It's been a bit of a wait, but two obscure gialli are soon to be released: Riccardo Freda's Murder Obsession, a personal favorite of mine, and Lamberto Bava's surprisingly entertaining Body Puzzle. It's been far too long since any new Italian horror or gialli films have been released, what with the demise of so many independent labels, so now's your chance to snap 'em up! And not to sound preachy, but BUY these titles, so as to ensure future releases. It only makes sense!
Madhouse begins with a bang as a little girl bashes in her twin sister's face with a rock to a rather disturbing rendition of Rock-a-Bye Baby. Years later, Julia (the rock-happy one) has become a teacher at a school for deaf children. Her now deformed and insane sister Mary, however, has been locked in a psych ward since the incident.
Only a few days before their birthday, their uncle, Father James, approaches Julia with the idea of visiting her sister in the ward. Though apprehensive initially, Julia does so, only to be scared away. It's revealed that on past birthdays, Mary would hunt down Julia with her vicious, massive dog, and burn the poor girl with matches. No wonder she got her face bashed in! That same night, Mary escapes the ward. With her dog in tow, she starts offing Julia's friends so as to prepare a surprise birthday party for her sister.
Made in 1981, the same year as Canadian horror film Happy Birthday To Me, Madhouse soon found itself added to the infamous Video Nasties list in Britain, and for good reason. It's a gory and somewhat shocking film, depicting acts of violence against children, animals, and all around good-natured characters.
Regardless of it's body count and small budget, Madhouse is an exceptionally stylish horror film. First and foremost is the lighting, or lack thereof. With the exception of the outdoor scenes, everything is bathed in shadow and light is used only to highlight certain objects and passages. The soundtrack by Riz Ortolani bounces between bizarre synthesizer effects and childrens' music, adding another dimension to the already ominous shots. I recommend this title, as it's a fine example of 80's Italian horror that actually works. Buy it here.
(Lucio Fulci, 1981)
A viciously clever black cat is stalking and killing the residents of a small English town. The deaths appear to be accidental, so no further investigation is undertaken. While taking pictures of a crypt in an old graveyard, photographer Jill Trevers (Mimsey Farmer) discovers the head of a microphone, which leads her to the local psychic, Robert Miles (Patrick Magee), who used it to record his conversations with the dead. Jill learns that the old man is routinely tormented by the black cat, and witnesses such an attack.
When Jill is called in by inspector Gorley (David Warbek) to photograph the recently deceased town drunk, she spots scratch marks on the corpse's hand and puts two and two together. But as Jill and the inspector get closer to a truth far stranger than might have been predicted, they find themselves the targets of the diabolical feline.
The Black Cat was clearly a break from Fulci's prior gore-soaked zombie epics. I can only assume he wanted to make a classier, more suspenseful film as opposed to the exploitive, violent films he was known for, which surely alienated a number of his fans. There's little blood, no regurgitated innards, no eye trauma, and the Pino Donaggio score is much lighter than the electronic soundtracks in previous efforts. The slow pacing and hypnotic zoom and cat's POV shots do give it a dreamy, atmospheric edge, but the cheap special effects and thoroughly nonsensical actions on behalf of most of the characters do detract from this. It's worth a gander, but don't expect all-out Fulci carnage. Buy it here.
(Mario Girolami, 1980)
So what do you get when you combine Fulci's Zombie and Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust? A trashy mishmash, yes, but the correct answer would be Zombie Holocaust! This romp of a cheese-fest is a real treat for fans of terrible sound and special effects, lough-out-loud dubbing and dialogue, and questionable medical and anthropological content.
The discovery of a cannibalistic cult at a New York hospital sends Doctors Lori Ridgeway and Peter Chandler (Ian McCulloch) on an expedition to the jungles of Keto island, so named for the cannibal god that the natives there worship. With the addition of reporter Susan Kelly, George Harper, and Molotto and his fodder- er- guides, the drowsy duo encounter Dr Obrero, who has set up a practice of sorts on a neighboring island.
They set off for Keto shortly after, where they encounter, are massacred, and then eaten by the cannibalistic natives. Really, what were they expecting? Then they throw a curve ball; there's zombies loose on the island, and they frighten the natives off! No wait, it gets better! Dr Obrero is the one creating them by using the local populace as subjects! I don't care if I gave it away, it's such an amusingly inept ride that the story doesn't matter much anyway.
Other than the unintentional hilarity, the only things Zombie Holocaust has going for it are the gore, of which there is plenty, and the brooding synth soundtrack by Nico Fidenco. I'm not downplaying it's overall crappiness though; there are two scenes that set me off every time I see them: the nurse, whose scream obviously doesn't match the expression on her face; and when a dummy is thrown out a window, it's arm pops off, and is then magically reconnected in the next scene. See it to believe it! Buy it here.
(Luciano Ercoli, 1972)
Weird! An engrossing giallo with no nudity and little gore!
Feisty supermodel Valentina (Susan Scott) is mislead by her tabloid journalist friend Giovanni (Simon Andreu) into taking a new drug, HDS, as part of a supposedly scientific experiment. While under the influence, she sees a woman brutally murdered, with a spiked glove, in an empty apartment behind her own.
After being dismissed by the modeling agency over the incident, Valentina finds herself short on cash, though no less popular. An anonymous job offer lures her to the very apartment in which she'd seen the girl murdered, and there she runs into the same creepy, bespectacled killer! She narrowly escapes, and soon learns from the police that a girl had indeed been murdered there with a spiked glove... six months prior.
Initially no one believes her story, but she soon finds herself approached by two strangers who claim to know both the victim and the falsely-arrested murderer. With a little help from Gio and the two strangers, she manages to identify the real killer, only to find out that the man she saw may not actually be the one she should be tracking down!
Death Walks at Midnight relies more on mystery and plot than most gore and sleaze- packed gialli from the same era. It's also refreshing to watch a giallo wherein the female lead neither faints, panics, or disrobes. In fact, Valentina is the real star of the show, and what a feisty character she is! She's tough, especially by giallo standards, and throws a lot of rocks, lamps, and punches. She's not afraid to go for the balls, and she even uses a gun! And all of this with little help from the rather unsympathetic men in her life.
Story aside, Death Walks at Midnight is a lot of fun to watch, has a good dose of action and humor, and moves at a quick pace. The cinematography is quite stylish, the soundtrack appropriately groovy, and the sets just as far-out as the music. The only really bloody bits are, sadly, at the very beginning and end of the film, but are among the highlights. Very much recommended. Buy used copies here.
I feel I have to somehow justify the hours, nay, years I've spent watching some of the best, worst, and most unique horror and thriller movies ever made. I hope casual browsers might just catch on, and that experienced Italian horror fans might come across new and unheard-of titles to track down. If nothing else, please enjoy the pretty (and occasionally frightening) pictures.