Friday, January 26, 2024

The Unnaturals / Schreie in der Nacht (1969)

When poring over the impressively diverse range of genre films from Antonio Margheriti, I realize there’s still a lot more I need to see. I have more blind spots here than I care to admit. I plan on eventually rectifying this issue in good time, maybe starting with some of the derivative sounding ‘80s action/adventure stuff like The Last Blood (1983) or The Ark of the Sun God (1984). I do have a soft spot for retro space movies, so something like Assignment: Outer Space (1960), Margheriti’s first full film as director, would probably make my day. I have been a big fan of Margheriti’s exquisite gothic horror films for quite some time (no surprise there), and I’ve been itching to review one of his least talked about (as far as I can tell) gothic horrors, The Unnaturals / Contronatura

I thought this German / Italian co-production kind of had a classic comic book feel to it (something kind of in the vein of EC’s Crime SuspenStories). It’s also been compared to the krimi thriller, with all the fixings of a crime fueled storyline, only instead of a detective or Scotland Yard, the criminal foil and justice comes in the form of the supernatural beyond. There’s also no denying that the 1920s setting, primarily in a gloomy haunted mansion during a long meditative séance, hosted by none other than Luciano Pigozzi, with a bunch of stranded shady characters seeking shelter on a dark and stormy night is gothic horror as fuck. This is the kind of gathering that I consider a good time.


For some reason, The Unnaturals took a few watches before I was finally comfortable remembering all of the characters, their names, and their relation to one another. It feels like it might be more complex than it needs to be, so it is a rather challenging watch the first time around. If it weren’t for the appealing look and style, not a lot of people would likely care to revisit it, but I sensed it was worth taking a few more deep dives into the film, and I’ve come to decide that The Unnaturals is a pleasurable and relaxing little crime thriller overlapping gothic horror. 


So, I mentioned a primary setting in a dark atmospheric mansion, but this one also has flashbacks galore. I do like this format since you get to learn more about the vice-motivated characters and why they might actually be in the grip of the ever-prevalent hand of cosmic justice (almost predicting Tales from the Crypt 1972, a little). Plus, the dramatic flashbacks to ballroom parties, deadly love triangles, and fox hunting in open fields do help break from the claustrophobia of the closed off house setting. Although, unlike the usual anthology/portmanteau style film, the flashbacks are not separate stories but make up a single but complex backstory relating everyone present.


While watching The Unnaturals, I remember thinking that it would make a pretty good book. It turns out the film is based on a short story Eppure bussano alla porta (roughly translated to “Yet They Knock on the Door”) by Dino Buzzati

There’s quite a bit of setup before we get to the seance; we actually don’t get to the mansion until twenty minutes into the movie. The film takes its time to set up its main five players, starting in (what better place for the rich and decadent) a casino during the roaring ‘20s.


Business tycoon Archibald (Giuliano RaffaelliThe Long Hair of Death 1964) and his lawyer / accountant Ben (Joachim Fuchsberger - Dead Eyes of London 1961) are meeting up at a casino on a rainy night before travelling by motorcar to a place in Brighton. They need to deliver important estate documents in the morning that Ben has recently prepared, now that a ten-year statute of limitations period has passed. Along for the trip are Archibald’s administrator Alfred (Claudio Camaso - A Bay of Blood 1971) and his illicit lover Margarete (Dominique Boschero - Argoman the Fantastic Superman 1967) (who’s also Archibald’s mistress). Waiting in the backseat of the car is the gothic lesbian domme mommy, er, I mean, Ben’s business and pleasure partner Vivian (Marianne KochA Fistful of Dollars 1964), who seems to have an intense fixation on Margarete.


After everyone piles in, during the car ride, we get to know these characters a bit more during a flashback segment from, apparently, ten years prior, as we learn that Archibald was regularly cheated on by Margaret with the, then, newly hired Albert, who in turn was cheating on his love, Diana (Gudrun Schmidt). Both women were pulling strings for Albert’s success with Archibald’s business. 

It’s revealed one night that while Albert and Margaret were making love in the greenhouse, a lovelorn Vivian had watched the two lovers from outside through a window. Movie audiences in 1969 would be forgiven for assuming Vivian is also in love with Albert, but as we find a short time later, she really lusts and broods over Margaret. It shouldn’t be surprising that none of this (Albert and Margaret’s cheating, Archibald and Ben’s shady estate dealings, and Vivian’s sexual aggressivity) is going to end well.


Back in the present, the Brighton-bound motorcar eventually gets stuck in the mud, and the scoundrels are forced to take refuge in a nearby mansion (the rain drenched walk through the thunder and woods to the house is actually done quite well, with rain effects, swinging branches, and enthusiastic performances from the cast). 

When they arrive to the grounds of an old hunting lodge, the “uninvited” guests just kind of help themselves to entry, as the door seemingly opens for them. With the tempest outside, it’s assumed the proprietors will understand.


Once inside, they come across a strange man played by Pigozzi named Uriat (sometimes spelled Uraia in the subtitles) who seemingly is quite welcoming and hospitable to the travelers in the storm. His spooky mother (Marianne Leibl), a kind of psychic medium, happens to be stuck in a trance, unable to hear or see anything. The medium mentions a name that alarms both Ben and Archibald, who soon find themselves joining Uriat and his mother in a séance in order to try and break her out of her trance and learn more about what is going on. Meanwhile, Vivian takes a weary Margaret to a room upstairs.


The Unnaturals could have been a plain old story about crime, greed, and deceit, but there’s an added touch of the erotic with the inclusion of the sexually aggressive sapphic vixen Vivian. She broods in her lovelorn state, craving the love of a younger woman, Margaret (as well as Elisabeth (Helga Anders) during flashback segments). Vivian gives the film its edginess. I like to think that she is the cool one in the group, as she usually stands out, looking pretty badass in the background during some of the séance scenes. I can’t help feeling that Margheriti might have been channeling the predatory lesbian vampire a little with Vivian. It’s likely that we’re not supposed to like Vivian, but what can I say? This wouldn’t feel like much of a Eurocult film without her. 


Like with the previously reviewed Night of the Damned (1971), this one suffers from a lack of exterior establishing shots of the haunted house. Seeing as this is a Margheriti film, I’m surprised we didn’t get at least a mansion miniature for the exterior (as in The Virgin of Nuremberg 1963). Nonetheless, the interior set is quite marvelous, being a bit more on the dark and creepy side with plenty of atmosphere, prominent lightning effects from a grand blue window in the background, and stuffed animals scattered about the place. As I realized when watching Simona (1974), animal taxidermy is an interesting metaphor for the stagnant preserved past in a time frozen mansion.


The Unnaturals has to contain one of Luciano Pigozzi’s finest roles and one of his finest moments during the climax. Fans of the usually mild mannered Pigozzi won’t want to miss seeing him lose his shit at one point in this. 

I get that The Unnaturals may not be as meaty with its mystery storyline as it tries to be. The intense but old-fashioned soundtrack by Carlo Savina does lend a bit more excitement to the mystery. It’s also a bit convoluted and hard to follow, and as I said, it took a couple rewatches before it began to sink in a little. The flashback parts are supposed to take place ten years before the present narrative (if it weren’t for the hair color change on Archibald and Ben, you wouldn’t really be able to tell), but it feels more like a couple days or maybe a week prior. Despite its faults, we do get a pretty cool buildup and payoff. You don’t really have to be closely following to know that the characters are not good people and that something will eventually have to give with regards to justice (or is it vengeance?).


When I first watched it, I couldn’t quite decide if I had come across something special with The Unnaturals. I was eager to revisit it to take in more and hopefully elucidate it a little more for myself. Despite familiar genre conventions, there is something unusual about it. It’s beautifully and creatively shot by cinematographer Riccardo Pallottini and is in need of another physical media upgrade. It does have a pretty unique if awkward structure, numerous segments that will stay with you even after forgetting some of the finer details of the storyline, and unlikeable characters who still have appeal. The dialogue is actually pretty good, especially that coming from Uriat, his mother, and Vivian when she is in full seductress mode. 

If anything, it’s another worthwhile Margheriti film off the checklist for anyone looking to explore more from the genre diverse filmmaker. I would think it would pair well with a blackberry wine, the same “Blood” Uriat indulges in. 

© At the Mansion of Madness


Sunday, October 29, 2023

Night of the Damned / La notte dei dannati (1971)

“Thank Heaven! The crisis / The danger is past, and the lingering illness, is over at last /, and the fever called “Living” is conquered at last.” Edgar Allan Poe 

Horror films are more traditionally associated with anxiety and sleepless nights. Funny, then, how we tend to look towards horror sometimes to wind down after the day. Now, I love to be scared and shocked just as much as any horror fan, but what about a horror film that can have the opposite effect, one that puts you to sleep through relaxation and comfort? Thanks to the usual languid pace and soothing dark ambiance, a lot of older gothic horror films can serve as a pretty good example of this, such as the gothic literary mashup Night of the Damned. 

Directed by Filippo Walter Ratti and written by Aldo Marcovecchio, Night of the Damned is a quaint little ‘70s Italian gothic horror that hits a lot of the right notes when it comes to style, mood, and atmosphere. Sure, there is better to pick from, but something about this film made me want to revisit and connect with it on a deeper level. The Poe-inspired world is worth getting lost in, and it appeals to my love for the supernatural femme fatales who reign from their remote dark castles, with the occult and hedonistic rituals that usually accompany them.

Sunday, July 30, 2023

Death Falls Lightly / La morte scende leggera (1972)

When analyzed with any degree of honesty, jealous behavior appears, in reality, neither as a duty nor a right, but as a shabby dross of our obsession with possessing.” – Emmanuelle ArsanL’hypothese d’Eros 

A weekend getaway at a resort hotel with your significant other is most people’s idea of a relaxing holiday, but having to hide out in a creepy, possibly haunted hotel with your mistress for the weekend, because your wife turned up murdered, sounds like a more interesting time to me. 

Death Falls Lightly is one of two thrillers directed and co-written by Leopoldo Savona (the other being Byleth – The Demon of Incest (1972)) that I commend for its unusual and multidirectional approach. You’re not really sure what they’re going for, but you kind of like it anyways. Like Byleth, it’s a little hard to compare to other films of its ilk, since it’s kind of an oddball example. It reaches for different ideas, perhaps one too many, while maintaining that appealing ’70s Euro-genre ascetic, so you’re getting something both different and familiar at the same time. Whether or not it’s actually any good is somewhat difficult to tell by the film’s end. 

I personally find this one delightful, as it is a bit of a jack-of-all-trades genre movie that borrows from crime, mystery, giallo, erotic, fantastical, psychological, and occult horror, so it’s like there’s a little bit of something for everyone. It is mostly centered around a claustrophobic and somewhat dark and depressing hotel. Interestingly, this movie predicts The Shining during a few moments, and my mind even thought a little of Silent Hill at times.

Sunday, April 30, 2023

The Witches Mountain / El monte de las brujas (1973)

Cover art by Justin Coffee

 “A woman will sometimes forgive the man who tries to seduce her, but never the man who misses an opportunity when offered.” – Charles Maurice de Talleyrand

I’m hoping that in the coming months and years, more and more people discover, and hopefully enjoy, the unfairly banned and relatively forgotten Spanish horror Raúl Artigot’s The Witches Mountain thanks to Mondo Macabro’s recent release of the film. Lured by its title and because Patty Shepard was in it, I first saw the film as a VHS rip on YouTube back around 2013 and was really floored by how atmospheric and beautifully haunting it was despite the low picture quality. I’m usually easy to please in this area, but every DVD-R and download of this film I came across was quite soft looking and really showed the film’s age. Anytime I thought to review it, I was discouraged, and mildly depressed, by how much the poor-quality screengrabs undersold the film, so I kept holding out for a decent release someday. Years went by, and I personally started to give up hope, so it was miraculous news for me when the HD upgrade of The Witches Mountain was finally announced. There was a significant delay after the Halloween presale, but I thought it was worth the wait.

Thursday, March 2, 2023

Zelda (1974)

“You came to watch this movie just to see two naked women… You have a colonialist mentality.” – Alberto Cavallone on the ending to Le salamandre*  

“I would like, as I said, for the lover’s place to be in the middle of the couple.” – Emmanuelle Arsan**    

Alberto Cavallone’s films are not fun. I can’t think of one I’ve seen that does not have a depressing ending. Whether or not they are entertaining might depend on the viewer’s mindset, but they are almost always enthralling in a way. You might think you’re being lured in for an erotically fun time, with films like Le salamandre (1969) and Blow Job (1980), or a film with a notorious reputation that precedes it like Blue Movie (1978), but that’s just to get you in front of the screen so the film can put a mirror in front of you, whether or not you realize it, and call you a colonizer or a degenerate (who Cavallone referred to as the “raincoat crowd”), crudely interrupting your titillation. Basically, if the film upsets or antagonizes you, then it was made for you. What’s fascinating is that the films nevertheless did well with the audiences Cavallone was hoping to annoy.  

Cavallone dismissed his own erotic thriller Zelda as a commercial effort, lacking the sociopolitical content of his previous films. On the surface, the movie does have an erotic pull to it, with the promise of interracial lesbian scenes, in a manner similar to Le salamandre. Like Le salamandre, the erotic pull ends up not being the main point of the movie, and with Zelda, Cavallone is critical, or at least dreadfully pessimistic, of the loose sex lives of married couples and the en vogue erotic film of the era while also making his film look very much like one.

Sunday, December 4, 2022

Bloody Pit of Horror / Il boia scarlatto (1965)

Fun is only partially the name of the game with a film like Bloody Pit of Horror. With its comic book style influence, there’s lots of fun to be had, but it’s got a mean side too, as sadism is also the name of the game. The mix of fun and dark in the film is an influence from a style of Italian adult-oriented superhero, crime, and erotic comics known as Fumetti Neri, which consists, among many others, of flamboyant masked super heroes/villains: Diabolik, Kriminal, Mister-X, and Satanik. The antagonist in Bloody Pit of Horror could’ve easily come out of this subgenre, but he’s no fantastic masked superman. He’s a fantastically cruel masked super-sadistic-madman, the Crimson Executioner, played with love, enthusiasm, and high energy by a chiseled Mickey Hargitay.

Thursday, September 8, 2022

Marquis (1989)

Only Marquis’ literature can give me a taste for living.” –Justine (Isabelle Wolfe

Marquis is quite the creation. I never knew of its existence until recently. It’s a little like the movie Quills (2000) but with anthropomorphic characters who look like they’ve escaped from Alice in Wonderland. It is set in 1789, shortly before the Storming of the Bastille, in Paris France. The lead character (Francois Marthouret) is an inmate of the Bastille, who is referred to as Marquis and is a talented writer of erotic, violent, and depraved manuscripts. He is not necessarily alone, for his sizeable member who goes by Colin (Valerie Kling) is his close companion, consultant, and conversationalist. In between writing various pieces of salacious stories, Marquis finds himself participating in a ploy to help free a political prisoner, Lupino (Roger Crouzet), for the sake of the Revolution. Another imprisoned woman, Justine (Isabelle Wolfe), who was raped and impregnated by the king, is eventually thrown into the same cell as the Marquis, as a corrupt priest, Dom Pompero (Vicky Messica), intends to divert the blame on to him and cover up the king’s misdeed, but Justine instead finds the Marquis to be a gentleman and an enthralling storyteller. 

Sunday, June 12, 2022

Blue Eyes of the Broken Doll / Los ojos azules de la muñeca rota (1974)

The sadistic and awesome poster art is certainly deceptive, but the US title House of Psychotic Women isn’t too far off. Perhaps it should be, ‘house of sisters who probably should learn to communicate better’? Can’t say it doesn’t really sell the film though. Oddly enough, I was sold on the movie’s original title Blue Eyes of the Broken Doll, which works for the film as well, so feel free to pick your favorite title for this Spanish thriller, written by and starring Paul Naschy, and directed by Carlos Aured. It was also known as House of Doom for US television. 

Carlos Aured originally knew Paul Naschy from working as assistant director for Leon Klimovsky.* Aured would be hired on to direct Naschy in Horror Rises from the Tomb (1973).* They would collaborate in the ‘70s on three more films, with Naschy starring and Aured directing: Curse of the Devil (1973), Blue Eyes of the Broken Doll, and The Mummy’s Revenge (1975). 

Blue Eyes of the Broken Doll was pivotal in my becoming a Paul Naschy fan. It was my second Paul Naschy film. My initial interest in it being that it looked and sounded like a giallo, and I certainly wanted it for my giallo collection that at the time was just starting to grow beyond Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci. I had also remembered Paul Naschy from a previous film I saw as a teenager, the aforementioned Horror Rises from the Tomb, which at the time disappointed me, so I was feeling slightly dubious. After watching Blue Eyes of the Broken Doll, I had a much better time with it, and I loved Naschy’s character in the film, Gilles, which resulted in my eventually collecting many more Paul Naschy movies and becoming an ardent fan of his. Plus, I would end up realizing a new love and fondness for Horror Rises from the Tomb as well.