Italian Gothic Horror

Posted by Xavier Aldana Reyes on July 15, 2013 in Dr Xavier Aldana Reyes, Guest Blog tagged with , , , , ,

Italy is a country that has a long history of production in the horror genre, and it therefore seemed like the right place to go after last week’s blog post. As I explained, France has only developed something close to an endemic horror tradition in the past two decades. By contrast, Italy’s horror credentials, although they developed relatively late in comparison to Germany, have shown a strong and committed connection to the genre.[1] After the industry’s initial explosion in the 1960s, Italy’s horror output continued unabated throughout the 1970s, when it developed alongside other s/exploitative fare. Key landmark films extend as far back as 1980s and 1990s. Although Italian horror is not currently in as healthy a state as French or Spanish horror, recent films such as Closed Circuit Extreme (Giorgia Amato, 2012) are testament to the fact that the country still stays abreast of innovations and changes in the genre. This post offers a brief survey of Italian horror and focuses on its first gothic cycle as well as later notable films that either clearly inscribe themselves within it or show similar preoccupations. My interest lies specifically in Italy’s mixture of inherently Italian products with international casts, often made for an equally international audience. This aspect of European gothic horror, the nature of its global yet local properties, is something that I will go on to explore in more detail next week in relation to Spain.

Digital horror: Still from the recent 'Closed Circuit Extreme' (2012)

Subgenres and Cycles: Gialli, Cannibal Films and Zombie Flicks

To write categorically about Italian horror requires something close to encyclopaedic knowledge. There are whole volumes dedicated to the films of the 1960s and 1970s, particularly busy periods for gothic film and the giallo.[2] The number of these in more general readers and movie guides is also significant, and suggests their international appeal and influence abroad. Unlike France, since the 1960s Italy has produced a constant stream of horror films that we can divide into thematic categories, and a series of subgenres that have a distinctive sense of national identity. It has also has seen a number of directors, such as Mario Bava, Lamberto Bava, Ruggero Deodato or Michele Soavi, gain auteur status.[3] Dario Argento, notably, is considered such a distinct figure that, in 2005 and 2006 he was asked to direct two episodes of the American TV series Masters of Horror. These were labelled Dario Argento’s ‘Jenifer’ (2005) and ‘Pelts’ (2006), indicating his standing in that country and the recognition of a personal cinematic vision. Most Italian horror directors have toyed with the Gothic, either thematically or aesthetically, but the individual films that form their respective canons have never, to my knowledge, been discussed as a distinct gothic genre. In fact, specialised publications tend to focus on the work produced in the 1960s.[4] It is not my intention here to bring these works together into a coherent narrative, least of all because of the limited space. Instead, I will limit myself to delineating certain thematic areas and, in the second half, to noting a few common aspects of the most obviously gothic strands.

Supernatural racoons have their furry revenge in Argento’s Masters of Horror episode ‘Pelts’ (2006)

I have already mentioned Argento’s work. Although he is now better known for his horror work in films such as Suspiria (1977) or Terror at the Opera / Opera (1987), he started his directorial career with brutal thrillers, or gialli, such as The Bird with the Crystal Plumage / L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo (1969) or Four Flies on Grey Velvet / 4 mosche di velluto grigio (Dario Argento, 1971).[5] The giallo subgenre does not rely stylistically on the gothic; it is a subgenre that mixes equal parts of suspense and horror and that derives from the pulp novels from which it received its name – giallo means yellow, the trademark colour for covers of pulp fiction sold in the 1920s. Its relationship to the gothic is therefore complicated, namely because directors such as Bava, Argento or Fulci produced both gialli and more straightforward gothic products, sometimes in close proximity, to the point that their aesthetic and thematic preoccupations cross over and blend. A film such as The House of the Laughing Windows / La casa dale finestre che ridono (Pupi Avati, 1976), which appears to be a straight giallo, becomes harder to categorise after the introduction of two demented witch sisters and a corpse kept in formaldehyde that apparently paints church frescoes from beyond. Allegedly kickstarted in the 1960s by Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much / La ragazza che sapeva troppo (1963) and Blood and Black Lace / Sei donne per l’assassino (1964), and then cemented through films such as A Bay of Blood / Reazione a catena (1971), the giallo would, in turn, influence another subgenre that is still very popular: the slasher. In fact, an infamous scene in A Bay of Blood, where two lovers are impaled by a spear that also traverses the mattress in which they are having sex, was lifted for the latter Friday the 13th series. The giallo has been key to the history of horror, not only because of its influential aesthetic treatment of violence and erotic titillation, but for its national specificities and self-awareness.[6] Built into it is also a strong sense of the return of the repressed, of a past that is oppressive or punishing, which resonates with the gothic. Gialli feature killers who are severely traumatised, sometimes psychosexually. Usually, but not exclusively, their revenge is sparked by childhood experiences, and their identities are virtually unguessable.

Colour-saturated murders: Mario Bava’s seminal giallo ‘Blood and Black Lace’ (1964)

Italy has also been known for at least two other contributions to the history of horror. The first of these is the cannibal cycle, which began with Deodato’s The The Last Cannibal World / Ultimo mondo cannibale (Ruggero Deodato, 1977) and climaxed with his own Cannibal Holocaust (Ruggero Deodato, 1980). The latter has been recently reclaimed as a landmark in 1980s horror film, and as a piece that made some pioneering use of handheld cameras and that predates the found footage phenomenon of the successful The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, 1999). Cannibal Holocaust has also been recuperated for its socio-political dimensions; it has, for example, been read as a product of the anni di piombo.[7] This short-lived but intense cycle also saw the production of a film that still has not been passed uncut in the UK, Cannibal Ferox (Umberto Lenzi, 1981), which famously features a scene where a woman is lifted from her breasts on meat hooks. Scenes of what may perceived to be incitements to violence, particularly of a sexual nature, and Italy’s larger connection to sexploitative material have made its study a controversial area.[8] However, despite their problematic representational politics, cannibal films are interesting as updates on the connections between Western notions of the exotic, what is perceived to be ‘barbaric’ by self-professed civilised countries, and the gothic. The Catholic countries that appear in Radcliffe and Lewis’s work are transferred here to the unexplored and dangerous territories of the jungle.

Going native: Ruggero Deodato’s handheld masterpiece ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ (1980)

The other important cycle that blossomed in the 1970s was the zombie film, as a result, perhaps, of George A. Romero’s huge success with his independent Night of the Living Dead (1968). Lucio Fulci, who directed the video nasty Zombie Flesh Eaters / Zombie (1979), would later bring together the supernatural film and the zombie flick in his classic The Beyond / L’aldilà (1981) and the lesser The House by the Cemetery / Quella villa accento al cimitero (1981). These films have a very distinctive Gothic look and feel that makes the most of dark crypts, flooded underground passages and dark houses, and Fulci would later further develop this marked taste by directing features such as the made-for-TV The Sweet House of Horrors / La dolce casa degli orrori (1989). His extreme use of gore, typical of some Italian horror, became a trademarkthat he would sometimes find hard to shake off, as he showed in his portrait study A Cat in the Brain / Un gatto nel cervello (1990). Burial Ground: The Nights of Terror / Le notti del terrore (Andrea Bianchi, 1981) a virtually dialogue-free zombie film, attempts to pull together the putrescent terrors of Romero’s film Fulci’s gore and manages to create a tense atmosphere that is sometimes absent from more elaborate zombie films. Although not strictly zombies, the creatures in Lamberto Bava’s Demons / Dèmoni (Lamberto Bava, 1985), with their rotting skin, overflowing green bile and contagious bites, serve a similar purpose. This film also offers a tongue-in-cheek exploration of the potentially detrimental effects of horror movies in their viewers by having one of its creatures break through the screen and into a cinema theatre.

Metatextual 'Demons' (1985): Lamberto Bava’s creatures break through the screen

Gothic Horror: Splendour and Dispersion

The golden age of Italian gothic horror was roughly 1960 to 1965. Although Frankenstein’s Monster / Il mostro di Frankenstein (1921), Malombra (Mario Soldati, 1942) and Lust of the Vampire / I vampiri (Riccardo Freda, 1956) are clear forerunners, it was the success of Bava’s Black Sunday / La Maschera del demonio (Mario Bava, 1960), which also catapulted British actress Barbara Steele to fame, that started a surge of interest in the gothic. Almost immediately, there was a flood of films that took place in old dark houses full of nasty secrets (Mill of the Stone Women / Il mulino delle donne di pietra [Giorgio Ferroni, 1960] and The Horrible Dr. Hitchcock / L’orribile segreto del Dr. Hitchcock [Riccardo Freda, 1962]), contained sadistic violence (The Whip and the Body / La frusta e il corpo [Mario Bava, 1963]) and featured vengeful spectres (real in the case of Long Hair of Death / I lunghi capelli della morte [Antonio Margheriti, 1964] and fake in that of The Ghost / Lo spettro [Riccardo Freda, 1963]). Black Sunday, which centres on the return two hundred years later of a witch and her lover after they are executed gruesomely by the Inquisition, also doubles as a vampire film – although no fangs are ever shown. Bava’s own portmanteau film Black Sabbath / I tre volti della paura (Mario Bava, 1963) would make a much clearer vampiric investment by adapting Alexei Tolstoi’s ‘The Family of the Vourdalak’ (1884), a novella about a house visited by a blood-sucker. Boris Karloff’s collaboration as Gorcha, the patriarch, and the film’s histrionic use of colour did much to connect this piece to the products of well-established horror institutions such as Universal and Hammer Horror, and to the more recent success of Roger Corman’s Poe cycle. Other notable films tend to be in black and white, feature haunting music scores, and feature international actors such as Christopher Lee or Barbara Steele, who worked on at least nine other gothic films in this period.[9] Nightmare Castle / Amanti d’oltretomba (Mario Caiano, 1965) tells the story of Muriel (Steele) and her lover, both of whom are killed by the former’s husband, Stephen (Paul Muller). Stephen happens to be a mad scientist, who manages to seal the spirits of the lovers in a glass box that contains their two speared hearts. When he marries Muriel’s doppelgänger-sister, uncannily played by Steele herself, a ploy to drive her insane and win her inheritance ends up awakening the wrath of the dead lovers. A similar premise drives Castle of Blood / Danza macabra (Sergio Corbucci, 1964), which interestingly presents an Edgar Allan Poe who has been challenged to spend a night at a haunted castle. The ghosts of the dead, alive enough to even engage in a little bit of lesbian erotica, inevitably come out to play.

She Wants Revenge: Barbara Steele comes back in 'Nightmare Castle' (1965)

A later related leg of the gothic horror film, and one which has manifested repeatedly over the past few decades, exploits the magic and sorcery latent in the films of the 1960s and grounds them in ecclesiastic settings. The Church / La chiesa (1989), directed by the very same Michele Soavi who would be later responsible for the fantastically macabre Cemetery Man / Dellamorte Dellamore (1994), deals with the breaking of a seal that had kept the malevolent spirits of the unjustly slayed at bay. The latter Dark Waters / Temnye vody (Mariano Baino, 1993) is more interesting in its marriage of sumptuous monastic settings and Lovecraftian lore. In it, a young English girl returns to her birthplace (a remote island) only to discover that her mother is a sea monster. The claustrophobic underground scenes, replete with flagellating nuns and candles that wallpaper the nooks and crannies of cavernous secret passages, appropriately complement the heroine’s fragile psychology and nimble sense of identity. More recently, Arcane Sorcerer / L’Arcano Incantatore (Pupi Avati, 1996), which had to be filmed in Russia, showed the exhaustion of this type of setting-heavy production. The film follows the adventures of a seminary student’s involvement in the esoteric dealings of an ailing priest, and relies heavily on the ornate gothic backgrounds that form the mise-en-scène.

Michele Soavi’s ‘The Church’ (1989): Body towers and dark ecclesiastic secrets

A marked preoccupation with the dark arts, however, has mixed well with witchcraft and the supernatural. I have already mentioned the highly-influential Black Sunday, but a number of other features, including Argento’s work, have drawn their power from demonic figures that are periodically resuscitated. Witches are one of these popular revenants. Baldera, in The She Beast (Michael Reeves, 1966), is a cursed woman burnt alive by peasants alive who returns by means of possession centuries later to haunt the locality. Her grotesque face, resembling a disfigured pig, is memorable and was used for one of the promotional posters. Suspiria, perhaps the most famous of all Argento films and still a favourite of horror fans, famously follows the adventures of ballet student Suzy (Jessica Harper) as she uncovers a coven at a dance academy. Its odd mixture of gruesome killings, portrayed artistically, and hyperstylised use of colour and lighting have, in fact, become one of the director’s calling cards. The other popular revenant is the punisher or torturer, which appears in films such as Bloody Pit of Horror / Il boia scarlatto (Massimo Pupillo, 1965) or The Virgin of Nuremberg / La vergine di Norimberga (Antonio Margheriti, 1963). These masked men are generally invoked, whether by accident or purposely by a younger, contemporary crowd, and ineluctably continue to visit their perfidious affairs on whoever happens to be disturb their rest. The most notable example, Bava’s Baron Blood / Gli orrori del castello di Norimberga (Mario Bava, 1972), pushes all the gothic stops in its use of a crypt and castle, church bells and cemetery.

Torture galore: The Punisher and the Iron Maiden of 'The Virgin of Nuremberg' (1963)

Concluding thoughts

Italy has had a clear investment in all things gothic. It has developed a specific cycle with stock characters and formulaic situations that are almost interchangeable. It has also been very good at producing horror directors who sometimes dip into the gothic with specific films and, at other times, use recognisable tropes or images in what are essentially different filmic vehicles. It is interesting that these separate instances have not been picked up and analysed retrospectively. I wonder whether this issue might be an indication of how ‘gothic’ and ‘horror’ are terms that almost blend together, to the point that most horror will contain some gothic elements and these therefore do not appear remarkable in and of themselves. The last issue that comes out of this brief look at the country’s output, is its eminent transnational quality, which is a result of its context of production, shifting audiences and marketing strategies. I will attempt to address this area more thoroughly next week, from the point of view of Spanish cinema.

Argento’s adaptation of Stoker’s classic: 'Dracula 3D' (2012)

Works cited

Harper, Jim, Italian Horror (Baltimore: Midnight Marquee Press, 2009)

Hughes, Howard, Cinema Italiano: The Complete Guide from Classics to Cult (London and New York: I.B. Tauris, 2011)

Kannas, Alexia, ‘No Place Like Home: The Late-Modern World of the Italian Giallo Film’, Senses of Cinema 67 (2013): <> [accessed July 2013]

Marlow-Mann, Alex, ‘Gothic Horror’, in Directory of World Cinema: Italy, ed. by Louis Bayman (Bristol and Chicago: Intellect, 2011), pp.155-6

McCallum, Lawrence, Italian Horror Films of the 1960s: A Critical Catalog of 62 Chillers (Jefferson, NC: Thomas McFarland, 2004)

Paul, Louis, Italian Horror Film Directors (Jefferson, NC: Thomas McFarland, 2010)

Shipka, Danny, Perverse Titillation: The Exploitation Cinema of Italy, Spain and France, 1960-1980 (Jefferson, NC: Thomas McFarland, 2011)

Steele as Radcliffean heroine in ‘The Horrible Dr Hitchcock’ (1962)


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[1] I am considering German expressionism horror, even if this may appear anachronistic. Although the films would not have been marketed as such, they have been reclaimed as part of the canon by virtually every horror survey published in the past ten years.

[2] See, for example, McCallum (2004) or Harper (2009), which includes a 200-page A to Z guide.

[3] There are many other directors that can be considered foundational. Louis Paul also includes Umberto Lenzi, Antonia Margheriti, Aristede Massaccesi and Bruno Mattei in his Italian Horror Film Directors (2010).

[4] See Marlow-Mann (2011).

[5] Argento has recurred to recognisable tropes throughout his career and has even directed adaptations of gothic classics The Phantom of the Opera / Il fantasma dell’opera (1998) and Dracula 3D (2012). After his early work culminated in Deep Red / Profondo Rosso (1975), he turned to more overly fantastic films. Suspiria, which I mention later, has so far sparked two sequels that centre on the supernatural and the dark fantastic, Inferno (1980) and Mother of Tears / La terza madre (2007), but Phenomena (1985) is also noteworthy in this respect.

[6] See Shipka (2011: 19-170). The emphasis on mutilation, particularly of the female body, has made the giallo a subgenre ripe for the type of accusations of misogyny that the slasher has received. For more on the reflexive side of the genre, see Kannas (2013).

[7] For example, Prof Xavier Mendik has convincingly argued that its representations of political turmoil reflect those of the country in the late 1970s in the documentary The Long Road Back From Hell: Reclaiming Cannibal Holocaust (2011). It is included in the Shameless DVD release of the film.

[8] The taboo nature of some of the material is also important. Note, for example, the necrophilia in Flesh for Frankenstein (Paul Morrissey and Antonio Margheriti 1973), Beyond the Darkness / Buio Omega (Joe D’Amato, 1979) or Macabre / Macabro (Lamberto Bava, 1980).

[9] See the excellent ‘Tales from the Tomb’ chapter in Hughes (2011: 77-99).

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