, whatever am I thinking? We’re talking about a giallo here and that means there’s at least three alternative titles to choose from, none of which could possibly be more of a mouthful. How about Gently Before She Dies? I’m kind of digging the way that one rolls off the tongue you know.

It is decided then. Today my dear friends, I am going to lecture you about a 1972 giallo by the name of Gently Before She Dies and, first of all, I’d like you to join me in raising a glass to its director, legendary fringe-member Sergio Martino. Sergio was there or thereabouts when spaghetti cinema began to grow more spicy in the early seventies and appreciated the five golden rules of giallo better than most. Like two other men in the know, Mario Bava and Dario Argento, he didn’t necessarily play by the rules as he’d earned himself the right to break them on occasion. This also applies to the manner in which he mines for inspiration, notably here from Edgar Allan Poe’s short story The Black Cat. While he acknowledges Poe’s work as early as the opening credits, it isn’t until the closing act that our feline friend’s relevance becomes clear.

One thing that certainly isn’t cloudy is the lack of love between failed writer and binge drinker Oliviero Rouvigny (Luigi Pistilli) and his long-suffering wife Irina (Anita Strindberg) as we join the caustic couple locking horns during one of their regular decadent parties. To prevent any more awkwardness than has been deemed necessary, they’ve invited a group of loved up hippie types to spread some of the free sixties love that curiously went bust around the turn of the seventies. Irina deflects as many of his verbal blows as she has long since learned how to, but accepts her duty to soak the rest up like a chump. All the while, there’s another party whose omnipresence is fortifying the worry lines.

You see, in Oliviero’s cat, dubiously named Satan, she has herself an enemy so sworn that their rivalry is etched into the very stone of the rundown building she cohabits. Satan is, to put it insanely plainly, an absolute bastard and it should come as no great shakes to learn that its previous owner was none other than Oliviero’s mercifully dead mother.

It’s one thing existing under a totalitarian regime where being made to feel less than nothing is mandatory practice, but entirely another then being forcibly encouraged to take a pussy-whipping every time you tend to your pet doves. Irina has the look of a woman desperate to get out of the decaying villa steadily becoming her living tomb but, with no bugger around to carry out her luggage, it looks like she’s stuck in this festering cesspit, cleaning out a hell cat’s litter tray.

Just a thought dear but maybe what this pressure cooler situation needs is another female living under the same roof. Yeah, that could work. I’m not talking of dark chocolate servant Brenda (Angela La Vorgna) either as one doesn’t fraternize with the help, regardless of how much she appears to be gagging for it. Besides, I don’t reckon her chances of being around here long, what with the recent spate of brutal murders and all. Hadn’t I mentioned that some sickle wielding maniac has been knocking off pretty young ladies and that the police have absolutely no leads that don’t lead directly back to your husband? Who am I kidding? You don’t care as you’re far too busy indulging yourself and your bloated ego to give a cat’s ass about such trivial matters.

How about Oliviera’s stunningly beautiful niece Floriana (Edwige Fenech), she looks harmless enough and, after all, she is family. Granted, she may be a tad precocious and self-assured, but it’s not like she’s going to weasel her way into both parties’ sexual favor and play one against the other. A girl like Floriana wouldn’t dream of anything so underhand and Oliviera’s late mother wouldn’t have dreamed of grooming him to endorse incest in any way, shape or form so nothing freaky is likely to play out I’m sure. It’s Satan you need to look out for as that spiteful little shit clearly has an agenda and it’s as rotten as its blackened core.

Gently Before She Dies benefits greatly from another giallo trend that it bucks as, while a police investigation is indeed underway and their presence felt on occasion, the majority of our time is spent cooped up with these three despicable human beings like Irina’s precious doves. Others may come and go, either straight to the morgue or the ever fattening suspect list. But if there’s one thing Martino’s film could never be accused of, then it’s a lack of intimacy. I’m not speaking of group hugs and three-way fantasy here, this is strictly of the uncomfortable for all parties involved variety and Giancarlo Ferrando’s prowling photography ensures we’re seldom afforded the space to settle.

Despite being largely penned in, the chateau’s sparse decor really gives us a sense of its labyrinthine qualities and this lends itself exquisitely to the creation and upkeep of menace. There’s plenty of tiptoeing through long, shadowy hallways and composer Bruno Nicolai pitches in with a haunting score that effortlessly ratchets up both the suspense and Gothic ambiance during these moments. Where Martino draws considerable influence from Poe is the manner in which the festering bricks and mortar of his broken-down palace echo the gradual disintegration of its inhabitants’ mindsets.

Speaking of which, there’s a far greater emphasis on characterization than your typical gialli and, considering the strength of all three central performances, this is a distinct positive. Their characters’ actions may be lamentable but our trio of leads ensure they are never less than fascinating to observe. Oliviero is positively hateful on commencement but Pistilli captures his torment and impotence so brilliantly that we’re fully justified in our pity once his arrogant machismo subsides.

Irina’s character arc is no less pronounced and Strindberg nails down her character’s whirlwind emotions astonishingly well. Every last one of her angular features lends itself to the cause, from her obscenely high cheekbones, to her tight mouth, and wide, expressive eyes. Fenech has a pair of peepers on her also, not to mention a pair of blushing rosebud lips that butter couldn’t hope to melt between. Cast against type as the conniving and nymphotic Floriana, she too is exceptional and provides the ideal sexual catalyst.

Thematically, Martino’s pot-boiler is all over the place in the very best way. Paranoia, obsession, mental dissolution, taboo desire, mind games, manipulation, deceit, betrayal, comeuppance – all are represented in abundance here, in addition to all the usual well-worn giallo staples. That said, the fact that Martino refuses to be pigeon-holed and Gently Before She Dies plays out more like a psychological melodrama than anything else highlights the kind of visionary storyteller we’re dealing with here.  Torso may still remain my personal darling of his works, but this is arguably a better overall movie and I find it ludicrous that it isn’t spoken of more frequently as one of the highlights of seventies Italian cinema. You wait until I tell Satan. I’d advise not taking the little bugger lightly as he’s got a beady eye on you right now. 

Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 8/10

Grue Factor: 2/5

For the Grue-Guzzlers & Pelt-Nuzzlers: Bear in mind that this is 1972 we’re talking of here and kit gloves were still being worn with regards to on-screen violence. The atrocities depicted are shot erratically, with only flash splices of vivid brutality, leaving it to bloody aftermath to fill in any gaps. That said, the kills are still plenty memorable – whether locking us down in a room stuffed to the walls with creepy toys or exploring the vast expanses of Northern Italian countryside on two wheels and full gas, only to be thwarted by a dastardly oil slick overlooked by a decidedly ironic billboard. Meanwhile, sex is never far from the agenda, with the ladies only too willing to strip nude for their killer. However, it’s tantalizing temptress Fenech who stands nipple and areola above the rest and I’m glad I’m not her uncle, that’s all I have to say on the matter.

Read Torso Appraisal
Read Deep Red Appraisal
Read Tenebrae Appraisal
Read Two Evil Eyes Appraisal

Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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