Ciao, Horror! By Kristin Battestella
These Italian set and produced chills provide retro horror and unique creepiness to spice up your staycation.
Blood and Roses – Mel Ferrer (Falcon Crest) leads this 1960 French/Italian Carmilla influenced production brimming with lovely outdoor locations and lookalike relatives mixing romance and Karnstein history. Though the currently gathered descendants scoff at vampire myths and stories of peasants taking stakes into their own hands centuries ago; familiar names, 500 year old Mircalla voiceovers, and a costume party in a ruined abbey add period piece mood to the modern suits, fifties frocks, and swanky cocktails for a slightly baroque blend. While not as lavish as the later Hammer pictures, this is indeed colorful thanks to quality titular motifs, white wedding dresses, and red fireworks. Peppering creepy words accent the smoke, crosses, tombs, heartbeats, and vampire spirits ready to possess anew. Mirrors, screams, and zooms make for some suspenseful moments – unseen vampire deceptions escalate over the discovery of bodies with neck wounds. However, there is a symbolic sensuality, implied saucy, and very Bava-Esque pretty in the surreal, black and white dream sequence winking with water, sanitariums, naked mannequins, and nurses with bloody hands. It’s a bittersweet, medieval feeling with all kinds of lesbian vampire shade, blonde versus brunette rivalries, and so close you want to be her Single White Female innuendo. Director Roger Vadim (Barbarella) certainly liked his statuesque blondes, and there are fine personality changes for his then-wife Annette Stroyberg (also of Vadim’s Les Liaisons dangereuses) as the bewitching, possessed Carmilla – she’s minuet dancing, can’t work the record player, and horses misbehave around her. Elsa Martinelli (Hatari!) is also divine in several portrait-like stills paralleling Carmilla’s feminine desire to be loved as much as her necessity for blood. Different edited or longer versions affect the plot here, but the dubbed seventy-four minute edition is currently available on Amazon Prime. While it won’t be scary for modern audiences, this sophisticated and creepy but no less tender tale is impressive and worth seeing.
The Church – Three films claim to be Demons 3 in the somewhat confusing Italian Demoni series. Fortunately, this 1989 Dario Argento produced stand alone sequel opens with galloping knights versus witches, scary organ music, demonic signs, prophecy, torches, and head chopping slaughter. So what if it is kind of small scale, the helmets look like spray painted buckets, and kids literally have baskets on their heads! Crosses, stonework, church bells, Gothic spires, and gargoyles bring the medieval ecclesiastic yet sinister atmosphere to the modern day prayers, Biblical quotes, maze-like catacombs, and dusty library tomes. The titular temple was built to sanctify mass burials and keep evil caged below, and the tale sticks almost exclusively to the sanctuary setting as Indiana Jones temptations for buried treasure lead to coded parchments, architectural clues, suspicious altar sounds, and ghostly horses. A crusty old bishop, the new librarian reading backwards Latin, an art restorer cleaning morbid murals, the rebellious custodian’s daughter – innuendo, icky saucy, and nasty behaviors increase as evil seeps out over this interesting variety of trapped people also including a school trip, one bickering old couple, and a couture photo shoot. Even dripping water becomes suspect once the bloody spouts, blue smoke, booby traps, gruesome deaths, and reptilian hands spread evil manifestations and infestations. Frightening confessions, decaying bodily possessions, literal bleeding hearts – today’s audiences may not appreciate the slow burn one by one, but knowing it is just a matter of when adds to the robes, stained glass, rituals, and chanting. How can one fight the bestial Satan when he’s entered the hallowed itself? Although the past and present connections can be confusing and remain unexplained beyond a happened before and will again warning, the skeletons, gory bodies, wings, and horns make for a very wild finale. This picture is not shy with its imagery nor its parallels – the demons only escape because human corruption was already there, using unleashed horrors to remind us that it’s safer to leave well enough alone.
The Ghost – Skulls, storms, candles, deathbed cripples and melancholy music to match immediately set the Gothic mood and Scotland 1910 period stylings of this colorful 1963 Italian haunt starring Barbara Steele (Black Sunday). The dubbing is off kilter – the occasional dubbed Scottish accent is especially bemusing – and the innate video quality isn’t the best. However, syringes, séances, poisons, and risky medical research mixed with black magic possibilities add to the up to no good atmosphere and twilight surreal. Illicit meetings, gin, revolvers, straight razors – the scheming lovers are getting desperate and antsy waiting for those in the way to die. Steele is divine in white furs and lace to start before switching to black mourning veils for the reading of the will. It’s tough not to hear her voice, but some sensuous melodrama accents the suspenseful tone, tolling bells, howling dogs, and foreboding Psalm 23. Is the missing key to the safe in the dead and buried’s coat pocket? Eerie sounds, shadows, and wheelchairs moving on their own escalate to ghostly callings and spooky music box playing while the hysterics, a suspect housekeeper, and creepy apparitions intensify the macabre treasure hunt even when there is only one person onscreen. Contemporary viewers may find the ninety-five minutes slow, and this is rough around the edges – a derivative scandal and haunting that should have been tighter. Too many late but wait there’s more twists border on preposterous, yet the increasingly trippy specters do make for a few surprises. The audience dislikes the phantom, but turnabout upon the adulterers is fair play with chilling irony, mysticism, double crossings, crypts, and coffins. We know a set up is coming, but it’s tense good fun in getting there thanks to some ambient captions such as “Sound of someone knocking,” “Creaking Door,” “Sound of Footsteps,” and “Clap of Thunder.” Oh yeah.
Macabre – It’s murder and passion via New Orleans in this atmospheric 1980 Italian swanky from director Lamberto Bava. The colorful locale is part of the plot with river boats, historic architecture, street corner jazz, and romantic melodies. The lush décor is both tacky seventies with velvet curtains and tawny patinas as well as of old thanks to gilded wallpaper, candelabras, and cluttered antiques. Cigarettes, cocktails, and pearls set off the easy to slip out of satin as illicit phone calls make mom leave the kids to babysit themselves during her dalliance. Moaning and heavy panting overheard by the white knuckled blind neighbor are intercut with child terrors, bathtub horrors, shattered glass, bloody beams, and vehicular shocks before an institution stay and return to the love nest becomes suspicious self love with altars to the deceased, ghostly footsteps, and unseen phantom encounters. Through the banister filming, windows, mirrors, and similar posturing add to the naughty mother and creepy daughter duplicity while our blind virginal musical instrument repair man must listen to the saucy and toot his own horn, so to speak, as the silent awkwardness and martini music provide emotion with little dialogue. The narrative may over-rely on the score, meandering on the pathetic situation too much, but there’s enough weirdness balancing the mellow thanks to the cruel temptations and nasty bedroom suggestions as white negligees become black sheers and candlelit interiors darken. The effortless jazz switches to pulsing, scary beats as some serious unexplained ghost sex, undead voodoo, or other unknown witchcraft escalates the decapitation innuendo and like mother, like daughter warped. Our blind audience avatar hides to not be seen, others unseen can sneak passed him, and we’re all unable to see behind closed doors – layering the suspense, voyeurism, and two fold bizarre amid bedroom shockers, ominous tokens, overcast cemeteries, and one locked refrigerator. The saucy, nudity, and gore are adult sophisticated without being vulgar in your face tits and splatter a minute like today, and tense toppers don’t have to rely on fake out scares. Granted, there are timeline fudges, some confusion, and laughable parts. It’s probably obvious what’s happening to most viewers, yet we’re glued to the screen nonetheless with ironic puns, turnabouts, kitchen frights, and titular twists. I guess edible and sexual horrors don’t mix!
For more Foreign Horror Treats, check out Our Mario Bava Essentials!