In this perverse black comedy from Italian master, Mario Bava -- Stephen Forsyth plays dandy-ish businessman, John Harrington: the suave owner of a successful Fashion house specialising in the making of expensive, designer wedding gowns for the rich. Despite his attractiveness to the opposite sex, Harrington is, in fact, a psychopathic killer with an Oedipal complex! Haunted by the brutal murder of his beloved mother when he was only a young boy, Harrington has always been desperate to piece together the events of that fateful night and solve the mystery of who killed her.
However, he finds that the only way he can retrieve fragments of these elusive memories is by murdering young females while they are wearing wedding dresses! Their bodies are then disposed of in a furnace and their ashes used as fertiliser in Harrington's exotic hothouse. His life is also made a misery by his nagging wife, Mildred (Laura Betti), who resents her husband for his impotence and his inability to run the fashion house -- which was inherited from his mother -- successfully without her money and help. Fed-up with her refusal to grant him a divorce, Harrington finally snaps and kills Mildred with a meat cleaver while dressed in a bridal veil -- only to find that her ghost still refuses to leave his side ... and remains visible to everyone but him!
"Hatchet For The Honeymoon" (HFTH) must surely rank as one of Mario Bava's most stylish films. Most of the director's signature touches are included, and there are many visually compelling sequences; but unfortunately, the story's uneven mix of gialli motifs and supernatural terrors fail to gel convincingly. Bava chooses to compensate for this by bringing a wry, light-hearted tone to the film -- which has the effect of parodying both his own previous work and the script's cumbersome Freudian underpinnings.
The influential opening sequence immediately plunges us straight into a superior, giallo-style murder sequence as Harrington stalks and slashes a married couple on-board a moving train (many people feel Dario Argento was influenced by this sequence in "Sleepless" ). Although this beautifully conceived set-piece marked Bava's first use of the point-of-view camera shot from the killer's perspective — a motif that Argento was soon to make his own — the sequence actually flouts established gialli conventions straightaway, by immediately revealing Steven Forsyth's character as the killer (Bava's twisted sense of humour has Forsyth cleaning his bloody meat-cleaver with his female victim's bridal veil!). The film then continues in this vein: making use of giallo motifs, but employing them out of their usual context. The "childhood trauma" plot device is practically a gialli constant, with many a motive established with reference to some obscure event in a disturbed killer's past. In HFTH, we already know the identity of the killer, but his motive relates to trying to remember a childhood trauma and thereby solving the mystery of who killed his mother. So, rather than having an amateur detective trying to piece together clues from the past in a rational, logical-deductive manner (the gialli norm), the film instead centres on a madman's insane quest to piece together a mystery using murder as his tool!
Another common element of the giallo is the fetishisation of phallic murder weapons: Bava has Harrington lovingly cleaning and caressing the meat cleaver he always uses to dispatch his victims throughout the film, and takes the whole fetish motif to the level of parody when Harrington presents the murder weapon to his wife on a silver platter just after finally promising to "consummate" their marriage ... although -- it turns out -- not in the way she was imaging! There is an element of parody and an absurdist tone throughout the proceedings, as Bava contrasts the cool, stylish persona Harrington presents to the world (his "outrageous" sixties fashion sense provides an extra, post-hoc, level of satirical value) with his completely ravaged mental interior. The score by Sante Romitelli aids this schizophrenic atmosphere with its blend of traditional gialli-style nursery-rhyme melodies and occasional blasts of funky, psychedelic madness.
Harrington is tormented by flashbacks which gradually begin to intrude on his everyday life, until he even starts to see an apparition of himself as an angelic young child from the night he witnessed his mother's murder! This is just one of many references to the director's previous work, where angelic children have often played a role: usually as harbingers of doom! The fashion house setting is an obvious reminder of Bava's groundbreaking giallo "Blood And Black Lace" (1964) and one of the film's most memorable sequences comes when Harrington commits murder in a room-full of mannequins in wedding dresses. The self-reference and self-parody reaches a peak when one of Bava's previous films, "Black Sabbath" (1963) is seen playing on tv -- and actually has a role in helping Harrington fabricate an alibi for one of his murders!
Besides the fact that many gialli elements are parodied or turned on their heads, there is also a supernatural component to the story which takes the film completely out of giallo territory proper. After Harrington is compelled to kill his nagging wife, her ghost returns to haunt him; but rather originally, most of the time he cannot see or hear her, while everyone else — apparently — can! The plot then divides between two strands: one detailing Harrison's attempts to neutralise and escape his wife's meddlesome ghost; and the other, his compulsion to carry out enough murders to complete the puzzle of his mother's murder. There is also a perverse love story subplot surrounding Harrington falling for the sister of one of his previous victims and desperately battling between his need to kill and his love for the woman! Although Bava creates many imaginative and memorable sequences around the ghost story, it never really seems to tie in fully with the giallo-parody side of things in a satisfying manner -- and the story ends up as a bit of a mishmash with no real consistency.
Stephen Forsyth is often criticised for his leaden performance in the role of John Harrington; but, in truth, it's a difficult one to pull off, since the character is not intrinsically sympathetic: when he is not hacking young Italian models to death he simply comes across as preening, self-centred, and vain! This undermines some of Bava's suspense sequences -- even though he organises them with great craftsmanship from a cinematic perspective -- since Forsyth just does not elicit any empathy from the audience whatsoever! Instead, the viewer is left to marvel at Bava's beautifully shot, pleasingly refined, compositions (Bava acted as DP on the film as well as director) without feeling any great deal of emotional involvement with any of the characters. Bava's many visual puns and self-referencing jokes simply encourage this air of detachment. In the end, the film shows off the director's talent just as well as many of his best films do, but it never achieves their level of poetic intensity.
Anchor Bay UK's disc is a revelation. The 1.85:1 transfer is taken from a recent German release and is absolutely stunning; apart from a small amount of print damage and a few hairs that appear on the edge of the frame from time to time, it's hard to think of a better looking release of a Bava film on DVD! The image is clear and sharp throughout and the colours intensely vivid. The audio quality is perhaps not that great, and the obligatory 5.1 DTS surround sound mix, unnecessary -- but it is no worse than previous releases of the film.
Extras consist of a few text pieces on Mario Bava and the film it's self; a trailer, and a superfluous photo gallery. An extra special bonus is the inclusion of the documentary "Mario Bava: Maestro Of The Macabre" -- although my screener copy contained the Dario Argento documentary "An Eye For Horror" by mistake! Anchor Bay UK assure me that this mistake will be corrected by the time the disc hits the stores!
"Hatchet For The Honeymoon" is not one of Bava's best films overall, but there are many exemplary things about it and this stunning DVD makes it an essential purchase for Bava fans everywhere!