Hatchet for the Honeymoon (Il rosso segno della follia) is not the kind of film to watch for a kill count or ingenious murders. It is the kind of film to watch for paranormal and sartorial phenomena, ghosts, discotheques, mysterious deaths, horrifying old toys, and the narration of a “paranoiac.” After credits in which piles of red and blue ash drift across photographs, we see John Harrington (Stephen Forsyth, Fury in Marrakesh), wearing a black bloused shirt and tight black pants belted with a chain, in action as a cleaver-wielding murderer. He has followed a woman onto a train leaving Paris. She is Rosie, one of the models at Harrington’s fashion house, on her honeymoon. In the corridor, John sees a young boy reflected in the train window. As the young bride, still in her gown, embraces her groom, she sees John raise his cleaver and screams. But we see no brutality, at most we see the bride fallen on the floor, covered with a splash of blood. And we barely see the groom at all. Instead of the killing blows, we see a kaleidoscopic array of light and color. And hear a woman’s voice calling, “John! John!” When he is finished, John wipes his cleaver off with her veil and hangs a sign on the door handle, “Do Not Disturb / Ne Pas Derangez.” Then we cut to John at home working a train set and then shaving as a woman calls his name. This time it is his wife. John addresses viewers in voiceover narration.
My name is John Harrington. I am thirty years old. I am a paranoiac. Paranoiac—an enchanting word, so civilized, so full of possibility. The fact is that I am completely mad. The realization of which annoyed me at first, but is now amusing to me. Quite amusing. No one suspects that I am a mad man. Not Mildred, my wife. Not the employees of my fashion center. Nor, of course, my customers…. But the fact remains that I have killed five young women—three of whom are buried in the hothouse….There is one problem, I must go on wielding the cleaver, it is most annoying. But when I begin to hear those footsteps, those stealthy footsteps, I know I must kill. And I shall have to continue killing until I find out the whole truth. That’s it—until I find out the whole truth.
The whole truth for John is not in his diagnosis or the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. It’s somewhere else, someplace he can only find within himself when he kills. And so, he says, “I must go on wielding the cleaver.”
With Hatchet for the Honeymoon Mario Bava returns to the deadly world of high fashion he first explored in Blood and Black Lace (1964). But unlike Blood and Black Lace, we start Hatchet for the Honeymoon already knowing who the murderer is. The central mystery is not the killer’s identity. The mystery is what’s happening to John and with the murder he is attempting to solve. In accepting his diagnosis, Harrington believes he has accepted himself, but he is haunted by that fragmentary vision of a woman lying on the floor, her voice calling his name. John Harrington inherited his mother’s Paris fashion business, her designs, and her house; and so he designs bridal gowns and murders young brides. Financially fragile when he takes over, John saves the business and house through marriage to a wealthy widow. While there had been passion before John and Mildred were married, after marriage they become resentful and bitter. Mildred refuses him a divorce, telling him at a particularly unpleasant al fresco breakfast, “We’ll stay married until death do us part.” Mildred (Laura Betti, who debuted in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, worked with Pier Paolo Passolini in Teorema and The Canterbury Tales, and Bernardo Bertolucci in 1900) resents John’s inattentiveness and his “women,” who exist but not in the way Mildred imagines. How could John to explain that he began killing young women after they married and that now he finds comfort only in the arms of the mannequins?
In his creepy sanctuary of mannequins dressed in bridal gowns, John displays a tenderness missing from his relationships with real, living women. After one murder, John is suave as all get out with a mannequin, smoothly laying her down to kiss, but he’s interrupted by a music cue and the sound of footsteps climbing stairs. The siren song of his shiny, shiny cleaver kept in the same room as the mannequins in bridal gowns telling him it is time to kill again. There is the sense that his dalliances were uninterrupted in the past. If John ever resisted his urges, he does so no longer. But lately his motivations have become more complicated. When he kills one of his models, Alice (genre powerhouse Femi Benussi, So Sweet So Dead, The Italian Connection, and the ever tasteful Strip Nude for Your Killer), he invites her to his sanctuary. He tells Alice, “I want to see you in your wedding dress as if tonight really belonged to us.” He offers her a choice of bridal gown as a wedding present, dances among the mannequins with her to Sante Maria Romitelli’s romantic theme for the film, and then, raising his cleaver, says, “A woman should live only until her wedding night, love once and then die. Now you’ll turn into another woman and I’ll learn a little bit more.”
Hatchet for the Honeymoon was a Spanish-Italian co-production. It’s one of Bava’s cheapest films, certainly compared to, say, Danger: Diabolik (1968) shot just a few years earlier. It’s also the only film Bava shot outside of Italy. And it is intriguing that it was not only shot in Barcelona on the cheap, but shot in part at the Palau Reial de Pedralbes. The Palau was once the residence of the Spanish royal family in Barcelona. After King Alfonso XIII fled in 1931 and the second Spanish republic was established, the palace became a museum. In 1970, the year Hatchet for the Honeymoon was shot, the palace was the residence of fascist dictator Francisco Franco. Some interiors for Harrington’s house were shot in the Palau’s first floor. Harrington’s fashion show took place on the grounds. John and Mildred’s unpleasant al fresco breakfast likely took place on Francisco Franco’s patio. Bedroom and bathroom shots in the Harrington home were shot at the Villa Parisi in Frascati, Italy, itself the host of many an international horror film production.
But the stairs in Harrington’s vision and his home, become even more fraught and resonant when it turns out that they’re Franco’s stairs. There is an additional irony here in that the Fascist state in Italy was hostile to crime stories and films, seeing them as subversive and insulting depictions of Italy. Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione (1942), arguably the first giallo film, passed state censorship somehow, but Mussolini’s own son, Vittorio Mussolini, was enraged by the film. Shooting Hatchet for the Honeymoon in Franco’s house was a very peculiar arrangement and leads to many questions concerning how filming in the Palau was cost-effective, how Spanish producer Manuel Caño arranged it, why Caño arranged it, and just how close to Franco he was. As for Bava, the simplest explanation is that Caño provided funding to make a film, and Bava took it. Spain provided the Italian film industry a lot of money and labor in the 1960s and 1970s. For Bava, it turned out working directly under fascism was not for him and he returned to Italy.
Although Hatchet for the Honeymoon was shot in Barcelona, Paris and Rome, it is set in a modern Paris fashion house. And John is a very modern serial killer, with his diagnosis, long-lasting mascara, groovy chain-link belt, and wide collars. But Hatchet for the Honeymoon has supernatural edge that is decidedly Gothic — less Blood and Black Lace, more Black Sunday. The film has the shape of a thriller concerned with a serial killer, and yet it is haunted with a kind of spiritualism. Is John recovering a memory or having a vision? How can a ghost be a hallucination when John is the only one who does not see her? John’s wife Mildred is involved in Spiritualism. She reads Mediums and Spiritism by one Dr. Kalleway. At a séance held by Dr. Kalleway’s and structured like a very gloomy, penitent wedding ceremony, Mildred contacts her late husband and rocks her dead child in her arms.
We never discover how Mildred’s first family died, only that she grieves for them and that she and John share mutual resentment over their losses — her husband, her child, his mother, himself as a child, their active sex life. Mildred tries to restore her previous life, the one before she married John, in which she was a mother and a cherished wife. John seeks to contact a dead woman and to discover what happened to her. In a sense, he wants to be restored to his mother, and he even sees his own past self as a child, who urges him to discover who killed mommy and why.
Mildred’s Spiritualism is fairly orthodox, marital overtones aside, but John’s practice has echoes of blood sacrifice. With each murdered young bride, John does learn a little bit more. Meanwhile, the Paris police are investigating the murders of three women on their wedding nights. And police inspector Russell (Jesús Puente) is suspicious of the fact that the victims were all connected to Harrington either as clients or models. John is, however, largely unconcerned. Forsyth plays John Harrington as a cypher. He is successful, wealthy, married, fashionable, but has only the most shallow interest in other people. And since we only have access to John’s point of view, we have very little access to the lives and doings of the other characters.
Long before an explicit supernatural element enters the story, Mildred and Helen Wood (Dagmar Lassander, Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion, Iguana with a Tongue of Fire, and Lucio Fulci’s The House by the Cemetery and The Black Cat), the woman he claims is not like other women, are almost apparitions. They seem to appear in and disappear from his house and his life. But John has no curiosity about what happened before or after those moments when they intersect with his own life. He is too busy solving an more important mystery to worry about women or even the police investigation. He feels in control because no one knows about him and three of the bodies are fertilizing the flowers in his hot house.
Hatchet For The Honeymoon is also an unusual giallo (if any giallo can be a “usual” one) in that the act of murder itself is incidental in the film. We don’t see the gore or elaborate murders that would be the hallmark of Bava’s Bay of Blood/Twitch of the Death Nerve, released one year later, or the ingeniously graphic gialli of Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci. Neither the film nor its murderer seem all that interested in violence or gore. It seems like John must have been once, but the act of killing itself has lost its intrinsic value. Several take place over the course of the film, but they are almost an afterthought as John obsesses over his vision and then later, his frustration over the specter of his wife. During the murders of Rosie, Alice, and to a lesser extant Mildred, the camera doesn’t look away to encourage us to imagine a more gruesome act than could be depicted on film in 1970.
Instead Harrington raises his highly reflective, almost mirrored cleaver and we see his visions with him in lieu of the kill. John still performs his rituals. He kills a woman in her bridal gown on her wedding night, but John’s not looking at killing anymore. He’s reflecting on himself through murder. In fact, we only really know that John Harrington has murdered the brides for sure because Harrington himself tells us he has. And so Harrintgton’s killings become both an investigative method and a kind of divination. And he continues his own murderous investigation until he raises his cleaver against two women who aren’t just part of the process: Mildred and Helen.
According to Inspector Russell, all a detective can do when he pursues such a criminal is wait for him to make a mistake. As with the lives of Mildred and Helen, the investigation of the young women’s deaths, a whole potential police procedural of its own, we only see from its points of contact with Harrington. Inspector Russell drops in on John as John is tending the flowers, birds, and the creepy gnome in his hothouse. He tells John that three women have been murdered, all on their wedding night. John notes that Rosie wasn’t getting married as far as he knew. He assumed she ran away with a wealthy man, like many of his models do. It is pretty clear that Russell believes John is the murderer. And it is equally clear that John is unconcerned. Well, he is obviously pleased that Russell is in the presence of flowers fertilized by dead women’s remains. But then Russell tells him, “I’m attracted to everything that is an alteration of nature. Like the brain of a mental patient. Even that must be something like your hothouse, don’t you agree?” John observes that Russell has made “a curious analogy.” And Russell continues, ” An impressive atmosphere, flowers that are strange and the birds of crime fluttering about his brain.”
John is annoyed by Russell’s assertion because John believes his reason to be as rational as Russell’s reasons for investigating murder. In their way, they are as valid as Russell’s seemingly random interruptions in Harrington’s house. Russell is trying to force something to happen, just as John tries to force something to happen. In fact, John believes their reasons for what they do are the same. He is investigating a murder after all. In having a murderer investigate a murder, Hatchet for the Honeymoon comes close to not needing a detective at all. It is like a perpetual murder and investigation machine. It is efficient, even concentrated giallo. Harrington is both perpetrator and detective using murder to solve a murder and discover, perhaps, why he kills. Russell is an irritant and a distraction from John’s own investigations. And given his results so far, John can be more certain of his methods than Russell can. John knows with every murder, he comes closer to solving the one that is important to him. Russell must have faith that John will make a mistake and, at best, force one.
Toward this end, Russell sends in an undercover bridal model, Helen, who might learn more as she gets closer to Harrington. And Helen ends up at an intersection in their investigative methods. She is both undercover bridal model and the only non-mannequin, living woman John seems to feel anything for. She is the sister of one of the murdered women, Rosie. And she volunteers to help catch her sister’s killer. As Russell uses Helen to gather more information about Harrington. Harrington kills young women to gather more information. And like Russell, John is willing to use Helen to crack the case. In his own way, John synthesizes Mildred and Russell’s practices. His methods differ — and would horrify both — but he combines their divinatory and investigative pursuits into one practice: murder. And by means of it, John comes closer to solving the mystery of why he kills than Inspector Russell ever will, but maybe not as close as Mildred does.
But John makes two mistakes. The first is the easiest and has the most immediate effect: He tries to kill Helen. This is the mistake that gets him arrested and is probably from Inspector Russell’s perspective, John’s fatal error. Helen arrives at the House of Harrington as a replacement for Rosie, the model John killed on the train. She and John quickly take a shine to each other. And when Mildred tells John that she’s going out of town for a week, Helen follows them to the airport. She wants John to take her to the discotheque for enormous, colorful drinks. John warns Helen that he will hurt her. Helen takes this as regular heartbreak, not literal hatchetry. Helen was a trap set by Russell and herself. She doesn’t fit his usual profile. She is one of his employees, but she’s not getting married. And John has some feelings for her. But driven by a need to see everything that happened in his vision, he raises his cleaver again. Fortunately for Helen, Inspector Russell and the Parisian police burst in to arrest John. But strangely, John sees the complete vision, without killing her. Harrington realizes he had murdered his own mother when he was a boy. He could not bear that his mother should have another husband — or anyone else but him.
But John makes the mistake that damns him well before he tries to kill Helen. John murders Mildred the same night he drinks at the disco with Helen. Russell and Helen don’t know. No one knows, because everyone but John still sees Mildred after she is dead. That night John dropped Helen off and returns home to drink whiskey and watch Bava’s horror anthology Black Sabbath. As Boris Karloff menaces Susy Andersen in “The Wurdulak,” John hears a noise in the master bedroom, one that clearly evokes the memory that has been haunting him. Both transfixed and terrified, John slowly ascends the stairs to discover Mildred in their bed. She tells him she took the next flight home. And she asks him where he has been and who he as been with. She asks him, “Did you tell her how much you love your mother?”
John retreats to their bathroom, washes his face and sees the water in the basin turn red. It is a kind of sign to him. And then he hears the footsteps again. Back in their bedroom, he sexually teases Mildred, but promises to fulfill her desire. He leaves her again, and returns to her in bridal veil and poorly applied lipstick with his cleaver placed very carefully on a doily atop a silver tray. But nothing goes as it should in the aftermath of this murder. Her screams attract the attention of Inspector Russell who has brought the fiancé of another of Harrington’s victims to the door. Harrington claims the screams were from the movie he was watching on TV. And the inspector leaves, but he continues his investigation.
John dons the bridal veil for several reasons. The first is that it is an image evocative of Norman Bates’ dressed as his dead mother in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), which was immensely influential on not only Hatchet for the Honeymoon but a whole slew of giallo and psycho killer movies. Italian popular cinema in the 1960s and 1970s was very good at repackaging thrills from other movies to thrill and thrill again. Many elements of Hatchet for the Honeymoon relate to Psycho. Norman Bates’ diagnosis is in the title of his film. John Harrington thoughtfully shares his himself. Both are have unhealthy attachments to their mothers and unhealthy attitudes toward sex. But poor Norman was not nearly as successful socially or professionally as John.
More generally, I’m sure was the image of a man in a wedding veil and garish make-up taken as frightening and grotesque in its time as it is at best campy and at worst transphobic now. John has even applied his lipstick well past his lips in the time-honored, film and television tradition of a woman who has gone mad. But within the film, his donning the veil can also be seen as John’s attempt to maintain some semblance of his ritual. John kills Mildred because she is inconvenient, but she doesn’t fulfill the prescriptions of his ritual. Mildred has “loved” more than once and even had a child. So he fulfills some elements of the ritual himself, wearing a veil and bearing the cleaver as if it were a ring or other sacramental object. Someone has to be the bride and if it isn’t Mildred, then it will be John, who is possibly the only virgin in the room. The ritual is effective enough in that we see more of John’s memory. But it is also off. We see Mildred’s terror and retreat. Her murder and its aftermath are the most graphic in the film. And when Inspector Russel bursts in with the worried fiance, the blood dripping from her hand into the entryway threatens to give John away. So while he sees more, unlike Rosie, Alice and the other brides, Mildred doesn’t become another woman for him. She refuses to. She is his wife and will not renounce her position, not even in death.
Killing Mildred is John’s fatal mistake because whether through her research or her will, Mildred has learned to haunt him. Feeling liberated the morning after killing Mildred, John wears a jumpsuit that inverts his usual murder clothes. His murder suit is tight black pants, a black bloused tunic and a belt of chain links. The liberation jumpsuit is white with a pattern of black chain links. John is so stoked he’s not even wearing shoes. But then he notices the maid pouring coffee for Mildred. She sees Mildred, even if he does not. And at a bridal fashion show, other people see Mildred, while he sees only glimpses of her in a hooded black robe spangled with large jewels. Her attire evokes a very fancy ritual robe. John tries to free himself by destroying her body. He unearths it in his hot house and cremates Mildred’s remains in the hot house incinerator. But still Mildred haunts him.
John brings her ashes to the discotheque and when he approaches a woman, she is appalled that John would hit on her in front of his wife. John tries to make it work for him, suggesting a threesome. He and his leather satchel of ashes are thrown out of the disco. He tries tossing her ashes in the Seine and shaking them out into a storm, but the ashes and Mildred always return. In a sense, Mildred’s sudden and inconvenient appearances in his life are not so different than when she was alive. But Mildred has far more control in how she inconveniences him now that she’s a ghost. When the police interrupt his attempt to kill a young aristocrat on her wedding night, it seems like John will never be able to murder again and that he’ll never learn the whole truth about his mother’s death. There is nothing for it but brooding in his childhood room filled with creepy old toys and sadly deciding that Helen must serve as his final sacrifice even if he kind of likes her. It is interesting that Mildred does not appear to Helen, as far as we know, is she jealous still? Or does she know what John does not—that as soon as he tries to kill Helen, he will be arrested. In either case, As the police take John away, he tells Helen, “It could’ve been so nice, I think.” And then realizing who he is, John finishes, “Although, I suppose it couldn’t be.”
Learning the truth of who killed his mother and why was so important to Harrington, that he is willing to sacrifice his chance for true love. Of course, as John tells Mildred, they weren’t always cruel to each other. It seems inevitable, however, that John Harrington could not be a husband to anyone but a mannequin, because before Mildred, Helen, and the mannequins, there was his mother and his urge to kill. There was his belief that a woman should only love once and then die. He is far too tangled up for it to ever be “nice.” In the end, John is taken away in a police van. The perspective in the van parallels the long corridor of the train in the opening scene. The police place the bag that had Mildred’s ashes in them next to John. Mildred appears, leather bag on her lap, and says, “Hello, John. At first you couldn’t see me and now only you can see me.” Having been haunted by his mother, John is now haunted by his wife. Mildred improves on her earlier vow. Now not even death will part them. Mildred promises John they will be together forever—first in the insane asylum and then in Hell. John panics, but there is no escape. As he bangs against the van’s back door, Mildred runs her hand through her own cremated remains and then blows a handful of her ashes at him as if she’s blowing him a kiss.