Coming across Italian horror movies I have never heard of before always engenders the joyous surprise of discovery. Arrow’s limited-edition Blu-ray box set, Gothic Fantastico: Four Italian Tales of Terror, consists of movies I didn’t know existed and, best of all, none of them suck.
Calling the films in Gothic Fantastico “horror” doesn’t seem fair. There are no flesh-eating zombies, no graphic eyeball violence. These black-and-white movies rely on atmosphere and story more than gore. All of the movies are brooding, giving the viewer a delicious sense of unease and the desire to purchase a cloak.
There is so much gaslighting in the first film of the collection, Lady Morgan’s Vengeance, that you can practically smell the methane oozing from the screen. When an heiress is convinced that her betrothed is dead, her wicked uncle conspires to take control of the family fortunes. An ice princess governess, skilled in the ways of hypnotism, assists in the scheme. This leads to the discovery of dungeons, narrow corridors, and moody lighting. There is also a significant amount of dry humping. The third act takes a surprising turn, including an elegant justification for necrophilia.
Directed by Alberto De Martino, who went on to make the Satansploitation classic, The Antichrist, The Blancheville Monster has the feel of a werewolf film. Mysterious servants and wide-eyed ingenues roam the grounds of a crumbling Scottish castle while trying to solve the mystery of a strange creature that lives in the tower. One of the characters likes to commandeer the harpsichord at inopportune times and play spooky music. Just when you believe you know how the story will play out, the movie goes moderately berserk and becomes a weird mish-mash of ancient prophecies, mesmerism, and hallucinatory dream sequences. Sure, The Blancheville Monster gives new layers to the phrase “slow burn,” but the last half hour of the movie twists and turns all the way to its bugnuts conclusion.
If you’re on the hunt for something lurid, look no further than The Third Eye. Young Franco Nero, who enjoys performing gnarly bits of taxidermy, is deeply loved by both his overbearing mother and his haughty fiance. The housekeeper also wants to keep him for herself. After suffering a shocking series of personal losses, Nero descends into madness. It’s not that far of a drop. If you’ve seen Joe D’Amato’s minor classic Beyond the Darkness (Buio Omega), you’ll have a partial idea of how The Third Eye plays out. Nonetheless, it’s worth watching for Nero’s intense performance. They say the eyes are the window to the soul. If that’s true, then Nero’s character has already jumped into the abyss and likes it there.
Convoluted and strange, The Witch is a psychosexual chamber play that benefits from its own claustrophobia. Richard Johnson (Zombi) plays a Lothario who answers a want ad to maintain an old woman’s private library. While there, he meets a younger woman he wants to bed and the man whose position he is overtaking. It is an uncomfortable situation that only gets stranger over time. Murder, witchcraft, dangerous fencing and one of the most horrifying dance sequences ever filmed highlight The Witch. Directed with an eye for sweat and twitches by Damiano Damiani, The Witch is engrossing and compelling.
There are lessons to be learned from the films in Gothic Fantastico. The Italian word for “help” is aiuto. You’ll hear it a lot in these films. If you return to your ancestral home from a long journey and all the domestic staff has been replaced by swarthy strangers, something bad is afoot. Castle owners in 1800s Scotland did not care a bit about infrastructure. Crumbling stairs were the norm. Nobody really wins a whip-fight. Most importantly, all of these movies amplify a quote by Jack Kerouac. “Pretty girls make graves.”
Viewers can choose between English and Italian versions of most of the movies in this set. I watched the Italian versions, because why wouldn’t I? The 2K transfers of every film in Gothic Fantastico are tremendous, clear and indulging in the blackest of blacks. That’s important because the lighting in these films is masterful. Characters fade in and out of the shadows like smoke.
The movies in Gothic Fantastico serve to fill gaps in the average horror fan’s knowledge. All of these movies deserve to be recognized by modern audiences, even if they aren’t all classics. One can see the seeds of the Italian horror boom of the 1970s and 1980s in this collection, and it is both fascinating and rewatchable.