It’s Not Uncommon for a Man to Want to Do Strange Things to Get His Kicks: An Appreciation of “The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave”

In the mood for more Italian? Excellent; let’s mangia. Our movie today is one I actually thought I hadn’t seen before, though when I got to one of the later scenes, I felt a definite tingle of recollection. See, when I was a kid, I saw a movie with this one scene that really stuck in my memory, of a guy going into a tomb and seeing a creepy skeleton woman sitting up in a coffin. For many years afterward, I thought of the scene often, but damned if I could remember what movie it came from. Initially I thought it might be Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things, but I revisited that recently, and nope, no dice. Then I got it into my head that it might have been an episode of “Night Gallery,” so I watched the entire run of the series. And although the pilot episode with Roddy McDowall, “The Cemetery,” contained a scene that kinda reminded me of the one I was thinking of, it didn’t immediately smack me in the face with recognition.

But then, in all my wanderings through the giallo universe, I stumbled across a flick with the wonderfully outlandish title The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave (aka La notte che Evelyn uscì dalla tomba), released in 1971. And bingo was his name-o — THERE was that elusive scene I remembered. Long story short (too late), I said all that to say that I actually thought I had never seen this movie, but I guess I did. Which then led me to think, holy crap, my parents let me watch this movie when I was naught but a nugget? Because yeah, it’s a little smutty.

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Anyway, The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave (um…spoiler alert?) was directed by Emilio Miraglia, and it’s a pretty fun little gothic horror romp that features many of my favorite things. There’s a creepy old mansion with a family tomb! There’s a spooky portrait of an ostensibly dead first wife! There are dastardly double and triple crosses! There are red-headed strippers with perky boobies! There are ghosts and séances! There’s sadomasochism! Fabulous “I Dream of Jeannie” outfits! A disabled woman gets eaten by foxes! It really does have something for everybody.

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The plot revolves around main character/colossal fuckstick Lord Alan Cunningham (Anthony Steffen), a wealthy aristocrat who flipped his shit after the death of his (perhaps unfaithful) wife Evelyn in childbirth. He was institutionalized, but has been released back to his crumbling, palatial estate under the care of his family physician and close friend Dr. Richard Timberlane (Giacomo Rossi Stuart). It’s not made entirely clear whether the good doctor is aware of the…ahem…unconventional methods Alan has concocted to help him come to terms with his grief. Said methods include picking up carrot-topped prostitutes using slick come-ons like viciously yanking their hair and then saying, “Sorry, I thought it was a wig,” then taking the hapless whores back to his castle and engaging in a bit of Torquemada-style roleplay before killing them stone dead. “In other ages, prostitutes were branded with a hot iron. It was an excellent system,” he tells one victim, charmingly. If Dr. Timberlane does know about his patient’s itchy murder finger, he seems incredibly blasé about it, but hell, what’s a little strumpet slaying between friends? Also, Alan is a titled lord with boatloads of cash, so y’know, peasant laws don’t apply, obviously.

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One person who definitely does know about Alan’s extracurricular activities is dead wife Evelyn’s brother Albert (Roberto Maldera), who lives in a house on the grounds and often spies on Alan’s hooker extermination project. Every time a new floozy goes down for the count, Albert asks for hush money, at one point requesting the lavish sum of thirty pounds sterling. Albert: the budget blackmailer.

So Alan has apparently been on this murderous treatment program for nigh on a year, trolling for trollops with his only male relative, cousin George (Enzo Tarascio), who wears a giant hoop earring and swishes around like Paul Lynde, yet is shown banging luscious ladies on multiple occasions, because he is one hundred percent heterosexual, no doubt about it. Shockingly, all of this whorin’ and killin’ isn’t helping Alan’s mental state, since he is still haunted by visions of Evelyn, who’s always turning up in his head all naked and persistent. Dr. Timberlane suggests that if Alan were to marry again, then all of his violent urges would magically disappear, and I’m left wondering if this guy got his doctorate from some online diploma mill or something, because that is some really wack advice. But Alan is on board, all, no problemo, I’ll find a girl and get hitched, and then I can put all this pesky murder business behind me. Moments later, he goes to a party with George, where he meets an intriguing redhead with the unlikely name of Gladys (Marina Malfatti), and before he’s even given her a taste of his spicy Italian sausage, he’s proposing marriage. She’s all, “You’re trippin’, but…sure, sounds legit.” And thus Gladys becomes the second Lady Cunningham.

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There then follows a convoluted series of events typical of the gothic genre. Is Evelyn really haunting the castle, or has Alan jumped on the express train back to crazytown? What’s going on in the family tomb that Alan refuses to let his new wife see? Who keeps murdering Alan’s family members and worse, stealing the silverware? What’s the deal with the troop of identical maids who all wear the same blonde afro wigs? Will George ever come out of the closet? I won’t spoil any of the surprises, but suffice it to say that the Cunningham clan could do with some serious family counseling.

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I really enjoyed this one a lot; it had a great, Hammer-esque atmosphere and was pleasingly drenched in over-the-top campiness. It’s not really a traditional giallo, I guess, but it was an entertaining, creepy slice of early 70s sleaze-horror nonetheless. Recommended for those who like their gialli served up with a large side-dish of old-school gothic goodness.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends. Goddess out

To Buy Them Horror Tales, You Gotta Be Nuts: An Appreciation of “The Case of the Bloody Iris”

Happy hangover Sunday, fellow horror hos and bros. I’m dipping back into the giallo well for today’s post, and while our subject today leans slightly more toward erotica than horror, it was still fairly bloody and a lot of fun, so we’re just gonna roll with it. That cool with everybody? Good.

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1972’s The Case of the Bloody Iris (also known by the ridiculously convoluted title Perché quelle strane gocce di sangue sul corpo di Jennifer?, or Why Are Those Strange Drops of Blood on Jennifer’s Body?) was directed by Giuliano Carnimeo under the pseudonym Anthony Ascott. It stars the gorgeous Edwige Fenech, who was in tons of European sex comedies and gialli back in the day, and it also boasts a pretty much nonstop cavalcade of perky, bouncing boobage, if you’re into that kind of thing (and who isn’t?).

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In fairly standard giallo fashion, the plot revolves around a killer with a black trenchcoat and hat, a black mask completely obscuring the face, and a wicked, scalpel-type knife which slices through pretty ladies with deadly efficiency and much spilling of garish crimson tempera paint. There is also the standard parade of red herrings, where almost anyone could be the murderer; is it main character Jennifer’s creepy ex-husband, who wants to draw her back into their nekkid orgy sex-cult days and keeps stalking her, leaving torn-up irises in her path? Is it her new beau/landlord, who has a strange aversion to blood and at one point tells her, “Wait until you find out what a bastard I am”? Is it the über-fey, walking-gay-stereotype photographer, who drinks like Dylan Thomas and has some of the movie’s most hilarious lines? Or how about that lecherous lesbian in the apartment next door? Or the busybody old bat in the building who rants about “whores” and buys piles of horror magazines from the newsstand every morning? Hell, what about the dismissive police inspector who gives more of a shit about collecting rare stamps from the crime scenes than he does actually solving the murders? The finger of suspicion falls on each one of them in turn, and the viewer doesn’t see the killer unmasked until the final five minutes, in what is actually a pretty fantastic, tense scene.

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As I implied earlier, this film is actually more like a mystery/sex farce with horror elements thrown into the mix than it is a traditional horror film. Yes, there are bloody murders aplenty, and there are creepy scenes of the victims being stalked in darkened streets and boiler rooms, but there are also psychedelic montages of the aforementioned nekkid orgies, topless blonde bimbos making light of shocking crimes while covered in soap bubbles, modeling sessions involving strategic body paint, and some good old fashioned erotic nightclub wrestling. There is also some patented early-70s misogyny (purported good guys smacking girls around and everyone being all NBD about it) and homophobia (personified in photographer Arthur, who is the gayest gay who ever gayed), plus a really bizarre, laissez-faire attitude that nearly all of the characters manifest toward the series of murders at the center of the plot. For example, at the beginning of the film, when a nameless call girl is stabbed in the elevator of the apartment building where the bulk of the action takes place, the residents who find her are all, “Eh, she doesn’t live here, so whatevs,” and that includes the first-on-the-scene, exotic dancer Mizar, who sees the bloody dead body and is all, “Huh, shame about that. Well, gotta split, got shit to do. Guess I’ll take the stairs.” Of course, she’s the next one to get offed, but still…kinda odd. Maybe the director was trying to make a statement about the modern world and its uncaring attitude toward others or something. Backing up this hypothesis is the scene where Jennifer’s goofball roommate Marilyn is stabbed to death on a crowded city street, and walks around bleeding and crying for help while pedestrians walk uncaringly around her. So yeah, could be a message there.

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Karma’s a bitch.

This is actually a decent giallo if you’re more into the softcore porn aspects of the genre, and if you don’t mind a copious amount of silliness and overdone seventies stereotypes. It’s a tad slow to get started, but the mystery is intriguing, and it’s unlikely that you’ll guess who the murderer is until the end (or at least I didn’t guess until right before the mask came off, but that might just be because I’m a big dummy). Of course it’s not up there with, say, Deep Red or Blood and Black Lace, but if you’re a giallo fan, it’s a pretty enjoyable little trifle.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends. Goddess out.

Tomatoes Feel Pain When You Poke Them: An Appreciation of “Short Night of Glass Dolls”

Greetings once again, my creepy companions! If you read my last post on The House with the Laughing Windows, you will perhaps have surmised that I’ve gone off on a bit of a giallo kick lately. Sure, I’ve always been a big fan of the best-known films in the genre, your Argentos and your Bavas, but recently I’ve gotten a bee in my bonnet about writing my own giallo-type story as a lark, and as such I decided to seek out a few of the lesser-known examples of the genre that I hadn’t seen, just to give me some additional inspiration. (And speaking of which, do you guys know about this random giallo generator? Because it is delightful.)

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So today I chose a 1971 film that has appeared on a few lists around the internet as one of the classics, though I admit I had never heard of it before I went hunting around. Originally known as Short Night of the Butterfly (which actually makes more sense to the plot), the film was eventually released under the title Short Night of Glass Dolls (or La Corta notte delle bambole di vetro, if you prefer) due to another movie with “butterfly” in the title being released around the same time. It was the directorial debut of Aldo Lado, who also directed another classic giallo, Who Saw Her Die? (which I might do a post about one of these days).

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In the film, an American journalist named Gregory Moore (Jean Sorel) has been covering political unrest in Prague, and is planning to pull some strings to smuggle his smoking hot Czech girlfriend Mira (played by a very young Barbara Bach) out of the country and back to London with him at the end of his assignment. But one night after a party, he is called away on a story tip which turns out to be a distraction, and when he returns to his apartment, he discovers that Mira is missing. The weirdest thing about her disappearance is that she didn’t take her handbag, her passport, or apparently any of her clothes; even the dress she wore to the party is still in the apartment, flung over a chair as if she had just taken it off and then gone parading out into the night stark naked. The remainder of the main plot is Gregory’s investigation into what happened to Mira, which of course involves a bevy of shady characters who either stonewall him completely or mysteriously end up dead shortly after giving him information; police hostility and suspicion about his role in the disappearance; the discovery that Mira’s odd vanishing act isn’t the only such case by a long shot; and troubling hints at some pretty sinister forces lying just beneath the veneer of Prague’s supposedly respectable ruling class.

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I also neglected to mention that this film has an unusual conceit: The entire search for the lost Mira is detailed in flashback, as Gregory lies in a morgue awaiting autopsy. See, at the very beginning of the movie, he is found, apparently dead, in a public park, but a voiceover lets the audience know that he’s actually still very much alive, but frustratingly unable to let anyone else know about his terrifying predicament. The film flips back and forth between the doctors’ fruitless attempts to revive him and his memories of looking for Mira and falling into the big conspiratorial clusterfuck that led him to the sad state of affairs he finds himself in. It’s actually a great plot device, as not only is the viewer intrigued by the mystery of the missing girlfriend, but also held in nail-biting suspense over whether Gregory will be snapped out of his deathlike trance before the autopsy knife ends his life for real.

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Like The House With the Laughing Windows, Short Night of Glass Dolls has a definite political undercurrent, though it is much more overt than the former film, so much so that I would classify it less as an undercurrent and more as a pretty obvious allegory, which is why I believe its original title was more relevant. In the resolution if its mystery, I would actually hazard a guess that it was a precursor and/or inspiration for Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, as it exposes the perverse and almost vampiric nature of those in society’s top echelons, as they drain the life, both literally and figuratively, from those unfortunate souls beneath them.

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Also like the formerly discussed film, the pace of the movie is rather slow, but there is a much more lurid sexual nature to the crimes than House with the Laughing Windows had. The Prague backdrop is also a highlight, oppressive and beautiful at the same time, which handily ties in with the movie’s themes. In addition, there is some lovely imagery of butterflies and glass chandeliers and those gorgeous baroque interiors that are often a fixture of these movies. I also liked some of the seemingly random, unsettling details, like the scientist who was experimenting on plants and trying to determine if they could feel pain. And as I mentioned before, the suspense throughout the film is fantastically well-done, as the whole story becomes something of an unbearable race against time. And I won’t spoil the ending, but I will say that it was quite wonderfully cruel and shocking, and something I really didn’t expect. Highly recommended.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends. Goddess out.

My Colors Are Hot Like Fresh Blood: An Appreciation of “The House with the Laughing Windows”

Ciao, bambini! I know I’ve been writing more about newer movies recently with my Hulu Horror Double Feature series, so I figured it was about time to return to the decade that spawned most of my favorite films, the funky fly 70s, and also delve a bit deeper into that rich vein of goodness that is the Italian giallo genre.

I’ve written about Italian movies before (Suspiria, The Psychic, House of Clocks), and I even wrote a short overview of the history of the giallo film, in which I happened to mention the movie I want to talk about today, which is right here with English subtitles, if you want to watch along:

1976’s The House with the Laughing Windows (aka La casa dalle finestre che ridono), aside from its completely rad title, is considered a classic of the genre, even though many of the more lurid, baroque elements present in the better-known giallo films of Dario Argento and others are notably absent. Directed by Pupi Avati, the movie actually bears some resemblance to Lucio Fulci’s Don’t Torture a Duckling, as well as the restrained but unsettling vibe of Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. In other words, it’s actually more of a low-key mystery than a straight horror film, and as such it might be a tad too ponderous for some, but it does feature a subtle sense of dread as a constant undercurrent, and the final few minutes are fantastic.

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In brief, art expert Stefano (Lino Capolicchio) is summoned to a small village in rural Italy to restore a fresco of St. Sebastian on a wall of the town church. The rather macabre painting was done by a local artist named Legnani (Tonino Corazzari), who committed suicide two decades before and is known around town as the “painter of agony,” because he preferred to depict his subjects in terrible pain or in the final moments before their death. Stefano tries to get to work on the restoration, but to a man, every townsperson seems secretive and vaguely hostile, and someone keeps calling Stefano at his hotel, warning him against altering the fresco. The only friendly faces are Stefano’s longtime friend Antonio (Giulio Pizzirani), who mysteriously dies before he can tell Stefano what he knows about the painting, and a new schoolteacher, Francesca (Francesca Marciano), who arrived on the same ferry as Stefano did. Stefano and Francesca quickly become entangled, and their budding relationship constitutes a significant facet of the plot as it moves toward the discovery of the town’s secrets.

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Despite its rather subdued narrative, The House with the Laughing Windows does boast many of the hallmarks of a stereotypical giallo: The protagonist is thrust into a mystery he becomes obsessed with solving, there are numerous red herrings which are never explained, there is a somewhat dreamlike logic at work surrounding certain plot points, and the heart of the mystery deals with madness and sexual deviance (though any actual sex in the movie is generally implied rather than shown). Additionally, the house with the laughing windows itself serves as something of a metaphor for the plot, signifying as it does a decay of happiness, a loss of innocence, a hole of insanity that sucks in everyone in the vicinity. More historically-astute reviewers than I have also noticed the film’s inferred references to shame about Italy’s fascism during the war; this isn’t really relevant to the conventions of the giallo, but I thought I’d mention it here, as the subtext does elevate the film above lesser examples of the genre.

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Where the movie differs from better-known giallo films is in the absence of the trademark black-gloved killer, the unerotic nature of the murders (there is one rape preceding a murder, but it is not really shown, and the other murders are simply workmanlike and not fetishized), and the dearth of any particularly Grand Guignol moments like you’d see in many other typical gialli.

That said, the ending is fairly shocking and grotesque, especially since the rest of the movie is so slow-moving and understated. I’m not sure I’m completely on board with the final reveal of one of the troublemakers, and in light of the mystery’s resolution I’m not entirely certain why the townspeople behaved the way they did toward Stefano, but these are minor quibbles that contributed to the Polanski-esque feeling of paranoia that pervaded the whole enterprise, so I’m willing to forgive the inconsistencies. It really is a masterpiece of the genre, helped along immensely by its eerie, sepia-toned vistas and its steady ramping up of tension. A must-see for fans of gialli and atmospheric European horror.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends. Goddess out.

The Goddess’s Favorite Creepy Movie Scenes, or ‘The Vision Thing’

In my previous post on The House of Clocks, I told you guys I was gonna get into some more under-appreciated Lucio Fulci goodness, and here I am making good on that promise, so don’t say I never gave you anything, okay? Okay. As I mentioned in the previous entry, Fulci could make a pretty decent film in any genre you’d care to name, and as fun as his horror gorefests are, some of his best movies fall more into the giallo or thriller genre. One of these, probably my favorite of his thrillers, is the subject of today’s post.

I'M WATCHING YOU. WATCHING AND JUDGING.

I’M WATCHING YOU. WATCHING AND JUDGING.

Sette Note In Nero, aka Seven Notes In Black, aka Murder to the Tune of Seven Black Notes, aka The Psychic (damn those foreign distribution deals!) came out in Italy in 1977, though it wasn’t released on DVD in the US until many years later. It’s a tight little supernatural murder mystery that deftly maintains an air of heightening tension throughout the entire film, keeping you on that fabled edge of your seat until the very end. In addition, the set design is gorgeous, and the performances from leads Jennifer O’Neill and Gianni Garko seem to be excellent (the dubbing is a little distracting, but not nearly as bad as some other Italian films of the period). There is very little gore, other than an amusingly Fulci-an moment in the opening flashback scene where a suicidal woman repeatedly sloughs flesh off her face as she jumps to her death off a cliff; other than that, the only blood that appears accompanies a couple of not-terribly-graphic head wounds. So if you’re squeamish about that kind of thing, you may feel free to watch this movie while digging into a huge, glistening bowl of spaghetti marinara; you’ll probably be fine.

MANGIA MANGIA.

MANGIA MANGIA.

The Psychic, like several other gialli, utilizes a plot device I’ve always liked; I don’t know if there’s a name for it, but I’m going to call it “partially spoiling the outcome.” In other words, the viewer already knows more or less what’s going to happen, but the suspense of the film is generated by seeing the way in which the inevitable will come to pass. Even though the film is structured this way, it’s actually still full of surprises, which is one of the reasons I’ve always admired its rather clever screenplay (written by Dardano Sacchetti, who incidentally also penned a bunch of Fulci’s most beloved gore films, like City of the Living Dead, The Beyond, and The House by the Cemetery).

Jennifer O’Neill plays Virginia Ducci, an American interior decorator who has recently married a hotshot Italian playboy named Francesco. It is established in the first scene that Virginia is a clairvoyant; we see a flashback of her as a schoolgirl having a vision of her mother’s suicide. Back in the present, she drops her dashing husband off at an airfield for a business trip, and then drives down a highway punctuated by long, dark tunnels. As she drives through one of the tunnels, she suddenly has a disjointed and unsettling vision. Aspects of her vision include:

  1. Shafts of red light, and what appears to be someone placing a brick in a layer of mortar.
  2. A pretty but sinister little tune, like something from a music box.
  3. A cigarette with yellow paper balanced on the edge of a blue ashtray.
  4. A magazine with an attractive dark-haired woman on the cover.
  5. A yellow taxi parked on a dark street.
  6. A broken antique mirror.
  7. A sumptuously decorated room containing an overturned bust with a letter underneath it.
  8. A glimpse of a man’s feet as he walks with a decided limp.
  9. The clearly visible face of a man with a mustache, emerging from the shadows.
  10. An obviously dead old woman with blood all over her face and head.
  11. A room with a floor lamp with a red shade, and beyond that a wall with a substantial portion of the masonry removed.
BAROQUE AS FUCK.

BAROQUE AS FUCK.

I'VE FALLEN AND I CAN'T GET UP.

I’VE FALLEN AND I CAN’T GET UP.

REALLY ADDS A NICE "CASK OF AMONTILLADO" VIBE TO THE DECOR, DOESN'T IT?

REALLY ADDS A NICE “CASK OF AMONTILLADO” VIBE TO THE DECOR, DOESN’T IT?

After seeing this seemingly nonsensical collection of images, she awakens on the side of the highway with a police officer knocking on her window and asking if she’s all right. She snaps out of it pretty quickly, but is still troubled by what she’s seen and heard. Despite her unease, however, she continues on to her first destination, the office of her friend Luca Fattori (Marc Porel), who is a parapsychologist and has apparently been counseling Virginia about her visions for many years. She tells him about her latest vision and he records it, though he doesn’t believe it has any particular significance.

"cagna, si prega di"

“CAGNA, SI PREGA DI.”

Virginia’s next destination turns out to be an old palazzo that is owned by her husband Francesco. He hasn’t lived in it for several years, and it looks all but abandoned, but Virginia has decided that she is going to surprise him by starting to restore the beautiful old place. The caretaker lets her in and she begins poking around. In what was previously Francesco’s bedroom, Virginia starts removing the covers from the furniture and stops cold when one of the items revealed is the antique mirror she saw in her vision. The mirror isn’t broken as it was in her psychic episode, but it’s clearly the same one. Disturbed, she starts pulling off other covers, and yes, here is the floor lamp with the red shade. She glances over at the wall behind the lamp, which of course had a large section missing in her vision. It looks normal now, but she gets closer to inspect it. At first she doesn’t see anything and laughs at her own folly, but then she notices a very faint yellowed line and what appears to be a hairline crack. Still not completely sure she should be doing this, she finds a pickaxe in the basement and goes to town on the wall. It takes her forever, and the movie almost makes us think that there’s not gonna be anything back there, but nope, Virginia’s vision is vindicated (alliteration, bitches). She finds a skeleton and summons the polizia.

It seems clear that Virginia has seen a vision of the murder that ended up with a body walled up in her husband’s palazzo. She assumes that the victim was the dead old woman she saw, and that the murderer was the limping, mustachioed man lurking around on a staircase. So she’s a little put out when her husband is picked up for questioning as soon as he arrives back from his business trip. The cops and her lawyer assure her that this is just a formality, since the skeleton was found in Francesco’s house. Virginia is certain that he is not the murderer, not only because she saw another man in her vision, but also because the estimated time of death of the victim partially overlapped with a point in time, several years earlier, when Francesco was provably out of the country. Virginia is determined to clear her husband’s name, enlisting a couple of lawyers, Luca, Luca’s perky secretary Bruna (Jenny Tamburi), and Francesco’s sister Gloria (Evelyn Stewart) in this endeavor.

NOT TO WORRY, THE ITALIANS ARE ON THE CASE. THEY HAVE PIPES. AND PROBABLY MOB TIES.

NOT TO WORRY, THE ITALIANS ARE ON THE CASE. THEY HAVE PIPES. AND MAYBE MOB TIES.

Things get confusing pretty quickly, though. First of all, it’s discovered that the skeleton behind the wall is not that of an old woman at all, but of a 25-year-old woman named Agneta Bignardi. Upon seeing a photograph of her, Virginia realizes that she is the dark-haired woman on the magazine cover in her vision. Francesco admits to having a relationship with her several years back (uh-oh). And that’s not the only fact that seems to contradict her vision: she also sees the old woman, very much alive, outside her window one night and gets several phone messages from her in which she insists she knows something about the murder. Turns out that Francesco’s sister smokes cigarettes with yellow paper, and also gives her a watch that plays the sinister little tune she heard in her vision. The man she saw in her vision that she assumed was the murderer, Emilio Rospini (Gabriele Ferzetti), doesn’t have a limp, though he does seem to know something about the girl’s death and acts sinister as fuck. She finds a photograph of Agneta that was apparently taken several months after Francesco left Italy, meaning that the girl was probably killed by Rospini. Or was she?

SYMBOLISM (PROBABLY).

SYMBOLISM (PROBABLY).

The tense, nail-biting fun of this movie is seeing each of the images in her vision turning up one by one in reality, and trying to piece together how everything fits. The coolest aspect of this narrative structure (and this is a big ol’ SPOILER ALERT) is that for pretty much the first half of the movie, both the viewer and the film characters assume that Virginia’s vision was of the circumstances of the past murder. But as the story goes on, we slowly begin to realize, along with the characters, that Virginia’s vision was actually of the future, and the suspense gets more and more intense as the details begin to fill in and we realize what’s likely to happen and what exactly is at stake. It’s a self-contained and very satisfying narrative, and even though the very end leaves you going a little, “Wha…?” it’s still a taut, enjoyable ride.

Until next time, Goddess out.

The Goddess’s Favorite Creepy Movie Scenes, or Nothin’ Says Lovin’ Like Somethin’ from the Coven

Witches are badass, let’s just agree on that right out of the gate. Especially the old, scary, haggy ones that mix potions by moonlight and smooch the devil’s butt and turn people into toads and shit. They are the ultimate expression of unlimited female power, a fantasy representation of the point at which a woman no longer gives a fuck, refuses to put up with anyone’s crap, and decides to just plague her enemies with suppurating boils. Despite witches’ obvious excellence, however, I feel as though they’re a sort of under-utilized baddie in recent horror movies. I briefly survey the horror landscape and see it littered with countless shambling zombies, vampires both sparkly and otherwise, and big bad werewolves, but witches…not so much, especially if you’re discounting “sexy” witches and Wiccans, which I am because they aren’t scary. I was actually so distraught by the lack of old-school witchy shenanigans in recent horror that I decided to make a small, insignificant contribution toward their little image problem by writing a novel called Red Menace (out October 1st) that features some of that wicked witchcraft that I love so much and never see enough of. There are withered old crones! Spells! Glamours! Also, some serial murder, if you’re into that! Okay, plug over, let’s get on with today’s scene!

Just kidding, one more little plug. Buy my book! Or, y’know, I’ll curse your livestock and make you have three-headed babies.

Just kidding, one more little plug. Buy my book! Or, y’know, I’ll curse your livestock and make you have three-headed babies.

Let’s talk about Dario “Italian Hitchcock” Argento, shall we? Specifically, let’s talk about him when he was still collaborating with Daria Nicolodi and making beautiful, surreal, violent, and kick-ass horror and giallo films, and let’s not talk about his more recent output because it just makes me sad (do not think of The Card Player, repeat, DO NOT THINK OF THE CARD PLAYER). Back in that mythical time known as “the day,” Argento couldn’t put a foot wrong: The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, The Cat O’Nine Tails, Four Flies on Grey Velvet, Deep Red, Opera, Tenebrae…all fantastic shit. But because I opened with witches, you guys know what movie I’m gonna be talking about, right? Of course you do.

This one. This gorgeous bastard right here.

This one. This gorgeous bastard right here.

Suspiria (1977) was the first film in Argento’s “Three Mothers” trilogy, loosely based upon Thomas De Quincey’s Suspiria de Profundis. The other two films were the excellent Inferno (1980) and the massively disappointing Mother of Tears (2007). Basically, the mythology behind the trilogy is that of three dreadful witches (Mater Suspiriorum, Mater Tenebrarum, and Mater Lachrymarum) who get up to all sorts of worldwide evil from their bases in Rome, Freiburg, and New York; the films sort of take the mythos in three different directions, though, so they actually stand very well as individual movies. Suspiria is the nightmarish tale of an American ballet student, Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) who travels to an elite dance school in Freiburg, Germany and slowly discovers that it’s a front for an evil coven of witches, headed by the terrifying Helena Markos, the Mother of Sighs.

First off, I have to say that Suspiria is probably one of the world’s most beautiful films to look at. Argento not only shot the spectacular set in super-saturated hues and utilized special lenses and light filters, but he also used the same unusual Technicolor process that was used for The Wizard of Oz. Every frame of the film is like a strikingly composed light painting of a particularly gruesome fairy tale, with stark shadows and garish shafts of red, blue, green, and yellow light falling across the baroque and hyper-violent murder tableaus. I mean, just check out some of these stills:

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Fig. 3 (Suspiria)

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We get it, movie. You’re pretty.

We get it, movie. You’re pretty.

I mean, that is so splendid that it’s almost ridiculous. Fun personal fact: in the house I used to live in, I took great care in decorating the whole space in a Suspiria theme. Every room was painted a different, dark, saturated color, and all the doors were painted black with red art-nouveau-style insets, just like in the movie. It looked wicked cool, and even though I had to leave the house behind, I still have fond memories of my one and only attempt at free-reign interior design.

Anyway, on to the scene. There are actually two scenes from Suspiria that are usually called out on various “scariest scene” lists, both of which are suitably amazing. The first is that tense, dynamite opener where Suzy is first arriving at the school in a torrential downpour, intercut with the grisly murder of expelled student Pat Hingle (Eva Axén). The other scene, fittingly, is the closing one, where Suzy finally confronts the ghastly figure of Helena Markos (as well as the reanimated corpse of murdered student Sarah, played by Stefania Casini) and kills her with a beautiful, glass peacock-feather spike. Italian killings are clearly far more elegant and aesthetically pleasing than other kinds of killings, you see.

But true to the spirit of this blog series, I’d like to discuss a lesser-recognized scene that had that subtle, unsettling vibe that I’m so fond of, particularly as it appears in a film as over-the-top operatic as this one. In the scene, the catty ballet students have just been subjected to a literal rain of maggots in their respective quarters, which is probably like the last thing you’d expect to happen at one of the most snooty and elitist ballet schools on the planet. The teachers and staff (read: witches, you guys, they’re all witches) are all like, NBD, there was just some rotten food stored in boxes up in the attic or something, that’s all, and the maggots just squirmed out through the cracks in the ceiling and kinda ruined everyone’s day. It’s all cool, tho.

It’s raining maggots, hallelujah.

It’s raining maggots, hallelujah.

While the students’ rooms are being de-grubbed, the staff set up an impromptu dorm in the practice hall, with rows and rows of fold-out beds, and the girls and boys separated by high white curtains. All the women are getting into their beds and trying to make the best of things, saying it’ll be just like camp. One of the heads of the academy, the sternly efficient Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett), walks through the dorm to make sure everyone is comfortable. One of the students asks if the teachers will all be sleeping in the dorm too, to which Madame Blanc replies that all of them certainly will be, except for the directress, of course. Then Madame asks if it’s all right if she turns the lights out. She disappears behind one of the curtained walls, and immediately the whole space is plunged into a saturated, blood-red dimness, like a photographic darkroom.

Let's just see what develops. (I know, boooooo.)

Let’s just see what develops. (I know, boooooo.)

There is some banter and chicanery, as one of the male students climbs up to say hello from the other side of the curtain, and then the students settle into bed and begin gossiping and arguing until one of the girls tells them to put a sock in it so they can all get some sleep. Then there’s a creepy panning shot across the dark red dorm, and on the soundtrack are the eerie sounds of sighs and wails and screams, threaded through an ominous prog-rock beat (provided by frequent Argento collaborators Goblin). We can see shadowed silhouettes of presumed staff members sleeping on the other side of the curtain, filtered through that intense red light. Then we close in on a silhouette of one empty bed. A weird shadow approaches the bed and sits down on it. It appears to be a woman, but something about her is…off. She almost looks bald, for one thing, and as she lies back on the bed, the silhouette of her body through her nightgown looks like a skeleton, almost like an x-ray. The background music gets louder and weirder (and I have to say that I absolutely love Goblin’s score for this film, which actually doesn’t seem as though it would work, but does, beautifully). We see Suzy and Sarah lying in their beds side by side, and behind them is that creepy-ass silhouette on the other side of the curtain. Then we start to hear this weird, rattling wheeze.

Sarah sits up in bed, listening, then whips her head around to look at the silhouette behind them. There’s a shot of Sarah from the other side, as though someone is peeking through the curtain at her. She shakes Suzy and asks if she’s awake. “Do you hear that snoring?” Sarah asks. “It’s weird.” And indeed, it is very weird and intensely unnerving. The chest of the silhouette rises and falls in time with the rasping horror-noise. Sarah gets out of bed and kneels next to Suzy’s bed so she can whisper to her. “They lied to us,” Sarah says. “The directress is here. That’s her, the one who’s snoring.” She points back toward the sheet. “How do you know?” Suzy whispers. “Last year, for a while,” Sarah explains, “I lived in one of the guest rooms. The ones at the top of the stairs. One night, I heard someone come in very late, and get into bed in the room next to mine.” As she’s saying this, in a creepy whisper, she’s looking around the room and Suzy is just staring ahead, wide-eyed and obviously frightened. “And then…I heard this weird…kind of snoring. I tell you it was so weird I never forgot it. Listen! Do you hear that whistle? It’s…exactly…the…same.” Then she says, “The next morning, Madame Blanc told me that the directress had spent a few hours at the school, and had checked in the room next to mine. So you see, I know that’s the directress. She’s here. She’s theeeeeeere,” Sarah hisses, peering over her shoulder at the silhouette. “Right…behind…that…sheet.” And then there is a closeup of the head of the silhouette, and then another creepy wheeze, and then fade to black.

At this point in the film, we only know the directress by reputation, and are not yet really aware that she is indeed the powerful witch Mater Suspiriorum. Even so, you know something is going on with that scary-ass woman behind the sheet, and the scene is perhaps even more affecting, given what we don’t yet know about her. Coming about halfway through the film, it’s a fantastic tension-building scene, laden with mystery and foreboding. Had Argento continued to make movies in this particular and distinctive style, instead of losing his mojo somewhere around 1996, just think of the further masterpieces he could have produced as he grew as an artist. Alas, that’s not how the cauldron bubbled, but at least we’ll always have Suspiria.

Once again, Goddess out.

A Brief History of the Giallo Film

Born of the pulp crime novels of the 1930s, the giallo came into its own on screen, culminating in classic films from legendary Italian directors. The original article I wrote can be found here.

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An American writer is walking the streets of Rome one night when he passes an art gallery with enormous glass doors. Peering inside, he is shocked to see a woman struggling with a black-clad figure holding a knife. The writer rushes to help, but when he passes through the first door of the gallery, it closes and locks behind him, while the second glass door before him will not open at all. Trapped in the space between the glass panels, he can only watch in helpless horror as the black-gloved killer plunges the knife into the woman’s body.

This opening scene is taken from an early example of the giallo film genre, Dario Argento’s The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (1970), which was loosely based on Frederic Brown’s 1950 pulp novel The Screaming Mimi. Giallo as a film style began roughly around 1963; though aspects of the stories and themes emerged from pulp novels, filmmakers were quick to add their own ingredients to the mix.

The Origins of the Giallo

Giallo is the Italian word for yellow, which was the predominant color on the covers of the pulp crime novels published by Mondadori, starting in 1929. Following their success, other publishing houses began getting into the act, starting their own lines of cheap mystery novels with yellow covers. These were so popular during the 1930s that the word ‘giallo’ became synonymous with crime and mystery fiction.

The First Giallo Films

It soon became apparent that the medium of film could be used to add interesting elements to the straightforward crime stories from the novels. Taking several pages from Alfred Hitchcock’s playbook and spicing things up with elements of eroticism, horror, and madness, legendary director Mario Bava made what is generally considered the first giallo film, 1963’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much. The plot revolves around a murder witness who is tormented by an important detail that she can’t quite remember. The following year, Bava followed with the now-classic giallo, Blood and Black Lace (known in Italy as Sei Donne Per L’Assassino, or Six Women for an Assassin), which featured a masked and gloved killer stalking the catty and underdressed models at an upscale fashion house. By this point, the particular tropes of the giallo were becoming de rigueur, and the early 1970s saw a flood of films that displayed variations on the theme.

Conventions of the Giallo Film

Films designated as giallo are usually murder mysteries, but they have many features that distinguish them from straightforward crime stories or police procedurals (which are known in Italy by a different name, Poliziotteschi). First of all, the murders that occur in gialli are often grotesque and horrific, and are filmed in artful, operatic, or even disturbingly erotic ways, with much spilling of blood. The killer in the 1972 film What Have You Done to Solange?, for example, dispatches his usually nude victims by plunging knives into their vaginas.

In addition, the structure of the films is often baroque, and sometimes contains dreamlike imagery. The killer almost always wears black leather gloves and usually a black trenchcoat or raincoat. The weapon of choice is nearly always a shiny and suitably phallic knife. A giallo’s plot often deals with an unlucky person who witnesses a crime and then spends the remainder of the film struggling to remember some aspect of the scene that they have forgotten or cannot make sense of. The psychological motivations of the killer nearly always have to do with madness or revenge triggered by childhood traumas, lending gialli a hint of gothic horror in juxtaposition to the more modern slasher-type violence that is usually featured. Finally, the films generally have a Grand Guignol feel, and tend to have bombastic or unusual film scores containing free jazz or prog-rock, for example.

Examples of the Giallo Genre

Genre pioneer Mario Bava, in addition to his first two gialli, made two other films in this line, 1970’s Five Dolls for an August Moon and the 1971 classic Twitch of the Death Nerve. Dario Argento has returned to giallo perhaps more than any other director, turning out films like The Cat O’Nine Tails (1971), Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971), Deep Red (aka Profondo Rosso, 1975), Tenebrae (1982), and Giallo (2010).

Lucio Fulci, a cult figure in America for his grisly zombie films, made movies in nearly every imaginable genre, and giallo was no exception; his psychedelic Lizard in a Woman’s Skin was released in 1971, and was followed by 1972’s Don’t Torture a Duckling, the understated mystery The Psychic (aka Murder to the Tune of Seven Black Notes, 1977), and 1982’s New York Ripper. Other directors who tried their hand include Umberto Lenzi (Knife of Ice, 1972; Eyeball, 1974), Michele Soavi (Deliria, 1987), and Pupi Avati (The House With Laughing Windows, 1976).

Sources:

Palmerini, Luca M. & Gaetano Mistretta (1996). Spaghetti Nightmares: Italian Fantasy-Horrors As Seen Through the Eyes of Their Protagonists. Fantasma Books. ISBN: 0963498274.

McDonagh, Maitland (1991). Broken Mirrors Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento. Sun Tavern Fields. ISBN: 095170124x