Sergio Martino worked in every genre, as just about every Italian director of the 1970s and ’80s did, drifting from one to the next depending on what was popular at the time. His films were generally a cut or two above the rest. A little more care put into the script. A little more attention paid to the details of framing and pacing. They also tended to bring something a little more outré to the table. 2019: After the fall of New York, for instance, could have been just another Escape from New York rip-off. For much of its running time, it is (albeit a pretty good one). Then, out of nowhere, the last act goes into batshit insane territory.
Similarly, Martino’s 1972 giallo All the Colors of the Dark works within the confines of the genre (which was still relatively new in 1972 but, given the fecundity of the Italian film market, already contained quite a few films, established tropes, and expectations), but it takes the genre further afield than had previously been explored, resulting in a dizzying psychedelic combination of straight-forward stalker/murder mystery (the giallo’s stock in trade), hallucinogenic psycho-sexual experiment, and occult horror. It remains one of the best and most unique films to come from a genre that often managed to be at once utterly cookie cutter and totally unpredictable.
It was one of four giallo made by Martino between 1971 and 1972, three of which (The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh, All the Colors of the Dark, Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key) starred Edwige Fenech, perhaps the most iconic of all giallo regulars; and three of which (The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh, All the Colors of the Dark, and The Case of the Scorpion’s Tale) starred steely-eyed George Hilton. All of them were written by Ernesto Gastaldi (along with several other people, as was the style when it came to awarding screenwriting credits in Italian films), who also wrote the screenplay for Martino’s first film, the late-cycle spaghetti western Arizona Colt Returns. Which means despite Martino not beginning his feature film directing career until 1970, by the time he was making All the Colors of the Dark he already had what amounted to a stable of regulars who knew him and knew each other, which brings a level of plot and character development to the film that is often missing in giallo, where scripts are hastily written and characterization and logic takes a back seat to shocks and style.
Not that All the Colors of the Dark doesn’t contain the usual amount of inconceivably stupid decisions made “because the script demands them” (like narrowing escaping an ax murderer and not bothering to report it to anyone), but many of those decisions can be written off because the film is about someone who is going/has already gone insane and thus can’t be depended upon to make the most cogent calls. The movie also avoids the common pitfall of filling the film with nothing but despicable characters. For the most part, the good guys are decent (if a bit dense) people, though George Hilton’s Richard still exhibits the sort of unthinking callousness found in most giallo leading men. The most common expression of said callousness is knowing that his wife is either hallucinating being stalked by a murderer or is actually being stalked by a murderer, yet still Richard leaves her alone all the time and refuses to get her any help. He seems to behave that way out of sheer stupidity rather than active malice, but it still makes him easy to dislike. In the role of Richard, George Hilton gives his standard reasonably competent performance. But honestly, no one watches All the Colors of the Dark for George Hilton. Edwige Fenech is the main event.
Fenech was a seasoned pro by the time she started showing up in giallo, having previously starred in a number of sex comedies before appearing in Mario Bava’s kitschy murder mystery 5 Dolls for an August Moon. A year later, she starred in the first of her three Sergio Martino giallo, The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh, and quickly became one of the best known and most prolific genre actresses in the 1970s. She starred in several more murder movies and continued to work in the seemingly inexhaustible (and largely exhausting) sex comedy genre. Her easy charisma, natural likability, and to be honest, incredible beauty made her one of the most popular stars, and she remains to this day and much beloved genre film icon. All the Colors of the Dark is her best work, gracing her with her a character that does all the required screaming and fleeing but adds a layer or two on top of it that allows Fenech to flex a little acting muscle as her character becomes an increasingly unreliable narrator.
She plays Jane Harrison, who along with her boyfriend Richard (George Hilton) lives in a creepy apartment building in London (Maritno is not shy about admitting the influence of Rosemary’s Baby on both the location work and the occult plot). Although the couple is in love, she suffers from a double dose of trauma (one from her childhood, another more recent) that keeps her aloof in bed and prone to occasional bouts of hallucination. Her sister Barbara (Nieves Navarro, better known as Susan Scott and like Fenech a veteran of Italian cult cinema) urges Jane to see a doctor, but Richard has an aversion to psychotherapy, which he thinks is designed not to help people, but to make make sure the psychiatrist makes money. Against his wishes, Jane visits a doctor anyway, but doesn’t help. In fact, her hallucinations become more dangerous and more real than ever. That might be because they are real. Or are they? Whatever the case, a sinister guy with striking blue eyes (Ivan Rassimov) is following her everywhere and even tries to murder her with a hatchet. One would think the remnants of a mad hatchet attack outside a lawyer’s office would be easy to prove (he leaves quite a few marks in the woodwork), but Jane never bothers to report the incident to the police, and no one seems all that concerned.
With psychiatry apparently having accomplished nothing, Jane falls under the spell of her neighbor, Mary Weil (Marina Malfatti, another giallo pro), who suggests where science fails, perhaps a nightmarish Satanic Black Mass and gang bang could succeed. Jane, already a proven fan of dumb decisions (or perhaps just wanting to impress her cool new friend), agrees. The ritual takes place in a big Victorian manor on the outskirts of town, and although Jane isn’t entirely enthusiastic, she comes back a second time. Only it turns out that Satanic sex cults aren’t as carefree as she thought, and soon she’s being urged to sacrifice Mary while also discovering that the man with blue eyes is part of the coven. It’s at this point that what little grasp Jane had on reality begins to slip away entirely, even as she discovers the source of a freakish nightmare she’s been having and uncovers a family secret that links her to this bizarre cult of cavorting devil worshipers.
With Jane’s notion of reality thusly done away with, Sergio Martino is free to go all in on the insanity, packing the remainder of the film with hallucinations, flashbacks, and nightmares without bothering to provide much in the way of clues as to when something is real and when it’s not, better reflecting Jane’s deteriorating state of mind (the 1968 British film If…. did the same thing — putting fantasies next to actual events without giving the audience any clue as to where one stopped and the other began). At some point, Martino just says “Oh, what the hell?” and throws precognition and ESP into the mix. The resulting film is a phantasmagoric blend of supernatural horror and straight-forward giallo thrills delivered with an abundance of style. The illogical behavior of many characters is easily dismissed given the nature of the narrative. Even failing to call the police when any normal human would seems forgivable given that the film establishes a world in which the police don’t seem to exist (at least until the very end, arriving to clean up rather than solve the mess). Red herrings are an integral part of any murder mystery, but here the killer is unmasked and likes to stare at people. It’s no mystery who the killer is, and so why he’s killing becomes the film’s central puzzle (or even if he’s killing or Jane is imaging the whole thing).
What Martino accomplishes with All the Colors of the Dark is a a film that delivers all the requisite elements of a giallo and then some. Concurrent with the popularity of giallo was the rise of devil worship and witchcraft movies thanks to the success of Rosemary’s Baby and the wave of “Satanic Panic” that followed in the wake of the Manson murders. Italy and Spain both produced a lot of devil cult films around this time, but Martino was one of the first to reckon that the two great tastes would taste great together. Having worked together multiple times, the team of Martino, Fenech, Hilton, and Gastaldi fire on all cylinders. Well, Martino, Gastaldi, and Fenech fire on all cylinders while George Hilton appears as a suitable slab of of beef.
Given a psychologically complex character, Fenech gets to do a lot, and she’s surrounded by fellow great ladies of giallo Susan Scott and Marina Malfatti. Woven through it all is a score by Bruno Nicolai that manages to be as sensual and soothing as it is disturbing. Given how nebulous the definition of giallo can be, and given that pretty much every director also directed other types of genre film, it wasn’t unusual for giallo to blend a few different genres (though usually that other genre was the closely related Eurocrime film). Nor was it all that uncommon for the narrative to be fractured, to be based upon the idea that human perception is flawed. All the Colors of the Dark, however, does it very well; does perhaps better than any other film in the genre. It’s not the most violent giallo. It’s not even the weirdest. But it’s certainly one of the best.