Luciano (Leonard Mann) and his ditzy Swedish girlfriend Ingrid (Vera Kruska) are on a train bound from Istanbul to Athens when the lights go out in their cabin. The culprit is someone who recently picked up their black leather trenchcoat and matching gloves from the local giallo outfitter for discerning killers. So when the lights come back no-one is in the least surprised when one of their fellow passengers, a young French woman is found dead on the floor. Except for Luciano since it’s his knife sticking out of her chest. This makes Luciano prime suspect in the eyes of the investigating police inspector (Robert Webber), even though he never knew the dead woman and the other passengers all have something to hide. They include a phoney priest, a stern woman intent on divorcing her husband, and a beardy womanizer with a bisexual black girlfriend (Susy Jennings) who keeps a lesbian lover and a wealthy sugar-daddy on the side.
Having discovered one of the killer’s leather gloves, beardy unwisely tries to blackmail the psycho and gets his throat slit. While the villain tries to cover his tracks by committing even more outrageous murders, Luciano goes on the run from the cops. Aided and hindered by clumsy Ingrid and an array of eccentric characters including his sleazy friend Salvatore and “Little Baffo” a teenage girl whose family literally wrote the book on safecracking, Luciano tries to clear his name amidst numerous slapstick episodes and sadistic violence.
Four years after his superior Death Carries a Cane (1972), journeyman giallo director Maurizio Pradeaux lifted several of its ideas (e.g. the hero ineptly aided by his dopey girlfriend, the midnight burglary to retrieve a vital clue) for this alternately lurid and ludicrous outing. Death Steps in the Dark adopts the giallo genre’s usual puzzle box story-structure but weaves disparate subplots together in haphazard fashion. The killer’s eventual unmasking might as well have been drawn out of a hat. In desperation, Pradeaux resorts to those reliable exploitation ingredients: sleaze, violence and sleazy violence. The killings are by and large clumsily staged with some feeble attempts to mimic Dario Argento’s visual flourishes. One exception being the moment a throat-slashing victim is submerged in a water tank whereupon the bathing Ms. Jennings gets sprayed by a tap full of blood, which is raises a grisly chuckle.
Taking a leaf out of Alfred Hitchcock’s book, Pradeaux indulges a surfeit of humour although far broader than anything Hitch would have allowed. Luciano disguises himself as a bosomy blonde hooker (“If you get any takers, I get ten percent!” quips Salvatore), a hippie unwisely tries to sell the inspector some hash, Robert Webber unwittingly drinks a glass of bloody tap water and partakes in this classic exchange:
“I got an anonymous phone call.”
Most of the “laughs” rise at the expense of Ingrid who worries the killer “is an expert in karate and bingo (?!)”, responds to the coded-phrase “It’s raining” by holding up her umbrella, shows the inspector the bump on her head when asked whether anything struck her about the crime scene (geddit?), and presumably can’t work out how those tiny people fit inside her television set. Pradeaux quite unfairly turns Ingrid into a waking insult to blondes, Swedes and models whilst asking viewers to empathise with Luciano, another of those giallo thriller sexist bores for whom living with a beautiful woman is a constant chore. Scarcely a moment goes by without him berating Ingrid. Why are these two even together? The fadeout leaves Luciano with two attractive women in his life and implies his suffering will never end. Oh, spare us…
The giallo genre is unusual in being both transgressive and, in the hands of lesser filmmakers, a vehicle for upholding reactionary ideals about young people having no morals, cops being stupid, politicians being corrupt and women being shrill, neurotic and stupid. Death Steps in the Dark falls into this latter category and climaxes with the killer unmasked at a ridiculous fashion show wherein Ingrid wafts around onstage modelling a single dress. “Should I stop now?” she wonders as the killer flees the scene. Oh Ingrid…