Long before contemporary filmmakers like Silvana Zancolò or Luna Gualano would dip their directorial hands into horror territory, Italian horror cinema - indeed, Italian genre cinema more broadly - was very much a male affair, especially when it came to directing during its boom era from the '60s through the '80s. Despite the important donations of notable women such as composer Nora Orlandi and screenwriter Elisa Livia Briganti amongst others, when it came to directing specifically, women were virtually nowhere to be seen during this golden age. The internationally acclaimed Lina Wertmüller was attached to the 1968 Spaghetti Western The Belle Starr Story only days before being replaced by a male director, the closest it appears any big-name filmmaker got to getting behind the wheel of a significant genre feature during this period.
Curiously, one of the most visible women horror directors in Italy at this time was a character playing a horror director in a film - Anny Papa's Sandra in Lamberto Bava's 1983 giallo A Blade in the Dark. Inadvertently acknowledging the dominance of male filmmakers in the role during this period, it's noteworthy that Sandra appears almost constantly in this film wearing a male-styled suit and tie, Marlene Dietrich style.
It was my discussion of Sandra and her curious profession in my 2021 book The Giallo Canvas: Art, Excess and Horror Cinema that led the multi-talented author and artist Marta Oliehoek to bring to my attention two women-directed gialli that had until then completely fallen off my radar. Both coincidentally from 1987 - Giovanna Lenzi's Delitti and Giuliana Gamba's Profumo (also released under its English-language title Bizarre).
For intolerable horror nerdlingers who delight in defining what "is" and what "isn't" giallo according to their Argento-saturated familiarity with the filone, there's a good chance neither of these films would fit their rigid definitional parameters. There are not a lot of switchblades, leather gloves, or J&B bottles in either of these films, for starters. But in terms of how they were understood in Italy, at least, these films very much fall under the broader giallo umbrella that incorporates mystery and crime fiction more broadly - Delitti even has a main character who writes giallo fiction, much to the amusement of his peers.
Falling closer to what can now in retrospect be seen as the erotic thriller end of the giallo spectrum, both of these films very much seek to titillate as much from their depictions of sex as they do violence. And significantly, neither of these films offer anything in the way of supposed "evidence" that they are directed from any particular feminine - let alone feminist - perspective. In the case of Delitti, while actor-turned-director Lenzi got a directorial credit for the film, so too notably did her husband Sergio Pastore as something called a "director supervisor." Credited under the name Serge Vidor, Pastore is best known to giallophiles for his 1972 banger, The Crimes of the Black Cat, in which Giovanna (there credited as Jeanette) also co-starred. Lenzi makes a brief cameo in Delitti, too, here as the glum girlfriend of a dead man the film's detective briefly interrogates.
Tracking a serial killer who offs his victims with poisoned coffee - most spectacularly in a nightclub scene just drenched with pumping Italo disco - Delitti frankly offers little particular of note other than being a passable yet largely forgettable late '80s entry into the giallo category. Many words can be used to describe Bizarre, however, "forgettable" is not one of them. You only need a description of the opening scene to get the gist here: a wealthy-looking woman, the epitome of '80s chic in a skirt suit, with almost comically enormous shoulder pads enters an opulent looking building where a man watches all sorts of sexual encounters taking place therein on four giant analog monitors. He follows the woman into a bedroom and, taking off her clothes, lies on the bed. Consider this a trigger warning if descriptions of sexual violence aren't for you (you might want to jump ahead a paragraph): despite her protestations, he then places a gun - er - inside her and proceeds to pull the trigger, effectively adding a Russian Roulette dimension to old fashioned sexual assault. Yeah, you read right. Nasty.
Thus the scene is set for what ultimately plays out like a reimagining of Sergio Martino's classic, The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh, with a distinctive and profoundly ugly rape-revenge twist. Bizarre is technically softcore in terms of the graphic nature of what is or isn't shown, but as this example demonstrates, this doesn't really soften the depiction of sexual violence either here or elsewhere in the film in what increasingly feels like a never-ending parade of bad taste vignettes. There's a lot of cross-dressing in this film, too, which adds a queer dimension certainly, but I'd argue you'd be hard-pressed to read this through the lens of anything particularly progressive. Make no mistake: this is a nasty, nasty little movie, pure and simple.
Unlike Lenzi who only directed two films in her career and spent much of her professional life in front of the camera, Gamba is now a well-established Italian director. She was even nominated for a David di Donatello award for Best Producer in 2009 for her work on Carmine Amoroso's Cover Boy: The Last Revolution. But Bizarre was not her only foray into adult movies, with earlier films such as Pornovideo and The Language of Erika on her filmography even before Bizarre, later making the softcore drama The Belt with American actor James Russo a few years later. Still working today, Gamba would solidify her professional reputation over the following decades in everything from documentaries to family films to romcoms.
In retrospect, Bizarre is, at best, a curious film that appears very early in an equally curious filmography. It is also a powerful reminder that any assumption women make certain "kinds" of films or present things like sex or violence (or indeed, sexual violence) in a way automatically different from men is something that, in practical terms, is sometimes hard to back up. Bizarre is, if nothing else, a film that shows just how tricky it is to use a term like "the female gaze" in any broad, blanket, universalizing manner.