Italian Horror

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by Cheryl Eddy

Mainstream horror fans have it good, what with films like The Sixth Sense, 28 Days Later, and Freddy vs. Jason flooding multiplexes, video stores and prime-time cable airwaves. Fans of Italian horror, however, have been forced by circumstance to be a craftier bunch. For years, even the most widely seen films in the genre -- Dario Argento's Suspiria, for example -- were carefully sanitized before reaching any American audiences. Fortunately, the DVD era has brought with it a torrent of "uncut and uncensored" versions, replete with lavish gore effects, brilliant color schemes, and pounding, fully restored soundtracks. In short, there's never been a better time to get acquainted with Italian horror films. But before you dive in headfirst, consider the following:

  1. In Italian horror films, plots tend not to move from Point A to Point B in reassuring, M. Night Shyamalan-fashion (nor are they tied up with a coda that answers all questions about what came before). Style, passion and emotion take precedence over logic and realism.
  2. Bad dubbing is a fact of life. Yeah, it's distracting and can add unintentional humor to even the grimmest of scenes. But, if you're going to watch a lot of Italian horror, you have to get used to it.
  3. Italian horror films are incredibly gory and can be mean-spirited. Violence against women is de riguer; sweet little kids are frequently brutally killed (or are themselves brutal killers). Unlike cautiously tasteful American filmmakers, Italians are absolutely not afraid to go over-the-top with dramatic effects; decaying body parts, copious amounts of maggots, spurting arteries and faces smashed through mirrors and windows are common motifs.

I Vampiri

Mario Bava

The "golden age" of Italian horror kicked off with Riccardo Freda's 1957 I Vampiri, also known as The Devil's Commandment; indeed, you'll find nearly all Italian horror films have multiple titles, thanks to the vagaries of international distribution. Directors often have multiple names, as well -- Freda is sometimes billed as "Robert Hampton." The black-and-white I Vampiri mixes a number of key gothic horror elements -- a monstrous woman, a murder mystery, a crumbling castle, etc. -- and was photographed by one Mario Bava (who also created the innovative optical effects and wound up overseeing the last few days of shooting). The fantastically talented Bava was 46 before he finally got full directorial control of his own project: 1960's Black Sunday (a.k.a. The Mask of Satan).

Having a bad skin day in Black Sunday

With enough mist, fog, graveyards, and musty crypts to fill a year's worth of Hammer films (indeed, Bava admitted he was directly influenced by the British studio's version of Dracula), Black Sunday features an unforgettable performance by Barbara Steele, as both a 200-year-old witch/vampire and her virtuous descendant. Filmed in shadowy black and white (they don't call it "the Citizen Kane of horror" for nothing), Bava's great skill as a cinematographer (plus some daring special effects, including an exploding coffin) make this atmospheric film essential viewing.

Bava's subsequent works -- thereafter delivered in masterfully manipulated Technicolor -- cemented him as Italy's most influential horror director. Some of his other notable works include The Whip and The Body (1963), starring Christopher Lee; Black Sabbath (1963), a chiller comprised of three different stories, with Boris Karloff as the patriarch of a family fending off the wandering undead; the horror/sci-fi hybrid Planet of the Vampires (1965); Twitch of the Death Nerve (1971, a.k.a. Bay of Blood), a murders-by-the-lake shocker that directly influenced American slasher films, notably Friday the 13th; and The Ring, Ghost Ship, etc.)


With 1963's The Girl Who Knew Too Much (a.k.a. The Evil Eye) and 1964's Blood and Black Lace, Bava is credited with introducing one of Italian horror's most important subgenres: the giallo. Named for a popular series of Italian pulp novels packaged in yellow jackets ("giallo" is Italian for "yellow"), gialli are erotically-charged thrillers that follow the same general template: a faceless killer (usually clad in a hat and coat, and always with suggestively kinky black leather gloves) stalks and creatively executes a string of victims; at the same time, and often to the consternation of the local police, a curious outsider/witness attempts to solve the mystery. The killer is inevitably a familiar character to whom we've already been introduced, and is unmasked by film's end. (No, Scooby and Shaggy aren't to be found here.)

Dario Argento

You can't talk about giallo without talking about Dario Argento. His first film, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1969), was an immediate success; its plot, familiar to any giallo fan (see above, with art gallery setting inserted) takes a back seat to Argento's stylish direction and inspired imagery. The film also boasts an unsettling score by Ennio Morricone, better known for scoring spaghetti Westerns but one of the most versatile and prolific film composers ever. Argento filled out his "animal trilogy" with The Cat O' Nine Tails (1971), starring Karl Malden as a blind man-turned-murder investigator; and the chilling Four Flies on Gray Velvet (1971), also scored by Morricone. Deep Red (1975) is one of Argento's most outstanding works, with some vivid gore (including a decapitation by elevator) and great performances by English actor David Hemmings (as a jazz pianist-turned-murder investigator) and frequent Argento collaborator/onetime partner Daria Nicolodi (mother of Argento's actress daughter, Asia). Deep Red was also the first Argento film to feature music by Goblin; the group's synthesized scores instantly became one of the director's trademarks.


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