by Steve Habrat
Throughout the late 1950s and into the 1960s, gothic horror was alive and well in Europe. In the United States, interest in vampires, werewolves, and Frankenstein monsters faded in the wake of World War II and the atomic bomb. American horror movies moved on to mutated fiends, aliens from outer space, giant bugs stomping on small American towns, femme fatales, film noir, and Norman Bates slashers. Sure, Roger Corman released a few gothic drive-in Edgar Allen Poe tales starring Vincent Price, and there were a handful of witch-hunting films, but the emphasis was on monsters made through radiation, not in the pages of a Bram Stoker or Mary Shelley book. Europe was a completely different story. The British film company Hammer Films cranked out a number of classic gothic horror films, exploding in 1957 with The Curse of Frankenstein and continuing their run well into the 1970s. It seemed that Italy also had an interest in the gothic horror film, or at least Italian cinematographer turned director Mario Bava did. In 1960, Bava released Black Sunday (aka The Mask of Satan), a gorgeous gothic masterpiece centering on evil witches and bloodthirsty vampires coming back from their 200-year-old graves. Since its release, many critics have described Black Sunday as being a cross between a Hammer horror film and a classic Universal Studios horror film, an accurate description indeed. Featuring exquisite black and white cinematography, chilling sound work, unmatchable set design, an iconic performance from genre star Barbara Steele, and one of the most terrifying resurrection sequences in horror history, Black Sunday sits proudly near the top of the best Italian horror films of all time.
Black Sunday begins with a witch named Asa Vajda (played by Barbara Steele) and her vampire partner Javuto (played by Arturo Dominici) being sentenced to a gruesome death by Asa’s brother. Before the pair is left to burn, Asa’s brother orders that the mask of Satan be nailed to the faces of the condemned so that the world will forever know their true wickedness. Before they are executed, Asa puts a curse on her brother’s descendants and promises to return from the grave to have her revenge. Two centuries later, Dr. Thomas Kruvajan (played by Andrea Checchi) and his assistant, Dr. Andre Gorobec (played by John Richardson), are traveling through the same area where Asa and Javuto are buried. While passing through the eerie forest, one of their carriage wheels is damaged, leaving them stranded near Asa’s ruined tomb. While they wait for the wheel to be fixed, they decided to investigate the ruins to see what they can find. While poking around, the doctors find Asa’s coffin, which has a window displaying the horrible mask that was nailed to her face. Just as the men are about to leave the tomb, Dr. Kruvajan is attacked by a giant bat, which leaves a nasty cut on his hand. In the process of the attack, a few drops of blood make it into Asa’s tomb, resurrecting the evil witch and reigniting her fury. She telepathically resurrects Javuto, who sets out to find her brother’s descendants and make them pay.
If you were convinced that Hammer and Universal were the undisputed kings of gothic horror, Black Sunday is guaranteed to change your mind. There is not one scene in Black Sunday that doesn’t have some sort of gothic image to haunt your nightmares. There are cobwebbed tombs, dead forests, silhouetted castles, lifeless swamps, cracked graveyards, and crosses in every character’s hand. It’s full of the usual stuff, but the gothic style has never seemed so evil and dead as it does here. In Hammer and Universal’s offerings, there were at least a few glimpses of life, maybe a few late autumn leaves stuck to a branch or a babbling brook, but not in Black Sunday. It appears Asa’s curse worked its way into the trees, soil, and even the castle stones, leaving a perpetually parched and still wasteland where nothing will ever grow. It’s extremely creepy and it looks absolutely amazing in Bava’s lush black and white cinematography. You’d think that when compared to Hammer’s color releases, Black Sunday would be overlooked due to being presented in black and white, but the lack of color only adds to the hopelessness of the surroundings. It also adds extra menace to the shadowy castle hallways and rotten tombs, where candelabras flicker and tapestries hang down like fangs waiting to snap.
While Black Sunday may be celebrated for its gothic style, the film is also loaded with spectacular performances, particularly from Barbara Steele in a dual role. As Asa, Steele is in completely command of the film as she curses, and manipulates anyone who dares look in her direction. When we first see her tied to the stake waiting to be burned, her beauty throws us. We hear her brother condemning her for these terrible actions, but her innocent eyes hold us in doubt. Could she really be responsible for what they say she is? Don’t be fooled, as her true nature soon rears its ugly head. When Steele isn’t projecting pure evil as the vengeful witch, she is showing us her softer side as Katia, a striking descendent of Asa’s brother. Her performance as Katia doesn’t hit quite as hard as Asa, as she is basically asked to sit by her father’s bedside, look worried, or play the damsel in distress, but it’s still strong where it counts. Arturo Dominici gives a strong and silent performance as the equally wicked Javuto, Asa’s vampire partner who carries out some of the dirty work for the witch. When he speaks, you will be turned to stone. John Richardson’s Dr. Gorobec basically becomes the hero and love interest of Katia, Andrea Checchi’s Dr. Kruvajan becomes hypnotized servant to Asa, and Antonio Pierfederici’s Priest demonstrates a very creative and gruesome way to dispatch a vampire.
Despite the long list of positives, Black Sunday still has a few minor flaws that are difficult to ignore. First is the dubbing, which opens the door for some less-than-graceful dialogue. Unlike some of the trashier Italian efforts that would come much later, Bava makes an effort to have the English dubbing match the movement of the character’s mouths. It’s a success in that regard, but there are times when you wish that the film had been subtitled. Another minor problem with the film is the score, which slightly conflicts with Bava’s stunningly grim imagery. The music for the American version of Black Sunday was provided by Les Baxter, who delivers a score that captures none of the gothic atmosphere that flows forth from the screen. Still, the complaints are trivial when compared to both of the terrifying resurrection sequences, the unblinking gore, our first glimpse of Katia, or the chilly opening execution. They are all glimmers of absolute brilliance. Overall, as stylish, eerie, and grotesque as they come, Black Sunday is an astonishing directorial debut by the legendary Mario Bava. To this day, his images still retain their hair-raising power, and Steele’s Asa still stands as one of the most evil forces to ever haunt a movie screen.
Black Sunday is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
Italian director Lucio Fulci (the “Godfather of Gore”) is the man responsible for some of the most extreme horror films released in the late 70s into the mid 80s. Probably best known for his 1979 grindhouse gross-out Zombie, Fulci is also celebrated, at least by horror buffs, for his unofficial Gates of Hell trilogy. Beginning with 1980’s City of the Living Dead and ending with 1981’s The House by the Cemetery, the series peaked with The Beyond, the second film in the zombie-filled trilogy. Loved by both horror fans and exploitation gurus (Quentin Tarantino has said he is a fan and his Rolling Thunder Pictures even re-released the film into theaters a few years back), The Beyond is a surreal zombie nightmare that boasts a number of striking images combined with the director’s trademark carnage that every horror fan has come to expect when watching one of his films. It really doesn’t take the viewer long to understand why the film has earned the cult following that it has, especially when Fulci starts out by diving head first into a nasty sepia-colored crucifixion. Looking at The Beyond today, the effects are dated, the dubbing horrendous, and the acting about as over-the-top as you can get, but Fulci still manages to craft a fairly solid horror film that surprisingly gouges its way under your skin (that is, when you’re not chuckling at it).
The Beyond begins in 1927 Louisiana, with an angry mob storming the Seven Gates Hotel and brutally killing an artist named Schweick (Played by Antoine Saint-John). The mob believes that Schweick is a warlock, but little do they know that when they spill his blood, they will unknowingly open a gateway to Hell, which happens to be nestled underneath the Seven Gates Hotel. When this gateway is opened, it allows the dead to enter the realm of the living. Several decades later, a young woman by the name of Liza (Played by Catriona MacColl) has inherited the dilapidated Seven Gates Hotel and is planning on re-opening it once renovations are finished. As the renovations continue, strange apparitions spook the workers and some are seriously injured in freak accidents. To make things worse on Liza, the hotel comes with two suspicious servants, Martha (Played by Veronica Lazar) and Arthur (Played by Giampaolo Saccarola), who are constantly snooping around Liza’s room. When a plumber is brutally murdered and a rotten corpse turns up in the basement of the hotel, Liza teams up with Dr. John McCabe (Played by David Warbeck) to get to the bottom of the bizarre events. Their search leads them to Emily (Played by Sarah Keller), a mysterious blind woman who warns Liza about the hotel’s gruesome history and the dead who roam the basement.
In typical Fulci fashion, the plotline of The Beyond is an absolute mess, but you’re not really here for a satisfying story. No, if you’re stepping into Fulci’s world, you are there for the stomach churning gore, which usually revolves around the eyes (Fulci had a thing with the eyes). The Beyond is more than eager to deliver the violence we have all come expect from the “Godfather of Gore” and it certainly will have some reaching for the barf bag. Eye balls are gouged out, heads are impaled by jagged nails (complete with popped-out eyeballs), faces are eaten off by acid, people are crucified, one character is horrifically whipped with chains, another character has a massive hole blown into their head, man-eating tarantulas eat a character’s face off, and another character has their throat ripped out by a rabid dog. If that is not enough, wait until the zombie-filled climax, with the undead shuffling around a seemingly deserted hospital in search of an all-you-can-eat buffet of entrails. If you’ve seen Fulci’s Zombie or City of the Living Dead, you already know that these ghouls shuffle slowly, are decayed beyond belief, and moan through deep, heavy breathing. They certainly are impressive and Fulci is well aware that they are absolutely disgusting. Yet despite how gross The Beyond can be, Fulci still coughs up a few creepy images (as well as bloody vomit) that will certainly cause a few sleepless nights. Silhouetted zombies shuffle through the cobwebbed hotel, the blind Emily waits for Liza in the middle of the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, and a rotting apparition appears in the bathroom of a supposedly haunted hotel room. It’s freaky stuff!
The Beyond also happens to boasts some fairly decent acting, a rarity in both Fulci’s work and exploitation cinema. MacColl is likable enough as the frightened Liza, a New Yorker who doesn’t believe in supernatural ghouls. Warbeck gets by as the pistol-packing doctor who just can’t seem to understand that you have to shoot the zombies in the head. Even if he never learns how to slay the undead, he’s good as the macho hero. Keller is easily the best as Emily, the blind girl with more than a few secrets of her own (her eyes will make your skin crawl). Her character gets the creepiest introduction, standing calmly right in the middle of the causeway as Liza’s car speeds towards her. Lazar and Saccarola are hilariously suspicious as the creepy servants that roam the hallways of the hotel. The best of the duo is easily Saccarola, who mopes around sweating and always looking terrified of something we never see. For horror buffs looking for a neat little Easter egg, keep an eye out for a cameo from Fulci, who appears as the librarian who leaves an architect to be eaten by an army of tarantulas.
Perhaps the strongest film from Fulci, The Beyond is certainly the artiest offering from the Italian horror master. He takes a little more care when putting his gothic images together and he really puts some effort into building a menacing atmosphere deep in the bayou. While the zombie climax is certainly fun, you can’t shake the feeling that it is a sequence that has been tacked on. Apparently, the film’s German distributor wanted to capitalize on the zombie craze that was ripping through Europe at the time, so they demanded that Fulci write in some undead cannibals. At least they look really creepy! You may also catch yourself chuckling at the music, which seems like it would have been more at home in a daytime soap opera rather than a ultra-gory horror film. Overall, The Beyond certainly has its fair share of goofs and flaws, but you just can’t resist its midnight movie appeal and its jaw-dropping violence. If you can, see it on the big screen with a bunch of horror enthusiast or watching with all the lights turned out. This one is guaranteed to make squirm even if you are laughing at the obviously fake tarantula eating a guy’s tongue out.
The Beyond is available on DVD. If you can, try to pick up Grindhouse Releasing’s copy of the film.
Here is a little information on Goregirl:
Canadian broad who has had a lifelong obsession with horror films. Perpetually working on a screenplay, avid collector of soundtracks, belt buckles and wigs. You can find me on WordPress: http://goregirl.wordpress.com/, YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/user/goregirlsdungeon or follow me on Twitter: @ggsdungeon.
Goregirl’s Top Five Scariest Italian Horror Films
Nothing can whip me into an excited frenzy like finding an Italian horror and/or thriller I haven’t seen. I have hungrily devoured Italian horror titles like a rabid Ms. Pac-Man. It is getting more difficult these days to find films I haven’t seen. I am particularly fond of the Giallo of the 1970s. The word Giallo is Italian for “yellow”, which refers to the common coloring of cheap pulp fiction novels. The term “Giallo” is used to describe Italian literature and film that contains elements of crime, mystery, horror, thrillers or eroticism. I never miss an opportunity to talk about Italian horror! Italian horror generally speaking tends to be plot heavy with copious twists and red herrings and while the mood can be positively electric I don’t think I would classify most of these as “scary”. Coming up with five was more difficult than I anticipated. I wanted to insure five Italian directors were represented so I allowed myself just one title per director. After much inner debate I chose the following five horror films hailing from Italy that provide not just thrills but also chills…
THE BEYOND (1981)
Directed By Lucio Fulci
I could easily have filled this entire top five with Lucio Fulci films! His brilliant entries Don’t Torture A Duckling, Zombi 2, A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin and The Psychic all deserve high praise. I chose Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond. In my opinion The Beyond is Fulci’s scariest, creepiest and goriest effort. The premise of The Beyond sees one of the seven gateways to hell being breached. This gateway lies beneath a hotel the main character inherits. Crazy shit happens, some of it’s illogical but every last bit is a fascinating, visual treat. People are nailed to walls, eaten by tarantulas, melted by acid, and of course there is classic Fulci eye trauma! And there are zombies! Beautiful, rotted wonderfully vial zombies! Don’t worry about a perfect logical narrative; just let the nightmare wash over you! The Beyond is classic Fulci at his gory best, but I can not recommend more highly checking out any of the aforementioned Fulci flicks!
BLACK SUNDAY (1960)
Directed By Mario Bava
Mario Bava is another favourite director whom I struggled to choose just one film for. Certainly his fantastic anthology Black Sabbath, the brilliant Kill Baby Kill!, the masterful The Girl Who Knew Too Much or his magnificent Blood and Black Lace would have all been great choices. I went with what is perhaps Bava’s best known film; Black Sunday. The stunning Barbara Steele takes on dual roles as Princess Asa Vajda and Katia Vajda. It is a wonderful richly gothic tale of a witch put to death by her own brother who returns 200 years later to seek revenge on her descendants. “The Mask of Satan” (which also happens to be one of its alternate titles) once pulled from the face of our witch makes for some grotesque visuals! Black Sunday was one of my dad’s favourite films and it absolutely terrified me as a child. While Black Sunday doesn’t quite have the same effect on me after 20ish viewings I think it is still one of Bava’s creepiest and most beautiful films.
Directed By Sergio Martino
No list of Italian films is complete without an entry from Sergio Martino. Anyone with even a casual interest in Italian horror probably knows the names Lucio Fulci, Mario Bava and Dario Argento but the lesser known Sergio Martino made several epic entries through the seventies. My favourite film by Martino is definitely The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh starring the gorgeous and sexy Edwige Fenech; Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I have the Key and The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail wouldn’t be far behind. I love these films but I would be hard pressed to say any of these are “scary”. Martino’s most frightening entry is Torso. College students are being murdered and the only clue to the killer’s identity is a scarf. A group of lovely ladies take refuge in the Italian countryside only to find themselves the killer’s target. The good old balaclava; headwear of thieves and serial killers alike! Torso has a balaclaved baddie, amazing scenery, plenty of skin and some impressive brutality! The final chase scene between the surviving female and the murderer is intense and exciting. Torso is gritty, sexy, suspenseful, violent and it has a great soundtrack to boot.
Directed By Dario Argento
What can I say about the great Dario Argento? The man knew how to construct a violent and visually stunning film. Argento’s Deep Red, Tenebre and Suspiria have long been personal favourites. Deep Red will always be my number one but for the “scary” category I would have to go with Suspiria. Suspiria takes place in a prestigious dance school where shenanigans of a supernatural nature are afoot. There is a feeling of unease established from the moment new student Suzy Bannion arrives at the school that doesn’t let up until the final credits. Its beauty is quite remarkable but is only one of its impressive qualities. Suspiria is claustrophobic, intense, suspenseful, thrilling and features some very impressive murder sequences! Suspiria is like an adult fairy tale and its impressive setting and props add a whimsical and yet terrifying sense of dread. Its brilliant soundtrack courtesy of Goblin is one of the best horror film soundtracks ever created! Performances are excellent across the board from Jessica Harper who plays Suzy, Stefania Casini who plays her friend Sara and great turns from classic actresses Alida Valli as Miss Tanner and Joan Bennett as Madame Blanc. Suspiria is part of Argento’s “three mothers trilogy” and I can not recommend enough also checking out Inferno, his second of the trilogy. Suspiria is a beautiful nightmare.
Directed By Lamberto Bava
Lamberto Bava is the son of the great Mario Bava. While I enjoyed Lamberto Bava’s Macabro, A Knife in the Dark, and Delirium, in my opinion Demons is definitely Bava’s masterpiece. There have not been many effects-intensive creature creations from Italy so for that reason alone this film is special. There are however a lot of other reasons Demons is special. The premise is a simple one; a group of people are given passes to a screening of a horror film and become trapped inside the theatre with a bunch of demons. Demons is very high-energy, it doesn’t let up for a second. The gore is plentiful; the effects are outrageous and occasionally gag-worthy. Most importantly, Demons has some really freaking cool looking demons! The transformations are fantastic; polished nails being pushed out in favor of nifty new gnarly claws, teeth pushed out to upgrade to some nice big pointy ones. It is a beautiful thing! Demons definitely has its campy qualities but it only adds to its charms. Demons insane finale involving a dirt bike, a sword and a helicopter falling through the roof is not to be missed! If you enjoy Demons, there is also a sequel you can sink your teeth into. Demons 2 isn’t as good as the original, but it certainly has its moments! Demons is an orgasmic, goretastic joy!
by Steve Habrat
Why horror fans and critics don’t make a bigger deal over Lamberto Bava’s fantasy-becomes-nightmare horror romp Demons beats the hell out of me! I haven’t had this much fun watching an 80’s gore flick in quite a while and Demons matched the gruesome insanity of Evil Dead every step of the way. Demons is shamelessly loaded with plot holes, something that actually adds to the fun that you will have while watching this thing. Produced by Dario Argento and directed by Mario Bava’s son, Demons is never just coasting along. It isn’t particularly concerned with establishing much of a plot or any real underlying meaning; it’s just out to have a head banging good time. If you don’t find yourself possessed by the madness here, you are way too uptight.
Demons picks up in a Berlin subway where a college student named Cheryl (Played by Natasha Hovey) bumps into a mysterious masked man who resembles Kano from Mortal Kombat. The man hands her two movie tickets to a recently renovated movie palace and then disappears. Cheryl decides to attend the movie that evening, bringing along her friend Kathy (Played by Paola Cozzo) who complains that the movie that is showing better not be a horror movie. When the girls arrive at the theater, they are pursued by two young men named George (Played by Urbano Barberini) and Ken (Played by Karl Zinny), who tell the girls they will comfort them if the movie gets scary. In the lobby of the theater, there is a mysterious set up that acts as a promotion for the film they are seeing. A young woman decides to put on the mask and when she takes it off, she ends up with a strange cut on her face. The movie begins and sure enough, it is a horror film about demonic possession. Shortly after the film begins, audience members begin finding themselves infected with a strange virus that turns them into demonic killers. As the demonic numbers rise, Cheryl, Kathy, George, and Ken have to band together and stay alive until help can arrive.
This variegated bloodbath is a pure 80’s artifact, a film that packs the macho hero, relentless carnage, a samurai sword (of course), and a blaring heavy metal soundtrack to get your adrenaline pumping. It packs tons of impressive special effects and make-up work, the ghouls ending up simple yet foully intricate. Wounds ooze pus and blood and the ghouls vomit out green slime, any gross touch thrown in just to show off what the special effects crew is capable of. The film also manages to be a little freaky at points, Bava’s camera peering down foggy staircases and dank alleyways, a silhouetted ghoul creeping in the shadows here and there. Demons turns out to be an energetic kaleidoscope of energy that is undeniably contagious. The lunacy reaches its max when our hero begins chopping off heads with the sword and a helicopter comes crashing through the ceiling of the theater. Are you intrigued yet?
Demons has lots of incoherence littered about its eighty-eight minute runtime. Who is the strange masked cyborg man handing out the tickets? Are these people from the future? Another realm? And what about the suspicious theater usher? Don’t bother trying to figure any of this out and just roll with the punches. Demons harkens back to a time when going to the movies was an immersive event, to a time when the seats where rigged with a vibrating device to spook audience members (The Tingler) and barf bags where provided for the insanity (Zombie). This is a film that should play in theaters today and feature some kind of gag to get the audience involved, much like The Rocky Horror Picture Show! The film is cool enough on its own to watch in the comfort of your own home, but if you showed this to a theater that interacts with the screen while downing a few beers in the process, you’d have a hell of a night at the movies.
Demons doesn’t ask much of us as viewers and is only concerned with our enjoyment of the content. The embellished final act is a must see, especially since while watching the first half, I couldn’t imagine things getting any wilder. The fact that the film is game to take this twist on is enough to call this a blemished horror classic. Demons turns out to have all the makings for the craziest party you’ve never been to. Even a white suited pimp with a fu manchu shows up to play hero for a while! If you are an individual who detests horror, believe me when I say there is enjoyment to be found in the gross out shticks that Demons is so fond of. This is, without question, an infectious experience, making it very easy to fall in love with this beast of a horror movie.
Demons is now available on DVD.