History of Italian Horror, part I


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The young milkmaid leaves the crowded, noisy tavern in the middle of the night. Only one path in the small village leads to the old drafty barn. As she "Black Sunday" posterexits the tavern, the dark, tree-lined forest looms in front of her. She has no choice. She must walk forward. She continues to walk and the trees seem to take on a macabre life of their own. The girl’s pale skin stands in stark contrast to the pitch black of the night that wraps around her like a blanket, threatening to suffocate her. She begins to shake as the wind picks up and seems to whisper all manner of threats while whistling through the trees…The film is Mario Bava’s Mask of Satan (AKA Black Sunday). Very few films have conveyed a sense of dread more effectively. Here are some other examples: The opening credits of Pupi Avati’s House with the Windows that Laughed feature a yellow-tinted male torso spinning in space. Periodically, a hand brandishing a knife plunges into the man’s chest. The gentle tinkling of a piano is broken by the sound of his screams and a menacing voice; "The colors," the voice repeats. "The colors". In Dario Argento’s Inferno, a young woman walks down the hallway of an ominous looking library. The silence is broken only by the sound of her footfalls as she passes several people seated in desks, staring at the books in front of them. Suddenly, she passes another woman who stares directly at us, the unsuspecting viewers. "I’ve got you right where I want you," her eyes are saying. There’s nothing quite like an Italian horror film. As a genre, they constitute the missing link of the cinema world; straddling the fence between cerebral art films and base exploitation. Although they have never been accepted by many of the so-called "cinema scholars" (many of whom limit their studies to Hollywood films released between 1939 and 1979 and a smattering of foreign films that developed good critical reputations in America), Italian horror films have found a comfortable niche among aficionados of the unusual and people looking for movies with a little more "oomph", as it were. Still, most of them remain unavailable except through mail-order. The few that manage to slip through the Blockbuster Video net are seldom complete, having been shorn of violence, sex or important visual composition that can only be seen in letterboxed prints. Nevertheless, these cinematic gems came to the attention of movie buffs from their exposure in drive-in theaters and the early days of videotape, prompting the more adventurous cinema scholars to track down complete prints, decipher anglo-psuedonyms and start yelling at anyone who would listen that Mario Bava, Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci are the unsung heroes of the fantastic cinema. This enthusiasm soon brought about the rise of many mail-order companies specializing in overseas horror. Happily, most of these films are no longer as hard to locate. Part one of this article will deal with the early days of Italian Horror and the gothic, haunted fairy tales of Maro Bava, Riccardo Freda and Antonio Margheriti. Part two (The Silver and Yellow) will examine the giallo film and the rise and influence of Dario Argento. Part three (Deep Reds) will discuss Italian horror in the last twenty years and how the influence of American films like Dawn of the Dead and The Exorcist have brought about some of the best ,and worst, examples of the genre.

I Vampiri AKA The Devil’s Commandment (1956): The Italian Horror film was "invented," in 1956, by film-maker and sculptor Riccardo Freda. The Paris-set "The Devil's Commandment" stillilm told the story of a reporter investigating a series of mysterious deaths in which all of the victims have the blood drained from their bodies. The investigation leads to the culprit; a mad doctor collecting the blood of young women in order to maintain the youth of his beloved Duchess. The production was plagued with problems, prompting director Freda to abandon it on the tenth day of shooting. Cameraman Mario Bava took over for the final two days. The film was unlike anything that had been seen in Italy and despite the baroque visuals and atmospheric photography, the film died at the box office. It faired even worse in America where it was subjected to several cuts and new scenes featuring a hilariously lascivious Al "Grandpa Munster" Lewis. Still, there is much here for the Italian Horror fan to appreciate. The influence of Bava and Freda is evident throughout and even if the Italian horror "look" is better defined in their later films, this is where it all began.

The Mask of Satan AKA Black Sunday (1960): It was four years before an Italian filmmaker attempted a horror film again. Following Renato Polselli’s indifferently received The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960), cameraman Mario Barbara Steele in "Black Sunday"Bava struck out on his own as director for the first time and created a horror masterpiece that gave life to an entire genre. The Mask of Satan is a bonafide masterpiece of horror cinema. The story (loosely based on Gogol’s "The Viy") tells the story of a witch, resurrected two hundred years after her execution, taking her revenge on the descendants of the family that killed her. The story is almost secondary, however, to Bava’s extraordinary visuals which seem to leap off the screen. Every frame of the film could be blown up and hung on the wall, so intricate is Bava’s composition. The stark contrast between light and shadow creates an atmosphere of dread surpassing even the gothic look of the early Universal horror films. Bava creates a lush, haunted fairy-tale filled with witches, ghosts, secret passageways, howling dogs, evil coach-drivers and tree branches that threaten to attack anyone who passes by them. For any horror film fans who think they’ve seen it all, The Mask of Satan is an eye-opening experience. The film was a success in Italy and launched Bava’s film directing career. It also fared well in the states under the title Black Sunday where it was subject to cutting and rescoring. Despite this tampering, however, the film lost little of it’s impact and is fondly remembered by American fans lucky enough to see it on it’s initial release. A great deal of the film’s success is due to the presence of it’s star, Barbara Steele. Mask marked the beginning of Steele’s career and she went on to star in nine Italian horror films; every one elevated by her appearance. Her dark features and icy sensuality made her a natural for the horror film and many of the films in which she appears owe a great deal of their success to her. Her other Italian horror films are: The Horrible Dr. Hichcock, (1962) The Ghost (1963), Long Hair of Death (1964), Castle of Blood (1964), Nightmare Castle (1965) and She-Beast (1965) Terror Creatures from the Grave (1966), An Angel for Satan (1966),.

The Terror of Dr. Hichcock AKA The Horrible Dr. Hichcock (1962): Not one to be outdone by his former colleague, Riccardo Freda hid behind the Anglo-pseudonym Robert Hampton and went on to create his own horror masterpiece. Whereas Bava had concentrated on folklore witches and howling ghosts, Freda focused his films on man’s inner demons. Utilizing "The Horrible Doctor Hichcock" postercolor photography and an unusually sparse number of actors, Freda and screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi weaved the tale of Dr. Hichcock and his two unfortunate wives. Unable to make love in a more (ahem) conventional manner, the good doctor begins injecting his all too-willing wife with a sedative in order to bed her. After discovering an anesthetic that slows the heartbeat to almost nothing, his dark, sexual desires get the better of him and he substitutes the new formula for the old. His plan backfires, however, and his wife really dies; or so we think. The rest of film deals with Dr. Hichcock’s second wife (Barbara Steele in one of her best performances) and her gradual discovery of his horrifying obsession. Mixing elements of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca with Walt Disney’s Snow White, Hichcock may deal with a tasteless subject matter but its execution (unlike Joe D’Amato;’ Buried Alive two decades later) is anything but. This is a classy horror film that is genuinely chilling and brimming with atmosphere. Not content to simply tell his story through creative visuals, Freda allows his actors to act. Pay close attention to actor Robert Flemyng in the scene where he is driven to visit the body of a young, dead female only to be interrupted by one of his colleagues. Also of note, is the scene in which Steele slowly discovers that she has been locked inside a casket. Seldom are the actors in Italian horror allowed to perform so passionately and their characterizations add an indispensable dimension to the final product. Screenwriter Gastaldi also had a long career in the genre, having contributed his first horror screenplay to the forgotten Vampire and the Ballerina. He went on to script Mario Bava’s What!, AKA The Whip and the Body (1963) and Paolo Heusch’s Lycanthropus, AKA Werewolf in a Girl’s Dormitory (1962). Freda went on to make a sequel entitled Ghost (1963). Rather than picking up his story where it left off, Ghost seems to give us an alternate reality in which Dr. Hichcock is the victim and his wife, the conniving villain. Parallels are drawn between the syringes in the previous film and the injections Dr. Hichcock must receive in the sequel in order to keep him alive; injections that his wife and lover are using to slowly poison him. The story progresses in this manner until the surprisingly violent conclusion when the evil from the first film manifests itself in all its glory.

Castle of Blood (1964): Although less revered than Freda and Bava, director Antonio Margheriti contributed a handful of outstanding films to the genre. Castle of Blood is his first, and arguably best, horror film. George Riviere plays a young writer named Foster who tracks down Edgar Allen Poe in a tavern. After making a wager with Poe’s friends that he can spend the night in a local haunted castle, Foster sets off into the night, eager to prove the non-existence"Castle Of Blood" poster of ghosts and collect his reward. Once he arrives at the castle, however, he is treated to haunting visions of the Blackwood family; a family torn apart by lusts that eventually led to their brutal murders. Along the way, he is romanced and falls in love with the ghost of the beautiful Elizabeth Blackwood, played (surprise!) by Barbara Steele. As the evening wears on, the house begins teeming with life and Foster begins to realize that the Blackwood family seems to have a sinister plan in store for him. His only salvation may be Elizabeth, who appears to have fallen in love with him as well. Margheriti utilizes black and white photography and the claustrophobic confines of the castle to great advantage. Though the film’s pace may lag a bit during it’s final third, the climax is appropriately chilling and the final moments, unpredictably shocking. Margheriti also distinguishes himself from his peers by giving his film a more savage, adult edge than most filmgoers were used to seeing at the time. There are explicit references to lesbianism (made less explicit in the censored American version) and a scene involving the decapitation of a live snake that looks distressingly real, anticipating the animal slaughter footage utilized years later in Ruggero Deodato’s cannibal films (see part three). Margheriti went on to make several more films in the gothic horror tradition. The Virgin of Nueremburg (1964) and The Long Hair of Death (1964) are outstanding additions to the genre. His remake of Castle of Blood in 1971 entitled Web of the Spider was a disappointment, however. Though the film boasted a more explicit tone and a compelling performance from Klaus Kinski as Edgar Allen Poe, the remake failed to capture the excitement of the original.

Kill, Baby, Kill (1966): Following the release of Mask of Satan, Mario Bava continued to grow as a filmmaker and artist. Many film journalists have maintained that Bava never made another film as good as Mask of Satan; a charge often leveled at Orson Welles and his first film, Citizen Kane. As with Welles, however, this point of view is an irresponsible one as it discourages an examination of Bava's later work, which not only expanded and influenced the horror genre, but the crime, science-fiction and western genres as well. After Mask of Satan, Bava continued to explore horror and the nature of sadism. Far from being mere exploitation, Bava's work began to contain mature psychological underpinnings occasionally mixed with the supernatural. His second film, The Evil Eye (1961), invented the giallo film-genre; a genre brought even more spectacularly to life with his delirious, influential 1964 film Blood and Black Lace (1964) More on these films in part two of this series). Following his anthology film Black Sabbath (1963) and the sadistic ghost story What! AKA The Whip and the Body (1963) Bava created, arguably, the high water mark of genre's golden-age; Kill, Baby, Kill (1968). In the small village of Villa Grapps, a young doctor (Giacommi Rossi-Stuart) and is summoned to investigate a series of brutal murders in which a golden coin is found embedded in the hearts of the victims. His investigation leads him to the ghost of a young girl, killed in a carriage accident years ago during a village festival, who has come back to take revenge on the townspeople who refused to rescue her. Fabienne Dali stars as the woman who implants the coins in the ghost's victims in order to save their souls from being damned. Erika Blanc plays Monica, Rossi-Stuart’s assistant. Kill, Baby, Kill is a veritable catalogue of haunting images. The little, blonde-haired girl with the plain white dress and the bouncing ball is a chilling sight, later used by Frederico Fellini in his "Toby Dammit" segment of the anthology film Spirits of the Dead (1967). The delirious conclusion of the film, in which the protagonist chases a mysterious figure through a series of identical rooms only to discover that he is pursuing himself, was to prove an influence in David Lynch's final episode of Twin Peaks. In addition to the stunning visuals steeped in rich, oppressive earth tones, the film conveys a palpable sense of decay emitting from the small village that has become a virtual prison for it's inhabitants due to the supernatural paranoia running rampant. Not even the final image of hope, our protagonist walking into the sunrise, is able to erase our memory of the previous scenes of torture and the sound of the ghostly child, giggling wildly as she chases her bouncing ball through the night. Erika Blanc, admittedly no Barbara Steele, is nevertheless a striking persona whose presence graced other Italian productions such as The Devil's Nightmare (1971).

It may sound like the excessive ravings of an enthusiastic fan to label the five "Bloody Pit Of Horror" posterfilms described above as masterpieces, but this is only partially true. The films above are the linchpins of the golden age of Italian horror and their creators were the craftsmen and architects of the genre. This isn't to say that there aren't films equally as good (Giorgo Ferroni's Mill of the Stone Women (1960) comes to mind, as well as the previously mentioned films starring Barbara Steele) or that the genre didn't produce it's share of clunkers, but these, at the very least, were ambitious clunkers. Even the awkward, occasionally dissatisfying films (Bloody Pit of Horror (1965), The Embalmer (1965), and Atom Age Vampire (1960)) are worth viewing for their sheer audacity and moments of brilliance scattered about the oddball plot elements and prurient goings-on. Sadly, the industry wouldn't retain this consistency for much longer. The cinema's newfound sexual freedom, not to mention the popularity of certain American horror films, would soon conspire to produce some of the genre's most audacious successes and embarrassing failures.

To be continued…


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