Modern weddings often bring out the worst in people. The attempt to meet family and social expectations while exchanging vows that occasionally read like a prison sentence can be a dangerous cocktail made worse by a deep focus on money matters. Instead of enjoying their “special day” couples and their accommodating families often end up obsessing over the high cost of gourmet cakes and designer dresses. And as the manufactured pressure mounts, the passion and purpose that brought two people together can get lost in the frantic shuffle down the aisle. Thankfully matrimony rarely leads to madness and murder unless your name happens to be John Harrington and you run one of the most fashionable bridal salons in Paris.

Harrington is the main protagonist in Mario Bava’s incredibly stylish thriller HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON aka IL ROSSO SEGNO DELLA FOLLIA (1970). The grisly title tends to conjure up all kinds of terrible images in the mind’s eye but the film, which details Harrington’s murderous exploits, is surprisingly free of gore. Corpses do pile up but they’re drenched in more bridal lace than blood. The film’s dreamlike atmosphere and Hitchcockian plot twists leave a lot to the imagination and viewers with an appreciation of Italian horror aesthetics will appreciate Bava’s bold color palette, inventive directing choices, and willingness to scrutinize the myth of marital bliss as well as the fickle world of fashion with a critical eye.

The script by Bava (BLACK SUNDAY; 1960, THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH; 1963, THE WHIP AND THE BODY; 1963, BLOOD AND BLACK LACE; 1964, etc.) and co-writer Santiago Moncada (ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK; 1972, BELL FROM HELL; 1973, SHOOT FIRST… ASK QUESTIONS LATER; 1975, etc.) begins with the brutal murder of a honeymooning couple on a moving train. The killer is an attractive man (Stephen Forsyth) with an Oedipus complex and a penchant for bridal gowns who’s prone to perplexing flashbacks involving his mother. In the film’s first six minutes he boldly confesses to the audience, “My name is John Harrington. I’m 30 years old. I am a paranoiac. ‘Paranoiac’–An enchanting word! So civilized, full of possibilities! The truth is, I am completely mad. The realization of which annoyed me at first, but is now amusing to me. Quite amusing. Nobody suspects that I am a madman. A dangerous murderer. Not Mildred, my wife. Nor the employees of my fashion center. Nor of course my customers.”

There’s no attempt made to hide his identity or the crimes he commits from the audience and our leading man welcomes us into his sordid world with open arms. What is surprising is how attractive Harrington and his rich surroundings are. He might be barking mad but his lush European country estate and high-end bridal salon identified as The House of Harrington, indicate that he’s a man of means and good taste. Unfortunately, his family business is deeply indebted to his wealthy wife Mildred (Laura Betti), a shrewish woman preoccupied with spiritualism who constantly nags him about money matters. When she refuses to give him a divorce, Harrington decides to get rid of Mildred in the same manner that he’s been disposing of the young brides who dare to dwell in The House of Harrington but that won’t be easy. The police are hot on John’s trail and his murdered wife has no intention of quietly disappearing. After viciously killing Mildred, John is haunted by her disapproving ghost, which only fuels his sadistic desires.

Sharp-eyed viewers will spot an abundance of references to other classic films in HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON. Some noticeable examples include David Lean’s BLITHE SPIRIT (1945), Louis Bunuel’s THE CRIMINAL LIFE OF ARCHIBALDO DE LA CRUZ (1955), Alfred Hitchcock’s SHADOW OF A DOUBT (1943) and PSYCHO (1960), Edgar G. Ulmer’s BLUEBEARD (1944), William Wyler’s THE COLLECTOR (1965) and Richard Thorpe’s NIGHT MUST FALL (1937) as well as Karel Reisz’ 1964 remake of NIGHT MUST FALL starring Albert Finney. But as Tim Lucas mindfully points out in his exhaustive Bava biography All the Colors of the Dark, which was recently made available as an e-book, HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON was one of the director’s most personal films. It contains several ambiguous references to Bava’s own childhood as well as his previous films (particularly BLACK SABBATH and BLOOD AND BLACK LACE) and troubled marriage while acting as a spectacular showcase for his painterly compositions and wicked sense of humor.

What sets HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON apart from many other pretty-boy “psycho-thrillers” (a term I’m borrowing from film journalist Kim Newman) that were prevalent in the late sixties and early seventies is its international setting and baroque set pieces. Bava’s film was shot in France, Italy and Spain and used the elegant villa of the infamous Generalissimo Francisco Franco as one of its backdrops. The House of Harrington contains an extravagant bridal salon adorned with mannequins that model beautiful high-end wedding gowns and these lifeless figures resemble the corpses of dead brides. And it is in this enclosed and highly stylized setting that the killer feels most at home as does Bava’s camera which lovingly lingers over every macabre detail allowing us an intimate look into the murderer’s mind.

As I mentioned earlier, John Harrington is plagued by a kaleidoscopic of ‘visions’ that continually distort his twisted reality and Bava illustrates this with an abundance of cheap but incredibly effective visual tricks involving mirrors, warped glass, fog machines, crystals and misshapen lenses. This low-budget genre movie was shot in just 6-8 short weeks between Sept. and Oct. of 1968 but thanks to Bava’s limitless creativity it’s a much richer and absorbing film than you might expect. HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON also benefits from a terrifically moody and at times, very groovy score by composer Sante Maria Romitelli that propels the action and shapes the fractured narrative with psychedelic audio cues and florid rhythms.

Besides the two dynamic performances by the film’s leads, other cast members include genre favorite Dagmar Lassander (THE FRIGHTENED WOMAN; 1969, FORBIDDEN PHOTOS OF A LADY ABOVE SUSPICION; 1970, WEREWOLF WOMAN; 1976, THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY; 1981, etc.) and the lovely Femi Benussi (BLOODY PIT OF HORROR; 1965, THE BIGGEST BUNDLE OF THEM ALL; 1968, STRIP NUDE FOR YOUR KILLER; 1975, THE KILLER MUST KILL AGAIN; 1975, etc.). And if you don’t blink you can catch a glimpse of one of my favorite Italian character actors, Luciano Pigozzi aka “The Italian Peter Lorre.” Pigozzi has appeared in over 100 films including Mario Bava’s THE WHIP AND THE BODYBLOOD A BLACK LACE and BARON BLOOD.

HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON is currently available to stream for free on Kanopy for US residents with a library card and you can also find it on Amazon.

by Kimberly Lindbergs, originally published at TCM.com on April 15, 2014