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IL ROSSO SEGNO DELLA FOLLIA (1969, Spanish/Italian co-production)
Director/Cinematographer: Mario Bava
Story: Santiago Moncada
Screenplay: Santiago Moncada, Mario Musy, and Mario Bava
Camera operator: Emilio Varriano
Editing: Soledad Lopez
Music: Sante Romitelli
Main players: Stephen Forsyth (John Harrington); Laura Betti (Mildred Harrington); Dagmar Lassander (Helen Wood); Jesus Puente (Inspector Russell); Femi [Eufemia] Benussi (Alice); Luciano Pigozzi (Dress designer); Antonia Mas (Louise); Gerard Tichy (Doctor Kalleway); Veronica Llimera (Betsy); Jose Ignacio Abadaz (Jimmy Kane); Guido Barlocci (John as a boy)
Alternate titles: Hatchet for the Honeymoon; Una Hacha para la Luna de Miel; Blood Brides; An Axe for the Honeymoon; The Red Sign of Madness; Un'accetta per la luna di miele
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1

John Harrington is a stereotypically handsome young man who just happens to be suffering from an acute Oedipus complex. As if that is not bad enough, he is also impotent and feels compelled to murder young women wearing bridal gowns in order to remember the details of a traumatic event that twisted his mind as a child.

The film opens with Harrington aboad a train, where he murders a bride and groom who are on their honeymoon. During this protracted sequence, Bava employs subjective camerawork for the first time in any of his thrillers. In its perfection, this technique lends a perverse authenticity to the best work of Bava or Dario Argento, though it has more recently become one of the genre's most easily mocked clichés. Following the murder, Bava cuts to a shot of an obviously fake toy train speeding along an equally fake backdrop. Suddenly a hand reaches into frame, stopping the locomotive in its tracks. As the camera pulls back, Bava then reveals that Harrington is in his home, playing with his toy train set. This amusing sequence harkens back to the original ending of I TRE VOLTI DELLA PAURA in the way it brashly confronts the simplicity of cinematic illusion.

Bava then establishes Harrington's character, and his conflict, over a montage accompanied by a voice over: "My name is John Harrington. I am a paranoiac. Hmm, paranoiac. An enchanting word, so full of possibilities. The fact is that I am completely mad. . . The fact remains that I have killed five young women." Each times he kills, he remembers a little bit more. The images which accompany this voice over are revelatory about his character. In his attention to trendy dress, Harrington is a dandy, while his lush surroundings confirm that he is a man of means. Bava also shows him sitting in a steam room and meticulously shaving, establishing his obession with appearance. Throughout the narrative, his hair is never out of place and he poses with arrogant self-assurance, looking like he stepped off of the cover of a dime-store romantic novel. Beneath this surface lurks a dangerous criminal, a fact which he is only too happy to confirm.

Following this expository segment, Bava introduces Harrington's wife Mildred. As they sit together at the breakfast table, Bava immediately establishes the friction that exists between them. Harrington inquires is Mildred is willing to grant him a divorce. "I'll never give you a divorce," she promises. Mildred then reminds her husband that, without her, the fashion business he owns would go down the tubes. He angrily fires back that the business belonged to his mother, but Mildred is not impressed by this. As Mildred points out, she was the one who rescued it from ruin. Mildred is less a wife to Harrington than she is a surrogate mother, a fact borne out by the subsequent revelation that he has never made love to her. The distinction between the two women is that Harrington adores his late mother, while feeling nothing but hatred towards his wife. Even so, he is forced to rely on her -- like a pampered child -- for financial support.

Angry that his wife has won yet another argument, Harrington retreats to his office, where he meets Helen Wood, who has come to apply for a modelling job. Harrington is impressed by her beauty and intelligence, and so he gives her the job.

Later that same night, he lures Alice, one of the models at the salon, to his office. As Alice is planning on leaving the salon to get married, he offers her the choice of any dress that they have in stock. She selcts one and puts it on, as per Harrington's request, after which he hacks her to death with a meat cleaver. Harringtons method for disposing of the bodies is ingenious: he burns them in the furnace in his hot house, using the ashes as a "special kind of fertilizer."

With so many of his models disappeaing, Harrington is a prime suspect for the police, but they lack any hard evidence against him. In this way, Harrington is able to continue with little difficulty. When he falls in love with Helen, though, he becomes confused. He has no desire to hurt her, but the presence of his wife is a constant irritant. In retaliation, he eventually kills Mildred in a scene that is both shocking and ironic. Though he does not know why, Harrington needs a wedding dress to be present when he kills, hence the reason why he kills newlyweds. In the absense of a dress, he dons the veil himself when he kills Mildred, complementing the transexual illusion by wearing bright red lipstick. Harrington coldly sets his wife up for the act by pretending to reconcile with her, and promising to finally consummate their relationship. It is difficult not to sympathize with Mildred in this situation, saddled as she is with a useless (and psychotic) husband who makes not the slightest attempt at loving her.

The act accomplished, Harrington initially buries her body in the hot house, perhaps thinking that he is doing her a favor by not incinerating her. Much to Harrington's consternation, he begins to see his dead wife in public. Actually, it is everybody else who sees her, while he is only able to catch the odd glimpse of her in a mirror. He checks the grave, thinking that she may still be alive, and upon finding the body, he burns it and scatters the ashes in the wind.

Mildred's ghost continues to haunt Harrington, but she appears only when she feels like it. Whenever he is with Helen, she never appears. The bond between Helen and Harrington continues to strengthen, but when his attempt to murder another newlywed is foiled, he cannot resist the temptation of using her as a "substitute." After convincing her to change into a wedding dress, Harrington sorrowfully tells Helen of his plan: "I never wanted to harm you, but I've got to fit this last piece into place." He then strikes at her with the cleaver, but Helen successfully avoids the blow. Nevertheless, the initial surge of energy gives Harrington the information he needs.

As a boy Harrington adored his mother. When his father died, he became the man of the house -- that is, until the mother remarried. Enraged over this, he killed them both on their wedding night. The trauma incurred from the incident has forced Harrington to push the event out of his conscious mind, but it has continued to haunt him, prompting him to kill until the truth was revealed. Now that it has all come back to him, he is reduced to a sobbing mess.

In an ironic twist, it is revealed that Helen is actually an under-cover police officer who has been assigned to keep an eye on Harrington. Within minutes the police arrive and take Harrington away.

In the back of the police van, Harrington sees Mildred again, but this times she is visible only to her husband. "Now we'll always be together," she promises. "First in the insane asylum, and then in Hell for all eternity." Harrington goes berserk with terror, but there is no way for him to void his well-deserved fate.


IL ROSSO SEGNO DELLA FOLLIA is laced with interesting and creative touches, but Bava discharges most of the narrative in an off-handed, almost thoughtless fashion, suggesting that he had little faith in the project. Whereas SEI DONNE PER L'ASSASSINO manages to creat a genuinely disturbing atmosphere, this film is constantly undermined by a cluttered, muddled narrative. In Bava's best work, psychological motivation is not terribly important (the main motivation is greed), but by relying on the old "twisted mamma's boy" motif, the film often seems like an imitation of PSYCHO. In a brief, almost tossed-off line of dialogue Bava (intentionally or not) sums up this major weakness. While interrogating Harrington, Inspector Russell remarks: "I can accept any crime as long as I can understand the human impulse which motivated it." Paradoxically, IL ROSSO provides too much explanation for the bloodshed.

For Harrington, violence takes the place of sex. The fact that he is impotent is slyly alluded to in the dialogue. For example, Mildred refers to her first, deceased husband by saying, "At least while he was alive, he was a man. But you... How easily one can be fooled by appearances." Harrington's overwhelming desire to find out the truth about himself (ironically, the one thing that would probably cure his sexual inadequacy) compels him to channel his energies into violence, and it is in this medium that he finds satisfaction. Early in the film, Harrington locks himself away in his private study. After examining the carefully made up mannequins that adorn the room, he goes over to his desk drawer and withdraws the butcher's cleaver with which he murders his victims, and proceeds to stroke it in an almost sexual fashion. The implications of this scene are subtle, but very clear. The cleaver, which penetrates the bodies of his female victims, serves as a Freudian phallic symbol. The act of "stroking the cleaver" therefore becomes a form of masturbation. As a prototypical macho man, Harrington has no problem in overwhelming his victims with his "sexual" prowess, but in Helen he meets his match. It is Helen who knocks the cleaver out of his hand, rendering him helpless. Without wanting to stretch the point too far, this act of severing the phallic weapon from the murderer's hand has a slight under-tone of castration. For the very first time in the film, Harrington's air of smug self-assuredness crumbles when Helen counters his attack; he is reduced to tears. The links between sexual images (the fashion salon, Harrington's pretty-boy demeanor, the immaculate way his victims need to be dressed in order to "excite him"), the sexual act itself, and violence are therefore very clearly worked out for the observant viewer, though the somewhat heavy-handed Freudian approach of Santiago Moncada's screenplay hamper Bava's efforts.

Bava's favored theme of surface appearance vs. reality is very much on display in this film. Like Massimo and Christina in SEI DONNE PER L'ASSASSINO, Harrington owns a fashion business, establishing a witty tie to bava's first fully developed giallo, while at the same time confirming the director's mistrust of "beauty" in its ideal, almost pornographic form. Harrington is a literal fashion peddler. Not only does he sell chic wedding apparel at his salon, but his style of dress suggests a marketing tactic of a different kind. He is a kind of gigolo, selling himself to the female public in order to find "willing" victims. Apart from enabling him to carry on with his sanguinary activities, this also serves to satisfy his inflated ego. This idea extends even further witht he revelation that Harrington cannot "function" without the presence of a wedding gown. In this case the image -- the surface gloss -- serves as a catalyst for violence.

In the end, this cannot be considered one of Bava's more accomplished works. Though there is plenty to praise in the film, IL ROSSO SEGNO DELLA FOLLIA simply lacks the impact of Bava at his best. It is momentarily eye-catching -- espcially for experienced Bava-philes who can recognize the director's "handwriting" -- but the viewer leaves it feeling empty; the expected connection between the film (or narrative) and the audience simply is not there.

Review © Troy Howarth

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