Odds and Dead Ends: Greek Mythology / Cerberus

I like to dabble a bit in mythology and legends here in the Odds and Dead Ends corner, and this week is no exception. Having written on Cuchulain (Cu-hu-lun) and the Cyhyraeth (cih-here-aith) in the past, I decided to leave my Celtic homeland, whilst still keeping up the ‘C’ theme. There are many mythical creatures that have permeated popular culture, but one of the most famous must be the triple-threat hound of hell himself, Cerberus. Pronounced sir-bur-us, Cerberus is a monstrous dog that guards the underworld in ancient Greek mythology, and I’m going to give you a quick introduction to the monstrous pooch.

Guarding the entrance to the Underworld, the realm of Zeus’ brother, Hades, Cerberus is the offspring of Echidna and Typhon, two fearsome monsters both with snake-like parts of their anatomy. One of the most famous accounts of Cerberus is from Hesiod’s Theogony, also accounts Echidna as having given birth to Hydra of Lerna, the famous hydra of multiple heads. It is therefore perhaps not surprising, given all this, that Cerberus is described as having snakes as part of him in many sources.

Hesiod’s description of Cerberus is ‘a monster not to be overcome and that may not be described, Cerberus who eats raw flesh, the brazen-voiced hound of Hades, fifty-headed, relentless and strong.’ (Hesiod, 1914) Considering that the main image of Cerberus is with three heads (hence J. K. Rowling used Cerberus as the main source for Hagrid’s three headed dog, Fluffy, in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997)), which is something I’ll discuss later, it’s interesting to see him depicted in the old texts with far more heads than we now think of him as having, closer to a cross between Hydra and his other sibling in some texts, Chimera.

In his book Gods and Heroes in Late Archaic Greek Art, Karl Schefold and Luca Giuliani discuss the depictions of Kerberos (another spelling of Cerberus) on the ancient pottery of the time. These depictions are mainly in relation to one of the tasks of Herakles (the Greek spelling of Hercules), who was sent down to the underworld to subdue and retrieve the dog as part of his trials.[1] These trials are depicted throughout the famous epics, including Homer’s Iliad, one of the great epics of the ancient world. According to Schefold and Giulani, this task is ‘illustrated as early as the middle Korinthian period’ (p.129). They also discuss the painting…

by the powerful Lakonian artist dubbed the Hunt Painter… Here for the first time Kerberos has three heads to which Sophokles, following epic authority, refers… and he is completely covered with a shaggy coat of snakes, a feature already suggested on the Korinthian skyphos.’ (Schefold & Giulani, 1992, p. 129)

It’s interesting to see that it’s not even the written word, but pottery, that has clearly defined the monster and set in stone the attributes we associate with him. Even Sophocles, the famous Greek playwright, uses this image as his basis for Cerberus’ depiction.

Something I feel is often misunderstood is that Cerberus is that he stops unwanted people coming into the Underworld. This certainly may be a by-product, but his main function is to stop anyone escaping. Charon was the one that stopped anyone getting in, really, as he was the only transport over to Hades, and not many people that were alive ventured down to the underworld. According to Robin Hard, Charon was so shocked at seeing Herekles, alive, that he took him across to the land of the dead, ‘and was punished for this breach of his duties by being thrown into chains for a year.’ (Hard, 2003, p. 268) For the most part, Cerberus was the perfect creature stopping anything escaping the underworld, as Hard’s description makes plain:

Kerberos would not allow himself to be captured without a struggle and he was a formidable opponent even for the greatest of heroes, for he was not only large and powerful but had three heads (in the usual tradition at least) and a snake in his tail.’ (Hard, 2003)

In a way, Cerberus is the perfect guard dog of mythology. As with all mythology, it’s had some allegorizing over the years, such as being the ‘corrupt earth’ and Herekles’ victory representing his defeat over base, earthly passions, but it’s also perfectly fine to think he’s just a big dog with vicious teeth that will rip your face off. Certainly, one of the most well-known dogs of legend, not only has he featured in re-adaptations of Greek myths (such as in Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, (Riordan, 2005), but in video games such as Final Fantasy 8 (Kitase, 1997). Cerberus is a legend, quite literally, and a hell of a lot of fun to imagine and reimagine throughout the years.

-Article by Kieran Judge

-Follow him on Twitter: KJudgeMental

Bibliography

Christie, A., 1947. The Labours of Hercules. United States: Dodd.

Hard, R., 2003. The Routledge Handbook of Greek Mythology: Based on H. J. Rose’s Handbook of Greek Mythology. London: Routledge.

Hesiod, 1914. Hesiod, Theogony. [Online]
Available at: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Hes.+Th.+311
[Accessed 08 06 2019].

Homer & Butler, S., 2008. Iliad. Waiheke Island: The Floating Press.

Kitase, Y., 1997. Final Fantasy 8. s.l.:Square.

Riordan, R., 2005. The Lightning Thief. s.l.:Miramax Books.

Schefold, K. & Giulani, L., 1992. Gods and Heroes in Late Archaic Greek Art. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[1] Interestingly, these twelve tasks/trials were adapted by Agatha Christie as a series of short stories for her famous detective, Hercule Poirot, which form some of his last investigations in The Labours of Hercules. The detective is, as many can see, is named after the hero, so the theme fits very nicely.

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Odds and Dead Ends: Rustic Terror

Why The Wicker Man Still Scares Us by Kieran Judge

Released in 1973, Robin Hardy’s British pagan horror movie takes a policeman (played by Edward Woodward) onto the Scottish island of Summerisle to investigate a girl’s disappearance. Despite a bad remake with Nicholas Cage, and a spiritual sequel that failed to impress, the original film still has the ability to deeply disturb on a strange, fundamental level. I’m going to outline why I think The Wicker Man, despite its age and lack of blood and monsters, still manages to thrill and scare today.

When Howie arrives on the island, you’re initially greeted by great aerial shots of the little plane flying past the rugged terrain of the island, merely a white speck against the blue ocean. For the rest of the film, Howie is completely removed from the traffic in the pre-credit scenes, away from the churches and the police stations (these scenes re-added in the director’s cut). As Martin-Jones writes of the film, ‘The wilds of Scotland are thus considered a potentially treacherous location where a more ‘primitive’ attitude to life and death persists and duplicity and double-cross are deadly commonplaces against which the unwitting outsider must guard.’ (Martin-Jones, 2009). We’re on our own now in a cut-throat world.

And you get this impression right from the start. Upon landing, Howie asks the townsfolk to send a dinghy out so that he might come ashore, and their reply is they can’t do so without permission. Even announcing himself as a policeman seems to have little to no effect. Not only is this an island from which one cannot easily escape except by plane, but it is an environment where the people are dismissive, if not yet overtly hostile. It’s going to be hard going at the very least to find our missing girl.

The more we explore the culture, trying to get to the very heart of the matter of the missing Rowan Morrison, the more we feel we are intruding too far into a completely different world. Their pagan rituals are everywhere, from the maypole dancing and education at the school, to the chocolates being sold in the local shops. The Christianity that Howie holds so dear to him, (the virtues that Edward Woodward says are the most important values to him of all, in the DVD’s video commentary (The Wicker Man, 1973)) are up against a brick wall that we slowly, horrifyingly, realise is actually a trap, ensnaring us. Kbatz has a great review of the film from a few years ago in which she discusses some of the conflicts between the different religions, and I highly recommend you go and read it if you haven’t already: https://horroraddicts.wordpress.com/2013/04/23/kbatz-the-wicker-man/

Many people have commented on the music in the film, with the cast and crew on the DVD commentary saying that it fits the movie like a glove. I’ve known people to find the songs funny at times, which I think is telling in itself. It isn’t the usual score to a thriller film. Around 13 songs, based on traditional Scottish tunes and poems, form a surreal background to a completely alien world. It’s unnerving, and people trying to laugh it off may be a form of emotional relief

This also highlights that all of the people are genuinely enjoying the festivities. All of the townsfolk are smiling and treat Howie with the greatest of respect because, again referring to the audio commentary, they believe they are doing him the greatest service by plotting to make him a martyr. They believe they’re doing the right thing. And that’s one of the most terrifying things upon reflection, they believe in their hearts that they are rewarding him.

And then of course, for Howie, things go sour in the final act. Like the rotting apples and the crumbling churches, everything falls apart for the modern values of the western world embodied by our policeman. When he tries to leave he finds the plane broken and sabotaged, technology failing. Worshippers with animal masks watch on, and when Howie turns around they hide again. There’s a definite air of malice now, a concrete threat to Howie, and what was unease throughout the film suddenly becomes fear.

As we reach the climax of the film, we, like Howie, are clutching at straws. From feeling like the imposter in a strange land, Howie puts on the outfit of the fool and becomes the imposter. Now we’re in the very midst of the danger, aware that they intend a human sacrifice, and the very Christian policeman has to imitate the very thing that goes against his core values in order to carry out his job. The snapping hobby horse are the jaws of death. It’s a personal conflict of monumental importance, a moment where the personal micro tensions and the theological macro tensions come to fruition, and we have to hope that the man we follow will win out.

The entire parade is dragged out as long as possible for maximum tension. The scene with the sword dance in the stone circle is particularly tense, because for a moment we suddenly realise that there’s the possibility the worshippers know Howie is in the outfit. Thrust into the line, he has no but to go into the ring of swords and trust and hope his disguise holds out. With the chop! chop! chop! we have again a perverse soundtrack, substituting the war drums of conventional movie scores for a pagan call for death.

And then we arrive at the final scene. Howie is thrust into the Wicker Man, crying for his Lord, and we suddenly have to hope for the traditional horror movie to return. Horror films always save the protagonist, give us some kind of catharsis, but there’s nothing to be found here. The helicopter doesn’t arrive, rain doesn’t pour as an act of God and douse the flames licking at the wood, Howie doesn’t manage to escape and run to freedom. The cries for Jesus and the singing of traditional hymns are drowned out by the chanting ring of happy pagan faces as the head finally crumbles, burned to a crisp.

The Wicker Man takes our traditional western values and puts them into a world that has reverted to the past. The crusade Howie goes on fails to convert the islanders to the ‘modern’ ways of thinking. We leave the film having watched the protagonist having journeyed to a strange, unnervingly backward land and burned alive to appease ancient gods. We as an audience, his modern kin, have failed him. In a world of cut-and-paste zombie flicks, ghost girl movies, and lacklustre monster films, there’s just something about rustic terror of The Wicker Man that manages to unnerve. Everything comes together and culminates in a film that defies all the conventions, brings together the best cast and crew possible, and leaves the viewer having watched one of the most terrifying final scenes ever put to film.

 

Article by Kieran Judge

Follow Kieran on Twitter: KJudgeMental

 

Bibliography

Martin-Jones, D., 2009. Scotland global cinema: genres, modes and identities. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

The Wicker Man. 1973. [Film] Directed by Robin Hardy. UK: British Lion.

Odds And Dead Ends: Cuchulain

Cuchulain: The Champion of Ulster-Violence by Kieran Judge

Native myths and legends are something that are quickly glossed over in schools, or not taught enough. In Wales, or when I was at school here, aside from anything to do with dragons, you’d get a brief introduction to The Mabinogion through the story of the black cauldron, which some people might know of from a Disney movie roughly based on an adaptation of The Chronicles of Prydain, which was based on the Mabinogion in turn. That, really, was about it. In the island of Ireland (to avoid any political debates I’ll refer to the whole land mass as such from now on), the main texts are the four cycles, the Ulster Cycle, the Mythological Cycle, the Fenian Cycle, and the Historical Cycle. From these legends, perhaps no figure has captured the imagination more than Cuchulain.

Spelt in various ways (Cu Chulainn, Cúchulainn, etc), Cuchulain is a mythic descendant of the gods known for being almost unbeatable in battle even from a young age. He was the warrior hero, the Champion of Ulster, as many of the tales will tell. Renowned poet and playwright W. B. Yeats wrote a whole series of plays and poems about the mythic man as part of his attempt to revive Irish culture, a movement heavily tied in with Lady Gregory and the National Irish Theatre in the early 1900’s. However, Cuchulain was also a madman, prone to becoming overwhelmed in his bloodlust, going on to slaughter hundreds, thousands, without stopping. In his frenzy, he recognises neither friend nor foe, and in one tale, even kills his own son when he refuses to identify himself.

It’s this blood lust that I find most fascinating about Cuchulain. When he fights he becomes a man who is unable to tell his allies from his enemies, much like the typical description of the werewolf. He slaughters everyone in his path. This frenzy, however, can be stopped in a very unique fashion, as the final section of Jeffrey Gantz’s translation of The Boyhood Deeds of Cú Chulaind tells:

‘The women of Emuin went to meet Cú Chulaind gathered round Mugain, Conchubar’s wife, and they bared their breasts before him. …Cú Chulaind hid his face, whereupon the warriors of Ulaid seized him and thrust him into a vat of cold water. This vat burst, but the second vat into which he was thrust boiled up with fist-sized bubbles, and the third he merely heated to a moderate warmth.’ (Gantz, 1981, p. 146)

It’s clear to see that Cuchulain is much different to many of the hyper masculine heroes we see in other myths, such as Pryderi or Arthur from The Mabinogion, in that there is a switch inside him which takes tremendous effort, and the feminine form, to subdue. Even most of the Greek heroes remain themselves throughout the course of their many trials. Other heroes remain mostly gallant or noble, if a little misogynistic at times, but the Champion of Ulster seems to have that Jekyll and Hyde double inside him which I think is fascinating. It’s something that Cuchulain can’t control.

Perhaps, if we were to look into this a little further, one could suggest that the thrill of the battle brings out the warrior in him, the masculine of the superhuman. In contrast, the sight of the female form brings him back to the feminine human. The godly side of him, when in control, never wants to be contained again, never wants to accept the feminine. If you were really going to go into it, you could argue that the vats represent the womb and Cuchulain must be reborn through this into the mortal realm once again from his divine rage. I think this may be getting too far into it, however.

That Cuchulain was a flawed hero is obvious, but he was also understanding in his own way as well, as one of the tales in The Boyhood Deeds of Cú Chulaind shows; ‘…they met Cúscraid son of Conchubur; he was badly wounded, so Cú Chulaind carried him on his back…’ (p.138). The mighty warrior that would defend Ulster in single combat for months, defeating an entire army (as the prophet Fedelm says of the upcoming attack on Ulster, ‘‘I see it crimson, I see it red.’’ (Carson, 2008, p. 13)), also has the time to help his fellow soldiers in combat. This is a classic bit of storytelling. If we know he is human, and have a reason to sympathise with him, we can get behind him and we can forgive him in the future for any misdeeds he may commit.

Though not known outside of Ireland, he is still one of the main figures of legend on the emerald isle. At the Tayto Park theme park, their flagship attraction is the Cu Chulainn rollercoaster, complete with gigantic stone figure near the entrance to the ride. Many murals in Belfast also depict him as a reminder of the figure who would ward off Irish attacks to protect Ulster from its armies. Though both sides of the border may try to claim the figure, Cuchulain remains Ireland’s Hercules, their Arthur, and their Conan. A man who would slaughter thousands to defend his land, but turn on his own side just as quickly. Perhaps, disguised in a mighty warrior, this is a discussion on the meaningless of violence, the way in which a price must be paid for the blood that is shed.

 

Article by Kieran Judge

-Follow him on Twitter: KJudgeMental

Bibliography

Carson, C., 2008. The Tain. England: Penguin Classics.

Gantz, J., 1981. Early Irish Myths and Sagas. Great Britain: Penguin Books.

 

 

Odds and DEAD Ends: Analysis of Casting the Runes and Ring.

M. R. James’ classic ghost story, Casting the Runes, is perhaps one of the most beloved of all time. It follows Mr. Dunning, uncovering a plot by Dr. Karswell to kill him via a series of ancient runic symbols. Similarly, for the modern age, Koji Suzuki’s novel Ring, (thanks largely to Hideo Nakata’s film adaptation), changed the face of Japanese horror films, much in the way that Scream did for the slasher genre. Examined in this article is the concept of infecting a victim with a deadline, by which, if the deadline isn’t passed on, the victim will die. This concept is, in both texts, a product of history and the past, which can infiltrate the modern day to scare the reader.

CASTING THE RUNES

James’ story is rooted in folklore of witches and magic. James himself was a noted historian of folklore and mythology, writing many papers on medieval manuscripts and other texts. It’s not surprising, therefore, that this interest seeps through in Casting the Runes, his uncovering of ancient texts mirroring the discovery of the slip of paper with the runes.

The main conflict I perceive in the text is the tension between the modernity presented by Dunning and Harrington, and the history and past presented by Karswell, fighting for power. Karswell, a man who has “…invented a new religion for himself, and practiced no one could tell what appalling rites” (p.238), has cast a hex on Dunning for shunning his new book. The past, in its runes and legends, is here the antagonistic force presented through Karswell, his book described simply as ‘an evil book’ (p.242), the mythic past’s main point of origin. Karswell’s magic lantern show presents the darker side of children’s myths and fairy tales, such as Red Riding Hood, which bleed through into the modern world:

“At last he produced a series which represented a little boy passing through his own park – Lufford, I mean – in the evening. Every child in the room could recognize the place from the pictures. And this poor boy was followed, and at last pursued and overtaken, and either torn into horrible pieces or somehow made away with, by a horrible hopping creature in white, which you saw first dodging about among the trees, and gradually it appeared more and more plainly.” (p.239)

Not only do we see the past colliding with the modern present through this passage, but after this, showing slimy creatures on the slides, “…somehow or other he made it seem as if they were climbing out of the picture and getting in amongst the audience” (p.240). Dunning and Harrington, on the other hand, are modernity’s flag-bearers. Dunning investigates the noise in the night, “…for he knew he had shut the door that evening after putting his papers away in his desk” (p.252), proving a logical, empirical mind, later reinforced here: “It was a difficult concession for a scientific man, but it could eased by the phrase “hypnotic suggestion” (p.255). Dunning even suggests that Karswell was “…mixing up classical myths, and stories out of the Golden Legend with reports of savage customs of to-day…” (p.258), showing a scholarly knowledge of the subject matter.

Therefore, the strange atmosphere about Dunning, the mysterious death of Harrington’s brother, the strange wind, “I supposed the door blew open, though I didn’t notice it: at any rate a gust – a warm gust it was – came quite suddenly between us, took the paper and blew it into the fire” (p.258), only increases our fear and trepidation, especially with the three month deadline hanging over our heads before Dunning’s eventual demise, for they can only be supernatural, against Dunning’s core beliefs. We try to decipher it rationally, following our protagonist’s example, but are unable to. Modern science cannot fight back against the curse of the runes. When Dunning and Harrington resort to deception and return the slip to Karswell, we slip into the past, so to speak, presented with the evil past that the characters have tried to deny for so long. We want to see evil banished back to where it belongs, away from Dunning’s modern day, back into the history books.

This brings us to the final moral dilemma. We are asked at the tale’s conclusion, “Had they been justified in sending a man to his death, as they believed they had? Ought they not to warn him, at least?” (p.266). They have become like Karswell, dispensing an ancient, malevolent death upon those they deem a threat. Though they justify this by claiming Karswell deserved it, and that Dunning would be dead otherwise, it is an unnerving note to end with, asking if they should have asked the darkness of history to prove itself, or descended to the old ways as they do, dispensing justice in, what is for them, a “new rite”, much like Karswell created for himself.

RING

Suzuki’s novel, Ring, adopts a similar structure in terms of its narrative. A malevolent force (the spirit of Sadako Yamamura) has given a victim (Asakawa) a time limit (seven days) to find what mysterious instructions he needs to follow in order to save his life (copying the cursed tape and passing it on). The runes have been replaced by the video tape, and it is here that we see one of the key, fundamental differences to James’ story. Sadako is built upon the myths and folklore of Japan, but her embodiment of ‘the past’ is intertwined with modern technology. The distinct opposition inherent in James’ tale is no longer as easy to see in Suzuki’s novel.

The female ghost with long hair avenging their death is a well-established trait in Japanese folklore. These stories are called kaidan; the vengeful ghost termed an onryō. Theatre Group Soaring, in the novel, would no doubt have practiced traditional Japanese kabuki theatre, itself one of the main vehicles through which kaidan tales were passed throughout the centuries. Even in the film adaptation, the strange, contorted movements of Sadako (as played by Rie Inō) is directly inspired by stereotypical movements of onryō from kabuki theatre, and Rie Inō herself was apparently trained in kabuki. The story of the spirit in the well has also been around for centuries, the story of Okiku and the plates, being a potent example.

Sadako is therefore very much rooted in Japan’s past, in more ways than just being dead. Asakawa, on the other hand, is very much the modern man, constantly carrying around a word processor, saving files to floppy disks, phoning Yoshino from the island to help his investigation. Ryuji is a professor of philosophy, a discipline which “…as a field of inquiry had drawn ever closer to science,” (p.88). These two men are built of the modern world. They even live in Tokyo, one of the largest cities in the world. When arriving at Pacific Land, Asakawa notes that “Faced with this proof that the modern power of science functioned here, too, he felt somewhat reassured, strengthened.” (p.61).

Suzuki uses technology, the statement of the future and urbanity, to steer his antagonistic force, striking at civilisation’s heart. Sadako’s wrath and anger takes over the videotape, itself situated in a cabin complete with “A hundred-watt bulb lit a spacious living room. Papered walls, carpet, four-person sofa, television, dinette set: everything was new, everything was functionally arranged.” (p.63). Asakawa, despite his hesitations and fear of what the tape might show him, ‘No matter what sort of horrific images he might be shown, he felt confident he wouldn’t regret watching” (p.73). Why would his regret watching? It wouldn’t be as if anything could happen to him, constrained as it were by the (very much Western) technology before him.

Just like Karswell’s magic lantern show, however, the images on the tape have their own weight and reality, “Startled, he pulled back his hands. He had felt something. Something warm and wet – like amniotic fluid, or blood – and the weight of flesh.” (p.77). When Asakawa answers the phone, it is described that:

“There was no reply. Something was swirling around in a dark, cramped place. There was a deep rumble, as if the earth were resounding, and the damp smell of soil. There was a chill at his ear, and the hairs on the nape of his neck stood up. The pressure on his chest increased, and bugs from the bowls of the earth were crawling on his ankles and his spine, clinging to him. Unspeakable thoughts and long-ripened hatred almost reached to him through the receiver. Asakawa slammed down the receiver.” (p.81).

That silence from the other end of a telephone gives this impression, this startlingly sensory imagery, showcases Sadako’s reach and wrath, without her saying a word.

In the finale, Asakawa, realising why he survived and Ryuji did not, agrees to wager the entirety of humanity by spreading the virus to his parents-in-law. Whereas James simply had the characters return the curse to Karswell, he the price for Dunning’s survival, here, Suzuki has entire the world be the price for saving Asakawa’s family. Whereas Casting the Runes ends with a definite confirmation of Karswell’s demise, Ring ends with the ominous passage, “Black clouds moved eerily across the skies. They slithered like serpents, hinting at the unleashing of some apocalyptic evil.” (p.284). Asakawa has become accomplice to Sadako’s malice, the past in control of modern technology and, through that, the modern man. “In order to protect my family, I am about to let loose on the world a plague which could destroy all mankind.” (p.283).

CONCLUSION

Both James’ short story and Suzuki’s novel present characters eagerly, desperately trying to beat the deadlines they are faced with, wished upon them by people that want them dead. Through their representations of an evil, malevolent past, embodied by Karswell and Sadako, both authors present us with a moral choice of who we save, and who we kill in exchange. What is different about their endings is the level of intimacy and scope we are presented with. Casting the Runes is a story of personal vengeance, where the battle is between Karswell on one side and Dunning and Harrington on the other, with the evil-doer getting their just desserts, like a boxing match. Ring’s evil is much more impersonal, and the apocalyptic ending shows the sheer magnitude of what must happen for someone to live. You don’t end the curse; you just pass the buck and hope someone else will do it for you. The ending’s bleak tone implies that there is no hope, that nobody will sacrifice themselves to stop the bleeding, and that the virus will move from one soul to another, runes forever being cast.

Written by Kieran Judge

Bibliography

James, M. R., 1994. Casting the Runes. In: Collected Ghost Stories. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth, pp. 235 – 267.

Ringu. 1998. [Film] Directed by Hideo Nakata. Japan: Ringu/Rasen Production Company.

Scream. 1996. [Film] Directed by Wes Craven. United States: Dimension Films.

Suzuki, K., 2004. Ring. London: HarperCollinsPublishers.

 

 

Odds and DEAD Ends: Lucio Fulci, Italy’s Godfather of Gore

When people think of Italian horror, Dario Argento is the first name that invariably comes to mind. And why wouldn’t it? With some of the most influential films in the horror genre, (Suspiria (1977), Profondo Rosso (1975), and Opera (1987), to name but a few), he brought Italy to our attention with the care and style that few could match.

After Argento we might think of Mario Bava, who brought stylised violence to the screen with Blood and Black Lace (1964) and Black Sabbath (1963), and set Italy going in horror movies, and their closely related counterpart of the giallo, like never before. Slasher films in the 80’s consistently came back to the ’64 movie time and time again for inspiration.

Next on the list, however, is Lucio Fulci, this article’s focus. This is a man who created some of the most astounding visuals, in the pulpiest films you’ll ever see. He crafted a unique oeuvre of gore and gristle, but with a mastery that few have touched.

Born in Rome in the mid nineteen-twenties, Fulci was first set on medicine, and whilst working as an art critic, turned his mind to film. Whilst starting off with comedies in the fifties, as the sixties neared their end he began crafting violent thrillers which, understandably, saw him fall out of favour with the Catholic Church.

Beginning really with Lizard in a woman’s skin in 1971, and Don’t torture a Duckling the following year in 1972, Fulci began to blend the stylish giallo of his contemporary, Argento, with graphic violence, pushing extreme filmmaking to new levels.

He brought out a slew of films in the next few years, a particular favourite of mine being Seven Notes in Black (also known as Seven Black Notes or The Psychic) in 1977, but Fulci really left his mark on cinema starting two years afterward. Zombie Flesh Eaters (or Zombi, or Zombie 2) released in 1979, was Italy’s answer to Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978). Coincidentally, Dario Argento, worked on Romero’s film. Flesh Eaters really brought something a little exotic to the zombie genre, as well as conceiving two of the greatest scenes in horror history, the first being the zombie vs. shark fight. The second, which I’m indulging myself to discuss at length now, is the famous eye piercing scene.

Fulci takes his time to construct this scene, heightening the tension up like stretching an elastic band. He focuses on the shadow of the light from outside in the battle with the zombie to close the door, with no loud noises or music. There are no tricks, just showing an image of two sides struggling for purchase, pure cinema, as Hitchcock would have called it. The door closed, the heroine puts a chest in front of the door, and then, two minutes into the scene, the zombie bursts through and grabs her head. Splinter on the shattered door. And an eye to be pierced.

Fulci is obsessed with eyes and sight, one of his directorial trademarks being a quick zoom into the face for a reaction, almost a crash cut. This time, however, he takes his sweet time. Her head comes closer, and we cut to a POV of the splinter, tracking in. Reaction shot, and in we go a little tighter. Fulci does this as many times as he can get away with, building, building. And then, as with all scenes of suspense, you need a pay-off. If you’re a gore-hound, what a magnificent pay-off it is.

This scene is incredibly Hitchcockian in its construction, that you begin to understand that there’s a great talent behind the camera. Fulci isn’t just about gore; he’s about crafting a memorable scene. So memorable, in fact, that although I’ve no confirmation of it being conscious, I invite you to take a look at the spike eye-gouging scene in Saw 3D (2010). It’s almost exactly the same construction. Over 30 years later and a pulpy little Italian film is referenced in one of the biggest horror franchises of all time.

Fulci might have had his moment in the spotlight here with Zombie Flesh Eaters, were it not for his crowning glory. The triple-header of City of the Living Dead in 1980, and both The Beyond and The House by the Cemetary in 1981, formed his ‘Gates of Hell’ trilogy. These three films, and especially The Beyond, are his masterpieces. Fulci doesn’t so much create or direct these films as dream them, surreal images like a collage of nightmares, culminating in a dark, mist-soaked atmosphere of unutterable dread. Buckets of gore thrown in for good measure help to create some of the most beautifully constructed nightmare-fuel ever to emerge of Italy. Fulci knows how to create an image worthy of putting up on your wall, and these three films are his perfect showcase.

I was lucky enough to see Fabio Frizzi, who scored many of Fulci’s films, perform his new composer’s cut for The Beyond, as a live accompaniment, at Abertoir Horror Festival 2016. Sat on the row behind me was Luigi Cozzi, another Italian director of the same period and good friend of Argento and the Bava family. It was the European Premiere of the new music as a live score, and there was something magical in the room that night. I won’t get too romantic, but it was there. Every second of that film and performance dripped with something special, from every zombie killed to each misty alleyway, right to its surrealist final moments in that landscape of beyond, it was like watching a lovechild between Salvador Dali and David Cronenberg, with a perfect prog-rock accompaniment. If Fulci’s ghost was there, I think he would have been proud to see a packed house enjoying his film decades later.

Unfortunately, a few years later, Fulci released Conquest (1983). An epic fantasy trying to cash in on the trend being started by films like Conan the Barbarian (1982), it flopped. This was Fulci’s big break, and it killed him instantly. There wasn’t much more of note ever produced, and I’m inclined to think that Fulci was a little bitter by it all. The House of Clocks (1989) is a very nice supernatural home-invasion style thriller, and A Cat in the Brain in 1990 is good fun, but that’s about it. Succumbing to medical conditions in the mid nineties, he passed away in 1996, in the middle of production for a remake of Vincent Price’s House of Wax with Dario Argento, with whom Fulci had finally agreed to work with after many decades of petty spites.

Fulci’s work is vastly underappreciated, even, I think, within the casual horror scene itself. He was a craftsman that was severely overlooked, and it wasn’t perhaps until Quentin Tarantino used the theme for Seven Notes in Black as a part of his Kill Bill (Kill Bill (Vol. 1), 2003) score, and released a few of his movies in cinemas for limited release, that people really paid attention to him. His writing could be as tightly plotted as any Argento giallo; his love of voyeurism and tension could rival Hitchcock. He used as much gore as Cronenberg, and yet his vivid imagination never really caught the public. His is a volume of work that takes a little digging to get into, but once experienced fully, is never forgotten.

And that’s the point. Fulci’s movies are never forgettable, even some of the later films where his declining health undoubtedly played a part in their quality. A horror hack he might have seemed to the public, but underneath it all was an incredibly talented individual who is only now, decades after his passing, beginning to get the true recognition that he deserved.

Article by Kieran Judge (2018)

Bibliography

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