A BLADE IN THE DARK (1983) Reviews of Lamberto Bava ‘Giallo’ – updated with 4K UHD YouTube review

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‘When the lights go out, the knife goes in…’
A Blade in the Dark is a 1983 Italian Giallo thriller film about a killer stalking a composer and his female visitors in a secluded villa. The composer is staying at a secluded villa writing the soundtrack score to a horror movie that has an incriminating clue to the killer’s identity.

Directed and edited by Lamberto Bava (Twins; Delirium; Demons and Demons 2; Monster Shark; Macabre) from a story and screenplay co-written by Dardano Sacchetti and Elisa Briganti.

The National Cinematografica-Nuova Dania Cinematografica production stars Andrea Occhipinti (Conquest; The New York Ripper), Anny Papa (Sweets from a Stranger; The Great Alligator; Ring of Darkness), Fabiola Toledo (Demons), Michele Soavi (director of Dellamorte, Dellamore; The Sect; The Church; StageFright, plus numerous minor actor roles), Valeria Cavalli (Mother of Tears; Rome 2033: The Fighter Centurions) and Stanko Molnar (The Mask of Satan, 1990; Macabre). Produced by Lamberto Bava, Mino Loy and Luciano Martino.

The soundtrack score was composed by Guido De Angelis and Maurizio De Angelis (Keoma; The Big Racket; The Violent Professionals; Torso).

Originally filmed as a four-part, 27-minute, mini-series for Italian TV with one killing at the end of each episode. However, it was re-edited into a theatrical movie when it was rejected for being too violent for television. The international version was poorly translated and dubbed into English and there are some awkward moments of dialogue such as two kids chanting: “You’re a female! You’re a female!”

Our review:
Over the years, I’ve read a lot of different definitions of what a Giallo is and none of them has really managed to capture what makes this film genre so strangely compelling. The simplest and quickest definition is that a Giallo is an Italian thriller. Typically (though not always), the film features a protagonist who witnesses and then proceeds to investigate a series of increasingly gory murders. Often times, solving the murders means uncovering some dark and sordid sin of the past and, just as often, the film’s “hero” turns out to be as damaged a soul as the killer.

However, the plot is rarely that important in a Giallo film.  What’s important is how the director chooses to tell the story. When I watch the classic Giallo films of the ’60s and ’70s, I get a sense of a small group of directors who were all competing to say who could come up with the most startling camera angle, who could pull off the bloodiest death scene, and who could pull off the most audacious tracking shot.

Giallo is a uniquely Italian style of cinema (although filmmakers from other countries have imitated the genre), an unapologetic opera of mayhem and murder.  For the most part, the films seem to have a polarising effect on viewers. You either get them or you don’t. (From my own personal experience, I think it helps if you come from a Catholic background but, again, that’s just my opinion).

The protagonist of A Blade in the Dark is Bruno, a popular young composer who has been hired to score a horror movie.  The film’s director has arranged for Bruno to stay in an isolated villa while he works.  Every night, Bruno sits in front of his piano and searches for the perfect note.  Occasionally, his actress girlfriend calls him from the other side of Italy and demands to know if he’s cheating on her.  He’s not despite the fact that he has two attractive female neighbours who tend to come by at the most inconvenient of times and who make cryptic comments about the woman who lived at the villa before him.  Bruno would probably be even more frustrated if he knew that, on most night, he’s being watched by someone outside hiding outside the villa. One night, Bruno listens to the movie’s soundtrack and hears a menacing voice whispering on the recording.  Meanwhile, the mysterious watcher begins to brutally murder anyone who has any contact with Bruno.

(Despite all these distractions, Bruno continues to vainly try to create the perfect score.  Much like Kubrick’s ShiningA Blade in the Dark is as much about the horrors of the artistic process as it is about anything else.)

As it is typical of most Giallo films, the plot of A Blade in the Dark makes less and less sense the more that you think about it.  However, this is a part of the genre’s charm.  One doesn’t watch a Giallo for the story.  One watches to see how the story is told and that is where A Blade in the Dark triumphs.  Wisely, director Lamberto Bava keeps things simple.  Working with a small cast and one main set, Bava fills every scene with a palpable sense of dread and uneasiness. Bruno finds himself growing more and more paranoid, so does the audience.  Watching the movie, you feel that anyone on the screen could die at any moment and, for the most part, that turns out to be the case.

A Blade in the Dark is probably best known for the brutality of its violence.  Even after repeat viewings, the murders are still, at times, difficult to watch. In the most infamous of them, one of Bruno’s neighbours is killed while washing her hair over a sink.  The violence here is so sudden and so much blood is spilt (and spurted) that it’s easy to miss just how well-directed and effectively shocking this scene really is.  In this current age of generic cinematic mayhem, the violence of A Blade in the Dark still packs a powerful punch.

(The scene is so effective that, for quite some time after seeing it, I actually got uneasy whenever I found myself standing in front of a sink. A Blade in the Dark does for the bathroom sink what Psycho did for showers.)

Bruno is played by Andrea Occhipinti, an actor whose non-threatening, Jonas Brotheresque handsome earnestness was used to great effect by Lucio Fulci in the earlier New York Ripper.  Since I’ve only seen the dubbed version, it’s difficult to judge his performance here.  He’s never quite believable as a great composer though you could easily imagine him writing whatever syrupy ballad that James Cameron chooses to play at the end of his next blockbuster.  However, Occhipinti does have a likeable enough presence that you don’t want to see him killed and that’s all that the film really requires anyway.

A far more interesting presence in the cast is that of Michele Soavi.  Soavi plays Bruno’s landlord and, even with limited screen time and even with his dialogue dubbed into English, Soavi is such a charismatic presence that he dominates every scene that he’s in.  Before being cast, Soavi was already serving as Bava’s assistant director on A Blade in the Dark and, of course, he later went on to have a significant directorial career of his own. Soavi is perhaps best known for directing one of the greatest films of the 1990s, Dellamorte Dellamore.

While Soavi would go on to great acclaim, the same cannot be said of this movie’s director.  Among fans of Italian horror, it’s become somewhat fashionable to be dismissive of Lamberto Bava. It’s often pointed out that the majority of his filmography is actually made up of cheap knock-offs that he made for Italian television (and, admittedly, A Blade in the Dark started life as a proposed miniseries). Most of the credit for Bava’s most successful film — Demons — is usually given to producer Dario Argento. Perhaps the most common complaint made about Lamberto Bava is that he isn’t his father, Mario Bava.  With films such as Blood and Black Lace, Lisa and the Devil, Black Sabbath, and Bay of Blood, Mario Bava developed a deserved reputation for being the father of Italian horror and Lamberto is often accused of simply trading in on his father’s reputation.

It’s true that Lamberto Bava is no Mario Bava but then again, who is? A Blade in the Dark was Lamberto’s second film (as a director) and its a tightly constructed, quickly-paced thriller.  Bava makes good use of the vila and creates a truly claustrophobic atmosphere that keeps the viewer on edge throughout the entire film.  Even when viewed nearly three decades after they were filmed, the film’s murders are still shocking in both their violence and their intensity.  There’s a passion and attention-to-detail in Bava’s direction here that, sadly, is definitely lacking in his later films. If most of Bava’s films seem to be the work of a disinterested craftsman, A Blade in the Dark is the work of an artist.

Lisa Marie Bowman, guest reviewer via Horror Critic

Other reviews:
“Bava achieves some style which is intensified by gory killings (the murder of the girl in the bathroom is extremely brutal–one of the nastiest of its type). Not only does inspiration (or rip-off) stem from Argento (whom Bava worked with many times before and after Blade), but there’s shades of Hitchcock and DePalma as well. The film drags in spots and probably could’ve had 25 minutes edited out. By the way, the killer sounds a lot like Frank Gorshin’s giggling Riddler!” DVD Drive-In

“Some plot devices – like the late introduction of the idea that Bruno and his girlfriend met when playing tennis, when we know the murderer may have a connection with the game – are crude in themselves, and there are red herrings that depend on characters engaging in behaviour which is ulikely to say the least. There are real scares along the way, however, and Bava shows an early mastery of tension.” Eye for Film

” …it features a memorable kill scene, which does for washing your hair in the sink what Hitchcock’s Psycho did for taking a shower. That said, the ending is a bit predictable, there isn’t much of a mystery, and it’s a brutal, nihilistic bit of filmmaking that some could easily interpret as an exercise in misogynistic sadism, so see it at your own risk.” Goomba Stomp

“The film does a great job of dividing your suspicions in this whodunit and thus misdirecting you completely. While there is one scene, in particular, the first kill, that stands out as being awkwardly staged the rest of it is handled masterfully. There are some tooth-clenching sequences and great gore work.” The Movie Rat

“The mood of the film is quite foreboding and desolate. It provides the perfect atmospheric backdrop for a crazed killer to lurk after victims. One very effective scene was when Bruno left his studio to examine spots of blood on the stairway. Suddenly, he hears the spooky synth theme he’d been working on start back up on the tape recorder. Someone must be in his office! Good setup, good payoff…” Oh, the Horror!

“While A Blade in The Dark predictably falls some way short of the impossibly high standards of Argento in his heyday, anybody expecting any different is perhaps being a touch too optimistic from the offset. Bava was still very much finding his feet in 1983 and, while this may lack the sheer alarm of Beyond The Door II or frenetic energy of Demons, it is a well-paced and stylishly executed thriller with plenty to commend.” Rivers of Grue

“[A] …key element that makes A Blade in the Dark work on more than just a surface level is the blurring of the lines between the film’s score, and the work of Bruno on the film within. The use of metacommentary has become commonplace in horror films today, and this was certainly not the first use of a horror film mixing its reality with the viewers, but it is an early example of this effective tool to keep the viewer off-balance.” Screen Anarchy

“While it doesn’t stray from the basic conventions of the Giallo mold, the younger Bava directs with assurance and creates some very shocking murder pieces, specifically the bathroom killing… which is raw, real and stylish all at once. Of course, these films don’t always make the most sense. Perhaps something gets lost in the translation (for English-speaking audiences anyway).” The Terror Trap

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