The giallo film, popularised in Italy in the early 1970s, is remembered for a few key tropes – the black-gloved killer, the female heroine, and the gritty, stylish visuals. In spite of these superficial elements, the giallo is also characterised by its receptiveness to psychoanalysis, often exploring Freudian ideas of dreamwork, the unconscious and the retranscription of memory. The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh (which opens with a Freudian quote) is no exception to this, examining the relationship between sex and violence, as well as the effect that supressed memories can have on the psyche. It is the strength of this – as well as Sergio Martino’s masterful direction – that make the film a quintessential giallo, lovingly released on Blu-Ray by Shameless this month.
Julie Wardh (Edwige Fenech) is an American heiress, enduring a loveless marriage in order to forget about a violent sadomasochistic relationship from her past. But when the Wardhs arrive in Vienna, a black-gloved killer begins committing a series of murders, all of which seem mysteriously connected to Julie herself. Soon, Wardh is caught between three men – her husband Neil (Alberto de Mendoza), her ex-lover Jean (Ivan Rassimov) and her secret lover George (George Hilton), but as more and more young women are brutally murdered throughout Vienna, Julie soon realises that one of the men closest to her might be responsible, putting her life in serious danger.
The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh is an interesting film, particularly in the way it explores the relationship between sex and violence. Giallo films have always been synonymous with misogyny, filled with scantily clad women being murdered in gratuitous, erotocised ways. But Julie is an unusual heroine, one with violent fantasies and desires – even though she works hard to suppress them. A series of flashbacks reveal that she is turned on by her own blood, and that she takes sexual pleasure from being dominated and degraded. It would be easy to read this simply as male wish-fulfilment, but Julie is certainly the strongest character in the film; she seems more ashamed in her choice of partner than her sexual proclivities. By the end of the film, most of the male characters are revealed to be selfish or stupid; despite the tropes of the sub-genre, it’s made clear that the audience should squarely be on Julie’s side.
In addition to this, Edwige Fenech is perfect in the role of Julie, veering between doe-eyed innocence and savage independence – often within the same scene. It takes a bit of time to get used to her false eyelashes (which are so indecently long that they sometimes detract from the action), but The Strange Vice is certainly among her best performances; without her, the movie wouldn’t nearly be as successful.
Sergio Martino’s direction is fantastic throughout the film, adding flair and style to what could easily have been a rather convoluted plot. The dreams and flash-backs are beautifully done, highlighted by Nora Orlandi’s eerily dreamy score. As the film goes on, Martino’s style becomes progressively heightened, making it difficult to distinguish between dreams and reality, a perfect metaphor for Julie’s state of mind.
Released by Shameless Films, The Strange Vice looks fantastic on Blu-ray, a vast improvement over previous SD releases. The colours are muted and naturalistic, and it’s immediately clear that this is the best the film has ever looked on home release. It should be noted, however, that the English subtitles are a mess – littered with spelling mistakes, grammatical errors and captions that are out of time. This is really a small complaint, but it does make watching the film in Italian virtually impossible.
The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh is a fantastic example of the giallo film, offering the perfect blend of stylish visuals and psychoanalytic subtext. Thanks to the strength of the script and Martino’s beautiful direction, the film succeeds on many different levels, and it benefits from multiple viewings too – an impressive feat for a film that relies so heavily on its shocking twist ending. Regardless of what you like about the giallo sub-genre, The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh is a truly unsettling mix of crime drama and horror, and – thanks to the consistently excellent work of Shameless Films – one that certainly deserves a place in your collection.
Words: Max Deacon @_Max_Deacon