• Gabe Powers

Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key Blu-ray Review (originally published 2016)

A teacher named Oliviero (Luigi Pistilli) finds himself under suspicion when one of his students (and mistress) is found brutally murdered. As more bodies start to pile up, the arrival of Oliviero’s attractive niece (Edwige Fenech) brings with it complications of its own. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)



Sergio Martino’s Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (Italian: Il Tuo Vizio è Una Stanza Chiusa e Solo Io ne ho la Chiave, 1972)) has the distinction of the single longest title in the proud giallo tradition of excessively long titles, dwarfing even the concerted efforts of Luciano Ercoli’s The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion (Le foto proibite di una signora per bene, 1970) and Massimo Dallamano’s What Have They Done to Your Daughters? (Italian: La Polizia Chiede Aiuto, 1974). Sure, the title doesn’t have the same evocative quality as The House with Laughing Windows (Pupi Avati; Italian: La casa dalle finestre che ridono, 1976) or the oddball appeal of A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (Lucio Fulci; Italian: Una lucertola con la pelle di donna, 1972), but what it lacks in poetry, it more than makes up for in superfluousness. Of course, being an Italian exploitation export, it was released under multiple titles, including Gently, Before She Dies, Excite Me! and Eye of the Black Cat.


Martino’s considerable contributions to giallo cinema are often overlooked in favour of the genre’s reigning king, Dario Argento, and other popular ‘jack of all trade’ directors, like Mario Bava, Lucio Fulci, Antonio Margheriti, and Umberto Lenzi. But, in terms of sheer numbers, Martino is second only to Argento (who, depending on the reader’s definition of the term, has made between ten and fourteen gialli throughout his career). Beginning with The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh (Italian: Lo Strano Vizio Della Signora Wardh; aka: Blade of the Killer and The Next Victim, 1971), Martino made a total of seven distinguished and stylish genre entries: The Case of the Scorpion's Tail (Italian: La Coda dello Scorpione, 1971), All the Colors of the Dark (Italian: Tutti i Colori del Duio; aka: They're Coming to Get You and Day of the Maniac, 1972), Torso (Italian: I Corpi Pesentano Tracce di Violenza Carnale; aka: The Bodies Bear Traces of Carnal Violence, 1973), The Suspicious Death of a Minor (Italian: Morte Sospetta di una Minorenne; aka: Too Young to Die, 1975), and The Scorpion with Two Tails (Italian: Assassinio al Cimitero Etrusco; aka: Murder in the Etruscan Cemetery, 1982). More recently, he revisited giallo with Mozart Is a Murderer (Italian: Mozart È un Assassino, 1999) – a made-for-TV throwback to the genre’s glory days. His skill set was not limited to gialli (he had great financial success with sex comedies and farces), but most of his straight horror/sci-fi/adventure output – The Great Alligator (Italian: Il fiume del grande caimano, 1979), Mountain of the Cannibal God (Italian: La montagna del dio cannibale,1979), Isle of the Fishmen (Italian: L'isola degli uomini pesce, 1979), and Hands of Steel (Italian: Vendetta dal futuro, 1986), for example – is really only notable for its shoe-string ambition and ironic appeal.



Your Vice is a Locked Room (the title is actually a reference to a scene in The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh, though the stories share no common characters) settles nicely between Martino’s finest achievement in psychedelic horror, All the Colors of the Dark, and his most brutal and tightly-wound film, Torso. It doesn’t quite reach the hypnotic or suspenseful highs of either, but succeeds where so many other gialli fail due to its well-rounded characters and a strong underlying psychological themes. The connections to Poe’s story are pretty tenuous on the whole, but the plot necessities (a contentious tattle-tale of an ebony feline that is immured into a wall with the decaying body of a murder victim) are all present. Otherwise, credited screenwriters Adriano Bolzoni (A Fistful of Dollars), Ernesto Gastaldi (The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh), Sauro Scavolini (The Case of the Scorpion’s Tale), and Luciano Martino (the director’s brother, So Sweet... So Perverse), do a fine job applying aspects of Edgar Allan Poe’s 1843 story, The Black Cat, for which Your Vice is a Locked Room is loosely based on, to a typically Italian psychosexual murder mystery.


As in the Poe story that it purports to be adapting, The Black Cat (the actual similarities between the stories are minimal at best), the audience is forced to identify with immoral characters. Cruel yet ‘innocent’ antagonists are actually something of a Martino trademark, one which initially fills a murder mystery’s need for multiple red herrings, but ultimately creates a complex and fascinatingly contentious narrative texture. In fact, the whole movie is basically defined by contradictory themes and images, some of which appear to be making a dramatic point and some of which are simply examples of classic Italian exploitation tone deafness. In Blood & Black Lace: The Definitive Guide to Italian Sex and Horror Movies (Stray Cat Publishing, 2000), author Adrian Luther Smith rightfully calls attention to Your Vice is a Locked Room’s habit of condemning misogyny, sexism, and racism within the context of the story, while also capitalizing on the lurid appeal all three (this practice isn’t restricted to Italian movies, of course, but has certainly defined the country’s exploitation output since the advent of Gualtiero Jacopetti & Franco Prosperi’s Mondo shockumentaries). Like his contemporaries, Martino paints sadomasochistic relationships and emotional hysteria as tragic and romantic. He also undercut his most potent psychological/social concepts by engaging the audience’s sweet tooth for up-skirt shots and lesbian make-out sessions. Another example of this ‘have it both ways’ mentality would be Martino’s habit of embracing the youth culture with hippie sing-alongs and strip teases (these popped up once again in Torso), but then pauses, so that the older characters can quietly insult the frivolousness of the younger generation.



For his part in the technical execution here, Martino offers vital visual consistency. Quite often, the difference between a great giallo movie and a mediocre one is found in the effort a director puts into the expositional scenes. Like their North American slasher counterparts, too many Italian thrillers simply bide their time between violent set-pieces. A series of extended stationary shots can really drag down an already convoluted story until necessities like plot and dialogue seem like superfluous filler. Martino counteracts pacing and plotting issues by constantly shifting the compositional position, racking focus, and moving the camera. Yet, Martino isn’t obsessed with boastfully flaunting his opulent filmmaking process (like, say, Argento), so his dynamic visuals rarely attract attention away from the actors. The exceptions are the documentary-like handheld shots, most of which are used to express enhanced emotional distress. Naturally, the stalk-and-kill set pieces are still the highlights, but they are still a step or two below the nail-biting intensity of Torso’s nearly perfect final act. In the end, Your Vice is a Locked Room is an exercise in psychological torment over suspense. It is also notable for giving Martino’s muse, the sultry Edwige Fenech – who spent most of her giallo career as the perpetual victim – a chance to break-out as the femme fatale.



Video

Your Vice is a Locked Room has had two official DVD releases that I know of: one PAL anamorphic disc from Italian company Mondo Entertainment and an out-of-print NTSC anamorphic collector’s edition from No Shame Films and that disc was just about the best fans could expect from a standard definition format. Obviously, the HD upgrade would be an improvement, but Arrow still had their work cut out for them on this 1080p, 1.85:1 Blu-ray debut. The original 35mm camera negative was scanned in 2K via L’Immagine Ritrovata in Italy, then digitally restored by Arrow. While cleanliness is comparable between the two transfers, the Blu-ray has clear advantages in terms of sharp details complex textures. The far back patterns of the busy wide-angle, deep-focus shots no longer appear fuzzy and the close-up elements aren’t affected by edge haloes. Grain levels appear natural throughout without the noisy telecine sheen of other recent Italian genre Blu-ray releases. This grain has some consistency issues (its frequency can be different from scene to scene), but is never intrusive. The Blu-ray has a distinct advantage in terms of contrast. Many DVD releases of Italian horror and thriller movies from the ‘60s and ‘70s tended to be overloaded, blown-out, and generally too white. They also had a slightly yellow quality that never seemed accurate. Here, gamma has been toned down to allow for deeper shadows and more subtle midtones (for the most part – the darkest scenes are a bit grey to compensate for lack of highlights). Some may argue that the color correction is overcompensating for the yellowness with too much red and, indeed, some skin tones are kind of purple, but I think it’s still preferable and more naturalistic. The more unnatural hues, namely the ones on the oh-so-‘70s costumes, are delightfully punchy.


Audio

The original mono English and Italian soundtracks were scanned from the 35mm source and digitally restored. Both are presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0. The viewer has the option to watch either the Italian or English version of the film, which changes the on-screen text (meaning titles, mostly), and the ability to configure each version for either English or Italian audio. Comparing the two, it appears that the English titles were added recently, so I suppose the more ‘authentic’ route would be the Italian version. As I’ve mention every time I review an Italian film from this period, Your Vice is a Locked Room was shot without sound, often using a multi-lingual cast that speaks to each other in their own tongue. All of the audio tracks available for these movies tend to be dubbed tracks, so there is no ‘correct’ language in which to view the film. In this case, the Italian language track has minor advantages in terms of loudness and the presence of certain (usually very minor) ambient effects that don’t show up in the more staid English track. On the other hand, the English track doesn’t have issues with high-end distortion or tinny vocals, so it’s sort of a tossup and the choice will come down to preference. Having discovered many of these movies on North American VHS releases, I tend to skew towards the familiarity of the English tracks. That said, I do think this is a case of the Italian performances being superior. Bruno Nicolai’s fantastic score is mixed the same on both tracks, which is to say it’s a little too quiet for my taste. This isn’t Arrow’s problem, though – it is an issue with the original sound design.



Extras

  • Through a Keyhole (34:40, HD) – A new interview with director Sergio Martino, who discusses the film’s development around the success of The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh, a real-life event that was popular in the news at the time, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques (I’m sort of ashamed that I never noticed the similarities between Your Vice is a Locked Room and Clouzot’s classic), and the idea of adapting Poe’s story to a giallo context. He also talks about his cast (especially Fenech), the locations, plotting, other inspirations, ‘70s/‘80s Italian politics, and Nicolai’s score.

  • Unveiling Vice (23:10, SD) – This retrospective featurette from No Shame’s DVD release includes interviews with Martino, Fenech, and screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi. Though Martino’s part overlaps with the new interview, the actress and writer interviews offer a nice new perspective on the production, as well as other Martino movies.

  • Dolls of Flesh and Blood: The Gialli of Sergio Martino (29:00, HD) – This brand new visual essay by expert/writer Michael Mackenzie explores the director’s unique contributions to the genre. After establishing the early days of Martino’s career, Mackenzie focuses on all five of the director’s ’70s gialli releases – The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh, The Case of the Scorpion's Tail, All the Colors of the Dark, Your Vice is a Locked Room, Torso, and The Suspicious Death of a Minor – as well as Romolo Guerrieri’s The Sweet Body of Deborah (Italian: Il dolce corpo di Deborah, 1968), which Martino worked on as producer. This is a fantastic extension of Mackenzie’s equally great Gender and Giallo video essay seen on Arrow’s Blu-ray release of Bava’s Blood and Black Lace (Italian: 6 donne per l'assassino, 1964).

  • The Strange Vices of Ms. Fenech (29:40, HD) – Another new visual essay – this time from film historian Justin Harries and concerning the career of Matino’s favourite actress. Harries’ flowery language and oodles of footage from Fenech’s movies (and her Playboy spread…) makes for a fresh and informative featurette. I’m not too sure about the choice of a fisheye lens, though.

  • Eli Roth on Your Vice (9:20, HD) – The Hostel (2005) director discusses his affection for Martino’s work, like he did on Blue Underground’s Torso release. Note that Fenech appears as an art teacher in Hostel Part II (2007) in a reference to Martino’s brand of giallo, which inspired the superior sequel



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