This article contains spoilers from the film “Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key.”

I wanted so badly to love “Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key,” and then I wanted to hate it, and then I wanted to love it again. Maybe I’ve just spent too much time watching foreign arthouse movies to feel like I’m connected to a world that doesn’t exist anymore, but at first, I thought there wasn’t really much to say about “Key.” It’s been on my watchlist for years because I love a long Sufjan Stevens-esque, involved title, but the title is probably the most interesting part of the film. 

The film follows Irina (Anita Strindberg, “A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin”) as she struggles to cope with physical and sexual abuse at the hands of her husband. When a series of women are murdered in their Italian neighborhood, Irina and her niece, Floriana (Edwige Fenech, “The Case of the Bloody Iris”), wonder if Irina’s husband, Oliviero (Luigi Pistilli, “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly”) is the culprit. Eventually it is revealed that Irina herself was framing Oliviero for the murders and eventually kills him so that she can escape his violence.

I was watching it, taking notes, thinking, “It’s certainly trying to say something, but it just seems like it’s been said before.” I know about the crazed woman in Mr. Rochester’s attic, I know about the “Bride of Frankenstein” and “Dracula’s Daughter” and “Rosemary’s Baby.” I haven’t read Kier-La Janisse’s “House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films” because it just doesn’t fit into my budget, but I feel like I have because I’ve read “The Yellow Wallpaper.” 

I tried to convince myself that “Key” lacked energy and subtlety. But then I realized that the only aforementioned titles in which a woman does any of the killing herself are “Bride of Frankenstein” and “Dracula’s Daughter” — both lame spinoff movies about some way more interesting guy in the woman’s life. Before “Suspiria,” before Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber,” before “I Spit on Your Grave” and “Carrie” and “Possession” and “Teeth” and “The Witch” and “Gone Girl,” no one had gotten the chance to see a good girl go bad. When “Key” was released, American film was just starting to showcase final girls (a term that wouldn’t be coined until 1992, describing the tooth-and-nail survivors in films like Halloween and Texas Chainsaw Massacre) outliving their predators. Here, director Sergio Martino (“All the Colors of the Dark”) showed how a girl named Irina could conquer them.

I’m not trying to advocate for more girl bosses committing war crimes in the Global South. All I’m trying to say is, good for her. “Key” seems to be the typical film that dances between a feminist examination of domestic abuse and an excuse to exploit female pain, but (spoiler) the woman and her mistress have been pulling the strings the whole time. Long before “Jennifer’s Body,” our villainess gets to kill men and make out with women. But then again it is a sexual relationship that Irina has with Floriana, who also has a sexual relationship with Oliviero, who Floriana is definitely related to by blood. It’s a bit out-of-place and weird, but that’s Italian new-wave for you. As groundbreaking as it is, the film definitely spends a lot of time meandering through random racism and incest and hippies. 

The film plays on the fear of Irina’s abuser, as the viewer thinks he is committing the murders. He spends most of his time on screen sexually assaulting his wife and employees, so it’s really not that hard to believe. There are suggestions that he was in love with his mother and fears impotence, so it really seems like the typical Freudian horror movie with a woman in the leading role. It seems the scariest thing male audiences can think of is being put in the perspective of women who live out horror movies on their walks home alone from work. 

It’s kind of like “Citizen Kane” or “Casablanca”: great cinematography, important in cinematic history, but I don’t know if I’d watch it again. 

Daily Arts Writer Mary Elizabeth Johnson can be reached at

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