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The original Spanish version is a brilliant, expressionistic mood piece
"Revenge in the House of Usher" is said to be one of Jess Franco's worst film. However, this happens to be one of my favorite works of the celebrated director (well, depending on the cut, that is), and while it will not appeal to everyone, fans of European haunted house films like "Lisa and the Devil" and Franco's own "A Virgin Among the Living Dead" will find plenty to enjoy here. Incidentally, one of the reasons why people hate it so much (or so I think), also plagued the other two films, as the most common version is in fact a butchered recut. Originally released in Spain as "El Hundimiento de la Casa Usher", the film flopped and only resurfaced when Eurocine got it's hands on it, removing some of the original's most startling sequences and substituting them with an new subplot to cash in on the success of Franco's "Dr. Orloff" films, and even adding scenes from "The Awful Dr. Orloff" poorly edited into the mix as flashbacks. To it's credit, this new cut actually does a good job with the new footage, as they are quite atmospheric and interesting, and one can see they actually made an effort for it to look like it belongs to the same film but get tend dull and repetitive after a while. Now, back to "El Hundimiento...", Franco doesn't go for a straight adaptation of the story even though it does have a similar premise and climax. It's faithfulness lies at recreating the themes and mood of Poe's work, taking elements from more than one of his stories ("Ligeia" in particular is referenced throughout) to create something more unique. For my money, this film – along with Jean Epstein's superb 1928 take on the same story – is the one that actually comes closest to achieve that decadent atmosphere of morbid romance. The Spanish deserts may not be one's ideal location for the house, but here it actually works a lot, and remains close to Poe's description of it although in a rather unconventional matter. The never-ending daylight, a Franco trademark, is used to great effect too, creating a suffocating, feverish atmosphere throughout (also giving the idea that Usher's delusions may have something to do with that oppressive sun). The castle itself is absolutely stunning and is beautifully photographed. The use of shadows and natural light during the interior sequences is excellent, proving once again that Franco always has a great eye for shooting on locations. There are plenty of gorgeous, darkly Gothic compositions throughout, with the architecture always playing an important part. One of the most compelling aspects of this production is that Franco is aiming for a kind of 20's/30's Gothic . Compared to genre works of the same kind made during that period, it may feel helplessly outdated, but that's part of the charm. Unlike what some have grown to expect from him, there is no on screen sex and nudity, with most of the "dirty" stuff implied, which I personally feel is a wise move and works in a Val Lewton kind of way. Everything from the script and particularly Daniel White's non-stop melodramatic score just screams old-school, expressionistic horror. Although these scenes were added in under producer's insistence, some of the film's most interesting additions is that Usher may or may not be be a vampire serial killer. It isn't clear whether these killings actually took place, but they are truly powerful moments. The build-up for the first death scene is particularly incredible, with great use of expressionistic lighting, and the conversation between prey and attacker. The most downright disturbing murder is that of a little girl. The scene itself is already creepy with it's open suggestion of pedophilia, but having him actually kill her and feast on her blood on screen makes it quite difficult to watch. Howard Vernon's totally demented performance also helps in making this bit particularly convincing, as he really does seem to enjoy doing it. Speaking of Vernon, I must say this is his most impressive performance under Franco's direction. He is mostly lonely, introspective and melancholy, occasionally turning (sometimes in the same scene) gleefully over-the-top and hysterical; and also quite monstrous and downright scary. Although Mayans is sadly unimpressive and dull as the narrator/protagonist Harker; Lina Romay more than makes up for it as the servant Helen. Despite the absence of her usual masturbatory fits, Romay's acting is actually one of her all time best, serving as a kind of dead ringer for Helena Boham Carter in Tim Burton's "Sweeney Todd". In fact, I find her even more sexy with her clothes on, playfully seducing on the members of the household and oozing a sleazy, "femme-fatale" like charm. She also delivers some of the best lines, as well as the film's few moments of dark humor. Although I can't find her name in the credits list, the actress who plays the ghostly Edmunda deserves special mention as well. From her frightening introduction in a "Kill Baby Kill" inspired scene, she has a strong, ethereal quality on her. As for flaws, the film moves at a very slow pace (it worked for me, but I can definitely see why some can call it boring), and with a rather stiff protagonist. Also, this is a very low budget production, and it shows. The climax in particular suffers from the poor production values, with a very unconvincing "fall". The scene is made up basically from shaky camera angles and falling furniture. Still, this happens right after one of the film's most memorable sequence: Usher's encounter with his victims' vengeful ghosts, which may just be the most powerful moment in the film, akin to the powerful, haunting finale of "A Virgin Among the Living Dead". As a whole, "House of Usher" may not convince Franco bashers of the man's talents, but for more seasoned fans of the director and low-budget Eurohorror in general it is essential viewing.
As Filhas do Fogo (1978)
Between this world and the next
I'm somewhat embarrassed to admit, though I come from Brazil, I am not very familiar with my country's cinema, let alone horror films. But if "As Filhas do Fogo" (which translates into "Daughters of Fire") is any indication of the hidden gems that await me, then they get MUCH less credit and admiration they deserve. In fact, this film has not even been released in VHS around here (though ironically, there are rumors it was released as such in the US), and I only came to watch it via a torrent of a television broadcast of it in poor shape. It's a pity really, because not only I found it way better than what I've seen from Coffin Joe, but it's one of the most haunting, ethereal, and downright frightening ghost stories ever made IMO. Akin to José Ramon Larraz's "Symptoms", another forgotten macabre masterpiece, "As Filhas do Fogo" is the story of a lesbian couple staying at a secluded house in the countryside. They become acquainted with a mysterious family friend who claims to record the voices of the dead. Soon enough, these three characters find themselves haunted by the ghost of one of the girls' mother, and the line between this world and the next becomes more and more blurry, escalating to a totally nightmarish finale that echoes Mario Bava's "Kill Baby Kill". Director Walter Hugo Khouri was no stranger to the genre (his 1973's "O Anjo da Noite", though I'm yet to see, is one of the country's most important horror films, and apparently, a strong predecessor to "When A Stranger Calls" and "Black Christmas"), and the atmosphere he creates has rarely been rivaled. Whenever the mother's ghost appears on screen, the mood is often melancholy and sad, with use of some Mozart pieces adding to the gloominess of it all. Much of the horror, however, comes from the dialogue (one scene where the medium describes the afterlife as a place of sorrow and bitterness is a disturbing highlight) and nature imagery, with eerie use of it's locations: the vast, deserted countryside with bleeding trees, howling winds, dark ponds and colorful vegetation. Khouri takes a "Picnic at Hanging Rock" approach by having most of the characters being descendants of European emigrants, and therefore strangers in their own land. Their surroundings seem to stare at them, beckoning, controlling their every move. It is only the governess - a native of the region - who does not succumb to it's mystical powers. There's also a bit of folklore added to good measure near the ending, when the girls stumble across a mysterious celebration lead by a masked stranger. It is possibly the scene most people remember from the film, and a remarkably creepy moment. The performances are excellent all around. Paola Morra and Rosina Malbouisson are great as the couple vulnerable to events that they simply cannot explaim. It is, however, the supporting actors that give the most impressive, scene-stealing roles, particularly Selma Egrei as the mother, who never utters a word and mostly just stands staring, but whose strange, bewitching looks and screen presence dominates every scene she's in. It's simply impossible not to get chills down your spine whenever she's on screen. Overall, this is a magnificent creepy gem I'm glad to have rediscovered, and truly hope more people will seek out and appreciate. If you're a fan of subtle, scary horrors like "The Haunting", "Let's Scare Jessica to Death" or "Don't Look Now", this is the film for you! 10/10
Les possédées du diable (1974)
It's all about crabs...
No, this is not another European cash-in on "The Exorcist", unlike what it's title may suggest. It is, however, the most disturbing and shocking Jess Franco film I've seen. Hell, it is one of the most disturbing horrors I've seen, which is surprising considering this is a virtually bloodless film. It's horror relies, instead, in it's totally demented instances of psychosexual hysteria that can also be found in works such as "Possession" or "Dr. Jekyll and his Women". Franco haters tend to dismiss his work as amateurish and crude, and this criticism can be applied, in a way, to this film in particular. However, in this case, it works in favor of the film, coming across as making it's raw, gritty atmosphere all the more authentic. André Bénichou's haunting, experimental score also adds a lot to it. And for those who think Lina Romay has little to do in the director's works other than having to masturbate in close-ups, her performance here is a truly stunning tour-de-force that has to be seen to be believed, up there with other portrayals of sexually frustrated women in horror films, such as Catherine Denueve in "Repulsion" or Mimsy Farmer in "The Perfume of the Lady in Black". Her sex scenes with the equally bewildering Pamela Stanford (the titular villain), though graphic, are anything but sexy, and her final, extended "intimate" sequence is bound to make your jaw drop to the floor, not only because of what is shown, but also because of it's context. And that's not even the film's most shocking bit to begin with (anyone who's seen the film know about THE particular scene I'm referring to, and I dare not spoil it for those who haven't seen it). "Lorna the Exorcist" seems to have some kind of popularity with Franco haters, so I beg you to give it a shot. Even if you don't like it at all, one can't deny it will haunt you for days to follow.
Les lèvres rouges (1971)
The Kiss of the Red Lips
The 1970's were the peak for the lesbian-vampire films. They varied from being more mainstream titles such as Hammer's "Carmilla" adaptation "The Vampire Lovers", to more deliberately artsy, trippy works such as Jess Franco's aptly named "Vampyros Lesbos" as well as basically every Jean Rollin film, such as "Shiver of the Vampires" and "Fascination". They all seemed to have been inspired, one way or the other, by Roger Vadim's exceptional "Blood and Roses", but none more so than "Daughters of Darkness", which is most definitely a cut above your regular Eurotica. But whereas "Blood and Roses" is a lonely, delicate film, "Daughters of Darkness" is a bolder, darker and disturbing slice of the genre. I have a slight preference for "Blood..." if only for it's one of the few films that can make me cry, but that doesn't diminish the impact of "Daughters..." at all - in fact, it may even be the better of the two. As usual for an Eurohorror, this is a visually breathtaking work of art. Harry Kumel's mise-en-scene is simply phenomenal, with almost every shot being a knockout of imagery and aesthetic delight. The first two colorful death scenes are bound to make Dario Argento envious. From the lush but eerily deserted hotel interiors to the breathtaking shots of the Belgium twilight, accompanied by François De Roubaix's minimalistic but effective score, this is a visual and aural feast. Still, so far it doesn't diverge much from the norm. What makes it stand above the titles mentioned above, is that "Daughters of Darkness" is a very well written film with extremely developed characters - a rarity for the genre. Set in a vacant hotel whose sole guests are two young, healthy and happy newlyweds and a mysterious Countess and her assistant. Judging by her name alone - Elizabeth Bathory - it's not surprise that the mysterious aristocrat is a vampire, and the one responsible for a series of murders in the area. She sees the couple as both possible lovers as well as prey. The couple itself soon turn out not to be what they initially seemed, as the husband in particular seems to have more than his share of skeletons in the closet. The Countess begins to realize this and soon, she begins a terrifying mind-game with the two, draining them first out of their sanity and moral values, and then out of their blood. Kumel doesn't seem too interested in fangs and vampire attacks, but rather in creating a claustrophobic, decadent atmosphere of psychosexual madness, that grows tighter and tighter as the story progresses, to the point of becoming almost unbearable, but yet, you just can't take your eyes off the screen. The amazing use of editing, quite ahead of it's time, helps in creating this bewildering, grueling atmosphere of a fever dream, mostly through rough and rapid cuts, or intercuts between different scenes. Another extra point is due to Delphine Seyrig's timeless portrayal of Elizabeth Bathory. Sporting the looks of a once glamorous but now decadent 1930's actress, she is seductive and beautiful, but yet something not quite right with her. Opting for a relatively low-key performance, she relies on her strong screen persona, with her husky voice and enticing body language that lures the characters as well as the audience into her dark, twisted world. Her casting is all the more ideal considering the film's constant references to Alain Resnais' "Last Year in Marinebad", of which she was the star. Danielle Ouimet and John Karlen, while not on the same league as Seyrig, but are quite good. Karlen is particularly convincing as another tortured soul who, like Bathory, possesses a vampire-like fascination with violence, and is driven by madness by his own unwholesome backgrounds. Andrea Rau as the Countess' lover Illona doesn't have to do much other than look pretty, but she gives a hysterical and haunting, if brief, showcase during her particularly nasty bathroom death scene - possibly the film's saddest and most cringe-inducing set piece. The film's two more noticeable flaws are the somewhat silly final scene and the police officer character, which detracts from the story. The latter's death is a somewhat humorous moment that feels out of place with what had been seen before. These flaws, however, are minor and easy to ignore, specially since you consider it's degree of excellency in almost every other level. Overall, this is a fascinating, unique lesbian vampire film that definitely ranks among the very best of it's kind. It may not be for everyone, but those looking for a more psychological, emotionally raw take on this often used theme, you simply can't go wrong with "Daughters of Darkness".
The Virgin and the Vampires
In spite of it's title, this is not a zombie film, but rather, a vampire film (although the vampires do act a bit zombie-like in a few scenes). Don't let yourself be fooled by it's ridiculously low IMDb rating, for this is certainly one of the best of it's kind, and while obviously not for everyone, will certainly please fans of romanticized Gothic horror ala Antonio Margheriti's "Castle of Blood" or Coppola's "Dracula". While it's not as technically polished as either films, the final product is just as endearing and as powerful. Director Leon Klimovsky was no stranger to the genre, having directed quite a few Paul Naschy vehicles as well as the infamous "Vampire's Night Orgy". This one has same style and flair as seen in his previous works, but he takes it to a whole other level of excellence, and this might just be his best film. "Night of the Walking Dead" works because the romantic angle is treated in a mature, involving way and does not diminish the film's more horrific and exploitive impact. For the more "pretentious" viewers like myself, Klimovsky even does flirt with the idea of making an art-house film, culminating in a deliriously surreal vampire ball scene that looks like a cross between Polanski's "The Fearless Vampire Killers" and Fellini's "Juliet of the Spirits". He never really crosses the thin borderline between horror and art, but these avant-garde touches add a lot to the film's strange, bewildering atmosphere. Set in a remote 19th century village somewhere in Europe, the story follows a young aristocrat (Emma Cohen) suffering from a terminal disease, and whose sister just recently succumbed to the bloodthirsty vampires that roam the region. Soon enough, she finds herself falling in love with the leader of the vampires - Count Rudolph (Carlos Ballesteros), and willingly joins their cult of the damned as a way to escape her lonely life and forthcoming death. However, the Count is so in love with her that he simply cannot allow her initiation to become a horrible creature like himself. The film's biggest flaw, I believe, comes from the rather snail-paced first half. Don't get me wrong, I love slow-moving horrors, but this one is filled with unnecessary exposition to characters that don't have that much of an importance to the film. Thankfully, Cohen (a very underrated actress in my view) manages to carry the first half very well, and creates great sympathy and for her character. Her gradual detachment from her parents' overwhelming repression and care, in order to become a monster, can be read as a metaphor for a young girl's sexual awakening in the 19th century. Ballesteros' Count Rudolph is not quite as impressive, but he is serviceable enough. One could only wish he'd been slightly creepier, specially when you consider how truly scary-looking the other vampires were. Although plot-wise the film can be read as being no different from something out of Hammer, Klimovsky employs a totally different stylistic approach. Reminiscent of José Ramon Larraz's "Vampyres", he makes great use of the autumnal rural landscapes. Grey skies; vast, empty fields; and leaf-less tress blowing in the wind, all become characters themselves, and land a lot to the film's gloomy, saddening atmosphere. The romantic score by Máximo Barratas, on the same vein of Carlo Rustichelli's work in "The Whip and the Body", fits the brooding, lonely imagery perfectly, and most definitely deserve a CD release. Overall, this is a definite must-see for Gothic horror fans, and one that deserves a HD restoration, as well as more recognition
Antonio Margheriti dances macabre ... again
Antonio Margheriti's 1971 remake of his classic "Castle of Blood" has always been criticized for being inferior in every level to it's predecessor. While I do think "Castle of Blood" is a better film, "In the Web of the Spider" does not stand so far behind. Made on a bigger budget than the 1964 version, Margheriti does a good thing by taking a different aesthetic approach than the candle-lit B&W nightmare that is the latter, and instead lighting up the set with a nice range of deep blues and orange gels to show off the more elaborate locations. It also enjoys a better cast than the original, with a highlight being the presence of Klaus Kinski as Edgar Allan Poe. At first glance, he might not seem very right for the role, but he truly nails it in a absolutely maddening performance. They even made his role slightly larger than the original, by adding a superbly creepy introduction scene in a crypt that sets the tone for the rest of the picture. Albeit not as memorable as Barbara Steele, Michele Mercier (the protagonist from the Telephone segment of Mario Bava's "Black Sabbath") is a good replacement and she has great chemistry with Anthony Franciosa (Argento's "Tenebre"), even more so than Steele and Riviere in "Castle...". Also, I found the film to be somewhat more frightening than it's predecessor, specially towards the ending. The best example of which is the scene where Carmus descends into the crypt and coms across a corpse being reanimated. The effects used in the scene are more subtle, but all the more effective in my view. Riz Ortolani's score is rather uneven. There are some memorable tunes, particularly the hauntingly beautiful love theme and the song that plays during the ball sequence, but the rest is a routine and rather distracting orchestra piece intended to create a creepy environment, whereas there are more than a few scenes where I think absolute silence would've made it all the more effective. Still, it doesn't really ruin the picture, and as I've said, it wasn't all bad. The film's major problem is the fact that it's virtually a scene-by-scene remake of the original. Surely, there are some slight improvements, such as the shirtless, hunky ghost that was looked silly in the original is now dressed and more menacing-looking, and the ending is also more subtle and tragic. Still, these elements are only a very small portion of the piece, and while they do make a difference, the whole thing failed to impress me story-wise, because I knew exactly what was going to happen next in every scene. There are no big changes and/or improvements to make it essential viewing for those who have already seen "Castle of Blood", which is a pity really, since it does have some great assets and even surpasses the latter in some ways. Also, where "Castle of Blood" felt provocative and ahead of it's time with it's depiction of sex and lesbianism, "In the Web of the Spider" feels way too restrained and tame, specially for a film that came one year after "The Vampire Lovers", which dealt with some similar themes. The sole 'gore' scene we get to see is in the very end, and is restrained to a brief shot of blood flowing from Franciosa's wound. Mind you, I'm not a gorehoud, nor do I think violence is essential to make a horror film good, but in this case I think it was more than necessary, if only to make it stand out from the original. None of these cons stopped it from being a fun and atmospheric slice of Italian Gothic, but it makes me sad to give it a mere a 7/10. If you're a fan of this type of film and haven't seen "Castle of Blood" yet, I think you might better watch this one first, but otherwise I unfortunately can't go as far as calling it the forgotten gem of continental horror it could have been.
La cruz del diablo (1975)
"Tombs of the Blind Dead" done right!
Often said to be the unofficial fifth chapter in the "Blind Dead" series, John Gilling's "La Cruz del Diablo" (The Devil's Cross) easily tops his predecessors, and is among the very best horror films to have come out of Spain. The story follows a writer who has a series of drug addicted hallucinations involving the Templars. When he goes to Spain visit his sister, only to find that she died by the time he got there, he decides to investigate, and tries to find a connection between her death and his horrifying visions. While many have called it a mere cash-in on Amando de Ossorio's infamous series, it's actually a much more accurate and throughly superior adaptation of the writings of Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer, which also served as inspiration for "Tombs of the Blind Dead". Like Béquer, less emphasis is given to the Templars themselves, and the whole affair is more of a character-driven piece, that is not devoid of symbolism and ambiguity. I have to give credit to Ossorio, since his Templars are much creepier than those presented here, but I liked how Gilling went for something different, and kept them more in the shadows. Originally intended as a Paul Naschy vehicle, one can clearly see how this could've become just another 70's Spanish horror, but Gilling's direction makes the total difference. A Hammer Horror veteran, Gilling combines the more sophisticated, polished style of his British contemporaries and combines it with the more raw, grittier appeal of Spanish Gothic. There's a bit of Italian horror in there as well, "Kill Baby ... Kill!" and "Castle of Blood" to be more precise, and one can argue that the black-gloved killer is a nod to gialli. Judging from this combination, it is suffice to say that the visuals are simply jaw-dropping, making great use of the beautiful Spanish locations, which land to the ever-present fairytale-ish aspects of Bécquer's work, as well the use of actual ruins and atmospheric, candle-lit interiors. The sometimes eerie, sometimes romantic score by Ángel Arteaga matches the off-beat yet strangely poetic tone perfectly. The acting is also surprisingly decent, with a cast of familiar faces from the continental horror scene of the 70's. Ramiro Oliveros and Emma Cohen, who already acted together the previous year in Jess Franco's excellent "The Other Side of the Mirror" are particularly remarkable as the drug-addicted protagonist and his ghost lover respectively, although one cannot help but wonder how would Naschy turn out in the former's role. Carmen Sevilla makes for a strong and likable heroine, and Eduardo Fajardo is good too, although he seems to be playing Francis Lehar from "Lisa and the Devil" all over again (ironically, the way his corpse is positioned near the ending is almost exactly the same as in "Lisa". The highlight among the performers is certainly Adolfo Marsillach as the mysterious assistant to Fajardo's character. He has screen presence to boot, and is just so effortlessly creepy in his relatively low-key performance. There are no big flaws in the film as far as I'm concerned, although one could argue to that the final battle between the protagonist and the Templars is somewhat anti-climatic, and the pace might be a little too slow (think "The House with Laughing Windows"). Overall, an excellent and extremely underrated horror film worthy of rediscovery. Fans of Gothic horror and slow-burns just can't afford to miss it.
The Vampire Lovers (1970)
The Ingrid Pitt Lovers
Yet another adaptation of "Carmilla", "The Vampire Lovers" doesn't really hold a candle to Vadim's "Blood and Roses" - the excellent 1960 adaptation of the LeFanu novella, nor does it combine violence and eroticism as well as Harry Kumel's "Daughters of Darkness", and yet it remains an entertaining and effectively atmospheric slice of Hammer horror. Lushly photographed and with Gothic atmosphere to boot, it is Ingrid Pitt, however, the real star of the film. Although director Roy Ward Baker seems to be mainly concerned in exploiting Pitt's 'assets' than to recreate the poetic and dreamy tone of the source material, Pitt comes off not only boosting screen presence and beauty, but also as a terrific actress that lands a range of deep, sensible emotions to her rather bitter character. The rest of the cast is quite good as well, with Peter Cushing seemingly doing the Dr. Van Helsing impersonation all over again (something that wouldn't bother Hammer fans, I suppose) and Madeleine Smith as the fragile and child-like Emma. In spite of it all however, the film never gives the impression that it's even trying to be more than a routine Hammer film, and while it's a good one at that, it's hard to differ from the studio's other works made at about the same time, save perhaps for the more visceral sexuality (which, as I've said before, has been done better in other films of this kind). Overall, it's an entertaining film for a gloomy Sunday afternoon, and won't disappoint fans of Gothic horror. In any case, the film should be seen at least once if only for Pitt's legendary performance as the vampire Carmilla.
The Nightcomers (1971)
Last Tango at Bly House
Marlon Brando's sole horror movie vehicle is a disturbing, eerie and underrated affair that deserves more praise. Intended as a prequel of sorts to Henry James' "The Turn of the Screw", it is often said to be a follow-up film to Jack Clayton's mesmerizing adaptation of the latter, "The Innocents". Thus, people wanting to see "The Innocents" all over again are bound to be disappointed. For starters, "The Nightcomers" is not even a ghost story to begin with, and can be described as being more of a dark drama with horror overtones, with the underlying theme of sexual-repression being one of the few things the two films share. Although Miles and Flora kill the two so they can at least be together, even if after death, the matter is not dealt in a supernatural way at all. In fact, considering how there are no ghostly manifestations of their dead parents leaves the audience to believe (well, at least those unfamiliar with either James' or Clayton's work) that they were simply insane, in a way more akin to Carlos Henrique Taboada's "Veneno para las Hadas". The final scenes gives a sense of hoplesness, rather than the creepy-but-macabre tone some might expect. As it is often said, Brando's performance as Peter Quint is brilliant, and should be compared to his similar work in "Last Tango in Paris" the following year. In fact, I wonder if Bertolucci ever saw this film before casting Brando as Paul in "Last Tango...". In this one, he manages to convey sympathy and melancholy for his rather brute and vicious character. Stephanie Beacham holds up extremely well against Brando, and they a strangely effective chemistry between them. Thora Hird is delightfully annoying as intended, and the younger actors who play Miles and Flora are quite convincing as well for their young age, and come across as being quite creepy. Tame though they are, the scenes where the two start imitating Quint and Jessell are quite disturbing to say the least. The film also benefits heavily from a bittersweet sense of humor and witty one-liners, that thankfully does not ruin the omnipresent sense of dread and sexual frustration, only enhance it. "The Nightcomers" has been often criticized for being dullishly directed, which surprises me since the whole thing was anything but dull in my view. Surely, some scenes go on for a bit too long, but it's not like they ruin the film. Winner goes for a more naturalistic approach as opposed to Clayton's more nightmarish, otherworldly take, and us such, the film is a real marvel to look at. Winner makes perfect use of the locations at the British countryside, landing a lot to the thick, brooding atmosphere. The musical score, though not particularly memorable, fits perfectly with it's beautiful imagery. Overall, while not a perfect film, "The Nightcomers" has plenty to offer to the open-minded. Just do not expect anything close to "The Innocents", or Winner's later, more "hardcore" horror entry "The Sentinel". 9/10
Un sussurro nel buio (1976)
Transcedental ghost story
As poorly received today as it was back in the day, Marcello Allaprandi's haunted-house vehicle "A Whisper in the Dark" is a forgotten classic screaming for the praise that it's worth. On the surface, the film follows a fairly simple story that could have made for a clichéd-driven film: a young boy named Martino, living with his wealthy family at a decadent Venetian villa, creates an imaginary friend named Luca who, as it turns out, may or may not be the vengeful ghost of his mother Camilla's first child, who died almost immediately after being born, and now wants to be loved and cherished like he never was, even if it means by turning this household upside down, and even resorting to murder. However, as the film unfolds, the way Allaprandi handles the matter and the direction he takes is considerably different from the similarly-written likes of "Shock" and "The Sixth Sense", although not in the way most audience members would have desired. The thing is "A Whisper in the Dark" doesn't seem to follow the rules of Italian horror, and is somewhat more akin to British ghost stories such as "Don't Look Now" which were being made at about the same period. Nevertheless, the film is unmistakably Italian with it's gorgeous cinematography and the equally breathtaking score by Pinno Donnagio. One of the best things about this particular sort of Eurohorror is the manner which sights and sounds are crafted so beautifully, and some even might say poetically and romantically, contrasting with the horrors on the screen. Though some have been bothered by this unusual treatment of the scary genre, I think it highlights the more horrific moments by creating this gentle, delicate atmosphere from which emerge the most grotesque sights. Although "grotesque" is not a word that really applies to Allaprandi's film, the shocks are conceived out of the melancholy-ridden tone of the film, making it all the more effective. The writing team takes a "less is more" approach, and by not showing any ghostly image at all, manages create some truly frightening set pieces. Perhaps the most chilling scene is that of the kissing-game, where Camilla, eyes covered, gets kissed on the lips by Luca. Supernatural events aside, another creepy element of the film is Joseph Cotten's portrayal of the mysterious Professor. Though he doesn't have much purpose in the story other than serving as a red-herring, Cotten manages to deliver a relatively low-key, but ultimately eerie impression. John Phillip Law doesn't do much throughout, but is charismatic and charming enough not to be forgotten. Alessandro Poggi, for his young age, is also quite convincing as Martino, and unlike other films with similar plots, doesn't resort to being overly creepy as much as he is likable and cute. This may have just been intentional, as the real star of the film is Nathalie Delon as Camilla. Though bit over-the-top at first, as the film progresses we soon learn the reasons for her strange, somewhat melodramatic behavior. A sad, tormented character, Camilla has gone through a lot and the fragile state of her mind resulted by these happenings have led to a nervous breakdown. Her acceptance and consequent "expulsion" of her son Luca, is truly hearth-breaking. Those who say the ending is anti-climatic, hoping for a big pay-off that never took place did not get the point of the film at all. The film is meant to be, above everything else, about Camilla coming to terms with the death of her infant child - Luca, and whether his ghost truly exists or is merely a figment of Martino's imagination is almost completely irrelevant to the story. Through Martino's creation of an imaginary friend named Luca, it triggers the already unstable Camilla's repressed guilt over the tragic event - a guilt which was probably given weight by her overbearing mother. Near the very end, where she dreams of taking Luca away from the house, and out of their lives for good, it represents her being able to get over it and move on with her life. The following scene, which shows Camilla and Alex making love for what seems to be the first time in years, it seems as though, after getting rid of her own personal ghost, she is able to find bliss once again. At the end, she isn't worried about Luca anymore, having been able to overcome the grief, treating the whole "imaginary friend" thing as something of a joke ... or is she? Can one ever really overcome the pain caused by a loved one's passing? In this sense, the two closest film to "A Whisper in the Dark" is (almost to the point of being called plagiary) the 1944 film "Curse of the Cat People", not "Shock", to which it's often compared to (the similarities are, however, undeniable). "Curse..." is a wonderful study on a child's psyche, completed with Freudian overtones, and also dealing with themes of coming-of-age and letting go (both from the child's and the adult's stand-point). To further enhance the connection between the two, both "Curse..." and "Whisper..." opened to similar criticism, and should be better appreciated when viewed as dark dramas rather than horror films. That being said, "Whisper
" has more then enough horror elements to be considered as such, and those willing to look beyond what meets the eye will find this a rewarding and subtly spooky experience. Overall, in spite of its minor shortcomings, "A Whisper in the Dark" still packs a punch to this day, and is not at all deserving of it's bad hype.
Hanno cambiato faccia (1971)
Capitalism is a Vampire
After re-watching this obscure Italian gem, I'm even more convinced that Corrado Farina is a true neglected maestro of Italian horror cinema. Granted, he's only made four films, two of them being horror (the other one is the delirious fumetti adaptation "Baba Yaga"), but they really shows a unique style that is hardly seen elsewhere in the genre. In fact, even more so than "Baba Yaga", "Hanno Cambiato Faccia" is something of a black sheep of 70's Italian horror. The most obvious difference is the look of the film. While most of it's kind are photographed with Bavaesque colors, this one is almost completely pale and "lifeless", with all the exterior scenes filmed in nearly deserted, fog-shrouded landscapes and with stark white, minimalist interiors. Corrado's script is also very well written and intelligent. Something of a loose adaptation of Bram Stoker's "Dracula", set in 1970's Italy, we follow a young man who goes to visit his boss - Giovanni Nosferatu, the head of a huge corporation, at his secluded country villa, in order to get a promotion. As soon as he gets there, however, he soon realizes there's something not quite right with Mr. Nosferatu, and he eventually comes to the conclusion that the man is a vampire. Not unlike Hans Geissendorfer's eccentric masterpiece "Jonathan", this is an obvious allegory to capitalism, with corporate tycoons presented as vampires who feed on the expenses of their consumers, and the title means that these foul beings are still living in our modern society, only under a different image. The metaphor is presented very subtly, and doesn't come across as being pretentious. The film's finale, though some can see as being anti-climatic, actually enhances this, and leaves a haunting, lingering impression, rather than a shocking one, on the viewer. One of the film's greatest assets is the contrast between classic Gothic imagery with high-tech, ultra-modern settings. Nosferatu's villa is, on the outside, old and crumbling, surrounded by a foreboding forest and an ancient cemetery. There's also a nearby village with the creepy innkeeper-ish character who warns the protagonist of his destination before he gets there. Hell, there's even a cobwebbed crypt for the vampire to sleep in. Another brilliant aspect is the choice cast. Adolfo Celli is just effortlessly creepy as the undead businessman, and Giuliano Esperanti makes for a likable protagonist in his Jonathan Harker-type role. Argento fans will be surprised to see the androgynous Geraldine Hooper, best known as Gabriele Lavia's homosexual lover in "Deep Red", as Celli's mysterious and seductive secretary, a "Bride of Dracula", if you will. As a whole, I think I slightly prefer "Baba Yaga" over this, but only by a hair, as "They Have Changed Faces" is obviously the better written, better acted of the two. Speaking of which, even if you didn't like "Baba Yaga", I urge you to see this film - it's a highly original, intelligent slice of Italian Horror, and another one that deserves more praise and recognition. 9/10
La rose de fer (1973)
Among the Dead
More than a few European horror directors in the 70's went on to do hardcore pornography, and Jean Rollin in no exception. What differs him from the likes of Joe D'Amato, however, is that Rollin was a real, though neglected craftsman, and possibly one of France's finest auteurs. He injects each and every one of his horror films (save for "Zombie Lake", which is as much a Jess Franco film as Tobe Hooper's "Poltergeist" is a Steven Spielberg film) with such relentless atmosphere of death prowling every inch of the frame, and "The Rose of Iron" is where he excels. One of the finest poets of all things morbid and decadent - think the cinematic equivalent of Edgar Allan Poe, Rollin creates a minimalist, lyrical, unusual and disorienting beautiful ode to Death, that save for very few exceptions, has never been bettered elsewhere in the genre. The fairly simplistic, but multi-layered plot follows a young couple getting trapped in a cemetery after-hours, unable to find the way out as the girl slowly succumbs to madness. "The Rose of Iron" is a difficult film and thus not for everyone, as even Rollin fans might find themselves disappointed, as there is none of his trademark vampire girl-on-girl action nor is there the slightest bit of gore and camp. Nudity is minimal, and so is the cast, composed of only two actors for nearly it's entirety, with only one setting. Nevertheless, what one can simply describe as boring and uninteresting, I find be a cerebral, hypnotic tour-de-force, that keeps you glued to the screen from beginning to end, if you're willing to be bewitched by it's atypical quality. Although most Euro-horrors of it's time were criticized for poor acting, "Rose..." proves otherwise by having brilliant performances from Françoise Pascal and Hugues Quester as the young couple. They are one of the few Rollin performers who actually manage to enjoy a more successful career in French cinema, and rightfully so. They manage to carry the film brilliantly, even with the limited and often surrealistic dialogue. Quester evokes a genuine sense of paranoia as the film progresses, and Pascal's spiral descent into insanity is equally raw and visceral, in spite of the film's otherworldly nature. Pascal's acceptance and consequent embracing of the world of the dead very much represents Jean Rollin's own utopia - a twilight world that transcends time and space, where both the living and the deceased live among one another, to the point they become one. Rollin's passion for crumbling, ancient grounds also mirrors this ideal dreamland, and he makes the best out of this often-used setting, bringing it to life through some delirious camera-work that would make Argento envious, and an equally foreboding, experimental musical score by Pierre Raph. Overall, if you dare give yourself up to the unique, morbidly beautiful dream-world of France's most underrated filmmaker, "The Rose of Iron" is the film for you.
Al otro lado del espejo (1973)
Malice Through the Looking Glass
I've only seen about 15 Jess Franco films so far, which is actually saying very little considering the countless amount of films he made, and in spite of the beyond-awful conditions the print I watched had, "Al Otro Lado del Espejo" (which translates to English as "The Other Side of the Mirror") still managed to make a impression on me, and might as well be the finest Franco film I've seen so far. Coming straight after Soledad Miranda's death, and not unlike the interesting but deeply flawed "A Virgin Among the Living Dead", this one is a haunting, beautiful study on death and grief, that "mirrors" Franco's own emotional breakdown after the death of his muse. The story stars Emma Cohen as Anna - a young bride-to-be who suffers a breakdown after her father (Franco-regular Howard Vernon) commits suicide on the eve of her wedding. She then starts having visions of her father through mirrors, beckoning her, and soon enough, goes on a killing spree against the men who sexually arouse her. The script is very cleverly written, with well developed characters that you actually care for, as well as being filled with Greek-mythology symbolism and Freudian motifs. Franco also benefits largely from having one of the best actresses he ever worked with playing the lead role. Cohen has that same innocents, doe-eyed beauty of Jessica Harper in "Suspiria", and gives one harrowing, psychotic and ultimately hearth-breaking performance as our grieving protagonist. The music, as usual for a Franco film, has great importance within the context of the film (since Anna is a nightclub singer who often "escapes" from her hectic life by entering into a "purely musical" state of mind), and composer Adolfo Waitzman (who also scored the same year's "A Bell from Hell" and the underrated "Pensione Paura") just nails it with a wonderful jazzy score. Another great aspect of the film is that this is probably the first Franco film that was actually creeped me out, and predates "Candyman" for almost 30 as far as "making mirrors scary as Hell" is concerned. Although the version I saw of this film was in a terrible state and was actually hard to watch at times, the cinematography appeared to be quite good, thus making it even sadder that it isn't available in a remastered, polished DVD. Speaking of which, the film is only available (this cut, at least) in Spanish with no subtitles, but since this is a very visual film (and if you know the main plot beforehand), it's not hard to figure out what's going on. The major problem with this film is that it starts quite well, but looses steam in between the end of the second act and beginning of the third, as Franco seemingly forgets he is a doing a horror film and just throws a series of non-stop, dull "jam sessions" that, though somewhat relevant to the plot, go on for a bit too long, ruining the oppressive atmosphere it had been building for so long. Thankfully, the film gets it's steam back at the ending, which remains the most powerful, twisted and just plain haunting I've seen in a Franco film. Overall, a brilliant gem of Spanish horror film that, though not for everyone, is essential viewing for fans of Eurohorror and Jess Franco alike. 9/10 Be aware, however, that the film is available in three different versions. The original Spanish cut, which is the version I've seen and the one Franco prefers; the soft-core French version which replaces Howard Vernon for Lina Romay as Anna's dead nymphomaniac sister; and the hardcore Italian version that adds even more sex and sleaze to the French version. The last two versions, though I've never actually seen them, seemingly does to the film what "House of Exorcism" did to "Lisa and the Devil", totally butchering what the director was aiming for, and should be avoided unless you're a hardcore Franco fan.
Otra vuelta de tuerca (1985)
80's Throwback to Classic Gothic Greatness
A pretty rare screen adaptation of Henry James' classic novel, from prolific Spanish director Eloy de la Inglesia. I really liked it a lot, but the only problem is that I couldn't help but to compare it to "The Innocents", which is of course a better film, and thus diminishing the impact as intended. Nevertheless, it's a classy, atmospheric throw-back to slow-burning haunted house films of the 60's, spiced up with an underlying gay subplot (The role of the governess is replaced by a troubled male tutor, whom the Miles character tries to seduce), thus giving even more empashis to James' theme of sexual repression. The locations at the Spanish coast are simply gorgeous and lavishly photographed, and particularly reminded me of the seaside castles featured in Corman's Poe films, although I'm not sure that was de Inglesia's intention. Again on a visual note, the film makes great use of candle-light and natural lighting in some scenes, creating this strange, ethereal atmosphere that adds to the brooding Gothic tone of the piece. Speaking of which, I was surprised that the film actually managed to scare me, with a few scenes involving the servants' ghosts that actually kept me from having a good night sleep. The acting is quite good too, specially the two child actors who play Miguel (the Miles character) and Flora respectively, who are just effortlessly creepy. Pedro Mari Sánchez, who plays the the tutor Roberto, is also quite good, although seeing him speaking some of the same lines as Deborah Kerr did in 1961 was rather amusing. Overall, a spooky Spanish gem that is highly recommended for fans of either James' novel or "The Innocents". It's hard to find, but it's worth it. 8/10
Docteur Jekyll et les femmes (1981)
The Decadent Charm of the Kinky Bourgeoisie
After being very disappointed with "The Beast", I had little expectations towards Borowczyk's other entry in the horror genre "Dr. Jekyll and his Women", and ended up being very surprised. It feels like the more serious but neglected younger cousin of Paul Morrisey's "Flesh for Frankenstein" and "Blood for Dracula", which also starred Udo Kier, and took a considerably more violent, erotic and often humorous approach at a classic horror story. While it does have a witty sense of humor, "Dr. Jekyll.." is a darker affair, that actually does seem to try and creep you out. While it isn't a 'terrifying' film, it is genuinely disturbing, haunting and sometimes creepy. The various changes from the source material worked in favor for the film, as it made it more fresh and engaging than other versions of the story. The empashis on Mr. Hyde as a sex maniac is much bigger in this one, as basically all he does is rape members of the high society, men and women alike, to death with a 35 foot, sharp-as-a-knife "organ". Despite the rather "absurd" premise, the subject matter is treated very elegantly and doesn't really come off as exploitive or comical. As a matter of fact, the rape scenes are all quite hard to watch, and unlike "The Beast", are not at all arousing, with gruesome aftermaths. Still, it's also quite beautiful and, as usual for a Borowczyk film, very dreamlike and surreal indeed, with some deliciously otherworldly shots that you'd want to frame and hang on your wall. The film also works as an interesting social commentary on the decadent lives on 19th century high society, as Jekyll and Hyde seem to represent the depraved, monstrous characterstics of the bourgeoisie, hidden behind an elegant, sophisticated facade. As I mentioned before, the film is quite different from the novel. Nevertheless, it manages to capture the novel's atmosphere perfectly, unlike many other more faithful adaptations. Borowczyk pays extreme attention to detail, with everything from set design, costumes to background lounge piano music, just screams "Victorian England". The synthesizer soundtrack by Bernard Parmegiani is subtly used to great effect in creating the fear of the unknown prowling every corner. While the film is slow, it's never really boring. There's an impeding sense of doom that grows with every minute, and each frame has such visual flourishes that it's simply impossible to look away. Last but not least, the film also benefits from a great cast that includes Eurohorror regulars such as Marina Perro and Howard Vernon - Dr. Orloff himself! Though the dubbing is not very good, the actors still manage to give good performances, particularly Pierro and Kier (who, unfortunately, gets the same kind of dubbing as he had in "Suspiria"). Overall, another great, obscure art-house horror gem that deserves more praise and recognition. 10 out of 10
Felliniesque Orgy of Horrors
Another unheralded horror gem from Italy! I'm actually surprised it's directed by Romano Scavolini, since he's the one responsible for "Nightmare in a Damaged Brain", and this one seems like the total opposite of that one. "Mariale" is one hell of an elegant, sexy and disturbing chiller, that really stands out from most gialli that were being made at around the same time. The story centers around Mariale, a young woman who is kept locked up in her family castle by her own husband and his servant. As a child, she witnessed the brutal murder of her mother, by the hands of her own father who then proceed to commit suicide. She secretly invites a group of old friends to gather at the castle for a costume party, and when Mariale decides to wear the same dress her mother wore on the day of her death, all Hell breaks loose. What follows is a grotesque, nightmarish orgy right out of a Fellini film, with a little extra gore and sleaze, that in many ways predates Ken Russell's "Gothic". Scavolini firmly directs this one with style and flair, as well as providing the gorgeous cinematography, that takes full advantage of it's amazing setting, and is beautifully accompanied by the Fiorenzo Carpi's haunting score. The film also benefits from strong performances from a great cast of giallo stars, which includes Evelyn Stewart in the title role, Luigi Pistilli, Gianni Dei and Ivan Rassimov (playing against the type in the 'good guy' role). In spite of these great elements, the film does have flaws, mostly regarding the pace. The opening scene is a bang, literally, as young Mariale witnesses the brutal demise of her mother and her lover. From then on, it works quite well until the bodies start piling up. The film suddenly takes a more routine and rather dull Agatha Christie-style murder mystery, specially when compared to it's unique first 40 minutes or so. Thankfully, the great ending puts the film back on it's tracks, and will certainly stay your mind for a while once you finished watching it. Overall, an excellent and sadly obscure giallo, with a very distinctive style. 8/10. If only the middle part was slightly more gripping, it would certainly get a 10/10 for me.
Vampyros Lesbos (1971)
Exotic Daydreams of Lesbian Vampires
One of Jess Franco's most famous works, "Vampyros Lesbos" is also one of the most distinctive and fresh low-budget horror films that sprung in Europe during the early 70's. While it is a flawed affair, particularly as far as substance is concerned, it's style is so unique and otherworldly, that it's guaranteed to haunt and entice you for a long time after you watched. Adopting a stream-of-consciousness narrative, the film takes you into a feverish daydream (literally, as there are no night scenes in this one), loosely adapted from Bram Stoker's novel "Dracula", exploring the world of fetishes and sexual fantasies, through breathtaking psychedelic imagery of eroticized violence and exotic locales, as well as one hell of a groovy, nostalgic score by Manfred Hubler and Siegfried Schwab. Of course, the film wouldn't been nearly as memorable without the casting of Soledad Miranda in the role of Countess Narody - quite possibly the sexiest vampiress to have ever graced the silver screen, with her unforgettable exotic beauty and bone-chilling screen presence. Overall, an excellent little psychedelic gem, that even if bothers some viewers with it's strange appeal, is a must see if only to be entranced by Miss Miranda.
The Tomb of Ligeia (1964)
Corman at his most POEtic and stylish best
"Tomb of Ligeia" was the last of Corman's popular Edgar Allan Poe adaptations of the 60's. Because of how it's totally different in style from the previous entries in the series, many have deemed it as an inferior effort, though I personally think it's the total opposite. There's no doubt in my view that "Ligeia" is Corman's finest Poe adaptation. All the flaws present in his earlier films (even in the more well praised "Masque of the Red Death"), that have become even more visible with aging, have served as a lesson as to what not to do, and are thankfully not present here. The most effective change was the change of setting. Instead of using painted backdrops posing and excessive sound stage interiors posing as European settings, this one was actually filmed on-location in the British countryside, with studio indoors scenes kept to a minimum. The gorgeously photographed exterior locations, with the dark and imposing ruins clashing against the peaceful, idyllic nature surroundings, add immensely to the film's brooding Gothic atmosphere, and it's a real shame it wasn't used more often in other films of the same period. Not since Jean Epstein's haunting "Fall of the House of Usher" in 1928, has Poe's style been so faithfully adapted to the silver screen. This is mostly due to Corman's stylish and original direction, an intelligent script by Robert Towne (of "Chinatown" fame) and to Vincent Price's acting. Without resorting to over-the-top melodramatic gestures (as seen in 1961's "Pit and the Pendulum"), Price plays to perfection a suave, mysterious, eerily seductive and haunted lead - the ultimate Poe lead, and one of his best performances, up there with his work in "Witchfinder General". Elizabeth Sheppard, whom you might remember as the doomed journalist from "Damien: Omen II", is equally effective as the female lead, both as Ligeia and Lady Rowena. As Rowena, Sheppard doesn't go for your typical 'damsel in distress' performance as it could've been, and plays as a much stronger willed, not so innocent, independent, yet likable character. Though her role as creepy raven-haired Ligeia has less screen time, she does manage to leave an impression, and manages to be genuinely creepy. Another bonus is the surreal dream sequence that happens somewhere in the middle of the film. A trademark Corman treat, this scene is filled with vivid colors, brilliantly otherworldly camera-work and bizarre, nightmarish imagery, it's one of the film's scariest moments, and also one of the director's most memorable set pieces. Also, I love the subtly creepy and disturbingly poetic approach Towne and Corman take at the controversial necrophilia subplot. This subject matter would get an equally elegant treatment 10 years later in Mario Bava's "Lisa and the Devil". The film's flaws come basically from the final confrontation between Price and Sheppard, which comes back as a more typical Corman-ending-to-a-Poe-film, coming off as a bit anti-climatic, considering how much build up there was it. Nevertheless, it's fun and stylish, even if it's slightly campy tone doesn't match the otherwise seriousness of all that came after. Overall, an exquisite Gothic gem from the 60's, and essential viewing for fans of the genre. Even if you're not a fan of the director's work, do check it out, as it might as well come off as a pleasant surprise. 9.5/10
Pensione paura (1977)
At Pensione Paura, the horrors of the World War II are only the beginning
Francesco Barilli's follow-up film to his equally mesmerizing "Perfume of the Lady in Black" is definitely among the most underrated horror films ever! I wonder why it became so obscure, considering how great it actually is, and overall, it's very upsetting to think that it will probably never get the recognition it deserves (it's only available in Italian with no English subs, as apparently it was never officially released in the US or any other English-speaking country that I'm aware of) In many ways, the film is something of a bettered version of "Perfume", as even though the scenario is quite different, many themes, ideas that were presented in a more subtle way in it's predecessor, are considerably more developed in this one. Also, to everyone who labels Italian horror as style over substance, this one proves the contrary, as it's script (written by Barilli in collaboration with Barbara Albertini and Amedeo Pagani of "The Night Porter" fame) is one of the most complex, intelligent and well written of genre films being released at that time period. The film takes it's time developing each characters and their own inner conflicts. This does take a while, and for most of the first half, it plays out more like a drama than it does horror, but this doesn't hurt the film at all in my opinion, as it only adds to the build-up for a insanely brutal finale and helps us identify with our leads. The plot basically follows a young girl named Rosa, who runs a small inn with her mother during the World War II. After her mother is found dead under mysterious circumstances, Rosa finds herself at mercy of her mother's sinister, sexually depraved guests, but not before a cloaked figure starts prowling the dark hallways of the inn, with horrifying fates in store for those who harm Rosa. The gruesome-yet-beautiful story blends perfectly with the trademark giallo visual style (lots of blue and red gels, as well as some gorgeous locations at the Italian countryside), as well as the haunting score by Afoldo Waitzman (who also composed the score for "A Bell from Hell"), present in almost every single scene, and very important to help characterizing the protagonist, and her surroundings. Leonora Fani was the perfect casting choice in the difficult role of Rosa. She has that angelical, innocent look that the character requires, but is also a very talented actress, as shown through her claustrophobic descent into madness, as the film progresses. Luc Merenda is also great in it, and it was interesting to see him play against the type (just watch "Torso" to see what I mean), as the nasty and hateful Rodolfo. Overall, another unheralded masterpiece from a very underrated director. It's a pity that Barilli didn't make more horror films, as his two entries in the genre are on the same level as (almost) everything Bava or Argento has done. 10/10
La chiesa (1989)
Gothic on celluloid
I know I'm minority, but I personally find most 80's horror movies to be simply 'fun' cheap scares with no real creativity, depth or artistic flair. Flawed thought it is, Michele Soavi's "The Church" proves otherwise to my common belief regarding genre films being released at that time. Unfortunately though, those who were expecting the final chapter for Lamberto Bava's cheesy "Demons" films, were certainly disappointed to find not simply an entertaining spook-fest, but rather an intelligent, imaginative and genuinely otherworldly effort. Just as his mentor - Dario Argento, Soavi takes a different approach at storytelling, not paying much attention to your regular screen writing conventions, and using instead a non-linear, dreamlike structure composed basically through visually arresting images. In that particular field, Soavi is almost on the same level as the more praised Maestro, with some amazing camera-work that knows no boundaries, taking full advantage of it's eerie church setting. As a result, the screen bursts with bewildering Gothic imagery that would make Mario Bava envious. While other directors decide to show the audience a more subtle, sometimes psychological representation of Hell, Soavi goes beyond that, by capturing on celluloid the feverish, twisted and genuinely diabolical essence of Dante's Inferno. Indeed, the whole thing feels like a Goya painting coming to life, and if the famous painter were ever to make a horror film, this is probably how it was going to turn out. In spite of it's shortcomings, most notably the script which, though filled with original ideas, sadly doesn't fully develop them as it could've had, "The Church" remains a terrific comeback to the glory of Italian Gothic. Yes, it may be style over substance (even if it wasn't Soavi's intention), but it's such a hypnotic, unique style, that is virtually impossible for the eye not to behold in both fear and fascination.
Danza macabra (1964)
Gothic in B&W
One of the greatest examples of Italian Gothic, "Castle of Blood" has everything you could ask for in a genre film and more, employing the basic elements of classic Universal Horror films with the over sexuality of 60's cinema, therefore turning the otherwise routine story into something fresh and original. Though Antonio Marghereti has something of a mixed bag career, this is one of his best achievements, whose stylish directing creates some haunting set pieces and evocative, nightmarish atmosphere that has never been bettered. Riz Ortolani's score is as darkly erotic as it's unique approach at the Gothic Horror, blending perfectly with the latter. Just as the soundtrack, Barbara Steele is perfectly cast as our protagonist's 'love interest from beyond grave', and whose awkward sex appeal is extremely representative of the film's own macabre sensuality. It would be interesting to see this back-to-back with Mario Bava's "Black Sunday", which has a similar tone as well as having Steele in the lead role. Both films are also probably the best of the dying B&W Italian horror films, before it switched to hellishly colorful efforts, starting with Bava's equally mesmerizing "Black Sabbath" in 1963. Overall, 10/10
Full Circle (1977)
Slow, but one of the few genuinely frightening films out there
The 70's was undoubtedly the heyday for horror cinema, with some well known masterpieces such as Alien, The Exorcist, Suspiria, etc. Still, there were quite a few of them that were just as good, but didn't get the recognition they deserved, and are still quite obscure today. "Full Circle", or as it is better known under it's US title "The Haunting of Julia", is one of these cases.
In many ways a hybrid of Nicolas Roeg's "Don't Look Now" and Mario Bava's "Kill Baby ... Kill", is a slow-burning, intelligent horror film that genuinely scares the Hell out of you. Director Richard Loncraine goes for a stylish yet subtle approach at a somewhat old-fashioned ghost story formula, without resorting to 'in your face' scares that were popular at the time. While it does open with a bang and ends with a bang (probably the films' most powerful and haunting sequences), Locraine goes instead for an interesting psychological analysis of a grieving mother's crisis over her daughter's death. Staring with small things that go grow more and more nasty as the story progresses, and the line between fantasy and reality becomes more and more blurry, The events that go on through the film may well be figment of her imagination, and the fact that, by the film's shocking climax, you still don't know for sure if it did happen at all, only adds to it's creepiness and strange atmosphere.
It's snail-like pace works both for and against it, as some might find it particularly fascinating and delightfully unnerving, while others might find it dull and uninteresting. In fact, it does move a little too slow for it's own sake, but Mia Farrow's gripping, strong performance and Locraime's visual flourishes help it from becoming uninteresting. Speaking of visuals, the film is beautifully photographed by Peter Hannan, but sadly it does show it's full aesthetic power in the bad VHS print it's available on. Nevertheless, one can still see it's impact on the film, particularly on making the wintry streets of London and the old-dark-house setting even more menacing.
The film also benefits from having a lovingly melancholic and often genuinely spooky score by Colin Towns, which blends perfectly with it's visual brilliance, as well as perfectly capturing the characters' emotions.
Overall, a sadly unrecognized classic which, in spite of it's few flaws, deserves much more praise. 9/10
The Black Cat (1934)
Superior on so many levels, why doesn't it fully work?
I have a thing with this film. I don't know why, but sometimes I love and sometimes I hate it, depending on the viewing I guess. Anyway, I decided to give this another shot, and I liked it quite a lot. With an intelligent and gripping script filled with themes so daring and perverse today as they were in the past (necrophilia, incest, rape, etc), and a refreshingly contemporary setting (which recalls German expressionism), this one is way ahead of it's time. Director Edgar G. Ullmer definitely had his own unique ideas over making a horror film, and his avant-gard direction in "The Black Cat" really stands out from almost every other Universal horror film of it's time. Some of it's images are so powerful they do stay with you quite a while after watching it (the Satanic ceremony or the 'skinning' scene, for instance), and might as well rank among the finest of the genre. The film also benefits with having the two greatest horror celebrities of the 30's, rivaling one another. Even though it is Lugosi who kills his enemy , Karloff is the real winner here. Lugosi's performance is decent, but too melodramatic and not that convincing, even for it's time (I much prefer his subtle yet spine-chilling performance in Dracula). Karloff, on the other hand, truly nails it as the icy-cold, genuinely spooky yet oddly likable, sadistic antagonist. In spite of it all, the film has quite a few flaws, most notably the pacing. The film is just too fast paced for it's own good, and sometimes it all happens so fast you just have to ask yourself what the Hell just happened. It's a pity really, because if the film had a more patient and subtle build up, the whole experience would've been all the more appealing. The ending, which also suffers of happening too fast, is not all that good either, with a rather silly final scene that was totally unnecessary. One thing that also didn't work very well at times was the music. Don't get me wrong, I found it to be beautiful, but it was overused, and sometimes didn't fit at all with what was going on the screen. Last but not least, the lead couple was fairly uninteresting and underdeveloped, even if the rather bland actors at least made an effort to try and get the best of it, and I really couldn't care less about them. Overall, 7/10. A shamefully flawed, but highly rewarding horror classic that really deserves it's praise, even if it could've been better.
Baba Yaga (1973)
Russian folklore, through the eyes of 70's Italian pop-culture
If, judging by the title, you're expecting a film about a cannibalistic old lady who lives in a hut with chicken legs in a Russian forest, than you'll certainly by surprised, for the only similarities between this film and the old folktale is having an old witch who preys on the young. Corrado Farina's "Baba Yaga" is a delirious art-house gem adapted from Guido Crepax's "Valentina" comics, which centers around the sex life of a popular fashion photographer. Though Corrado Farina made only about four films in his career, none of which were very well praised, he really shows his potential as filmmaker in this one, whose unique vision of horror cinema stands out from almost every single genre film made in Italy at that time (most of which consisted of cheap Bava imitations). As a matter of fact, it's much more like something Godard would do had he done a horror film, and not surprisingly, Farina himself admitted that the French maestro was indeed an inspiration for this one. Though reportedly it wasn't an easy shoot, Farina really believed in the project, and one can really see how this film is indeed a labor of love. There's something of an 'extra care' and finesse that lacks in so many films of it's kind that were released around the same time (even the dialog which is usually laughable, is well written). Also, he makes full advantage of comic book motifs in translating the story to screen, with some scenes framed just like a comic book as well as some other interesting editing techniques. Another bonus for the film is a great cast that, though weren't exactly what the direction originally intended, do very well in their jobs. Isabelle De Funés is pretty and very sympathetic as our protagonist Valentina, George Eastman is a likable hero, and last but not least, Caroll Baker is eerily seductive as the titular sorceress, conveying both the creepy and sensual qualities her role requires (even if her performance does borrow something of Delphine Seyrig as Countess Bathory in the equally hypnotic "Daughters of Darkness"). Other highlights include Piero Umiliani's beautiful score which often shifts from haunting piano melodies to funky disco motifs, as well as the very disturbing and spine-chilling nightmare sequences, which resembles a cross between Fellini at his darkest and Roman Polanski. Still, the film is not without it's flaws. For one, I just can't take that dominatrix doll too seriously, and also, the ending felt too rushed and anti-climatic, which is a shame really, considering there was so much suspense build up for what turned out to be not much really. I suspect the ending problem might have something to do with the producers' total butchering of the film before it was released (though Shameless' cut is probably the closest thing we'll ever get to Farina's original vision, there's still lots of stuff that has been cut out or changed). Nevertheless, the film manages to hold up quite well even with it's flaws. It is overall a highly atmospheric, original, often creepy and throughly mysterious piece of artsy fun. 9/10
La setta (1991)
Good enough surrealistic effort from Soavi, though I only wish I could like it more...
By chance, this was on TV tonight and I had been looking everywhere to find this one, so I was glad to finally see it. That being said, I feel as though my expectations were a bit too high on this one. It's not as if the film is bad, which it ain't, but I feel I was expecting another "Suspiria" or "Inferno" which, a few similarities aside, are quite different from this one. Still, there are some truly powerful images that sticked in my head after watching it and the first dream sequence was just brilliant. The acting was pretty good also, with Kelly Curtis coming off as a likable protagonist alongside the great Hebert Lom giving an eerie performance as one of the villains. There's also a fine script that, though owes a lot to "Rosemary's Baby", came out as fresh and quite unique really, and not the carbon copy one might expect. The cinematography is also spellbinding, and as in his previous (and in my opinion slightly superior) "The Church", Michele Soavi proves to be a visual artist on the same level as Dario Argento. The film's flaws come mostly from the strong made-for-TV feel and a rather cheesy score from Pinno Donagio, as well as some rather unintentionally funny moments here and there (easily overcomed by the claustrophobic, nightmarish atmosphere). Overall, a quite decent obscure chiller that deserves more attention than it gets. I only wish I could like it more myself, as it's one of the last great Italian horror movies of the past twenty years or so. Hopefully, repeated viewings will make me appreciate it more, because it surely got potential. 7/10