Color, 1971, 100 mins. 6 secs.
Directed by Sergio Martino
Starring Edwige Fenech, George Hilton, Alberto de Mendoza, Ivan Rassimov, Christina Airoldi
Severin Films (Blu-ray) (R0 HD), Shameless Screen Entertainment (Blu-ray & DVD) (UK R0 HD/PAL), FilmArt (Blu-ray) (Germany RB HD), NoShame, Mya Communication (DVD) (US R0 NTSC), Media Target (Germany R2 PAL), Dania Film (Italy R2 PAL) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)

The Strange Vice of Mrs. WardhReleased The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardharound the same time as the inauguration of Dario Argento's pivotal "animal trilogy" of thrillers, The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh marked the thriller debut of director Sergio Martino, a genre-hopping talent eager to explore the internationally popular giallo. He found his perfect leading lady in the form of Algeria-born Edwige Fenech, a shapely beauty just seen in Mario Bava's eccentric Five Dolls for an August Moon. Since she was dating Sergio's producer brother Luciano, the director and star reunited for two more gialli as well as a series of sexy comedies. Markedly different from the works of Argento and Bava, Martino's thrillers feature bizarre, fractured storylines in which a variety of characters collide with multiple villains providing a host of disorienting red herrings, all shot in sumptuous scope. Though not as baroque as some of its successors, Strange Vice still holds up nicely as a daring and surprisingly bleak shocker that set the pace for several years to come.

Returning from Austria, Julie Wardh (Fenech) is dissatisfied with her inattentive diplomat husband, Neil (de Mendoza) and haunted by memories of her brutal past relationship with creepy blond Jean (Rassimov), who enjoyed stripping and raping her in the rain and slicing off her lingerie with broken wine bottles. At a decadent party where girls in paper dresses rip off each other's clothes, Julie spies Jean (who has now taken up sending her sinister bouquets of roses with vague notes about the "worst part of her") The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardhand winds up The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardhflirting with George (Hilton), the cousin of her best friend Carol (Airoldi). Soon Julie and George become lovers, prompting a blackmail scheme and a shocking murder that send Julie fleeing for her life. However, no matter how far she runs, she soon learns that death will be following her everywhere.

A strange and gripping film, The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh in many ways foreshadows Martino's later gem, All the Colors of the Dark, while delivering a tight and compelling storyline that features a nifty triple-twist corkscrew finale that somehow still manages to hold water, more or less. The whole show is really held together by Fenech, a dazzling presence who has come to be regarded by many fans as the ultimate giallo scream queen. The eerie, melancholy score by Nora Orlandi establishes an uneasy mood from the opening scenes; in fact, the flashback "Dies Irae" theme is so effective it was later recycled as Michael Madsen's theme for Kill Bill, Vol. 2. The violence level is comparatively mild compared to most of its ilk, though you do get a nasty throat-slashing in the shower and a few other stabs here and there to keep the gorehounds satisfied. Unfortunately most of the sex and violence was toned down (along with several chunks of storyline) when the film hit drive-ins under a variety of titles like Blade of the Ripper and Next!, only to fare even worse when VHS turned the widescreen film into a colorless, gauzy mess impossible to appreciate on any level.

Fortunately the NoShame DVD came along in 2005 to correct the numerous disservices heaped upon this film over the years; the The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardhanamorphic transfer from the original negative was a revelation at the time compared to its predecessors, with the numerous night scenes now perfectly legible. However, it's from an The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardhunconverted PAL source (and interlaced) with significant motion blurring and an accelerated running time of 96m24s. The soundtrack can be played in either the English dub (with a few weird audio gaffes where footage was substituted) or the superior Italian dub; this is a rare giallo that was actually shot at least predominantly in Italian with much of the dialogue in sync, so that soundtrack with English subtitles is really the way to go. (Hilton and a handful of supporting actors are speaking in English, but thThe biggest extra here is the solid 31m2s featurette, "Dark Fears Behind the Door," in which both Martinos, Hilton, writer Ernesto Gastaldi, and the still-gorgeous Fenech talk about making the film, in Italian with English subtitles. It's a good piece with various stories about the financing for the film, the shooting locations, and the filmmaking techniques Martino used to elicit terrified performances from the cast. Also included are the original European trailer (in Italian, no subs), a poster and still gallery, footage of Martino introducing a screening of the film's restored print in Venice, and an illustrated booklet with bios for the major players. A 2010 reissue after NoShame's demise from Mya (as Blade of the Ripper) was more dubious, taken from the same master with identical language options and only the Italian trailer and a gallery as extras.

In 2011, the film made its DVD bow in the UK from Shameless Entertainment using what appears to be a similar master and with the same language options; extras include a new Martino interview, "Thrills, Chills & Cleavage" (22m32s), about his progression into thrillers after some sexy potboilers with a fairly thorough exploration of his commercially successful forays into the genre. Also included are a quick Martino intro, a Fenech bio, bonus promo trailers, and best of all, a pop-up The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardhfun fact subtitle option by Justin Harris that basically works as a sort of text commentary through the film; it's quite an entertaining and informative way to watch the film guaranteed to The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardhdeliver at least a few dozen things you didn't know.

In 2017, Shameless revisited the title for a Blu-ray upgrade from a markedly different HD transfer that's far more watchable thanks to the original film speed and a vast uptick in detail. It's also from the English-language negative which means some text insert shots (see below shot of the blackmail note) are in English instead of Italian. Colors are much cooler by comparison with the DVDs (which often verge on orange at times with hot white levels), pushing to the bluer end of the spectrum for much of the running time. The overall appearance is still on the soft and grainy side, which may be inherent to the way it was shot but does make one wonder what a full-scale restoration might have been able to achieve. Audio is offered in English or Italian LPCM mono with optional English subtitles translated from the Italian track; as usual the English track has some wonky spots, which may be an issue with compositing a complete version together as there hasn't been a perfect-sounding version out there. The pop-up fact track, Martino intro, NoShame featurette, and UK "Thrills, Chills & Cleavage" featurette are all collected here for the first time, and "The Genesis of Mrs. Wardh" (7m11s) is basically a visual essay with text outlining her progression into and through the giallo craze.

In 2020, Severin Films brought the film back into circulation in the U.S. as separate Blu-ray and DVD editions as well as a Strange Bundle of Mrs. Wardh including a reproduction of the original French tie-in comic book. The transfer here looks similar in terms of texture and detail, though it's been graded to look a notch darker and generally veers further away from the blue look with more natural skin tones. The look here (promoted as a 4K scan of an internegative) is still pretty gritty and mushy for the most part, with darker scenes in particular struggling against the compression job to eke out depth and detail. It's watchable enough (and still leagues better than the The Strange Vice of Mrs. WardhDVD) but definitely on the more modest side of Martino releases in HD to date. (Screen grabs in the body The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardhof this review are from the Severin disc; comparison ones can be seen below.) A new audio commentary by All the Colors of Sergio Martino author Kat Ellinger is a companion piece of sorts to her track for Torso with a great deal of focus on contextualizing the larger framework of the giallo and the work of Martino, Gastaldi, and Orlandi; the feature itself is more of a part of the larger whole including thoughts on the unique nature of Julie's character and connections to earlier films like Midnight Lace. In "Of Vice and Virtue" (43m21s), Martino talks about his entry into the giallo craze, the loosening censorship in Italy at the time, the two real-life crime case and preceding thrillers that played a role in the script, the rationale behind the international location choices, and his thoughts on his other gialli and how they were received at the time. In the warmest moment, he also touches on Fenech's life after her film career as a "happy grandma" in Portugal. In "Cold as Ice" (22ms), Gastaldi does his usual rundown of how he would've preferred to dabble in other genres (like sci-fi), the mechanics of setting up suspense sequences, and his work on genre films like The Horrible Dr. Hichcock. Then "Vienna Vice" (19m1s) combines interviews with Hilton and film historian Antonio Bruschini covering the Martino brothers, the transition of the giallo in the early '70s away from the glamorous high society thrillers by the likes of Umberto Lenzi (which Burschini theorizes is closer to how this film was originally written), and the cultural state of Vienna at the time of shooting. "The NoShame Files" (23m43s) compiles just the Fenech interview footage conducted for the DVD release, and it's fun to see the spotlight go strictly on her in this case as she chats about her entire career starting off at the age of 18. Also included are a brief video intro by Hilton (24s) and an SD Italian trailer. (Note that the U.S. trailer as Next! can be seen on the first volume of Trailer Trauma.) The first 3,000 units also come with a CD soundtrack which appears to be identical to the "slightly remastered" version issued by Quartet Records.

SEVERIN (Blu-ray)

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Updated review on June 10, 2020