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Massimo Pupillo Triad of Horror: La vendetta di Lady Morgan (1965)

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Italian poster art.

La vendetta di Lady Morgan/Lady Morgan’s Vengeance (1965) was the third film in the trilogy of horror films by Italian director Domenico Massimo Pupillo, after Il Boia Scarlatto/Bloody Pit of Horror (1965) and Cinque Tombe per un Medium/Terror-Creatures from the Grave (1965).  While the other two films in Pupillo’s horror trilogy enjoyed an international run in theatres, La vendetta di Lady Morgan was released theatrically in only one country outside of Italy – Germany – in 1967.  Despite this, the film grossed over 61 million lire in the domestic market alone and, as a result of this success, Pupillo was propositioned to make further genre fare.  Pupillo refused, not wanting to become attached to any more horror films as he didn’t want to become labelled; he had initially branched into fictional film from the documentary circuit for the same reasons.

La vendetta di Lady Morgan is an unsung horror film, and the career of its director is very much unsung too.  Pupillo began his career as the assistant to French director Marcel Pagnol on La Femme du Boulanger/The Baker’s Wife (1938).  After working with Pagnol on several projects, he then returned to Italy and directed a series of documentary films.  After his limited foray into the horror genre, Pupillo only worked on two more genre projects: the western, Django Kills Softly/Bill il taciturno (1967), and also a mondo film, Love: The Great Unknown/L’amore, questo sconosciuto (1969).   The latter film, in the controversial and exploitative style typical of the mondo genre, explored sexual deviance, with additional scenes of hardcore sex filmed – not by Pupillo – for international audiences.

Again unhappy with the type of cinema he was working within, Pupillo turned his sights to television, where he would work for the next several years.  Returning to documentaries in the twilight of his career, Pupillo’s final film, Sa Jana – which explored the lives of Sicilian fisherman, developed from his 1961 short, Gli Amici dell’Isola – has never been released.

In La vendetta di Lady Morgan, Pupillo presents an Italian gothic horror that explores female hysteria and supernatural vengeance.  A wonderful mix of dramatic thriller – with clear links to the giallo in its murderous plot – and the fantastical, the film presents a strange hybrid of supernatural mythology in its portrayal of spirits.  Here, they are interchangeably corporeal and ethereal, feeding on the blood of the living to gain power.

La vendetta di Lady Morgan follows the events surrounding the doomed love of the young and beautiful Susan Blackhouse (Barbara Nelli) and Pierre Brissac (Michel Forain).  Brissac has been commissioned to work on the manor in which Susan lives with her kindly uncle, Sir Neville Blackhouse (Carlo Kecher).  The pair declare their love for each other when Brissac is called back to Paris.  Though Sir Neville gives his blessing, family friend Sir Harold Morgan (Paul Muller) is evidently affected by the news; he appears to be in love with Susan.

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Roger (Gordon Mitchell).

On his way back to Paris, Brissac is attacked on the boat by an unidentified assailant and thrown overboard.  Though Brissac recovers in hospital, initially in a coma, he awakens with amnesia.  Susan, distraught as she believes him dead, agrees to marry Sir Harold.

Susan, now Lady Morgan, returns to her uncle’s house, run by a new skeleton staff: housekeeper Miss Lillian (Erika Blanc), butler Roger (Gordon Mitchell) and meek maid Terry (Edith MacGoven).  Castle Chigi in Castel Fusano was used as the location of the gothic manor, which also featured in Pupillo’s earlier film Cinque Tombe per un Medium.  Lady Morgan then experiences a series of seemingly supernatural occurrences that drive her into a paranoid hysteria, which are then revealed to be an insidious plot to secure Lady Morgan’s wealth.  A series of violent deaths occur, resulting in the victims becoming ghosts bound to the mortal plane.  Some of the spirits drink human blood to strengthen their supernatural powers and the resulting shift of power dynamics between the group of ghosts propels the bleak ending of the film, a typical feature of Italian Gothic cinema.

The film thus embodies the usual traits specific to Italian Gothic cinema, including: erotic tones, often involving necrophilia; sadism; a bleak ending in which the innocent are punished and/or evil endures; recurring use of locations and set pieces, resulting in a uniform aesthetic with distinct macabre elements; melodramatic tales of vengeance; the blurring of the boundaries between reality and hallucination; and central female characters that represent a dualism of purity and evil (an extension of the belles dames san merci of Italian literature and opera) against impotent or submissive men.  In incorporating these elements, La vendetta di Lady Morgan draws definitive influence from cinematic predecessors in this Italian Gothic vein, such as La maschera del demonio/The Mask of Death or Black Sunday (1960); La vergine di Norimberga/The Virgin of Nuremberg (1963); La frusta e il corpo/The Whip and the Body (1963); I lunghi capelli della morte/The Long Hair of Death (1964); and La lama nel corpo/The Murder Clinic (1966).

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Female hysteria is explored through the character of Lady Morgan (Barbara Nelli).

Written by Gianni Grimaldi (under the pseudonym Jean Grimand) the script for La vendetta di Lady Morgan has been compared to that of fellow Italian-French Gothic classic Danza Macabra/Castle of Blood (1964).  Danza Macabra was also co-written by Grimaldi, with Bruno Corbucci.  Both films were also produced by Franco Berlotti and feature very similar, distinct narratives.  In Danza Macabra, a writer accepts a dare to spend the night at an abandoned, supposedly haunted castle on All Souls’ Eve.  He is thus visited by the spirits of murdered people, who rise to drink the blood from the living in an attempt to return to the mortal plane beyond that single night.  In a similar fashion to La vendetta di Lady Morgan, one of the spirits attempts to help him to escape.

The unusual corporeal nature of the spirits in these two films, and their bloodlust, is an interesting feature on top of the usual Italian Gothic tropes.  Blood has historically been associated with life force, believed to be the connection between the worlds of the dead and the living by ancient cultures across the world.  Blood drinking can also be traced to ancient European and Eastern mythology.  In Homer’s The Iliad, Odysseus discovers that he must let spirits in the underworld consume his blood in order to stay and speak with him – a feature utilised in Pupillo’s film to strengthen the spirits.  Similarly, the jiangshi is a figure from Chinese folklore, considered to be a reanimated corpse that is alternatively referred to as a ghost, vampire or zombie.  The creature survives by feeding on the life force or “qi” of its victims.  La vendetta di Lady Morgan is thus an unusual entry in the canon of Italian Gothic cinema in that it builds on the standard elements of the genre – including a variety of cultural references from world mythologies – to create a unique supernatural tale.

Originally published in Unsung Horrors for We Belong Dead.

About Rebecca Booth

Rebecca has a Masters in Film Studies from the University of Southampton. In addition to her role as Assistant Editor at DiaboliqueMagazine.com, she has contributed to Den of Geek, Wicked Horror, Big Comic Page and That’s Not Current. Rebecca also co-hosts the international horror podcast United Nations of Horror, as well as X-Files X-Philes and The Twin Peaks Log.

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