Written by Stef Matthews
BIG SPOILERS ABOUT THE FILM AHEAD, INCLUDING THE ENDING!
Mario Bava directed what is considered to be the first true giallo film: The Girl Who Knew Too Much. Exploitative and noir-inspired, The Girl Who Knew Too Much, along with Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, laid the groundwork, paved the way, and *insert whatever third cliché you fancy*, for giallo to burst into the Italian mainstream, dragging with it its deadly, black-gloved assailants.
Bava then went on to make Blood and Black Lace, another important film in the catalogues of giallo that compounded on the ideas and themes of The Girl Who Knew Too Much. But his third film, Hatchet for the Honeymoon (or Hatchet for short), was vitally important because Bava decided to eschew one of the most important rules of giallo: the mystery of the killer.
Typically, giallo films wouldn’t resolve this mystery until well into the third act, helping to keep the classic detective/mystery suspense until the final dramatic reveal of the masked killer (the afore mentioned The Girl Who Knew Too Much, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Blood and Black Lace all used this trick to great effect).
But with Hatchet, Bava decided to do something a little different. He’d tell us who the killer was, right at the very start of the picture. In fact, the killer himself would tell us.
Hatchet for the Honeymoon revolves around a serial killer who is going out of his way to murder brides-to-be with a cleaver. The film should really have been called Cleaver for the Engagement if it wanted to be truthful to its story. But then again, truth wouldn’t have sold many cinema tickets. Probably for the best then, that Bava went with Hatchet for the Honeymoon.
John Harrington (Stephen Forsyth) is a handsome, charismatic, blue-eyed charmer who runs a bridal dress factory in France. He also happens to be a murderer, a self-proclaimed mad paranoiac who has “killed five young women” as he coldly tells us while staring at himself in a mirror. Paranoiac is a shiveringly appropriate term for Mr. Harrington.
This admission of guilt by the killer is rare in giallo and is what makes Hatchet stand out immediately. We already know who the killer is, we’ve seen him do it, we’re witness to his rambling and his murdering.
But, in true giallo fashion, Bava then provides us with another, different mystery.
Instead of wondering who is doing the killings – we know it’s John, we’ve seen him do it – we are instead given glimpses of a screaming Woman whenever John murders someone with his non-titular cleaver.
But then we learn quickly that this screaming Woman is John’s deceased Mother, and that John is trying to find out who murdered her. It is this knowledge of who the Woman is that proves to be so powerful. It helps Bava sneakily pivot the mystery once more; instead of wondering who the screaming Woman is, we now want to know who killed her.
Ta-da, we have a mystery killer after all!
Bava weaves in this secondary killer so subtly that we don’t even really realise that the film has slipped back into the classic giallo formula; an unknown killer who is stalking the (anti)hero. Admittedly, stalking is a loose term – it’s more that the unknown killer is stalking John’s memory. But it’s the same principal.
The reason we don’t initially realise that we’re actually watching a prototypical giallo story unfold is that we’ve been told that John is the killer; as mentioned, we’re watching John kill innocent brides-to-be, we think we already know who the killer is, we see through his eyes.
But in fact, the real killer, that is the one stalking John’s memories, is still unknown to us. Until, in true giallo fashion, he is dramatically revealed in the third act to John and the audience.
Admittedly, the reveal is a little unsurprising when it’s all said and done. But the way Bava plays with expectations, leading us down one alternative-giallo path, while simultaneously keeping us on another classic-giallo path, is masterfully done.
Then we come to the filmmaking itself; the music, camera work, lighting, set design. By 1970 Bava had worked in a plethora of film roles on dozens of movies, from giallo and horror to comedies and musicals. This myriad of experience shows.
The Music, scored by Sante Romitelli, is a delightful mix of twinkling pianos that hark back to classic noir films, and an altogether spookier giallo score that keeps up constantly on our toes whenever murder is afoot. (For more about the impact of film noir on giallo, check out A History of Giallo: PT2).
The music ebbs and flows, swapping and changing at a moment’s notice. When the Detective (played wonderfully by Jesús Puente) investigating the bridal murders is chatting with John, the score is a mysterious, almost sultry noir throwback. On the other hand, when John is about to slash a poor bride to death with his cleaver (not hatchet), the music shifts to brutal giallo strings that invoke a real sense of tension, urgency and horror.
Likewise, the cinematography (Bava himself was in charge) is typical of a giallo picture. As with a lot of great giallo, the focus of Hatchet is style rather than substance. The camera and lighting dance throughout, from extreme close ups on John’s blue eyes, to a glistening cleaver (no giggling at the phrase “glistening cleaver”), to furnaces bathing John in gorgeous glowing reds and oranges. Throughout Hatchet, Bava is constantly flexing his compositional and cinematic muscles.
A particularly creepy scene when John and an unknowing victim literally dance among mannequins, all donned in wedding dresses, is appropriately claustrophobic and tense. Bava keeps the camera close with John as we wait for the inevitable glistening cleaver to penetrate through skin (you can giggle at that one).
The cleaver itself does take on an intimate and even phallic nature, as bladed weapons often do in giallo. John treats the weapon as if it were an extension of himself (and his crotch), fondling it, stroking it. Likewise, the people that he kills with this sharp weapon are all young, attractive women. Even the handles on the train carriage in the very opening scene look like miniature knives. Everything in Hatchet has a sharp air about it.
A scene in which John and his estranged wife Mildred (Laura Betti) are reflected in the blade, just as John is about to attack her, is gorgeously shot and truly sinister. It gives the cleaver a sort of sentience of its own, again evoking the sense that the blade is a part of John.
Likewise, the reveal of John dressed in a wedding veil and lipstick as he finally decides to slash his cleaver at Mildred is genuinely freaky, with John’s face contorted into a half-snarl half-smile as he lunges frantically across the bedroom in a kind of quasi-drag that blurs the lines of gender and sex.
There are even a few effective, if a little tame, jump scares peppered in for good measure. One of them simply involves a duffel bag on a flight of stairs, and the crash zoom of a camera lens. It takes a lot of skill to create a scare from a holdall, but Bava manages it.
SPOILERS FOR THE ENDING COMING UP!
Perhaps the most controversial element of Hatchet is the use of the supernatural. Like Sergio Martino did with All the Colours of the Dark, Bava weaves a little of the occult into Hatchet. The supernatural elements aren’t as intense in Hatchet as they were in Martino’s film, but the outcome is just as effective. In 1970, the use of ghostly heebie-jeebies was still atypical for a “classic” giallo, and Bava’s use of it brought some criticism from more traditionalist viewers. But, as with Martino, in the hands of Bava the supernatural works brilliantly.
These elements appear later into the film, after John kills his wife Mildred and begins to be “haunted” by her presence. But the strange thing about this haunting is that John is the only character that can’t see her. In fact, every other character, from bar servers to John’s employees, see Mildred and interact with her, now dressed in all black. Every other character except John.
Bava works this strange haunting into Hatchet wonderfully. He directs the camera away from Mildred whenever John turns to face her, only for the lens to wander back a few moments later, Mildred having now vanished into thin air. It’s a trick that has permeated through horror cinema and is still prevalent today; take any James Wan film and you’re sure to find a spooky ghost that disappears just as the protagonist whips around to try and catch it in the act. In Hatchet, these camera tricks keep us consistently on edge, and there is a particular scene in which Mildred begins to ascend a staircase in all black, the camera low to the ground, that has a real sense of dread and horror.
Moreover, Bava purposefully keeps the audience in the dark as to whether or not Mildred is actually dead, or if John is just losing his grasp on reality. This comes with a few scares and a few laughs. One scene in particular when John asks a server if she wants to sleep with him while his wife watches is brilliantly dark, especially considering by that point he’s cremated Mildred and is carrying her ashes around in a holdall (that same holdall that gave us a jump scare on the staircase).
Then, in a blackly comic final twist, as John is taken away in a Police Van he finally sees Mildred all in black sat with him. She proceeds to tell him that they will be together forever, as John screams for help out the window. Darkly comedic stuff.
This idea of marriage being sacred and everlasting is probably the theme most dominant throughout Hatchet. The final reveal that John killed his Mother is perhaps a little telegraphed, but the fact that he did it because she remarried is the key. It is an obvious parallel to make – the child of a woman who remarried goes on to kill brides to be, and all the while his antagonizing wife mocks him, threatening that she will never leave him and that he will be forever unhappy married to her.
Midway through the picture, John admits to Mildred that he has never been happy since his wedding day, that on his wedding night he wasn’t “brave enough”. Exactly what it was that he wasn’t brave enough for is left for the viewer to suggest, but one can assume that he has been hankering for the feeling of everlasting marriage not since his wedding day, but since he was a young boy.
Its perhaps a cliché theme at this point, the idea of a boy being jealous of his Mother’s lover, wanting to kill her for remarrying, etc. etc. (hell, Oedipus was doing all that way before 1970). But nevertheless, it brings with it some interesting reflection on marriage and love. The scenes in which John tries to be rid of Mildred’s ashes are the most distilled examples of this. He is unable to rid himself from her, even in death, as if they are forever bound by their marriage regardless of happiness. Every time he throws her bag of ashes away, it just reappears once more.
It’s a stark contrast to his Mother who did remarry, who did re-find love, and who died because of it at the hands of her Son.
It’s a theme that resonates even in the modern day. The rate of divorce in the UK in 2017 was 42%, so clearly the idea of marriage being everlasting is no longer as relevant as it was. Maybe Hatchet was making a profound statement on the relationship between Mother and Son. Maybe it was suggesting that marriage is dead and that one can never be truly happy. Or maybe it was just a story about a lunatic killing beautiful women with a cleaver.
What Hatchet for the Honeymoon shows us is a director knowing exactly how his genre works. Bava uses his knowledge of giallo and his experience in the genre to bend and twist the rules, keeping the audience guessing and creating a wonderfully entertaining piece of film.
The most effective use of Bava’s bending of the rules has to be the scene in which John is hiding among his mannequins, the “ghost” of his now deceased wife haunting him.
A staple of giallo is the constant sense of being unsafe – no matter where the hero or heroine is, the killer is always just around the corner; in one’s own house (like in All the Colours of the Dark), or in even in broad daylight in the middle of a busy street (like in The Case of the Bloody Iris), the killer is always lurking, ready to pounce.
In the scene among the mannequins, Bava takes this trope and twists it deliciously by swapping the roles of the killer and the victim – now it is the killer (John) feeling unsafe from the victim (Mildred).
The killer is hiding in his safe space, the room of in which he does his own stabbing. But his (deceased) victim is the one that appears out of nowhere, scaring him and making him frightened, even in the safest place he knows.
This little scene, while on the face of it just another scare, is the key to everything that is great about Hatchet. However clichéd the premise of a bunch of brides being killed off in their wedding dresses by a maniac may be, Bava uses his talent to twist and bend and contort that cliché into something utterly memorable and unique.
It is the product of someone who knows exactly what giallo is as a genre of art.