While a young woman grooves to sounds from a jukebox, Herbert Lyutak (Hargitay) leans against the bar captivated by her movements. She goes to make a phone call and Herbert overhears that the girl has been invited to join her friends at a nightclub which she is not familiar with. Claiming that he knows the location, Herbert offers to take her there and the girl graciously accepts. While en route, however, Herbert takes a detour down a back road and, driven into an uncontrollable frenzy by the sight of her legs, he attempts to molest her. The car stops, the young woman jumps out and runs away. Herbert gives chase and eventually catches up with her at a stream where he attempts to drown the girl while savagely stripping her naked. Having failed to drown his victim, Herbert picks up a tree branch and brutally beats the girl to death.
“It’s the seventh murder of the year. Always the same technique”, laments Detective Edwards (Raoul) as he examines the forensic photographs. “We just can’t figure it out. It’s another one of these damn cases”. The only lead they have is a witness who saw the girl leave the bar with Herbert the night she disappeared. But the police don not consider Herbert a suspect since he is a criminal psychologist aiding them in their pursuit of the killer! Impotency has triggered these violent urges in him, while leaving his carnally-frustrated wife Marzia (Calderoni), who is still a virgin, drowning in erotic nightmares of torture and lesbian orgies. Herbert, ashamed of his lack of manhood and the violent urges he can give way to, suggests that they separate but Marzia refuses as she is still deeply in love with her husband.
After a failed attempt at lovemaking which leaves Marzia scarred and bloodied, Herbert cannot cope with his sadism any longer and devises a plan to turn himself over to the authorities. Fearing that he will later retract any confession he makes out of fear and shame, Herbert believes his only option is to be caught in the act. To do so he informs Detective Edwards that he has been conducting his own “meteoropsychic investigation” of the murders and believes he can pinpoint the exact time and place of the next crime. To lure out the killer the police set up a female target that Herbert approaches. “It’s a pity that the police had to choose you” he tells her, “You are so young”. Herbert gently begins to stroke her neck but before his grip tightens but before he can act there is a scream in the distance. They go to see who it is and find the murdered body of a prostitute. It seems that another killer at large...
When DELIRIUM was prepared for various world territories there were many alterations made to suit different markets. The English-language version created for the United States supplemented a framing device which reworks the story to suggest that the events are in fact fantasy. In this footage the protagonist Herbert is an American soldier injured during the Vietnam conflict and while being treated by army medics he hallucinates the entire tale in his delirious mind. While this device gave a contemporarily topical ingredient to the drama, one wonders if these scenes were also added in an attempt to justify the outlandish nature of DELIRIUM. The film’s unusual structure forgoes a traditional narrative and opts instead for a series of events connected with a stream of consciousness reasoning which is hard to fathom when based on anything approaching reality.
With the possible exception of the identity of the second killer which may be rather obvious, the dream-like logic of DELIRIUM leaves the viewer constantly speculating which direction the narrative is going. It constantly shifts gears; characters and their motivations are introduced and revealed in the most peculiar and sometimes abruptly unexpected fashion, almost giving the impression that the entire enterprise was being improvised as it progressed. The authorities seem to employ the most implausibly risky and irrational methods in their attempts to catch the killer and always seem to be one step behind everyone else. A dungeon, filled with medieval torture implements, is discovered in the cellar of the Lyutak household which no one seems to find unusual. The story ultimately climaxes in a feverishly melodramatic fusion of insanity, jealously, lust and murder which would not seem out of place in an early Pedro Almodóvar picture. While this approach can in turn be bewildering, confusing and frustrating, it can also be rewarding to the more adventurous and open-minded viewer.
Due to its sexually violent imagery DELIRIUM has been compared to the most notoriously extreme giallo thrillers such as GIALLO A VENEZIA (1979) and THE NEW YORK RIPPER (1982). When isolating the film’s most brutal moments these comparisons are inevitable but seen in the context of the whole film they acquire a different dimension. Polselli’s style of filmmaking is similar to that of Polish director Andrzej Zulawski in that everything is intensified to a theatrically overstated level of heightened emotion. The performances in particular are exercises in exaggerated dramatics, alternating between uptight intensity and maniacal overacting which is impossible to accept in any naturalistic context. This over the top approach distances DELIRIUM from the films mentioned as it is removed from a conventionally presented reality.
Polselli’s addition to the giallo genre contains many of the themes and elements often found within these films, such as an ineffective police force and the leather-gloved killer, but he reorganises many of them to an into an anarchistic take on the genre that deliberately confounds audience expectations. For example, a popular figure of a giallo thriller is the amateur sleuth who, either to clear his own name or because his/her own life is in danger, decides to begin their own investigation when the authorities prove unsuccessful in their pursuit of the killer. As the plot advances there is such a character in DELIRIUM, but it is not the protagonist. Instead the protagonist is the killer and the sleuth figure a supporting character gathering evidence against him.
There are many overlapping themes and perspectives in DELIRIUM but Polselli’s overriding intention seems to be the creation of a disorientating relationship drama. Herbert cannot cope with his impotency and this frustration manifests itself in violence. This reality contradicts his public image and rather than seek help he believes he can control these impulses through intellectual control based on his education in psychology. Once aroused, however, he reverts to his primal urges. Meanwhile Marzia’s grasp on her own sanity slowly slips away due to her repressed homosexuality while she remains determined to hold her marriage together in order to maintain a sense of normality no matter how corrupt and deceitful it may be. Ashamed of these desires both Herbert and Marzia repress their feelings rather than confront them and it is this internal tension that detonates the external violence throughout the narrative.
As I already stated, DELIRIUM exists in a number of versions around the world, each one highlighting or removing specific elements to agree with the intended audience and in doing so Polselli’s intentions are diluted. While in any form the film is an exploitation picture, the original Italian cut is more thoughtful, better realised and more sympathetic to the characters. The American version in contrast is cut tighter for pacing and plays up the violence which includes two additional murders. In both versions of DELIRIUM Herbert lures a teenage girl to a secluded area and, knowing what he is capable of, he begs her to “Go far away!” In the Italian cut the girl flees and is spared Herbert’s sadism but in the American edition Herbert goes after and strangles her. The second additional murder is also by Herbert of his young niece (a character not even in the Italian version). In removing these scenes from the Italian version, Polselli allows a degree of sympathy for Herbert’s situation- by letting the first girl live Herbert himself is seen as a victim of his desires.
Since many of his films combine violence with sex, Polselli has had many battles over censorship throughout his career. “Censors never speak for themselves”, he complains. “They don’t say ‘I am scandalized to see this kind of thing’. No! They say, ‘According to the public’s sense of decency…’ What does that mean? Only they know”. One can perceive the Herbert character as Polselli’s absurdist and humorous critique on this view of censorship. As a criminal psychologist working for the police, Herbert is constantly exposed to violently sexual imagery that is withheld from the public. These impressions arouse him but rather than confront the problem he strives to rationalise and therefore repress his sadistic impulses through his intellect and education. This ultimately erupts in murder. If censors believe exposure to violent films causes violence, how does their own theory apply to them?
female:6 / male:2
1) Female beaten to death
2) Female strangled
3) Female stabbed
4) Female beaten and drowned
5) Male strangled
6) Female strangled
7) Female stabbed
8) Male beaten and dies of injuries
(This applies to the Italian version of DELIRIUM)