Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Al the names: multi-monikered Italian horrors bathe Barbara Steele in blood, wall Lucia Bosé in stone, dub everybody into other languages, badly

Visiting the local video store with a fresh hankering for horror I discovered a number of recent DVD releases showcasing a subgenre I’ve previously neglected to dig very deeply into: the Italian horror films of the 1960s and 70s. Which inevitably leads to a lot of castles, a lot of Barbara Steele, and a lot of lousy dubbing. I’m fine with the first of these attributes, positively delighted about the second, but not so big on the third. I’ve watched an unhealthy number of movies in my life and learned to groove with a great many conventions that initially put me off, but lousy or excessive dubbing, whether in low-budget chillers or in the films of Fellini, Pasolini or Pontecorvo—the Italians apparently have an endless tolerance for this—has always had a numbing effect on me, washing whole movies with a layer of technical artifice and incongruity that keeps me from investing as fully as I’d like to. I’m not sure if any of the films below helped to cure that entirely, but watching people get whipped, dissected, bitten and burned alive does go some way toward distracting one from such niggling annoyances.

When listing the commonalities between the bulk of Italian horror films, I should also add alternate titles, of which there are usually a good half-dozen for every film. I’ll try to stick to the ones most commonly used. Previously available only on an ultra-crappy disc, Nightmare Castle, aka The Faceless Monster, aka Lovers Beyond the Tomb or Amanti d’oltretomba (1965), has been restored and newly released by Severin. Deliciously perverse and intriguingly ambiguous, its narrative of infidelity, bad science and cursed legacies proves richer than its recycling of gothic tropes might imply. There are two central locations, the castle of the title and its adjoining greenhouse, the first being a place of decrepitude and rot while the second is fecund and sensuous. It’s in the greenhouse that Lady Muriel Arrowsmith (Steele) trysts with her stable hand David (Rik Battaglia). But it’s in the castle dungeon that the lovers, chained to the wall, are forced to endure the torments of Muriel’s scientist husband, Dr. Stephen Arrowsmith (Paul Muller). Echoes of Lady Chatterley’s Lover abound, but erotic or class transcendence is swiftly squandered in the name of jealousy, sadism greed.

Having disposed of his wife, Stephen can only inherit Muriel’s fortune by marrying her mentally ill sister Jenny (again, Steele), whom he takes in and begins to model after Muriel with a hint of the necrophiliac drive of Vertigo’s Scotty. Jenny takes to the game so well that she begins dreaming of meeting a lover in the greenhouse, and uncovering the truth about her sister’s demise. As directed by Mario Caiano and scored by a young Ennio Morricone, Nightmare Castle is pleasingly thick with monochromatic gloom and doom and benefits tremendously from Steele’s effortlessness with swinging from positions of power to unease and terror. Those huge eyes hold so much.

Unfortunately, neither Steele’s talent nor her strange beauty are able to help She-Beast, aka Revenge of the Blood Beast, aka Satan’s Sister or La Sorella di Satana (66), now available from Dark Sky Films. Written and directed by British filmmaker Michael Reeves, it starts promisingly with a riveting expository prologue about a community gathering to torture and kill a witch—clearly echoing the prologue of what perhaps remains Steele’s greatest achievement, Mario Bava’s legendary Black Sunday, aka The Mask of Satan or La Maschera del demonio (60). It then quickly succumbs to a wildly uneven contemporary tale of British tourists on holiday in Transylvania, a place where nearly all the locals are impoverished inbred dolts and staunch communists, spouting lines like “Privacy breeds conspiracy!” and “I have petitioned the government for new wallpaper.” The main problem here is really just that She-Beast can’t quite decide if its horror or comedy, though anyone watching can clearly determine that it should have opted for the former—the high-speed, Keystone cops gags are woefully limpid.

A far better investment in Central European vampire lore arrives in the shape of Legend of Blood Castle, aka The Female Butcher, aka Bloody Ceremony or Ceremonia Sangienta (73), slyly directed by Spanish veteran Jorge Grau and now out on a new disc from MYA. No Barbara Steele this time around, but instead we get Lucia Bosé, who some of you might recognize from Death of a Cyclist (55), which was released last year by Criterion in a special edition. In a sense, Blood Castle is a story of marital renewal, albeit of a sinister and myopic sort. In this heavily extrapolated retelling of the story of Elizabeth Bathory, Bosé plays the Countess with surprising texture and sympathy, despairing for the aging of her flesh while her husband only gets excited by watching his falcons rip apart their prey, and by the unfulfilled possibility of sex with peasant girls. When he dies and returns as a vampire, the couple discovers a new kind of partnership in which he finds pretty virgins to kill and drains their blood for the Countess to bathe in, an ostensible formula for rejuvenation that Grau does little to make seem like more than a delusional effort. The real Bathory was said to have been responsible for over 600 deaths before being sealed up behind a brick wall for the rest of her life. Bosé doesn’t get quite that far, but her reign of terror is still pretty impressive, thanks especially to Grau’s graceful camera work, hampered only by some pretty clumsy editing and a few rather dated looking zooms.

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