Directed by Alberto De Martino
Christina Nagy, David Warbeck, Carroll Blumenberg, Rossano Brazzi, Loris Loddi, Andrea Bosic, Adriana Giuffrè
Warning! This review contains a spoiler!
I have to be honest and admit that I don't understand how on earth Alberto De Martino has managed to develop a reputation as one of Italian genre cinema's worst directors. I just don't get it! Presumably it's due to the fact that he made two real turds: The Puma Man (1980) and Miami Golem (1985) but come on now! I think it's about time we forgave him for those two misses – particularly when we consider the fact that De Martino has also given us two of the most purely enjoyable Italian horror films of the 1970s: The Antichrist (1974) and Holocaust 2000 (1977). I actually find his directorial output on the whole to be very agreeable, and that includes his second to last film, Formula for a Murder.
De Martino wrote this film together with noted genre scribe Vincenzo Mannino, who is best known for his collaborations with Gianfranco Clerici. Together, Mannino and Clerici are responsible for penning a number of successful but violent films with a rather nasty edge, such as Five Women for the Killer (1974), The House on the Edge of the Park (1980) and The New York Ripper (1982), and that distinctly nasty edge is certainly present in Formula for a Murder too.
The plot kicks off in Boston in 1960, where a sexual predator dressed as a priest tries to get his clutches on a little girl by luring her with a doll. Sensing that something isn't right, the girl tries to escape by running up a big flight of stone steps but, unfortunately, she is caught. The man rips the doll out of the girl's hand and throws it down the stone steps - its head falling off upon impact. The camera then follows the broken doll as it tumbles down the steps in slow motion till it hits the ground.
Throwing in an ugly doll for added creepiness seems to always work
Cut to 25 years later – in the present time of 1985 – where we are introduced to Joanna (Christina Nagy), a wealthy wheelchair-bound heiress. It is soon transpires that Joanna is the little girl from the opening sequence and that her paralysis is a direct result of her childhood trauma as she fell down the stone stairs during her struggle with her attacker and broke her back.
Joanna isn't a bitter woman, though. She lives in a luxurious villa together with her helper and close friend Ruth (Carroll Blumenberg) and tries to live life to the fullest in spite of her handicap. She’s particularly fond of archery shooting, and has put a lot of her wealth into establishing a sports center for paraplegics.
Joanna's handsome sports coach Craig (David Warbeck) has been spending a lot of time with Joanna to help her improve her archery skills, and romantic sparks have set off between the two – much to the dismay of the jealous Ruth, who is apparently a lesbian and would like to have Joanna all to herself.
Craig romances Joanna...
...under the disapproving eye of his lesbian rival
Nevertheless, Craig and Joanna quickly get married, and a bitter Ruth moves out of the house – though Joanna reassures her that they'll still see each other every day. All is not well, however. Father Peter (Andrea Bosic), whose church Joanna was about to donate a large sum of money to, is gorily slashed to death in his confessional box by a mysterious killer dressed up like a priest. However, since Father Peter was just about to go out of town on some business, nobody seems to give his absence a second thought.
Father Peter takes his final confession
Craig is approached by Joanna's concerned psychiatrist Dr. Sernich (Rossano Brazzi), who worriedly reveals to him that Joanna has completely blocked out the childhood incident that led to her confinement to the wheelchair. She doesn't remember anything and, if she were to remember, it would probably be such a big shock that it could produce a fatal heart attack.
It doesn't take long after that before Joanna starts being subjected to some traumatizing events. While she is by herself in the living room, a figure dressed as a priest suddenly comes walking down the stairs – carrying a blood-stained doll that sings a creepy nursery rhyme. Joanna gets terrified and passes out from the shock of it. Craig quickly rushes to her aide – by which time Joanna's tormentor is long gone.
Let's scare Joanna to death
Like any decent giallo heroine, Joanna quickly dismisses the incident as a hallucination but the priest with the creepy doll continues to show up every time Joanna is by herself, and she eventually begins to question her own sanity. But then it is revealed that Craig is the one who's been dressing up like a priest to torment her. He's actually in cahoots with Ruth (who is his lover) and they are out to get their greedy hands on Joanna's fortune by scaring her to death, as a natural death will help them avoid any unwanted attention from the police.
Now, I realize that the above is somewhat of a spoiler but it hardly comes as that much of a shock and it's also revealed fairly early in the proceedings. There are still plenty of other unexpected twist and turns to follow. One twist in particular (which won't be revealed here) is highly surprising because it just comes out of nowhere – and without much foundation in logic, I might add. But, as any giallo fan will tell you, half-crazy, unmotivated plot twists from out of the blue are often the most enjoyable ones and it helps to make the film feel fresh.
Formula for a Murder isn't exactly groundbreakingly original, though. The plotline about a greedy couple trying to scare a woman to death to inherit her money is yet another reworking of Henri Georges Clouzot's endlessly imitated landmark thriller Les Diaboliques (1955), whereas the theme of the terrorized woman being wheelchair-bound recalls Hammer Studio's Taste of Fear (1961) – itself a Les Diaboliques-inspired thriller. But Formula for a Murder is at the same time a sort of giallo, and throws in a lot of familiar giallo traits – opening as it does with the creepy childhood trauma involving a doll, and then quickly afterwards introducing the requisite black-gloved, razor-wielding killer whose identity is kept secret from the viewers.
However, De Martino and Mannino's script drums up an unusual spin on the tried and tested giallo routine by choosing to unmask the killer early on. This is actually a pretty good idea as it shifts the focus away from the usual whodunit trappings and adds some freshness to the proceedings. Mannino would later revisit this approach when he co-wrote Ruggero Deodato's thriller Phantom of Death (1987) together with Gianfranco Clerici. In this film, too, the whodunit aspect is unexpectedly discarded around the 30 minute mark but a good deal of sympathy for the killer is retained throughout the film. The latter is not the case with Formula for a Murder, however. Quite the contrary, as the two villains are shown to be a particularly loathsome and unscrupulous pair – thus enabling Mannino to work his characteristically nasty edge into the script.
The murders, while few in number, are quite violent – including some graphic throat-slashings and a particularly brutal moment where a priest is repeatedly bashed in the head with a shovel. But the terrorization of Joanna, too, is quite mean-spirited – especially in the protracted but very suspenseful finale where she must try to defend herself from a maniacal Craig. The fact that Joanna is in a wheelchair makes her an easy prey, and De Martino really exploits her vulnerability to the fullest in order to muster up some effective thrills and suspense.
A couple of bloody highlights
A vital ingredient to the success of both the intense climax as well as the film’s overall level of suspense is the strong and convincing central performance by British actress Christina Nagy, who manages to instill a lot of sympathy in the character of Joanna – ensuring that the viewers care about what happens to her. Although Nagy worked extensively in British theatre during the 1980s, it seems that Formula for a Murder is – unfortunately – her sole film role. As such, she lacks the name value to attract the attention of most Euro-cult fans but is actually nicely cast in the role. Though slightly older and less glamorous than your average Italian thriller heroine, this seems appropriate considering the type of character she's playing, and Nagy makes the part of Joanna far more effective and believable than it would've been if played by such fluffy 80s starlets as Serena Grandi or Eva Grimaldi.
Christina Nagy pulls out all the stops in the climax
There's no denying, however, that the real standout in the cast is the always welcome David Warbeck, who really manages to turn Craig into a memorable villain. Rugged and handsome as usual, Warbeck comes across as quite charming in the early stages of the film – and thus completely believable as someone Joanna would fall for. But it's when Craig finally shows his true colors that Warbeck's performance really starts to shine. He makes a wonderful villain here, and is particularly great in the prolonged climax, where he goes completely over the top with intense, rolling eyes and a big, maniacal grin as he goes after Joanna with a knife and just keeps getting back up again and again after being taken down. Warbeck's unstoppable maniac routine was modeled after Jack Nicholson's iconic performance in The Shining (1980) – a fact that Warbeck himself admitted in an interview in the book Spaghetti Nightmares: "That was my idea actually, with the shears and everything. I was basically trying to dress up an awful script with nothing going for it. It was a terrible experience". I think Warbeck really deserves a lot credit for being such a true professional and never letting his apparent dislike for the film become visible on-screen. On the contrary, he seems to have really dug into the role, which just goes to show what a great, dependable guy he was.
David Warbeck is THE MAN
Unfortunately, both Warbeck and Nagy have been dubbed (by Frank von Kuegelgen and Susan Spafford, respectively), so we don't get the advantage of enjoying their own voices. The dubbing is not badly done but it is still regrettable that neither of the two stars opted to do their own dubbing.
Some mention should also be made of the strikingly beautiful Carroll Blumenberg, who plays the ruthlessly greedy Ruth. She has just the right look for this sort of devious and bitchy character but remains a total enigma as she doesn't appear to have been in anything else either before or after this film. The rest of the supporting cast doesn't make much impact. It's nice to see the excellent Rossano Brazzi onboard here but, unfortunately, he is thoroughly wasted in a throwaway supporting role that gives him very little to do.
Whatever happened to this knockout??
Technical credits are solid – with Gianlorenzo Battaglia's cinematography looking very striking and stylish due to the use of a lot of inventive camera angles. It's also a plus that we get some nice location scenes from New York – including a trip on the Staten Island Ferry, which is sure to bring back memories of Lucio Fulci's notorious The New York Ripper, which – just like Formula for a Murder – was produced by Fabrizio De Angelis' company Fulvia Film.
Gianlorenzo Battaglia always knows how to get a good shot
A trip to New York
The New York Ripper connection is further enforced by Francesco De Masi's electronic score, which is largely made up of recycled variations of his Ripper theme. De Masi’s main theme from Escape from the Bronx (1983) is recycled too, which feels a bit out of place but it actually works fairly well. It's not much of a surprise then that the amount of original music De Masi has composed for Formula for a Murder is rather limited. It isn't really up to par, either, as it sounds quite droning and uninspired.
In sum I'd say that Formula for a Murder is very much a worthwhile thriller – particularly on the first viewing – slightly less so on the second. The reason why it suffers somewhat on repeat viewing is because once you know how the plot is going to fold out, the film's logical flaws (of which there are plenty) become glaringly obvious. There's absolutely no good reason for portraying Ruth as a lesbian in love with Joanna other than to deliberately mislead the audience and then pull the rug underneath us when it is revealed that she is actually plotting Joanna's murder with Craig. Likewise, Joanna's bizarre nightmare – in which she is accused of faking her paralysis – is nothing more than a ploy to throw us off, and the film would probably have been better off without these plot elements. Luckily, it’s not enough to seriously hamper the film, which remains an enjoyable little thriller.
And believe it or not but this is actually not the only Italian film about a plot to scare a wheelchair-bound heiress to death. Four years later, Luigi Russo followed suit with the incredibly obscure Dangerous Women (1989), which I'll be covering here soon.
© 2010 Johan Melle
Christina Nagy as Joanna
David Warbeck as Craig
Carroll Blumenberg as Ruth
Rossano Brazzi as Dr. Sernich
Loris Loddi as Father Davis
Andrea Bosic as Father Peter
Adriana Giuffrè as Dolores