There are only a few countries with the rich filmic legacy of Italy, the nation that gave us Fellini, De Sica, Rossolini, and Visconti. But Italian cinema goes deeper than the arthouse titans as they managed to specialize not just in the highbrow but also in the lowbrow. During the 50s, 60s, and 70s Italy became one of the premier makers of B-movies, most famously Westerns and Sword and Sandals epics but they also became makers of some rather innovative horror movies that pushed the boundaries of onscreen sex and violence and would go on to influence the slasher genre of the 80s as well as other forms of horror cinema. However, I’ve always been a bit of a neophyte when it comes to Italian horror, in part out of some bad experiences with Argento early on. The dubbing and sloppiness of Italian exploitation has always been a bit of a barrier for me, something about it just bugged me as a purist but I’ve come to sort of just accept it as what the Italian system did at the time. As such the time is right to take a crash course in Italian horror by looking at a couple films from Italy’s three acknowledged masters of the genre: Bava, Argento, and Fulci.
Black Sabbath (1963)
The first filmmaker I’m going to look at is Mario Bava a filmmaker who is of about the same generation as the other two but who was making horror movies about a decade earlier and was at the tail end of his career when the other two came around. His most famous film is probably a film called Black Sunday, which is ironic because that movie was in black and white and Bava is otherwise known for his vivid use of color. I had seen that movie previously so for the purposes of this project I am going to start with his next major horror movie, the anthology film Black Sabbath (AKA The Three Faces of Fear) which is said to have inspired the name of the rock band. The film consists of three short horror segments, all directed by Bava, of which the middle segment is both the longest and clearly the best. Titled “The Wurdalak” this segment appears to be set somewhere in some unspecified Slavic country during the 18th or 19th century and focuses on a bit of folklore about a vampire/ghost-like creature called a wurdalak which comes back to life and tries to suck the blook of everyone in their family. Here the main wurdalak is played by Boris Karloff, who also serves as a sort of host for the movie and the whole segment works very effectively both as a riff on the vampire and as just a straight-up ghost story. The segment (and the whole film for that matter) don’t really have the blood and guts that I generally associate with Italian horror and in some ways reminded me more of what Hammer was doing at the time or Roger Corman’s Poe movies than it does the giallos that would come later.
The first and third stories here are a bit weaker, especially the first one, which is set during the present and is a bit of a variation on the old “when a stranger calls” legend. It’s not a bad segment exactly but the milieu seems to clash with the period horror trappings of the film’s title and framing and feels more like an imitation of Hitchcock (particularly Dial M for Murder) than the kind of gothic chiller the film otherwise trades in and feels like a strange opener given the film’s title. The third segment fares a bit better. There isn’t really a whole lot to it and it’s rather short but it does tell a nice little haunted house type story which feels like it’s had some influence on some of the more recent jump-scare movies of the Conjuring variety. All in all this is a bit uneven and perhaps not overly representative of Bava’s style or of Italian horror movies to come, but it’s a solid example of the kind of horror movies that were being made in the early 60s with some neat atmosphere and some of the right kind of cheese.
***1/2 out of Five
Blood and Black Lace (1964)
If Black Sabbath was perhaps not entirely representative of the violent Italian horror films that were to come his next major film Blood and Black Lace most certainly is. In fact the film more or less invented the sub-genre that would be most heavily associated with Italian horror: the Giallo. Now, some people erroneously throw around the word “Giallo” to describe any horror movie to come out of Italy in the 60s, 70s, and 80s but it actually refers to a very specific sub-genre. Gialli are non-supernatural thrillers, usually about serial killers and based on detective fiction dime novels that were popular at the time, they were essentially proto-slasher movies. The word itself translates to “yellow,” which refers to the fact that these novels were usually sold with yellow covers. It’s a bit like how we refer to certain books and movies as “pulp.” There may or may not be other precursors but many would argue that Blood and Black Lace invented this sub-genre.
The film was made during a time when the European film industry was seeing a wave of movies based on and inspired by a British mystery writer named Edgar Wallace and the producers who backed Blood and Black Lace were reportedly expecting a film along those lines from Bava, but Bava had become increasingly bored by those movies and wanted to shake things up by focusing on the violence of the murder mystery rather than the police procedural. The resulting film focuses on a fashion house in which a number of the models are being mysteriously stalked and murdered by a masked man with a hat and trench coat (he kind of looks like Rorschach from “Watchmen”). We see some of the police investigation into these crimes, but for the most part it’s told from the perspective of the potential victims and eventually from the perspective of the killer and we spend a lot more time watching the killer commit these murders than we do watching those police piece things together and the mystery itself is not wildly fascinating.
As this was still a movie from the early 60s there are still some limits to just how bloody the film could be but it is rather noticeably brutal in ways that movies generally weren’t during this era. As the title implies there’s also a rather shamelessly sexual dimension to the movie and its violence. Again, it’s the early 60s so there’s little in the way of actual sex or nudity but a lot of the murder victims find themselves in lingerie (though not black lace lingerie as the title would imply), and yeah I’m sure that’s all kinds of problematic if you think about it but the point is that this movie was doing stuff like that before there was an entire genre for such things and he did it with more bluntness than something like Psycho or Peeping Tom. Of course a lot of this appeal comes more from seeing it now and seeing its eventual influence. A lot of its importance was likely less apparent at the time and indeed the movie probably proved to be a bit ahead of its time. It wasn’t much of a financial success in Italy and while it did get released by America it wasn’t by the lucrative B-movie studio AIP like Black Sabbath was because it was (rightly) considered to be too intense for the eight-year-olds that would be the audience for horror movies of the Vincent Price variety. The giallo craze would be delayed for a little while as Bava moved on to make horror flicks of different varieties and baton wouldn’t really be picked up until Dario Argento came along a few years later.
***1/2 out of Five
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)
Mario Bava may have more or less invented the giallo film genre but Dario Argento was definitely the one to popularize it and that process started right with his debut film The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. Like Blood and Black Lace this is ostensibly a mystery rather than a horror film but one that is very interested in filming the scenes where the killer stalks and murders people. This one does take a bit more interest in the investigative elements of its story than Blood and Black Lace does in part because it’s being told from the perspective of an American tourist who witnesses a woman get stabbed and attempts to find the killer on the loose on his own while he’s stuck in Italy as a material witness. The tourist is played by an American actor named Tony Musante, one of many American actors who appeared in Italian genre films the era for the same reasons Clint Eastwood appeared in his spaghetti westerns but never went on to stardom like he did. Musante is actually a big part of why the film works as well as it does, unlike a lot of people who show up in exploitation films like this Musante’s character is genuinely likable and personable; you want to root for him and you feel like he has the right intentions. The mystery at the film’s center is not exactly rock solid, it’s not the kind of thing you can really solve by looking at the clues and it finally comes together through something of a deus ex machina, but the story moves along in the moments and mostly works for the movies.
The film was almost certainly influenced by Blood and Black Lace but it also clearly comes from a later school of filmmaking that was less bound to soundstages. The film was actually shot by Vittorio Storaro shortly before he would shoot major movies with the likes of Bernardo Bertolucci and Francis Ford Coppola. The cinematography is more down to earth and natural than the highly expressionistic look that Argento would embrace latter in his career in movies like Suspiria but it does look slick in a way that elevates it a bit. I was also surprised that this movie wasn’t really all that gory. There are conceptually nasty killings in the film to be sure and some of them do have a little bit of that signature bright red blood but the camera does semi-tastefully cut away from a lot of the nastier bits and the movie isn’t going out of its way to invent gross ways to murder people. In fact the movie apparently managed to play in the United States with a PG rating with only about 20 seconds of cuts, which even in a pre-PG-13 era seems kind of crazy, the movie is more violent than that would imply. That lack of brutality likely did contribute to the film’s accessibility and helped it become a big international hit within the B-movie/exploitation world despite having a kind of terrible title. This would start a giallo wave in Italy which Argento himself would continue through his trilogy of movies with animals in the title before moving on to full on horror movies with more of a supernatural bend.
***1/2 out of Five
In selecting Dario Argento movies for this project I was careful to pick one of his giallo films and one of his more supernatural projects and for the latter film it seemed the logical choice was his 1980 semi-sequel to Suspiria entitled Inferno. While I doubt that Argento had overly concrete plans for sequels in mind when he was making Suspiria that film was inspired by an 1845 Thomas de Quincey book which described three personified “sorrows”: a Mother of Sighs, a Mother of Darkness, and a Mother of Tears. This wasn’t outlined in Suspiria but it’s certainly outlined in Inferno, in fact much of the first half of the movie seems to consist of people reading from various old books about these three so that audiences will fully understand the connection between this Suspiria, and a third film that was presumably on its way. The witch killed at the end of Suspiria was meant to be the Mother of Sighs (Mater Suspiriorum) and the witch at the center of Inferno is meant to be the Mother of Darkness (Mater Tenebrarum, though given this it’s curious that this wasn’t called “Tenebrae,” which was the title of his next film which was unrelated to all of this). Argento would eventually finish his trilogy twenty seven years later with the film The Mother of Tears, which is by all accounts terrible.
Scene for scene Suspiria often operated on a pretty strange dream (nightmare?) logic but at its center was a pretty simple story of a girl who arrives at a dance school, observes strange things, then confronts the monster behind it all. Inferno is not so simple; it swaps protagonists half-way through, it goes on endlessly about the lore of these witches while doing little to actually show how this covenant works, it has a bunch of side characters who only complicate things, and it frankly isn’t entirely clear why the characters are involved with these witches in the first place. The film employs a lot of the same extreme lighting as Suspiria but it often isn’t as effective in the film’s various New York locations as it was in the previous film’s German dance school and it generally doesn’t flow as well given that the film isn’t largely from the perspective of a single character. I was also kind of shocked that the film wasn’t in widescreen like Argento’s earlier films and I do think that took something away from the style. There are a handful of solid horror scenes throughout the film, but it’s a much slower burn in general, which was possibly a response to criticisms that Suspiria peaked in its first fifteen minutes and wasn’t able to top its first couple of kills but it really hurts the film’s momentum. Argento himself doesn’t care for the movie, in part because he was very sick while making it, and feels like that hurt the film and his memories of it. That, along with the fact that the film was a failure at the box office, contributed to him cutting off his “Three Mothers” trilogy, and given the results I can’t entirely blame him.
** out of Five
I had kind of expected this look at the Italian horror tradition would be a nonstop orgy of blood and guts but so far things have been a little bit more tasteful than I expected, that is until now when we get to Lucio Fulci, a man who’s entire career has been largely defined by button pushing exploitation violence. Like a lot of his peers, Fulci started working on films in the 50s and 60s and made films in a variety of genres including musical, comedies, and westerns, but in the wake of Dario Argento’s success with The Bird with the Crystal Plumage he started making gialli like Don’t Torture a Duckling, but he really solidified himself as a director of horror films with his 1979 film Zombie. Known as Zombi 2 in Italy, this was one of a number of Italian movies from the era which used a loophole in Italian copyright law which allowed anyone to market unofficial sequels to any movie without purchasing the rights so long as the plot and characters were actually original. In this case they were trying to pass their movie off as a sequel to George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, which was re-edited into a more violent and less socially conscious film in Europe and released under the title “Zombi.” The connections really do pretty much end at the title, although zombies probably weren’t as common on screen during this period so maybe the connection would have been more plausible at the time.
Zombie is partly an attempt to bring back the original Caribbean take on zombie mythology that was explored way back in movies like White Zombie and I Walked With a Zombie and mix that with the zombie rules that Romero introduced like “you have to shoot the zombie in the head to kill them” and “if a zombie bites you you turn into one.” It’s also noticeably more violent and just generally schlocky than the movies that Bava and Argento were making and he doesn’t seem to have the same pretentions of making stylish and operatic horror works. This one actually contained the first major instance of nudity out of the six movie I’m watching, and it came in the form of an extended topless scuba diving scene which famously ends with a zombie punching a shark. The film also has one of the all-time gore moments in a scene where a zombie punches through a door, grabs a woman on the other side of it, and then slowly pulls her forward until her eye is gouged out by one of the pointy wood pieces right on camera in close-up without cutting away. The zombies themselves are also particularly gnarly, and I distinctly remember seeing the VHS cover with the zombie with the worms coming out of his eyes as a kid and being pretty grossed out by it. The movie ain’t Shakespeare, and it’s not for everyone, but for gorehounds of a certain era the movie delivered the goods and it’s going to be remembered because of it.
*** out of Five
The Beyond (1981)
The Beyond is probably Lucio Fulci’s most famous film along with Zombie and it’s actually a spiritual sequel to another movie of his called City of the Living Dead and would be succeeded by another film The House by the Cemetery which together make up the “gates of hell” trilogy. I think this trilogy was meant to be something of a response to what Dario Argento was making with his “three mothers” trilogy: three movies of random horror murders sort of loosely tied together by a very ill-formed horror mythology. The plot here is in many ways very simple: a couple buys a hotel that was built on top of a gate to hell, and scary/violent shit happens to them because of it. The movie does very little to develop the various victims that would be killed by the various entities that come out of the gate. The film kind of operates off of a similar dream logic to Suspiria and Inferno in that it isn’t terribly concerned with establishing consistent logic for the film’s various supernatural goings on. Unlike Suspiria the film is not terribly interested in high falutin cinematography. I don’t mean to say that there was no thought put into the film’s look or atmosphere at all, it’s certainly made with (relative) competence and has a look, but it doesn’t operate with the grandiosity to match up to that “dream logic.”
What the film does have a clear interest in is blood and gore. Zombie was pretty bloody but this thing clearly tops it. It starts by showing a guy getting wipped to pieces by a chain, nailed to a wall, and then having his face melted off and it kind of just gets more vicious from there. Gory horror films usually like to focus on intestinal extraction but Fulci clearly has some kind of deep fear of eye torture because he has at least three different eyeball gouging scenes here that are trying to top the eye stabbing from Zombie. Some of the effects in the movie have not aged perfectly and probably never looked quite right to begin with. You can clearly tell that a lot of the bodies and faced that are getting their flesh ripped off are animatronic but just the same it’s sometimes the thought that counts in movies like this even if you don’t entirely believe the gore. Like, take the famous scene where a guy gets bitten to death by flesh eating tarantulas. They did get real spiders for the scene, but they never crawl on a real face and you can kind of tell that the p.o.v. shots are just being done by having the tarantulas walk on glass and when they start ripping off flesh from the guy’s face it is very plainly latex, but still how many other movies even try to show people people getting eaten alive by spiders? Or take the dog attack scene. In Cujo they cut away from all most all the parts where the dog murders anyone but here they go right in and give you a close-up of when the German Shepard rips off the lady’s throat. Good wholesome fun. Definitely not the first extreme Italian horror movie that anyone should watch but if you’ve reached a point where you really want to have that extra bit of violence in your life this will not disappoint.
*** out of Five