Smug bourgeois intellectual Professor Riccardo Rossi (Donald O'Brien) returns home to find his gorgeous wife, Elisa (Malisa Longo), in bed with another man. As Riccardo reaches for his gun the unseen interloper runs away. So he settles for slapping his unfaithful wife instead. Driving Elisa away from their house, Riccardo has a sudden change of heart. They have car sex until Riccardo changes his mind again, calls Elisa a whore and knocks her out with a sleeping pill. Pausing only to elude a sinister bearded man spying from a car nearby, Riccardo slips Elisa inside a sack and dumps her in the river. Some time later, a tortured Riccardo gets drunk on the street before enjoying himself with happy hooker Eva (Euro-horror star Erika Blanc). Try as he might though, Riccardo can't keep his mind off his dishy young niece, Barbara (Maria D'Incoronato). Strangely, Barbara does not find her uncle a disgusting old pervert but reciprocates his incestuous affection. Pretty soon they are both frolicking about the beach to treacly romantic music. Meanwhile Riccardo's finds his every move dogged by that smirking bearded stranger before Elisa's ghost turns up to torment him further. Is he going crazy?
Italian giallo horror-thrillers basically take two forms: one where your prototypical killer in a black trenchcoat and leather gloves slays various decorative female victims, the other wherein someone tries to drive someone else crazy, more often than not a beautiful woman played by Carroll Baker or Edwige Fenech. Or, in the case of Erotic Games of a Respectable Family, the rather less glamorous Irish actor and Euro trash film staple Donald O'Brien of Zombie Holocaust (1980) fame. On the other hand any Donald O'Brien fans out there might relish this rare chance to see him fairly young if not exactly dashing. Most could do without the sight of him wandering about in nothing but black underpants though.
Scripted by Renato Polselli, the dingbat genius behind Delirium (1972), Reincarnation of Isabel (1973) and other insane exploitation gems this spins yet another trashy variation on Henri-Georges Clouzot's seminal psychological thriller Les Diaboliques (1955) only with more nudity and far less sense. Whatever ambitions, if any, were inherent in Polselli's script are clearly beyond the grasp of director Francesco Degli Espinosa. In the hands of a more capable filmmaker like Sergio Martino this could have been another disorientating 'mind-fuck' along the lines of All the Colours of the Dark (1972), but Espinosa delivers a drab, colourless melodrama bereft of thrills. Perhaps the one scene with a modicum of style is the delirious sex scene that inter-cuts Riccardo and Eva's fevered coupling with crash-zooms on a spinning vinyl record, soaring classical music and hallucinations of a lingerie-clad Barbara watching them go at it while she fondles herself. It is as if Jess Franco took over the camera for this scene though a director has to be pretty bad for Franco to seem like a step up.
Given the film's title as well as early mention of Riccardo's involvement in a committee to penalize couple's seeking divorce, it is possible Polselli was out to satirize bourgeois sexual hypocrisy, but things play out in decidedly maudlin fashion. Characters gripe at or psychoanalyze each other in shrill melodramatic scenes that, much like the threadbare production values, are close to a Latin telenovella padded with sex or eccentric asides. Unexceptional as the film is it is enlivened by an attractive cast of Seventies Euro babes, O'Brien's bug-eyed over-acting and an irresistibly campy lesbian twist. The denouement blatantly steals its big surprise from another Erika Blanc giallo: The Night Eveyln Came Out of the Grave (1971) yet the filmmakers scupper a perfectly ironic ending by staging a ridiculously contrived act of divine retribution, reminiscent of Smile Before Death (1972). Modelling a fabulous array of hot-pants and chic leather boots, giallo favourite Erika Blanc enlivens an otherwise dreary thriller with another vivacious performance despite a character as ill-defined as everyone else. Giallo fans unimpressed with the plot will likely find Malisa Longo and Maria D'Incoronato's school uniform-like mini-dresses more diverting.