John Harrington is a seemingly unassuming man, running a bridal dress company, and trying to get out of his loveless marriage without success. Under all this, he hides a terrible secret. John is responsible for a series of savage murders committed against newlywed brides, for reasons known only to himself. With each new murder he sees more of a repressed memory, and he won't stop killing until it is complete. Things are complicated when he finally snaps and murders his wife...yet she doesn't go away. Everyone else can still see her, and nothing John can do now can stop this haunting...
Hatchet for the Honeymoon is an Italian horror from the acclaimed Mario Bava. The film presents a unique spin on classic material, and is surprisingly ahead of its time with the charming killer as narrator. After a brutal murder, the movie's opening lines set the mood instantly, with the darkly funny introduction: "The fact is, I am completely mad, the realisation of which annoyed me at first, but is now amusing to me.".
The film has a quick pace, and . The horror comes through from our 'protagonist's' vicious murders, until the halfway mark when the movie takes on a possibly supernatural flavour with the ghostly wife. There's a nice level of ambiguity here. Is a ghost really haunting John, or has he finally lost it? It's satisfying seeing him become the victim, growing increasingly paranoid as the police close in.
Hatchet is a great portrait into a madman's psyche. The film's Italian title, translating to The Red Sign of Madness, gives a window to the killer's motivations. With each flash of red from his latest victim, a new piece of the puzzle comes to him. Something I really like about the film is how it shows a killer who is aware of insanity, and treats it all very flippantly. As if knowing about his insanity means he can control it. But when strange things begin to happen, supernatural or imagined, we see how little control such people truly have over their minds.
John's narration is present in much of the early film, giving us a peek into his everyday thoughts, as well as his greater motivations. As it progresses, the narration becomes more and more infrequent. This is good, as the set-up is all done, and it's more intense seeing John's mental decline as is, without him droning on every 5 minutes to say things like "I think I'm going mad", or "Other people can see my wife!". As always, less is more.
The central mystery of the film is what happened in John's childhood to make him like this? What's happening in the flashback he keeps having? The answer turns out to be a bit stupid, and one of the few issues I have with the movie. When he finally sees the end of the flashback, which he has murdered so many people to see, the shocking discovery is...in the past he murdered someone. Ummmm, ok? How is this a surprise to him! It feels like there's a missing step somewhere. Overall though, the movie is easily good enough for this to be overlooked with a shrug.
With John getting the majority of the screentime to himself, the supporting cast is quite small, but strong. The biggest is his wife Mildred. Domineering, bitter, and determined to make her husband as miserable as she can. She's still deeply in love with her first husband, and knows how inadequate it makes John feel to hear this. One would think she'd want out of such a loveless marriage, but she likes having control over him. But while she knows John is a trophy husband, she does still harbour genuine feelings when he pretends to come around later on. As for why serial killer John hasn't offed her sooner, maybe his compulsion is only to kill brides, so he'd be like "Damn, I should've killed her on our honeymoon!".
On John 's tail is the dogged Inspector Russell, who suspects something's up, and is treading carefully in order to catch his target slipping up, as he's sure will happen sooner or later. Friendly model Helen is drawn to John, but may have an ulterior motive. She's pretty open about this with John, playing it like a joke to make him less suspicious.
There was apparently some behind-the-scenes drama when actress Dagmar Lassander's role was reduced to accommodate Laura Betti's late casting. If true, I suppose this decision must have been taken during the writing process, because to look at it now, you'd think the wife was always meant to be there. She's such a major part of the story and character drama. Helen on the other hand could easily be cut out and doesn't contribute as much as she could've.
The direction and cinematography by Mario Bava is fantastic, with creative ways of shooting some scenes, and a few POV shots to put us in John's crazy mind. We also get another Bava easter egg when Black Sabbath pops up on the tv
Hatchet for the Honeymoon was a very low budget production, to the point where even finishing it was a difficulty. You'd never know this to look at it, because it looks great! A mix of good locations, and creative angles makes the most of each area.
There's a bit of violence on display here, and it's well designed. Hatchet isn't in your face with gore. Not that I mind gore, but it might not have fit in a movie like this. It could distract from the psychological aspect.
Stephen Forsyth gets across a range of emotions. Calm and collected, suave, unhinged, and hysterical. Laura Betti plays the role of a mature aristocratic lady well, delightfully bitchy. Dagmar Lassander has a small but good performance. Then there's a long line of gorgeous models, who also provide a sense of dreamlike beauty to the film.
The soundtrack in Hatchet for the Honeymoon is a real treat! It's an interesting mix of gentle summer tunes, then we've got more experimental tracks. Having an electric guitar sound, akin to the The Prisoner, they give a real edge to the darker scenes. The disparate styles never clash, and complement each-other quite well.