Arrow Video: Gothic Fantastico: Four Italian Tales of Terror (1963 - 1966) - Reviewed

Courtesy of Arrow Video
If there’s one thing Arrow Video is really great at it is gathering together disparate, forgotten but otherwise kindred films that are unlikely to be seeable elsewhere let alone in such lavish boutique editions with pristine restorations.  Usually adorned with booklets, posters and plentiful extras, among their latest curations of obscure but still relevant cult international films is Gothic Fantastico: Four Italian Tales of Terror ranging from 1963 to 1966 which remain all but completely unknown outside of their country of origin. 
Springboarding from the success of such costumed period gothic horror as Mario Bava’s Black Sunday and Black Sabbath while finding their own unique footing that seemed to predate in some areas the emergence of giallo, the four black-and-white films here restored in 2K from the original camera negatives represent what can be characterized as offbeat offshoots of the gothic horror subgenre.  Moreover, they demonstrated the legendary Bava wasn’t the only name in Italy when it came to terrorizing and thrilling audiences with exhilarating gothic horror films.
Issued in a limited boxed set with an 80-page booklet on the first pressing as well as a double-sided poster and double-sided sleeve art, Gothic Fantastico presents Massimo Pupillo’s Lady Morgan’s Vengeance, Alberto De Martino’s The Blancheville Monster, Mino Guerinni’s The Third Eye and lastly Damiano Damiani’s The Witch.  Though out of order in the year of which they were released, Arrow Video’s arrangement is much like their Years of Lead box where the lineup had more interest in thematic progression.  Each film builds upon the other when watched in this order, in theory.  In any case, let us take a deep dive into Arrow Video’s world of Gothic Fantastico!
Lady Morgan’s Vengeance (1965)

Though his career was short lived, only directing nine films (that we know of) including unofficial sequel Django Kills Softly and Bloody Pit of Horror, writer-director Massimo Pupillo directed not one but three Italian horror films in 1965 including the first entry in the Gothic Fantastico box, Lady Morgan’s Vengeance.  All three of the gothic horror subgenre, the third feature of that year Lady Morgan’s Vengeance tells the story of Lady Susan Blackhouse (Barbara Nelli) who intends to marry architect Pierre (Michel Forain).  Deciding to announce their engagement to her uncle Neville (Carlo Kechler), their plans are overheard by the nefarious Sir Harold Morgan (Paul Muller) who has some rather murderous ideas for the soon-to-be newlyweds. 

After trying to kill Pierre while wooing Lady Susan Blackhouse into his sinister arms, also deploying tactics to drive the woman mad including dropping snakes in her bed while she’s sleeping, Lady Morgan’s Vengeance takes some turns which won’t be revealed here, eventually working in such outlandish elements as the unfinished business ghost story and some startling makeup effects sequences.  Then things start to get really weird as the film seems to clutch chunks of rules governing the world of this movie and hurling them hard against a brick wall to see how it smashes together.  All of it is very fun but it works in just about everything but the kitchen sink when it starts nearing its fiery conclusion.
At once an atmospheric slow burn that eventually turns into a bit of a bonkers romp, Lady Morgan’s Revenge starts out as a classy, spooky endeavor shot handsomely by Oberdan Troiani, augmenting the film’s period costume and production design by Ugo Pericoli.  The soundtrack by Piero Umiliani is subtly quiet ambient horror with some of the cues playing softly to a dull rumble so were on guard but unsure of why.  One of the most effective combinations of the sight and sound elements involves the protagonist in her nightgown traveling down a dark hallway only armed with a lit candle just barely illuminating the walls.  This scene alone suggests stark dread and a sense of danger without ever ballooning into full bombast and is a quintessential trademark of gothic horror.

Prominently featuring American actor Gordon Mitchell as one of Harold Morgan’s evil henchmen, Erika Blanc as a venomous femme fatale and Paul Muller in top bad-guy form, Lady Morgan’s Vengeance though out there is a well-acted ensemble thriller that becomes more fun as it starts twisting the logic of the story around.  Though this would be the last horror film of director Pupillo’s career whose own waning interest in the genre, not wanting to be typecast into directing one kind of feature, Lady Morgan’s Vengeance did well at the Italian box office and is considered of his three horror films made that year to be the most unique.  Seen now, penned by The Blancheville Monster screenwriter Gianni Grimaldi, a lot of it is rather silly but undeniably deeply rooted in the lore and tropes of distinctly Italian gothic horror.

The Blancheville Monster (1963)

Before achieving international notoriety with his The Exorcist knockoff The Antichrist and The Omen knockoff Holocaust 2000, Italian director-for-hire Alberto De Martino got a much earlier, debatably classier start in the horror subgenre with his 1963 psychological gothic horror whodunit The Blancheville Monster, a film that predicts the latter filmmaker’s penchant for horror while also arguably bettering what came later from his oeuvre.  

An old-fashioned costumed gothic period piece with more than a few sneaky tricks up its hooded sleeves, Blancheville zeroes in on Emilie De Blancheville (Ombretta Colli) returning to her childhood home with friends Alice (Irán Eory) and John (Vanni Materassi) now spearheaded by her mercurial brother Rodéric (Gérard Tichy) and his witchy housekeeper Miss Eleanore (Helga Liné).  Meanwhile the castle Count Blancheville (Emilie’s presumed dead father) seems to be hidden away in one of the castle towers after being severely burned.  Soon after Emilie begins sleepwalking while a voice in her head implores her to fulfill a deadly family prophecy.

Much like Lady Morgan’s Vengeance, this black-and-white chiller is something of a progenitor to such giallo fare as Death Smiles on a Murderer while also channeling elements of Mill of the Stone Women with a mysterious serial killer lurking about the premises.  Not all of it adds up but as we dive deep into the world of The Blancheville Monster we forgive its shortcomings as the tropes of old dark stormy nights, candlelit cobweb covered hallways and endless strumming at the harpsichord kicks into high gear.  As with Morgan’s Vengeance, there’s a subplot involving the protagonist being deceived with either something supernatural or more down to Earth as the culprit and soon we’re not sure where our alliances lie with whom.

Originally titled Horror in Italy before being renamed The Blancheville Monster for UK distribution, this loosely-based compendium of Edgar Allen Poe rendered by Gianni Grimaldi and Bruno Corbucci features beautiful location cinematography in Spain and Rome by Alejandro Ulloa and a brooding incidental atonal score by Carlo Franci and Giuseppe Piccillo interspersed with low key piano key strumming.  The ensemble case, namely Ombretta Colli as the beautiful damsel whose life is being threatened by a mercurial force and Leo Anchóriz as local Doctor LaRouche whose demeanor can be ready many number of ways.  One of the charms of this movie is how it shifts our alliances around, never sure who to trust with plenty of doubt cast on each and every character.  The Blancheville Monster could be anybody and we’re constantly guessing who it most likely is.

Though director Alberto De Martino himself would disown the picture years later as it soon slipped into public domain in the United States where it languished in lower quality DVD copies for decades, The Blancheville Monster seen now in beautifully restored form is a handsome little gothic horror chiller with an inspired set of montages, frightening dream sequences and a startling moody atmosphere.  Yes at times the actual grand revelation of The Blancheville Monster is kind of silly but overall the tone, senses of claustrophobia and paranoia and moments of terror are undeniable.  While perhaps not on the scale of Holocaust 2000 which might be the peak of De Martino’s career, it’s a solid number well worthy of a top-to-bottom cleanup and reissue to modern moviegoers.

The Third Eye (1966)

In the same year he achieved cinematic immortality with Sergio Corbucci’s still blistering spaghetti western Django, Italian gialli/poliziotteschi actor Franco Nero was a busy man in the world of movies in 1966.  Having done three distinctive spaghetti westerns that year in addition to a science fiction thriller, Nero paired up with writer-director Mino Guerrini for a role reversal that posited him as an adversarial psychopath in the truly perverse and twisted The Third Eye.  Co-written by Piero Regnoli and based on a story by Emmano Donati, The Third Eye out of the gate is easily the roughest of the pack as well as the goriest.  Designed a bit like Hitchcock’s Vertigo only set in a distant castle with a count, Guerrini’s film pushes boundaries further than any other Italian horror film at that time, including Bava even. 

Mino (Franco Nero) is a well-to-do count and taxidermist residing under the watchful eye of his helicopter mother in their ornate mansion who decides against her wishes to marry his fiancée Laura (Erika Blanc).  Invoking not only the ire of his mother but of his cunning scheming maid Marta (Gioia Pascal) who wants Mino to herself and will do anything to get him even if it means killing Laura and then Mino’s mother.  Unbeknownst to Marta, however, Mino has taken a liking to bringing prostitutes back to his mansion where they meet their terrifying ends in the bedroom where the taxidermist has stuffed his dead sister Laura’s body (and possibly committed necrophilia with it).  Meanwhile Laura’s twin sister (also played by Erika Blanc) shows up searching for her, not knowing the orbit of madness and danger she’s walking into.
Controversial upon release, the film was rejected by the Italian censors for being “contrary to the public moral” for its levels of violence, sexual perversion and sadism.  Peppered throughout with scenes of near-full frontal female nudity and more than a few allusions to sex and/or rape, this is Italian gothic horror with a mean jagged rusty edge to it that intends to leave cuts and bruises.  Far sleazier than the other films in the set with hints of Hitchcock’s Psycho with a more intimately shocking bent, The Third Eye let it be known is also highly stylish, well made and exceedingly well acted.  Visually the film makes frequent use of De Palma’s trademark split-diopter lensed shots, key use of the zoom lens and more than a few montages of superimpositions that whip up this mad cocktail into a frenzy.  The score repurposed from The Ghost by composer Francesco De Masi is excellent if not atonal and avant-garde at times, placing the viewer with the sick characters into uncharted territory.

The actors in this piece, particularly Franco Nero as the bug-eyed “monster, Erika Blanc in dual roles and Gioia Pascal as a seemingly meek maid turned ferocious femme fatale, are all excellent across the board and fearlessly traverse into areas few actors would want to be recognized in.  Nero, a screen hero of several movies at the time, took an enormous risk with this one and the effort paid off years later in Elio Petri’s A Quiet Place in the Country.  Gioia Pascal as the treacherous maid Marta gives a fiery, impassioned, almost angry performance that feels dangerous to be in the room with and its a wonder why her career didn’t take off thereafter.  Erika Blanc also goes out on a limb in the dual roles with more than a few terrible things happening to both of her characters.
Remade years later by Joe D’Amato in his 1979 gorefest Beyond the Darkness, both movies are something of cinematic rabble rousers designed to upset and upend what people are used to getting in the movies.  Whether it has a moral center or not is debatable but what it does have is a real bite that leaves a mark when its over.  Maybe the meanest film of the pack and certainly one of the most transgressive films of the 1960s, period, The Third Eye is at once a stylish classically made piece of fare while also being an early peer into what would or wouldn’t become distinctly Italian grindhouse exploitation.  Not everyone will take to this morally bankrupt bastard of a movie, but for those who like their gothic horror a little spicier this one won’t disappoint in the shock and awe arenas.

The Witch (1966)
Last but not least in the Gothic Fantastico set and keeping with Arrow Video’s thematic arrangements is Damiano Damiani’s 1966 gothic thriller The Witch, a film that dials down the transgressions of The Third Eye but serves up no less of a cavernous labyrinthine thriller which may or may not be connected to the supernatural.  Starting off elusively, the present-day set “love triangle” thriller of sorts presents Sergio (Richard Johnson of Zombie infamy), an archivist and historian living with his wife but with a mistress on the side who one morning sees an ad in the paper looking for someone to reorganize the library of a deceased nobleman.  

Happening upon a gargantuan apartment building in the middle of downtown Rome, he meets elderly widow Consuelo (Sarah Ferrati) who unsuccessfully tries to seduce him but not before meeting her alluring and beautiful daughter Aura (Rosanna Schiaffino).  All the while this is going on, Consuelo’s present librarian Fabrizio (Gian Maria Volontè) returns beleaguered and jealous but also harboring a secret as to why Consuelo and Aura are so keen on finding a replacement.

From soon-to-be Amityville II: The Possession helmer Damiano Damiani in one of his earlier directorial efforts and based on the novel Aura by Carlos Fuentes readapted by Damiani and Ugo Liberatore, The Witch or The Witch in Love has loose hints of the supernatural but mostly functions as a proto-giallo of sorts with love triangles and double crossings coming about along with a male protagonist who finds himself trapped in an inescapable spider’s web.  

Aided by arresting cinematography by Divorce Italian Style director of photography Leonida Barboni and sporting a sumptuously jazzy score by Academy Award winning Il Postino composer Luis Bacalov, the look and feel of The Witch is ornate, mannered and elegantly constructed.  Even as things start to ratchet up in terms of tension or action, things rarely boil over into shock or transgression, part in parcel to the film’s classier approach.

Costarring Mario Bava legend Ivan Rassimov, this ensemble thriller begins quietly before becoming an all-encompassing imprisonment for the protagonist (and us) as occult forces seem to be driving the actions and events of the saga.  British actor Richard Johnson, in one of his younger roles here, makes an excellent leading man in Italian horror and proved to be a familiar face that would return to such genre fare time and time again.  The real showstopper here though is The Killer Reserved Nine Seats actress Rosanna Schiaffino whose screen glamour gives off an enticing, romantic vibe that also just barely exudes hints of danger.  Special attention goes to Gian Maria Volontè for his initially irate but eventually petrified current employee who fears he won’t just lose his position at the apartment, but perhaps his life also.

One of the only films in the set that managed to secure both domestic and foreign theatrical distribution before becoming a regular player on syndicated television, the film though successful was met with some measure of disappointment from author Carlos Fuentes who remarked he would’ve much preferred if the great Spanish surrealist Luis Bunuel handled the task instead.  Of the films in the set, while the tamest of the crop it is also incidentally the sexiest.  Just barely managing to avoid full frontal nudity with more than a few allusions to sex or promiscuity, The Witch in that regard is fairly daring and able to exude eroticism without veering too heavily into explicit fare.  As an attempt at the so-called “Roman Witch” film, The Witch is one of the most realistic attempts to transport old fashioned gothic lore into contemporary Italy, a film where your next-door neighbor or friend could be immersed knee deep in the occult.

--Andrew Kotwicki