Sunday, November 16, 2014

Shock / Beyond the Door II (1977)

Mario Bava’s final, full-length film as director Shock (AKA Beyond the Door II) is like The Amityville Horror (1979), Repulsion (1965), and The Shining (1980) combined into a progressive-rock tinged haunted-house Italian horror/mystery thriller that does manage to be scary. Bava again employs the vengeful ghost story, as in his child-themed Kill Baby Kill (1966), but keeps it in the family, creating a ghost story about marital vengeance, which was based on a true story that Bava weaved in to an already existing script, about a living house, he had co-written with Dardano Sacchetti several years prior. The end product is a slow-paced but ultimately exhilarating experience that succeeds at being one of the creepier Italian horrors. Bava’s son Lamberto Bava, who also contributed to the script, said they were influenced a little more by Stephen King and were attempting to make a modern horror film.

The film also has a possession angle that takes a few cues from The Exorcist (1973), which might have been in response to the success of The House of Exorcism (1975): producer Alfredo Leone’s revamping of Bava’s Lisa and the Devil (1973), with newly filmed possession scenes spliced in.

A big attraction in Shock is Daria Nicolodi in the leading role, a role that Bava offered her during a time of self-exile from her lover Dario Argento, due to a nervous breakdown that resulted from a discrepancy between the two. Nicolodi claimed that Argento took all of her ideas behind the hugely successful Suspiria (1977) and publicly claimed them as his own, something that was devastating for her. Nicolodi maintains that she and Argento developed Suspiria together, basing it off of a horrific true story her grandmother related to her about a dance school she had attended that secretly taught black magic.

Nicolodi was in a dark place at the time, underweight from not eating right, when her agent told her that Mario Bava wanted her for the leading role in his next film, and never having met Bava, but being an admirer of his movies, she enthusiastically accepted.

Her role in Shock, as Dora, a newlywed housewife haunted by her ex-husband’s ghost, is her personal favorite, and it is also regarded as Nicolodi’s greatest movie performance. It’s definitely a big step away from her breakout role as a strong independent journalist in Argento’s Deep Red (1975), as she plays a dependent, unstable housewife in Shock.

Daria is, of course, dubbed, so evaluating her performance here based on line-delivery might be a little inaccurate if not unfair, but she doesn’t ever come off as wooden and does have the ability to convincingly seem distressed, which works for a story that does rely a little on the descent-into-madness theme. She’s OK when interacting with the other adult characters, but she really shines when she is left alone in the house with her creepy son, Marco (David Colin Jr.). She’s also fantastic during the climax, but what really worked for me is that drug-induced cold stare and subtle twitch of her mouth during a chilling flashback scene towards the end.

As a Mario Bava film, Shock does stand out, being somewhat singular in his horror output for a number of reasons. In addition to Lamberto’s push for a more modern horror film, there’s also a little more restraint from Bava’s characteristic visual style, although there’s still plenty of beautiful stuff to look at, and a little more focus in telling a story rather than bedazzling with colorful sets and lavish gothic cinematography. Yet Shock is still full of stylish touches and nuances (how about that porcelain hand?). One thing that still feels very Bava is the remarkably simple yet successful visual effects. The simple but creative technique behind one of the best parts involving the kid’s, Marco’s, transformation into an adult ghost (a successful jump scare) was Lamberto’s idea.

The surreal factor is sectored off in individual segments, as opposed to being a part of the entire experience, a la Lisa and the Devil. A couple highlights include a nightmarish dream sequence involving a flying box-cutter blade and a bricked up window, involving some ear-bleeding screams from Dora, as well as an ingenious dream scene with Dora seductively looking out into space, into the camera, with her hair flowing around on its own, on account of her lying on a rotating table during filming (this segment was also Bava’s sincere and successful attempt at capturing Daria’s beauty on film).

There’s definitely something awkward about the kid in the movie that just works for the kid-possession angle, and I don’t think it has to do with the dubbing. Here the child is portrayed as a kind of bridge between the spiritual and the physical world. Most curious is the way Marco never seems frightened at anything, something the movie establishes early on while he and his mother are attending a puppet show that he refers to as being fantastic when his mother asks if he’s scared. The one night when he wants to sleep with his mother, in her bed, might have to do more with him being possessed by his father’s ghost rather than being too scared to sleep alone. There ends up being an uncomfortable incestuous undercurrent that results during several instances between Marco and Dora, with the most awkward example being when Marco, or possessed Marco, sends some kind of strange message to Dora by cutting up her underwear and leaving it in her drawer to find later (This is one in several scenes that Mario let Lamberto direct, to give him a chance to direct on his own, as I believe he had only ever worked as an assistant director up to this point).

I also can’t tell if David Colin Jr. was just a strange kid actor or if he was doing a good job at playing a strange kid. I thought he was pretty strange in Beyond the Door (1974). In any case, he was definitely the right choice, capable of childlike innocence as well as creepy insidiousness.

John Steiner (Tenebre) plays Bruno, Dora’s second husband. There isn’t a whole lot to say about Steiner’s role other than that he gets the job done while leaving Nicolodi in control of the show. Ivan Rassimov has a rather minimal role as Dora’s psychologist, Dr. Aldo Spidini. There really isn’t anything that made Rassimov as memorable in so many other movies that noticeable here. As Dora’s personal psychologist, he has one interesting part that, to me, feels a little more detached from traditional Bava, where the doctor treats Marco by psychoanalyzing his drawings, which he in turn uses to explain Marco’s strange behavior to Dora as an apparent distantness he feels with his mother.

The progressive rock music heard in the film is by former Italian rock band I Libra, and if you’ve noticed that the music sounds like it could’ve come from Goblin (Suspria, Deep Red, Dawn of the Dead (1978)), it’s because there were a couple members who were in Goblin in I Libra at the time: Walter Martino and Maurizio Guarini, who contributed to a cool soundtrack that definitely aids the excitement of the conclusion.

Shock might be an acquired taste for some; it’s been referred to as Bava’s worst film by some as well as his final masterpiece by others. According to Lamberto, Shock has a lot less of his father’s writing in it, which might be the reason it feels like the odd one out among Bava’s horror films; and the house in the film is a little more contemporary rather than the frozen in time gothic mansion. It’s still very stylish and creepy, with terrific prowling camera work, a good story, and a few segues into gothic horror territory, such as the segment where Dora slowly descends the stairs to investigate a haunting tune coming from the piano. With several bouts of twists and shocks lining the last twenty-five minutes, there’s definitely an exceptional payoff at the end that always leaves this viewer satisfied, and Nicolodi is a fantastic lead. 

© At the Mansion of Madness 


Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Mummy’s Revenge / La venganza de la Momia (1973)

When looking over the lengthy cycle of mummy movies, one in particular often goes heavily unmentioned, and that’s Spanish actor, filmmaker Paul Naschy’s take on the mummy myth, The Mummy’s Revenge / La venganza de la Momia.

Being somewhat of a tragic love story, The Mummy’s Revenge is rather faithful to the original Universal film and is also easy to compare to the 1959 Hammer reboot as well. What sets The Mummy’s Revenge apart is that it’s a Paul Naschy film, meaning it’s going to be a little more erotic, a little meaner, more fearsome, more violent, and more personal. There is also a sadomasochistic element too, with a number of maidens strung up for both amusement and sacrificial purposes.

The film is directed by Carlos Aured and is written by and stars Naschy. It is one of four collaborations between Naschy and Aured, with the other three being the seminal Horror Rises from the Tomb (1972), part of the Waldemar Daninsky Werewolf cycle Curse of the Devil (1972), and the Spanish giallo Blue Eyes of the Broken Doll (1973). The Mummy’s Revenge is Naschy’s second, and more focused, take on the mummy, as the creature did appear in Naschy’s horror/sci-fi monster mashup Assignment Terror (1970), along with aliens, the werewolf, Frankenstein's monster, and Dracula.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Venomous Vixens: Aurora de Alba

At present, little is known about the European actress and dancer Aurora de Alba. Her film career is varied, although consisting mostly of rare, hard-to-find movies, with a handful of Spanish horror films being the most well-known and accessible. What little I could find out is that her name was Aurora Galisteo before being known as Aurora de Alba, and she is the cousin of famed Spanish dancer/actress Carmen Sevilla, who was born Maria del Carmen Garcia Galisteo. This would also make Aurora cousins with Spanish cinematographer Jose Garcia Galisteo. Aurora danced at the Venice Film Festival in 1953, from which a number of historical photos were made. She married Chico Scimone on June 23, 1954, in Taormina, Sicily, and later had a son, Gianfranco Scimone on March 11, 1955. She died February 24th, 2005.

Throughout the ‘50s, Aurora starred in a number of Spanish/Italian comedies and dramas, most of which seem to either have been forgotten or fallen into obscurity. As the Euro film industry shifted its output to different genres in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Aurora managed to land roles in Euro-westerns: Un hombre vino a matar (1967) and Su le mani, cadavere! Sei in arresto (1971) (under the direction of Leon Klimovsky); Euro-spies, Agente X 1-7 operazione Oceano (1965) and Top Secret (1967); and Euro-horrors La Marca del Hombre-lobo (1968), La rebelión de las muertas (1973), and La orgía de los muertos (1973). The three aforementioned horror films also starred Paul Naschy and seem to have been the most accessible. In addition, she was frequently directed by José Luis Merino. After starring in a line of comedies and dramas in the latter half of the ‘70s, her movie career seemed to have taken an abrupt halt at the end of the decade. What she was up to after that is probably anyone’s guess.

Some sources list her as an Italian actress, while others show her as a Spanish actress. Aurora is actually of Spanish origin, however she did get married in Italy and most likely lived there for a time. Another source lists her birth date as February 2nd, 1948; this cannot be true, however, because, as was mentioned before, she was married in 1954, and the following image of her below is from the 1953 Venice Film Festival, and looking to be somewhere in her early twenties at that time, it is probably not a far cry to assume she was born sometime in the ‘20s or ‘30s.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

City of the Living Dead / The Gates of Hell (1980)

City of the Living Dead is part of a high point in Lucio Fulci’s career that would make him synonymous with gore, zombies, and splatter and also cause him to be more generally regarded as a horror director, despite having worked in numerous other film genres. Being the first film in what has become known as The Gates of Hell trilogy, which also includes The Beyond (1981) and House by the Cemetery (1981), City feels a little rough around the edges, a step down from the previous Zombi 2 (1979) but at the same time a stepping stone or prototype to The Beyond, a film that masterfully embodies a dreadful but surreal atmospheric ascetic that I like to call nightmarish horror, which abandons logic to create a sense that anything can happen, usually something bad involving the eyes.

While there is an interesting Lovecraftian story (co-written by Fulci and Dardano Sacchetti) and plenty of dialogue and characters to fill it, City feels a bit like a compendium of gore scenes and set pieces, most of which exemplify Fulci in top form. It has its flaws and issues, yet it’s one of those films where you can talk just as much about what’s wrong with it as you can about what’s right with it, and what’s right is pleasing enough to supersede what’s wrong.

Despite having a dodgy narrative, a few silly moments, and somewhat shallow characters, who have grown on me with time, such as Bob (Giovanni Lombardo Radice), the film is quite a macabre experience that has become known for its top-notch ambiance and gore FX (by Gino De Rossi), as well as succeeding as a horror film overall. It’s like a product of low quality that nonetheless continually hits the sweet spot throughout its runtime so that you just can’t help loving it. It’s almost the masterpiece The Beyond is.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Female Vampire / La comtesse noire (1973)

If you haven’t noticed, Female vampires in movies have been a long-running theme I’ve enjoyed exploring with this blog. It’s an appealing aspect of fiction to me, and I just can’t get away from the archetypical idea of the vampiress: her gothic image, seductive power, hidden feral side, and deadly sexuality. Some time ago, around the time I reviewed The Blood Spattered Bride, I finally gave Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla a read and wasn’t too surprised at realizing how much Carmilla’s influence is felt in a large number of cult female vampire films. Although, there seems to have been a bit of a debate as to whether or not the perceived erotic subtext in Le Fanu’s novella has been misinterpreted by non-Victorian readers, yet many filmmakers have nonetheless taken the subtext at face value, taking whatever supposed eroticism is there in the writing of the book out of the implicit and into the explicit; and, for its time, Jess Franco’s Female Vampire (a.k.a. La comtesse noire, Bare Breasted Countess, Erotikill, and many more) has to be the most erotic lady vampire piece, even more so for the XXX version Lüsterne Vampire Im Spermarausch. (On the opposite end of the spectrum is perhaps, and also recommended, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death — a Carmilla influenced movie that hardly features any eroticism).

Friday, August 15, 2014

Spirits of Death / A White Dress for Marialé (1972)

With Spirits of Death, I’m reminded of how pleasing it is to keep discovering new worthwhile Eurocult movies of the vintage variety. Years ago I thought that I might have been coming close to exhausting my selection of every notable Eurohorror / giallo / surreal-art-house-drama film. However, that notion seems to become more and more untrue with time, which is counterintuitive, as it would seem that the more movies of this type you see the closer you would be to seeing them all, but it nonetheless keeps opening up a world that always seems bigger the further you go in.

Spirits of Death is one of those arty, Eurohorror, giallo movies of a particular brand that I can’t believe I went so long without knowing (let’s see if we can coin the term “Sleeping Eurocult” – in winking reference to Agatha Christie’s Sleeping Murder). Spirits of Death is directed and cinematographed by Romano Scavolini, who many may know as the director of an infamous Video Nasty from the early ‘80s, Nightmares in a Damaged Brain. He is also the brother of Sauro Scavolini, director of another marvelous “Sleeping Eurocult” Love and Death in the Garden of the Gods.

The film is essentially a gathering of colorful guests, who have been invited by one of the proprietors, Marialé (Ida Galli aka Evelyn Stewart), with mysterious motives, to a spooky old castle. It might sound familiar, and it is, but the gathering turns into a fascinating, candlelit journey into the underground caverns of the castle as well as a delirious entertaining descent into a batshit crazy Fellini-esque masquerade dinner party before things turn over to a more traditional murder mystery, as party guests start getting knocked off by an unseen assailant in the latter half.

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