Per request (I know, right, Gabe gets requests?) I’ve been
asked my opinion on the must sees of the Italian horror/thriller/fantasty
genres. I shall be keeping this in mostly list form, without wasting any of
your time with long winded reasoning, and lists will be divided first by
director, then by sub-genre. I’m also attempting to include a key beside each
item, marking whether it’s available on US DVD (DVD), Blu-ray (BR), out of
print DVD (OOP) and/or the Netflix instant queue (IQ). I’m not a sadist, so I’m
only covering the period around 1960-1990, with the exceptions. Also, I’m not going to include every little thing under the
sun, especially if it’s A) not particularly noteworthy and/or B) doesn’t really
fall in with the genre. I will note what films I haven’t gotten around to seeing yet at the end of each section.
Mario Bava: The Godfather of Italian Horror
Bava is the king of it all, and the filmmaker every other
director working in horror today wishes he could be in some form or another.
I’d place him second to only Hitchcock and James Whale in importance for the
genre. Most of Bava’s best films were re-released on DVD as part of two
collection sets, voiding previous OOP status.
Black Sunday, aka: The Mask of Satan (1960, DVD): Perfect,
moody black and white cinematography, great performance from Barbara Steele.
The Girl Who Knew Too Much, aka: The Evil Eye (1963, DVD):
By most accounts this is the first filmed Giallo story (a series of lurid thrillers based on cheap paperbacks with yellow covers). Gorgeous black and white
photography, a good story, and a good turn from a very young John Saxon.
Black Sabbath, aka: The Three Faces of Fear (1963, DVD, IQ
‘soon’): Three part anthology with a show stopping finale that still conjures
genuine nightmares. The center (sometimes final) story features one of Boris Karloff’s best performances.
Blood and Black Lace (1963, DVD): The prototype for every
Giallo that followed it. Tight, colorful, campy and bloody.
Kill Baby, Kill!, aka: Curse of the Dead (1966, DVD): A
little low on plot and narrative movement, but bursting with imagery Scorsese
borrowed for his classics, specifically The Last Temptation of Christ.
Twitch of the Death Nerve, aka:
Bloodbath (1971, DVD): The prototypical Slasher movie, even more so than any
other early Giallo. The first two Friday the 13ths borrowed heavily from it. A
fun and gore-caked take on Ten Little Indians.
Lisa and the Devil (1973, DVD): Bava’s most mature and
beautiful film. Challenging, dreamy, and featuring a deviously enjoyable Telly Savalas as the title devil.
This is the most underrated thing in the director’s entire filmography. Avoid
the producer recut Exorcist cash-in version entitled House of Exorcism.
Rabid Dogs, aka: Kidnapped (1974, DVD): Old man Bava kicked
ass with this rough, violent, and frightening crime caper. The film was lost
for years, eventually rediscovered, and recut by Bava’s son Lamberto. I personally
very much prefer the rougher, non-Lamberto cut.
If You Like Those, See These:
I Vapiri (1956, OOP DVD): Many critics consider this the first
official Italian horror film. It’s only half a Bava film, but worth seeing for
the maestro’s cinematography alone.
Hercules in the Haunted World (1961, OOP DVD): Far and away
the best of the long running Reg Park Hercules series, this is a campy,
colorful romp through cheap gothic stage design. Includes Christopher Lee in a campy villain role.
Whip and the Body (1963, two DVDs, one with Fucli’s
Conspiracy of Torture): Featuring a bang up performance from Christopher Lee,
and a shocking treatment of sadomasochism, this one doesn’t stand out for entertainment
value, but has been ripped off just as regularly as the maestro’s more famous
work (Ernest Dickerson admittedly stole several shots for Bones).
Planet of the Vampires (1964, OOP DVD): Low-budget,
low-concept sci-fi adventure that sees Bava squeezing every ounce of drama out
of his production design. An obvious inspiration for Ridley Scott’s Alien,
whether Scott admits it or not.
Five Dolls for an August Moon (1970, DVD): Bava at his
colorful best, and injecting some real humor into the steadily drying Giallo
genre, but there isn’t quite enough here to make it a must see.
Baron Blood (1972, DVD): A bloody mix of slasher
sensibilities and gothic photography. Like the best film Hammer Studios never
Shock (1977, DVD, IQ): Too slow for its own good at times,
Bava’s final film features some typically great photography, a few suspenseful
scenes, and one of Daria Nicolodi’s best performances.
Have Fun Completing Your Collection:
Caltiki: The Immortal Monster (1959, OOP DVD): One of Bava’s
first directorial jobs. Mostly a silly monster movie, but features some solid
no-budget special effects designed by the maestro
Danger: Diabolik! (1968, DVD): Not even kind of a horror
film, but a camp blast you can’t miss. Makes a good double feature with Dr.
Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs.
Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1970, OOP DVD, IQ): A kind of
nightmarish, over-zoomed pseudo-Giallo that I’ve only managed to see on
fullframe VHS. Possible better in widescreen.
Four Times that Night (1972, DVD): Bava’s sexiest work, but
not one of his better stories. Worth watching to complete your collection.
Lucio Fulci: Godfather of Gore
Fulci made movies for decades in various genres, and finally
found success in the 1980s with a series of incredibly gory zombie movies.
Fulci was a master of the widescreen frame, but the last decade of his career
was marred by a bunch of really bad movies.
A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, aka: Schizoid (1971, DVD): One
of the best post-Argento Gialli. Trippy, gorgeous, sexy and ridiculously
confusing in a good way. Avoid Shriek Show’s earlier cut release.
Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972, DVD): Another great
non-traditional Giallo, featuring some of Fulci’s best widescreen photography. Disturbing
in the extreme, even with dated gore effects, especially a brutal
chain-whipping scene set to upbeat funk music.
The Psychic, aka Seven Notes in Black (1977, DVD): Fucli’s
last great Giallo, this one is also quite dreamy, and generally a more classy
affair. Not much violence, but good drama, and a better story than most Fulci’s
films. A Tarantino favorite.
Zombie, aka: Zombi 2, Zombie Flesheaters (1979, DVD):
Fulci’s breakthrough, and a huge leap for zombie gore following Romero’s Dawn
of the Dead (which it was originally intended to emulate). Not much plot, bad
dialogue, and iffy acting, but solid entertainment, assuming you have the
stomach for it.
City of the Living Dead, aka: Gates of Hell (1980, DVD, BR,
IQ): The next step in Fulci’s zombie cycle, this is a relatively plotless
series of nightmare images and gory set-pieces. Not for fans of logic, but
fantastically aggressive filmmaking.
The Beyond, aka: Seven Doors of Death (1981, DVD): Even more
bizarre than City of the Living Dead, The Beyond is considered by many fans to
be Fulci’s best film. A great mix of his command of nightmare imagery and love
of extreme gore. Only the lame tarantula scene keeps it from topping my list. Avoid
the cut Seven Doors of Death release.
If You Like Those, See These:
Beatrice Cenci, aka: Conspiracy of Torture (1969, DVD double
feature with Bava’s The Whip and the Body): Not quite a horror film per se, but
pretty brutal, featuring a great performance from Spaghetti Western fav Thomas
Milian. Reportedly Fulci’s personal favorite among his films.
Perversion Story, aka: One on Top of the Other (1969, DVD):
Also not really a horror film, but a solid Giallo, with good performances, and
a somewhat atypical plot.
House by the Cemetery (1981, DVD, avoid the cut bargain
release): The last really good movie Fulci made, this one also makes no sense,
but runs on moody photography, gore, and general audacity. Not for people who
can’t stand terrible dubbing of Italian child actors.
New York Ripper (1982, DVD, BR): This one is a
revolting, misogynistic mix of Giallo and Slasher movies, but there’s no
arguing how well made it is. Fulci’s last impressive film in terms of
Conquest (1983, DVD): Really strange horror/fantasy/Peplum
flick. The foggy photography is apparently done on purpose.
Not Great, but Not Terrible:
Black Cat (1981, DVD): Good performances from a better than
Fulci average cast, but too many maddening eyeball close-ups, and a pretty uneventful
plot hinder it overall.
Baby, aka: The Evil Eye (1982, DVD): Mostly boring, but good looking mummy
curse movie, featuring a genuinely memorable climax.
Touch of Death (1988, DVD): Cheap made for TV dark comedy is
better than its reputation suggests, thanks mostly to a good lead performance.
Pretty ugly, but pretty funny too.
Demonia (1990, DVD): Another incredibly cheap looking little
gore piece with a few amusing bits of ultra violence.
Cat in the Brain, aka: Nightmare Concert (1990, DVD): Almost
unwatchably bad at times, Cat in the Brain is so meta it’s somehow worth seeing
For Completests Only:
Murder Rock, aka: Dancing Death (1984, DVD): Dull and
bloodless mix of Flashdance and American Slashers. Kind of amusing, but mostly
Zombi 3 (1988, DVD): Co-directed by mega-hack Bruno Mattei,
this belated follow-up to Zombie looks cheap, ugly, and doesn’t have much in
common with its predecessor at all. Probably amusing to the MST3K set.
House of Clocks (1991, DVD): Also made for TV. Incredibly
Door to Silence (1992, DVD): Well shot, but about as
enthralling as a nap.
*Note: I have never seen Aenigma, Sweet House of Horrors,
Sadoma’s Ghost or Voices From Beyond.
Dario Argento: Visual Genius
Argento started his career as a film critic, and went on to
write a series of action films and Spaghetti Westerns (his co-writing credits include Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West). He reinvigorated Italian
cinema with his first film, Bird with the Crystal Plumage, and achieved some
mainstream American success with Suspiria. Recently he’s devolved quite a bit.
Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1969, DVD, Blu-ray): Not the
first Giallo, or even the best (maybe?), but perhaps the most important entry
in the genre. One of the strongest debut films ever made, one of Argento’s best
scripts, and much funnier than most folks remember.
Deep Red, aka: Profondo Rosso, The Hatchet Murders (1975,
DVD, soon on UK BR): My vote for best Giallo film ever made, Deep Red was
made late enough into the cycle Argento was able to play with the tropes. A
really great script, and the last funny film the director would make. It’s also
the start of his obsession with color, features startling violence, and
fantastic performances. Some folks recommend the shorter 100 minute cut, but I
love the comedic character moments.
It doesn’t have the tightest plot, but Suspiria is a genuine classic. There
isn’t much else to say.
Great, Frustrating Movies:
Inferno (1980, DVD, soon on UK BR): Suspiria’s thematic
sequel feels a bit like a shell of its predecessor, falling slightly short on
pretty much every level (poor Keith Emerson can’t compare to Goblin in their
prime), but it’s still visually stunning. The episodic nature turns off some
Tenebre, aka: Unsane (1982, DVD, soon on
Argento’s last good script is marred only slightly by purposefully hammy performances.
A literally brilliant movie with some really flashy violence, and insane camera
movement. The only entirely uncut video release I know of is the expensive
Japanese DVD, but the
release cuts are extremely minor, and no violence is missing.
Phenomena, aka: Creepers (1984, DVD, soon on
Argento’s personal favorite among his films is weird even by his standards, but
the consistency of the strangeness creates a sort of fairy tale logic. Never
short of imaginative, Phenomena features one of the strongest casts Argento has
ever worked with, including a great performance from a teenage Jennifer
Connelly. The Japanese DVD is again the longest known release, but none of the
deleted bits are integral. Avoid the budget DVD release, which makes an already
confusing movie impossibly cryptic.
Opera, aka: Terror at the Opera (1987, DVD): Argento’s last
great film, Opera features some stunning shots, and just as many stunningly
stupid plot points. Just try not to think about it too hard.
If You Like Those, See These:
Cat O’ Nine Tails (1971, DVD): Unfairly maligned, in my
opinion, this Bird with the Crystal Plumage follow-up is a slightly failed
attempt at a more mainstream American thriller. Like Bird it’s a pretty funny movie,
and features better than average performances.
Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971, DVD): Unavailable on video
for years, Four Flies developed a reputation as some kind of lost classic. The
truth is that it’s a good, but somewhat generic entry in the Giallo cycle
Argento himself started with Bird.
Two Evil Eyes: The Black Cat (1990, DVD, BR): Back in
1990 the news of George Romero and Argento teaming up for a two part movie was
like a godsend to horror nerds. The actual movie is half decent, and the decent
half mostly belongs to Argento. Not so much an adaptation of Poe’s story as an
adaptation of all of Poe’s stories, and featuring an oddball performance from
Trauma (1993, DVD): The most Americanized thriller Argento
ever made, and the first film staring his daughter. Kind of generic, but it
features a good twist, a full volume performance from Piper Laurie. If you live
in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area of MN bump it up a star.
Stendhal Syndrome (1996, DVD, BR): The closest Argento
got to recapturing past glory, Stendhal Syndrome features a decent,
surprisingly adult script, and some arresting visuals, but suffers long, boring
stretches, and bad CG effects. It took me a few viewings to appreciate this one
myself, but I appreciate it these days.
Sleepless, aka: Non Ho Sonno (2001, full frame DVD, Italian
and UK DVD): Pretty stupid, but Sleepless features some sleazy moments,
effective gore, and some decent performances.
Masters of Horror: Jenifer (2005, DVD, BR, IQ): More
gore and decent performances save this TV movie from its ham-handed script (not written by Argento).
Masters of Horror: Pelts (2006, DVD, IQ): An incredibly daft,
but fun little TV movie, and actually one of the more entertaining episodes of
the Masters of Horror series. Lots of gratuitous nudity and violence, and a
scenery chewing over load performance from Meat Loaf. Frankly it’s kind of a
must see, but it’s not even close to a good movie.
Phantom of the Opera (1998, DVD, IQ): Only some good looking
production design, and a solid performance from Julian Sands save this one from
how utterly stupid it is.
The Card Player (2004, DVD, IQ): Decent performances are the
only thing this tepid little episode of CSI has going for it. I remember liking
it alright the first time I saw it, but I utterly hate it these days.
Do You Like Hitchcock (2005, DVD, IQ): Mostly boring TV
movie. Too obvious for its own good.
So Bad It Will Make You Second Guess Everything Else You’d
The Mother of Tears, aka: The Third Mother (2007, DVD): The
Phantom Menace of Argento’s career, only about ten times more disappointing. Stupid
and unattractive, everything about The Mother of Tears smacks of an old man
trying to capture a younger audience he’s totally and completely out of touch
*Note: I still haven’t gotten around to watching my Door
into Darkness DVD, but haven’t heard anything to make me believe it’s
Michele Soavi: The Last Ditch Effort.
Soavi worked as an actor or assistant director for Fulci and
Argento, and finally struck out on his own in the late ‘80s to make some of the
genre’s best films, culminating with the last great Italian horror film –
Dellamorte Dellamore. All of Soavi’s horror films are must-sees.
Stage Fright, aka: Deliria, Aquarius (1987, DVD): More of a
Slasher film than a proper Giallo (there’s really no mystery behind the
killer), Stage Fright is a perfectly taut, stylish and gory thriller, featuring
good performances, and one of the most strikingly original mad killers in movie
history. Produced by sleaze merchant Joe D’Amato.
The Church (1989, DVD): In some ways Dario Argento’s
influence hurts this needlessly convoluted mix of Demons, Rosemary’s Baby and
In the Name of the Rose, but his presence as producer gave Soavi a much bigger
budget to work with. Entertaining and creepy gothic thriller in the Mario Bava
and Lucio Fulci vein.
The Sect, aka: The Devil’s Daughter (1991, Italian DVD
only): A perfect companion piece to The Church, The Sect continues Argento and
Soavi’s obsessions with Rosemary’s Baby. Basically a series of set-pieces, but
gorgeous, and featuring better performances than most period Italian horror.
Dellamorte Dellamore, aka: Cemetery Man (1994, DVD): A
genuine classic deserving of twice the notoriety it has gained over the years. Only
the limited budget holds it back.
*Note: All of Soavi’s films are worth seeing, including his
documentary Dario Argento’s World of Horror (1985), and his more recent
non-horror fair. Both parts of his made for TV crime epic Uno Bianca (2001) are
available on US DVD, as is his bio-pic on St. Francis (2002), and his Michael
Mann/Brian DePalma-esque The Goodbye Kiss (aka: Arrivederci Amore, Ciao, 2006)
is available on Thai and Italian DVD.
Glossary: Links to related reviews I’ve written for
DVDActive.com (please note the early date of some of the reviews and forgive
the less than eloquent writing).