Tag Archives: Italian horror

Death Walks Twice

Death Walks at Midnight

Format: Blu-ray + DVD

Release date: 20 March 2017

Distributor: Arrow Video

Director: Luciano Ercoli

Death Walks on High Heels
Writers: Ernesto Gastaldi, Mahnahén Velasco (as May Flood), Dino Verde

Cast: Frank Wolff, Nieves Navarro, Simón Andreu

Original Title: La morte cammina con i tacchi alti

Italy, Spain 1971

108 mins

Death Walks at Midnight
Writers: Sergio Corbucci, Ernesto Gastaldi, Guido Leoni, Mahnahén Velasco (as May Flood)

Cast: Nieves Navarro, Simón Andreu, Pietro Martellanza

Original Title: La morte cammina con i tacchi alti

Italy, Spain 1972

102 mins

Hallucinations, deadly mediaeval gloves and make-up fetish are the marks of Luciano Ercoli’s entertaining giallo double bill.

This typically lavish Arrow BluRay/DVD box set collects two gialli from director Luciano Ercoli, following up his genre debut, Le foto proibite di una signora per bene (The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion, 1970) with a matched pair of mysteries built around leading lady Susan Scott (aka Nieves Navarro) and more or less the same supporting cast (though the heroine has a different duplicitous love interest in each film).

In La morte cammina con i tacchi alti (Death Walks on High Heels, 1971), Paris-based stripper Nicole (Scott) suspects her useless layabout lover Michel (Simón Andreu) has donned blue contact lenses and a black ski-mask to terrorise her with a straight razor in an attempt to get his hands on some diamonds everyone thinks her murdered jewel thief father left with her. Nicole hooks up with eye surgeon Dr Robert Matthews (Frank Wolff), a fan-cum-stalker who whisks her off to a strange version of the British seaside with pub gossips (including a one-handed handyman with a secret fetish), an ice-delivering fish vendor (crucial plot point), voyeur neighbours and more murderous attacks.

In La morte accarezza a mezzanotte (Death Walks at Midnight/Cry Out in Terror, 1972), Milan-based model Valentina (Scott), duped into taking hallucinogen HDS by her sleazy photojourno pal Gio (Andreu), has a vision of a girl being murdered with a spiked mediaeval glove in the surreally empty apartment across the way. Later, it turns out she’s described a six-month-old crime which has already been solved. The heroine’s alternately sensitive and vicious sculptor boyfriend (Pietro Martellanza/Peter Martell), a desperate widow (Claudie Lange), another sinister doctor (Ivano Staccioli), some hippies and a pair of nasty drug dealers cloud the issue, and Valentina is further imperilled. In both films, Carlo Gentili plays an affably unconcerned police inspector who turns up after every violent outbreak to puzzle things out – though Ercoli prefers to resolve mysteries with shock revelations, sudden attacks, punch-ups (sound effects make fist-blows sound like planks of wood snapping) and rooftop chases.

As in many gialli, the bizarre trappings – weird weaponry, hallucinations, masked heavy-breathers, burbling lounge music, fabulously garish fashions and decors, bursts of ultra-violence – litter plots which turn out to be indecently fixated on money rather than mania. It’s all about the stolen diamonds… or the smuggled drugs. Except, of course, it’s not: these films are memorable because of everything else, and resemble fractured mash-ups of Edgar Wallace Presents programmers with post-Blow-Up swinging psychedelia. Some of the extraordinary frills are so ludicrous as to be almost transgressive – like Nicole’s black-face stripping act in High Heels, which prompts a fetish sex scene as her boyfriend is turned on by wiping off her body make-up.

The vision of a soulless, exploitative modern world revolving around poor, abused Navarro/Scott is cartoonish. Seemingly every man in these films is useless or evil, and both movies eventually despair of masculinity so much that the guy we initially take to be the most repulsive (played by Andreu) is positioned by default as the hero. The scripts – by Ernesto Gastaldi and May Flood from stories by Dino Verde and Sergio Corbucci – feel like several drafts patched together by collaborators who never met (High Heels has a mid-film twist that At Midnight acknowledges as a misstep by not repeating) but Ercoli ringmasters the material for maximum entertainment. Odd funny touches and lines (‘Inspector, he’s a bit less fuddled now’) alleviate the sourness of the genre’s habitual cynicism – so these are among the jolliest, least downerific gialli. When Bava or Argento batter or slice victims’ faces in close-up, you flinch… when Ercoli does it, you can tell he doesn’t mean any harm, really.

Kim Newman

Black Sabbath

Black Sabbath_2
Black Sabbath

Format: DVD + Blu-ray

Release date: 13 May 2013

Distributor: Arrow Video

Director: Mario Bava

Writers: Mario Bava, Alberto Bevilacqua, Marcello Fondato (screenplay)

Based on short stories by: F.G. Snyder, Ivan Chekhov, and A.K. Tolstoy

Original title: I tre volti della paura

Cast: Michèle Mercier, Lidia Alfonsi, Boris Karloff, Mark Damon

Italy, UK, France 1963

96 mins

Arrow Video has been steadily building an impressive collection of genre restorations, including maestro Mario Bava’s most successful film, Baron Blood (1972), as well as his earlier anthology film Black Sabbath, which is made up of three short stories, each one showcasing a different subgenre of horror. In the first episode, The Telephone, a young prostitute is terrorised by some nasty phone calls, while supernatural terror hounds the conscience of a nurse who steals a piece of jewellery from the corpse of her employers in A Drop of Water. The final part, The Wurdalak, is a beautiful piece of gothic horror, starring Boris Karloff as a father who, upon his return to his family, may be more than what he seems.

The joy of seeing Black Sabbath in such a beautiful condition is unparalleled: it is one of the director’s most visually alluring films and the gorgeous colours in eye-popping Technicolor really bring forth the quality of Bava’s imagination. Although the stories can seem uneven, he demonstrates a technical deftness that shines throughout. It’s also incredibly entertaining to see the master skilfully switching styles: comparing the gothic horrors of The Wurdalak with the giallo sleaze of The Telephone shows how versatile a director Bava was.

Presented here in two different restored versions, the original Italian cut and the AIP version, it has to be said that the Italian cut is the better looking of the two. The print is struck with solid rich colours, as vibrant as Bava would have arranged them, with fantastic definition throughout. Although there’s some heavy grain in some of the uncontrolled exterior shots, this is far preferable to hideous digital fixing which seems to plague a lot of the current crop of releases. There’s also some minor print damage apparent as well as some film movement – however, again, this would have looked far worse had Arrow tried to fix that digitally. In fact, these are minor complaints in what is otherwise a gorgeous looking print that’s incredibly respectful of what Bava would have probably desired for the overall look of the film. In contrast, the AIP version of the film has a lighter tone – with the score re-mixed and featuring alternate introductions from Karloff, it serves more as an interesting historical viewpoint: an alternative angle through which to examine the film.

The extras are also compelling: Twice The Fear is a comparative featurette that covers the difference between the two versions of the film in split screen – informative and well presented, it is a terrific addition to the disc. The interview with Mark Damon sheds light on the career of the actor and especially his time with Bava, though finding out more on his involvement with Roger Corman on the Poe adaptations also makes for interesting and engaging material. The trailers, TV and radio spots, albeit slight, certainly enhance the overall experience. It’s a joy to be able to view these materials so long after the release of the film, while Alan Jones’s introduction is informative and well-presented, giving the viewer a sense of what to come. All in all, this is a must-purchase release that should be on the shopping list of most film lovers.

Evrim Ersoy

Baron Blood

baron blood
Baron Blood

Format: DVD + Bly-ray

Release date: 29 April 2013

Distributor: Arrow Video

Director: Mario Bava

Writer: Vincent Fotre

Cast: Joseph Cotten, Elke Sommer, Massimo Girotti, Rada Rassimov

Original title: Gli orrori del castello di Norimberga

Italy 1972

98 mins

Mario Bava’s 1972 film Baron Blood was a surprise hit that bought him the opportunity to make 1974’s Lisa and the Devil, a movie that went virtually unreleased at the time. Ironically, the latter film’s reputation as a baroque, surreal masterpiece has now entirely eclipsed the former’s more modest and conventional virtues, but both films should give pleasure of some kind to horror aficionados.

At the time, Baron Blood would have seemed a departure, since it attempted to graft the Gothic horror elements of Bava’s earlier, very successful films, such as 1960’s Black Sunday and 1963’s Black Sabbath (both also available from Arrow Video) onto the fashionable, groovy settings Bava had exploited in Hatchet for the Honeymoon or Five Dolls for an August Moon (both 1970). In effect, the movie anticipates the swinging Gothics of 1972’s Blacula and Dracula AD 1972.

Black Sabbath will be released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK on 13 May 2013.

Oddly, this genre revolution doesn’t seem to have energized the director. Filming on location near Vienna, in a magnificent castle and its surroundings, Bava seems less inspired than constrained by his surroundings, though things get livelier as the film goes on: the early scenes are over-reliant on the zoom lens, but the camera starts to move about and there are some typically elegant visual explorations in the second half. Italian filmmakers have always moved the camera less to follow narrative than to investigate space and instill atmosphere, and Bava exemplifies this tendency.

It’s a good thing too, since the plot here isn’t one of the best he ever worked with, recycling as it does numerous horror tropes, both recent and old. The malign influence of the ancient torture chamber is borrowed from Corman’s Pit and the Pendulum (1961). The hideously charred villain, who masquerades as an unscarred but chair-bound gentleman, is derived from House of Wax (1953). Both movies starred Vincent Price, who was the first choice for this one, according to Bava-expert Tim Lucas’s typically informative commentary. Price being unwilling to work with Bava after the miserable experience of 1966’s Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs (I’d say not Bava’s fault, that one), Joseph Cotten took the role of Baron Von Kleist (a meaningless literary reference), which freshens things up a little.

Bava compliments the Frankenstein’s monster of a narrative with a magpie-like visual approach, exploiting the settings with a wide angle lens, but throwing in nods to everything from 1963’s The Haunting (an oak door bulges inwards as if made of India rubber) to 1943’s The Leopard Man (seconds later, blood flows under the same door) to House of Wax again, with a sustained chase sequence which shows, if nothing else, that Bava’s memory for shots, in those pre-video days, was extremely sharp.

In addition to Cotten, who has a great entrance scene, gliding through an auction like a phantom, until his wheelchair is revealed as the source of his locomotion, the film stars Elke Sommer, who also returned for Lisa and the Devil. She’s rather good here, with her odd line readings, broad-shouldered, busty Teutonic fortitude and forceful screaming. She does terror well, though her best depiction of that emotion in a film, for my money, is still her rising panic at finding herself trapped naked in a car alongside a nude Peter Sellers in 1964’s A Shot in the Dark – it’s almost too convincing to be funny. A footnote for fans: I believe on the Italian soundtrack, Miss Sommer’s voice is being provided by Arianne Ulmer, daughter of the great Edgar Ulmer, whose crazy noir Detour (1945) was a favourite film of several Italian horror maestros, notably Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento. Also appearing is Rada Rassimov as a female psychic, the only really interesting character, and one who manages to mix the plot up a little and make things less predictable.

As always with Bava, the photography and special effects do conjure up some memorably lurid and exotic imagery, and if this isn’t his most enthusiastic job, it’s still a fascinating late work: one could say that while this film acts as a compendium of his influences in the horror genre, its spicier follow-up serves as a summation of his personal obsessions.

Alan Jones’s intro to the film hints that the theme of returning evil from the past might be a reference to Nazism and Hitler, citing the film’s Italian title, which translates as The Horrors of the Castle of Nuremberg, but I think that title owes more to the earlier, and rather similarly themed shocker The Virgin of Nuremberg (1963), than to any political subtext. Bava doesn’t seem to consciously explore politics in his films, and in the film itself the castle is known as Von Kleist Castle or Castle of the Devils. Thematically, the film might have been strengthened by the casting of a horror icon in the Cotten role, so that the movie could have had some self-reflexive fun with the idea of an aging horror star returning in the seventies: a little like Peter Bogdanovich’s use of Boris Karloff in Targets (1968).

Arrow’s two-disc set features both the European and American cuts of the film, with their contrasting soundtracks (Stelvio Cipriani versus Les Baxter), both of which have their advantages and disadvantages. Serious Bava fans are going to want to own this.

David Cairns



Format: DVD + Blu-ray

Release date: 27 June 2011

Distributor: Arrow Video

Director: Dario Argento

Writers: Dario Argento

Cast: Anthony Franciosa, John Saxon, Daria Nicolodi, Veronica Lario

Italy 1982

110 mins

Other than John Waters, it is difficult to think of a filmmaker who revels so much in ugliness as Dario Argento. And yet his ugliness is not really the same. Rather than Waters’s grotesqueries, we have the ugliness of the nearly beautiful. In Tenebrae, his lighting is bright despite the title of the film, eschewing the shadows of the genre; his colour scheme is garish, bright reds and greens and yellows a-go-go; his actors and actresses are always a bit shy of movie star beautiful and even when they are conventionally attractive they have a pallid, unwell and plastic look to them. And Italy - il Bel Paese - becomes particularly un-bel, an almost entirely urban clutter of concrete and glass or rain-soaked streets populated by dirty old men, psychopaths, angry dogs and prostitutes. And that is before we consider the ugliness of the violence to which many of the characters are subjected.

Peter Lane (Anthony Franciosa) is a successful murder mystery novelist in Rome as part of a publicity tour when a series of murders begin to take place, each featuring a connection to his latest novel, Tenebrae. A woman is killed with an old-fashioned straight-edged razor and pages of the novel are torn out and shoved into her mouth. The list of suspects includes an obsessive ex and a deranged journalist and any number of demented fans. As with Deep Red, we have some unlocated flashback episodes that point to an earlier trauma and go some way towards explaining the insanity of the killer.

Generally considered Argento’s last good film before a precipitous decline, Tenebrae was a return, after experiments with supernatural horror, to the classic giallo formula: the black leather gloves, the endangered foreigner, the inventive murders and the killer’s point of view. It offers a series of satisfying twists and turns, although some of these are facilitated by almost transparent trickery, lapses in logic and a general holiness of plot to compete with the nearby Vatican. The acting is exactly one notch above porn and the comedy is weak - ‘are you going to wear that hat? Aren’t you afraid it’ll fall off?’ ‘What, this hat? This hat won’t fall off’ - but no one watches a Dario Argento film for the comedy, we watch for the horror. And there are genuine moments of tension and unpleasantness - the scene with the dog is a particularly gruelling moment.

Argento identifies more closely with the killer in this film than any other. The murderer is self-consciously artistic, taking photographs of his own crime scenes, many of which also feature in the publicity material for the film itself. He or she seems wildly protective of Lane’s book Tenebrae (which obviously shares the title of the film), killing a shoplifter who has purloined a copy. Anyone who downloaded the film illegally might be wary of sharing a similar fate. Argento revels particularly in the murder of the lesbian film critic who has accused Peter Lane of misogyny - the bitch will die in her knickers for having the gall - with the same bitterness with which Clint Eastwood had a Pauline Kael substitute murdered in The Dead Pool (1988). This double murder is introduced by a justly celebrated crane shot, lasting over two minutes without cuts and which took three days to film.

Argento pushes the bloodletting to the extreme and pulls off some genuinely shocking moments, which remain so even today. His gallon-sized tubs of red paint will always be preferable to the CGI gloop we are treated to nowadays. And his eye for the telling physical detail, the drool of a strangled victim or the slipperiness of a fatal spike, are more effective in conveying the pain than any kind of gore. Yet I can’t help but exit each of his films relieved, not because the tension has been resolved, the killer caught/done away with etc, but rather just to get out of that world of over-lit post-modern interior design.

John Bleasdale

The New York Ripper

The New York Ripper

Format: Blu-ray

Release date: 27 June 2011

Distributor: Shameless Entertainment

Director: Lucio Fulci

Writers: Lucio Fulci, Gianfranco Clerici, Vincenzo Mannino, Dardano Sacchetti

Original title: Lo squartatore di New York

Cast: Jack Hedley, Almanta Keller, Howard Ross

Italy 1982

91 mins

‘To paraphrase Verlaine, in subtlety lies the essence of things.’
(Dialogue from The New York Ripper)

With the media frenzy around the banning of The Human Centipede 2: Full Sequence (2011), it’s more illuminating than usual to watch Lucio Fulci’s notorious The New York Ripper (1982), a film that was not only banned in the UK, but had its review print escorted back to the airport by police, lest it infect the populace.

As hysterical as then chief censor James Ferman’s reaction might seem, there is plenty in the movie to provoke offence, even with a few seconds of nipple-razoring still redacted from Shameless Screen Entertainment’s new Blu-ray. Even so, disliking the film as much as I did (a response the film seems to welcome), I’m still glad Fulci became a filmmaker rather than pursuing the career in medicine he studied for: his keen interest in human suffering and mutilation and his apparent disdain for humanity would seem ill-suited for healthcare.

The movie itself is a basic giallo, divided between some hurried, permit-free location filming in the Big Apple and more careful studio interiors, allowing Fulci to take his time with the murder set-pieces that are the film’s raison d’ê. These feature a few striking uses of colour and framing, and Fulci pans, zooms and tracks, sometimes at the same time, to create a giddy momentum and instability. He also pulls off one the weirdest and ghastliest shots in the whole genre: since Fulci’s killer, like the real-life Yorkshire Ripper, who had only just been imprisoned when the film was released, mutilates his victim’s genitals, Fulci films a broken bottle thrusting into the camera lens, from the point of view of the victim’s vagina. As bad-taste extremes go, this easily trumps the shot in Jaws 3 where we see a shark eating its human prey, filmed from inside the shark’s mouth, in 3D.

The problem isn’t that the film includes numerous scenes of women being violently abused: the media attest that such cases do occur, and are therefore suitable for artistic treatment. The issue is the film’s gleeful cynicism in serving up such scenes as entertainment, and the slapdash and heartless way it goes about this.

Right at the start, after a dog retrieves a human hand from a bush, echoing Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, and a girl is knifed to death in a car on the Staten Island Ferry (the owner of the car disappears, never to claim his vehicle, but he never becomes a suspect), the unlikely NYC detective played by Brit thesp Jack Hedley (looking world-weary, as well he might) chats with the pathologist who suggests that the two crimes are related. Hedley wanders to the front of the station house, where he meets his director, Fulci himself, playing a police chief, who berates him for telling the press there’s a serial killer on the prowl. Let me stress: this is a continuous sequence. Hedley has just been told about the crimes being related, and has had no time to talk to anybody. If that isn’t a good enough example of the film’s reckless construction, how about the fact that the medical examiner tells him, from a blood sample, that the killer is a young man who’s lived in New York all his life.

Remember, Fulci studied medicine.

Still, in an impassioned and intelligent essay culled from his book Beyond Terror: The Films of Lucio Fulci and included with the disc, Stephen Thrower makes a convincing case for the film as a brutal vision of hell and a nihilistic assault upon its audience, while in the video extras, the director’s daughter explains that her father was a very nice man if you knew him, both of which statements I accept. It’s not so easy to guess what the director was driving at by giving his antagonist the hysterical quacking voice of Donald Duck, other than attempting to drag even the most seemingly innocuous aspects of Western civilisation into the sewer.

What doesn’t convince about the film, for me, is its equation of sexual decadence with homicidal murder. The hilarious production of a cock-shaped pipe as evidence of a minor character’s depravity is the purest example of this silliness: why should we be appalled that he likes to puff his tobacco fumes through a ceramic Johnson? By showing the forensic profiler covertly buying a gay wank mag, Fulci thinks he’s making a point about general hypocrisy and creeping perversion, but Thrower is stretching things too far when he asks ‘if a psychoanalyst is ashamed of his sexuality, what sort of help can he offer to anyone else?’ Firstly, the guy is a lecturer rather than a therapist, and secondly, his personal problems, if we even see them as such, needn’t invalidate his insights.

That’s where the film seems ultimately rather silly, in its vile way: fair enough if Fulci wants to lambast the decline of modern civilisation, but he can’t make his points stick if he doesn’t himself possess enough perspective to see the very real difference between cock-pipes and jazz-mags on the one hand, and a razor to the eyeball and a broken bottle to the crotch on the other. No slippery slope exists from one to the other.

David Cairns

Two Films by Lucio Fulci

City of the Living Dead

Format: DVD + Blu-ray

Release date: 24 May 2010

Distributor: Arrow Video

Director: Lucio Fulci

Writers: Lucio Fulci, Dardano Sacchetti

Original title: Paura nella cit&#224 dei morti viventi

Cast: Christopher George, Catriona MacColl, Carlo De Mejo, Antonella Interlenghi

Italy 1980

93 mins

You’d be forgiven for assuming Lucio Zombie Flesh Eaters Fulci’s 1980 City of the Living Dead would be another Dawn of the Dead clone, but Romero’s zombies could never teleport or leap from walls like ninjas, and I don’t remember them having the power to make people cry blood. The atypical ghouls are not the focus of the action, either, just one of many manifestations of evil that are summoned by the suicide of a Christopher Lee-lookalike priest in the Lovecraftily-named town of Dunwich.

If you’ve seen The Omen, you’ll be familiar with the amorphous ‘dark powers’ at work. This free form horror appeals to Fulci’s screw-the-story-in-favour-of-tenuously-strung-together-set-pieces approach. He’d already given us The Beyond by then and would go on to paint himself into his own haunted world in Cat in the Brain (the Curb Your Enthusiasm of Euro-horror), but City of the Living Dead is surely the best of all; heads are drilled through, brains ripped out, storms of maggots burst into homes, guts are puked up literally and endlessly; all this to a Fabio Frizzi soundtrack that challenges Goblin in the zombie-prog stakes.

Arrow Video have a geek-centric attitude, heroically commissioning video nasty-style box art, with a logo animation straight outta the VHS rental days. Even without all the fanboy-friendly extras (interviews, commentaries, etc), City of the Living Dead would be a great release; the transfer quality is a far cry from the bootleg I picked up at some pikey market so long ago. The crispness thankfully doesn’t ruin the special effects; it just makes the gore more sickening than ever, hooray!

Lizard in a Woman's Skin

Format: DVD

Release date: 7 June 2010

Distributor: Optimum

Director: Lucio Fulci

Writers: Lucio Fulci, Roberto Gianviti, José Luis Martínez Mollá, André Tranché

Original title: Una lucertola con la pelle di donna

Cast: Florinda Bolkan, Stanley Baker, Silvia Monti, Jean Sorel, Anita Strindberg

Italy/Spain/France 1971

104 mins

This month also sees the release of a less well-known Fulci movie: A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin is a well put together Rosemary’s Baby-ish mystery, which is a pleasant surprise, kinda like discovering that your favourite black metal band started out doing garage rock. Prudish Carol (Florinda Bolkan) is fascinated yet revolted by her sleazy neighbour, Julia (Anita Strindberg), and her swingin’ orgiastic love-ins. In a nightmare, she is seduced by Julia, then kills her. When Julia turns up murdered in exactly the way it happened in Carol’s dream… it’s time to tick the Hitchcockian boxes and play ‘spot the giallo cliché’! Doorknob-jiggling chase sequences, cod-psychology and hunchbacked red herrings; all on cue.

What sets A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin apart from other Italian formula thrillers is its hallucinatory dream sequences (I like the one with the Toho-style goose monster) and its acid-soaked hippy happenings, lent authenticity by an Ennio Morricone (!) score that modulates druggily enough to have been phoned in from a crack den. The film also looks great, with a babe-heavy cast and Carnaby St wardrobe, and that film stock that makes everything warm and groovy. The blood looks like red paint, but that never hurt HG Lewis. A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin doesn’t approach the bloodiness of City of the Living Dead, but Lucio the Butcher does rear his dripping entrails… always when you least expect it.

This one is an Optimum release, and the only special features you get are a grainy trailer that makes it look like it’s going to be The Trip, and the option to watch in Italian.

To gore hounds considering one of these, I recommend City of the Living Dead. If you’re a Fulci fan wanting to check out his early work, then A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin will show you what he’s capable of when he’s not being gory and/or confusing. Each offers a glimpse into the bottomless Gothic toolkit of a horror master.

Doc Horror

audio Listen to the podcast of Alex Fitch’s interview with Dario Argento + Goblin Q&A at the Supersonic music festival in Birmingham.