The Case of the Bloody Iris was originally released in 1972 under the enigmatic title Perché quelle strane gocce di sangue sul corpo di Jennifer? (Why Those Strange Drops of Blood on Jennifer’s Body?). In a film defined by the juxtaposition of a rich, opulent aesthetic and jarring, brutal violence, director Giuliano Carnimeo creates an archetypal giallo, an intriguing and aesthetically engaging example of what makes this particular genre so enduring and enticing.
The Case of the Bloody Iris takes place largely in the confined, albeit conspicuously modern, setting of an urban apartment building. From the outset, Carnimeo emphasises the alienation and paranoia of a provincial Italian city where the crime rate creeps steadily upwards and the individual is lost amidst indifferent crowds. Accentuated by the masterful cinematography of Stelvio Massi and a score by Bruno Nicolai that continuously alternates between melodic and unsettling, The Case of the Bloody Iris opens with a typically voyeuristic camera following a young woman along a Genoa street. The camera lingers on individual parts of her body, dissecting her visually, as it jumps rapid as knife cuts from one part of her to the next.
Entering an apartment building, the anonymous young women descends into a paranoiac nightmare as she steps onto an elevator. Suggesting that she has been followed by an individual whose voyeuristic gaze earlier tracked her through the city streets, Carnimeo evokes a pervasive sense of unease as the camera hones in on the eyes of the passengers who share the elevator with her. Jumping from one narrowed gaze to the next in quick cuts, Massi’s astounding camerawork conveys vulnerability and fear.
When the young woman is finally left alone in the elevator by departing passengers, she falls victim to the murderous intentions of a glove-wearing, black-clad killer. These opening moments suggest an awareness of the key giallo conventions developed over the course of the previous decade in films such as Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace (1964) and Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1971). However, while the central mystery at the heart of the film is ultimately rather formulaic, The Case of the Bloody Iris distinguishes itself through some stunning visuals and a rather satirical approach to the often-problematic gender politics of the giallo genre.
Following the brutal opening murder, the film shifts its focus to the impossibly beautiful Jennifer (played by the impossibly beautiful Edwige Fenech) who finds herself stalked by an unknown killer. As she is plagued by strange events—the return of an abusive former lover, violent attacks on those close to her, and the appearance of sinister tokens of obsession in the form of bloodstained irises—Jennifer becomes increasingly convinced that she is being stalked by someone close to her.
The potential suspects who surround her include her busybody neighbour Mrs. Moss (Maria Tedeschi), the alluring and intense Sheila (Annabella Incontrera), and Jennifer’s new love interest, the debonair architect Andrea Antinori (George Hilton). The Case of the Bloody Iris is actually the second giallo from 1972 starring Fenech and Hilton: they were also paired in Sergio Martino’s All the Colours of the Dark.
While many critics consider Bloody Iris to be inferior to both All the Colours of the Dark and Martino’s earlier film The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh (released in 1971, and also featuring Fenech and Hilton), there is much to admire in Carnimeo’s entry in the giallo canon. Indeed, the film is provocative and engaging in its treatment of Jennifer’s paranoia and sexual trauma. Early in the film, Jennifer, who in typical giallo style works as a model, poses for a fashion shoot where the photographer (Oreste Lionello) encourages her to exude sexuality and present herself as a tempting seductress, a cruel tormenter of hapless men.
As the camera flashes and the heat of the studio lights glare down upon her largely exposed body, Jennifer experiences an intense flashback to her time in a cult dedicated to “free love.” Beautifully shot by Massi through panels of painted glass and framed as a kaleidoscope of unsettling sexual excess, this flashback is imbued with a disturbing dreamlike quality.
The connection we, as viewers, are encouraged to make is between Jennifer’s objectification as a model and her previous sexual exploitation as a seemingly reluctant cult member. Indeed, the sexual objectification of women and its connection to broader forms of gender-based violence appears to be a recurrent motif in the film. Indeed, in an earlier scene, the same photographer has the bodies of Jennifer and another model painted to appear clothed, an endeavour which is framed as somewhat ridiculous.
Here, rather than wearing clothes, exaggerated outfits are painted on their bodies, so that instead of individuals, they appear like inanimate objects being decorated. The photographer, who seems to work primarily in advertising, is acutely aware that female sexuality sells products and that women’s bodies can usefully be deployed to sell everything from luxury apartments to beer.
Likewise, the treatment of Mizar (the wonderful Carla Brait), a woman of colour and erotic performer, serves to highlight the manner in which sexual violence and objectification intersect with racism. When her picture is first examined by Lionello’s seedy photographer, the description that follows labels Mizar as “black, but not too black.” In a similar vein, Mizar’s performances at a rather sleazy nightclub fetishise her racial difference, framing her as a sexually-available embodiment of the “strong black woman” stereotype. When Mizar, becomes the killer’s second victim, the transformation of her body into an object of violence echoes her earlier sexual objectification.
This connection between physical violence and sexual objectification reappears numerous times throughout the film. The cops who joke casually at the scene of brutal murders, Jennifer’s violent ex-partner telling her “you’re an object and you belong to me,” the police commissioner who observes that “every man wants a black girl”: these moments create a cumulative sense that the culture in which the film is set considers women to be little more than possessions to be bought, traded or owned.
The relationship between violence and sexuality, and particularly the erotic aestheticisation of violence against women, has, of course, always been a hallmark of the giallo genre. The Case of the Bloody Iris, like many gialli, is inherently preoccupied with the intersection of sex and death. Moreover, as with many of the best giallo filmmakers, Carnimeo’s intention appears to transcend the aesthetic, as his film appears to pose pertinent questions about gender and sexuality in 1970s Italy.
Released in 1972, The Case of the Bloody Iris is set only four years after the massive social and cultural upheavals that attended the Sessantotto, or 1968 Movement, in Italy. Like many other student-led, late-‘60s social political movements, the Sessantotto drove social change by attempting to dismantle pre-existing capitalist and patriarchal systems. The period also witnessed the erosion of traditional Catholic values, increased sexual liberation, the legalisation of divorce, and the liberalisation of abortion laws.
Many gialli reflect these social changes, evidencing a deep-seated conflict between the conservative Catholic past and the newly liberal present. The Case of the Bloody Iris by overtly foregrounding issues of sexual objectification engages with this conflict directly, questioning whether the progressivism of 1968 has really created a better society. After all, Genoa is described as a city consumed by vice and crime; both the police commissioner (Giampiero Albertini) and Mrs Moss allude to the prospect of poverty and social isolation that faces the city’s elderly.
Moreover, in the context of the film, the increasing liberalisation of attitudes towards sexuality has failed to bring about any form of gender equality, instead it seems to have simply disenfranchised women further by creating a widespread culture of sexual violence and objectification. On the other hand, however, Carnimeo does not appear to be a reactionary. While the culture of excess that appears to define the film’s setting is presented as destructive and ultimately deadly, the conservative past which it stands in opposition to is not portrayed as a better alternative.
The rigid Catholicism of Mrs. Moss, for example, is depicted as almost fanatical, a negative influence on her sole remaining family member. Additionally, another character, who will remain anonymous to protect the film’s “big reveal,” denounces Jennifer and young women like her as degenerate, corrupting influences, dismissing them with a hatred that borders on irrational madness.
In saying all of this, however, I am not claiming that the film is an undiscovered feminist masterpiece (its depiction of women and LGBTQ individuals can often be troubling), nor am I attempting to argue that the director and screenwriter (Ernesto Gastaldi) intended their work to be some sort of progressive critique of the patriarchy. To do so would be simplistic, and I would simply be projecting a contemporary viewpoint onto a film produced over forty years ago.
However, what I am saying is that this film, like many gialli, interrogates the culture in which it was created. It engages with the changes in gender roles and sexual mores that took place after 1968, not necessarily to praise or condemn them, but rather to present them as a powerful transformation that affected all aspects of Italian life. Like the slashers that would succeed them, gialli have an undeniably complex relationship to issues of gender and sexuality. However, like many of the best gialli, The Case of the Bloody Iris is a film that foregrounds these complex and occasionally problematic issues, weaving them into the plot and posing interesting questions the relationship between sex violence.
The Case of the Bloody Iris is not a perfect film. It certainly pales in comparison to many other early ‘70s gialli, and I would by no means recommend it as a starting point for someone unfamiliar with the genre. The acting can be stilted and the dialogue is occasionally tedious. The new Shameless Screen Entertainment edition gives you the option to watch the film in either Italian (with English subtitles) or dubbed into English. The former is certainly the better option, as the actors who provide the English dialogue in the dubbed version seem rather emotionless and wooden. However, I can’t say that the dubbed version is bad.
Like many giallo fans, I genuinely enjoy the otherworldly discordance of dubbed films and find a delightful uncanniness in how words appear to emanate from the screen independent of the lip movements of the actors. Most importantly, however, the film is engaging from a visual point of view: the set design evokes the excess of modernistic post-war architecture and the characters are often framed against these sets in extremely creative ways.
The tracking shots that follow individual character movements are dynamic, while numerous wide-angle shots allow us to appreciate the often stunning compositions created by Carnimeo and Massi. The use of deep focus in this film is fascinating, Massi creates an astounding sense of disorientation by foregrounding everyday objects (a telephone, a typewriter, a faucet) while characters move about in the background, seemingly dwarfed by some mundane item.
The Shameless Screen Entertainment release itself is quite stunning. This new Blu-ray and DVD version has been extensively restored from a 2K scan. The images are crisp and clear, while the colours are appropriately vibrant. The special features are comparatively limited, but the bonus interviews with George Hilton and Paola Quattrini (Marilyn) are extremely interesting and well-produced. Shameless presents its DVD and Blu-ray releases beautifully. They are packaged in vibrant yellow casing in homage to Mondadori’s original giallo paperbacks, and the company is proud of its role in promoting exploitation cinema. While I feel that their description of The Case of the Bloody Iris as a “long-sought-after 70s sleaze gem” fails to do justice to what is ultimately an engaging, well-crafted and aesthetically interesting film, their restoration is beautiful and would be a welcome addition to any giallo fan’s collection.
THE CASE OF THE BLOODY IRIS is available on DVD and Blu-ray November 19, 2018. Visit the Shameless website here for your copy.