The film opens with three children in a dark (presumably haunted and/or evil) house. The two braver children are egging on a young blonde boy to go into the cellar, a yawning chasm emitting malignant vibes. If you recognize the boy (an uncredited Giovanni Frezza) from “House by the Cemetery” (1981) than you no doubt already know that he’ll ignore his better judgment (and the screams of the exasperated audience) by descending into the darkness yet again. A few moments and a wicked laugh later, a single tennis ball hurtles from the void. It leaves bloody splotches everywhere it bounces as the surviving boys run away screaming.
As it turns out, this isn’t the beginning of the movie. It’s the middle of a film being scored by Bruno (Andrea Occhipinti), our protagonist. The director of the film, Sandra, puts Bruno up in a spooky house during the duration of the shooting schedule, to set the right mood for his work. The house isn’t really all that scary, but Sandra has her own reasons for associating the building with ill tidings.
Bruno’s music sounds like it could by Claudio Simonetti (and his name could be a reference to the great giallo composer Bruno Nicolai), but it’s actually scored by Guido and Maurizio De Angelis. It’s effective and gets a few scenes to strut its stuff, but its a little too obvious to really work.
The killer, in this case, goes largely unseen except for his “blade in the dark” (actually just a razor knife). Considering that the blade has breakaway segments and could be easily neutralized by a horizontal swipe or even a mild show of self-defense, it is to Bava’s credit that he actually succeeds in making the item menacing. The evil-sounding click of its adjustable length being adjusted is its memorable signature. There’s a good scene straddling the fence between silly and horrifying, where the killer keeps trying to thrust the blade through a tightly-meshed sheet of chickenwire.
This minimal setup allows Lamberto Bava to downplay the mystery elements and elaborate plotting in favor of a classical gothic approach. The few characters remain suspicious of each other by necessity and constantly scare one another. The dynamics between Bruno and Julia are so tense that one hardly knows whether they are about to kill each other or have sex.
The house, while not particularly spooky, is a haunted house for a modern Freudian-informed audience. Gone are the contrived grim booby-traps we are used to: no huge fireplaces, suits of armor, gargoyles, stone cornices, spiky iron gates or crystal chandeliers. Mostly there is a blank emptiness, a feeling of stark impersonal abandonment and loneliness. Bava largely isolates the characters to play up this effect, leaving the few interactions for exposition, suspicion and accidental scares.
Bava’s one bit of mise-en-scene flair (other than the chickenwire) is a bunch of old tennis balls. Once again, seemingly mundane (and in this case, not even pointy) objects are imbued with malice and meaning through the context, atmosphere and treatment of the film.
Despite, or perhaps because of the overall simplicity, the tension and sudden scares in the movie tend to work. They have an unadorned realism that has more creditability and less aesthetic removal than most heavily-stylized gialli. At the same time, Bava neatly skirts around the pitfalls in generic thriller territory and adds little twists and variations on such old ideas as the haunted house, the victim trapped in a house with the killer, the chase through the corridor, and so on. It all comes together in a note-perfect final action scene, ending revelation and illuminating coda (while borrowed from an acknowledged 1960 classic, it has been updated with giallo sensibilities), and reveals that Bava really was thinking out the structure and dynamics of the film quite carefully.