Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Knife of Ice (1972)


Il coltello di ghiaccio
Silent Horror

I should start this review by saying I’m not a big admirer of the films of Umberto Lenzi. I’m well aware of the high esteem he is held in by enthusiasts of cult Italian cinema, but to date I’ve only seen marginal evidence to suggest that Lenzi is little more than an incompetent and talentless hack. I say marginal because I am rather fond of his unconventional and surprising giallo Spasmo (1974), and he did make some striking contributions to the poliziotesschi cycle - most notably Almost Human (1974), Assault with a Deadly Weapon (aka Brutal Justice, 1976), and Violent Naples (aka Death Dealers, 1976). But what these films highlight is the strength of the casting, rather than Lenzi’s direction. I’m often very charitable to those filmmakers who were overshadowed/overlooked in favour of the Bava’s, Argento’s and more recently Fulci’s of the world, but I find Lenzi’s position to be entirely justified. If his career was overshadowed by others, then so too is the mans filmography. In this case by the odious excrement entitled Cannibal Ferox (1981). His earlier departure into the ‘Green Inferno’ The Man from Deep River (1972) was far superior, but Lenzi’s attempt to out grotesque Cannibal Holocaust (1980) casts a long and repulsive shadow over his career.

Knife of Ice was Lenzi’s fifth gialli and followed the earlier Orgasmo (1969), So Sweet…So Perverse (1969), A Quiet Place to Kill (aka Paranoia, 1970) and Seven Bloodstained Orchids (1972). The defining characteristic of Lenzi’s gialli at this time was the casting of American actress Carroll Baker in the lead. She was to Lenzi what Edwige Fenech was to Sergio Martino. But crucially Baker lacks the exotic beauty and knowing charm of Fenech, and at times comes across as exceedingly bland. This is most certainly the case in Knife of Ice where she plays Martha Caldwell, a flaky and vulnerable sort, who hasn’t spoken a word since the childhood trauma of seeing her parents expire in a train wreck. That Knife of Ice is an Italian/Spanish co-production gives the film a certain sensibility that is highlighted with a credit sequence taking place at a bullfight. The brutality and cruelty is eagerly lapped up by an excited audience and the matadors parade around their dying opponent like prize peacocks. It becomes a recurrent image throughout the narrative, an ongoing metaphor of mankind’s capacity for mindless viciousness. Martha is a repulsed spectator, but her sister Jenny (Ida Galli) is unable to contain her excitable bloodlust. These flashbacks indicate polarised positions to the nature of violence, and is in turn a rather effective deception.

Unfortunately this is the only real layer of substance that Knife of Ice possesses. Once we are beyond the bloody arena of bullfighting and into the Spanish countryside, a staid and formulaic plot unfolds. But it is not entirely without moments of inspiration. Naturally a killer begins to stalk the foggy rural setting, and it would seem this assassin has an intimate relationship with the occult. A countryside villa provides the locus for much of the films action, and at night it is saturated in pleasing gothic hues. The insertion of black magic and devil worship into the narrative strategies of the giallo is most welcome, but genre savvy spectators will conclude rapidly that this is a red herring. Like most gialli one can dismiss many characters simply because they are too self-consciously constructed as red herrings. So the chauffeur Marcos (Eduardo Fajardo) is obviously not the killer, because the film spends too much time making him sinister and strange. Likewise the mysterious morphine addicted stranger that is stalking the town is equally too obvious, though he does provide distinction with his drug addled eyes. But why the screenplay by Lenzi and Luis G. de Blain chose to make the character English remains a mystery. In fact Englishness in Knife of Ice is equated to murder, the occult, and drug addiction. The only English character who emerges with respectability is the frail and elderly Uncle Ralph, who himself is an expert in dark and esoteric texts.

So what you are left with is a film heading towards a predictable climax in which the least likely character is the killer. But at least Knife of Ice doesn’t commit the common sin of revealing the culprit to be a barely glimpsed and tangential character. My major criticism of this forgettable giallo is its surprising lack of flamboyance and style. Apart from the all encompassing fog (that disappears as quickly as it comes) the film is seriously lacking in a consistent atmosphere. A large proportion of the film is set in the daytime, and these scenes are entirely lacking in suspense or drama. When the film does shift to night Lenzi does occasionally manage to create tension. In tandem with this visual blandness are a series of uncommitted and indifferent performances (only Franco Fantasia emerges with credit), and a lack of sleaze to provide distraction. Knife of Ice is too well mannered to be an effective giallo.

© Shaun Anderson 2012


  1. This and So Sweet… So Perverse are the only Lenzi/Baker gialli I’ve seen, but for completeness I am looking forward to pursuing some of the other titles, and I’ve heard good things about Orgasmo. I liked Knife of Ice, and do remember it being a dark movie with, as you’ve pointed out, a predictable climax, but to give the reasons I liked the ending would be a total spoiler.

  2. A fine write up, my friend. Especially love: "... and a lack of sleaze to provide distraction." What good is a Giallo without sleaze?! It's like fish without chips, it certainly will not do!

  3. @ Giovanni - I came to KNIFE OF ICE having already seen SPASMO, subsequently the twist at the end is a little easier to telegraph. As I note in the review, the one thing I did like about the film is that it didn't cheat the audience by making the killer a totally peripheral or barely glimpsed in CAT O NINE TAILS for example. But I do find the film to be singularly lacking in the visual and stylistic flourishes one comes to expect from a giallo....Many thanks for the comment :-)

    @ Greg - Thank you for the kind words good sir! No nudity, no lesbian undertones, no perversity makes KNIFE OF ICE a very dull boy indeed. Your analogy is spot on!

  4. Replies
    1. Johnny/David : )8 February 2012 at 05:03

      Nice review, Shaun.

      I love the Lenzi/Baker gialli, but that seems to be because I'm one of the few who likes Carroll Baker in giallo roles. She's been criminally overlooked as a yellow film queen (probably due to the lack of availability of her giallo titles via legitimate release), but she was in some terrific films throughout the period. She might lack the exotic Euro charms of someone like Fenech, but I find her voice and manner such a departure from the usual helpless 'damsels' of gialli (Rosalba Neri being the wonderfully notable exception) that her best films are akin to a breathe of fresh air.

      Of the Lenzi/Carroll titles, I rank 'Paranoia' ('A Quiet Place to Kill') as perhaps the best (I prefer Jean Sorel to Lou Castel, at least in this context). However, I think 'Knife of Ice' is a solid, reliably convoluted thriller that exhibits more of a distinctly British 'Whodunit?' sensibility than the largely more urban (and violent) focus of routinely celebrated gialli. That was an interesting departure for Lenzi, who shot 'The Man from the Deep River' the year before. The man was nothing if not versatile!

      But, anyway - great Carroll Baker? 'The Flowers with the Petals of Steel' (1973). Bad Carroll Baker? 'The Devil Has Seven Faces' (1971)!

    2. Speaking of legitimate releases, I actually downloaded this obscurity off Youtube, and then burnt it to DVD. The things one must do to expand ones gialli collection! It's actually a very decent print, and must be sourced from a legitimate DVD.

      I think like most, I haven't seen enough of Carroll Baker, but based on what I have seen, I find her a distinctly underwhelming presence on screen. I also find the few Lenzi gialli outings I've seen to be rather bland. I agree with your comment on the British 'Whodunit' feel of KNIFE OF ICE, the film certainly seems to have something going on it in relation to Englishness. I presume you've seen SPASMO? If so, what did you think? Is THE FLOWERS WITH THE PETALS OF STEEL one of those brilliant titles that doesn't live up to it?

  5. I was rather cold on 'Spasmo', largely due to Robert Hoffman - who is dull, dull, dull. A bit overcooked for me (which is typical of gialli in general, but just didn't work for me here).

    I loved 'Flower With The Petals of Steel'. Sadly, it's only available in shoddy picture quality, but I think it's a terrific giallo with a great cast and a cracking pace. It's really only tangentially a Carroll Baker film (as one will understand upon viewing it), but it boasts the terrific Gianni Garko in the lead and the exotic Pilar Velázquez (who is visually akin to Soledad Miranda and Laura Gemser combined). You certainly might like to check that one out, Shaun. :)

    Note: Yes, 'Knife of Ice' has received 'legitimate' release - there was an early Japanese DVD and, more recently, a very solid R1 release that is worth owning.

  6. Unfortunately if you come to KNIFE OF ICE having already seen SPASMO (which was the case for me), it makes the ending slightly easier to telegraph...and vice-versa I would assume. But SPASMO is one of the most singular examples of the cycle, and for Lenzi it is both structurally audacious, and quite stylish. However it is (and how often can one say this?) the Morricone score that sets it apart.

    I'm assuming that the rip I downloaded off Youtube was sourced from the Region 1 DVD release, because it was a quite decent print. Certainly more than acceptable for my purposes. I will endeavour to look out for PETALS OF STEEL, but from what you say, I don't hold out much hope.

  7. P.S. The screen captures used in my review were directly lifted from the copy I downloaded, which is an index of the decent image quality.

  8. I've been trying to find those two Baker/Lenzis for years to no avail. Can I get both Orgazmo, and Spazmo off Youtube? Or is there a legit release somewhere?
    BTW: I am a C.Baker proponent . I'm afraid I've been smitten with her since her amazingly naturalistic performance in Baby Doll eons ago!

    Thanks for any help you can give in my search.

  9. Hi there Highway! SPASMO is available legitimately on Region 1 DVD courtesy of Shriek Show...easy enough to get hold of via Amazon. But if you're a penny pincher like me, it's available to download off the Stagevu website;

    I can confirm that the language track is in English, because this is the copy I added to my collection. It's a high quality transfer and I was very pleased with it.

    ORGASMO is a little more problematic. I personally don't have a copy of this title. My brief research suggests that there isn't a legitimately released English language version of the film on DVD. I'll open it up to my readership, I'm sure David L could shed some light. Hope this helps buddy!


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