A young woman enters a crowded high-rise apartment elevator. She doesn’t notice the man next to her slipping on a pair of flesh-colored rubber gloves. Soon, they’re alone, and the mysterious stranger overtakes her with gleaming blade in hand. Brian De Palma’s twisted 1980 thriller Dressed to Kill took a page from this opening scene in Giuliano Carnimeo’s 1972 giallo The Case of the Bloody Iris (directed under the pseudonym Anthony Ascott). Carnimeo also borrows things, looking to Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace and Dario Argento’s playbook for the guise of his murderer and several stylistic choices.
Giallo queen Edwige Fenech stars in the Ernesto Gastaldi-scripted story (also known as What Are Those Strange Drops of Blood Doing on Jennifer's Body?) which pairs her with genre icon George Hilton again, months after the release of All the Colors of the Dark. There’s a free-love cult in Bloody Iris as well, which is just one narrative that plays on the tensions present during the real-life sexual revolution that was happening at the time. Fenech’s Jennifer breaks free from her “celestial marriage” to the cult’s guru in order to pursue a modeling career — or so she thinks. He stalks and taunts her, trying to win her back, which makes him an instant suspect once the body count rises.
After the brutal elevator killing, and the slaying of an African-American nightclub performer (Carla Brait) who lives in the same building, the apartment’s architect Andrea (Hilton) befriends Jennifer and her goofy pal Marilyn (Paola Quattrini), hoping to hire them for an advertising campaign. He invites them to move into the murdered performer’s apartment. Naturally, they accept, and their arrival prompts a series of strange encounters with the building’s residents and the masked, gloved fiend still on the loose.
Could the killer be the stern, violin-playing professor? His lusty lesbian daughter? The flamboyant photographer who resembles a poor man’s Woody Allen? The elderly woman next door who buys horror fumetti by the dozen? Carnimeo shows his comedic Italian cinema roots by throwing a bumbling detective and wisecracking police commissioner into the mix to solve the crimes.
The gialli are know for their stylish murder sequences, but Bloody Iris is light on the gore, leaning heavier on the sexual neuroses underlining the murders. Some of the best gialli have addressed similar themes in the context of real-world social and cultural shifts (What Have You Done to Solange? comes to mind), but Carnimeo and Gastaldi never take themselves too seriously. Iris is more interested in pointing out the ironies of public opinion, poking fun at the hippies and conservatives alike.
Carnimeo and company make an example of this through the persistent cult leader, whose relationship with Jennifer is depicted as far more oppressive and patriarchal than one should be for a swinging group of bohemians. There’s also the newsstand proprietor who tells the detective, “To really like horror tales you have to be nuts,” which is also a self-aware wink at the genre. And don’t forget our killer, whose main obsession is with the sexually liberated women in the movie, including Brait’s nightclub performer. Her act involves goading white male audience members into a semi-clothed wrestling match, promising sexual servitude for the night if they win (they never do). That storyline is one of the movie’s least successful attempts at social satire (due, unfortunately, to casual racism and ham-handed humor), but thankfully those moments are few.
Bloody Iris’ wry observations, unexpected bits of comedy, minimalist Bruno Nicolai score, and stellar, sexy cast make it a must-see. There’s fertile ground for a deeper reading of the film’s subtext if desired, but Carnimeo’s movie stands on its own as an inspired thriller.