After a slightly shonky opening sequence showing him murdering a newly-married couple on a train, we meet John Harrington, a fashion house owner who proudly declares himself in voiceover to be a 'paranoiac'. He believes women should live until their wedding night, "love once," and then be killed, and puts this belief into action whenever one of his coterie of models leaves to get married (the concept of married women working having obviously not penetrated late 1960s Paris). He's tortured by a faint vision of seeing his mother being murdered, with each kill he commits bringing him one step closer to having full access to the repressed memory, which will also reveal the guilty party. The police, naturally enough, suspect John of being guilty of the model murders, but can't gather enough proof. Meanwhile, his shrewish wife-who John seems to have married for her wealth-refuses repeated requests for a divorce, so the paranoiac murderer does what comes naturally to him. However, the news that ghosts don't exist had also not penetrated late 1960s Paris, and Mrs Harrington refuses to go quietly into the night...
This film is clearly intended to be light-hearted fun, with much of the second act following John's darkly comical, and increasingly desperate, attempts to dispense with his wife's remains, and thus get rid of her pesky ghost. More on the ghost in a bit. While there's neither a whodunnit nor blackmail aspect to the film, there is a minor mystery at the core of the plot: the identity of John's mother's killer. Given the paucity of potential suspects the film presents to us, though, there's no need to call in Sherlock Holmes to solve the mystery; John Holmes would've had a fighting chance of solving it (as long as enough blood was reaching his brain at the time). The piece-by-piece reveal of the killer's identity may have been influenced by the Harmonica flashbacks in Once Upon a Time in the West, and can in turn can be seen in Dario Argento's later Opera.
Argento could claim that Opera references his own work in OUATITW-although just how much he contributed to that film's screenplay is debatable-but it's notable just how closely the flashback device at the centre of that film echoes this one. Aside from that, it's impossible to discuss Hatchet without mentioning The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, which was unveiled after this film was shot, but before its release.
It's likely that Bava considered himself 'done' with the giallo after Bood and Black Lace. He didn't return to the filone for several years, before churning out 5 Dolls for an August Moon, Hatchet for the Honeymoon, and Bay of Blood in short order around the turn of the decade. Although vastly different in many ways, all three films share a light-hearted touch, with none being rooted in anything resembling reality (consider 5 Doll's 'serum' Macguffin, the ghost angle here, and the general outrageousness of Bay of Blood's plot). This was very much pushing against the trend for sleek and sexy urban-set thrillers, of the sort popularised by Argento. The plots of Bird and Hatchet both centre around childhood trauma, but for Bava it's just a hook on which to hang a load of black comedy; for Argento, although he does include comedic scenes and characters, it's more of a left hook to the gut.
Bava's movement towards black comedy in his later gialli can be seen as either an attempt to broaden the filone's horizons, or as a sign that he felt he'd taken it as far as he could. While not being the sort of spoof films (although an argument could be made for Bay of Blood on that front) which tended to characterise Italians being 'done' with a genre*, he does fall on his tried and trusted box of cinematic tricks to construct a fun, but safe, piece. His beloved curved glass, which distorted the image when held in front of the lens, is present and correct, as are occasional bursts of expressionist lighting, particularly in the lead up to Harrington's murder of his wife. There are also more dollies than usual for this stage of Bava's career, although they're of the fast and jerky variety, lacking the grace and steady menace of B&BL.
Apparently the wife character wasn't included in the original screemplay (as the opening credits would have you believe it's spelt), and was a late addition after Laura Betti expressed an interest in working with Bava. One imagines that the film as written was a darker character study, Psycho without any ambiguity as to the killer's identity (there are still several overt nods to Hitchcock's film in the finished product). The introduction of Betti to the mix seems to have led to the least gialloey thing about the film-the supernatural aspect.
There are many gialli with 'ghosts', which turn out to be staged hauntings in order to drive someone (some woman) mad. There are very few which do actually contain supernatural elements, because once you establish that the film takes place in a (let's face it) alternate reality, the stakes are lowered all round. After all, if there's an afterlife, death-the fear of which is at the core of the giallo-isn't as big a deal any more. It's clearly not a big deal here anyway, with only a couple of semi-set pieces, and the return of Betti's character as a ghost doesn't really damage things too much, unless you tire of the comedic shenanigans of Harrington trying to dispose of her ashes. It's clearly just a cherry on the top of a frothy, light film, not intended to be seriously analysed by film studies nerds.
Still. If it is possible to return as a ghost, why don't any of Harrington's other victims return to rat him out to the fuzz? And how can Betti's character have so much control over who sees and hears her? It's madness. What is also is, probably, is Bava processing some complex feelings about his own wife, who by all accounts was extremely difficult to live with (and probably mentally ill). And, while we're shooting proverbial fish in a plot-holed barrel, are we seriously meant to believe that Dagmar Lassander's character, a new model who claims to be the sister of one of the 'disappeared', is working with the police? Her providing of Harrington with an alibi can be explained as being part of a bid to win his confidence, and to ultimately glean conclusive proof of his guilt, as opposed to further circumstantial evidence of his links to murders/attempted murders, but be prepared to swallow a pretty large slice of scepticism all the same.
Still, this is a film designed to be consumed then forgotten, as with much popular entertainment in the mid-to-late twentieth century. The thing with Mario Bava is he was too good a director to make something entirely disposable, and there are plenty of classy moments here. The introduction of a younger version of Harrington, who increasingly shares the screen with his older, more paranoiac incarnation, leads to some haunting moments, with the child actor being especially skilled at giving a look full of wist (wistful, if you will). The fashion house setting, back from B&BL, lends a touch of opulence, and allows for some excellent mannequin action. The score contains a lot of Stelvio Cipriani-esque guitar stings, and you even get some B&W footage of Boris Karloff from The Wurdulak. All in all, this film won't change your life, but it will make it slightly more bearable for 85 minutes.
*See Bava's Dr Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs as an example of this approach to the spy film; Franco and Ciccio's presence-as always-denoting the film's status as a farce