Synopsis: Bruno (Andrea Occhipinti of NEW YORK RIPPER) is hired to compose a new horror movie and rents an isolated villa to concentrate on his work. But when several beautiful young women are brutally murdered within the house, Bruno becomes obsessed with solving the savage crimes. Is a clue to the killer’s identity hidden within the film itself, or is there a more horrifying secret lurking deep in the dark?
Directed by Lamberto Bava and written by Dardano Sacchetti, this Italian shocker caused controversy throughout Europe due to its scenes of excessive violence.
eyelights: its atmosphere. its cinematography. its score.
eyesores: its horrible English dubbing. its contrivances. its silly ending.
Bruno, a motion picture score composer, rents a secluded villa from a friend while he’s working on a horror film. From the very first night, unusual things occur in and around the villa: strangers show up, his equipment is tampered with, he hears disturbing noises, visitors disappear, and… he finds blood.
Welcome to ‘La casa con la scala nel buio’.
The 1983 giallo picture, which is Lamberto Bava’s second solo feature (after having assisted his father, Mario, on a few pictures over the years), was originally intended to be a four-part 30-minute serial for Italian television. Unfortunately, TV censors felt that it was far too gruesome for general audiences.
So it was re-edited into a feature-length film instead.
I didn’t know this while watching the picture but, in retrospect, it serves to explain why the picture is so erratic, with characters popping in and out of the story ceaselessly, often randomly: Bava was trying to end each half hour with a few jumps and some scares? Condensed in one picture it’s a bit manic…
I mean, seriously, why is Katia in the damned closet? Why does Tony just pop by and leave right away? Why does Julia just jump out of nowhere? What about the girl who comes looking for Katia? It’s a wonder if Bruno can get any work done with all the excitement going on in this “quiet” country villa.
Just lock the damned door, man! (What’s with this open-door policy, anyway?)
Adding to the frenzy are the endless red herrings: at every turn there’s a reason to suspect one of the other characters: Sandra knows too much but reveals too little, Julia has mood swings and lies to Bruno, Giovanni is always lurking about, and Tony… well, Tony! And it frequently makes little sense!
Clearly, the picture was designed to thrill its audiences, and that’s it: it’s filled with stylistic but nonsensical violence, as one might expect in any self-respecting giallo. Does it make sense to use a utility knife? Nope. Can a killer walk away to the left and then suddenly lunge from the front? Nope.
But it sure makes an impression.
And if there’s anything that can be said about ‘La casa con la scala nel buio’, it’s that it certainly stimulates. I was particularly taken with the atmosphere that Bava created at the beginning, with the large empty villa, the silence, the eerie happenings; he staged Bruno’s isolation and vulnerability well.
He also framed a lot of his shots in appealing ways. Granted, this was a bit gimmicky at times, defying logic and naturalism, but it still teased the eye; many shots would have made for great still shots or postcards. He was able to build tension with some of these shots, making the threat almost palpable.
The music also helped: I very much like late’70s, early-’80s European horror film scores because they frequently use moody synthesizers conjointly with traditional instruments. Here, Bruno’s own piano and synth score, which he frequently relistens to as he works, is used to support the on-screen events.
I actually quite like that our protagonist is working on a horror film and that he’s using the villa as a recording studio. I don’t think that I’ve seen that before in any context. I love seeing him surrounded by all this gear, trying to work while a creep stalks outside, and that his work is integral to the film itself.
The characters aren’t especially interesting, though, and there’s little sense in the things they say and do sometimes, but they’re not irritating either. It’s just hard to care about them. The fact that the performances are of pretty average caliber also doesn’t help us to empathize with them at any point.
Of course, I must admit that I watched the film with its HORRID American overdub (which was the only way to get the movie until recently), and that made the performances hard to digest. I really tried to focus on the actors’ facial expressions and body language to better gauge the quality of the acting.
But it proved challenging – that’s how bad the dubbing is.
‘La casa con la scala nel buio’ devolves at the end, with the great reveal being really no big deal (and a slightly absurd one at that!), and the final scares are a bit silly, but it’s entertaining anyway. It’s certainly not grand cinema, but I would someday like to see it uncut, in its original four-part edit.
It might play a little less erratically.
At the very least, I’d like to see it in Italian; the voice acting on this dub is so gawdawful that it recalls those martial arts films from the ’70s. Seriously. As it stands, we’re only getting a shadow of what this should have been. Sure, it likely wouldn’t have been a masterpiece, but it deserves a chance.
Sadly, in this form, it has no chance in Hell.
Date of viewing: November 3, 2017