Delirium (1972)

Also known as:
Death at the Villa
Delirio caldo

Ironically enough, Italian director Renato Polselli's Delirium is a much more focused, logical effort than the film which came soon after, the wonderful, insane Reincarnation of Isabel. A stylish Giallo, Delirium has it's faults, but all up presents a vivid and even moving take on the genre. Mickey Hargitay and Rita Calderoni, mainstays of Italian cult cinema, are both in top form here. Let's succumb to the delirium and see where it takes us.

Doctor Herbert Lyutak (Hargitay) is a police psychologist with a number of secrets. We find out the worst of them in the opening few minutes. Watching a mini-skirted girl in a bar, he offers her a lift to a nearby club. We see that he's obsessed with her bare legs. Driving throught the countryside, she soon realises that they're not going to the club. She attempts to flee when the car stops, but he soon catches her, stripping her naked and attempting to strangle her in a waterfall. When this fails, he clubs her bloody with a piece of wood. Then, in a twist of fate, he's working with the police on the very same case after the girl's corpse is discovered. One of the cops mentions that their have been several identical murders that same year, so we begin to understand that Herbert is a very active killer. We see another murder in a park as another woman is murdered by a gloved killer, strangled by a phone cord in a cramped booth.

Later, we see that Herbert has a conscience as well as murderous urges. We observe his troubled home life with wife Marzia (the beauteous Calderoni). Impotent, Herbert can't make love to his wife, and Marzia as a consequence is still a virgin. Herbert offers to seperate due to his 'problem', but Marzia will have nothing of it. She's adamant she still loves him as he is, knowing he has psychotic urges. They attempt to have sex but of course fail, and Herbert ends up losing it, scratching Marzia's back bloody with some sort of clawed ornament. As Marzia lies whimpering, Herbert screams at the mirror with self-loathing, calling himself a 'selfish pig' and a 'hyena'. Hargitay's performance as his face twists and contorts, radiates pure hatred directed at himself. We can't help but feel sorry for the man and his distraught wife. The scene ends with him smashing the mirror.

Having reached the lowest point of his life, Herbert resolves to turn himself in, knowing he won't be able to control the urge to kill any more. Also knowing he might try to talk his way out of it, the Doctor tells the investigating cops his theory of where, and when, the killer will strike next. When he meets the girl the polizia will be using as bait, he says it's a pity they used her, as she's 'so young'. On the night that Herbert proposed, he approaches the park where he said it would happen. We hear ethereal women's voices moaning on the soundtrack, something Polselli uses to atmospheric effect in Reincarnation of Isabel. As Herbert approaches the girl, beginning to lose control, the police hear a scream nearby. A prostitute has been killed by the murderer - another murderer. Back in Herbert's home life, Marzia has intense dreams of rolling around nude with her female housekeeper and blonde niece Joaquine (Christa Barrymore, also from Isabel), in a chain-draped dungeon as Herbert laughs maniacally. Marzia, possibly, has surpressed urges of her own. Polselli films these dream sequences in a very hallucinatory way and they're some of the highlights of the film.

Unfortunately for her, the policewoman acting as bait for the killer is attacked in her home. The unseen assailant whips her weakly with the butt of a whip, corners her in the bathroom, strips and drowns the poor woman. The two cops on the case find her naked body rigged up to fall out of a window, and accidentally make it happen. Marzia dreams again, this time with a naked Herbert struggling in chains in a red room as she, the housekeeper roll around on the floor, then unclothed herself in the same slave-collar, finally being freed by a nude Joaquine. As a sub-plot, the groundskeeper from the park where the earlier murders took place is doing his own investigation. Obsessed by the case as he was once thrown into a cell as a 'person of interest' to police, he wants to get to the bottom of it. Also on the run again as the investigation turns towards him once more, he finds himself in Lyutak's chained-filled dungeon, witnessing through a peep-hole something strange. Gloved hands strip the housekeeper, turn a gas-tap on and anaesthetise her against her will. Later he breaks into the dungeon to help, but almost succumbs to the fumes and barely escapes with his own life. Meanwhile the police question Marzia but leave with no progress. She watches happy couples in the park, and pictures herself and Herbert with such happiness.

The groundskeeper returns to Herbert and Marzia's house and finds the knife implicated in the killings. He calls the police and tells them to come and observe the evidence, as well as the girl. Marzia and Joaquine realize there's someone in the house and call Herbert, who returns home and descends into the basement. He and the intruder get into a savage fight. Herbert evantually gets the upper hand and strangles the man unconscious with a chain. The police arrive and take the intruder away, believing him to be the murderer. Later Herbert makes friends with a college girl and offers to help her with a psychology project, beginning to succumb to his baser instincts again. When he finally gets her alone at night in his car, his better side wins over, at least temporarily, and he begs her to run away from him. Alarmed at his odd outburst, the girl obeys and saves her own life.

Herbert tries to revive the unconscious housekeeper with a drug, but nothing works. When he leaves to help the police finish things up, we see that Marzia and Joaquine are acting very strangely. They try to keep the drug from taking effect on the housekeeper. When she manages to escape and dissapear from the house, they erupt in sheer panic. Screaming and rolling around on the floor as a tape-recorder of the killings plays, they finally snap out of it. Herbert returns and Joaquine attacks him with a spiked mace, bloodying his head in a vicious frenzy. Marzia attempts to defend him, fighting and struggling with her niece. What on earth is behind this insanity? The final stages of Delerium are about to take place, wherein we finally find out indeed who is behind the killings, and why. Without spoiling any of the ending, death, blood, jealousy and savage rage take centre stage as our dark little mystery resolves itself.

Though not as far off the deep end as Isabel, Delirium is still a beautiful, and unique example of Giallo cinema. Polselli inserts short, almost subliminal shots which reflects characters inner states. Herbert is briefly naked when talking to police - obviously feeling vulnerable. He pictures himself making love with his wife in a passionate way, although his lunacy takes hold in the real world and he ends up trying to choke her. Marzia sees flickers of them as a happy couple in between all the misery. Chain imagery works itself into the film numerous times. Both Polselli films I've seen use audio to atmospheric effect, mainly with breathy female vocals. Polselli uses a rich colour palette as well, the dream sequences particularly overflowing with deep reds. The plot can get a little confusing, particularly once the 'groundskeeper' gets involved with his own investigation, and the police start chasing him. I guess he's a weaselly version of the typical detective-protagonist in a Giallo film, who gets in too deep at the risk of his own life. As far as the acting goes, we're not talking models of subtlety here, but Hargitay, Calderoni and Barrymore all put their all into it. I found myself feeling sorry for Herbert and Marzia, both filled with yearnings and frustrations that finally erupt into hideous violence. Herbert's attempts to control himself align him with our sympathies, particularly when we know how much he hates himself. Rita Calderoni looks as beautiful as ever, although she's not naked nearly enough. I guess it's easy to be spoiled by this aspect of her role in the very accurately named Nude for Satan!

Perhaps not a typical example of the Giallo genre of film, Delirium is still a fine, intense viewing experience for those of us devoted to cult cinema. Perhaps the murders could have been a bit more bloody or detailed - drowning isn't a particularly exciting type of killing to depict on screen, nor is telephone cord-strangling. On the positive, I suspect it's Mickey Hargitay's finest acting moment - he succeeds amicably in making us feel sorry for his twisted character, despite the initial murder - or murders. After this film was made, Polselli dropped all pretence of adhering to plot or sanity and dove headlong into surely one of the strangest films ever made, that being Reincarnation of Isabel. This film has it's own worth and craziness though. If you have any interest in Giallo, horror or Italian cinema in general, I'd certainly suggest this one's worth your hard-earned sheckels.

© Boris Lugosi, 2008.

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Review written: 10/22/2008 21:42:25