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In honor of Women in Horror month, I’ve been spending my time praising, studying and aligning myself with some of horror’s coolest, fiercest and smartest women. I’ve also been on the look out for the perfect horror film for women.
Of course, us girls love the usual blood, gore and guts—the disturbing and shocking subject matter. We can handle it all, but I’ve been looking for a film that runs a bit deeper. I’ve been looking for a film that gets under a woman’s skin and really speaks to her; a horror film that pleases a woman visually and emotionally, and perhaps even turns her on physically (ooh là là)!
I’ve been looking for a horror melodrama, and I have found it in Sergio Martino’s THE STRANGE VICE OF MRS. WARDH (1971, a.k.a. BLADE OF THE RIPPER and THE NEXT VICTIM!). Even the title is deliciously electrifying.
There is so much about this film that women will instantly fall in love with—and for the men (and women too) there is Edwige Fenech. The smart, sleek and sultry French born Italian actress is so talented and easy on the eyes that you feel instantly smitten with her. Any story that she is a part of, you’re on board with. You hang from her every word the minute she starts to speak.
The film opens with a man picking up a prostitute and in less than a few minutes, she is in his car topless and he stabs her to death. I know this sounds like every other giallo you’ve seen, but this sequence is followed by a quote from Sigmund Freud about human nature and murder, foreshadowing the much more intricate and psychological film you’re about to experience.
Julie Wardh (Fenech) lands at the airport in Vienna where her husband, Neil (Alberto de Mendoza), is whisked away on business. Like Martino’s other features, color is a crucial aspect for symbolism and the camera pans up the airport escalator from a woman in a red dress, to another woman’s red heels, and then our heroine Julie in white and black, looking gorgeous as ever. Fenech also wears a lot of blue in this film, but when she is in red—we know that our dear actress could be in trouble. Fashion is big in THE STRANGE VICE OF MRS. WARDH—it’s chic, luxurious and the outfits that Julie and her best friend Carol (Conchita Airoldi) wear will leave women drooling over their exquisiteness.
On the way home from the airport, Julie’s driver explains that the prostitute’s murder we just witnessed is just one of many killings that have occurred in Vienna lately. Although struck by this news, Julie seems distracted by something else, and we are privy to a flashback of Julie and Jean (Ivan Rassimov) arguing in a car during a rainstorm. Julie escapes the vehicle, but Jean chases after her and hits her repeatedly before they make love.
After arriving home to her lonely apartment, Julie decides to attend a party hosted by Carol where she meets the handsome, tall, dark and charming George (George Hilton). Everything is going quite well for the flirtatious couple until Jean shows up, and Julie storms out. In another flashback, Jean smashes a bottle over Julie’s naked body before they make love in a bed full of broken glass. We learn that Julie had an unhealthy and violent relationship with Jean in her past—ahhh, Mrs. Wardh’s vice! Martino was on to something here—perhaps this scene is alluding to the essence of horror films and why we love them—the contrast between pain and pleasure, the tension we experience when we know the killer is near, and that release of anxiety we feel after a watching a murder onscreen. Film theorists such as Noel Carroll (author of THE PHILOSOPHY OF HORROR, OR PARADOXES OF THE HEART) have sited Freud to explain this phenomenon and why we love horror so much, which ties nicely into the opening of THE STRANGE VICE OF MRS. WARDH.
Julie eventually succumbs to George’s strong advances. And who wouldn’t? He takes her on a dangerous motorcycle ride amongst a beautiful Austrian landscape, her hair blowing in the wind over a sweeping piano orchestra soundtrack. Then, he makes love to her and allows her to be on top! Hellloooo, Miss Fenech!
Unfortunately, Jean knows all about the affair between George and Julie and he blackmails her, forcing her to pay up so that her poor husband never finds out. The best friend a girl could have, Carol offers to deliver the money to Jean so that Julie can avoid him completely, but when Carol turns up dead and Julie herself escapes an attack in a parking garage, she is certain that Jean is the killer the police have been looking for. Neil and Julie decide to take matters into their own hands and find Jean on their own terms. Instead, they discover him bleeding out in a bathtub in what looks like suicide. But is Jean really dead? Can Julie trust her husband? Can anyone be trusted?
I won’t spoil the ending of the film for those who haven’t seen it, but I can promise you that our lovely brunette with the luxurious lashes that go on forever always ends up on top!
Martino’s brilliant film appeals to the heightened emotions of the audience—especially women. Of course, I don’t want to stereotype women, but many of us do appreciate a beautiful actress who wears cute dresses and gladiator sandals, dates gorgeous men at her leisure, and considers a “diet” to mean a break from taking another lover, rather than another slice of margarita pizza.
THE STRANGE VICE OF MRS. WARDH was Martino’s first giallo effort and the first of several collaborations with Fenech and Hilton. He’s a brilliant director, and easily my favorite in the giallo genre. In THE STRANGE VICE OF MRS. WARDH, he knows when to give it his all—the murder set pieces, the nightmare and flashback sequences, and the creative and well thought-out shots. He also knows when to let his actors take the lead and allow the dialogue and the script to flow. The use of sound design and music in the film is also very impressive—Julie’s heartbeat during a tense life-or-death scene late in the film is incredible.
Celebrate the last weekend of Women in Horror month by watching Martio’s THE STRANGE VICE OF MRS. WARDH with your friends or a loved one and a good Italian wine. Ladies, you won’t be disappointed, and gentlemen—you can thank me for firing up your girlfriend later.
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