Troubled actor Michael Stanford (Stefano Patrizi) almost strangles his leading lady, Beryl Fisher (Laura Gemser) during a film shoot. Unsettled by these homicidal urges and some vivid nightmares, Michael takes a vacation at his family’s luxurious country estate. He brings along his girlfriend, Deborah (Silvia Dionisio), but passes her off as his secretary when reunited with his psychologically-domineering mother, Glenda (Anita Strindberg). According to creepy butler Oliver (John Richardson), Glenda has been deathly ill for some time. Later, Beryl arrives at the mansion along with her director, Hans (Henri Garcin) and assistant director Shirley (Martine Brochard). That night Beryl is almost drowned in the bathtub by a mysterious maniac in black leather, while Deborah endures a nightmare about cloaked Satanists with hideous rotting faces lurking in the cellar. The next day, Michael awakens to a shocking discovery after he and Beryl share a quick shag in the woods.
Yes, in a typically callous move from a giallo hero, Michael not only lies about his girlfriend to his mother, he cheats on her too. What a prick. And yet the film asks viewers to empathise with his angst-ridden snivelling. Murder Obsession proved to be the final film directed by veteran Italian director Riccardo Freda after ill-health led him to abandon a planned comeback with D’Artagnan’s Daughter (1994) eventually helmed by his one-time protégé Bertrand Tavernier. A former sculptor turned filmmaker, Freda built his reputation in Europe with a string of lavish historical swashbucklers but amongst English and American genre fans is largely celebrated as the man who kicked off the Italian horror boom with I Vampiri (1956) and contributed key works such as The Horrible Dr. Hitchcock (1962), The Witch’s Curse (1962) and The Ghost (1963) between the occasional spaghetti western and Eurospy film.
On the surface Murder Obsession would appear to mark Freda’s grand summation of the motifs reoccurring throughout his work, opening as it does with a pretentious albeit fictitious quotation attributed to a phoney 17th century philosopher or writer (it’s never specified) called Hieronymous A. Steinback: “For centuries, theologists, philosophers and poets have delved into the universe in search of proof of the existence of the devil. It would have been sufficient to look into the depths of their own souls.” Which is a lot of cod-metaphysical bullshit, frankly, though surmises Freda’s misanthropic view of human psychology. Ostensibly a giallo, the film plays closer to an old dark house melodrama with Oedipal overtones. The crashing piano of Franco Manino’s score, laced with snatches of Bach and Liszt, recalls old silent horror movies although the producers seemingly imposed additional music in line with the post-Dario Argento trend for electro-rock horror soundtracks.
Aspects suggests Freda is detailing Michael’s vain attempt to disentangle himself from Glenda’s stifling psychological web with some intelligence and artistry, most notably the Rashomon style multiple flashback featured in the third act and the shock climax featuring a ghastly parody of the Christian pieta. Among the more interesting things about the film is how much of the plot involves different characters recounting their dreams. This leads to the most arresting sequence in which Deborah imagines herself stumbling half-naked in a flimsy nightgown through a gothic tomb, confronting demonic winds, rubber bats, bleeding skulls and a giant papier mache spider before she is eventually chained in a dungeon by hideous zombie monks. A voluptuous woman in cloak and panties fleeing down a cobwebbed corridor is a reoccurring image in Italian horror, harking back most obviously to Nude for Satan (1974) but also Freda’s own Tragic Ceremony at Villa Alexander (1972). Along with some hokey-but-memorable gore effects that include a head split open by an axe and a neck sliced with a chainsaw, the director conjures some undeniably vivid imagery. Yet he places them within a plot that proves frequently nonsensical, including such casually strange revelations as one character’s obsession with the occult, another revealing they have psychic powers and the heroine suddenly sporting a magic amulet that proves oddly ineffectual throughout the frustratingly inconclusive finale.
Perhaps, in the wake of Inferno (1980) and The Beyond (1981), Freda felt horror cinema was headed down the road of disconnected set-pieces united by Jungian dream logic, yet his film lacks the thematic consistency to pull this off. The characters are entirely charmless, so consequently the mystery fails to engage while too much of the film feels like Freda is throwing random bits from Psycho (1960), Don’t Look Now (1973), Deep Red (1975), The Old Dark House (1932) and Five Dolls for an August Moon (1970) in a desperate bid to see what sticks.