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Italian Horror
Page 1Page 2    article by Gary Johnson -- page 2 of 2

Wolfgang Preiss as the Professor in
Mill of the Stone Women.

Many other Italian directors were pulled to gothic horror in the '60s and many other interesting, atmospheric movies resulted. Giorgio Ferroni gave us one of the most underrated movies of this period, The Mill of the Stone Women (Italian title: Il mulino delle donne di pietra). This movie took place in one of the most imaginative and evocative settings of any Italian gothic movie--an old mill with slowly moving wind vanes. The mill functioned like a huge music box and statues of beautiful young women decorated its walls. As the movie progresses, we find out the statues are actually the plaster-covered bodies of murder victims. In addition, Mario Caiano gave us a fetishistic ode to Barbara Steele in Nightmare Castle. And Luciano Ricci (with uncredited direction from young British director Michael Reeves) gave us Castle of the Living Dead, starring Christopher Lee

Many of the films from the golden-age of Italian horror were never particularly successful in Italy. But elsewhere in the world, these films found an enthralled audience. Many Italian filmmakers and actors even hid their identities with English-sounding names. Riccardo Freda became Robert Hampton. Antonio Margheriti became Anthony Dawson, and Mario Bava became John M. Old.

In contrast to the beautiful films of Bava, Freda, and Margheriti, a cruder horror tradition simultaneously existed in Italy. It was embodied in movies such as The Vampire and the Ballerina (Italian title: L'Amante del Vampiro, "The Vampire's Lover"), The Playgirls and the Vampire (Italian title: L'ultima preda del vampiro, "The Last Victim of the Vampire"), and Atom Age Vampire (Italian title: Seddok, l'erede di Satana). These movies contained little of the complexities of Freda, Bava, and Margheriti. A typical scene from The Playgirls and the Vampire shows a group of strippers practicing their craft while stranded in the castle of a vampire. But even silly movies such as these are frequently filled with such bizarre images that they take on a surrealistic atmosphere. As a result, even with the ludicrous situations, these movies can be fascinating viewing--especially for those people with a taste for "camp." (Significantly, courtesy of dubbing, the American version also turned the strippers of The Playgirls and the Vampire into ballerinas!)

Maria Giovanni gets staked in
The Vampire and the Playgirls.

By the late '60s, however, Italian gothic horror desperately needed some new blood. Many of the situations had long become cliché. All too frequently travelers became stranded at isolated castles. All too frequently duplicitous lovers plotted murder against a wealthy husband. And all too often mad doctors searched for blood in order to restore a dead wife or daughter.

As the political climate in Italy changed in the late '60s, filmmakers found greater freedom and less censorship. As a result, filmmakers focused more upon blood and gore and less upon atmosphere. The gothic horror movie started to disappear, dwindling to a trickle in the '70s. In their place, a new tradition developed, embodied by masked killers and overworked detectives. Dario Argento showed a path to the future with his giallo-thriller The Bird with Crystal Plumage, and many other mysteriously-titled movies followed in its wake, such as Lucio Fulci's A Lizard in a Woman's Skin. Even Riccardo Freda succumbed to the changing tastes and created his own murder mystery, The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire, as did Mario Bava with Five Dolls for an August Moon and Ecology of a Crime. (The grisly murders in the latter film would be closely imitated in Friday the 13th.)

As the decade wore on, masked murderers turned into zombies and cannibals in films such as Lucio Fulci's Zombi 2 and Ruggero Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust, while Mario Bava's son, Lamberto, contributed his own charnel house of horror, Demons in 1980.

By this time, gothic horror cinema, as it existed in the early '60s, was long gone. Whereas some genres thrive on the familiarity of their plots and their character types (as in the Western, for example), horror relies on surprises, and over familiarity tends to crush the thrills. But thanks to home video, most of these movies are now available again. Unfortunately, most of the prints are in sad condition, making watching these films a test of faith.

Italian poster artwork for What
courtesy of Dean Harris and Silent Scream.

For example, I can only trust Phil Hardy's observations in The Encyclopedia of Horror Movies when he claims that Nevenka (Daliah Lavi) is the mistress of her husband's father in Mario Bava's What. This part of the story is completely absent from the American print of the movie, and without this information, the father's death makes little sense. But when we see that the same knife was used to kill Nevenka's two lovers--as well as herself--the story gains an extra resonance and purpose. (Many TV prints are also missing all of the movie's sadomasochistic whipping scenes, which has the effect of rendering the movie completely incomprehensible.) That's part of the frustration and the attraction of Italian cinema as you can always wonder if a specific movie might suddenly make complete sense if a certain deleted sequence or mistranslated piece of dialog were restored. But the faith is really in the images themselves--as in Black Sunday when a crypt explodes to reveal the heaving body of the revived witch Asa, quickly coming back to life; as in The Horrible Dr. Hichcock when we see the distorted mask of Dr. Hichcock as he descends on his helpless wife Cynthia; as in Castle of Blood when we see the tangle of bloodied bodies around the bed of Elizabeth. These magnificent images--some of the most powerful images in the history of horror cinema--are enough to give their fans a religious-like faith in the genre.

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Italian Horror Menu page

Italian Horror: A Brief Introduction

Mario Bava: The Illusion of Reality

Mario Bava's Rabid Dogs

Mario Bava Biography

The Horrible Dr. Hichcock

The Devil's Commandment

Castle of Blood

Nightmare Castle

The Bloody Pit of Horror

Italian Horror in the Seventies


Italian Horror Web Links


Photo credits: Silent Scream and Sinister Cinema


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