Fans of gialli know all the tropes: abundant nudity, often followed by sleazy sex; leggy girls with miniskirts and a crazy fashion sense; black-gloved killers; gory murders; and storylines that don’t always make sense. Lovers of gialli have learned to take the good with the bad. So, for every “A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin” there is a “In the Folds of the Flesh.” And occasionally there comes along a giallo that doesn’t follow the tried and true formula. Such is “The Bloodstained Butterfly.”
1971 was a banner year for gialli, with some really important films from some very famous directors. Films like Bava’s “Twitch of the Death Nerve”, Argento’s “The Cat o’ Nine Tails” and “Four Flies on Grey Velvet”, and Fulci’s aforementioned “A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin” were all released along with many other well-known gialli. And while many of these titles are—rightly so—still very popular, perhaps the fact that “The Bloodstained Butterfly” has been overlooked all these years has something to do director Duccio Tessari’s ignoring the basic giallo formula.
The story is simple: a beautiful young girl has been murdered in a park and a local television celebrity has been found guilty of the crime. It was an open-and-shut case, with plenty of forensic evidence and several witnesses for the prosecution. But while the so-called murderer is confined to prison, two more murders with the same M.O. are committed, forcing the authorities to examine the original case. As the evidence is re-evaluated, it becomes more and more clear that, in their haste to identify the killer, the police just may have acted a bit rashly. The twist ending—which I won’t spoil for those readers who haven’t seen the film—comes from left field and is truly surprising.
“The Bloodstained Butterfly” may have been overlooked for several reasons. First, for a film in a subgenre infamous for high body counts and violent murders, there are only three murders. In fact, only one of those murders actually occurs on camera, with Tussari opting to cut just before the killer commits each atrocity. Even when we do see someone die, it is largely bloodless. Even in 1971, fans of this type of cinema were drawn to the films because of the lurid violence. So perhaps “The Bloodstained Butterfly” has been largely ignored due to the lack of violence. There is also remarkably little nudity (consisting of a brief glimpse of a breast in an autopsy photo as well as another brief glimpse of a breast during a lovemaking scene) and the sex, for the most part, is quite tame. For audiences used to the sleaziness of many gialli, the relative lack of prurient material may have disappointed.
Yet the film has many strengths. Tessari himself was a working man’s filmmaker, having been involved in a minor capacity in creating the story for Leone’s breakthrough spaghetti epic, “A Fistful of Dollars” as well writing or contributing to over three dozen other screenplays in the fifties and sixties. He directed several pepla before his big breakthrough with the spaghetti western Ringo series. He also directed poliziotteschi films, comedies, and even a couple of other gialli before being relegated to Italian television in the eighties. While Tessari is primarily remembered for his Ringo films, he was able to produce solid films in every genre in which he worked.
Tessari collaborated with screenwriter Gianfranco Clerici who went on to write many well-known films including Fulci’s “Don’t Torture a Duckling,” “The New York Ripper,” and “Murder-Rock,” Alberto De Martino’s “The Antichrist”, and Ruggero Deodato’s “Jungle Holocaust,” “House at the Edge of the Park,” and, perhaps most famously, “Cannibal Holocaust.” Here Clerici and Tessari have created a very strong police procedural/courtroom drama that, unlike many gialli, is plausible throughout.
Carlo Carlini, who lensed Sergio Sollima’s “The Big Gundown” as well as popular films such as “Seven Dead in the Cat’s Eye,” “Street Law,” “Autopsy,” and “Black Emanuelle” was behind the camera for “The Bloodstained Butterfly” and his contribution should not be minimized. Many interesting shots and camera angles contribute to the overall atmosphere of the film. For instance, the camera prowls across the audience during courtroom scenes and Carlini uses a long shot to enhance the sense of isolation for a family eating at a dinner table. The soundtrack, by Gianni Ferrio, is excellent as it switches perfectly between classical Tchaikovsky and a more traditional giallo-tinged score.
The cast is also strong, with nearly every character played by hard-working genre actors or genuine Euro-stars. Helmut Berger, fresh off Visconti’s “The Damned” and also working on Visconti’s “Ludwig,” stars as the devastated lover of the first murder victim who wants nothing less than to avenge his lover’s death. Still a relative newcomer, he was catapulted to fame in 1969 with Visconti’s production of “The Damned.” Giancarlo Sbragia, playing the culprit who just might be getting framed for the murder, cut his teeth in Italian peplum films during the fifties and early sixties. He remained a popular character actor up into the eighties. Lorella De Luca, real-life wife of director Tussari, is solid, as is Ida Galli (AKA Evelyn Stewart), who had parts in two of Visconti’s films as well as Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita” and numerous spaghetti westerns. Many other character actors that had long careers across Europe populate the film and lend some class to what must have been a low-budget affair.
So, while die-hard gialli fans familiar with the sex and violence of this particular subgenre could find “The Bloodstained Butterfly” a bit talky and boring, the filmmakers and actors really elevate the film to make it one of the best giallos of its time. With a strong story, good acting, creative cinematography, and a truly unique ending, this is a little-known gem that should be seen more widely
Arrow Film’s Blu-ray is very nice. The picture and sound—both English and Italian tracks are available—are very clear, as a 4K restoration from the original camera negative should be. Special features include a decent audio commentary with Alan Jones and Kim Newman, the English and Italian theatrical trailers, and short interviews with Helmut Berger and Lorella De Luca. The real prizes, though, include a 26-minute visual essay created by Troy Howarth that addresses the major gialli released in 1971 and their directors before going on to discuss director Duccio Tussari and the unique elements of “The Bloodstained Butterfly.” Another feature is a nearly hour-long, career-spanning interview with Ida Galli, who is simply lovely, enjoys telling stories, and doesn’t take herself too seriously.
Every giallo fan should expand their horizons and view this fascinating and unique film. For more information, go to Arrow Films’ US release site at: http://www.arrowfilms.co.uk/category/usa