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Directed by: Mario Bava

Starring: Leticia Roman, John Saxon, Valentina Cortese, Dante DiPaolo, Gianni de Benedetto

The title says it all. This proto giallo finds Bava in playful mood, riffing on Hitchcock with a mixture of comedic thrills, percussive frothy Italian pop and the director's trademark chiaroscuro lighting. There is a lively, effervescent quality to a depiction of Rome free from the grip of totalitarianism and embracing high style, marijuana and the joys of getting it on with members of the medical profession.

The plot is pure Nancy Drew as Nora (Roman) flies to Italy to visit her sick aunt, who is being treated by Dr Bassi (Saxon). There is a strange battle between the frothy meet cute of this couple and the more traditional gothic trappings of Bava’s work. When her aunt dies on her first night of visiting there is a feeling of the uncanny. Enhanced by such hoary tropes as agitated cats, the rustling of leaves and of wind and lightning all portending of doom and malevolent threat, it’s as though one of the three witches has escaped from Argento’s trilogy and decided to make a pit stop to off dear old auntie. This feeling of unease is furthered when she is unable to contact the hospital and decides to go direct to Bassi. The sinuous camera work and tracking shots as she is stalked by a mugger are both tense and stylish, every beat perfectly timed. To add to her woes after being knocked to the ground and her belongings snatched, she ends up seeing a murder, as a sinister bearded man pulls a knife from his female victim just as she passes out from her ordeal.

Bava certainly packs in a lot of misfortune for Nora in the opening moments, but on awakening hits the reset button, as if reading on he has decided that as a thriller it lacks edge but as a screwball comedy with a murderous bent it would be ideal. Nora is disbelieved by the authorities because they think she has been at the booze, and also she has a predilection for crime fiction that may have sparked her vivid imagination. It is the last time the plot will make any sense. After that we have Nora and Bassi as a pair of amateur detectives trying to solve the mystery of The Alphabet Killer, while gradually falling in love. Luckily they are such an endearing couple that this change of approach works wonders. Saxon (an old hand at Italian exploitation films) has never been better; spry, likeable and just the right side of smarmy. Roman is such a sparky and engaging presence that it comes as a surprise to see she fell off the film map relatively quickly.

Bava's film contains suspenseful scenes and images that were first coined here, but now seem like staples of the giallo genre. It doesn’t frighten and unnerve though; it all seems a little too cute. Maybe it should be called a 'Gelato' movie instead.

It may be a minor Bava, but even one of lesser vintage is full of stand out moments. A gaggle of nurses, their heads moving to reveal Nora on a hospital bed, is shot like a music number. A moment in which Nora talcs the floor (presumably the killer is a Northern Soul aficionado) and booby traps the house with wire calls to mind Cape Fear, and is an exemplary use of shadows and foley work. The standout moment finds Nora lured to an abandoned apartment by the murderer, coerced into moving further into the building only to find she has been duped by a pre recorded tape. It doesn’t make a whole lot of narrative sense, but who watches Italian genre cinema for linear plotting and common sense? This style of movie making has always been about the show, not the tell. It may not linger long in the memory, but some moments will stay with you, such is the richness of the visual pleasures on offer. Arrow have been putting out some of the classic old school Bavas, so it is a real pleasure that they are now unearthing some of his more under appreciated efforts.

Be swept away in the style of a master craftsman and you won’t be disappointed in this lustrous Blu-ray restoration.

Extras:

You get two versions of the film for your money. The Evil Eye is the Americanised version, which removes the percussive score of Roberto Nicolosi and replaces it with the more strident scoring of Les Baxter, which castrates the jaunty tone somewhat. Running in at eight minutes longer, it adds scenes of a more comedic nature and removes completely the marijuana element from the film. It feels clunky and less suspenseful in this version. Longer isn’t always better, but it does make for an interesting comparison piece. You also get a 20 minute documentary featuring the always insightful Alan Jones, Italian director Luigi Cozzi and Richard Stanley, who in his cowboy hat has the demeanour of a wild west accountant.

Add to the mix an interview with John Saxon and a couple of trailers (US one is interesting because it basically lies and insinuates a supernatural theme to the story). You also get a commentary from Bava biographer and film critic Tim Lucas, which adds interesting colour to a film that Bava himself did not seem to care for. A rich package with the usual reverse sleeve and booklet from Kier-La Janisse.

By Jason Abbey

THEMOVIEWAFFLER.COM

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