Ferretnibbles 6 – Blood and Black Death

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Sometimes you want to jabber about something on Ferretbrain to an extent which would be unwieldy for a Playpen post, but not necessarily make for a full-blooded article. To encourage contributors to offer up shorter pieces when the mood strikes them, here’s another set of Ferretnibbles – pocket-sized articles about all and sundry.

This time around, I’m taking the opportunity to talk a little about a couple of very different horror movies – a Mario Bava giallo from the 1960s and a German-British historical horror feature from 2010.

Blood and Black Lace

Countess Christina Como (Eva Bartok), recently widowed, has converted her expansive mansion into the hub of a high fashion empire, and is holding a grand salon there displaying her designers’ latest creations. Meanwhile, her designers, models, and other employees are embroiled in all sorts of tangled personal affairs, ranging from the deeply embarrassing to the actively illegal. Thus, when a mysterious masked figure begins a campaign of murder and terror against them, they fail spectacularly to co-operate with the police. The confusion allows the killer to keep things going to a terrifying extent, and as individual members of the salon try their own snooping, it’s hard to say who is truly determined to find the murderer, who is just trying to cover their back, and who has far more malevolent ends in mind.

Though Mario Bava’s preceding The Girl Who Knew Too Much is considered the first giallo film, I’d argue that it’s with Blood and Black Lace that Bava both hit on the archetypal giallo formula (right down to the killer’s garb) and, more importantly, the distinctive giallo atmosphere; The Girl Who Knew Too Much is just slightly too jolly and comedic for me to feel like it’s a true giallo – some of the comedy was, of course, added in the American cut of the movie (Evil Eye), but it was still present in the original. Conversely, Blood and Black Lace has the same mix of aesthetic luxury, eroticism, and horror that is distinctive to giallo and which The Girl Who Knew Too Much didn’t quite hit.

Bava shows a talent for directing truly chilling death sequences – low on gore, but the implications of what is happening are ably communicated to prompt the imagination to fill in the terrible blanks. The sheer violence exhibited by the killer is shocking to behold and renders the killings thoroughly untitillating, and like I said above the classic “raincoat, hat, gloves, mask” getup of the killer created a giallo archetype, and Bava has a great eye to throw in a shot here and there which underscores the terrible nature of what is happening. (See, for instance, a shot of a statue of Zeus chasing after some nymph as the killer drags away the corpse of the first victim, or the obscene tableau established by a suit of armour that has fallen on another victim.)

Bava also breaks from the standard whodunnit formula in a major way by revealing the killer’s identity well before the climax, and showing their planning process from the inside for the final go-around. To be honest, I find the movie comes a little unstuck after that, taking a bit took long to work its way through the final stages of the plot, but the movie is nonetheless still a classic of its subgenre. I particularly liked Thomas Ranier in his role as the disapproving police detective whose efforts to solve the case keep being tripped up by the self-serving lies and chicanery of the main characters.

Black Death

It is the 1300s, and as the title implies the Black Death is sweeping Europe. In a monastery struggling to contain the infection, Brother Osmund (Eddie Redmayne), has been kept quarantined, but is let out to join the prayers for one of his fallen comrades when he shows no symptoms of the plague. The next day, though, we see him stealing food and slipping out into the town to rendezvous with Averill (Kimberly Nixon), a woman that he is carrying on a secret affair with. Witnessing the dead piled up in the streets, Osmund tells Averill to take the supplies he’s obtained and go and hide in the forest until the plague passes; she ponders whether God is punishing the two of them for their sin, and whilst Osmund denies this, he also refuses to come with her, being willing to break his vows but not willing to abandon them entirely.

Osmund’s faith and character will soon undergo sterner tests, however, for he soon takes up a challenge his brothers fear to take: to accompany the Bishop’s envoy Ulric (Sean Bean) and his mercenaries on a mission as a guide and as theological counsel. Rumour has it that a certain village in the marshes close to where Osmund was raised is not only completely untouched by the plague, but is home to a necromancer who can return the dead to life. Ulric and Osmund’s task is to establish the truth of these stories; if the village has turned to Godless and sacrilegious ways to protect them, then they must be discredited and punished less others in their desperation abandon the Church.

A German-British coproduction (the story development and ideas came from the British side of the equation, the funding and locations from the Germans), this was directed by Christopher Smith, who made substantial changes to the conclusion of the film, which as originally scripted by Dario Poloni took the movie down an unambiguously supernatural route. In contrast to this, Smith goes for a more subtle, psychological approach, in keeping with his bid to go for a grimly realistic depiction of the time. You could probably characterise this as a full-blown grimdark piece, in fact, though frankly the Black Death was such a nightmarish period of history in Europe that if you don’t go dark with it you aren’t facing up to just how awful it was. Smith even gets minor historical points right, like remembering that the medieval church as an institution was more concerned with heresy than it was with witchcraft, but that the Black Death saw sentiments against witches becoming substantially more prevalent.

The group’s journey through the plague-ravaged landscape early on not only helps to establish the distinct characters of the various mercenaries, but also helps to drive home just how apocalyptic the Black Death was. Remember, this was a disease where if you say it decimated the population, pedants will point out that if anything you are underplaying just how awful it was, with recent research suggesting that about half the population of medieval Europe died of it. Panicing mobs burning a witch or turning to murderous banditry because they can’t think of anything else to do, entire depopulated villages, the discovery of plague within the party itself – all these incidents play out on the journey and make it obvious that the Bishop’s worries about people turning away from the Church are not mere control freakery. We are watching these people work their way through a disaster of such a magnitude that every certainty in their life has been brushed aside and the entire social order is disintegrating not because of any great revolutionary impulse on the part of anyone but simply because people are dying at too great a pace to keep it together.

The attention to detail extends to the costuming and sets; of the latter, the finely reproduced marshland village that is the destination of Ulric and Osmund’s mission is magnificently realised. As far as the acting goes, everyone does a smashing job; Sean Bean is at his Sean Beaniest and gets an appropriately Sean Beany death, Carice van Houten is great as the villagers’ spooky overlord, and Tim “Lord Percy” McInnerny has a great turn as Hob, the creepily welcoming village spokesman. (In fact, I wouldn’t have believed he could have pulled off such a sinister role had I not previously seen his appearance in Edge of Darkness.)

The ending, in which Osmund finds himself becoming a killer as brutal and merciless as any in Ulric’s band (and he’s murdered at least one person for absolutely no good reason, though he is more than capable of denying this), and in which it becomes apparent that the entire mission has done no good at all beyond murdering a village full of people who just wanted to be left alone, is the final touch of bleakness on what is a decidedly bleak prospect. Although it is possible to see the film as a slam on organised religion in general, to me it comes across more as a condemnation of what happens when religion or irreligion alike take to violence to serve their ends.

The Strange Movie of Mr Martino

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Mrs. Wardh (Edwige Fenech) – Julie to her friends – doesn’t really have that strange a vice by modern standards – just a bit of a submissive and masochistic streak. But it’s the 1970s, and people are less clued-in about such things – and standards of consent and ethics in the community of the sexually adventurous are much less developed than they are today. Take, for instance, Jean (Ivan Rassimov) – her former lover whose sadistic streak ultimately went too far for her comfort. To get away from him, she married Neil Wardh (Alberto de Mendoza), the US ambassador to Austria.

When Julie and Neil return after an extended recall to the States, they find Vienna in the grip of terror – for a serial killer has been preying on local sex workers, using a straight razor to slash them terribly. Julie finds herself bored, and takes to attending wild parties thrown by her sexually liberated friend Carol (Cristina Airoldi). It’s at one of those parties that she meets George Corro (George Hilton), a hitherto-unknown cousin of Carol from Australia who recently discovered the family connection thanks to an inheritance – but she’s also spotted again by Jean. As Julie enters into an extramarital affair with George, she finds herself stalked by Jean, who like a classical abuser tries to persuade her that nobody but him can truly please her. (As one of his notes dramatically states, “your vice is a locked room and only I have the key” – a phrase so dramatic that our director, Sergio Martino, would later re-use it as the title of one of his later collaborations with Fenech.)

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A Gulf of Gore

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Dario Argento might have the more widely-known name, but Mario Bava is arguably the director who laid the foundations of Italian horror cinema. As well as collaborating with Riccardo Freda on I Vampiri – the first Italian horror film to be produced after the Mussolini-era ban was finally lifted – his early 1960s efforts The Girl Who Knew Too Much and Blood and Black Lace set the mould for the “giallo” genre – a peculiar blend of murder mystery and horror film, frequently involving overt or sublimated erotic themes, that was itself a predecessor of the slasher movie.

Still, by the early 1970s the young upstart Argento managed to seize the momentum with works like The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, whose unflinching depictions of violence made earlier works seem positively tame. A Bay of Blood – also known as Twitch of the Death Nerve, Blood Bath, and a host of other alternate titles – seems to have been Bava’s attempt to catch up, with special effects wizard Carlo Rambaldi at hand to depict the murders with such gruesome realism that even old hands like Christopher Lee were revolted by the end result.

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Quoth the Kitty, “Nevermeow”

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Italian horror is a deep well, and several different companies have done well dredging it. Leading the pack in the UK market is Arrow Video, whose blu-ray releases of various classics of the field are generally excellent restorations of movies who sometimes haven’t been preserved all that well.

One of their oddest concepts for a bundle release of late is Edgar Allen Poe’s Black Cats, bringing together two movies – 1972’s Your Vice Is a Locked Door and Only I Have the Key and 1981’s The Black Cat – whose only common feature is that they purported to be riffs on the Poe story, despite not really being that similar at all. Having reviewed a decidedy smoochypaws-relevant giallo yesterday, now’s the perfect time to take a look at these.

Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key

Oliviero (Luigi Pistilli) is a wealthy novelist who lives in a big villa. He likes to relax by inviting over the libertine biker hippies who live in a nearby commune for drunken parties which degenerate into him waffling about his dead mother, sexually and racially abusing his maid Brenda (Angela La Vorgna), humiliating and bullying his wife Irina (Anita Strindberg), and then watching as the hippies get their ritualistic freak on.

In short, he is a deeply unpleasant human being who dishes out violence and rape on the women in his home whenever he has a mind to. Things only get more unpleasant and tense when Oliviero and Irina find themselves caught up in a series of murders; first Fausta (Dianiela Giordano), a former student and current lover of Oliviero’s, is murdered at a time she was supposedly keeping an appointment with him, and when the police come asking questions Irina covers for Oliviero by saying he was home even when he wasn’t (he insists he was just delayed due to a flat tire). Then Brenda ends up killed inside the home itself – Oliviero swears to Irina that he didn’t do it, but also insists that they can’t take the matter to the police because they won’t believe he’s innocent, and forces her to help him bury Brenda in the cellar.

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Cat Scratch Slayer

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

The MacGrieffs are an aristocratic Scottish family. (They’re the most Italian-seeming Scots ever, but never mind.) They rattle about in their ancestral home, Dragonstone Castle which sits on an island their family has ruled over since time immemorial, and is riddled with secret passages so that the staunchly Catholic family could hide priests during times of Protestant-led persecution. (Never mind that the architectural style of the exterior shots is distinctly Mediterranean.)

There are various significant residents and guest in the house. Most important of all is the castle cat, the most big-faced floof-furred whisper-socked fluffkin you ever did see. There’s also Lady Mary MacGrieff (Françoise Christophe) the family matriarch and her sister, Lady Alicia (Dana Ghia), who have ongoing tensions concerning money. (Mary is broke, Alicia is loaded, Alicia won’t give Mary the money she needs to pay the bills and keep hold of the castle.) You have Lady Mary’s son, Lord James (Hiram Keller), who looks like he stepped off the front cover of a romance novel and who is said to have killed his baby sister when he was a boy; everyone tells him he’s mad, so he plays up to it, spending most of his time working on artwork in various forms with only his pet gorilla for company.

Then you have Dr. Franz (Anton Diffring), who’s been placed in charge of James’ treatment, the mysterious Suzanne (Doris Kunstmann) who claims to be James’ “French tutor”, various priests, and the protagonist of our story – Corringa (Jane Birkin), Alicia’s daughter, who’s just been expelled from the convent school she was sent to but hasn’t gotten around to telling her mum yet. Corringa had better tread carefully, though – tensions are high with Mary’s money worries, Dr. Franz’ frustrations with his treatment of James and all the ways his unorthodox approach is going wrong, and the persistent rumour that any MacGrieff who kills one of their own will rise from the grave as a vampire. What of the bad luck from Corringa’s accidental burning of her copy of the Bible? And then there’s the slayings by the mysterious killer who strikes in the dead of night, when the only witness is the gingery-wingery growly-meowed Garfieldian whisker-colonel… Will Corringa get to the bottom of the mystery, or be yet one more of the Seven Deaths In the Cat’s Eye?

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A Blunder In the Dark

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Sing along everyone, to the tune of That’s Amore:

Wheeeeen you’re stabbed in the eye
And you gruesomely die
That’s giallo!

Ahem. Giallo is a distinctive subgenre of Italian horror that emerged in the late 1960s, reached a peak of unusual artistic accomplishment in the 1970s, and degenerated (along with much of the rest of the Italian B-movie industry) into unmitigated trash in the 1980s. It’s a sort of heavily stylised precursor to the slasher movie, with a big emphasis on psychological horror, often a strong mystery element, and occasional whiffs of the supernatural.

The innovator of the genre is generally held to be the prolific Mario Bava. Like many Italian directors of his era, Bava’s filmography is massive and diverse, but his horror work was particularly important; having made a start as a cinematographer, he directed his second movie, I Vampiri, in 1956 after original director Riccardo Freda had a falling-out with the producers and walked out of the project, leaving Bava to complete the unfinished shoot in just two days. The end result wasn’t exactly distinguished, but it’s a historically important work because it was the first Italian horror movie to be released in the sound era; the genre had been banned under Mussolini, and though fascist-era restrictions had been eased there had been a question mark over whether the Italian market had any appetite for horror.

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