Written by: Renato Polselli
Directed by: Renato Polselli (as Ralph Brown)
Mickey Hargitay as Dr. Herbert Lyutak
Rita Calderoni as Marzia Lyutak
Raul Loveccio as Inspector Edwards
Christa Barrymore as Joaquine
In a small rural pub, a woman bearing more than a passing resemblance to Brooklyn 99 star Chelsea Peretti selects a song on a jukebox, then makes a phone call to a friend claiming to be at a night club. Why she feels the need to trick her friends into thinking she's already at the club she will shortly be trying to find her way to, I have no idea. The conversation is overheard by a creepy leering fellow (Mickey Hargitay, who at this point in his life is looking less like an oiled-up Adonis and more like what would happen if Howard Vernon was exposed to a dose of gamma radiation), who happily offers the girl a ride to the club. Oblivious to the flashing neon signs screaming that this is a bad idea, she hops in his car and only begins to realize her mistake when they head out of town in the wrong direction, with Sleazy McRapewhistle ogling her legs the whole time. When she panics and asks to be let out, he concedes, then chases her to a nearby river. The river proves to be too shallow to successfully drown her, so he beats her to death with a rock.
When the body is found the next day, the police call in their trusted forensic specialist, Dr. Herbert Lyutak, who should have plenty of insight into the case since he's the one who did the murdering! Of course, the cops have no idea, but his wife Marzia certainly does. Finding the bloodied clothes of your husband's victims hidden around the house will rouse one's suspicions. She is less upset about it than you'd expect, which is to say it seems to turn her on.
Herbert, you see, is impotent. He kills pretty young women out of frustration that he cannot please his gorgeous but virginal wife. He attempts to convince her they should divorce because of his inadequacies, to which she responds by – and I don't really know how better to explain it – playing a game of violent psychosexual chicken. I mean, what would you call knowingly seducing a guy who is literally driven to murder because he's incapable of having sex? He nearly chokes her to death before he manages to control himself, but what about next time?
To Herbert's surprise, there really does appear to be a second killer at work in the area, targeting similar victims but with a different MO. Twice now, he's given the police a time and location he predicts another killing will take place, and on both occasions he got the first two factors right (of course he did, he was the one planning the murders), but another victim was killed in the area just before he struck. He's as stumped as the police about that, but is smart enough not to lick a gift horse in the mouth. Lyutak uses his position with the police to continue his murder spree, now with the added bonus of pinning the crimes on John Lacey, the parking lot attendant of the bar where he picked up the girl at the beginning, and who also had the bad luck to be taking a shit in the bushes at the park where the second murder occurred at the time of the crime. It's an easy sell, as he's an abrasive jerk and possibly the sweatiest, guiltiest looking man in all of Italy.
Sweaty he may be, but guilty he is not, and John is none too happy to have a bunch of murders suddenly dropped on his doorstep just because he has overactive sebaceous glands and a less than sunny disposition. Since the police refuse to listen to a word he says, John decides to take matters into his own hands and break into the Lyutak mansion to look for some evidence he can use to exonerate himself. He finds more than he bargained for when he discovers a masked and gloved assailant in the process of asphyxiating Lolel, the Lyutaks' housekeeper, with poison gas in the basement torture dungeon (what, you don't have one of those?) and almost succumbs to the fumes himself. He manages to get out alive and call the police, who trace the call and are stunned to discover he's been telling the truth all along. They rush to the Lyutak residence to discover a bloodbath of love, jealousy, and betrayal.
There is a lot to unpack with this movie. Right from the start it handily shrugs off the simple label of giallo, because we know who the killer is inside of five minutes. Not long after that, the classic faceless black-gloved murderer does make an appearance, with the added twist that the killer whose identity is already known now has to solve an additional murder mystery! Like most movies of this ilk, it takes a good long while to get where it's going, but when the pieces finally start coming together, it makes even the more sexually deviant examples of the genre like Lizard In A Woman's Skin or Deep Red look tame by comparison.
The Italian title of the movie is Delirio caldo, which translates as Hot Delirium. That explains a few things. Peppered throughout the movie are BDSM dream sequences involving Herbert, Marzia, Lolel, and – here's where it gets weird – Herbert's niece Joaquine. The first such scene involves all three women writhing on the ground while Herbert looms over them, leering and accosting them with whips and chains. The second, and I believe most important (although it took two viewings of the movie to make it click for me), sees Marzia and Herbert manacled to opposite walls while Lolel and Joaquine have sex in the middle of the room. Eventually Marzia manages to break free of her chains and join them, while Herbert looks on in anger and frustration. The meaning becomes clear once we find out those extra murders were the work of Marzia.
Even by the standards of Italian horror flicks, her and Herbert's relationship is appallingly unhealthy, but she really does love him and does everything she can think of to keep him out of prison. Still, a woman has needs, not all of which can be satisfied by love alone. To satiate the carnal side of things, Marzia has found solace with her niece, and that chain-breaking sex scene represents her shrugging off the limitations of monogamy with someone who shoots pool with a rope while still keeping it in the family. These things are not known for their happy endings though, are they? Despite Joaquine's declarations of love for her and warnings that Herbert is an opportunistic shitbird who will happily sell her out to the police in exchange for his own freedom, Marzia outs herself to Herbert and begs him for a new start. It's not long before everyone is swinging flails and battle axes at each other (Mickey Hargitay says Christa Barrymore got a little carried away and clocked him in the face with the flail for real and you can definitely see it make contact with his head during the scene) and it all ends in tears and blood.
It's a damn shame Rita Calderoni didn't have a more successful film career. Born in 1951 in a Genoan municipality called Rossiglione, she grew up wanting to be a dancer and studied the art for five years in Genoa until her family moved to Udine. If Italy is shaped like a leg in a boot, they moved from the hip to the crotch, geographically speaking. Not comparing Udine to an actual crotch. It might be very nice there. I digress. Anyway, by the time of the move, it was apparent she was going to be well above average height for a dancer and so she turned her physical prowess toward semi-professional basketball! After being discovered by director Sergio Pastore in 1967, she had a film career which packed over 30 movies into just 16 years, at least four or five of which were working with Renato Polselli. For whatever reason, she never got much mainstream traction, and despite being every bit as stunning as more well-known cult and genre film actresses like Edwige Fenech or Soledad Miranda, appeared in too few genre movies to be as well-remembered (although she was in the unforgettably titled Nude For Satan, and that should count for something, dammit!).
Not only did she have the looks, she was also a fine actress. Sure Marzia murdered the shit out of several innocent people, but Calderoni manages to make her a character of great sympathy in spite of that. A grown woman with a grown woman's needs, married too early and frozen in the chaste flush of adolescent infatuation with a man who not only is unable to satisfy her as an adult, but is fearsomely dangerous besides. Torn between the desire to hang on to the fading memory of giddy youthful love and the need to shake off the horror her life has become and find happiness, she makes the wrong choices at every opportunity until the avalanche has built up so much momentum nothing in the world could keep her from being buried and taking everyone else with her.
When the movie was picked up for distribution in the states by Cinamerica International, the producers decided it needed some more action to make it attractive to American audiences. Bookend scenes which also appear in snippets of flashback were concocted by Polselli and Hargitay making Herbert a Viet Nam veteran wounded in battle, with Rita Calderoni and Raul Loveccio as medevac chopper officers. Instead of the baroquely tragic original conclusion, these extra sequences end things with the thrice-damned “it was all a dream” device. The English language cut also trims up the run time while adding a new character named Bonita, and here's where it gets interesting.
Bonita is Joaquine's sister, and in this version is the one who first figures out what's going on and is killed by Herbert, inciting Joaquine's wrath and prompting her to attack Herbert with a flail, leading into the climactic three-way bloodbath. They then re-dubbed much of the dialogue during the final confrontation to remove any mention of the relationship between Joaquine and Marzia and replace it with Joaquine screaming, “You killed my sister!” over and over. By the time Delirium came out, exploitation and horror films were already taking a slow turn toward the mean and salacious, but it would still be a few years before movies like Last House on the Left really cranked the wheel and jackknifed the morality of genre entertainment off a cliff and censors threw up their hands in disgust and went home for a couple decades. There was plenty of nudity and violence in the movie that remained intact, but it would seem that in 1972 we weren't quite ready for an incestuous semi-lesbian serial-killing love triangle that ended with all three participants beating each other to death with medieval weapons in a sex dungeon.