Director Umberto Lenzi should be no stranger to fans of Italian gore films, as he was the man responsible for such infamous cannibal outings as Man from Deep River, Eaten Alive!, and Cannibal Ferox. But he directed a number of giallo films as well, including Eyeball, So Sweet…So Perverse, Seven Bloodstained Orchids, and the film we’re discussing today, 1972’s Knife of Ice (known in Italian as Il coltello di ghiaccio).
In spite of Lenzi’s pedigree vis-à-vis his cannibal cycle, and also in spite of the fact that Knife of Ice starred Carroll Baker, who had been in three of Lenzi’s previous gialli, which were stuffed to the gills with sex and violence, this one is surprisingly restrained, and though I liked it quite a bit, those seeking buckets of blood and parades of bouncing boobies had best look elsewhere.
Knife of Ice took its inspiration from the 1946 horror movie The Spiral Staircase, a remake of which Lenzi was initially planning before deciding to write his own original story only utilizing aspects of that former one, including the idea of having the main character be a mute woman stalked by a killer. The title of the film, incidentally, is taken from a quote attributed to Edgar Allan Poe—“Fear is a knife of ice which penetrates the senses down to the depth of conscience”—and though the murderer does use a knife and there’s presumably some fear generated thereby, at no point does anyone use a knife made of actual ice to stab somebody. Just managing expectations here. Again incidentally, this film also gets compared quite often to Lucio Fulci’s Don’t Torture a Duckling, which also came out in 1972.
Please note that the very first shots in this film are of an actual bullfight in which the bull gets killed, so those sensitive to such things (like me) might want to skip ahead to after the credits. The scenes turn up in flashback briefly during the course of the movie too, so fair warning. A sweet kitty cat also appears early on in the film, so you know how that’s going to go; yeah, that death isn’t real, but it’s still upsetting. Leave the damn animals alone, Italy! Anyway.
Carroll Baker plays Martha, a young woman who has been completely mute since seeing her parents die in a fiery train wreck when she was just a little girl. She seems to be managing, though, living with her uncle and a couple of servants at a pleasant estate in the Spanish Pyrenees, and flourishing under the care of the kindly family physician, Dr. Laurent. Her uncle Ralph has a heart condition, necessitating frequent bouts of rest and doses of medication, but Martha cares for him ably, and everyone just seems to love her to pieces.
At the beginning of the film, Martha’s sister Jenny arrives for a visit. Jenny is apparently a famous singer who’s been touring North America. She arrives by train, and Martha is proud of herself for being able to meet her at the station, which her previous traumas had always prevented her from doing before. Jenny comes bearing gifts, including a pile of books on the occult for Uncle Ralph (who studies such esoterica), and an old audio recording she found of Martha as a child reciting Lewis Carroll’s poem “The Mouse’s Tale,” before the accident which rendered her speechless.
While the two women are en route back to the house, a strange incident occurs whereby a dude with bizarre, cloudy-looking eyes emerges from the fog and looks at them through the car window before disappearing again. I think this is the third or fourth giallo movie I’ve watched recently in which a character wore weird-ass contact lenses as a plot point. I guess said lenses were all the rage in Italy in the early 1970s.
The night Jenny arrives, the household hosts a birthday party for a 13-year-old neighbor girl named Christina, who’s a close friend of Martha’s. At the party, we’re introduced to most of the main characters (read: suspects), including the aforementioned Dr. Laurent, local priest Father Martin, shifty-ass chauffeur Marcos, and housekeepers Annie and Rosalie.
Later that night, after all the guests have presumably gone home, Jenny awakes to the sound of something shattering downstairs, and creeps down to investigate, finding the door to the garage wide open. Perhaps unwisely, she goes into the garage to check it out, and ends up on the wrong end of a knife.
When her body is found under the car the next morning, the police are naturally summoned, and everyone in the household is questioned. The two men the movie leans hard into making you suspect immediately are Marcos, who frankly always acts suspicious, and Dr. Laurent, who claims that he left the party, remembered that he’d left his medical bag behind, and went back to the house to get it, though because the house was all locked up at that point, he left again, not wishing to disturb anyone.
Not so fast, says Marcos, who tells police that he saw Dr. Laurent standing by his car in the driveway, signaling up to Annie, who was leaning out her bedroom window. Both Dr. Laurent and Annie deny this happened, but the viewer is clearly supposed to find Dr. Laurent’s movements sketchy, as the fact that he went back to the house to fetch his bag placed him at the scene of Jenny’s murder at the approximate time it happened. His medical bag, though, is actually still by the front door, just like he said it would be.
At the end of the interrogation, the detectives surprise everyone by announcing that actually, they think the murder was committed by a random sex maniac; another young woman with blonde hair, they state, was found dead in a ditch not far from the house.
At Jenny’s funeral, Martha sees the cloudy-eyed man peering at her from the bushes, and when the other funeral-goers pursue, the guy has escaped, but has dropped a pendant that has a goat’s head on it, leading investigators to assume that the murderer is a Satanist. They theorize that the killer might be targeting young, blonde women for sacrifice, so they advise the fair-haired Martha that she should also be on the lookout to ensure that she doesn’t become the next victim.
The next one on the chopping block, though, isn’t Martha, but dark-haired housekeeper Annie, who goes into town on her bicycle to do some shopping, spots a goat’s head symbol painted on a tree trunk, goes to investigate, and gets slashed. Shortly afterward, Dr. Laurent arrives at Martha’s house and has a bit of blood (or red paint?) on his pants, which he explains away as having come from one of his patients. Because the movie is trying so hard to make you think Dr. Laurent is the killer, you just know by the laws of giallo logic that it’s absolutely not him, even though he does also conveniently “forget” something after the little girl Christina becomes the last casualty of the slasher.
The Satanist guy with the cloudy eyes is also apprehended, and it turns out that he’s just a morphine-addicted British hippie who enjoys celebrating Black Masses in abandoned buildings. The whole angle about the Satanic serial killer and the unnamed woman found in the ditch, though much screen time is devoted to it, actually just serves as the film’s largest red herring.
And as a matter of fact, this film in particular, though it did manage to throw me off effectively a few times later in the story, telegraphs who the murderer is fairly early on, so even though I was slightly surprised by the way it was revealed, I wasn’t all that shocked by the final twist, and if you’re paying close attention, you probably won’t be either. That said, I did still have a pretty good time with this one, even though the final revelation wasn’t quite the bombshell it was apparently meant to be.
As I mentioned, this is a fairly serviceable giallo with all the standard murder mystery tropes, including a rogue’s gallery of possible suspects and some fun twists and turns. There is absolutely no sex or nudity, and it’s not gory in the slightest (other than the opening bullfighting scenes), with all the murders occurring essentially offscreen, but it was still entertaining enough to hold my attention, though I will admit that it seemed a bit staid and buttoned up in places. Carroll Baker was great as Martha, conveying a great deal of emotion with her face, as she doesn’t say a word throughout the entire film. The resolution of the mystery was pretty obvious from the get-go, but all the little byways the movie went down to try to lead you away from the actual killer were enjoyable diversions. In terms of giallo movies, it was nothing to write home about, but still a decent watch if you’re more into the mystery angle and not so much the sex and violence.
Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.