A Look Into Foreign Horror: Italian Horror
Welcome back! Today we’re continuing our series on Foreign Horror with a trip to Italy. Now, I am going to admit that I am not as up-to-date on the Italian Horror scene as I am for some other countries but Italy has still turned out a lot of really good, older, horror films. I personally think a good horror movie is like fine wine, the older it gets the better it is. Well, truth be told they get a bit corny but still an old, but great, horror movie is still going to be a great many years later. That said, let’s jump in our time machine, fire up the popcorn maker, grab your favourite beverage and let’s look at my five favourite Italian horror films. If you’ve been following the series so far, you know there is a spoiler alert now in effect.
5. Cannibal Ferox (1981) – Unrated
Synopsis: Anthropologists take a trip to the jungles of Colombia to study native cannibals. Instead, they find a band of drug dealers, using the natives to harvest coca leaves. After awhile, the natives are tired of being tortured slaves, and turn on their masters, as well as the anthropologists, thus filling the screen with gruesome splatter!
Not to be confused with Cannibal Holocaust, Cannibal Ferox is another Italian horror/cannibal film that was super controversial and a banned film. It has a lot of violence and gore as well as the unfortunate killing of live animals on film. Something that would not fly by today’s standards but apparently was accepted back in the ’80s. “Cannibal Ferox” is the story of a junior anthropologist, who brings her brother and a friend into the amazonian jungle in an effort to disprove cannibalism. Along the way they meet Mike and Joe, two dealers on the run from the mob, who have also angered the natives of the jungle.
In classic cannibal sub-genre style, the home team takes bloody revenge on the entire lot. Honestly, I was expecting a warmed over copy of “Cannibal Holocaust”. Though there are obvious parallels between the two (the theme of the so-called “civilized” being the bringers of barbarity, the direction style used in the jungle scenes, gratuitous animal cruelty and small roles for both Richard Bolla and Perry Pirkanen), there’s a vast difference in tone between the two films. While “Cannibal Holocaust” was relentlessly sadistic, “Cannibal Ferox” plays a variation on the theme with its underlying bits of horror camp. “Ferox” has buckets of blood for the gorehounds, but other than the animal scenes, it’s not nearly as real looking as “Holocaust”. Still, at 40 years old, this film is definitely worth a watch.
4. The Church (1989) – R
Synopsis: A church is built during medieval times on top of a pile of dead bodies that were considered possessed. Hundreds of years later a young librarian unleashes the evil within, by removing a rock in the catacombs. Series of events occur meanwhile, everybody just does not seem to be the same. Father Gus is the only one not possessed, he must save the city from becoming a pandemonium, he must find the ancient secret of the church so it can crumble to pieces.
We’re hitting our stride now with our first film by Dario Argento. While this film also is a work by Michele Soavi, most horror fans know the name, Argento. It starts off strong. Medieval knights massacre a village they fear is possessed by demonic spirits and the priest orders that a church should be built on their burial ground. Fast-forward to the present, something weird is going on in that church; some evil seems to be lurking about and possessing people.
A showdown between good and evil is unavoidable. The film has style to burn. Michele Soavi is a master at creating surreal imagery and his camera knows no limits. This is the film’s high point along with some terrific set pieces, one, in particular, involving a subway and a teenage girl. Another thing I must mention in the film’s favour; the music score. It’s always wonderful to hear Goblin and Keith Emerson also provides some good music. There are some plot issues here, I won’t lie, but it is a gruesome good time for those who like violence and gore. Check it out!
3. The Beyond (1981) – R
Synopsis: A young woman inherits an old hotel in Louisiana where, following a series of supernatural “accidents”, she learns that the building was built over one of the entrances to Hell.
“E tu vivrai nel terrore – L’aldila” (or “The Beyond”) is the beguilingly simple story of a cute little hotel in the deep South (Southern Louisiana) whose basement has an inconvenient little doorway to hell where undead warlocks, zombies, tarantulas and other creepy crawlies lurk to entomb man in darkness, death, despair and other such “D” words. I tell you, almost wall-to-wall gore FX permeate this film and the blood-drenched sensibilities of director Lucio Fulci make every scene a nail-biter, gut-wrencher, heart-stopper and probably will involve sundry other parts of your body, as well.
You have to remember something about the time period too. The post Exorcist and Dawn of the Dead period saw many imitations, especially from Italy. However, there were a handful of filmmakers that had actual imagination, skills and creativity to set their pictures apart from the rest. Of the bunch, Argento, Bava (father and son), and Fulci stood quite apart from the rest, each with their own talents. This is one of Fulci’s best films and one that should be seen and enjoyed by all horror fans. You won’t be disappointed.
2. Suspiria (1977) – R
Synopsis: An American newcomer to a prestigious German ballet academy comes to realize that the school is a front for something sinister amid a series of grisly murders.
Yet another film by Argento graces the list, this time for his directing rather than writing. Suspiria is one of his best films, in my opinion, and this film is absolutely stunning. The images contain objects we recognize, like people, buildings, and interior decor. But the objects seem vaguely menacing, and less real than surreal, as though they symbolize ideas, repressed desires, or subconscious fears. The vivid, rich colours, strange camera angles, deep shadows, and bright light piercing through the darkness, all contribute to the impression that the viewer is trapped in someone else’s nightmare.
One haunting segment of the film takes place in a huge, and strangely empty, public square, at night. A blind man and his German shepherd dog stand in the middle of the square, surrounded by imposing buildings of neo-classical architectural style. “Suspiria” is not for everyone. It is unsettling, and at times grisly. That said, anyone who is a fan of Argento or would like an introduction to his films, this is the place to start.
1. Cannibal Holocaust (1980) – Unrated
Synopsis: In 1979, intent on venturing into the vast and unexplored areas of the virgin Amazon rainforest, a small American film crew attempts to make a documentary about the region’s indigenous cannibalistic tribes, only to disappear without a trace. As the noted anthropologist, Harold Monroe, and his team of seasoned guides embark on a rescue mission to locate the missing documentarians in the heart of the Green Inferno, fearful tribes, that no white has ever seen before, will soon start to take an interest in them.
Inevitably, as the professor unearths more evidence about the fate of the film crew by sheer luck, a desperate battle to recover the raw footage that was paid in blood will commence–after all, the world must learn all about the savage and unspeakable atrocities captured on the riveting unedited footage.
We started with a cannibal film and we’re ending with the best one. Cannibal Holocaust is a gem, twisted and gory, and has been the subject of serious controversy since its release. Ten days after its premiere in Milan, the film was seized by the Italian courts, and director Ruggero Deodato was arrested and charged with obscenity. He was later charged with murdering several actors on camera and faced life in prison.
The cast had signed contracts requiring them to disappear for a year after shooting, to maintain the illusion that they’d died. Deodato contacted Luca Barbareschi and told him to contact the three other actors who played the missing film team. When the actors appeared in court, alive and well, the murder charges were dropped. Yes, this seriously happened. There is some severe animal cruelty and many people thought that this was a snuff film upon its release. It is powerful, it is disturbing and it just may be the best cannibal movie ever made. You’re doing yourself a disservice not watching this gem of Italian horror.
Thanks again for joining me today for my little foray into Italian horror! Keep your eyes peeled for the next instalment, coming soon. I’ve got lots of countries to visit and I may even revisit some of them since some countries just have that many good horror films.