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 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


Sunday, May 6, 2018

Daughter of Dracula / La fille de Dracula (1972)

Jess Franco filmed Daughter of Dracula back to back with the preceding film Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein (1972). These two films seem similar and for me were sometimes easy to confuse with one another, but after reviewing them both back to back, I realize they are quite different in many ways. Unlike the previous film, the eroticism is amped up this time around, particularly with the love/feeding scenes between Franco regulars of the era Anne Libert and Britt Nichols. It isn’t necessarily the monster mashup like the previous film since for monsters we just have Dracula, a femme vampire, and a mystery killer. Perhaps it’s more of a Eurocult genre mashup, as this one has a reputation for being confused as to whether it wants to be an erotic vampire horror film or a giallo-like murder mystery.

Daughter of Dracula doesn’t quite reach its potential, but it’s nonetheless a relaxing Gothic horror with a captivating modern ‘70s setting in an old-world location that provides the right ambiance us Eurocult fans can’t get enough of.

Howard Vernon reprises his role as his own odd, unique, near-lifeless version of Count Dracula from Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein. He’s even less active here, but Britt Nichols and Anne Libert get more to do this time around, even if Nichols’ vampire scenes may’ve soared a little more in the preceding movie.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein / Dracula contra Frankenstein (1972)

Jess Franco had already covered Dracula by directing a movie adaption of Bram Stoker’s seminal Gothic horror vampire novel from 1897 a couple years prior. So, what does Jess do next when returning to make another Gothic Count Dracula movie?... Take the Universal route and throw Dracula in with other classic monster figures, like Frankenstein and The Wolfman, to have a go at it and see who would win in a fight.

With Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein, the familiar monster mashup style gets the Jess Franco treatment, which is essentially Classic Universal horror in color with Franco’s flavor of visual and hypnotic storytelling, yet for a Jess Franco film, the eroticism is quite tame, with no nudity to be found. It adapts certain elements from Bram Stoker’s Dracula for the Dracula angle, but the Frankenstein angle borrows more from Franco’s own The Awful Dr. Orlof (1962) and less from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Curiously, the opening text, credited to David H Klunne (a Franco pseudonym), is pretty much a poetic and short synopsis of the film, rather than some sort of backstory setup to get viewers up to date, like an opening Star Wars crawl. That’s OK, because there isn’t really a whole lot to spoil, since the experience of the film, in this case, is a little more important than the story, which I think isn’t necessarily hard to follow, but it doesn’t really sink in either since there is a lot of visual depth, atmosphere, and cool ideas in what is a slow and thin plot.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

School of Fear / Il gioko (1989)

‘80s Italian horror TV movies aren’t always the most memorable and have a tendency to be a little underwhelming in comparison to the classic gialli and Eurohorror films from the ‘60s and ‘70s golden era. By the late ‘80s, we were at, or were even beyond, the tail end of the horror boom, with many Italian directors making movies more for television. Lamberto Bava directed a lot of TV movies throughout his career. His ‘80s horror TV movies paid a lot of homage to the classic gialli and horror films that sculpted the genre like The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), Inferno (1980), House by the Cemetery (1981), his father’s Black Sunday (1960), and even his own Demons (1985). A lot of times his TV films could be a little mediocre and almost feel like near-pointless rehashes, like Demons 3: The Ogre (1988), but Lamberto Bava also had a tendency to catch you by surprise with TV movies like Demons 5: The Devil’s Veil (1989), the hilarious and ‘80s satirical Dinner with a Vampire (1989), and the (previously) hard-to-find School of Fear.

Aside from being an interesting take on the evil kid trope, School of Fear / Il gioko does present a lot to chew on, and like Demons 5: The Devil’s Veil and Macabre (1980) is a little more of what I prefer from director Lamberto Bava. Don’t get me wrong, Demons and A Blade in the Dark (1983) are awesome too, but I honestly lamented for a time that we never really got something as twisted, different, and well-made as Macabre. It’s still no Macabre, but School of Fear feels a little more in the right direction towards something twisted and different.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Count Dracula's Great Love / El gran amor del Conde Dracula (1973)

Paul Naschy had a lot of success in a wide range of film genres, playing an even wider range of characters, but he is mostly remembered for his brand of gritty and beautiful Spanish gothic horror films. These movies had their low budget and pacing issues, but there was still something so attractive about them, with a reverence for the classic monsters, most especially the wolfman, and the inclusion of plenty of female vampires and femme fatales in general. Plus, with his charisma and sincerity to the material, it’s always a joy just seeing Naschy; whenever he makes an entrance in these movies, he causes viewers’ eyes to light up like they’re seeing a dear old friend. For me, it was always interesting to see what a zombie movie, or a mummy movie, or a cannibal movie, or even a giallo would be like after getting the Paul Naschy treatment.

It was my tendency to read other people’s takes on Paul Naschy movies, be they positive or negative, that inspired me to eventually take up the quill to see if I’d have anything interesting to contribute as a genre film blogger.

With Count Dracula’s Great Love, a costume horror drama with a satiable amount of violence and eroticism that according to Naschy in his memoirs was a critic and box office success, we have one of my favorite classic monsters done by one of my favorite filmmakers. It was directed by Javier Aguirre (Hunchback of the Morgue) but was written by Paul Naschy who also stars as Dr. Wendell Marlow and (forgive the spoiler) Count Dracula. I believe it is also the first in a short but notable line of horror films with Naschy and actor Victor Barrera (sometimes credited as Vic Winner or Victor Alcazar); the other three Naschy movies with Barrera are Hunchback of the Morgue (1973), Horror Rises from the Tomb (1973), and Vengeance of the Zombies (1973).

Monday, November 13, 2017

Lips of Blood / Lèvres de sang (1975)

With his first four full length films, between 1968 to 1971, Jean Rollin forged his own brand of erotic and poetic vampirism. The one of a kind auteur painted over the ‘in vogue’ gothic horror tropes, changed up the rules, and gave his vampires reign over dark and melancholic vistas far removed from the familiar world. The experience ends up being fantastically vampiric while also seeming at odds with the classic notion of a vampire movie.
  
Rollin would shed his brand of tragic vampire lore for a time to experiment with new dark takes on death (The Iron Rose (1973)), adventure, and revenge (The Demoniacs (1974)). To compensate for box office failures, and in order to have steady work between more personal projects, Rollin also directed several porn films under a different name (Michel Gentil).

In 1975, Rollin returned to vampires with the exceptional Lips of Blood, which also ended up being a commercial failure, and so to try and bring in money, Lips of Blood was reformatted with new hardcore pornographic inserts and transformed into the more exploitative movie Suce moi vampire (1976). For me, the existence of Suce moi vampire undermines the significance and spirit of Lips of Blood, and, kind of similar to my feelings on House of Exorcism (1975) (the reworking of Bava’s masterpiece Lisa and the Devil (1973)), I don’t have much interest in seeking it out.

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.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Fruit of Paradise / Ovoce stromů rajských jíme (1970)

After realizing film was her true calling, the first lady of Czech cinema Věra Chytilová enrolled in the Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (FAMU) in 1957. At the time, she was the only woman at the school and was faced with resistance. She was pushed back, but she wanted to direct and had ambitions to make different kinds of movies. Chytilová recalls potentially upsetting the directors at the academy when she told them the reason she wanted to study was because she didn’t like the films they made, feeling that they were predictable and arranged. When the Academy wanted to throw her out, it was a major blow for her that resulted in depression and a suicide attempt. She ultimately resisted being driven out and graduated, in the process directing successful medium length films Ceiling (1961) (of which she also wrote) and A Bagful of Fleas (1962). A Bagful of Fleas and her first feature length film as director Something Different (1963) both won film critics awards.
  
Chytilová married cinematographer Jaroslav Kucera (Morgiana 1972); they worked well together and collaborated on The Restaurant the World (1965), Daisies (1966), and Fruit of Paradise (1970).
  
Daisies is Chytilová’s most popular and well-known film. It is a staple in the Czech New Wave movement that’s a fun, technically impressive film with an unconventional narrative about two young, disorderly female leads sticking-it-to-the-man, with copious amounts of style and entertainment ensuing. The movie is supposed to be a cautionary tale on the consequences of destructive behavior, but for me, it’s one of those films you fall in love with and get hooked on.
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