20 Must-see Italian Horror films (1957-1987)
A four part article by Robert Barber
PART FOUR (1980 – 1987)
Anthropophagus (1980) – dir. Joe D’Amato
If you grew up in the 1980’s, obsessed (like me) with the magazines “Fangoria”, “Psychotronic”, and “Cinefantastique” then the term ‘Video Nasty’ may have held a sort of dark reverence. Coined in the UK after the passing of their government’s 1984 Video Recordings Act, ‘Video Nasty’ came to refer to all those movies that either had cuts forced upon them before release or (in the best cases) were simply banned outright. A list was generated by the BBFC (British Board of Film Censors) of all the films deemed nasty, thereby single-handedly creating a must-see archive of which dreams are made for all the shock-loving young ones. One of the most infamous of these titles was Joe D’Amato’s Anthropophagus, aka The Grim Reaper, Man Eater, The Zombie’s Rage, ad nauseam.
The film takes place on a deserted Greek island, where a group of mostly coupled tourists come across a young, terrified blind girl – the only person seemingly left on the god-forsaken rock. The little village is completely devoid of its inhabitants, despite the fact that all their belongings still seem to be in place. No one so much left as they seem to have simply disappeared into thin air.
The hysterical blind girl can’t provide any clear answers, save she’s terrified of a creature that stalks the land who smells of rot and blood. In classic ‘10 Little Indians’ fashion, the tourists began to disappear one by one, or in the best cases, two at a time. Discovering a diary that explains just who/what the ‘creature’ is, the survivors thus far have no choice but to confront this hideous terror, as their sole means of escape from the island has become sabotaged.
I must emphasize that Anthropophagus contains two of the most notorious scenes in the annals of Italian Horror, if not in all of film-horror itself. If there were ever to be a Canon of Cinematic Gore, these two scenes would be required reading/viewing. Said ‘creature’ is in fact a once-normal man, who was forced into cannibalizing his own dead wife and child after they were shipwrecked. Of course this drove him insane, and he eventually came to devour the entire inhabitants of the little island he later happened upon.
As for one of these notorious scenes I mentioned above, the Man-Eater eventually gets to kidnapping the one tourist who’s about nine months pregnant. In what can only now be described as classic D’Amato-fashion, the Man-Eater forcibly rips the fetus from the woman’s belly (via vagina) and devours it right in front of her dying eyes (Yes, you read that correctly). The other legendary moment – the finale – I’ll leave mention without description. Now, onto the sicko who dreamed up such scenes…
Born Aristede Massaccesi in Rome 1936, D’Amato (who, like many Italian genre-directors, changed his name to make their product more palatable overseas) was one of the most infamous filmmakers in exploitation cinema. The name D’Amato was one so laden with notoriety that getting away with renting one of his films before you were eighteen years old was considered the greatest of feats in the eyes of underage video-store goers. And when I found The Zombie’s Rage on video as a kid, knowing that it was actually Anthropophagus, it was as if I’d won the lottery – although yes, it was edited.
D’Amato grew up in a Cinecitta family, his father having been an electrician there, and by the early ‘60s was himself a camera operator, eventually working his way up to cinematographer by the end of the decade. Though he spent the majority of these years working on westerns, swashbucklers, war movies, sword ‘n’ sandals, etc., in 1972 D’Amato took his first real foray into the glorious world of exploitation, a la Emmanuelle’s Revenge, the first of at least six films he directed in the now-legendary “Emmanuelle” series. The ‘best’ of these is easily Emmanuelle and the Last Cannibals, which unblinkingly and without apology blends the worst of both the ‘70s porno-Euro-sleaze and cannibal genres into one unforgettable film (it’s the one movie my partner actually became angry with me for showing it to him – it must be seen to be believed).
In the early ‘80s however, D’Amato hit a glorious stride with a trilogy of feverish, demonic gore films (including Buio Omega and Absurd) of which Anthropophagus is the second and best of the lot. Fresh from her star-mistaking turn as, I mean in, Fulci’s Zombie, Tisa Farrow heads the cast along with Italian cult-cinema icon and frequent D’Amato collaborator, George Eastman. Eastman portrays the Man-Eater with a method-intensity that’s incredibly terrifying and therefore so pleasing to my always-hungry horror-gland, in particular when he stalks his victims at night.
One thing can almost always be said about a D’Amato film: no matter how disturbed, disgusted, offended and/or repulsed one is by the content, it’s very hard to argue against how beautifully they’re shot. Like all the other filmmakers on this list, D’Amato loved the camera, had great respect for the technical aspects of the medium itself, used lighting not just to highlight actors and actions, but to forcibly instill mood and tension onto the viewer. There are moments during the nighttime chase scenes in Anthropophagus that can chill me to the bone just by thinking of them. The blue light of the full-moon night, and its accompanied bursts of bright lightning, fill the chase with a matchless anxiety – you don’t want Tisa and the blind girl to get caught, but you don’t want the beauty of the scene to end either. (D’Amato shot and co-directed my personal fav Pam Grier vehicle, The Arena. The camerawork is a standout from all of Ms. Grier’s other films).
So why is Anthropophagus a ‘must-see’? Because I must acknowledge and accept the turn Italian Horror made during the ‘70s, for better or for worse. The level of popularity that gore, ultra-violence, and exploitation garnered in that decade has yet to recede (and likely never will), and not just in Italian and Euro Horror, but in the Horror genre the world over; and something deep down inside my moral imprinting whispers to me that this fact is possibly/probably wrong on many levels, both personally and politically.
Anthropophagus creates an ethical catch-22 for me, which is perhaps the reason I love it so. The film is revolting, offensive, utterly devoid of sympathy or romance, yet it contains a professional technique and visceral allegro that is so attractive to my amoral retina.
With this trilogy of horror, D’Amato and Eastman conjured some of the most grotesque and nightmarish cinematic imagery man can think of – imagery that reminds me of the Black Paintings of Goya. One my laugh at the comparison, but I had yet to see a film that could compare to Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Children (the most frightening work of art I’ve ever seen) until I finally saw the uncut Anthropophagus again as an adult a few years back. Before, as The Zombie’s Rage, I was caught up in watching something I shouldn’t – funny thing is 20 years later, watching it as Anthropophagus, I still feel that way.
The Beyond (1981) – dir. Lucio Fulci
A New Yorker of independent means, Liza’s come down to Louisiana to get her multi-roomed legacy back on its feet, no matter the worms, decay or water table. But nothing seems to be going right. The ‘help’ she inherits with the house, Martha and Arthur, are borderline sociopaths. Joe the plumber seems to have forgotten to take his anti-psychotics. And then there’s Emily, the piano-playing blind girl cum psychic specter(?), and Dickie, her barely helpful German shepherd service dog—the two of them just keep popping up in the oddest of places. But the worst are all the dead bodies! They keep rising up out of murky puddles in the flooded basement…that really makes renovation difficult for Liza.
But enough with synopsis; it won’t help you much anyway. Fans don’t watch The Beyond for story or characterization. As its director, Lucio Fulci, states, “In Italy we make films based on pure themes…my idea was to make an absolute film, with all the horrors of the world. It’s a plotless film, there’s no logic to it, just a succession of images…which must be received without any reflection.”
This is, of course, very difficult for most moviegoers to accomplish, and thus no other filmmaker polarizes fans of the genre more than Fulci, the adulte terrible of Italian Horror. Either he’s a joke, the man who ruined any chance the genre had at gaining respectability, or he came closest to creating what Italian Horror should really be about – style over, or, instead of substance. Fulci can be infuriating, what with his inexplicably lingering shots and non sequitur plot twists, but when some watch his work they don’t mind all that. He obviously loves what he’s doing.
The Beyond was Maestro Fulci’s third horror film, the second in a trilogy about the “7 Doors of Death”, and his fifth in a chain of seven great films he directed from 1979’s Zombie through 1982’s New York Ripper. To most disciples of Fulci, The Beyond is not only the magnum opus of his 57(!) films, but also the greatest Italian Horror movie ever made. 52 years old in 1979, Fulci had already immersed himself in the making of genre films: soft-core porn, claustrophobic giallos, bloody spaghetti westerns, LSD-infused lesbian-psychodramas, vampire-hunter spoofs, macho-gangster flicks, super-spy movies – you name it.
For twenty years Fulci slowly mastered the art of entertaining, eventually creating some of the archetypes of the genres he reveled in: A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, Don’t Torture a Duckling (see Part III), Four of the Apocalypse, Seven Notes in Black. But by the mid-‘70s things were changing in Italy, and the reliable simplicity of a giallo, however well stylizied, just wasn’t enough to get audiences into theatres. After Zombie (also Part III) and his early’80 film Contraband —which should’ve been just another one of his ‘smuggler vs. gangster’ grindhouse movies, but instead becomes a poor man’s The Godfather by way of Ichi the Killer—the notorious “Gates of Hell” trilogy followed: City of the Living Dead, The Beyond, and House by the Cemetery.
Of the three, The Beyond is by far the best (House by the Cementary actually being pure garbage). But all the effects aside, the arguably true success of the trilogy lies in the three lead performances of Catriona MacColl. She commands the screen with a horror-maven gusto not seen since the days of Barbara Steele. MacColl infused all the roles, but particularly the part of Liza Merril in The Beyond, with an assurance and determination quite uncommon among the female roles of Italian Horror, or any genre of horror for that matter. You also come away with the feeling that, like Fulci himself, MacColl loves the process of making these movies. Apparently, she was such a trooper in the first film, City of the Living Dead, what with millions of live maggots blown into her face, and made to bleed from her eyeballs via a painful FX-pump, that Fulci had to have her back for The Beyond. And again he puts her through the ringer: lacerating screams, voluminous blood-splatters, bubbling acid vats, severed tongues, severed heads, throats being ripped open, disemboweling, eye gouging, crucifixions – in fact few horror films, Italian or otherwise, are as systematically unsettling as The Beyond.
The ending of the film is, perhaps, the most talked/argued-about part of the whole experience. With the trilogy steeped in Fulci’s Catholicism, something he believed was crucial to the understanding of his films, the hell-bound ending leaves just as many people with their mouths gaping and hair standing on end, as it does those who are left scratching their heads in bewilderment. A pessimist of such extreme, Fulci’s vision of Hell isn’t even one you can feel – no whippings, no fire, no boiling oil, no tortures. Just a “…Sea of Darkness…an absolute world, an immobile world where every horizon is similar.” Cute.
So there you have it people – from the flesh-ripping chain-beatings that open the film, to the climatic hospital gross-out/shoot-out, and all the spiders and zombies in between, The Beyond truly is one of the most audacious spectacles you’ll ever be lucky enough to see. But The Beyond remains for most, not just Fulci’s testament to his gifts as a filmmaker and, whether he’d like to be labeled as such or not, a storyteller, but also proof that Italian Horror could, in reaching such extreme and outrageous heights of stylization, perhaps find itself in an even higher realm of substance after all.
Phenomena (1985) – dir. Dario Argento
Butchered in the U.S. upon its initial release (retitled as Creepers and cut by nearly 30 minutes), Phenomena gets my vote for Argento’s finest hour, and therefore an arguable candidate for the best Italian Horror film of all time. It stars a very young Jennifer Connely, fresh from her work in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, and Daria Nicolodi, Argento’s soon-to-be ex-partner and mother of Asia Argento.
As with the film of his that is another candidate for greatest of all, Suspiria, Phenomena is a fairy tale re-envisioned. Though what separates Phenomena from Suspiria, and perhaps from every other film Argento’s made (if not from every other Italian Horror film in existence), is that it is perfect not just in style and execution, but also in its logic and narrative – something uncommon in this genre.
After the release of 1982’s Tenebre, an excellent return to giallo-form, full of elaborate shots, inventive music, and some truly grotesque set pieces, Argento returned to the world of the supernatural. For Jennifer Corvino, the protagonist of Phenomena, is in possession of some extraordinary telepathic powers – she’s able to empathize with insects. More than that, Jennifer’s able to get then to do her bidding. Although Argento is smart: he makes it more akin to the insects picking up on her pain and them doing their best to make Jennifer feel better. It’s more symbiotic than some sort of master/servant relationship.
Through out the course of the film the insects help Jennifer find her way through darkness (lightning bugs), bring her evidence of crime (larva), lead her to more evidence (flesh-flies), enact some revenge on one of the baddies (bees), and threaten those who have been cruel to her (a monstrous swarm of god-only-knows).
As with Susie Bannon from Suspiria, Jennifer Corvino finds herself a Stranger in a Strange Land, a common trope for a fairy tale, and both Suspiria and Phenomena are chock full of these recurring themes. Jennifer is the daughter of a rich, handsome movie star, who’s simply too busy working to take care of his little girl, though he loves and care for Jennifer deeply. Jennifer’s mother, however, left them both years before, on Christmas Day no less (bitch, bad mommy). Jennifer finds herself at a Swiss boarding school, and an all-girl one at that – much like Susie being holed-up in a strictly segregated dancing school in Suspiria. The main difference between the two, however, is that this time we’re dealing with actual girls, teenagers, whereas in Suspiria it was late 20-somethings acting like little girls. The architecture is saner too in Phenomena, with doorknobs being where they’re supposed to be, and not so much use of primary color on the interior walls. But if the art direction, the music, the performances, and the Technicolor are all de-intensified from Suspiria to Phenomena, it’s clearly for the better. Instead of amping up the style of a film so that it also becomes its substance, Argento finally found the right balance. The acting, the script, the design, the music, the editing, the effects – all are executed perfectly. Apparently, there was a time not too long ago when Argento felt the same way, naming Phenomena his personal favorite of his works thus far. I’m not sure if such has changed since making Jenifer, Pelts, Mother of Tears, and Giallo, but I doubt it.
Finding herself thrust into the middle of a series of murders either involving girls from her school, or taking place near or on the school property, our Jennifer Corvino has suspicion laid on her by the strict, puritanical and quasi-Christian adults who run the boarding school. After witnessing her powers over insects, and remembering that one of Satan’s monikers is Beelzebub (The Lord of the Flies), Jennifer is immediately accused of witchcraft by the nastiest of the teachers. Aside from this, Jennifer walks in her sleep, and it is during these nightly sojourns that Jennifer witnesses one of the murders. Not sure what is truth and what is dream, Jennifer later finds herself rescued from certain nighttime harm by Inga, a friendly chimpanzee who caretakes for a nearby forensic entomologist, Dr. John McGregor. Taking Inga’s hand, Jennifer is lead back to the home of Dr. McGregor, and after he learns of Jennifer’s affinity and powers towards insects they become quick friends. Dr. McGregor had already been approached by the police in regards to the murders, as via his own skills McGregor is able to determine the age of the crime based upon the decomposition on the body (parts). And with Jennifer personally involved in the murders (aside from the accusations, her roommate eventually being a victim) it’s only natural that the two of them should gang up together and track the killer, of course darling Inga will help too.
The benign surrogate father. The animal helper(s). Being ostracized for difference. The evil surrogate mother(s). Having to enter a dream world/state. To run a gauntlet. A “magic wand”. These are all conditions and events within Phenomena and also classic themes of the fairy tale; Argento utilizes them brilliantly. This is one of the best fairy-tale films ever made, next to Donkey Skin, Breilliat’s Bluebeard, The Company of Wolves, Princess Mononoke, and the movies of Michel Ocelot. Of course, it’s Italian Horror at its core, so Phenomena certainly is not a film for children, but neither, really, are any of the films I just mentioned.
The gore and effects in Phenomena are among the best Argento ever imagined, brought to glorious life by Antonio Corridori and Sergio Stivaletti. The climax of the film is much bloodier than the rest of the movie, so it adds an almost overwhelming element of shock and surprise to the proceedings. And the technicians who worked with the insects also should be lauded to no end. They, along with Argento and cameraman Romano Albani, actually created an atmosphere in the film where one cheers along with bugs. Where else is there a film where The Great Sarcophagus fly (see magic wand above) is a filmic hero? Flesh-eaters are supposed to be the enemy, right?
Although he does eventually enter his usual world of Freudian psychosis, Argento keeps it, if not to a minimum, than relegated to the film’s denouement. But even this is forgotten, if not forgiven, because he makes the character of Jennifer Corvino such a kick-ass, fighting back not just out of a survival instinct and/or being cornered, but because Jennifer refuses to accept the lot and conditions she finds herself in. Jennifer fights back immediately, and her fear (though constant) never gets the better of her – she’s one of the great, unsung heroines of Horror films. Just who the bad guy/gal is in all this I’ll leave a mystery, as I know this is one of the Argento films a lot of people skip over, and perhaps many of you out there haven’t seen it yet. Needless to say, it’s a bit of a nasty commentary on the part of Argento. Though the actor who gets to play the bad guy part plays it to such a scary and crazy hilt, that it’s obviously an attempted spit in the eye to Dario for creating the role to begin with.
All in all, Phenomena is Argento’s finest hour. One knows when watching a film whether or not he or she is experiencing something exactly as the writer/director originally intended; whether or not the final product is just how it was envisioned in the mind and on paper. Phenomena is one of those films. Yes it’s horrific, relentless, squally, and almost harebrained, but that’s what makes it successful Italian Horror, and that’s what makes it a must-see.
Demons (1985) – dir. Lamberto Bava
Before going deep into describing the glories and details of Demons, let it be said right off the bat (1) just how incredibly fun this film is, and (2) that its selection to this list has nothing to do with Lamberto Bava. There’s a frivolity, joy and quasi-anarchy to Demons that was missing in a lot of Italian Horror since the overnight success of The Bird with the Crystal Plummage 15 years prior. That landmark in giallo ushered in a more adult-themed era within the Italian Horror industry, with the majority of films in the 1970s having less to do with evil, revenge, greed or fate, and more to do with psychological and sexual aberrations, and trauma, in particular of the Freudian kind. This is neither good nor bad, and there are certainly exceptions (Suspiria, Zombie), but even when Argento enters the world of the supernatural, he finds it difficult to let go completely of the psychological tether, going so far as to refer to the witch Helena Markos being not just an embodiment of evil, but mentally unhinged, insane. Demons, produced and co-written by Argento, is a return to not just a more pure form of Horror, but also of entertainment.
Demons is directed by Lamberto Bava, the son of Mario, who had spent the first 15 years of his time in the industry (1965-1980) being an assistant director and screenwriter for not just his father, but for Argento and Ruggero Deodato (Cannibal Holocaust, Jungle Holocaust). Nothing L. Bava did up to Demons, or after for that matter, appeals to me very much. As is the case with Armando Crispino’s Autopsy, I love Demons for what it is as a whole – the parts that make it up don’t warrant as much individual, intellectual dissection as many of the other films in this series do.
There’s an interesting, if not fascinating, argument here that if one has a pristine script (Argento, Franco Ferrini, Dardano Sacchetti) and an excellent helmsman/producer (again Argento), then perhaps a director of optimal powers isn’t necessary to pull off a superior piece of work.
The plot of Demons is a delightful one indeed and will appeal to the legion of Zombie Film fans out in the world, although as with contemporary films like 28 Days Later these aren’t the living dead, or even the ‘infected’. Instead they are exactly as the title of the film states – demons.
The film begins with a music-major university student, Cheryl, riding the Berlin subway. The opening credits roll as she, and us, take a gander at the other occupants of the subway car – this firmly places the film in the 1980s, as the car is full of all the New Wave and punk rock denizens one comes to expect from a lot of Euro-horror at this time. Handed a free ticket for a new movie by a mute man in a metallic demon mask, Cheryl convinces her friend Kathy to go with her. Once at the movie theatre (named the Metrol), which is full of patrons who also received mysterious tickets, Cheryl and Kathy find some cute boys to sit with. In the lobby of the theatre, I should mention, is a sculpture that has hanging from it the same demon mask from before. One of the patrons, a fierce Apollonia 6-inspired hooker named Rosemary, teases her pimp by putting the mask to her face to try and scare him. Unfortunately for her, but fortunately for us, the inside of the mask cuts her face and causes her to bleed. At this point, anyone with even the slightest semblance of knowledge of Horror films, and Italian Horror in particular (see Black Sunday) knows that Rosemary has just become patient zero for something truly abyssal.
Within 10 minutes (during which time the movie within the movie has already started, a movie that involves a gaggle of teens coming across a decrepit ruin, a ruin which has the same demon mask buried in a shallow pit) Rosemary feels ill and has to excuse herself to the ladies room (she has a meeting… with Satan!) Where the mask cut her face, Rosemary now has a large pustule, pregnant with demonic semen. Within moments it bursts forth, and the now hellishly infected Rosemary carries the Devil’s contagion inside her. Soon, several more become infected (via a scratch or bite from Rosemary), and the theatre is eventually crawling with rabid demons. Meanwhile, one of the characters in the movie playing on the Metrol screen has also cut himself on the mask, and becomes infected with demon juice – the metafiction runs wild in this film.
By Demons‘ climax, most of the patrons are Satan’s converts (save Cheryl and her boy-toy), including some truly crazy young punks who entered the theatre by the back way. Without giving away the ending completely, let’s just say that mankind’s future doesn’t look too bright in Demons.
What sets this film apart is the quick pace, the truly horrific and terrifying special effects (including a particular demon-birth involving someone on all fours that still freaks me out to this day), the legitimate scares, the velocity of the demons themselves, the phantasmagorical lighting and ambience, the heavy metal score (Saxon and Accept being the highlights), and one of my personal favorites in a horror film – the notion of apocalypse. In this way its influence is still with us to this day. But more than anything Demons is a truly wild, wild ride, and one of the most purely shocking films of its time.
Opera (1987) – dir. Dario Argento
There are few genres of filmmaking as overtly flamboyant and extravagant as Italian Horror, so it’s fitting that the final film in this series, and therefore the last great film from Italian Horror’s heyday, is framed around the staging of an opera – perhaps the most showy, garish and excessive of all the arts. Directed by Dario Argento, Opera is classic and quintessential giallo (what with its eclectic and irreverent score, breathtaking camerawork, and copious bloodletting), but posited within a framework which mirrors not just the obvious reference to Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera, but also Argento’s entire oeuvre a la the work diegetically staged within the film – Verdi’s (and Shakespeare’s) Macbeth.
For his entire career up to this point, Argento had received harsh criticism for being a sadist – for delighting in tormenting not just his characters (and some of his actors) but his audience as well. Within popular moviemaking, no popular filmmaker had heretofore blended such darkness, terror, and torture within such a prismatic, alluring, silver locus. There were, and still are, ethical problems that arise when pain and death are portrayed in so brutal, yet technically immaculate and fluid a fashion.
Critics are apt to point out the immorality, or amorality, of creating such a watchable style of death and destruction. Leave it to Argento to detract his accusers’ arguments by literally doing to his Opera protagonist what he’s been accused of doing to his audience for the previous 18 years – force her to watch the murders unfold.
Said protagonist is aspiring opera singer-understudy Betty, who finds herself an overnight sensation following her debut; she performs the lead in Verdi’s Macbeth following an accident (?) which left the star diva with a broken leg. As everyone knows, Macbeth (in all its incarnations) brings bad luck, as productions of it have a long history of mishap, severe accident, and even death (include mass death, as the Astor Place Riots of 1849 were triggered by rivaling factions over which actor portrayed the better Scottish King).
Our Betty finds herself unable to celebrate her victorious debut for long, as not only is an usher mysteriously killed during her first performance, but also the stage manager is murdered that same night right before her eyes. And eyes is the key word here, for the mysterious murderer binds and gags Betty, ties her to a pillar, and tapes razor sharp needles under her eyes, thereby forcing her to keep them open for fear of evisceration. When the gut-wrenching work is done, the butcher cuts just one of the knots, giving himself enough time to escape before Betty is able to free herself. Not only are we, the film’s audience, forced to watch the murders, but also we’re watching someone else be forced to watch the murders. Betty and we are the same. Not only is this a simple meta-, but also it is blatantly, purposefully so.
We come to learn that the murderer is the former lover of Betty’s mother (also an opera singer), a sadistic witch of a woman who used this lover to procure nubile ladies for sexual torture. It seems Betty’s mother never allowed him to have an orgasm, so he eventually killed her (at least this is the narrative I tell myself). The murders Betty is forced to witness in the present time trigger her childhood trauma/memory, as Betty recognizes the hooded murderer who binds her as the same hooded figure she secretly witness engaging in horrific acts with her mother. This lover/murderer, clearly psychotic, wants to reinvent the relationship he had severed years before, and hopes to recruit Betty to his desires via forcing her to witness his blood orgy. Of course such moves aren’t going to seduce our Betty. Instead, she’s helpless as those near and dear to her are slain before her very eyes. Ultimately the killer’s identity is discovered through some very imaginative use of live ravens that heretofore had been part of the Macbeth stage design. He may force Betty to watch, but the killer himself becomes partially blinded by the ravens. Ah… poetic justice.
Aside from Shakespeare, there’s the Poe connection via the use of said ravens in the film. Unyielding, eternal devotion is the crux of Poe’s indelible poem “The Raven”, with the ominous bird bringing about the mental collapse of a troubled young lover. In both Poe and Opera, the raven is a harbinger of doom, and a symbol and messenger of Fate. The ravens will neither allow Argento’s killer nor Poe’s (guilty?) lover to forget the torment and turmoil they feel and caused (certainly in Opera, perhaps in Poe). Needless to say, Argento is a vocal, zealous and devoted fan of Poe.
The plot of Opera is often seen as a take off of the classic The Phantom of the Opera, but I want to offer an alternative; I personally find more connections to Macbeth, and not just within Opera itself, but also via the film’s connection to the rest of Argento’s work. In Leroux’s story, the Phantom and Christine have a real love for one another (although the Phantom loves Christine true, Christine ultimately loves him only as a friend), and the sole connection of the Phantom helping Christine with her career, and Opera’s killer having involvement in Betty becoming a star, is flimsy evidence to support the two stories’ connection. If anything, Betty is Macbeth, and the killer (and Betty’s mother) Lady Macbeth, though I feel that Betty has qualities of both. As with Macbeth, Betty is doomed to her fate. With her, it is the fate of being forced to confront her repressed childhood trauma, but also doomed to complicity in murders of ambition, much like the ambition of Lady Macbeth. Though Betty is not guilty as Macbeth surely is, one could argue that Betty’s occasional lack of panic abets the killer. And what classic character within English literature is more of a gender stereotype than Lady Macbeth? With the genre of Horror, and perhaps Italian Horror in particular, having quite the corner on female stereotyping, it’s deliciously appropriate for Argento to have Betty perform on stage as Lady Macbeth. And the much written about ending of Opera can be seen as a parallel as well, with Betty losing her grip on reality much like Lady Macbeth herself. By having the same actress play Betty’s mother in the film’s flashbacks, Argento poses the question of whether or not Betty and her mother truly are alike. We know where guilt lies in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and who is a victim of curses and fate, but in Opera, Argento compounds and purposefully confuses the issue of guilt and responsibility. For better or for worse, the plot is also ripe with Freudian tropes.
Argento’s avid interest in witchcraft and/or evil is also on display in Opera, but it is primarily the driving force behind the three witches in his famous trilogy (1977’s Suspiria, 1980’s Inferno, and 2007’s Mother of Tears), witches who I’ve always thought of as having a symbolic connection to the three witches in Macbeth. When I mentioned earlier that Opera provides a mirror of Argento’s work as a whole, it is in particular to not just the three films of his trilogy, but maybe even on a larger scale to all of Italian Horror. The witches of Macbeth represent a presence that stands astride of both the real world and the invisible one, but that is so immersed in both that their true relationship to either, or to fate, is vague. They come to represent the tenets of Italian Horror because they disregard reason, and are not forced to conform to the laws of man and reality. “Fair is foul, and foul is far: Hover through the fog and filthy air.” The purpose of these lines in Macbeth (said by the witches) is to instill a feeling of uncertainty and bewilderment from the beginning of the play. Black Sunday, Castle of Blood, Blood and Black Lace, Kill Baby Kill, Autopsy, Suspiria, The Beyond, Demons, Opera, ad infinitum… where one sees deus ex machina and red herrings, I see an attitude at work, a philosophy. One that concerns itself with fantasy, fairy tales, nightmares, style, affect, but which is forced to dwell within a structure (film) used to housing naturalism, realism and theatrical device. An alchemy worth investigation (if not worship) was inevitable, but the solution was not to last.
Perhaps the ultimate comparison to Macbeth is what Opera did to Argento’s career, and to the future of Italian Horror itself. The production itself was besought with trouble, including the death of one of the actors. Argento not only lost Vanessa Redgrave in pre-production, but working with Cristina Marsillach (Betty) proved to be one of the worst experiences of his career, or so says he. There were numerous mishaps on set, including the loss of the majority of the ravens during production. Opera was a financial and critical failure upon its release, and never had a proper theatrical in the U.S. But the denouement in all this is the now-popular consensus that Argento has never done anything since that matches his work in and up to Opera. For the death knell had surely rung when a work of genius like Opera can go unrecognized even within the world of genre and horror from which it was born. When a film such as Opera, with all of its intricacies, state-of-the-art camerawork, intelligent allusion, inventiveness, when a film like this is ignored and crucified upon release, then there’s certainly been a seachange, and not for the better. Like many of the characters that inhabit the cinematic world of Italian Horror, perhaps the genre itself fell victim to fate, or, like the many a Bava character, to a curse.
To complain, judge, agree or swoon: email@example.com