Gothic Fantastico: Four Italian Tales of Terror Blu-ray Review

Creaky old castles up on a hill. Dark stormy nights. Strange noises. Beautiful maidens in flowing white gowns. Repressed desires. The eternal threat of the past billowing into the present. Bright lights and deep, dark shadows. A supernatural presence. Something strange in the attic. Gothic horror is one of our oldest literary and cinematic genres. They often contain all or some of the above motifs and themes which make it one of the more distinctive genres in terms of visual style and thematic content. Though, as we’ll see from the four films being released by Arrow Video in a boxed set entitled Gothic Fantastico: Four Italian Tales of Terror, the genre allows plenty of room for filmmakers to create something new and unique.

In 1960, Mario Bava directed Black Sunday which started a Gothic Horror craze in Italy that lasted through most of the 1960s. All four films presented in this set come from that time period and have clear connections to Bava’s film.

Lady Morgan’s Vengeance (1965) is, perhaps, the most traditionally gothic of the four films. Susan Blackhouse (Barbara Nelli) is betrothed to Lord Harold Morgan (Paul Muller) but secretly loves Pierre Brissac (Michel Forain). Just as the two lovers are making plans to run away and get married, Pierre meets an untimely death. With no other choice, Susan marries Lord Morgan and becomes Lady of an old Scottish castle.

But before she can settle in, her new husband and his servants begin gaslighting the poor girl out of her mind. Then she’s straight-up murdered. But this wouldn’t be a good gothic horror tale without her coming back to seek vengeance on the perpetrators. The film takes its time getting to that part, preferring to reveal its purposes slowly, so very slowly. I won’t call it “dull” because I quite enjoyed myself but the pacing is rather glacial. It has some great shadowy black-and-white photography, and the castle sets are fantastic.

The Blancheville Monster (1963), which was originally given the rather unoriginal title of Horror in Italy, continues with the more traditional gothic aspects of the genre. Emilie De Blancheville (Ombretta Colli) returns to her family estate, after being gone for many years, to find that a great many things have changed. Her father is said to be dead (though she’ll later find him quite deformed, living in the attic); all of the familiar servants have been replaced with cold, unfriendly ones; and everyone seems to think the entire estate is living under a curse. One that can only be lifted with her being dead before her upcoming 21st birthday.

The story borrows heavily from the tales of Edgar Allan Poe (especially “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “Premature Burial”) while the look and feel of the film steal directly from Roger Corman’s output from around the same time. It has the requisite genre cliches, the standout of which is the look of the entire thing. They spent every last penny of what had to be a rather tame budget on the set design and it looks great. There are a couple of shots in which Emilie has been mesmerized into walking from the castle to the family crypt. The camera has been set back giving us a faraway look at this great expanse of creepy, shadowy, nightmarish landscape, and it’s just incredible. Mood is what sets gothic horror films apart from their counterparts and this film has it in spades.

The Third Eye (1966) moves a bit further afield from the classic gothic tropes and into the more bizarre territory that Italian Horror is well known for. Genre stalwart Franco Nero stars as Mino, a nobleman who lives with his mother (Olga Sobelli) and housekeeper in an old, decrepit villa (no more castles for these films!). He’s in love with Laura (Erika Blanc) but his domineering mother doesn’t approve. Neither does Marta the housekeeper (Gioia Pascal) who’s secretly had a thing for him since they were kids.

Marta cuts the brake line on Laura’s car giving us one of those classic zoomings down a curvy road overlooking the seashore without brakes scenes which end in a crash with a dead Laura hanging out the door. As it happens, Mino’s hobby is taxidermy and he takes Laura’s corpse, stuffs her, and puts her into his bed. Then he starts picking up prostitutes and tries to sleep with them with the dead Laura lying next to them. When the girls inevitably see the corpse and start to scream, he gives them a good, old-fashioned strangling.

It gets weirder from there. Marta agrees to help him in disposing of the bodies if only Mino will marry her. Laura’s twin sister shows up. There are some clear homages to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) what with the mother issues, the taxidermy, and the murdering of pretty ladies. Nero does a pretty good Norman Bates impression as well. But this film dares to get stranger and more graphic than Hitchcock ever would. I kind of loved it.

The Witch (1966) was my least favorite of the films in this set. It is the more artful of the bunch and actually has something to say that’s more than just a good time at the movies. It is also the film that strays farthest from the gothic horror genre. Sergio (Richard Johnson), a bored academic with a reputation for being a lady’s man, notices a strange old woman (Sarah Ferrati) who appears to be following him. Later, he see a classified ad in the newspaper that seems to be written just for him. He goes to the address (a large rambling, apartment located in the middle of the city – not a castle or villa in sight) and finds that the classified ad was written by the old woman. She wants him to organize and edit her late husband’s journals, filled with their erotic escapades.

He says he has no interest in that sort of thing and starts to leave but is stopped dead in his tracks when he spies Aura (Rosanna Schiaffino) the old lady’s daughter. He’s immediately bewitched and attempts to seduce her. He almost succeeds but is stopped by Fabrizio (Gian Maria Volonté), seemingly Aura’s lover. He warns Sergio that he should just leave before he becomes trapped like he is. Of course, Sergio doesn’t heed that warning and what follows is an incredibly slow-paced nightmare that blends gothic horror with a dash of supernatural and a lot of kinky melodrama.

Richard Johnson is miscast as he has neither the classic good looks nor the charm that the character calls for. He plays Sergio with a strange flatness that fits well with the rest of the mood of the film but doesn’t allow for the character’s supposed seductive powers. Rosanna Schiaffino is bewitching, and Sara Ferrari is having a blast as the old lady. The house is full of clutter, windows, and mirrors allowing characters to be hidden and revealed in the most interesting of ways. The camera makes full use of the setting to create an assortment of fascinating images. It’s too bad the story is so overwhelmingly dull. It is a film that belongs more to the art-house crowd than the grindhouse. It seems to be making some point about modern life and growing old, or something, but I’ll be darned if I have any idea what point it’s actually trying to get across.

Arrow Video presents each film with a new 4K transfer from the original negatives. Extras include a new introduction to each film from Mark Thompson Ashworth, audio commentaries, video essays, interviews with some of the actors and filmmakers, trailers, image galleries, and essays on the films in the big, full-color booklet. Plus a nice reversible poster. That’s more information than any lover of gothic Italian horror could ever hope for.

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Mat Brewster

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