No butterflies were blood-stained in the making of this movie.
Arrow Video’s Blu-ray release of The Bloodstained Butterfly (Una farfalla con le ali insanguinate), the 1971 sort-of giallo directed by Duccio Tessari, is proof positive that not all Italian horror films were created equal. Though it bears many of the hallmarks of the two subgenres we movie geeks tend to associate with 1970s Italy — the gallo and the police procedural — it belongs fully to neither camp, instead existing as a hybrid between the two that often plays more as a drama than as a straight horror film. At the same time, it is beautifully made and interesting for the way it melds them together and comes up with something altogether different.
The movie tells the story of Alessandro Marchi (Giancarlo Sbragia), a TV sportscaster arrested for the brutal murder of a young woman. Despite a great deal of forensic evidence backing up the arrest, some of the police suspect that they have the wrong man in custody, especially when more bodies begin piling up. Enter Giorgio (Helmut Berger), a pianist dating the daughter of murder suspect Marchi. He’s just one of a half-dozen characters in the film who could either be the murder-solving hero or the killer himself.
The thing about most giallo films is how big they are: the blood flows liberally, the sexuality is intense, the stylization much more dramatic than in other horror movies. They reach a kind of operatic state in their depictions of sex and violence and mystery. Not The Bloodstained Butterfly, though. This is a giallo defined by the way it defies so many of the conventions of the giallo film. It is almost entirely a procedural; the body count is low, the sexuality kept to a minimum (with the exception of one very unusual sex scene, shot not for exploitation or eroticism, but rather to explore a specific character dynamic. There are plenty of red herrings and amateur detectives—both hallmarks of gialli—but Tessari is not dependent on set pieces or the type of tension/relief structure employed by other movies of this sort. It would be unfair to label the movie “classy” (because it implies other gialli are not), but it is certainly more subdued and interested in procedure than in visceral thrills.
Arrow’s release of the movie once again showcases their usual stellar work. The Bloodstained Butterfly has been remastered in glorious 4K; while shot in a mostly muted color palette that can seem a bit drab, the 1080p HD transfer brings it to life in impressive detail. The occasional soft-focus shot is in keeping with the style of the time, and other than that there is hardly any sign of age or damage to date the movie. Two lossless audio options are offered, the first in its original Italian and the second an English dub. There’s an optional introduction from star Helmut Berger, which is eccentric and weird and offers very little actual context or information (and is apparently the subject of a fascinating and controversial documentary that just had its American premiere and is set to come out sometime next year). Berger also appears as part of a longer interview recorded in 2016, as do actress Ida Galli and Lorella De Luca, wife of director Tessari. Historians Kim Newman and Alan Jones have a great commentary in which they discuss the way that Butterfly is different than other gialli, while Troy Howarth’s video essay “Murder in B-Flat Minor” puts the movie in context of the other great giallo films of the early ’70s (pointing out that it doesn’t quite meet many of the requirements) and explores the career of Duccio Tessari. Finally, there is a gallery of promotional artwork and production stills, plus the original Italian and English trailers for the movie.
Those looking for the kind of lurid, blood-drenched delirium of many ‘70s giallo are likely to feel let down by The Bloodstained Butterfly, but those willing to take a chance on a more mystery-minded effort that is subdued and patient (while still being unpredictable) may find a film that fits with a familiar framework while still managing to distinguish itself. Arrow continues to introduce me to these lesser-known Italian horror classics with first-rate technical specs and bonus features.