Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Macabre / Macabro (1980)

Lamberto Bava’s first movie is a brilliant deviation from the more-formulaic giallo. It lives up to its title and is a twisted treat that doesn’t nearly rise to the campy heights of the director’s more popular work, Demons. Unfortunately, due to Macabre being poorly received at the time of its release, by the public, it took three years before Lamberto could direct another film. It almost seems like he took a safer route with his next film, A Blade in the Dark, an impressively violent, though by-the-numbers, giallo that seemed like a stopping point to the interesting new direction Lamberto was going with Macabre.

Too bad, really, because as much as I do appreciate Demons and Blade, I really do think a different type of Italian thriller was blooming with Macabre (possibly only comparable to D’amato’s Buio Omega). It’s also something that Mike and the bots of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 wouldn’t be able to riff so easily, as they did with one of Lamberto’s other films, Devil Fish (season 10, episode 11).

After suffering from severe shock from losing her lover, Fred (Roberto Posse), in a car accident and finding out her son had drowned, all on the same day, Jane Baker (Bernice Stegers) is admitted to a mental hospital for a year. After getting out, her relationship with her husband damaged, she chooses to live in the flat where she used to have her, not so secret, affairs with Fred. The blind man who maintains the house, Robert (Stanko Molnar), regularly hears Jane at night upstairs in her room copulating with someone she is calling Fred.

The trailer spoils it, but it’s not that hard to predict what’s going on up there in Mrs. Baker’s room. Everything the film is alluding to is true, and yet, even when one knows what’s going on, the way everything is kept unseen, for the most part, keeps the viewer curious and intrigued, which does help the film’s slow pace. It’s pretty sick and a bit stomach churning to think about, and it’s just as gross to look at, even if an amount of restraint is used to keep the visuals from becoming too tasteless.

It’s actually not as gory and violent as one might think, which is helpful to know for those going into this for the first time. If the way things play out seem too far-fetched, stupid, or unbelievable to some, then perhaps it is worth noting that the movie was based on a true story from a newspaper article that co-writer Pupi Avati (Zeder) had brought to Lamberto's attention about something "macabre" that a woman did in New Orleans where the film takes place.

Jane, her daughter Lucy, and Robert are the three primary players in the story, at least among the ones that are alive, and despite the twisted situation, they are actually pleasant and enjoyable company.

Bernice Stegers arrests herself to the role of a post-institutionalized woman of questionable sanity. She’s a classy, attractive, and charming lady with a few screws loose and a sick, disturbing secret. My favorite thing about her is her smile.

Stanko Molnar is very exceptional as Robert Duval, the strongest character. I like to think that Macabre is his story. He plays a blind character who’s lived alone since his mother passed away, maintaining the building and repairing music instruments. His past loneliness gives his character sympathy. He finally has company now that Jane has moved in. Playing out a little like a drama, he shows innocent intent to clean himself up and cook Jane dinner and perhaps establish a connection with her. He’s practically turned away by Jane who’s more enthusiastic about her unseen company she meets with at night. Adding insult to injury is the downer of having to hear Jane have sex in her room above his.

Being blind complements the unseen horrors that Robert eventually becomes suspicious of, being present but never able to confirm his suspicions with his eyes but only with his hands, something that must make for hideous suggestions when he sleuths around Jane’s room.

Veronica Zinny plays a deceitful, wicked twelve year old girl, Lucy Baker (Jane’s daughter), who purposefully drowns her little brother in the bathtub at the beginning of the movie, part of what leads to Jane’s mental breakdown. Everyone knows it was an accident, except for the viewers, of course, so the way her character seems to live with herself without any guilt is an additional disturbing little element to the film. As an interesting side-note, Zinny is the sister of Karl Zinny of Bava’s Demons and not Urbano Barberini as was mistakenly established by Lamberto Bava during an interview (thanks goes to Johan of the euro fever blog for clearing that up). Apparently Macabre is Zinny’s only acting credit, which surprised me because for some reason I thought she looked familiar. It might be because she reminds me a little, just a little, of Felissa Rose, Angela Baker from Sleepaway Camp.

Some of you might be wondering where the fun is at, as I’ve painted this to be more of a mentally unsound drama than a fun horror film. It’s true that things are pretty low-key for the most part, but it does get crazy once all is revealed and all bets are off. The last-second jolt is a take-it-for-what-it-is moment that kind of cheapens the proceedings since the rest of the movie may’ve been a little too good for its inclusion, but, in all honesty, it worked for me.

The New Orleans location is a nice touch and was included to give the story some authenticity since it is based on a true story that happened in New Orleans. The location reminded me of The Beyond, but thanks to The Beyond; however, New Orleans will always remind me of that film (not saying that’s a bad thing). The local accents that the dubbing actors provide are an unusual change that, along with the mellow jazz score and that melancholic harmonica theme, really contribute to the film’s flavor.

Mario Bava (Lisa and the Devil), who died about two months after seeing Macabre, was very proud of his son’s film, claiming he can now die peacefully. The love for horror must’ve run deep in the family. If I was a filmmaker and made something like Macabre, I doubt either of my parents would’ve been proud.

The film isn’t necessarily all that shocking, just weird, twisted, and disturbing, conceptually distasteful but nonetheless filmed in good taste. Macabre is my favorite from Lamberto, and, for me, it stands above most everything else I’ve seen from him. Fans of this film should know that they can see Stanko Molnar play another blind character to similar effect in Lamberto’s tribute to his father’s Black Sunday, titled La maschera del demonio, which kind of reminded me of an insane blend between Michele Soavi’s The Church and Demons and is another underrated one from Lamberto.

It might test some viewers’ patience since the film is slow in parts and draws a lot from a fairly simple premise, but Macabre is pretty high quality, with good characters, particularly Jane and Robert, and a simple, straightforward story. There isn’t a whole lot to say about pretentious style and surrealism, as it trades those elements for drama and gritty dementia.

Anyone not too crazy about Lamberto Bava that hasn't seen it yet should give Macabre a chance, to see a different side to the maestro. You might be impressed.



  1. I definitely should check this out! Molnar's character interests me greatly and the production value looks of a pretty high standard.

    While Lamberto Bava's works may not be as 'masterful' as his father's, they're still very entertaining and pretty decent on a technical standpoint. 'Demons' and 'La maschera del demonio' were amazing. I'm also curious to watch 'The Ogre' (though I've heard bad things about it) and 'Shock' (since Lamberto also worked on it).

    That bit about Mario Bava being proud of his son's achievement warms my heart! :)

    1. Hey, Terence! I’m glad this film caught your attention. You should definitely see it!

      Molnar plays a very interesting and convincing blind character, and I’ve got to admit, without him the movie wouldn’t be as great. There’s been a generally negative response regarding his dubbing, as if the person playing his voice had zero enthusiasm, but I disagree. There’s a really good part where he’s demanding to Lucy to know what exactly the item he found in Jane’s bed is. “If that’s not the lobe of a human ear, then… TELL ME WHAT IT IS!!!!” heh heh…

      I haven’t seen “The Ogre” yet, but it’s on my wish list. “Shock” is so awesome, and it’s the next Mario Bava I want to cover, here.

      I’ve enjoyed a lot of Lamberto’s work, and there is still more I need to see, but “Macabre” is something unique, and I’m a little disappointed that things didn’t really progress in this direction. It’s not that I wanted to see the same story over and over again, but I wish Macabre was more of a seed to the type of films Lamberto would make. I think the three year lull might have been responsible, but it seems to me that he moved as far away from filming something like “Macabre” as possible.

  2. Have you seen Lamberto's Ghost Son (2007, I think)?

    Not really the primary topic of your post, but I love Pupi Avati's The House Of The Laughing Windows (1976). It's haunting in the literal sense of the word.

    I've got Anchor Bay's old double feature release with both Macabre and A Blade In The Dark - I'll need to watch them again. I've also got Shock paired with (I think) Possession. You're always dragging some interesting old titles out into the light again. Very cool.

    1. I've seen Ghost Son. I enjoyed the African setting and some of the afterlife stuff was pretty creepy, but the big show down between mom and the evil baby was ruined a little for me because I kept thinking about Stewie and Lois Griffin, lol.

      Zeder and The House with The Laughing Windows are the only films at present from Pupi Avati that I am familiar with. I want to cover at least one of those over here, but which one? Both are great films. I did enjoy the way Laughing Windows was influenced by Deep Red and yet still managed to be pretty distinguishable in its own right.

      You might've seen Blade and Macabre before me, because I bought them as soon as Blue Underground released them (around 2007), and I bought them separately and at the same time. I remember the cashier saying "this is the kind of stuff I usually buy." It made me feel like a cool customer for some reason.

  3. Excellent review, Giovanni! A perfect summation of this fine little film and I completely agree with your opinions about it, although I admit the PIECES-style ending wasn't quite to my liking. I consider MACABRE and DEMONS to be Lamberto's best films and I love them both - though for very different reasons, obviously. MACABRE is a much more mature work and I think part of its success should be attributed to writer Pupi Avati. The deliberate pacing and the atmosphere that slowly grows more and more uneasy is very similar to how Avati's own horror films are structured.

    Although I love DEMONS I too am a bit disappointed in the direction that Lamberto's career took but he has made some interesting things. I don't know if you've seen his TV movie SCHOOL OF FEAR but it's a slowly paced psychological thriller and among his work this is the one that reminds me the most of MACABRE. It's not nearly as good but well worth a look.

    Btw, Veronica Zinny is not the sister of Urbano Barberini but of his DEMONS co-star Karl Zinny. I think it was Lamberto himself who said in some interview that she is Urbano's sister but he was simply confusing the two of them and ever since this rumor has persisted.

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment! Well, it certainly won’t do for me to keep the false rumor going, so I am going to fix it and credit you for the correction. Thanks for letting me know. You’re right; I did get that bit of misinformation from an interview with Bava that came as an extra with my Blue Underground DVD.

      Thanks for the compliments. I haven’t seen School of Fear yet, but I did hear about it from a review on the Italian Horror Goldmine. I’ve been meaning to track that one down; it seems to be a hard find.

      Macabre is very story driven, so I am convinced that Pupi Avati most likely had a lot to do with Macabre working so well. Also, being that the initial idea of the film started with Avati and that newspaper article he supposedly came across, we probably owe Macabre’s existence to Avati .

  4. I'm with ya there - this is Bava's finest film. The heaps of psychological abuse dished out by both Jane and Lucy make the addition of violence completely unnecessary. I admit, when I first watched the VHS release of Macabre (when I was just slightly younger) I was initially distracted by the overdubs, but with repeat viewings it grew a bit more on me. Viewers new to Italo horror will likely have the same experience, so to any reading this review I say overlook this small imperfection. Macabre is well worth it.

    1. Having a long time interest in international genre film, I’ve really grown to love dubbing, especially when you start to recognize those familiar voices; it’s definitely its own appeal. I’m rather indifferent when comparing dubbing to subtitling. I’ll admit there are times when dubbing can really ruin it at times, in which case watching the movie with subs is a better choice. I guess I’m a fan of both ways. Thanks for your comment! Glad to be able to share the love for Macabro! I, too, like the New Orleans accented dubbing in Macabro.

  5. Finally saw this! I had been watching Final Fantasy 12 cutscenes and I was surprised to find out that Bernice Stegers voiced the Occuria which reminded me to finally put this on the top of my to-watch list.

    It was slow and maybe a tad predictable but I really dug it, especially the last half hour where it gets unhinged. The haunting harmonica theme works incredibly well with the scenes where Stegers wanders through New Orleans alone. So sad and melancholy! Veronica Zinny is pretty great as the evil brat. Loved how satisfied she looked with her vegetable soup. And of course, it's great to see Stanko Molnar in another blind role that manages to be quite different from his role in Demons 5.

    In regards to that ending (which I also liked), maybe I'm stretching it but I'm guessing Mrs. Baker might've dabbled in "voodoo"? We get a bit of foreshadowing with the shrine and the New Orleans setting. Or maybe Bava just put it there because. lol

    1. That’s interesting, because I first watched Macabro right around the time I was finishing up Final Fantasy 12, which I still think had one of the best battle systems of the entire series, even if it did rely on it a little too much.

      Veronica Zinny goading her mother at the end is probably the most entertaining part, and yes that look she gave at the dinner table was priceless. I’m glad you felt the gloom from the harmonica theme as well; it kind of gave it a certain spirit of its own, as every good soundtrack should. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen Blade in the Dark, but Stanko is in that too as a kind of red herring gardener, if I remember correctly; it’s not nearly as memorable though.

      In the review, I said that Macabro is my favorite from Lamberto Bava, which is still true, but I’m really starting to think that there are probably some real gems from Lamberto that I haven’t seen yet, and so I can’t help feeling that my proclamation that Macabro is my favorite might be a bit premature.

      Nice take on the closing scene. Perhaps her nightly rituals with Fred were some sort of magic ceremony that managed to bring life to the head. It’s a very interesting theory, and I like the way you’ve provided a possible explanation without scoffing it off. Pieces has a somewhat similar closeout that I don’t think can be explained.

  6. What a grand guignol finale! Robert finds out Jane's secret is she's been making love to her lover's severed head which she keeps locked in the freezer but when he tries to warn Lucy and she finds it,she isn't upset at all and tells Robert he's crazy,cooks some of the lover's ear for dinner and follows Jane into the bathroom and taunts her that she's insane and will be locked up.Lucy confesses that she drowned her brother on purpose but no one will believe Jane now.Jane strangles Lucy in a rage and drowns her in the bathtub,which starts overflowing as she rushes out and knocks the struggling Robert downstairs.She then puts the lover's head in bed with herand starts humping the mattress.Robert finds his way in.She attacks him and he kills her by pushing her face into what appears to be a portable microwave oven.Her face is burned up and she dies.Robert finds his way to the bed and to the head..which suddenly bites him!!! We are told he was found dead with tbe others,but no cause of death could be determined.