Sergio Martino is probably best known for his formative contributions to the giallo but, like many Italian pulp directors, his varied career is dominated by soft sexploitation romps, sports comedies, and made-for-TV dramas. His run of a half-dozen gialli through the first half of the 1970s remains his career-high, with his sophomore feature, The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh (1971), being one of the finest examples.
This was followed, in quick order, by The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail (1971), All the Colours of the Dark (1972), Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972), and Torso (1973). He took a break from the form to make a handful of pecorecce (saucy sex comedies) and poliziottesco (violent crime thrillers), before his final foray into giallo with The Suspicious Death of a Minor (1975) after which he only ever dabbled with the tropes, making a few television miniseries with neo-giallo leanings in the early-1990s.
Although Martino is regarded as one of the more transgressive of the Italian pulp directors of the ’70s, it’s worth noting that all his envelope-pushing gialli were co-written with Ernesto Gastaldi—who can be considered an influential auteur of the genre, having scripted more than his fair share of the best ones for several top directors. It seems they all saw the artist’s duty was to push against the boundaries laid down by any opposing authoritarian structure.
Sergio’s brother, Luciano Martino, produced most of his movies and all but one of his noteworthy gialli. Luciano married the genre icon Edwige Fenech around the time they were making Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key together. So, this box-set constitutes a showcase for one of the most important teams behind mid-’70s filone (Italian pulp cinema).
Arrow Video has packaged just three of Martino’s six definitive gialli together here, presenting two of their previous Blu-ray releases along with Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key—surely the longest and most intriguing of genre titles? Not sure what the selection process was like, but here’s hoping there’s a volume two in the pipeline!
Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972)
A series of murders are committed near the estate of a degenerate author and his wife.
Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key is a nasty piece of work. Anyone with ‘modern sensibilities’ will find something that offends about it, partly because that’s the point. Wouldn’t it be more worrying to be comfortable with racial bigotry, murderous psychotics, sadomasochistic perversions, and abusive inter-generational relationships? Not to mention addiction, alcoholism, animal cruelty… and writer’s block.
Things feel edgy and unsafe from the first orgiastic scene, as we meet Oliviero (Luigi Pistilli) raising a glass to a grand portrait of his departed mother. He compares her to Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, questioning whether he should toast her as a murderer or martyr. These are the first lines, and they require at least a passing knowledge of the bloody history of the British monarchy to appreciate the bearing on the backstory, Could Gastaldi and Martino be expecting a bit too much, too soon from their audience? Any intellectual tension is quickly diffused when one of the party guests summarise his little monologue thus, “He misses his mother… It happens a lot with Italians.”
Oliviero soon turns his attention to his wife, Irina (Anita Strindberg), whom he chastises for not drinking and proceeds to empty the wine glasses of his guests into the silver centrepiece bowl and forces her to drink that. Suitably humiliated, she flees the room, but when Brenda (Angela La Vorgna) moves to follow Oliviero makes a lascivious grab for the maid. He debates why white men have a weakness for black women, inviting others to join him in fondling her like an object that he owns. Trying to diffuse the palpable tension, some of the guests start singing and clapping a rhythm so that a blonde girl can get up and sashay along the banqueting table as she sheds her clothes.
After the debauchery has fizzled out, Irina reappears in the same dress Oliviero’s mother wears in the portrait (which may or may not be haunted) and attempts to seduce him. He brutally beats her to the floor and rips the dress open. This carnal violence is witnessed by Brenda and the ever-watchful black cat, named Satan. Well, that’s all within the first 10-minutes and the first slasher-style slaying occurs in another five. It was pretty strong stuff in 1971 and it’s some kind of tribute to director Sergio Martino that it still seems harsh, 50 years later.
It turns out the first victim of the so-called ‘maniac’ (every giallo needs a maniac!) had been heard making assignations with Oliviero to meet on the night of her murder. So, naturally, he’s a prime suspect. When a second young woman is slain in the same way with a sickle, inside his mansion… it would be considered a closed case should the body be found there. Especially as the victim was wearing his mother’s dress! It seems he’s not actually sure if he’s responsible or not. He certainly exhibits murderous tendencies toward his long-suffering wife and can’t remember what he gets up to during regular alcoholic stupors. But is he playing a game of double-bluff?
It’s no secret that Gastaldi draws plot points from the works of Edgar Allan Poe, who must be the author most often tapped for ideas in Italian horror and giallo. The opening titles cite “The Black Cat” as the screenplay’s source material. So, for those familiar with that short story through reading the 1843 original, or having seen any of the many other adaptations, there’s a certain sense of inevitability. In this case, though, the psychological cruelty has been modernised and brought even more to the fore. Martino also adds plenty of unpredictable twists and turns along the way that keeps the viewer occupied and diverted.
Expect suitably Gothic ingredients. We have the end of a cursed family line, rife with incest and insanity. There’s a crumbling mansion with an abandoned wing, secret rooms, dungeon-like wine cellars, and shutters that clatter in thunderstorms. The gothic house trope, filched from Poe’s 1839 tale “The Fall of the House of Usher”, externalises the mental state of the old family nearing its end as the house rots around them.
For the most part, the motivations of the characters are hard to fathom, though they do become clearer as the plot unravels. We learn that Oliviero was once an internationally acclaimed novelist, now fallen from fashion and suffering chronic writer’s block. As his wife comments, “He hasn’t written a line in years, the only thing he can sell is the furniture.” It’s unclear whether his sexual impotence is due to alcoholism or his total loss of creative confidence and which of those frustrations feeds his psychosis. One of the many mysteries is just why his wife sticks around and why one hasn’t already murdered the other…
A further wild card is thrown in when Oliviero’s niece, Floriana (Edwige Fenech), invites herself to stay. She’s young, carefree, universally attractive and doesn’t let gender preference get in the way of a good time. There are echoes of Ernest Hemmingway’s novel “The Sun Also Rises”, published in 1926, with its themes of empowerment and disempowerment relating to masculinity and the impotence of a central character. At least there’s some pay-off for those who might’ve come along expecting some titillation and Martino plays on the expectation of sexploitation to wrong-foot the audience at several steps along the way.
Sergio Martino has said that Les Diaboliques (1955), the classic French thriller directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot, was a major influence. The dynamics of love and hate weave together into a web of intrigue in both movies. As with most gialli, he adheres to a ‘whodunnit’ approach but uses violence to shock, distract and discombobulate. Martino also mixes things up with added nudity and transgressive, sexualised scenes that generally involve different gradients of power constructed by perceived differences in gender, race, class, and age.
All the principal cast turn in serious performances even when the material they’re working with could well come across as silly if not played with such conviction. There’s a lot of subterfuge and subtle deception going on behind brash theatrics. It’s only in hindsight one realises how perfectly cast they were as the revelations of the final scenes make sense of their respective behaviours.
Luigi Pistilli gives Oliviero complexity that takes him beyond simply being a monster, or rather a maniac, and despite his inexcusable actions, one may even find some sympathy for the wretch beneath the bravado. Pistilli will be a familiar and most welcome face for filone fans. Possibly best known, internationally, for bit parts in two of Sergio Leone’s breakthrough Dollars westerns, he was in great demand in his homeland where his versatility ensured plenty of lead roles across several genres throughout the ’60s and ’70s. No stranger to the giallo, he appeared in Romolo Guerrieri’s The Sweet Body of Deborah (1968), Riccardo Freda’s Iguana with the Tongue of Fire (1971), and Mario Bava’s A Bay of Blood (1971). He’d already starred opposite Anita Strindberg in Martino’s The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail.
Strindberg’s portrayal of Irina shows off all her acting chops and veers from fragile, fear-wracked victim to pop-eyed maniac and back again. Her eyes can open incredibly wide, and Martino exploits this talent to great effect more than once, building a visual link between her and Satan the cat, whose eyes also fill the screen on occasions, thus hinting that their destinies may somehow be entwined. Incidentally, a bag of sheep’s eyeballs also plays its part in adding some icky unease…
Edwige Fenech is the other corner of the tough-love-triangle and, as usual, turns in a deceptively nuanced performance. She’d already made her mark in gialli with Mario Bava’s Five Dolls for an August Moon (1970), Giuliano Carnimeo’s top-notch The Case of the Bloody Iris (1972), and starred in Martino’s insidiously creepy All the Colours of the Dark (1972). Connoisseurs of Italian pulp cinema won’t need me to sing her praises and point out that she was often cast for her beauty but brought with it a unique, off-beat fascination. Characters that could easily be dismissed as cliché, Fenech imbued with intriguing dimensions. Her role here is no exception and provides the central catalyst to energise the narrative.
Spending time in the company of characters who are clearly unhinged and mostly unpleasant may be an obstacle to enjoyment. It’s not really an easy ride but for those who stick with it to the bitter end, Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key has a denouement that manages to deliver exactly what one would expect, plus a few surprises. For any giallo fan, it remains essential viewing and Martino sets a darker tone for many to follow.
That’s dark thematically and visually. Cinematographer Giancarlo Ferrando isn’t afraid to shoot in low light or even near darkness. It’s a textured mood piece throughout with episodes of harsh clarity and sequences of soft-focus when details become frustratingly indistinct. Perhaps sometimes that’s due to the technical limitations and budgetary restrictions, but it all contributes to that distinctive European look more often associated with arthouse offerings. Ferrando had already photographed All the Colors of the Dark for Martino and they would collaborate on several more, including Torso and The Suspicious Death of a Minor.
The original Italian title, Il Tuo Vizio è una Stanza Chiusa e Solo io ne ho la Chiave is a reference to a note left for a potential victim in The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh. Both films star the ever-reliable Edwige Fenech, whose presence in a giallo is a good indicator that it’ll be a superior one. However, she plays a very different character in each and though both exhibit sexual tendencies that some may consider forms of perversion, the rewards and/or punishment for those predilections are entirely different. The inclusion of the word ‘vice’ hints there may be a connection, but that only goes as far as rubbing shoulders in the same genre.
After the censors in different times and places had their say, the film’s been released in a few different edits under various titles including, Eye of the Black Cat, Gently Before She Dies, and Excite Me! Apparently, Martino used to film scenes specifically as censor-bate, knowing that they would need to be trimmed or removed. His theory was to include extreme scenes that went too far, so others that would normally cause a problem seemed comparatively tamer and were left in. This carefully restored version from Arrow presents the definitive ‘director’s cut’.
ITALY | 1972 | 97 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ITALIAN
The Case of the Scorpion’s Tale (1971)
The Suspicious Death of a Minor (1975)
Blu-ray Special Features:
- Three films from Sergio Martino: ‘The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail’, ‘Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key’, and ‘The Suspicious Death of a Minor’, restored in 2K from the original camera negative.
- High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation for all films Original uncompressed mono Italian and English audio tracks.
- Optional English subtitles for Italian audio and English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing for English audio.
- Newly commissioned artwork by Marc Schoenbach.
Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key:
- ‘Through the Keyhole’—an interview with director Sergio Martino.
- ‘Unveiling the Vice’—making-of retrospective featuring interviews with Martino, star Edwige Fenech and screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi Dolls of Flesh and Blood: The Gialli of Sergio Martino—a visual essay by Michael Mackenzie exploring the director’s unique contributions to the giallo genre.
- ‘The Strange Vices of Ms Fenech’—film historian Justin Harries on the Your Vice actress’ prolific career
- Eli Roth on Your Vice and the genius of Martino.
- Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Matthew Griffin.
Casts & Crew
director: Sergio Martino.
writers: Ernesto Gastaldi, Eduardo Manzanos Brochero & Sauro Scavolini (story by Eduardo Manzanos Brochero) (Scorpion) • Ernesto Gastaldi & Sergio Martino (Suspicious) • Ernesto Gastaldi, Adriano Bolzoni & Sauro Scavolini (story by Luciano Martino & Sauro Scavolini; based on ‘The Black Cat’ by Edgar Allam Poe) (Vice)
starring: George Hilton, Anita Strindberg, Alberto de Mendoza & Ida Galli. (Scorpion) • Claudio Cassinelli, Mel Ferrer & Lia Tanzi. (Suspicious) • Edwige Fenech, Anita Strindberg, Luigi Pistilli, Ivan Rassimov & Riccardo Salvino. (Vice)