The Giallo is the oddest of beasts – formulaic with a wildly eccentric code at the same time. Ostensibly murder mysteries with penchants for violence and sex, they also played host to some of the most visually inventive names from Italian cinema. The last thing in the world that would require a reactionary opposite, you would think. Enter the Bloodstained Butterfly newly issued by Arrow Video from A Fist full of Dollars co-writer, and director of all the Italian staples: Poliziotteschi, Spaghetti Westerns and Giallo – Duccio Tessari.
The Bloodstained Butterfly (aka Secret of the Black Rose) features Helmut Berger, Giancarlo Sbragia, Ida Galli and Carol Andre in a film that eschews its genres fascinations with the macabre instead building upon a more real framework. Over the closing credits, Tessari thanks the crime scene investigation team that they collaborated with. This is a world away from the likes of Bava, Argento, Martino and Fulci, The Bloodstained Butterfly shares tone with Francesco Rosi’s historical crime drama Salvatore Giuliano for its attention to detail and its adoption of the courts. Sex features without violence getting involved until absolutely necessary. The same is consistent with the murders; no mutilations, no severed limbs, no psychological torture, Tessari and co-writer Gianfranco Clerici are keeping well within the realms of plausibility.
Despite the revolt against genre norms, The Bloodstained Butterfly is a modest film in which a girl is murdered in a local park – as depicted in the stunning box art by Arrow regular Matthew Griffin. A former television football pundit (Sbragia), who was spotted rushing from the scene, is tried and convicted for the crime but still the killings continue. Murder mystery red herrings are cast by Sbragia’s mistress and the suspicious behaviour of his solicitor, Günther Stoll, provide all the necessary mystery.
Far from the violence of generic norm, the murders are repeated as a means to present information to a jury. Where genre stalwarts relish the explosive geysers of blood and gore, these murders are over before they begin. In many ways, Tessari’s film outright evades association with the Giallo as evidenced by one murder being omitted in its entirety. This may well be true when acknowledging the violence and ideology but through other means its subscription is paid off in full. Superficial as it may be, the overly descriptive title is present and correct, more important; however, is the commanding camera work.
As the film gallops towards its climax and the two hidden antagonists finally reveal themselves, cinematographer Carlo Carlini (Death Rides a Horse) puts all of his high profile cards on the table. These two aggressors sit atop a tower of unconventional spirals and shards; the way Carlini’s camera darts and twists from feature to feature reminds that the Giallo is the definitive cinematographer’s playground. Of less showy stock are the sex scenes that have been framed to sow the seeds of distrust, much subtler, for sure, but narrative tied into the storytelling devices shows intelligence beyond mere spectacle. Twin those with the beautiful historic cities of Bergamo and Milan and you have a handsome film. Gianni Ferrio’s score provides luscious accompaniment, darting around the Jazz playground from 1970s lounge to a broodier concoction that would’ve needed little alteration to have featured on Mike Patton’s dizzying Fantômas Director Cut LP.
Contrariness makes the Bloodstained Butterfly what it is whilst simultaneously being its cross to bear. Police were presented with a language analogous to action cinema in the 1970s; in its day, Tessari’s film was a true oddity. Unfortunately time has been harsh, the rise and rise of the police procedural has resulted in the unique shine losing its lustre and distinctiveness. Editing is cut from the same cloth, with a prototypical roughness born jumping from dramatically intense moments to investigative recreations and back again. These cutaways are confined to the initial 45 minutes; nonetheless they are very effective at disturbing Tessari’s measured rhythm.
The commentary with the near household names [in the horror community] in critics Alan Jones and Kim Newman is every bit the treatment Duccio Tessari’s Bloodstained Butterfly merits. While Arrow and, to a lesser extent, 88 Films, have been making a concerted and admirable effort to cast light on this most marginal of sub-genres, this latest entrant may be commendably different but in commanding such a position it becomes hard to recommend to anyone outside the Hardcore.