Night Sources: The Atmosfear of Italian Horror (Part One)

20 Must-see Italian Horror films (1957-1987)

A four part article by Robert Barber

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Italian Horror
– to some of you horror fans reading this, it’s a genre you’ve been leery about investigating. Those who swear by it say it’s the best school of cinematic scares that’s ever been. But there’s just so much of it out there, right? Where does one start?

What you have to remember when watching most, if not all Italian Horror is not to let yourself be distracted or disappointment by many things we Americans often take too seriously when watching movies. We have a penchant for throwing the baby out with the bathwater (an image not too far from some Italian Horror films oddly enough), placing far too much importance on the logical coherence of a story – one part doesn’t mesh or work with the rest and the whole movie falls apart, right?

In Italian Horror aesthetic coherence is much more important. Who cares if the characters behave illogically, irrationally or against type. So what if the plot has a few holes, the dialogue is weak in spots, and things always tend to wrap up a bit too nicely in the end. What matters is the film as a whole, not its parts; success is measured by whether or not an unnerving mood, a fantastic yet familiar world, and a terrifying series of events were ably presented to the viewer. In the case of the films presented in this article, all are masterpieces of this dark conjuration.

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PART ONE (1957 – 1964)

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I Vampiri (1957) – dir. Riccardo Freda & Mario Bava

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The beginnings of Italian Horror unarguably lie in this moody chiller about an aged, demented noblewoman and her inexorable and sanguineous quest for lovely young ladies. Abetted by a mad scientist and his heroin-addicted assistant, the twisted Duchess Du Grand (Italian genre Queen Gianna Maria Canale in a delectably decadent performance) drains pretty Parisiennes of their blood in order to keep herself young, and not in the way the film’s title would lead you to believe. With no real budget to speak of, Mario Bava (the cameraman for the whole film, and also director of two of the film’s twelve day shoot) used startling, in-camera lighting effects and adventurous cinematography to carve this dark little gem of a film. Freda (who I believe is one of the first filmmakers to add a strong style into exploitation cinema, yes?) lends his usual penchant for plot perversions, keeping I Vampiri from the customary bloodletting banality of most films in the vampire-genre.

Combining the fact that this film was lacking in immediate popular reference (it being the first Italian Horror film of the Sound Era), and with a public not trusting of homegrown scares, I Vampiri bombed in its native market upon first release. However, it laid the foundation for all the glorious Italian Horror that proceeded, and perhaps an indelible influence upon, Mexi-Horror, Spanish Horror and quite noticeably, Georges Franju’s supposed touchstone, the brilliant Eyes Without a Face. (On DVD)

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Black Sunday (1960) – dir. Mario Bava

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Having saved yet another collapsing production from ruin (this time Jacques Tourneur’s The Giant of Marathon), long-time cameraman Mario Bava was finally given a chance to solo direct a film of his own. A fan of Russian literature, Bava chose to adapt Nikolai Gogol’s sinister short story “The Vij”, although by the time it made it to the screen as Black Sunday it bore little resemblance to the source material. No matter, for Bava instead fashioned what many believe to be one of the best horror films of all time, or so says the likes of Tim Burton and Martin Scorsese.

The story concerns the revenge of Princess Asa, a reincarnated 200-year-old witch, and her vampire love-slave Javuto, upon the descendants of those who had originally put an end to their reign of terror. Having been brought to justice centuries before by her own immediate family, the evil Princess Asa is actually out to murder her own living relatives!

Not since the heyday of Universal Horror had a sound-era horror film been as expressionistic and haunting; perhaps Black Sunday even surpasses them. Almost as revolutionary as its atmospheric, B&W cinematography and inventive Gothic-infused art direction, was the spellbinding charisma of lead performer Barbara Steele. In a dual role as the malignant, Satan-serving, unrepentant witch Princess Asa Vajda, and as her direct descendant, the haunted and fatalistic Katia, Barbara Steele single-handedly originated a cinematic representation of feminine evil both alluring and repellant.

Such dichotomy proved influential to say the least, striking a dark, psychological chord in the minds of many young viewers hitherto unfamiliar with the potentially sensual attractions of doom – I would venture to guess that Katia Vajda is the primeval Goth Chick.

There are few more perfect examples than Black Sunday of a genre film rising above its inherent limitations to become a work of art. If I Vampiri was the first suggestion that Italian filmmakers might have something original to contribute to the genre of horror, Black Sunday was the unassailable proof that such was indeed true. And as for Ms. Steele, Black Sunday was the first in a run of 10 horror films she made in 6 years, forever cementing her as the (still) undisputed “Queen of Scream”. (On DVD)

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The Horrible Secret of Dr. Hitchcock (1962) – dir. Riccardo Freda
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In many ways a mentor to Mario Bava, Riccardo Freda is less known than his recently and deservedly canonized protégé. Whereas Bava is the irrefutable master of the “camera as paintbrush”, Freda should be lauded for his striking abilities at creating rich, palpable mise en scéne.

Known more in his home country for creating historical epics, albeit on not so epic budgets, Freda also significantly contributed to the horror & fantasy genre films of the ’50s and ’60s. Under his expert eye, even the hokiest Sword & Sandal, ‘beefcake vs. the invulnerable monster’ movie was at least an arresting visual feast. Such is the case with the two films Freda made with Barbara Steele, which were both filmed shortly after her meteoric rise via Black Sunday, and immediately following her fantastic turn opposite Vincent Price in Corman’s The Pit and the Pendulum.

With this film, The Horrible Secret of Dr. Hitchcock, and its sequel, The Spectre, Freda’s deserved place in Italian Horror history was cemented, and without contribution from the illustrious Mario Bava. Though mention should certainly made of the occasionally disturbing talents of Ernesto Gastaldi, the screenwriter of this film as well as some of the best genre films Italy produced during the ’60s and ’70s, including Bava’s The Whip and the Body, Margheriti’s The Long Hair of Death, and Martino’s Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key; it’s from Gastaldi’s mind that this sick little film first came into being after all.

So what exactly is the horrible secret of Dr. Hitchcock? A highly disturbed, necrophilic doctor has been getting his kicks ‘n’ licks by injecting his unfortunate wife with a drug that temporarily creates the semblance of death. When he accidentally and fatally overdoses her (or does he?), Dr. Hitchcock becomes committed to reviving his wife in order to jump-start his depravity. Without giving away too much, I’ll just say that to do so involves Dr. Hitchcock marrying a pretty young thing (Barbara Steele), and involving her in his revolting/alluring ways.

With stunning color cinematography, a squirmy, disquieting screenplay, and another formidable performance from Barbara Steele, The Horrible Secret of Dr. Hitchcock is not only testament to Freda’s cinematic gifts, but evidence that he is not just a footnote in the life and work of Mario Bava. (DVD Unavailable; Buy/Rent VHS; partial film on YouTube)

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Black Sabbath (1963) – dir. Mario Bava
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During the three years between Black Sunday and his second horror film, Black Sabbath, Mario Bava kept himself astoundingly busy. Both single-handedly inventing the giallo film with The Girl Who Knew Too Much, helming perfect examples of the Viking-epic and the Sword & Sandal genres with respectively, Erik the Conqueror and Hercules in the Haunted World, it seemed that Mario Bava was the ubiquitous genius of the then-burgeoning Euro B-movie market. Despite his accomplishments in every genre he touched, when Bava returned to horror with Black Sabbath it was clear to everyone where his particular prismatic genius best lent itself. An anthology of three shorts, this film is only one of numerous omnibus films that spawned throughout European cinema of the 1960’s.

The first short film, “The Telephone”, was severely cut during its original U.S. release due to the strong lesbian overtones between the two main characters. Starring the gorgeous Michele Mercier as the traumatized Rosy, “The Telephone” is certainly Hitchcockian in vibe and overall mood, but Bava’s fluid camera and his art director Giorgio Giovanni, who went on to design Satyricon, Amarcord, and City of Women for Fellini, create a visually dense and chromatic claustrophobia that gives “The Telephone” replay value far beyond whatever limiting potentials there are in the script. Mercier might be the first example of the beautiful, lingerie-clad, poseur Italian woman - alone, suffering, and trapped in her bedroom, awaiting ominous horror.

“The Wurdalak”, inspired by a Tolstoy novelette, is the second film in the series, and to most, it’s the best. This one stars the legendary Boris Karloff, who seems to be enjoying himself in a way not seen since 1945’s The Body Snatcher. As for the plot, imagine if The Royal Tenenbaums had been a B-Vampire film – but this time I actually cared about what happened to the characters. Ultimately it’s a tragic tale of love, death, and the unbreakable bonds between families, even one’s undead family. Again, the expressionistic, rural-rococo sets; the omnipresent, enigmatic green and purple floodlights; the perpetually billowing dry ice; it all makes for the start of a “look” that not only became one of Bava’s signatures, but went on to influence all makers of fine budget-constrained art, including the likes of “Stark Trek” and “Dark Shadows”.

The third and final short, “The Drop of Water”, is my personal favorite of the three. Taken from a story by Anton Chekov, and starring the talented Jacqueline Pierreux, “The Drop of Water” is as unnerving and freaky as “The Wurdalak”, and with a similar theme of fatalism and destiny. However, Helen Chester (played by Ms. Pierreux) perhaps deserves what she has coming to her, unlike the poor family of “The Wurdalak”. The color palette Bava put to use in this story in particular is constantly on the verge of eruption. It’s as if a whole other phantasmagorical, nightmare-world is about to seize hold any moment – purple and green demons pushing their way into the diegesis. The art direction and production design for “The Drop of Water” are breathtaking to say the least, and Bava’s attempt to create “the most terrifying corpse ever” is without equal – its eyes get me EVERY time. (insert chills here…)

All in all, Black Sabbath is a touchstone for toungue-in-cheek horror entertainment. Along with the 1945 version of Dead of Night it sets the standard for omnibus horror films in my book (don’t even mention the ghoulish mediocrity of the Creepshows, please). It was here with Black Sabbath that Bava proved Black Sunday was no fluke – he was, and still is, a moviemaker to be reckoned with. (On DVD)

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Castle of Blood (1964) – dir. Antonio Margheriti

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In a career spanning over 40 years, Anotnio Margheriti is not a name widely known outside of Italy, or beyond those obsessed with Italian genre filmmaking. Margheriti’s passion for movies, and his dedication to making truly entertaining ones at that, has earned him the respect of almost all who worked with him.

Margheriti touched upon all genres, but his best works (like those of his contemporary Mario Bava) are believed to be those in the horror movie mold, including Horror Castle, The Long Hair of Death, Web of the Spider, Cannibal Apocalypse, and his greatest feat – Castle of Blood. Never again was Margheriti able to capture the same sense of threatening portent that is perpetually imminent throughout Castle of Blood. Though I’ve only seen eight or nine of Margheriti’s fifty-five plus films, this is the one that most fulfills its promise.

Written by Sergio Corbucci, a soon-to-be master of the Spaghetti Western (whose Django, The Great Silence, and Los Compañeros give Leone’s trilogy a run for their dollars), the plot to Castle of Blood is an inventive spin on the recognizable yet entertaining ‘one-night-alone-in-a-haunted-house’ tale. Though to the jaded horror film over this may sound like a turn-off, when this film is watched in utter darkness, its long night takes on a sinister edge one may not expect.

Our hero, a writer by trade, bravely accepts a bet from Edgar Allen Poe himself(!) that he will, or won’t, be able to stay the night in said titular castle on “All Soul’s Eve”. Once there however, the ghosts of murder victims come shockingly back to life, acting out their deaths all over again. The passions of their past lives are just to powerful to exist in just one world – they constantly bleed into the other.

These bloodthirsty specters seek to kill the writer, believing that with his living blood they’ll be able to exist again as flesh, thereby ending their purgatorial curse. Just as shocking as these events, is the shadowy beauty of Barbara Steele as ghost Elizabeth Blackwood, who alone tries to help the writer escape from her foul fellow apparitions.

The movie’s menacing pace is intelligently deliberate, and there is a constant air of morbidity throughout. Cameraman Riccardo Pallottini, who also shot Margheriti’s excellent Horror Castle, and The Long Hair of Death, exquisitely applies Dutch angles in moments that really do call for them. His and Margheriti’s decision to shoot a great deal of the film in not much above candlelight makes for a scarier trip then you’d normally expect. And Mondo Cane composer Riz Ortolani’s music is a creepy delight all unto itself. Castle of Blood, in fact, has all that you’ve come to expect from I-Horror: sexy, babes who dabble in lesbianism; a big, beefy he-man cum gardener (hubba, hubba…); and all the intangible peril and sexuality you can sink your chattering teeth into. Margheriti is a bottomless treasure trove of Italian genre delights – the greatest jewel therein is without a doubt, the eerie and claustrophobic Castle of Blood. (On DVD)

To complain, judge, agree or swoon: robert@peacheschrist.com

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Keep a lookout for part two… coming soon!

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