One of the many pleasures offered by the giallo genre are the often outrageous titles and they don’t come any more fantastically florid than: Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key, also known as Excite Me and Gently Before She Dies. Jack-of-all-genres Sergio Martino got the drop on later films by celebrated auteurs Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci with a plot loosely based on The Black Cat by Edgar Allan Poe. Oliviero Rouvigny (Luigi Pistilli) is a burned-out writer, haunted by the memory of his aristocratic mother. Frustrated at being unable to complete his “great novel”, Oliviero retreats into drugs and alcohol. He hosts decadent orgies at his ancestral home where hordes of fun-loving hippie kids get their groove on watching Oliviero heap abuse on his hysterical wife, Irina (Anita Strindberg). As if doses of violence and sexual degradation were not enough, Irina also has a running feud with Oliviero’s malevolent black cat, Satan, that seems to stalk her every move.
Meanwhile, a mysterious maniac murders two of Oliviero’s lovers, a bookseller and the family maid, on the castle grounds. The panic-stricken writer persuades Irina to help hide the bodies, lest suspicion fall their way, but matters are complicated by the unexpected arrival of his beautiful niece. Oliviero’s eyes nearly pop out of his head the moment he spies leggy, doe-eyed Floriana (Queen of the Giallo, Edwige Fenech), an outspoken young woman as slinky and enigmatic as the black cat. Floriana insinuates herself as Irina’s confidant before seducing her into a steamy softcore romp sure to delight Fenech fans. She also dallies with the delivery boy (“We might or might not do this again. No complications, understand?”), then moves onto her incestuous uncle. Which is when Irina spies the lovers in bed and hears them plotting to murder her…
This was one of the highpoints of the Fenech-Martino partnership, albeit a notch below their masterpiece: All the Colours of the Dark (1972). Working from a story co-devised by producer Luciano Martino (brother of Sergio and Fenech’s lover at the time), veteran giallo scribe Ernesto Gastaldi and co-writers Adriano Bolzoni and Sauro Scavolini weave three different storylines concurrently, with the psycho killings merely the red herring backdrop to what is really going on and the third act restaging Poe’s famous short story. It’s a tricky balancing act that proves confusing at times, but only a detour onto a dirt bike rally disrupts the otherwise controlled, claustrophobic action. One has to wonder whether Stephen King or even Stanley Kubrick had any familiarity with this obscure Italian movie since it shares some surprising parallels with The Shining (1980). Not just in its use of an incomplete novel as a metaphor for a failing marriage and fractured psychosis, but also a key scene wherein the author’s typewriter reveals the same sentence written over and over again.
The jaded hedonism of the early Seventies provides a surprisingly evocative, socio-political backdrop for Poe’s usual morbid melancholia and shares certain thematic interests with Luchino Visconti’s later films in its preoccupation with tortured aristocrats and failed Marxist ideals. Although the ever-shifty Ivan Rassimov cameos as a silver-haired lurker in the woods, the film is largely a three hander with powerful performances from the glowering Pistilli as the frustrated intellectual reduced to cruel pranks and empty lust in the wake of his waning powers; a haunted, haggard Anita Strindberg whose heroine arguably embodies the Italian landscape itself - a blank state onto which people project their fantasies; and most notably, Edwige Fenech, cast deliciously against type as someone who flits ambiguously between her usual fun-loving heroine and a scheming femme fatale. Smart, confident and sexually liberated, Floriana shoots down all of Oliviero’s pompous, misogynistic rhetoric, but beds him anyway.
Of course beneath their “liberated” surface and love of lurid thrills, giallo thrillers were often conservative to the core, carrying a deeply bourgeois suspicion of hippies, swingers, lefties and intellectuals. It is surely no coincidence that the labyrinthine murder scheme is unwittingly unravelled by an elderly rag and bone woman who disdains foreigners, young people, and other such “troublemakers.” The castle setting allows Martino to inject a frisson of gothic style to proceedings, staging chases through cobwebbed corridors (and the murder of a busty hooker in a roomful of creepy toys) alongside the rampant gore, sex and nudity that are the guilty pleasures of the genre. The last fifteen minutes spring a succession of crafty, satisfying twists and suspense sequences that showcase Martino’s virtuoso editing and scope framing.