We know, and that's one of the main issues plaguing this film-a full hour elapses between the first on-screen murder and the discovery of the corpse (plus a bonus corpse) by one of the film's characters. Much of the film's running time is taken up by the lead character, Andrea Occhipinti's Bruno, gradually beginning to suspect what we've long known to be true-someone is butchering women in his gaff. There's very little sleuthing on the agenda-apart from one of those plot devices where a key clue can apparently be deciphered by decoding a work of art-instead, Bruno spends a lot of time walking slowly around his house (an allegedly "very large, very isolated" villa, as one character intones over a shot of the property which shows another house nearby in the background). To be fair, he's right to move with caution-the house doesn't seem to have any working locks, and women keep jumping out at him from behind doors and curtains. His girlfriend (twice) and two girls who live locally (again showing it ain't that isolated) call in on Bruno seemingly on a whim, and to give him his due he takes it in his stride-he barely raises an eyebrow when Katia, a neighbour who he's never met before, jumps out at him in a downstairs room late at night.
The film was initially conceived as a TV miniseries, and shot with that format in mind. If A Blade in the Dark had indeed been presented in the intended manner-four short episodes, each leading up to a murder/set piece-then it would likely work far better. Each episode would begin slowly, feature a fair bit of Bruno walking around to somewhat increase the tension, and culminate in a bit of the ol' deep red. The set pieces aren't bad-the second, a brutal bathroom slaughter, is particularly effective, and likely the reason why the project was deemed unsuitable for broadcast on TV.* Taken as a whole, though, the way the film essentially 'resets' post-murder for what would the beginning of the next episode means that there's very little cumulative build of tension, and the whole thing begins to drag somewhat.
Speaking of, let's drill into the killer's backstory, which also ultimately provides some hefty subtext, something not always present in Italian genre offerings. The film opens with a scene from the horror film-within-the-film in which Bob off House by the Cemetery shows that he's learned Absolutely Nothing from his experiences there. Egged on by two male friends, he descends to the darkened basement of a house in search of a lost bouncy ball. The ball is flung back up the stairs, leaving a bloody mark on the wall. Oooh, scary! At least, that's the opinion of the horror film-within-a-film's director Sandra (A WOMAN?!?!), who's decreed that no-one should see the final reel of the film until it's released because it's too damn scary. Except, she does show Bruno (who, after all, should have an idea of what his score will be accompanying) the Bob scene, which turns out to be from the infamous final reel ("Reel 12" as she calls it, or "Reel 10" as it's labelled in the lab). Such inconsistencies are to be expected, I suppose, when you let someone with a woman's brain direct a film.
But my solid, masculine mind digresses. Bob is still sporting the classic 'woman doing a child's voice' tones despite there clearly being other vocal options available-his friends, after all, are dubbed by boys (or else women who are able to do proper boy impressions). So why is he still saddled with the same old ridiculous voice? Is it because it's part of Giovanni Frezza's brand? Is it because Bob's required to do a full-on scream, which doesn't sound that odd coming from someone with the voice of an adult woman? Or is there something deeper at play? After all, Bob's taunted by his friends with a chant of "You're a female, you're a female!" And, vocally at least, he is. Wouldn't you get a bit confused if you were Bob, having the voice of a woman, and being told by your young chums that you are indeed a female?
That's what's happened here anyway, as (SPOILERS!) even though the killer is apparently someone called Linda, and wears red nail polish (as, of course, do all the female characters) and high heels (with both fashion choices being afforded a lot of emphasis in the shot selection), the big twist is that it's actually a man (the letting agent) dressed up as a woman. Bob, AKA Linda AKA Tony the Letting Agent, is a friend of the director of the horror film, who has made a film which contains scenes which happen to depict formative traumatic events from Bo-L-ony's childhood.** This despite Bo-L-ony not having actually confided in Sandra, the director-she's just happened to recreate them in her film! And, even more astoundingly, Bo-L-ony knows that they're contained in the final reel, despite said reel being famously off-limits! Someone should tell Lamberto Bava that his film sometimes displays all the internal logic of a bloody female!!!
And so the shocking twist-shocking, anyway, if you saw it back when the film was released and hadn't recently seen Dressed to Kill (or Psycho, twenty three years previously)-is that a man is dressing as a woman. Oh, and killing people, that's shocking too. But the film is clearly trying to provide a decent helping of our old aforementioned friend, subtext, possibly to make up for a lack of thrills and spills. The budget was clearly very low, with a small cast-too small, as by the time of the reveal there's literally no-one else the killer could be-and 95% of the action taking place in a single location, so an attempt has been made to throw some cerebral shit at the wall to see if it'll stick.
It's hardly revolutionary to speak of a knife as a phallus, and a stab wound as feminine-it's one of the more perfunctory slang terms for a vagina, after all. The knife used by the killer here, one of those retractable break-off-blade ones (I believe that is the technical term for them), bursts forth like an erection before each murder-its first appearance comes when Bo-L-ony is literally looking at a nudie magazine. Bo-L-ony is ultimately dispatched when Bruno flips them over causing them to stab themselves in the crotch, in a moment that is so ripe with symbolism that I don't think I need to expound upon it here. They crumple to the ground sporting their freshly created stab wound muttering about how they're not a female child (which, to be fair, no one was really suggesting) and the threat to gender norms has been allayed.
I don't think there's much worth in deciding whether a film such as this shows a progressive or regressive attitude towards woman, transvestism and childhood trauma etc-it's a piece of popular entertainment from a very Catholic country made a long time ago, so it's not going to be a trendsetter of liberal attitudes. If someone from the 1920s somehow saw this film they'd probably agree that lines such as "As a woman, I'm a physical coward" hadn't aged well, and you're always playing with fire if you hint at any kind of correlation between transsexualism and acts of evil. There does seem to be an awareness that a less-traditional world may be just around the corner, however-witness the aforementioned woman director, and Bruno's girlfriend acts in a play about "homosexuality in females". There's the sense that the group of middle aged men responsible for this film were trying to add weight to the script by engaging with the 'modern world', they're just not comfortable enough or aware enough of what exactly that world is to do it justice.
The English dub is one of those where the dialogue seems to have been put through a prototype version of Google translate, and is frequently extremely clunky (but quotable)-Bruno's girlfriend's opening line of "It's me, Julia-your girl!" being a classic, but there is a lot of extremely ornate phrasing going on too. And you'll learn that "in the feathers" is apparently the cool, new slang for "in bed". There's also a nice throwaway line by Tony (of Bo-L-ony fame) when he says "I have to go and change" before departing, supposedly on a business trip, but actually on a murder trip.
So, all in all this isn't a great giallo. It's not bad though-it'd be impossible for someone called Bava to make one that's anything less than watchable. He'd return to the villa-set giallo with a bigger budget (and greater success) a few years later with Delirium, but don't totally discount this one. As I said, it'd likely have played much better if serialised as intended, and there's at least some sort of attempt to add in a bit of subtext. That said, subtext is all well and good, but a film like Torso, which is pretty much all text, is a damn sight more enjoyable than this one! (Though I suppose you could make a case for Torso having a 'twisted sexuality' subtext, depicting as it does a multiracial lesbian couple having it off in the feathers...)
*Check out the first set piece for one of the most egregious examples of the manipulation of off-frame space you'll ever see-a jump scare which, when reviewed logically-requires the victim to completely ignore the killer approaching in full view until a knife is thrust into the frame from point-blank range.
**It's worth pointing out that whereas Child Bob is a boy with a woman's voice, Linda is a 'woman' with what can only be described as a man's voice-she sounds like the dubbing editor invited his campest friend into the booth and told him to moan and whisper like a girl. And speaking of whispering, if you're a killer going through a psychotic episode, don't whisper your name into a recording microphone and follow it up by saying you have a secret that no-one must know.