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Arguably the most significant name in Italian horror cinema, director Mario Bava had a career full of ups and downs following his remarkable 1960 debut film, Black Sunday. By the late 1960s, the public demand for gothic horror had dried up and left him delving deeper into his bag of cinematic tricks for other genres like a comic book adaptation (1968's Danger: Diabolik) and a troubled spy comedy (1966's Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs). Nevertheless, he soldiered on and delivered one of his most personal studies in the macabre, Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1970), a Spanish production shot at the decade's end but unseen in most countries until at least a year or two later (and even then mostly on television).
The loosening censorship restrictions in Europe and America were already leading to far more extravagant depictions of sex and violence on the screen by this point, but with Spain still under the reign of the Franco regime, Hatchet for the Honeymoon was considerably less explicit than Bava's previous trend-setting giallo (or Italian thriller), Blood and Black Lace (1964). In fact, it even earned a "GP" rating in the U.S. (a precursor to "PG") and is one of the rare Bava films to remain uncut on home video since the VHS era. Interestingly, Bava shot this almost back to back with another giallo, Five Dolls for an August Moon (1970), which was similarly bereft of spattering blood or blatant nudity. In both cases Bava used his own ingenuity to compensate by coming up with audacious visual flourishes and striking color designs, often ignoring the plots entirely to instead turn the films into pure feasts of production design and feverish music. With his palette cleansed, Bava swung drastically in the other direction with his next feature, the outrageous proto-slasher masterpiece A Bay of Blood (1971)... but that's another story entirely.
Now, back to Hatchet for the Honeymoon. What we have here is a first-person account of a cool and collected serial killer, John Harrington (Canadian actor Stephen Forsyth), who narrates his thought processes several decades before Dexter. He's stuck in a loveless marriage with a domineering, possessive wife (Laura Betti) and has used her money to run a successful fashion business catering to young brides. However, John is also plagued by a childhood trauma he can only recall in tiny fragments, and each time he kills one of his female clients after she ties the knot, he remembers a bit more of the puzzle. Then the film takes an unexpected supernatural turn, and the police start to close in as well by sending in a mole of their own to catch John in the act with a cleaver in his hand.
Even film fans who dislike horror films can find something to appreciate in this film courtesy of Laura Betti, one of Italy's finest actresses and a frequent collaborator with directors like Pier Paolo Pasolini and Bernardo Bertolucci. She got on extremely well with Bava and reunited with him again on A Bay of Blood; her wry sense of humor and striking countenance are especially powerful here when her character takes a dramatic turn in the third act, which will remain unspoiled here for the uninitiated. As Bava biographer Tim Lucas notes in his extensive book All the Colors of the Dark, Betti didn't get along well with one of her co-stars on the film, the glamorous Dagmar Lassander, who had been promised the most significant female role in the film. It's easy to see how the acrimonious relationship came about upon seeing the final product, as the damsel in distress role is largely relegated to the background with Betti's unusual role ultimately consuming the story entirely. Nevertheless, Lassander would find plenty of other plum roles in her future as a recurring fixture in thrillers and art films well into the 1980s.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the film (besides its baroque, colorful appearance) is the devilishly catchy music score by Sante Maria Romitelli, who manages to incorporate such elements as a delicate music box melody for John's haunted past, a rapturous romantic theme over the creative main titles (often imitated in European trailers for years to come), and even a slice of groovy party music unforgettably named "Hatchet Shake" on the soundtrack album.
Despite its dismal initial fate on the theatrical circuit, Hatchet for the Honeymoon benefited from the fact that it was never picked up by a major distributor as it quickly fell into the public domain, meaning any label with access to a video master could release their own version. It eventually became one of Bava's most widely seen titles on both VHS and DVD, and while most of the presentations were sorely lacking, it helped the film's reputation steadily improve among fans of European horror who found it an inviting gateway into Bava's multi-colored universe of fantasy and terror. While no one has ever mounted a claim that this is the director's most accomplished work, it is easily among his most rewatchable, serving as a kind of ripe, flavorful comfort food for the discerning horror gourmet.
By Nathaniel Thompson