Lamberto Bava‘s A BLADE IN THE DARK (aka The House with the Dark Staircase) was released in 1983 but feels very much like the 70’s Giallo films that precede it. While it was meant to be a TV mini-series, it was deemed too Giallo even for Italian TV and was subsequently cut like a movie.
I will give it credit for Italian Giallo titles, though; there was a house with a dark staircase, as there were many blades in the dark, so I got what I paid for at the very least. We also get a cameo role from “Bob” (Giovanni Frezza) from The House by the Cemetery. Thankfully it’s small and brief.
The plot is that a music composer is writing a new score for a horror movie, so he rents a secluded house to concentrate and record the music. Random people keep bothering him, and then abruptly disappearing and/or dying. This upsets him, so he stops writing music and, instead of calling the police, decides to investigate the situation himself.
But who is the killer? Who is the mysterious woman who rented the house before him? And why are so many models breaking into the house to be killed? And are tennis balls supposed to be scary?
Spoilers and Thoughts
The movie within the movie is about a boy going into a spooky house with his peers. While being dared to go into the basement, he is specifically taunted that he is “female” and then driven to insanity because of this – I guess? The director of the meta-film says that the story is based on a childhood friend and as soon as you put that with “woman who lived here before” and “dark secret”, the ending is apparent and even more cringy than you’re even thinking.
Yes, the killer is a trans-woman who kills because she hates being trans – or something along those lines, I guess. It’s 80’s Giallo, so this is a quick exposition given during the film while the character in question smugly smokes a cigarette.
It’s not a new twist, it’s an old tired trope that even creeps into some of my favorite movies. As much as we can say, “eh, the times were different”, it’s also worth taking note. This is not art imitating life. This is art imitating people, who were not trans, thinking, “You know what would be kuh-ray-zee? But also a little sexy?”.
Sadly, the use of “trans-killers” becomes a freakshow not because they’re maniacal killers (like, say, Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers) but because they’re “confused” by what is considered normal by societial standards. They are not killers by choice, but by the pure “insanity” of being different. Yet, if art were really imitating life, it’d be the complete opposite (I.e., gay panic defense, Twinkie defense).
Bottom line: A BLADE IN THE DARK is a take-it-or-leave-it Giallo. I like Giallo, but the pacing slows down after two kills and overall, it felt very heavy like the actors were trudging through sand in the third act. The deaths were fun and the boxcutter-POV (typical Giallo) was cute, but the film loses its lustre after a while.