Trans Agenda is a monthly column about trans representation in horror where Ten Backe provides analysis on trans characters and how their actions compare to real life using her own experiences.
Ten Backe takes an analytical look at Lamberto Bava's 'A Blade in the Dark' and its trans representation.
In 1983, producer Mino Loy commissioned Lamberto Bava to create a series of connecting horror shorts for television release. Unfortunately, the television censors said it was too gory. Rather than cut the violence out, they re-edited the shorts into a full length film. Lamberto at the time was known mostly as an Assistant Director, working with his father Mario Bava (Blood and Black Lace, Black Sabbath) and his friend Dario Argento (Suspiria, Deep Red, Inferno). You may have heard of them if you’ve ever seen or read about a Giallo film before. So, with the power of nepotism at his side, and the help of his writing team, Elisa Briganti and Dardano Sacchetti, A Blade in the Dark was born.
Spoiler alert, we'll get into a lot of details here, so be ready! On paper, this film is right up my alley. A giallo-slasher film from the director of Demons (1985). It’s meta, it’s funny, the soundtrack is killer (pun intended), and it’s directed surprisingly well, given the television budget. One more thing, did I mention the murderer is a confused trans woman? Yeah, it’s that kind of film. Before we dig too much into trans tropes, let’s talk about the plot.
Bruno (Andrea Occhipinti) is a composer, and the film's main protagonist. He becomes obsessed with solving the mystery of the disappearing women, despite no one else seeming to notice. He is working on a horror score for Sandra (Anny Papa), the director. While recording, he rents a villa from someone named Tony (Michele Soavi), who we later find out is also Linda, the previous renter, a friend of Sandra, and of course, the murderer. There is a red herring in the form of a live-in caretaker of the villa, named Giovanni (Stanko Molnar). The jealous girlfriend Julia (Lara Lamberti), who likes to show up unannounced, gives us some quality jumpscares along with two wonderful neighbors, models, and old friends of Linda, Katia (Valeria Cavalli), and Angela (Fabiola Toledo). Incidentally, most of the characters like to break into the villa, hide in the dark, and spy on each other for no apparent reason. Confused? Good! It is a giallo film after all.
The character we are looking at today is Linda—a complicated character to describe. While a lot of things seem to be revealed about Linda, most of what we learn is too vague to really understand the character. The biggest thing missing, in my opinion, is their motivation behind becoming a murderer. As far as I am concerned, the writer's thought process was “Trans person equal crazy.” Yeah, we get it, you saw Dressed To Kill (1980), and wanted to make your own version. The same thing happened when Dressed To Kill director Brian De Palma saw Psycho (1960). The “great reveal” that one of the presumed male characters, suddenly dressed as a woman, was killing people because of some repressed sexual trauma. By 1984 this had been done dozens of times. For what it’s worth, I enjoy a lot of these films, but that doesn’t take away from the harm they have done to trans people in real life.
The ‘man in the dress’ trope has shown us again and again that cis people imagine trans women as horrible, mentally unstable monsters, who exist only to harm “real” women. I wish I could say this line of thinking ended in the 1980s, but there are still gender critical fascists using this exact imagery to harm and deplatform trans individuals. So, if we overlook the obvious transphobia, what is the reason that Linda murders all of these people? Unfortunately, the film doesn’t provide the answers.
Early on in A Blade in the Dark, Bruno discovers Katia’s diary. There she writes that Linda has a “terrifying and interesting secret that Angela could never understand.” Conveniently, around that same time, Bruno somehow gets his hands on a recording of Linda whispering “The secret no one must know.” These early scenes are seemingly our only context into Linda’s motivation for the murders throughout the film.
With this, we are led to believe that Linda is a cis-passing trans woman who lives life most days as a woman. Linda being trans could really only be a secret, if the people around her didn't know the truth. This matches up with the film's suggestion that Katia and Angela would visit with Linda often and go swimming in the pool without knowing. It also explains why Giovanni doesn’t mention Linda is trans either. What it doesn’t explain, is why this trans woman would murder five people. Assuming that being outed is enough reason for murder (it isn’t), it is worth considering that only Katia knew the truth. Not only that, but she seemed to know for at least a few days and presumably was not planning on telling anyone else. It also doesn’t align with the disheveled version of Linda without their wig that we see at the end of the film.
Eventually, Bruno learns from Sandra that the scenes we see, from the film within the film, are based on a real life event that happened to Linda as a child. Apparently Linda told Sandra that they were trans at some unseen point. In the fake film, several young boys venture into a scary house and throw a ball down some basement stairs. The kids pressure one of them to go down into the dark basement, using the classic sexist phrase “Show us you’re not some little girl.” So of course, one of them goes down, while the other boys are chanting “Female, female, you are a female!” over and over again. You know, something all kids do. This is supposedly traumatic enough to force-femme young Tony into Linda. We are later shown the child putting on a wig, becoming a female, immediately afterward. In fact, Linda’s possible last words were “I’m not a female child.” This ridiculous story is admittedly hard to believe, even using giallo movie logic.
As the film comes to a close, the characters, and the audience, are shocked to discover that Linda is also Tony, wearing a wig and women’s clothes. Afterwards, Bruno gives what seems to be a second, and third, explanation to the murders. This part is the tie-in to the film within the film. After being caught, Bruno claims that Linda is Tony’s “alter ego.” It is here that Bruno has an exposition about the murders to the audience as though he's a mental health specialist, instead of a musician. This is a lot like a certain scene from Dressed To Kill. “His ego as a child was too fragile, which caused his masculinity to regress, but he couldn’t kill his alter ego. So, he projected his anger onto other girls. Wishing to kill the girl in himself. He knifed those girls to show that he wasn’t scared.”
This is all pretty illogical. One explaination suggests that Tony was never fully Linda, only dressed up as Linda, when feeling a lack of masculinity. While the other implies that Linda only killed when reacting to their trigger of women, which is never explained. These rationalizations don’t match up with the idea that Linda regularly lived as a cis-passing trans woman. Nor do they make any sense. It's not my intent to gatekeep trauma, but I feel like the traumatic event at the beginning of the film lacks substance and there are far too many vague explanations given. Which causation for the murders are we meant to accept? Linda doesn’t want anyone to know they are trans, Tony wishes they could kill Linda, or Linda kills to prove they aren't scared?
When it comes down to it, the sad truth is that Linda didn’t have a reason, and not in a scary The Strangers (2008) way. In reality, Linda is nothing more than an excuse to demonize trans women. The filmmakers likely never knew a real trans person. It’s safe to assume they didn’t care about, or consider, the impact and implications of the film. The saddest part about Linda is that they got it backwards. Trans people are the scared ones. Scared to be ourselves. Scared of existing in a world that portrays us as killers, pedophiles and other morally corrupt things. Maybe this film would be more realistic if the people being murdered were also trans? Then again, I already see that happening every day in real life. Aren’t movies supposed to be my escape from reality?
A Blade in the Dark is muddled, confusing, poorly paced and transphobic. At the same time, it’s funny, violent, gorgeous, and somehow makes tennis balls scary. While it gets a lot wrong, it also gets a lot right. It would be easy for me to be critical and tell you not to watch this film. However, sometimes you might want to watch a film where a director gets choked by their own film reel, the score suddenly becomes diegetic, side characters get overly complex backstories, and the murders make no sense. I know that I do.
I wish I could say this film compelled me to take Linda back as an empowering character for the trans community, but I can’t. I just don’t see myself in Linda. I don’t think we were ever meant to understand or empathize with Linda. At the end of the day, I hope that wherever Linda is now, they enjoy watching bad horror films too.
Ten Backe is a Colorado based autistic disabled nonbinary trans woman. She is a writer, editor, musician and producer known for her queer perspective and co-host of the giallo podcast Violence On Velvet.