“8 1/2 Doors of Death” Presdents:
“THE STRANGE VICE OF MRS. WARDH” (AKA “BLADE OF THE RIPPER”) (1971)
Review by Jerome Reuter
SYNOPSIS: A young socialite (Edwige Fenech) returns to Vienna with her diplomat husband. (Alberto De Mendoza). She soon finds herself at the center of a love triangle, attempting to escape the eye of her ex-lover, (Ivan Russimov), while being tempted by a playboy (George Carro). Meanwhile, a masked killer stalks the city, and suspicion falls on one of the men in her life.
If you made the mistake of watching a French Giallo film entitled THE STRANGE COLOR OF YOUR BODIES’ TEARS (2008), you have my condolences. If this was your first foray into the world of giallo— again, my condolences. Your head was probably swimming after being immersed in a whirlpool of overused color saturation, and multiple subplots that lead absolutely nowhere. If you were already a fan of the genre, your head hurt for a completely different reason. After 10 minutes, you rolled your eyes at a female character going by the name of Edwige. 45 minutes past that, you were probably upset about the countless references to so many genre classics that you hold dear. Specifically, Sergio Martino’s THE STRANGE VICE OF MRS. WARDH (1971), sometimes referred to by its alternate title, BLADE OF THE RIPPER.
Released in 1971, it’s one of the many giallo titles that to flooded the market throughout the decade. As with most trends in grindhouse Italian cinema, it wasn’t so much what you wanted to make, but what you wanted to capitalize on. Truth be told, it utilizes many of the standard motifs found in the giallo sub genre. The black gloves, a masked assailant, and vixens meeting an untimely end are all part and parcel. Where Martino’s entries differ from so many isn’t so much their content, but their presentation. A Martino giallo is stylish, colorful, and has an underlying subtext merging sex and death. He successfully manages to explore his characters’ darker attributes, as well build suspense and atmosphere, all culminating in a product that’s distinctive.
Although Dario Argento is often referred to as the Italian Hitchcock, it’s this film that feels like a proper homage to the British director. Borrowing from STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951), and utilizing the assailant as a sort of a “McGuffin” (a device used to advance the plot forward). Like a lot of other titles, it utilizes a good number of motifs from genre legend Mario Bava. (i.e., the film’s opening is highly reminiscent of THE GIRL WHO KNEW TO MUCH, 1963) Although murder is a key point to the unfolding events contained within the film—and it does keep the suspense heavy throughout—it’s not the primary focus. Here, the stylish murders that are a key staple in many gialli take a backseat to the story involving our protagonist.
Martino explores themes of misogyny, voyeurism, and sexual dominance. The main focus of the story is Julie Ward, the wife of an ambassador. Like other gialli, our story is set in the hustle and bustle of a European city, this time in Austria. Martino manages to capture the look of the economic boom of the post-war years. Wardh soon finds herself inexplicably a part of a love triangle between her husband and a playboy. All the while attempting to break free from the watchful eyes of her ex-lover, Jean. Several flashback scenes are used to illustrate Jean’s past control over Julie, and the abuse he once inflicted on her (i.e., one flashback involves them having rough sex on broken glass). It drives home the general hatred we as the audience should have for him as character. At the same time, it sets up Julie’s trials that she must overcome throughout the course of the film. The series of murders that occur throughout the film cast suspicion on the abusive ex-lover, and helps the tension swell throughout. Wardh herself has the best character arc in the film, and the twist ending is one of the best cases of female revenge.
THE STRANGE VICE OF MRS. WARDH is a debut worthy of praise and distinction, and essential viewing for any fan of the subgenre. It was the beginning of a very impressive run of Martino’s contributions, all of which would evolve over the course of his next few films. In both of Martino’s follow ups, THE CASE OF THE SCORPION’S TAIL (1971) and ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK (1972), he progresses significantly, and his unique style comes to fruition.
© Copyright 2017 by Jerome Reuter