The giallo is a specific type of Italian thriller – a stylized whodunit that usually pits a hapless witness against an unknown (often masked and gloved) killer, with plenty of twists and turns. Or at least it was. These days, the critical consensus seems to be that virtually every Italian horror-thriller is a giallo, even if it features supernatural elements or is a leeringly gothic Poe-inspired romp. Well, I beg to differ. To call something a giallo just because it is Italian and made in the 1970s is like saying Dirty Harry is a western because it stars a gun-toting Clint Eastwood. In the end, it hardly matters – only the most obsessive are so fixated on sub-genres that my comments here will drive them into a rage, and in truth, there’s a touch of devilment in my bringing it up at all. But if we are to discuss giallo, then we should have some actual boundaries about what makes a film gialli.
And The Bloodstained Butterfly, routinely described as a giallo, is a good case in point – a film that has little in common with the classic gialli beyond a curious title and an element of mystery about who the killer might be. In truth, the film is a mix of police procedural and courtroom drama, tossing the murders away rather casually.
It’s also, truth be told, a rather substandard affair, from the positively hideous opening titles (that include a lengthy, pointless section that introduces every significant character with an on-screen caption, although of course you forget them all immediately) to the rather plodding pace, as the police pick slowly and methodically over the initial case and rather too hastily arrest TV presenter Alessandro Marchi (Giancarlo Sbragia). Marchi is put on trial with damning – yet ultimately circumstantial – evidence and is soon convicted of murdering a French female student. It would seem to be a miscarriage of justice, and sure enough, soon another murder takes place in similar circumstances – but is this a copycat or evidence of Marchi’s innocence?
The film starts well (once you are past the credits), with a mysterious figure fleeing from the scene of an off-camera murder and being spotted by witnesses, many of whom turn out to be rather less than reliable. But once the investigation starts and Marchi is arrested, the film grinds to a bit of a halt, concentrating on eye-witness interviews, family drama (Marchi’s defence is that he was visiting his mistress at the time of the murder, thus opening a whole ‘nother can of worms) and the lengthy court case. There’s potential for this to be interesting, but director Duccio Tessari brings little sense of drama or visual flair to proceedings – if you insist on calling this a giallo, then it must be one of the flattest looking ones out there.
A cast of Eurocult favourites, including Helmut Berger and Evelyn Stewart, are mostly wasted here as empty, under-developed characters, and the film rather drags along until reaching a rather too rushed climax, in which the truth comes tumbling out with such haste that it feels almost tagged on, as if everyone had forgotten that they needed to tidy everything up before the end.
The film isn’t entirely boring – there are a few decent set-pieces, and once you accept that this is not going to be the violent thriller that it suggests it will be, the courtroom drama is not unwatchable. But the chances are that you’ll find your attention wandering as it works its way through interminable and under-developed relationship issues, with the murders and the potentially kinky sex mostly kept at arm’s length.
In the end, there are far more exciting, outrageous and intriguing 1970’s Italian thrillers out there for the curious viewer to examine; this feels very much like a release aimed at the completist, and fans of Italian horror / thriller cinema will certainly be keen to snap this highly polished restoration – this is as good as this film is ever going to look, I imagine. But if you are new to the Italian thriller – in all its variety – then this is not a great place to start.