Cinque Tombe per un Medium, which translates in English to Five Graves for a Medium, is an Italian-American production from 1965. The film was widely marketed as Terror-Creatures from the Grave and was also known by two other English language titles: The Tombs of Horror and Coffin of Terror. It was part of Italian director Domenico Massimo Pupillo’s triad of horror films, along with Il Boia Scarlatto / Bloody Pit of Horror (1965) and La vendetta di Lady Morgan / Lady Morgan’s Vengeance (1965).
Cinque Tombe per un Medium stars Albert Kovac (Walter Brandi) as an attorney mysteriously summoned to the estate – the wonderfully gothic Castle Chigi in Castel Fusano, also the setting of Pupillo’s later film La vendetta di Lady Morgan – by Dr Jeronimusch Hauff, only to find upon arrival that he is now deceased. His daughter Corinne Hauff (Mirella Maravidi) informs Kovac that the villa was built on the site of a hospital containing the mass graves of plague victims, including those who were accused of spreading the pestilence on purpose, losing their hands for their troubles before they were hanged. Dr Hauff was fascinated with the history of the site and, due to his alleged occult powers, believed that he could summon and master the souls of the ancient plague victims.
The creatures referred to in the English title are the monatti, who were servants tasked with removing the bodies of plague victims in hand-drawn carts in medieval Europe. In Cinque Tombe per un Medium, as in Roger Corman’s earlier The Masque of the Red Death (1964), the monatti are presented as reanimated, invisible spirits who mark victims with red stains on their faces. In Cinque Tombe per un Medium, Kovac finds a recording of the late Dr Hauff, which details his supernatural contact with the plague victims and strangely ends with him reciting the line, “I have summoned them from their graves and now I am among them.”
Kovac thus unravels a torrid tale of treachery and supernatural horror. Corinne is the epitome of the hysterical woman, believing she can see her dead father at every turn as she falls deeper into her maddening grief. Horror icon Barbara Steele plays the recently widowed Cleo Hauff, a former actress who dispassionately sweeps around the villa, rejecting Corinne’s claims and confessing her hatred of her late husband and the life she was misleadingly sold when she agreed to become his wife.
Pupillo had a reportedly rocky relationship with Steele. At the time of filming Cinque Tombe per un Medium, Steele’s career was already well established; she had appeared in cult classics such as La maschera del demonio / Black Sunday (1960), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961) and Danza Macabre / Castle of Blood (1964). According to Pupillo, Steele was entitled and egotistical for the first few days of shooting, until he dressed her down in front of the entire crew by telling her that she wasn’t there to play Shakespeare but to perform in a horror film. Since that day, their relationship greatly improved.
Grossing over 89 million Italian lire upon its local release in 1965, this success ensured Cinque Tombe per un Medium was distributed in America in 1967. It was later released in DVD in America as a double feature with Antonio Margheriti’s I lunghi capelli della morte/The Long Hair of Death (1964), which also featured Barbara Steele.
However, Pupillo was reportedly so disappointed with the overall film that he allowed the film’s producer, Ralph Zucker, to take directorial credit. According to some interviews with Pupillo this was also in part a business decision, as Pupillo had arranged a deal with Zucker to produce two films — the other being Il Boia Scarlettov— and Zucker didn’t want both films to be released under the same directorial credit. This has led to some confusion around the pair’s separate filmographies. Though Pupillo was a contributing writer on the Zucker produced Il Plenilunio delle Vergini / The Full Moon of the Virgins (1973), for example, he had no affiliation with Zucker’s Eva, la venere Selvaggia / Eve, The Wild Woman (1968).
Zucker was an American filmmaker with a wealth of experience in various roles in the industry, including acting, editing and producing. He had moved to Italy to take advantage of the lucrative film market in 1958, by exporting these films to America. It appears that Pupillo did in fact direct Cinque Tombe per un Medium, but that Zucker was responsible for additional violent scenes. These scenes were not included in the French and Italian releases of the film, which catered to the atmospheric, slow-burn style of European horror. The violent scenes injected by Zucker to appease American audiences were more akin to the grisly tones of the ‘Godfather of Gore’ himself, Herschell Gordon Lewis. The additional content included a new prologue, featuring an ominous creature stalking a man, who is kicked to death by a horse when he tries to flee on horseback. The man’s desecrated face is revealed in a gruesome close-up. A later scene depicting a suicide also had an additional reveal tacked onto the end of the segment, this time with the character’s exposed intestines spilling from the wound.
In regards to the European horror, the film includes the usual tropes of Italian Gothic cinema: the antithetical relationship between the hysterical woman and the evil seductress (building upon the archetypes of the belles dames san merci within Italian literature and opera); weak or corruptible men; the relationship between reality and delusion; eroticism; sadism; melodrama; and tales of treachery. However, unusually, Cinque Tombe per un Medium has a happier resolution than most Italian Gothic films, which feature dark or bleak endings in which evil survives or goes unpunished. In addition, it includes several elements from other genres, such as the giallo-esque narration from Kovac and use of a child’s song as the key to the supernatural mystery, as well as the use of shaky cameras from the perspective of unseen entities seemingly stalking the characters around the villa. All of these features can be regarded as progenitors of the slasher genre, emerging in America in the 1970s, and are no doubt the result of Zucker’s influence.
The partnering of Pupillo and Zucker thus created a unique hybrid of European and American cinematic styles, tweaking the elements of the Italian Gothic sub-genre to pique the interest of a global audience, and ensuring that Cinque Tombe per un Medium stands out as a distinct example of Italian horror.
Originally published in Unsung Horrors for We Belong Dead