Six (Nongiallo) Italian Horrors

As you may have discerned from some of my previous Shocktober columns, I really do love the Italian film genre known as the giallo, featuring as it does stylish murder mysteries, gorgeous location shooting, catchy theme music, and, more often than not, violent and grisly set pieces. But as most horror buffs have long been aware, the giallo film was not the only kind of horror product that the Italians gave to the world, by a long shot. From Gothically inflected period horrors of the 1960s to blood-soaked supernatural shockers of the ‘70s, Italy has given us some of the most memorable cinematic shudders ever devised. Thus, in today’s Shocktober column, I would like to shine a spotlight on a half dozen Italian cinematic horror outings that do not fall under the giallo umbrella. All six of these films provide those aforementioned shudders aplenty, and might thus make for perfect at-home watching during this Shocktober season…


The director’s credit at the beginning of 1963’s The Whip and the Body is for somebody named John M. Old, but the film’s deliciously morbid atmosphere and superb use of lighting quickly attest that the director here can really be none other than Italian master Mario Bava. His third horror masterpiece in four years, following the seminal works Black Sunday and The Evil Eye, The Whip and the Body tells the story of Kurt Menliff, a sadistic brute who returns to his father’s moldering castle by the sea in a nameless, timeless land and renews his sadomasochistic relationship with sister-in-law Nevenka … even after he himself is murdered! But has Kurt’s ghost really returned from the grave, or is this all a figment of Nevenka’s obsessed mind? Suggesting nothing less than an Italian Gothic version of a Harlequin romance as written by the Marquis de Sade, Whip features impeccable acting by Christopher Lee as Kurt (one of his best roles, he long maintained, despite the fact that he is offscreen half the time) and Israeli actress Dahlia Lavi (who I’ve never seen look more beautiful) as the masochistic, lash-loving Nevenka. The film is deliberately paced for maximum atmosphere, and Bava’s camera work and pools of lurid lighting really are things of beauty to behold. Matching the stunning visuals perfectly is a lush, romantic score by Carlo Rustichelli that, in a just universe, would be recognized as a classic on the order of “Lara’s Theme” from Doctor Zhivago. This gorgeous composition for piano and strings gently surges through the film and adds immeasurably to its already moody, dreamlike aura. The great-looking DVD from VCI that I recently watched features the full European cut of The Whip and the Body, with all the (once controversial, now fairly tame) S&M whippings intact. The film has been excellently dubbed, and comes with a raft of fine extras. It is a perfect picture for the discriminating horror fan looking for a challenging, beautiful entertainment. Highly recommended.


THE LAST MAN ON EARTH And you thought that YOUR daily routine was a monotonous drag? Just check out what poor Robert Morgan has to do every day, in the 1964 chiller The Last Man on Earth: sharpen some stakes, go garlic and mirror shopping, burn the bodies on his front lawn at the local firepit, and hustle home by sundown, before the plague-transformed zombie-vampires start trying to break in. Talk about your daily grind! An Italian-American coproduction and obvious influence on George A. Romero’s 1968 horror classic Night of the Living Dead, this B&W CinemaScope film has been made on the cheap and features some terrible dubbing. These drawbacks are not helped by the 16mm print on display on the DVD that I recently watched. Still, the picture has many fine things to commend it. Vincent Price is truly excellent in the lead role as the last man standing. The film’s use of location shooting, featuring unusual, bleak backdrops and weird architecture, is unsettling (where WAS this thing filmed?); the lurching zombie-vampires are pretty darn creepy; and the flashback scenes with Uncle Vinny’s wife (a woman who apparently did NOT say “I wouldn’t marry you if you were the last…” well, you know) and daughter are nicely touching. Although the film is not nearly as science based as Richard Matheson‘s 1954 source novel I Am Legend (whose hero’s name was Robert Neville … why the change?), it remains a fairly restrained and intelligent affair that nevertheless provides some chilling moments. For example, I defy you to not get goosebumpy when Virge returns to the house…


BLOODY PIT OF HORROR The Italian thriller Bloody Pit of Horror tells the story of Travis Anderson, a muscular ex-actor who’s come to live in a deserted European castle to, as he puts it, “avoid the contagion of human sentiment.” But when a group of models, accompanied by a horror writer, a publisher and some photographers, break into his castle to use it for a photo shoot, Travis goes completely off the deep end and believes himself to be the reincarnation of The Crimson Executioner, a legendary sadist who’d been put to death and entombed in the castle in 1648. Travis, in his new guise, wastes little time in cracking open the ol’ torture dungeon so as to better entertain his “guests” in various unpleasant ways… Anyway, repellent as this picture may sound in synopsis, it really does make for one campy and highly enjoyable night at the movies. Mickey Hargitay (aka Mr. Jayne Mansfield) is completely over the top as the nutzo sadist, hopping from manacled victim to victim with maniacal glee. Though his tortures are not at all graphic (thank goodness!), they are ingenious, and include the rack, the iron maiden, dripping ice water, numerous blade/nail mechanisms, hot tar and, most memorably, an artificial giant spider web equipped with a fake tarantula and rigged arrows. The film also dishes out numerous exciting and vicious fights between our hero, Rick (the writer), and TCE’s brawny henchmen, and Massimo Pupillo’s direction is stylish and never less than interesting. Best of all, perhaps, is the chic, dreamy and jazzy Euro-lounge background music supplied by Gino Peguri; you’ll be humming it for days, I bet. Although the film unfortunately features dubbing worse than any in a Steve Reeves Hercules flick, I was really surprised at how much I enjoyed this little shlocker. And thanks again for another great-looking DVD, you Something Weird maniacs!


TERROR-CREATURES FROM THE GRAVE An atmospheric, at times startling, and continuously mysterious and involving picture, 1965’s Terror-Creatures From the Grave nevertheless turns out to be a somewhat tarnished gem in the crown for the so-called Queen of Horror, Barbara Steele. In the film, hunky leading man Walter Brandi arrives at the moldering mansion of Jeronimus Hauff, in the year 1911. An attorney, he learns from Hauff’s widow (our Babs) that her scientist/spiritualist husband has been dead for almost a full year, and was thus incapable of summoning anyone to his house. But when Hauff’s grave turns out to be empty, and all his old “friends” start dying one by one, Hauff’s demise – or possible return from the dead – becomes open for debate. Into this moody stew, director Massimo Pupillo blends some eerie music (courtesy of Aldo Piga, and including a haunting medieval tune regarding “pure water”) as well as some mild gross-out sequences: a hoofed-out eye cavity, an acid-scarred face, leaking guts after a saber impalement, and quivering boils on a plague victim’s face. The film also boasts some effective B&W lensing and realistically run-down set decoration. As for our Barbara, although she is absent from the screen for at least half of the picture, she makes a decided impression with what time she has. Just look at the expression on her face during and just after her death scene … not for nothing has she been called the Queen of Horror! On the down side, the ending of this film is a terribly rushed affair, concluding with a lame deus ex machina windup not to be believed. Worse, we never even get to see those “terror-creatures from the grave” … only their deformed hands as the camera lets us observe from their POV. I cannot imagine any horror fan being completely satisfied with this denouement. Still, all in all, pretty effective stuff, especially for lovers of ’60s Italian horror or Ms. Steele. Oh … and some more bad news. The DVD that I recently watched comes to us courtesy of those indolent underachievers at Alpha Video, with a fairly damaged print and lousy dubbing. If ever a horror film warranted a loving restoration…


Sister Gertrude, in the Italian horror film The Killer Nun, is certainly not your typical, garden-variety nun. Addicted to mainlining morphine (Sister Morphine?!?!) as a result of a recent brain tumor operation, she also smokes cigarettes, drinks liquor in bars, hallucinates, has up-against-the-wall sex with casually picked-up men, wears makeup, steals, engages in domineering lesbian sex with her roommate, and, perhaps most shocking of all, refers to her Mother Superior as “bitch.” Still … does that mean she’s responsible for the wave of recent murders in the French hospital where she works? What would YOU think? As played by Miss Sweden 1951 herself, Anita Ekberg, Gertrude really is a sight to behold, both in and out of the, er, habit. Sadly, this picture, though great sounding in synopsis, is a real mixed bag, never dishes out quite enough in the sex and violence departments, and will probably leave most viewers wanting more in terms of sleaze, shocks and scares. Still, there are some pleasures to be had here. Giulio Berruti’s directing is occasionally quite stylish, and the film’s score, by Alessandro Alessandroni, is freaky (especially during Gertrude’s “shooting sprees”) and really quite excellent. Film buffs will also be happy to see Alida Valli and Joe Dallesandro in small roles, and one of the film’s murders, featuring multiple hypodermic needles in an old woman’s face, should satisfy all the gorehounds out there. The DVD that I just watched, from the good folks at Blue Underground, looks fine but has been poorly dubbed; subtitles would have been infinitely preferable. I had to watch the film twice to make sure I understood the ending correctly – the hushed, fast-talking dubbing doesn’t always make things easy – and, if I may make a, um, confession, did appreciate it more the second time around.


THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY Many horror-film characters would have been well advised “Don’t look in the basement” (just ask Lila Crane!), but perhaps none more so than the members of the Boyle family, in Lucio Fulci’s 1981 gore extravaganza The House By the Cemetery. In the film, the Boyle parents, along with their cute little blond son, rent a deserted old pile, the Freudstein House, in the fictitious town of New Whitby, Massachusetts. Norman, the father, hopes to continue his ex-colleague’s historical research, Lucy grows increasingly unsettled by the creepy house’s strange noises and indoor crypt, while young Bob amuses himself talking to a ghostly little girl who keeps warning him away. Too bad, though, that the Boyles’ Realtor failed to tell them that a murderous entity happens to reside in that darn basement! Anyway, Fulci’s film is a must-see for all the confirmed gorehounds out there, featuring such grossouts as a knife through the skull, possibly the nastiest bat attack sequence in screen history, death by fire poker, a beheading, the outgushing of maggots from a 150-year-old living corpse (!), a throat ripping and on and on. The film’s plot barely hangs together and only makes as much sense as it wants to; I personally could have used a bit more explication regarding that thing in the cellar. Even with the cursory scientific and supernatural rationales given, many questions still remain by the film’s end: Why does that store mannequin resemble the Boyles’ babysitter, Anne? Why does Anne herself behave so very oddly? Why does the Freudstein House so closely resemble the house in a framed picture in the Boyles’ NYC living room? Why do the town librarians behave so strangely and claim to have seen Norman before? You get the idea. Still, even WITH all these unresolved mysteries, the film works, and manages to frighten. And how nice to see Dagmar Lassander again, a bit past her prime here but still able to scream her head off so effectively; her death scene here might even be more nerve racking than the one she gave in Fulci’s Black Cat that same year. Throw in an effective score by Walter Rizzati, Fulci’s typically strong direction, and another imaginative script by horror veteran Dardano Sacchetti and you’ve got yourself quite a harrowing wringer indeed. And the great-looking DVD that I recently watched, from the always dependable folks at Blue Underground, only adds to the enjoyment. In short, a well-done if bewildering horror outing, but certainly not for the squeamish…

Anyway, folks, as you can see, these six Italian horrors might best be watched with a nice glass of Brunello di Montalcino Tenuta Greppo at your side to help steady your nerves! But as you are watching any of these six films at home, I am sure you will be finding yourself saying out loud something on the order of “Viva il cinema horror italiano!”


  • Sandy Ferber

    SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....