In the wake of the Dario Argento project that I finished up (minus the capstone article that I’m struggling with, but which is coming soon, promise), I often find myself returning to Euro-Horror section of Vulcan Video and wishing that there was more Argento for me to consume as I stare at all of the esoteric titles, hoping for something to leap out at me. This week, a movie did: Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (Il tuo vizio è una stanza chiusa e solo io ne ho la chiave in the original Italian), a 1972 giallo directed by Sergio Martino and starring Anita Strindberg, Luigi Pistilli, and Edwige Fenich. I had no idea just how Argento this non-Argento was going to be, but I wasn’t disappointed on that front.
The film opens on Oliviero (Pistilli) and his wife Irina (Strindberg) hosting a party for a large group of young people (think proto-Trustafarians) who live in a nearby encampment. After showcasing his creepy devotion to his late mother, an actress whose portrait hangs over the festivities, a drunken Olivieri verbally assaults and degrades Irina in front of all of their guests; then his black cat leaps into his lap. Yep! It’s yet another adaptation of “The Black Cat,” just like the Argento segment of Two Evil Eyes. As the party draws to a close, Olivieri forces the couple’s servant, Brenda (Angela La Vorgna), to participate in the festivities while Irina cleans herself up, finally emerging after the party wearing the classical gown that Olivieri’s mother wore in her portrait, leading to another altercation that ends when Olivieri forces himself upon her.
Irina is an emotionally fragile woman who tends to a flock of doves, which brings her into direct conflict with the cat, named Satan, which previously belonged to Olivieri’s mother. After one of the many young women with whom Olivieri apparently has affairs is murdered, he becomes a primary suspect. Brenda is herself murdered, and Olivieri forces Irina to help him hide her body in the cellar behind a fresh plaster wall, as the police would never believe he is not the murderer after another victim associated with him is found. Shortly after, Olivieri’s niece Floriana (Fenech) arrives for an unannounced visit. She seduces both Olivieri and Irina, encouraging the madness and distrust the two already feel for each other, building to a climax where Irina discovers Olivieri is planning to murder her and kills him first instead. Floriana helps her hide the body in the cellar, then extorts Irina for Olivieri’s mother’s jewelry.
At this point it becomes clear that Irina had actually engineered the whole situation: she hated Olivieri and his mother and accelerated the former’s slide into madness following the death of the latter. She and her secret lover manipulated events (including the murder of Brenda, which was actually unconnected to the killings of other women in town and was performed solely for the purpose of giving OIivieri something to hide), and after they kill off any dangling loose ends, she shoves him off of a cliff as well. She returns to the crumbling manse to gather her things and depart to a new life, but she is stopped by the police; a few nights previously, she finally attacked the cat, which had slaughtered a fair number of her doves, and this attack was witnessed by a beggarwoman who reported it to the police. The detective advises Irina that their visit is merely a formality, but then they hear the cries of the cat, coming from the cellar….
The final act of this film does a lot to repair the damage done in the first two acts, but it’s not enough to save the movie. Every character is utterly unsympathetic, with even the long-abused Irina’s rising from the ashes of her life being underlined by some pretty overt racist language that she uses to describe Brenda after her death. Italy’s relationship with the rest of Europe and the world is a recurring motif throughout the film, but only briefly and out of focus, so there’s not enough to parse. It’s also an interesting twist in that the serial killer of women in the city is revealed halfway through the second act, throwing suspicion off of Olivieri and further creating tension between himself and Irina, who tells him that they should tell the police about the death of Brenda (which also shows how clever Irina is once the final revelations are made). Overall, however, it’s not enough to save the film. If any one of the characters had been even 10% more likable (or if the film was more condemnatory about Olivieri’s tendency toward sexual assault or incest, or was more critical of Floriana’s particular vileness), I’d give the movie another star, but I just can’t. The twist is great, but not worth the mileage it takes to get there.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond