A wealthy heiress and landowner dies under mysterious circumstances (her husband did it, but don’t worry, he was done in too), and anyone with a minute claim to her property shows up to collect. The would-be heirs and heiresses start offing each other in increasingly creative and graphic ways, along with some dimwitted teenagers that stop by the bay looking for a party. Basically, it’s Ten Little Indians on the bay.
Following a string of minor vehicles, ECOLOGIA DEL DELITTO marks an amazing return to form for Bava.
The film’s first image, following the titles sequence, is a rapid travelling shot which follows a fly as it swoops about in the air before dropping dead and plummeting into the bay. This witty, but seemingly insignificant, sequence, neatly sums up the two major themes of the film: the inevitability and suddenness of death, which most of the characters are destined to encounter; and the fact that man, for all of his pretenses about civilization, is little more than an insect — and a particularly nasty insect, at that.
Bava’s main inspiration for this film seems to have been the classic Ealing studios comedy KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS (1949), directed by Robert Hamer. In that film, the great character acto Dennis Price gives a wonderfully droll performance as a cast-off member of a titled family who contrives to speed his inheritance by doing away with his relatives (all played by Sir Alec Guinness). The tone and subject matter are much the same, but Bava’s film is much more extreme in every respect, especially in terms of violence.As in Bava’s other thrillers, there are no heroic characters for the audience to root for. Most of the film is carried by the bitchy Renata and her spineless husband Alfred, but Bava does not ask the viewer to sympathize with their plight. Even the nominal innocents, including the quirky entomologist and his fortune telling shrew of a wife, are so broadly portrayed as to be caricatures. The main difference between the characters here and their counterparts in CINQUE BAMBOLE PER LA LUNA D’AGOSTO is that, sympathetic or not, they are interesting; the entomologist, beautifully played by Leopoldo Trieste, even manages to be endearing, so much so that the audience is sorry to see him killed.
ECOLOGIA may not present a particularly cheeful portrait of human nature, but there is a ring of truth to it, and the presence of strong female characters like Renata reveals much about Bava’s frequently misunderstood attitudes towards women. Bava recognizes their ability to be either victim or victimizer. He sees their potential to be stronger than the male. And, most importantly, he understands the irony behind their relations with men: the man frequently flatters himself that he is using the female to his own ends, but this is simply an assumption informed by chauvenistic attitudes. For example, Frank thinks that by sleeping with Laura, he is keeping her in check, while it is actually the other way around. Unlike many directors of horror films and thrillers, Bava refuses to relegate his female characters exclusively to the level of weak, screaming, addle-brained victim.
The convoluted narrative (based on a story by Dardano Sacchetti, also known for his collaborations with Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, and Lamberto Bava), is strewn with a number of unexpected plot twists. Perhaps the most inspired detail is the way the film becomes a kind of modern-dress version of MACBETH once the story comes to concentrate on the Albert and Renata. Like Shakespeare’s play, Bava’s film deals with a weak-willed husband driven to murder by his unbalanced, power-mad spouse. Once albert’s hands become stained with blood (literally, in a scene that manages to top a parallel scene in Roman Polanski’s stunning 1971 film of MACBETH in terms of pure shock effect), he becomes more assertive and enters whole-heartedly into the task at hand.
Bava also avoids passing moral judgment over his characters: for example, the horny teenagers (this fixture in many dismal FRIDAY THE THIRTEENTH-style films is indebted to this sublime example) are not killed because they are having pre-marital sex — they are simply too stupid to realize that there is a murderer around. Even the two children (one of them played by red-headed Nicoletta Elmi, later to be seen in Bava’s GLI ORRORI DEL CASTELLO DI NORIMBERGA, 1972, as well as Lamberto Bava’s absurdly popular DEMONI / DEMONS, 1985, and Argento’s masterpiece PROFONDO ROSSO / DEEP RED, 1975) are not above spoliation, transformed as they are into murderers by watching their parents’ example.
The various murder scenes are incredibly bloody, but the humorous edge prevents the film from becoming a tour through a slaughterhouse (to borrow one critic’s misguided but irresistible description of the resurrection scene in Terence Fisher’s marvelous DRACULA — PRINCE OF DARKNESS, 1965). There is a decapitation, multiple slashings, a face split in two by a meat cleaver, a stabbing in the groin, a love-making couple skewered together by a jungle spear, and so on. So vivid were these scenes, in fact, that over the years ECOLOGIA has been cut and re-cut ot satisfy the censorship standards of the day. The uncut version has since surfaced on video, thus preserving Bava’s most mischievously funny work in its entirety.
Review © Troy Howarth