After dumb (mute) Janey acts in an extremely dumb (stupid) way upon finding an intruder in her sanitorium bedroom (she runs away from the heavily-populated house to the dark and isolated woods), she's brutally slashed to death by a hood-wearing maniac. The killing is covered up by the sanitarium's owner, shifty Dr Vance, and his ratchety head nurse, Sheena. Together they convince newly-arrived nurse Mary that Janey's family arrived at dawn to take her away. Dr Vance then takes a trip to the hills to dispose of the body, where he's witnessed by Gisele, an unscrupulous woman who we've just seen club her husband to death (to be fair, he seemed to have aspersions towards doing the same to her). Gisele stages a 'chance' meeting with Dr Vance, and he takes her back to his sanitarium where she immediately sets about amassing enough info for a spot of blackmail. Meanwhile, Vance's horrifically-scarred sister-in-law, Laura. stalks about in the upstairs attic, his wife grows ever-more distant, the patients roam about the corridors at night (Vance apparently not being a big believed in locks), and the hooded killer gets ready to strike again. And again and again.
Well, maybe not again and again. This is one of those films with an early box-ticking murder which then settles down for a long period of watching people watch other people act shiftily. It's definitely one of the better examples of such a film though, and things don't really drag until the final couple of reels (which, admittedly, is a pretty fatal flaw; that's when things should be amping up). The vast majority of the film takes place in and around Dr Vance's sanitarium, which gets nice and dark at night, lending an easy gothic touch to proceedings. Occasionally too dark, in fact, for us to see what's going on (possibly a fault of Film Art's Blu ray, but I don't think so). There's some decent storm action early on, and the 19th century setting allows for a lot of candles, and adds to the general sense of isolation, and imprisonment, of the inmates and residents of the sanitarium. To cap it all off, you have the classic trope of the mad woman in the attic (as with all the residents and inmates, apparently free to roam as she pleases at night), so those of you who love your gothics will find much to enjoy here.
Laura, the aforementioned mad woman, has a long line of antecedents, among them the likes of Jane Eyre's Bertha, but also has more contemporary connections, most obviously the tragically deformed characters at the heart of Eyes Without a Face and The Awful Dr Orloff. The attempts of Vance to perfect skin graft techniques through experiments on animals doesn't exactly chime with the period setting, though (saying that, rudimentary grafting procedures did indeed take place in the nineteenth century). Still-isn't Vance a head doctor (and THE head doctor of the sanitarium; ithankyou)? What's he doing pissing about sticking skin onto guinea pigs??
Another slightly anachronistic element is the building site on which Laura has her tragic accident (she transforms into a shapeless bundle of rags and falls into a lime pit). I might just be being unwittingly dismissive of the building techniques of the nineteenth century, but the whole thing seemed way too modern a set-up. Anyway, the flashback itself is great fun, being one of those impossibly jaunty montages where everyone seems constantly on the point of bursting into hysterical laughter, such fun are they having. But, of course, such sequences are always a prelude to a fall, at least in these sort of films, so if you ever find yourself in one, try and internalise some of your happiness.
There's a definite krimi vibe here at times too, not least in the slightly out-there hooded robe costume sported by the killer. A costume which, coincidentally, is exactly the same as that worn by another character at regular intervals. This is classic giallo territory-the creation of a red herring through costuming (see Torso's neckerchief and any numbers of characters who break out a pair of shiny black gloves halfway through a film). It's a nice way to cast suspicion on someone without needing them to act suspiciously per se (although here, Laura-who wears an identical cape to the killer-attracts attention for everything she does, being the madwoman in the attic). God knows there's enough characters acting suspiciously here, half of them, admittedly, being sanitarium inmates who take full advantage of Vance's open door policy.
To close, I'll briefly dissect the final couple of scenes of the film, with attendant spoilers, so stop reading NOW if you haven't-Vance's wife is the killer-seen the film. I warned you! The scene in which Lizabeth-AKA Mrs Vance-admits her guilt before expiring (having also fallen prey to the turning-into-rags-and-falling-from-a-height congenital defect which claimed her sister) sees her admit criminal responsibility for her actions, but lays the moral blame squarely at her husband's (unlocked) door. She done the murders, but only because she was jealous of her sister "and all the others." Given that we've seen Vance proclaiming his love for newbie nurse Mary mere moments before, we can kinda see where she's coming from. He's left kneeling over her corpse, the judgey gazes of his colleagues raining down on him from above, and the sense is that he'll be left bearing his guilt for the rest of his life. The period setting aids the film here, as his philandering ways would have been seen as extra-naughty back in the day.
But then, just as you're applauding a fairly middle-of-the-road film for such a deliciously dark ending, it goes and throws in some classic 'ride off into the sunset' Hollywood nonsense. Vance, passing Mary as he leaves the sanitarium for the last time (what about your patients and guinea pigs, doctor?) stops his carriage and leaps out, in an obscenely romantic gesture. It proves enough to win Mary over, and she gladly signs on to take over the role of future-scorned Mrs Vance. It's a pity that the filmmakers felt the need to ruin the searing effect of the previous scene with such saccharine nonsense.
However, there may be an exonerating explanation, for co-director Lionello De Felice at least. According to co-writer Ernesto Gastaldi (whose involvement here came before he hit on money as his main plot-driver), De Felice left shortly before filming ended, to be replaced by producer Elio Scardamaglia, who is widely credited with the film's direction. The ride-into-the-sunset does smack of being a tacked-on producer's imposition, which may well have been the case. Either way, it's a shame to finish on such a limp note, in much the same way that I myself am doing here.