Having written a book on the entire career of director Sergio Martino it would be remiss of me to not feature at least one of his gialli as part of our Gialloween season. To be honest I think all of Martino’s gialli should be on this list, and every list. But, it’s often the case that his work is partially marginalised in favour of his peer Dario Argento because Martino is frequently seen as more of an imitator than innovator. I would wholeheartedly disagree with this stance. I think Martino is underrated for many reasons and his giallo films were some of the most interesting (and original) to come out of the entire movement.
A large part of my motivation in writing a book on the director arose from the fact that I feel he has been unfairly represented and misaligned when it comes to his place (and therefore importance) in Italian film. There exists a certain snobbishness in scholarly critic circles, where auteur theory has somehow become valued above all other types of commentary on film. When you think about it, it’s easy to see why — and I speak as someone who is entirely guilty of this myself — because if you can fit a director into a neat little box, identify key themes in their work, be it subtextual or visual, it makes it a whole lot easier to write about and discuss. I am not dismissing this approach whatsoever. There’s nothing more rewarding than digging deep into a filmmaker’s filmography and finding connections that run much deeper than one film. But, when we stick to this approach directors like Sergio Martino fall by the wayside because they defy auterial classification. I believe this is one reason why Martino’s films remain marginalised from the sphere of so called serious film criticism, where by direct contrast Argento’s have been embraced by the same community (so many interconnecting juicy gender, sexual, and visual motifs). Somehow this division has since evolved into a lesser than/better than in the overall system of classification, which simply isn’t true. Although they were working in the same genre for some of the time Argento and Martino were working with entirely different goals and ambitions in mind. Comparison purely in “art” terms is pointless.
Film is there ultimately to be consumed and enjoyed, which is where Martino fits into the grand scheme of things because he understands this. Martino is a director who during his long career hopped from genre to genre, going where the wind and popular cycles took him, in an attempt to make marketable exportable entertaining films for young audiences. There was never any illusion he was making any kind of artistic statement, which is something he appears to be proud of and a point that has driven some to draw comparisons between him and Roger Corman. Martino only made a handful of giallo films in the midst of the peak of the cycle — The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh (1971), The Case of the Scorpion’s Tale (1971), All the Colors of the Dark (1972), Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I have the Key (1972), as well as proto-slasher Torso (1973). Beyond the peak giallo years he made giallo/Poliziotteschi hybrid The Suspicious Death of a Minor (1975), fantasy giallo The Scorpion with Two Tails (1982), and then much later in his career a four part giallo television series — starring and co-produced by Edwige Fenech — Delitti Privati (Private Crimes, 1993), as well as another television funded giallo film Mozart is a Murderer (1999). Outside of the genre he made other types of films: action, cannibal, science fiction, drama, and numerous comedies (in fact over a third of his output was in the latterly mentioned genre).
Personally I believe it was Martino’s journeyman status that put him at a distinct advantage when it came to making really entertaining films, regardless of genre. Genres go out of fashion, they get tired, formulaic. If you are a genre director each new feature brings with it the added pressure of creating enough new ideas to be considered fresh, while not daring to stray too far unless you want to tempt the wrath of hardcore fans who tend to apply strict definitions and rules to any given framework. Martino was free of this because he moved too quickly to get stuck anywhere. Which is why, regardless of budget or other constraints, each one of his films, even the really low budget ones, presents the opportunity for some damn fine entertainment. If the director ever had any thematic concern in his work it is that his audiences should enjoy the show above everything else. If that meant bending formula, so be it. Because of this Martino has enjoyed so much longevity in the Italian film and television industry, despite the fact he hasn’t garnered as much critical acclaim as he should have. He is a filmmaker who has continually moved on, adapting, and reinventing, which is evident in all aspects of his work.
Martino started in the giallo genre alongside his brother, Luciano (head of the family’s Dania Films, and producer of many of Sergio’s features), when they worked on the production end of early genre films like Romolo Guerrieri’s The Sweet Body of Deborah (1968) and Umberto Lenzi’s So Sweet…So Perverse (1969). Both of those films starred American actress Carol Baker. Luciano decided he wanted to emulate the same style of film — not yet a defined genre — but considered the inclusion of Baker to be cost prohibitive. It was only when Sergio spotted Edwige Fenech in their office building — she was there visiting an actor — that the brothers became struck with the idea that they may just have found their star. After dabbling in the mondo and western the Martinos set about making their first giallo film The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh, starring the aforementioned actress — who then went on to become a notable face, not just in the giallo, but in the Italian sex comedy too, because of her relationship with the Martinos; Fenech also had a ten year relationship with older brother Luciano, who cast her in many of the films he produced.
Because Sergio Martino wasn’t confined to formula, each one of his giallo films is very different to the others. There are some thematic similarities in the films he made with Fenech, but this seems to have been determined by her on-screen persona rather than any real thematic concern — and the director would even rewrite this aspect by giving her a very different part in his later feature Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I have the Key. In light of this, All the Colors of the Dark does share some traits with Fenech’s earlier film The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh — sexual repression, female neurosis, perversion, liberating female sexuality — although these same themes also crop up in Lenzi’s earlier giallo films starring Carol Baker — and So Sweet… So Perverse, The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh and All the Colors of the Dark share a scriptwriter in Ernesto Gastaldi, so there’s also his influence to consider. Yet, beyond these commonalities, Martino’s gialli all experiement with different ideas, with All the Colors of the Dark being one of his most adventurous in terms of story concept.
The story involves a young newlywed woman, Jane Harrison (Edwige Fenech), who has recently suffered a miscarriage. Jane’s husband (George Hilton) appears to be overprotective of his wife, in light of her recent trauma, and as a result she leads a somewhat sheltered life where she is infantilised in many respects. But then Jane starts to fall to pieces when she begins to have psychic visions, and she’s followed and terrorised by a strange man (Ivan Rassimov). She is led to a satanic cult by her neighbour (Marina Malfatti) while attempting to find freedom and independence from her oppressive existence. But rather than giving her the answers she seeks, she just brings even more trouble to her door, when she engages in a free-flowing satanic orgy, where desire explodes into murderous intent.
The reason I love All the Colors of the Dark so much is the film’s tendency to sway into surreal territory, leaving subtext in the plot unspoken and unexplained. At certain points in the narrative, especially where Jane sees things, you are left with a somewhat ambiguous feeling that she could either be mad, or possesses some innate witchy power. Martino deliberately didn’t want this explained. But audience reaction to early screenings of the film was not great, with many left confused by the lack of concrete context. This led the distributors to cut the dreamlike scenes from theatrical showings of the film (which have since been restored). The director has made no secret of the fact he was channelling the spirit of Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) in All the Colors of the Dark. The film also appears to riff off the aforementioned Polish director’s earlier film Repulsion (1965). But he also adds something of his own to the mix, making All the Colors of the Dark an incredibly rewarding and complex watch, and one which, given the audience reaction at the time of its initial release, and subsequent raising up of the film by later generations to that all important cult classic status, a film that was truly ahead of its time.
Then there is the sex to consider. Where Argento’s giallo films were often emotionally cold and sex usually came intertwined with violence, by direct contrast Martino’s were warm and sensuous, revelling in the more carnal and decadent aspects the giallo had to offer. And again, much of this comes from the inclusion of actress Fenech who came to define liberated female sexuality on screen in seventies Eurocult film, despite the fact she was never really comfortable with the idea of taking her clothes off, or being a sex symbol, in real life. However, it’s the nature of the sex that interests me the most when it comes to Martino’s female characters, you sometimes find them unintentionally feminist and empowering in a sex positive way. Characters like Mrs Wardh and Jane Harrison are not punished for living out their sexual fantasies. In fact, the opposite appears to be true: liberation and strength comes from shedding the chains of sexual oppression. Martino would reverse the formula for his later film Torso, by punishing sex, which meant that in the process he made one of the first true proto-slashers ,but he did continue this line in some of his later work, including his 1981 sex comedy Cream Horn.
Last, but certainly not least, are the witchcraft and Gothic elements of All the Colors of the Dark. I’m not going to lie, I have an undying passion for these themes in cinema so naturally I’m going to be drawn to them. And while not used prolifically in the giallo, outside a handful of films — The Short Night of the Glass Dolls (1971), The Perfume of the Lady in Black (1974), The House with Laughing Windows (1976) — for me they are very welcome when they do crop up. All the Colors of the Dark has it all in this respect. It’s like a meshing of three of my favourite things all in one big wonderful melting pot — Gothic, thriller, occult. All the Colors of the Dark is packed with Gothic flavour — especially in the gorgeous Gothic mansion, filmed at Wykehurst Place, and London locations — it’s brimming with witchcraft — the satanic orgy is a thing of pure glory — and the film also riffs on traditional Gothic melodrama found in “women’s films” from the 1940s (which I love), just with far more boobs and wild satanic raving, while also keeping giallo formula strictly within its sights. Even the Bruno Nicolai score mixes so many different flavours such as strains of the exotic through the sitar, with a sweeping epic western vibe in the overall hook of the film’s title track Sabba.
When people ask me to name my favourite giallo and I answer “All the Colors of the Dark”, their response, more often than not, is an incredulous: why? And I’ve never understood why people don’t understand and have to ask me this. To me the film stands out for being bold, experimental, divinely decadent, a hotbed of lush and sexual liberation, and Gothic perversity. Heck, what’s not to love?