Saturday, December 3, 2016

Something Creeping in the Dark / Qualcosa striscia nel buio (1971)

Mario Colucci’s Something Creeping in the Dark has been off the radar for a long time. I didn't even know about it until recently, and this is the kind of stuff I live for. This might be because it is rather mediocre in certain aspects, some might even say a little boring if this isn't your kind of thing. It's a curious little low-key Italian horror, and even though it's not that scary or original, it has its creepy moments. The ambiance and familiar setting is comforting if you’re in the mood for this type of movie. Also on the plus side, all the genre traditions we know and love are here: séances, portraits, fleeting shades of black magic and the occult, contrived gathering of suspicious characters, spirits, candles, storms, murders, babes, a spooky but marvelous gothic mansion, and night gowns. It really is a beautiful looking gothic thriller despite being routine in the story department, but there’s a lot to chew on with its concept, and there’s so many nice touches that keep it afloat. At times, it’s got a strange charm to it, with near Polselli-like moments with actors looking spaced out, standing around like model figurines.

The setup is one we’ve seen a thousand times before: a chance gathering of characters in a remote gothic mansion. It’s contrived but almost always works, especially if you’re a big fan of this type of film, like me. They all have a sinister but cozy night ahead of them. Well at least cozy for the viewer.

I’m definitely a fan of sensational intro credits, such as the creepy witch-cackling during the intro to Maniac Mansion (1972) and the kitschy “Fumetti-neri” style of the Baba Yaga (1973) credits, but the intro credits leave something to be desired with Something Creeping in the Dark. The dramatic freeze framing seems uninspired and almost distracting while we are being introduced to a set of mildly uninteresting characters. It’s supposed to indicate unease and menace, but the somewhat lazy editing pulls viewers out, failing to generate a convincing sense of dread.

A bickering husband and wife couple (Giacomo Rossi Stuart and Lucia Bose), a serial killer named Spike (Farley Granger) being pursued by two police characters (Franco Beltramme and Dino Fazio), a doctor and his assistant (Stelvio Rosi and Mia Genberg), and a professor of the arcane (Angelo Francesco Lavagnino) happen to all cross paths. A broken bridge from a supposedly fierce but painfully absent storm causes them all to have to take shelter at a nearby remote manor with an exterior that is portrayed by a rather obvious looking but still charming maquette.

The dark-and-stormy-night-with-the-bridge-out cliché is a sacred classic horror tradition, but it comes off as a lazy setup here. I understand that it’s low-budget, but more sound effects, heavier wind and rain, as well as a fog machine are sorely needed, as the presence of the big storm that is keeping everyone confined is hardly felt. It's just a little bit of rain and faint thunder, with it being completely calm when everyone gets out of their cars to talk. I guess this might work in a surreal, strange sort of way, but I honestly think a similar film Maniac Mansion had the right idea with the excessive fog. Early on, there doesn’t seem to be much reason to be emotionally invested in anyone, but oh my gosh does this film transition from bland to gorgeous once the stage shifts to the mansion interior, with a visual aesthetic that’s part gothic horror, part giallo.

With the phone lines out (big surprise), everyone is stuck spending the night. They eventually get bored enough to have a séance and conjure the ghost of a killer madwoman who used to live in the house. Spike eventually escapes custody and later Sylvia (Bose) is mysteriously murdered. Was it her fed up husband, the red herring killer, the ghost, or someone else? In the end, it isn’t clear, but that didn’t really matter to me. The first time I watched this, I enjoyed the comfy gothic mansion aesthetic and a number of supernal sequences. On subsequent re-watches, I noticed how much more psychological the film is, with some interesting profound concepts. There’s also an eerie surreal climax where several characters freeze up, suggesting a communal possession or hallucination, but a letdown of a “deus ex machina” ending follows that just kind of ends things just because the movie’s over.

I’m not sure if there ended up being any real reason to have everyone in the house together, unlike say in Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, of which the genre owes so much.

Lucia Bose is stunning in this as social elitist Sylvia Forrest, and her presence does add a lot to the viewing experience; with her enchanting, glamorous party outfit and saucy demeanor, she’s the belle of the ball. Well, at least to those who aren’t married to her, because she does seem to fill the role of demeaning wife to her husband, Donald Forrest (Rossi Stuart).

One of the more striking moments occurs somewhat early on with a highlight piano scene between Spike and Sylvia, where she is almost hypnotized by him and his piano playing (serenading and romancing her), and we go into a theatrical dream segment, which is basically Sylvia’s character having an abstract fantasy about what being intimate with a violent killer sadist might be like. It’s wonderfully shot and beautifully enhanced by the piano music. (Spike has a total rockabilly/greaser look to kind of signify that he’s a bad guy). Spike is probably the most interesting character, along with Sylvia. I can't quite tell if she's turned on by him, but she does seem to be drawn to him, as if being alone with a notorious maniac might be a strange kink to her. She even fantasizes about trying to stab him repeatedly but to no avail, as he laughs and mocks her attempts to play the role of killer. 

For some reason, the enigmatic butler/caregiver Joe (Gianni Medici), who, as usual, just sort of comes with the house, has a hot babe (Giulia Rovai) he makes love to who hangs out in a hidden room, wearing no pants, reading on the bed, looking like a boudoir pinup model, and is pretty much forbidden to show herself to the company for some strange reason. She stays in the room a long time and ends up having nothing much to do with anything for the most part; I can’t figure out her purpose other than eye candy. She and the butler both seem suspicious, but their relation seems to serve little purpose. I’m not complaining though, as she is still a delightful presence. She does come out of her room to the living quarters with everyone else eventually to participate in the eerie climax.

A malevolent spirit of an occultist is apparently haunting the house and possessing characters, opening up their base desires. The ghost is a husband killing mad woman who used to live in the manor, Lady Sheila Marlowe (we only see her in a model photo portrait; the model is Loredana Nusciak from Django (1966).

There’s a terrific roaming POV ghost cam, complete with high reverb moans and creepy siren-like wails that’s almost like being in the consciousness of a ghost. We become intimate with the ghost, despite never seeing it. The ghost wanders the halls and picks different rooms to enter, taking hold of the soul of the occupant as well. The ghost unlocks hidden desires, such as Donald’s repressed desire to kill his wife or Susan’s deep down desire to sleep with her boss.

It’s a ghost movie, but you won’t be seeing any ghosts. The ghost is never seen but its presence is sure felt. They did something similar with A Whisper in the Dark (1976). With Something Creeping in the Dark, the ghost exists in the narrative more as a concept. Instead of showing a hokey ghost, they attach human psych to it, in the process making it a metaphor for our base instincts, a ghost within us that is lurking in the darkest parts of our subconscious (the Jungian shadow, perhaps?), something creeping deep down inside every one of us, in the dark places we’ve been conditioned since birth to repress. If something is repressed, like an emotion or a wish, the ghost unleashes it in someone, sets it free.

There’s a cool part about halfway through when the ghost visits Susan and all the ticking clocks in the house stop, generating a surreal frozen-in-time feeling. 

Up to this point Susan has the studious tied hair and glasses look, with the obvious intention of downplaying her good looks, telegraphing that she’ll be doing the ol’ “remove her glasses and drop her hair” trick and look totally different. It’s a pretty interesting way of changing her physically after the ghost seemingly affects her (possesses her?) where she finally opens up to her boss, Dr. Williams.

The doctor (Rosi from The Hanging Woman (1973)) seems totally concerned for Susan when she tries to seduce him, aware that this is completely unlike her. He ultimately concedes. Susan becomes ambivalent about it afterwards when a bolt of lightning breaks the spell, and she no longer remembers seducing and sleeping with Dr. Williams, afterwards feeling ashamed and uncertain as to why.

As I said before, there are also hints of the occult and arcane, most notably with the presence of Professor Lawrence (Lavagnino), the eccentric arcane professor with his metaphysical words of caution and theories, whose role is pretty much to remind everyone that there are mysterious forces we do not yet understand. The scene of the professor playing solitaire resembles someone reading tarot cards. In fact, he flips a card to reveal a dual playing/tarot card, the death card/5 of clubs. (Interesting fact: the actor playing the professor also did the music for the film, and the soundtrack is impressively haunting.)

We escape the mansion a couple of times when the police have to chase after Spike in the woods. It gives the allusion of the area’s isolation, having immediate forest region surrounding the house, a trope still used to this day (AHS:Roanoke (2016)).  

Something Creeping in the Dark is mostly good old fashioned haunted house fun with enough nuances to not make it feel too much like a pointless waste of time. It’s a very talky mystery horror/thriller, but I personally enjoy relaxing and reading a lot of subtitles, but this could be a turnoff for some. It’s long and has quite the languid pace, but, despite its flaws, weak startup and conclusion, it’s definitely something creepy, moody, and atmospheric to unwind with when the mood for classic style Italian Gothic horror in color arises.

© At the Mansion of Madness


  1. I haven't seen this one in a long time but it's an interesting entry. When it works, it REALLY works. But when it doesn't, it can feel a bit underwhelming. Like you mentioned, it's unfortunate how uninteresting many of the characters are (besides the medium couple and Spike). Not to mention that the body count for this type of movie is surprisingly low. Yet... it still manages to be really creepy. When I think of a creepy low-key Italian horror, I think of this film. It has one of the coolest seance sequences I've ever seen. Especially that POV shot from under the table and Giacomo Rossi-Stuart wearing that eerie pale make-up!

    Lucia Bosè is really awesome in this. Her character was easily the most interesting, especially since she's the catalyst of the events. It's a shame there's not enough of her. Would've been cool to see more scenes with her and Farley Granger.

    I love your take on the characters' psyche. For some reason, I never picked up on that (granted, I saw it a few years ago) but it really does fit with the title "Something Creeping the Dark" and that's probably what the director was really getting at.

    1. Ciao Terence! I honestly thought I was on to something with the psychology of certain characters and how they relate to the ghost, and I’m glad that you notice it too. It just kind of hit me on the second viewing what might’ve been really going on.

      I admit I was having a hard time getting in to this one at first, but then I soon became mesmerized by Lucia Bosè’s character and her sense of fashion and deviant imagination. I do agree that she and Spike had an interesting first meeting during that hypnotic piano scene, and it's true that there was a potential there between the two that went untapped.

      Those great moments and sequences in this film do save it from being easily forgotten after first seeing it. Despite my issues, I was hooked and knew I wanted to review it.

  2. Really enjoy your blog, keep up the good work.

  3. Hey! This JUST showed up on Amazon Prime. It's pretty great though clearly the screenshots here are much better image quality. Are they from a DVD or Blu-ray? I'm an instant fan of it and disagree about the opening credits - I started watching it while scrolling around looking for odd nuggets (Prime being like some endless basement of weird free shit and more boxes, all unlabeled, thrown down all the time) and had no idea what it was going to be about, just saw the name and never heard of it before, which was the ideal way to see it. Love that opening line "Helen certainly picked a beautiful night to unveil her new nose!" In creative writing class that's what you call a slam dunk.

    1. Thanks for your comment and for reading. It's been a while, but I'm pretty sure I downloaded this version from Rarelust: Keyword/text. I'm really loving the stuff turning up on Amazon Prime and Tubi as well. It's great to bring the dark near-forgotten stuff in the basement to light.
      As for the intro credits to Something Creeping in the Dark, I'll need to look at them again to see what they were like, as it was a number of years ago when I last watched this film for this review. I do remember being real intrigued with the mood and atmosphere with this one and really being pleased by the presence of Lucia Bose's character.