... aka: House of the Dark Stairway
... aka: Maison de la terreur, La
"I find doing scenes in which women get stabbed to death repugnant." ~ Lamberto Bava
Bava had some critical (though not commercial) success with his feature directorial debut, 1980's MACABRE ("Frozen Terror" in the U.S.), so eventually producer Mino Loy contacted him about directing four episodes of a proposed TV mini-series. Bava then got to work on the project and, along with husband-and-wife writing team Dardano Sacchetti and Elisa Briganti, created an episodic mystery-thriller where a girl would die a brutal death at the end of each chapter. That general idea eventually spawned this feature (originally La casa con la scala nel buio = "The House of the Dark Stairway") instead. Working with a relatively low-budget, the entire film was shot at co-producer Luciano Martino's (a close friend of Sacchetti's) expansive Italian villa. Most is filmed indoors and it's fairly long (109 minutes) as far as these things go. Andrea Occhipinti, a handsome and popular actor in Italy at the time who'd just appeared in Fulci's trashy NEW YORK RIPPER was brought in to play the lead role; a film composer named Bruno. Michele Soavi (the assistant director) was drafted to play a key supporting role when none of the other tested actors worked and most of the rest of the small cast is filled with attractive young ladies.
Needing some peace and quiet to work on a score for a new horror film being directed by his friend Sandra (Anny Papa), Bruno rents out a country home from Tony Rendia (Soavi), who's going to be away in Kuwait for awhile. Figuring the large home and isolated surroundings will be perfect inspirations for a creepy score, Bruno settles in and gets to work. It isn't long before strange things start happening. And I mean stranger than a young woman named Katia (Valeria Cavelli) suddenly popping out of his closet. More like strange as when Katia leaves and is immediately knifed to death outside with a clickable utility knife. Growing up, we called the utility knife a "carpet cutter" or a "box cutter" because that's about all we used it for. Seeing one used here as a murder weapon made me flash back to a time when my brother accidentally sliced into his finger with one and passed out. So yeah, I know from first hand experience that those suckers can cause some serious damage!
Angela (Fabiola Toledo), Katia's roommate, shows up looking for her friend and gets it in a very bloody scene where her hand is stabbed, she's suffocated in a plastic bag and then has her throat cut. Clues about what's going on there (Katia's diary, an audio recording) are being destroyed and more people are killed, while the director tries about every technique possible to throw us off from the true identity of the killer. The home's former occupant; a woman named Linda, has disappeared. Maybe it's her. Giovanni (Stanko Molnar), the obligatory creepy / voyeuristic caretaker, is constantly shown doing things like hauling heavy bags up stairs, peeking in windows to watch women undress and saving newspaper clippings about various murders and crimes. And this has to be about the 100th movie I've seen that tries to establish that someone is a murder suspect by showing their bedroom walls being covered with nude pinup posters. If that were the case, then half the nation's teenage boys would be psycho killers.
Sandra the director lures Bruno away from the home and then stands him up while one of the murders is occurring and Bruno's actress girlfriend Julie (Lara Naszinsky) is a catty bitch who's overly jealous anytime another woman is around. Just like in many other movies of this type, the actual killer is the one person the director never really tries to point the finger at. Numerous annoying cheat scenes are used to throw us off, including having someone else play the body, legs and hands of the killer we see on screen, with them obviously not belonging to the person who's revealed to be responsible.
The cinematography, editing and score are all OK, but the writing is weak, the characters are bland and the dialogue and dubbing are both awful. The film's chief problem though is that it's filled with long, dull stretches where nothing much happens. This only really seems to come to life during the murder scenes and the gruesome one set in a bathroom is the only memorable one of the bunch. The other deaths are by wrench, knife and strangulation with film stock, and there's one very brief topless scene.
Anchor Bay handled the DVD release, which includes the 10-minute documentary Behind the Blade, which features brief interviews with both Bava and Sacchetti.