Tuesday, June 26, 2018

A Whisper in the Dark / Un sussurro nel buio (1976)

A Whisper in the Dark is a personal favorite of mine. It has been referred to as the Italian The Turn of the Screw (1898) and is a subtle take on the haunted family category of storytelling, focusing on a wealthy family living in a gorgeous and at times spooky villa that’s like a hotel resort (probably because it was filmed at a hotel, the five-star Hotel Villa Condulmer near Venice). It’s got that gothic horror aesthetic but downplays the horror in favor of exploring family dynamics with shades of the supernatural that are symbolic of unresolved family problems. The supernatural is always kept ambiguous; almost everything strange that happens can be explained, but the circumstances do leave a lot to the imagination. As is usually the case, the ambiguity is the film’s strength and its weakness.

The cinematography by Claudio Cirillo is really the main attraction, and with Marcello Aliprandi’s direction, the visuals, coupled with Pino Donaggio’s sweet and melancholic score, end up being the stuff of fairytales, comprising some of the most majestic locations and set pieces. The villa and its somber exterior and grounds, dating back to the sixteenth century, have a deep, haunting presence, a rich sense of past generations emanating from it. And the children’s ball is an enchanting segment, with costumes and constantly falling confetti, which concludes with a phantasmagoric night time burning of an effigy floating on the river. According to Cirillo the different weather conditions, such as the foggy atmosphere seen during the opening credits, were by chance. Listening to Cirillo vibrantly talk about his craft on the NoShame DVD interview, you can tell the man is an artist.

The ghost story premise is rather intriguing and has a potential that may end up seeming a little wasted by the end, but a number of deep and emotional moments arise from it. The son Martino (Alessandro Poggi) has an imaginary/invisible friend named Luca. The name Luca happened to be the name decided for Martino’s brother who died at birth, so it draws up the possibility that Martino’s phantom friend may not be imaginary after all and could be the ghost of his brother. The entire family is made privy to Luca; the children believe, some of the adults are spooked by it, and the mother Camilla (Nathalie Delon) is eventually convinced Luca is real and starts to worry Martino may use Luca to hurt someone.

We are introduced to the family at the breakfast table, which includes Martino, his two little sisters Milena and Matilde (Susanna Melandri and Simona Patitucci-who later voiced Ariel in the Italian language version of Disney’s The Little Mermaid (1989)), their nanny Françoise (Bond girl Olga Bisera), the dad Alex (John Phillip Law), the mom Camilla, an American visitor Susan (Lucretia Love), and one of the servants Clara (Adriana Russo). Even the invisible Luca has a place at the table. There’s something warm and cozy about this family breakfast table that I find surprisingly memorable; maybe it’s the emphasis on all the different jams. It’s irrelevant, but the selection of jams in this movie always intrigues me. Martino’s little sisters messily eat it straight from the jar, which is a little gross seeing that it is community jam. Kids with jam on their faces is a minor motif here.

A couple of visiting guests arrive later, a Professor (Joseph Cotten) and Camilla’s mother Emma (Zora Velcova), so this ends up being a pretty full house (‘70s Gothic Italian horror Full House?). They even throw a ball inside the villa for all of the children in the region.

Alex and Camilla are not getting on well in the bedroom. Internally she is still coping and dealing with the loss of her child. Something is still unresolved; Luca still figuratively and possibly literally haunts her, so she is unable to be intimate with her husband, much to his frustration. The movie alludes that he is unfaithful to her as a result. It’s played as a joke, but Alex sexually assaults a woman at a nightclub after getting drunk while lamenting how his wife no longer seems interested in him. It isn’t funny, and he deserved a lot more than a slap and a punch to the face.

There’s something wrong with Martino. He gets pretty mean and scornful whenever anyone makes fun of Luca or tries to tell him Luca isn’t real. Martino threatens his little sisters for stealing Luca’s toast Martino had buttered and spread jam on by saying that Luca will punish them, and coincidentally it later starts to unexpectedly pour rain preventing them from going to some sort of party. Martino also plays a prank on Susan after spying on her playfully seducing his dad, putting a toad in her bubble bath (or was it Luca?). Disgusted with Martino’s behavior, Susan flees back to Boston. These minor shenanigans result in Camilla and her mother having Alex take Martino to Venice to see a psychiatrist (it’s also an excuse to film a scene in Venice), which ends up being a heartwarming father/son trip and a near death experience for Alex.

The shots of Martino and Alex in Venice are quite pleasant and sweet. It’s these kinds of scenes that give the film a certain magic. It does have its fair share of dullness that does get eclipsed by the magic overall. Again, the ace cinematography and music might have something to do with this.

The comedy is mostly cheesy, but some of it still works like the joyful scene of a drunken Camilla and Françoise singing at the piano, bonding over drink and song, now that the men are out the house, singing what I think is a Venetian love song. Their little performance here is stellar. They get scared talking about the possibility that Luca runs around the house at night and decide to sleep together before things seem to go bump in the night.

Françoise, the lonely but attractive nanny, secretly lusts for Alex, or maybe she has a sweaty shirt fetish. It’s the punchline to a joke about Alex wondering where his shirts are disappearing to. Later we find out that Françoise has been ensconcing them. One night, she stealthily picks up Alex’s used shirt he threw at a lamp, after having an argument with his wife, and hides it under her bed and later sniffs and snuggles with it at night (lucky shirt), dreaming of an affair with the master of the house. This subplot about Françoise secretly lusting after Alex goes nowhere but is interesting if a little at odds with the rest of the film, and yet it does give the film a little bit of an air of scandal and perversity. Françoise had fallen in love with a married man in the past, which perhaps might be why she is lonely; she may have a tendency to want what she can’t have.

After taking Martino to see a psychiatrist in Venice, it is recommended that a specialist, the Professor played by Cotten, observe Martino by staying with the family a few days.

I love the leitmotif music accompanying The Professor's entrance into the film; it gives him a certain mystique, since we pretty much know nothing about him. The Professor makes himself at home and even indulges in luxurious bubble baths and utilizes the maid services, ringing the bathroom bell so Clara can bring him his chilled vodka to drink in the nude while in the bath tub. This man appreciates the finer things in life. He takes on a mysterious illusionist persona at the children’s ball, doing magic tricks for the children. When he later walks around the grounds like a phantom, his persona almost starts to seem real.

During his phase as an illusionist masquerader at the ball, Camilla starts to suspect the Professor may be a charlatan. My personal theory is that the professor might actually be a parapsychologist interested in the possible supernatural evidence he may find investigating Martino.

As a specialist, the professor doesn’t do much except try to convince Martino to make the decision to go away with him. A coincidental incident happens that prevents Martino from leaving with the professor that may or may not have been the ghost of Luca intervening.

During his brief time at the villa, The Professor does make a memorable impact, even if the story isn’t really affected with or without his presence. There’s something a little poignant about realizing that the ball is to be his last night.

I had said earlier that the potential of the ghost story ends up seeming a little wasted, but there is still a payoff, a climax the movie rewards us with for sticking with it, a fantastic scene involving Camilla seemingly being chased at night by Luca over the foggy and snowy grounds of the villa. This particular scene is cinematic magic. The sudden appearance of fog and fallen snow and the masterful way in which it was shot makes this part feel like a kind of spooky nexus between life and the afterlife and all the more magical knowing that the weather was a chance opportunity for the filmmakers.

Major Spoilers: 

One night, Camilla realizes what she has to do for her son’s and everyone else’s safety. She decides to confront Luca and send him away. It’s a bittersweet moment between mother and her child’s ghost that does bring on the feels. The perceived ghost is driven away by Camilla, as she opens the front gate to the grounds of the villa, and the camera floats away from Camilla, which makes me sad every time, because you wonder where a child ghost would go after being sent away from the family home by its mother. We never know if this part was a dream or not, since when Alex comes for Camilla, she’s lying by the gate sad about Luca, and the snow and fog are gone. Alex Carries Camilla inside to the fireplace and they make love. Since she seems to have finally let go, Camilla is now able to make love with her husband again. At the breakfast table the next morning, aside from the fact that Alex has a new glow and smile since he finally got laid, not much seems to have changed. It might even be fair to say that nothing really happened, or Martino might have been full of it the whole time. 

End Major Spoilers

I like to think this brief moment is John Phillip Law's one second reprise of Diabolik

The final shot in the film as the end credits roll is somehow a powerful one. The main theme heard makes me misty eyed (I’m sure it has an official title, but I like to refer to it as Luca’s Theme). The shot is of a lonely Camilla at the table after breakfast when everyone has left to go about their day, looking noble and deep in reflection in her empty nest after all she’s been through, as the camera zooms out. The events of this story make up a brief epoch in this family’s history that they’ll grow and move on from that in retrospect is a warm and nostalgic time capsule. 

The subtle and minimal approach A Whisper in the Dark takes to horror should not be a reason for Italian horror fans to dismiss it. It grew on me, and I got attached to the family, their majestic villa, their past tragedy, and their problems that they live with. There’s no blood, gore, or even any scares really, only a possibly accidental death. It may not cut it for everyone, but it has heart and soul and something about it still gets under your skin. 

© At the Mansion of Madness

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