Starting in the 60’s, there was a cinematic revival in the genre of Horror. With Horror being reduced to shock chair gimmicks, Vincent Price Hamminess and Universal Monster Crossovers, it was time to head back to the drawing board. I assume the one in Frankenstein’s Lab. Plus, the world of cinema was changing with the breaking of the bonds of censorship and movie moguls. Enter George A. Romero, Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper and John Carpenter to resurrect the Genre with an introduction of Gore, a grittier and more realistic cinematography and a little social commentary added into the mix. For a more detailed look at this point of history, I recommend Shock Value by Jason Zinoman.
While these Americans were jump starting Horror movies with lightning, a few men in the other end of the Pacific(or is it the Atlantic?) were getting in on the action. These were the Horror movies of Italy. Though not as popular as their American counterparts, Italian Filmmakers such as Mario Bava and Dario Argento are still legends of the horror genre and their films are considered some of the best. Their legacy was continued by Lucio Fulci and Lamberto Bava in the 80’s.
Plus, they had a style all their own. These films had a cinematic look that stood out amongst their brothers of terror. Not only this, but they had a specific type of storytelling that let you know it was Italian horror. How unique are these films? Let me count the ways. For this article I will be discussing the ways in which Italian horror separates itself from other horror movies. To do so, I will use three films considered amongst the best.
The first is Mario Bava’s Black Sunday, the film that jumpstarted Italy’s horror fad. It’s a classic gothic-type tale of Princess Asa Vajda (Barbara Steele), a witch who returns from the death with the intent of possessing her lookalike (also Steele). The only people standing in her way is Doctors Andre Gorobec (John Richardson) and Thomas Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi).
The second is Dario Argento’s masterpiece Suspiria. Jessica Harper stars as Suzy, an American who travels to a prestigious dance academy in Germany. What she doesn’t know is that the school is a haven for witches and they are picking off any suspicious dancers in gruesome ways.
The last one is Lucio Fulci’s the Beyond. Set in Louisiana, a young woman (Catriona MacColl) inherits an old, abandoned hotel that was the sight of some gruesome murders. Soon, she will realize this hotel was built on a hell mouth.
Thinking about the stories, there’s a notable emphasis on the supernatural. While America was bringing in new forms of terror with Slasher and Zombies, Italy was looking into the past. In these films, an evil supernatural force lingers underneath the surface of classic buildings. Through this, they bring horror back to its European gothic roots of Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley.
Another notable note is the casting of American and British actors. This is nothing new for Italy. Clint Eastwood got his start staring in Spaghetti Westerns, most notably The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. I assume this is a way to attract the English-speaking audience. I have to wonder the difficulty of working through the language barriers. Argento learned to use this to his film’s advantage. The heroes of his films are often American/Brits who are usually the stranger in a strange land, unaware and unprepared for the oncoming terror at hand. The perfect example is Suspiria heroine Suzy. Like the audience, she comes into the film in the dark, out in the cold and oblivious to whatever terror is at hand. Jessica Harper brings a vulnerability to Suzy that makes her an endearing if unlikely horror heroine. Considering she’s a ballerina, Suzy seems unlikely to go one on one with a coven of witches. This only adds to the terror when she finally comes face to face with the head witch.*
But with American casting came the dubbing. It turns out that in a lot of Italian films, the audio is not recorded live. The Director films the scenes and the actors do voiceovers later. This may have been a necessity considering the main actors most likely spoke only English. The dubbing ranges from okay to unintentionally hilarious. The latter was true of the Pimp from the film Demons, who sounds like he needs to cough into a napkin.
Their real strength is the cinematography. While their American counterparts filmed with a gritty realism, the Italian horror filmmakers go for a more artistic approach and the result is an enchanting experience. These films are some of the most beautifully filmed horror films ever. The first advantage is the settings. Whether classical churches or a modern art galleries, Europe is rich with gothic environments. These places have a feel of history to them. At first sight, The Beyond could be considered the exception since its closer to the American filmmakers. On further inspection, Fulci still keeps an artistic look. He just does so in a grimier fashion. Plus, the New Orleans setting also has a feel of history to it.
With the addition of color, these filmmakers found a way to use it to create a more haunting experience. Just in a scene of a model running in the woods, Bava adds beauty with a red dress and then grips the audience by having her run in complete darkness with only her in sight. This was in his film Blood and Black Lace, an early slasher film about a modeling school terrorized by a serial killer.
Despite the beauty, these films aren’t afraid to spray some blood. Black Sunday begins this trend with a sledgehammer smashing a spikey mask onto a witches’ face. Blood sprays out of the eye holes. While such films as Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Last House of the Left films death scenes in a gritty realism, the Italian Horror rule of death scenes is go big or go home. When a character is killed off, they are killed in the most creative way possible. The best is Argento, who takes a simple way of killing and then finds a twisted way to do the dirty dead. Then he films it beautifully. Take the act of slitting one’s throat. In Suspiria, a dancer falls into a room covered in barbed wire and then her throat is slit. Then Argento fills the scene with a haunting dark blue. And as an added icing, he adds a haunting score by punk band Goblin.
Fulci seems to film in more of the American horror style. But he finds a way to stand out. He likes to linger on a torture scene, forcing the audience to curl up in grossness. In a scene from Zombie (or Zombi 2**), a zombie grabs a woman by the hair and gouges her eye with a wooden splinter. That alone is gross enough. But instead of just showing the splinter gouging the eye, Fulci has the hand slowly pull the woman’s face toward the splinter. It takes forever for the eye to reach that splinter. All the better to leave you curling up for the inevitable squish.
Through it all, Bava, Argento and Lucio brought a new life into the horror genre. With the classical style of Black Sunday, Bava helped to bring the genre back to its roots. With the gothic masterpiece Suspiria Argento proves horror can be gruesome and beautiful at the same time. Though not on par with the other two, Lucio did bring an overdue dirt and grit to horror with The Beyond.They should be honored for getting horror fans to not sleep at nights.
*Is it worth noting Jessica Harper would go on to star in Stardust Memories, Woody Allen’s Tribute to Italian Film legend Federico Fellini?
**It’s supposed to be Italy’s sequel to Dawn of the Dead(Aka Zombi). In other words, it’s fan fiction with a budget.