Although this film is over forty years old, some may still be concerned about spoilers in the walls, so please remove the plaster at your own risk.
Giallo is a genre of film that has come to fascinate me fairly recently. I was largely unaware of it until I watched Twitch of the Death Nerve [insert alternate title here], last year and found this brand of Italian horror to be quite unlike what I had seen before. Although it inspired the slasher genre that would gain popularity in America in the 1980s, it was quite different to it in many ways. Whilst it was even more violent and graphic than the early American slashers were, it had far more artistry about it, more of an emphasis on how horror could be made pleasing to the eye.
I wanted to write about this genre of horror, but I didn’t know quite how to begin. And then I decided to host my Gothic Horror Blogathon, and I decided that it would be a good time to delve deeper into the genre. And I found the perfect film to focus on in Sergio Martino’s Il tuo vizio è una stanza chiusa e solo io ne ho la chiave or Your Vice Is A Locked Room And Only I Have The Key.
The title of the film refers to Martino’s previous film, The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh, in which the killer uses the phrase in blackmail letters. But the the title of the film could also refer to the complex psychological urges of the characters, especially sadistic Oliviero, who harbours incestuous feelings for both his mother and his niece. It is also unclear why his wife, Irina, stays with him, and what her desires are. And perhaps the most mysterious character of the three is Floriana, Olivero’s niece, who appears at their crumbling villa for no apparent reason.
In classic giallo style, no explanation is given about any of the characters until the very end of the film. And even then, it is not entirely clear if Oliviero ever acted on his feelings for his mother, or if he ever fully intended to kill his wife. It is also unclear how Irina actually meant to kill Oliviero, as she eventually kills him to avoid him killing her first. These are things that are left to the audience to decide, and in this way, the film’s Giallo and gothic elements seemingly combine.
Like Giallo, the gothic genre has always been about the human psyche, about how characters are haunted by their pasts, and how their motivations are often left a mystery for much of the story. Sometimes their motivations are never really explained. The gothic also explores the taboo, such as incest, madness, violence and sexuality. Novels such as The Castle of Otranto, The Monk, Flowers in the Attic, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights explore either all or some of these themes. And like Giallo, they force the reader to confront themes which make them feel discomfited but also morbidly fascinated.
When Oliviero and Floriano sleep together in Vice, the viewer is both disturbed and intrigued to know what will be the consequence of this union. You know that it will be nothing good, and when Irina reads the words that Oliviero has typed on his otherwise impotent typewriter: “Kill Irina and bury her in the cellar”, another taboo is addressed, that of murder.
One of the main features of Giallo, is murder. Usually the murder of women in a psychosexual manner. And that is the initial McGuffin, the murder of women by an unknown killer. Initially, it seems that this will be the plot of the film, and that Irina and Floriana will be the possible victims of the killer. But the killer is soon revealed to be an escaped mental patient who ran the local bookstore for several years. Awkward. It also initially seems that Irina and Oliviero’s black maid, Brenda, is a victim of that killer, but this is used as a red herring.
In one scene of the film, Brenda wears Oliviero’s dead mother’s dress, which is in the style of Mary Stuart. A large painting hangs on the wall of his mother in said dress. Brenda looks at herself in the dress before she is brutally murdered. In this way, Brenda has some connection to Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre. She is put in the clothes of the Europeans she lives amongst, but she is never fully accepted by them. Oliviero speaks of her in connection to Italy’s colonies, and throughout the film she is referred to as a “negro” and a “darkie”. In this way, Vice brings to mind the colonial elements of the gothic and Neo-colonial ideas in Giallo.
Like most gothic fiction, Vice takes place in an isolated setting, the previously mentioned decaying villa. It is suggested that Oliviero is descended from an old, once illustrious family, but in true gothic fashion, he is the last of a line that became increasingly debauched as time went on. The detective investigating the murders speaks to Oliviero of how united Europe is becoming, but the villa shows the isolation that comes with living in the past, and provides the perfect setting for a story that is largely claustrophobic in its execution.
For much of the film, Irina, Oliviero and Floriana live in their own world, and the main events of the film quickly revolve around only them. Their interactions become the impetus for the plot, with outside characters only becoming involved in the action for brief periods of time. Eventually Floriana leaves the villa with a young man who was once involved with Brenda, and it is revealed that Irina has been involved with an outsider. But eventually the story, and the space in which the story takes place, becomes even smaller, as the only original main character left in the end is Irina, and the final scene of the film takes place in the cellar, the most claustrophobic room in the house.
It seems that the room being referred to in the title is really the cellar, and Irina says that it is always kept locked. The vice is then translated to sin, and the sin is murder. In the wall of the cellar are the bodies of Brenda and Oliviero, the only evidence tying Irina to the crimes. In the end, the detective has the metaphorical key to the literal and figurative room of Irina’s sin, that of murdering her maid and her husband.
What gives her away is her husband’s much hated cat, Satan. The black cat and the burying of corpses in the wall, connects Vice to Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, The Black Cat. Both stories are a study in guilt, and this connection strengthens Vice’s “classification” as a gothic Giallo. Like Poe, Giallo combines crime fiction and horror, and Vice is a horror murder mystery. Like the narrator in The Black Cat, Irina is caught because of her cruelty towards a black cat. She believes that the cat has always tormented her, but it is really the animal’s association with her real tormentor that makes her hate it. As with Poe’s narrator, Irina’s sanity is fractured, and it is really her own mind that is her downfall.
The visual style of Giallo is another element that makes it such a memorable genre. Vice’s visual style is incredibly powerful. Martino creates a world of hyper colour, from the intense crimson of blood to the deep blue of the Stuart era gown. The black of the night is entirely impenetrable, intensifying the feeling of isolation in the villa and the fear of the unknown.
Martino also films all of the action as if the audience is a voyeur. Whilst the characters, especially Irina, peep through holes and observe other characters in secret, the viewer seemingly also does this. Especially in the scenes where characters are murdered. But vision is also obstructed, and visual techniques are used to deceive.
In terms of who murdered Brenda, the camera follows her so that you lose a sense of time and where she is going, meaning that you are entirely unsure of who the murderer is. When Oliviero sees her blood, the viewer feels as if they are watching as the murderer would, and so perspectives continuously shift. Much focus is also given to the actors’ faces, and so their reactions of made hyper real. This is especially true of Irina and Floriana, whose eyes are highlighted through the film’s lighting.
Overall, Your Vice Is A Locked Room and Only I Have The Key, is a film that manages to successfully combine several different genres, but its gothic atmosphere is undeniable.
This is my first contribution for my Dark and Deep: The Gothic Horror Blogathon. Please click here for further information.