Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Terror Creatures from the Grave / 5 tombe per un medium (1965)

The onset of the Halloween season this year has really put me on a black-and-white horror kick for some reason. I’m looking forward to checking out some classics I haven’t seen yet, such as City of the Dead (1960) and Eyes Without a Face (1960), and revisiting some favorites like Carnival of Souls (1962) and Night of the Living Dead (1968).

I used to approach black-and-white movies apprehensively, thinking that they would likely be a boring chore to sit through. I missed out on discovering a lot of classics when I was younger with this mindset, a mindset that surprises me considering that I had always been able to enjoy black-and-white TV-shows as a kid like Lassie and The Three Stooges, which happened to give me the false perception that the world must’ve been in black-and-white back then. I had always preferred color, but nowadays I really have no preference. There’s something both oppressive and romantic about black-and-white cinematography, a separate experience with its own charm that I don’t think is inferior to color cinematography. What finally gave me a taste for black-and-white film and caused me to not see it as a diminished experience due to technological limitation was Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (1960), which also turned my interest to the black-and-white Italian horrors of the ‘60s that I probably would’ve had no interest in otherwise.


Though not all of them are black-and-white, I really enjoyed exploring and collecting what I referred to as Barbara Steele epics from the ‘60s. There isn’t one I dislike; I even have a soft spot for Terror Creatures from the Grave, what seems to me to be considered one of the lesser of the Barbara Steele epics, likely because Barbara Steele isn’t in it very often and isn’t playing the good and evil dual roles she is remembered for. She makes all of her scenes count nonetheless with every one of her appearances being a high point that leaves you wanting more of her.


Apparently, the film’s director Massimo Pupillo was unsatisfied with the finished film, so he gave directing credit to co-producer Ralph Zucker. People had thought Ralph Zucker was a pseudonym for Pupillo for the longest time, but they were two different people. As I understand it, Ralph Zucker did direct a couple different violent death scenes that show up in the English version of the film but not in the Italian version 5 tombe per un medium, which is the movie’s original title and is the version I’m talking about; I’ve just known it as Terror Creatures from the Grave for so long.


Massimo Pupillo only directed three horror films, all of which were in 1965 that do make up a kind of gothic horror trilogy in their own right, Terror Creatures from the Grave, Bloody Pit of Horror, and The Vengeance of Lady Morgan. I personally recommend all three. (someone really should get to work on a Blu-ray box set).
  
Terror Creatures does have a clever mystery plot going for it that borrows heavily from The Third Man (1949) for its core premise, but what it might lack in originality it makes up for in style, eeriness, atmosphere, and a completely different ending than its source inspiration. It also doesn’t feel as much like a clone in the story department of its gothic horror contemporaries.



The story is set in April in the year 1911. A lawyer, Albert (Walter-Italian Dracula-Brandi) receives a letter from a Dr. Jeronimus Hauff summoning his business partner Joseph Morgan (Riccardo Garrone) to a shunned villa in a remote region in order to draw up his Last Will and Testament. Joseph is away, so Albert answers the call in his place. After travelling to the villa, he’s surprised to learn that Jeronimus had been dead for nearly a year, despite the letter he received having the official seal of Jeronimus, a seal which had been buried with the body. It is related to Albert from Jeronimus’s widow, Cleo (Barbara Steele), that Jeronimus had fallen down the long narrow stairwell in the villa to his death. Being present at the time of his death, five people, purported to be Jeronimus’s friends, signed the death certificate. Those particular people are dying gruesomely under mysterious circumstances, one by one. One of the signatures is illegible which constitutes a mysterious fifth person who needs to be warned and who could possibly be the key to solving the mystery (the fifth man?).



With an intriguing enough mystery plot in place, the narrative does also take a supernatural direction with plenty of old-fashioned scares but also some interesting special effects and themes, such as a few precursor zombie visuals that did make me think of Tombs of the Blind Dead (1972) and some nice makeup effects of up-close face sizzling and pulsating skin lesions.

The ghosts are portrayed with simple shadow effects, but the established haunting does create a convincing sense of dread. While the buildup is slow, the climax to when all hell breaks loose feels worth the wait. The conclusion is not too shocking, confusing, or unpredictable, just clever, with everything coming together and a feel-good immersive rainy closeout scene that I’m fond of since I enjoy the rain.



Walter Brandi, smoking most of the time (even during dinner), as Albert the lawyer is a rather plain lead hero but not unlikable. He isn’t charismatic at all, just an average Joe; although he seems like a nice guy. He doesn’t seem to have as much energy here as he does in Vampire and the Ballerina (1960), but perhaps he was going for the calm, cool-headed but also bewildered investigator type.


Barbara Steele as usual is given an evocative introduction, this time while having her beauty relaxation in her mansion with a creamy cosmetic face-mask pasted on that’s a far cry from the executioner mask in Black Sunday. She wipes away the mask to reveal her supernatural beauty, as if the film is unmasking and revealing its main attraction.


Our dear friend Luciano Pigozzi is on hand lurking around the villa and its grounds, doing what he does, as the suspicious, quiet gardener, Kurt. He’s great at lurching around, but he does get a few moments to shine outside of his comfort zone. Since Pigozzi is one of those actors you see so often in these films, he’s kind of like an old friend. The villa and the land in this film are so well tended for, it’s hard to believe Kurt keeps it that way all by himself.


On Albert’s first night at the villa an appropriately timed thunderstorm draws in (I do love the cozy contrast of the windy storm outside the villa and the peaceful calm inside). Albert ends up staying in Jeronimus’s old room. There’s something creepy about sleeping in the room of a deceased occultist who made contact with the spirits of the dead. I doubt I’d get much sleep.


A real nice touch that gets me every time happens during a beautifully framed shot when Albert, holding the candelabrum with lit candles, stands outside of a pitch-black doorway and walks into a room that lights up when Albert enters, a symbolic way of shining a light on the villa’s secrets.

The customary dinner table scene here is a real beauty, with lovely lit candles, a smoking fireplace, glasses of red wine, a raging thunderstorm outside that’s hardly noticeable indoors, and an elegant single eyebrow raising Barbara Steele at the head of the table dressed like the princess of hell. It’s what I imagine gothic horror film trope heaven is like. I can’t tell what they’re eating, although I’m always interested in food on screen even if it’s just apples and cut up bananas.



The castle in the movie, posing as a villa, is one I’m quite familiar with. I can’t recall all of the movies I’ve seen it in, but a few that come to mind are OSS-117-Murder for Sale (1968) and Slaughter Hotel (1971). In reality, it is known as Castle Chigi and was built in 1655. In these films, this castle is almost always framed to look isolated, but it actually sits in the middle of an urban park, Castelfusano, near the seaside in the commune of Rome. Even though I’ve never been there in person, like the Castle Piccolomini, it’s kind of a special place to me and no doubt to many other fans of Italian genre film.




I’m not sure if some of the interiors were filmed in a sound studio, but the interior of the actual castle is used in the film and is complete with medieval and gothic décor, these beautiful map and landscape frescoes on the walls as well as a room of broken clocks that you just know are going to start up when the haunting kicks in. 

As for the villa’s back story in the film, it was built in the fifteenth century on a lazaretto ruin, a kind of quarantine for victims of the plague. The history of the lazaretto served Jeronimus’s research. The gruesome history is detailed when Albert plays the phonograph to listen to Jeronimus’s voice recordings of his research on the plague victims and the contaminators. Jeronimus was an occultist who contacted the spirits from when the plague spread in the fifteenth century. The plague was purposefully spread by a few carriers. They were arrested and had their hands cut off. These severed hands were later mummified and framed as a museum exhibit, or as they appear in the villa at present, a wicked home decoration. The bodies of the carriers were buried in a neat little plot next to the villa.



When the plague was spread it contaminated the water, so the idea of pure water becomes the antidote and is introduced in the story as a riddle that is established through a soft but still haunting song. The “pure water” theme song is a melodious and creepy delight in both Italian and English versions. Aside from being an obvious foreshadowing of the story’s resolve, the melody is a recurring musical theme that is also a strong part of the film’s identity.


One of my favorite parts that I always recall is a brief but memorable segment that occurs one night when Albert throws on a phonograph and a child’s voice is heard singing the ‘pure water’ song. Albert looks outside at night to see a ghost girl sitting on the edge of the water bath as the music plays over this simple and effective gothic image. It’s also a little bit epic.


When it gets to the disturbing denouement, you’ll realize this movie isn’t fucking around. The wicked side of humanity is personified with evil, smiling, twitching faces that reminded me of human demons. 

For all its old-fashioned hokeyness, there is still something unnerving and dare I say scary about Terror Creatures from the Grave. Even though the threat is off screen it still manages to be rather imposing. There’s a shot of the villa at one point after it is suggested that spirits are haunting the place that is probably one of the creepiest establishing shots I’ve seen in a while. I think it’s a well-done ghost movie with an intriguing enough mystery story. Many, as I did, will come for Barbara Steele, and I think she honestly delivers, especially during her freak-out moment at the end that’s another one of my favorite parts. It’s no Castle of Blood (1964), and it does have its slow, talky (and some not so talky) parts, but it’s still a relaxing, chill movie with plenty of atmosphere that will work when you’re in the mood for black-and-white, as my grand mom says, spook-a-roos. But most importantly, by the end, I’m sure you’ll agree that Terror Creatures from the Grave was a good time. 

© At the Mansion of Madness 



    

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