Oliviero (Luigi Pistilli) is a writer who’s career has seen better days. His inspiration dried up, haunted mentally by memories of his dead mother who was a dominant force in his life, and stuck in a loveless marriage to the beautiful but emotionally fragile Irina (Anita Strindberg), Oliviero spends his days at a villa outside Venice in a downward spiral of drink and meaningless sex with various women who cross his path. Add a spate of bizarre and apparently random murders of young women in the local vicinity, and real-life at Oliviero and Irina’s pastoral estate is far removed from the outwardly bohemian image it presents to the public. However it’s not until Oliviero’s nymphotic young niece Floriana (Edwige Fenech) arrives for an extended stay that events reach a head revealing the true identity of the killer terrorising the area, with tragic results for all concerned.
Style compensates for the lack of many things in films, including narrative and subject matter — at least so some film makers would have you believe. Take for instance the obscure Italian horror thriller ‘Il tuo vizio è una stanza chiusa e solo io ne ho la chive’ (1972), better known under its English title Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key. Newly remastered and released on DVD and Blu-ray by Arrow Video, in a boxset with Lucio Fulci’s equally bizarre The Black Cat (1981), the film — one of director Sergio Martino’s entries into the giallo genre — though ponderous in the way it plays out on the screen, is visually stunning, a benefit which helps hold your attention to the end of its ninety plus minute running time.
A reworking of Edgar Allan Poe’s disturbing short story ‘The Black Cat’ forms the basis around which the film revolves, with the presence of the dark feline of Poe’s work – here appropriately named Satan – forming the catalyst for many of the odd goings-on. Though the central performances of Pistil, Strindberg and Fenech may be adequate to establish a suitable sense of moodiness to the proceedings, it’s Satan – as he prowls the shadowy corridors of the villa – who proves to be the film’s most unsettling character.
The film’s title, so Martino claims, refers to a line from his previous hit The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh (1971). Watching it however one imagines it also plays on the sexual content which, after its thrill aspects, proves to be the film’s main selling point. Having sat through it you can’t help but feel, as with many European films from the 1970s, that attempts to categorise the film under other genres — horror, thriller, art house etc — are simply excuses to cover-up and legitimise its true identity, namely that it is really little more than glorified soft porn. Artistically shot heterosexual and lesbian love scenes, seemingly endless shots of naked female breasts and having the female cast spend most of their time in diaphanous night attire, tight tops and skimpy skirts, ensures that there is plenty to divert the viewer’s attention away from the film’s flimsy plot-line.
If you manage to put aside its failings however, Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key is actually rather entertaining. Exquisitely shot at studios in Rome and on location in the Veneto region of Northern Italy, the film captures a haunting feeling of faded grandeur in the villa’s dilapidated interiors and a dreamlike sense of the area’s beautiful countryside: a scene halfway in featuring Oliviero, Irina and Floriana enjoying a hillside picnic overlooking a tranquil valley, as well as a climatic accident taking place in the same area, makes the most of the romance and majesty of the Italian countryside, only serving to heighten the vivid depictions of gruesome murder which intermittently pepper proceedings.
By no means a classic interpretation of Poe’s work, Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key proves strangely satisfying if you immerse yourself in the decay of its setting and characters, without looking too deeply beneath its hypnotic surface.
Edgar Allan Poe’s Black Cats: Two Adaptations by Sergio Martino & Lucio Fulci, was released by Arrow Video in a DVD and Blu-ray special edition box set on October 19th, 2015.
Words: Cleaver Patterson