Stephen King once said of Edgar Allan Poe that, “He wasn’t just a mystery/suspense writer. He was the first. He was the first writer to write about main characters who were bad guys or who were mad guys, and those are some of my favorite stories.”
As such, it just isn’t Halloween without a little bit of Edgar Allan Poe in your life. Today, I picked a movie which took one of Poe’s more famous short stories, transported it to 1970s Italy, and concluded that black cats in any era are damn fine symbols of our lingering guilt:
What’s It About?
Olivero (Luigi Pistilli) – a cruel, alcoholic author suffering from writer’s block – passes the time by inviting local hippies to his Venice mansion for parties where they mostly stand around as he regales them with tales of his own greatness. When that gets old, he humiliates his wife Irina (Anita Strindberg) in front of them, which they all seem to enjoy because, really, people are just awful. Understandably, the poor woman is an emotional mess.
It doesn’t get any better for Irina, unfortunately, because before too long Olivero’s mistress shows up dead and wouldn’t you know it, he’s the lead suspect. In private, he tells Irina he’s innocent, but in the same breath, he also threatens and belittles her and then pushes her around for good measure. So, ya know, not totally convincingly. The bodies start to pile up fairly quickly after that. If that wasn’t bad enough already, Olivero’s self-confident, sexually aggressive niece Floriana (giallo scream queen Edwige Fenech) stops by for an extended visit.
All of that in the first 32 minutes!
Who is the real killer? What does the author’s beloved black cat, Satan, have to do with any of this? And what the heck was Italy like in the early 1970s that Olivero openly lusting after his own niece – and her possibly reciprocating! – is treated as totally normal?
Why I Watched It
There are two kinds of people in this world: those who would instantly jump at the chance to watch a movie called Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key and those who would just keep on moving along with their life. I am clearly in the former category. I had never heard of this movie until two days ago, but once I saw that insane title I had a Wayne’s World moment:
I came across the title on Night Flight, a Roku subscription app which, in addition to various other programming options, includes a limited selection of titles by genre specialty Blu-Ray distributors Arrow, Severin and others like them. This one comes from Arrow, and when I saw the summary described the film as being loosely inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Black Cat” I hit play immediately.
Did I Like It?
Yes, but I can’t totally explain why without spoiling the big twists. It is helpful to know that this is a Sergio Martino film. Beginning with 1971’s The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh, he churned out a series of rather distinctive giallos which bridged the gap between the male-centric body count thrillers popularized by Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and the female-centric, psychologically-driven mood pieces popularized by 1968’s The Sweet Body of Deborah. As a result, Martino’s giallos routinely buck the standard formula.
Your Vice… – which takes its title from a line in The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh – is no exception. For example, the typical black-gloved killer, whodunnit murder mystery element is there front and center but only for a while. Before we know it, however, the script pulls the rug out from under us. The killer is found and incarcerated, and it’s someone we never could have suspected. Murder mystery over? Huh. They solved it a lot quicker than usual. What are they going to do with the rest of the movie?
After that, the story shifts over to the rather fluid sexual dynamics playing out in the mansion between Olivero, Irina, and Floriana. It’s a lot of Olivero being awful and domineering, Floriana keeping her cards close to the vest and using her body to get whatever it is she wants exactly, and Floriana shrieking in emotional despair, making sweet 1970s technicolor love, and then shrieking some more.
Almost none of this has anything to do with the actual text of Poe’s “Black Cat,” but there is a cat around and you do get the sense that it’s going to act as some kind of Tell-Tale Heart-style symbol of guilt. The joy of Your Vice… is seeing who exactly wins out in the sexual power struggle between the central trio and whether or not the cat will get the last laugh (meow?).
Did It Scare Me?
No. The giallos are so stylized that I find it hard to ever be scared by them – unsettled at times, sure, but not scared.
Random Parting Trivia
- Edwige Fenech – who also starred in Martino’s The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh – was actually married to the director’s brother/producing partner Luciano.
- Cinematographer Giancarlo Ferrando deserved better. His lush imagery complemented countless giallos like Your Vice…, yet he never really managed to escape Italy and break into Hollywood. As Tangerine director Sean Baker pointed out on Letterboxd, Ferrando’s most notable (kind of) American movie credit is Troll 2.
Where to Stream
31 Days of Halloween So Far:
Next Up: Another Italian take on Poe.