Review Date: July 2, 2005
Released by: NoShame
Release date: 5/31/2005
Region 0, NTSC
Widescreen 2.35:1 | 16x9: Yes
Before they even knew it, Italians like Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, Umberto Lenzi and Sergio Martino were cultivating a new breed of thriller in the early seventies. Now dubbed the “giallo” film, these films feature sensual sexuality mixed with extreme violence, all at the hands of a man with black gloves, a razor and one hell of a twist ending up his sleeve. Although Argento is credited with starting the genre by modernizing Mario Bava’s more classical approach, Sergio Martino was crafting his first giallo, The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh
before Argento’s first, The Bird With the Crystal Plumage
, had been released.
Argento’s film is of course the one best remembered, but Martino’s giallo has received increasing publicity as of late, thanks to Wardh’s soundtrack being featured prominently in Tarantino’s Kill Bill
project. Wardh is finally on DVD thanks to NoShame, who is in the process of grouping a number of Martino films for a Sergio Martino Collection that they will continue to roll out this year. Martino has proven his talents with other gialli, but how does Wardh hold up? Is it Martino’s virtue or his vice?
After a prostitute is casually picked up and murdered, the film begins with a quote from Sigmund Freud about the murderer that lies dormant in all of us. We are then shown Julie Wardh (Edwige Fenech
) and her husband, Neil (Alberto de Mendoza
), who both seem bored and disconnected. Neil is called off on a business matter, and Julie must take a taxi home alone. She is stopped by the police as they search for the murderer of the prostitute, and the stopping revives sadistic and misogynistic memories from her mind. Years ago, she had a fling with another man, Jean (Ivan Rassimov
), who would beat her and torture her in sexual and sadistic ways. Her memories recall these brutal interactions, although it is unclear as to whether or not they aroused her sexually.
Mrs. Wardh continues on to a party, where she meets two cousins who have just inherited a large sum of money from their deceased uncle. George (Hilton
) and Carol (Conchita Airoldi
) are very close cousins, and Carol introduces George to Julie. The two strike an instant attraction, despite Julie’s marriage, and the two agree to meet up later. She also runs into Jean at the party, but refuses his advances. A few days later, she receives a letter saying she is being watched, and then a phone call comes asking her to pay up or the caller will reveal her adultery. The perpetrator seems to be a jealous Jean, but when Carol is brutally massacred, Julie must rethink who she knows and what they know about her.
Her attraction to George escalates, despite her admitting she is still in love with her husband. The serial killer seems to be punishing “whores”, so this does not bode well for our heroine. As more bodies turn up, Julie’s paranoia increases to the point where she is unable to decipher between dreams and reality. When she becomes the victim of a suicide attempt, things really become twisted, but in the end, the killer gets just what s/he deserves.
The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh
is the sort of cheat that screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi spoke up against in the supplements for The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail
. Although the story and revelation make logical sense, they do not flow with a consistent buildup and payoff like Tail
so expertly achieves. Where Gastaldi used the Psycho
-esque twist to good measure in Tail, here it seems more of a unprecedented gimmick. Gastaldi talks about the big “double twist” of the finale, and his infatuation with it is just the problem of the film.
Midway through, the movie loses focus and goes for the twist ending rather than a thematic solution. We are treated with an intriguing ambiguity for the first half of the film, where it is unclear as to whether or not Mrs. Wardh enjoys her perverse interactions with Jean. Was enjoying the torture her “Vice” of the title, or is her vice her uncontrollable subconscious? Gastaldi and Martino posit these interesting questions early on, yet they go nowhere with them by the film’s end, instead focusing on how clever a twist they have devised. In terms of surprise, the twist works, but in retrospect it is hollow and diverting from the subject matter at hand. It is an thematic cheat.
It is a shame the film loses its way midway through, since up to that point it is a dark and disturbing little thriller. Mrs. Wardh’s recurring flashbacks are the highlight, shot in haunting slow motion amidst a flurry of rain or broken glass. They resonate with a beauty that further makes us question whether or not these sexual torture scenes are made to seduce or repulse. Even Nora Orlandi’s theme masterful dream theme teeters between the morbid and the beautiful. These scenes are the best in the film, but Martino keeps things visually interesting all the way through with his creatively kinetic camerawork. When the story loses its bearings at the half-way point though, the style becomes less meaningful and more just…pretty.
The film is far from mindless, as it offers throughout some criticism on the media that is well ahead of its time. It suggests that perhaps serial killers are a phenomenon created by the media, since in their coverage of a murder they create expectations that entice the killer to fulfill the hype. The film is also bursting with Biblical allegory, most notably through George’s temptation of Julie by way of an apple. In reversing the role of the tempter, from Eve to George’s Adam, the film places the blame on the male for the criminal acts, rather than the Bible’s outdated vilifying of woman. Yet, even this isn’t really developed as soon as the film begins its resolve.
The vice of the screenplay is in the way it loses focus of its main character, avoiding the solutions to the interesting questions that are brought up during the fascinating first half. The film starts off with such promise that it is easy to be agitated by its hollow finale, but overall it is still a solid entry into the giallo sub-genre. It could have been so much more, but as it stands it sits a notch below Martino’s less ambitious, but more satisfying, The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail
NoShame’s transfer for The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail
was near flawless, and while this one is good, it just can’t compare. This is a much darker film, so color reproduction is nowhere near as vivid, but the blacks in the film seem a little weaker and grainer than they did in Tail
. The opening first few minutes are a little tough to see, and the park stalking scene later in the film suffers a similar problem with the blacks. The park scene also looks worse in quality than the remainder of the film, looking much softer and with much more contrast than the rest. Still, the transfer is incredibly clean like Tail
is, and for the most part the visuals are clear and sharp. Having the film in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen is benefit enough, and considering that the film has been maligned in past home releases, NoShame has done an commendable, if not flawless, job.
Like the video transfer, the audio suffers a few minute problems as well. Following the lead set by The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail
, the film is presented in both English and Italian with English subtitles. The only proper option to choose, however, is the Italian track. The English track has some moments of false silence, where Orlandi’s score mysteriously cuts out and silence fills the track for a number of seconds. I spotted this in at least three instances when comparing tracks, and there may be more. Another problem is that the English track does not offer captions for the scenes where Julie reads over the threatening notes she has received. The English subtitles state what the sheet reads, but it is a nucance to have to turn them on just for those quick little scenes. NoShame should have provided a subtitle track just for those translations, so those watching it in English would not be confused. Considering the English has a few truncated clips of the soundtrack anyway, the Italian track is recommended.
Like win the release for Tail, the Italian track also has added depth and amplitude over the English track. The Italian voices sound very sharp, whereas the English ones tend to be a bit muffled. The English translation is also suspect, since it often conveys far less than the Italian track, and with much less elegance. It is nice that NoShame again included both English and Italian tracks, it is a shame that the English track isn’t better, however.
I had complaints with the documentary on NoShame’s The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail
disc, mainly for being unfocused and more about The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh
than it was about Tail
. Thankfully, the thirty minute featurette on this disc, “Dark Fears: Behind the Door” is much more focused, and benefits from adding another participant. The exotically – if not traditionally – beautiful actress, Edwige Fenech (The Case of the Bloody Iris
) joins Sergio Martino, George Hilton, writer Ernesto Gastaldi and producer Luciano Martino this time around, and the subject matter is much more interesting.
Luciano discusses how this film was intended to be a vehicle to revive Carroll Baker’s career (the attempt would later come with Baba Yaga), but he instead opted to franchise out the chemistry between newcomers Hilton and Fenech, who would collaborate together in several more films after this. Hilton discusses how he got his start, citing the Fulci film Massacre Time as his big break. Gastaldi discusses the hollow twist, and how the “h” was added to Mrs. Ward. Fenech has nothing but nice things to say, and it must be said she looks arguably better now than she ever used to, but she remembers very little about the film and contributes sadly little to the overall featurette. You’d think someone would have provided her with a copy of the film to prep her for the interview, no?
NoShame needs to hire better editors for their featurettes, as many interview segments could have been shortened, and more importantly, scenes from the film could have been interspersed better to support what the speakers are saying. There is an instance, for example, when Sergio mentions having to shoot a single scene on the set, yet that footage from the film is never shown, and the meaning of the statement is lost. Then at times sequences are included that seem to come out of nowhere and last far too long. To top it all off, the opening credits look like they were quickly thrown together in Final Cut moments before the DVD was printed. The interviews are good – the content is there – NoShame just needs to find a better way at bringing out the good through editing.
There is a short, but entertaining introduction from Sergio Martino from when the film was recently screened at the Venice Film Festival. It runs three minutes, and he discusses how the critical reception for the film, and for gialli in general, has changed over the years. The disc is topped off with a very short poster and still gallery, this time running about forty seconds, and the theatrical trailer. The trailer is only in Italian (Scorpion’s Tail
was in either Italian or English), but most of it is montage, so it doesn’t matter much. Whoever cut Martino’s trailer deserves credit, because this is another great montage of the film, exuding style rather than spoilers. A booklet featuring the same write-ups for Martino and Hilton as they were found on the Scorpion’s Tail
insert, as well as a new one for Edwige Fenech, is also included. While their featurettes still need some fixing up, NoShame has done a solid job with this release, adding even more extras than were found on Tail
. Giallo fans will no doubt enjoy.
The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh
creates all the makings of a great giallo in the first half of the film, all but abandoning them in favor of a hollow twist ending. Still, Martino’s visual style and Orlandi’s haunting score shine through to make this a more than watchable giallo effort. The sound and video have a few problems, but for the most part are of high quality. While the featurette isn’t without problems, there is still much to enjoy in the extras on this disc. NoShame have nothing to be ashamed of with this release, as they continue to cultivate a respect for the work of Sergio Martino in this so far fascinating body of films. The disc is not without vice, but still one that giallo fans will want to own.
Movie - B
Image Quality - B+
Sound - B-
Supplements - B+
- Running time - 1 hour and 34 minutes
- Not Rated
- 1 Disc
- Chapter Stops
- English mono
- Italian mono
- English subtitles
- "Dark Fears: Behind the Door" featurette
- Venice Film Festival interview with Sergio Martino
- Theatrical trailer
- Poster & still gallery
- Collectable booklet