“Don’t you know? I adore violence.”
Barbara Steele as Harriet / Belinda in An Angel for Satan
Great film genres never really die, they just get assimilated. By 1966, what we now call the “Golden Age” of Italian Gothic horror films was on the wind-down, as was ever the fate of the various filoni (or “formula”) cycles of that country’s film industry, where several years of intense market-glutting would inevitably lead to waning audience interest and box-office returns.
After the false start that was 1956’s I vampiri, that film’s co-director Mario Bava had more or less kick-started the whole boom with his electrifying solo debut La maschera del demonio (Black Sunday aka The Mask of Satan, 1960), made in response to the early Hammer horrors, and making an instant international star of English actress Barbara Steele in the process. After her appearance opposite Vincent Price in AIP’s The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), that studio’s Corman / Poe sequence would exert a more visible influence on many of the eerie Italian exploits that followed. Although she and Bava unfortunately wouldn’t work together again, Steele would top-bill nine films in total within the Gothic cycle, and in those few short years become an icon – if not in the way she’d hoped to.
Since this sporadic column last encountered her in Antonio Margheriti’s The Long Hair of Death (1964), Steele had also lent her unique visage and talents to Mario Caiano’s Nightmare Castle (1965), Massimo Pupillo’s Terror-Creatures from the Grave (1965), and Michael Reeves’ The She-Beast (1966), and by this point had just about had enough. For the record, she has more recently claimed (in an interview with John Martin) that she never actually uttered the famous words “I never want to climb out of another freaking coffin for as long as I live,” so we’ll sadly have to leave that hoary old chestnut at the door. Better than the Reeves film, or anything else since 1964’s Castle of Blood (also Margheriti), but ironically less seen than any of them, is Steele’s ninth and final Italian Gothic, Camillo Mastrocinque’s Un angelo per Satana (An Angel for Satan, 1966), her last big chance to rip it up, Gothic style. While the film itself ultimately falls somewhat shy of a masterpiece, she certainly doesn’t disappoint in her double role.
Camillo Mastrocinque was the very epitome of the veteran filone director, steadily making between two and four films a year, nearly every year, for three solid decades. For the most part he specialized in comedy, helming vehicles for such greats as Vittorio de Sica, Walter Chiari and Alberto Sordi. Along with his much younger colleague Lucio Fulci, he also worked with Italy’s best-loved comedy star Totò throughout the fifties and sixties, directing and sometimes co-writing, and made a few films with zany duo Franco and Ciccio. His Totò all’inferno (Totò in Hell, 1955), co-written with Fulci amongst others, contained colourful depictions of the netherworld and its denizens that are among the few visual expressions of the darkly fantastique in postwar Italian cinema prior to I vampiri.
Like Fulci, and many other Italian multi-genre directors, Mastrocinque is now chiefly remembered (outside of Italy at least) for the horror pictures he worked on. Before An Angel for Satan, he was drafted in as a last-minute replacement for Antonio Margheriti on 1964’s La crypta e l’incubo (aka Terror in the Crypt, Crypt of Horror, Crypt of the Vampire), a fair-to-middling adaptation of Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla starring Christopher Lee. Reasonable box office results for this Italian/Spanish co-production saw to it that the veteran director had an opportunity to dabble in the genre once more (he would pass away in 1969) with this 1966 offering.
Co-written by Mastrocinque and Giuseppe Mangione (hitherto more experienced in pepla and westerns), An Angel for Satan purports in its credits and advertising materials to be “based on a short novel by Luigi Emanuele” (actually another filone screenwriter), but as usual the reliable Roberti Curti sets us straight. “Mastrocinque’s second Gothic horror film in a row is a sort of pulp reworking of Antonio Fogazzaro’s novel Malombra,” he tells us in his excellent Italian Gothic Horror Films 1956-1969, “which had already been brought to the screen in 1917 by Carmine Gallone and, most impressively, in 1942 by Mario Soldati. The beginning, in which Roberto (Anthony Steffen) arrives by boat, openly echoes the opening of Soldati’s film”.
Whether Emanuele’s “short novel” existed or not, this is perhaps the more convincing notion; more famous in its country of origin, Fogazzaro’s 1881 debut deals with a young woman in a Lake Como palazzo becoming convinced she is reincarnated from a distant female ancestor (one might say “possessed”), after reading her letters, and plans to revenge age-old crimes by murdering her uncle. While An Angel for Satan obviously represents a sexed-up, simplified, more commercial (and certainly less literary) take on this material, it’s easy to see how the novel’s central Gothic convention of “the double” or doppelgänger could have marked it out as prime potential Barbara Steele movie material. Curti and other commentators have also pointed out a resemblance to Prosper Mérimée’s short story La Venus d’Ille, which like Mastrocinque’s film also deals with the apparent malefic effects of a cursed statue. Mérimée’s tale would later be adapted into an Italian TV movie (La Venere d’Ille, 1979), helmed by Mario Bava, no less, on his final assignment.
As Curti informed us earlier, the film opens as our young hero Roberto Merigi’s boat approaches and moors up at a small lakeside village. Some wonderfully sombre orchestrations, courtesy of Francesco de Masi and his orchestra, foretell approaching tragedy and doom to eerie effect. Star Anthony Steffen sure cuts a dashing figure in his nineteenth-century greatcoat and hat, a fact not lost on the local girls that see him arrive. After years in the business, Steffen (born Antonio Luiz de Teffé von Hoonholtz) was at that time just starting to catch on as a spaghetti western leading man, thanks to roles in Blue Summer (1965), Lone and Angry Man (1965) and Seven Dollars to Kill (1966). He would make many, many more, well into the seventies, and notch up further horror / giallo appearances in The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave (1971), The Crimes of the Black Cat (1972), Evil Eye (1975) and Killer Fish (1979). Naturally, he’s second-billed here in favour of Steele.
Merigi is a sculptor, summoned to the area by local lord of the manor Count Montebruno (Claudio Gora, of Danger: Diabolik  and The 5-Man Army ) to restore a statue recently exhumed from the lake. The villagers are afraid of the statue – a Venus-like female figure with an immediate resemblance to Steele – on account of a centuries-old curse. The next we hear is that two men have just drowned on the lake, their boat having overturned inexplicably, with some strange force also rendering them unable to swim. By complete coincidence (or is it?), the very next day sees the return of the Count’s niece, Harriet (Steele), from England, five years old when she left Italy. Roberto is initially speechless, presented with “the very image” of the statue in the form of Harriet (“Like two matching drops,” quoth the Count), but soon collects himself enough to ask her to pose for the restoration.
That night, Roberto is awakened in the wee hours by a ghostly female voice calling his name, leading him to a neglected room of the house. Therein he finds a cracked and cobweb-strewn portrait of Harriet’s distant ancestor, Belinda, whose spectral tones explain how her hatred of her cousin, Maddelina (naturally played by Steele in the accompanying flashback), led to this curse business we’ve been hearing so much about. Already consumed with rage and jealousy towards Maddelina (“They all wanted her!”) and her likeness in the statue overlooking the lake (“I hated the symbol of acknowledgement of her body!”), Belinda quite literally goes off the deep end when she catches her intended (played by Steffen) in flagrante delicto with Maddelina, hurling herself at the hated statue and crashing down with it into the watery depths. But not before issuing her curse…
We soon see this made manifest as Harriet intermittently “becomes” Belinda, and this is where the fireworks start to fly. Causing absolute chaos in the village, she puts
local tough Carlo (burly Sergio Leone western brute Mario Brega) under her spell, leading to his house burning down with his family in it, seduces both young schoolmaster Dario (Vassili Karis, later of Giallo in Venice ) and his lover, Harriet’s maid, Rita (Ursula Davis, back from Terror in the Crypt), causing Dario to hang himself, encourages village idiot Victor (Aldo Berti, another spaghetti western face) to rape and murder local girls, and seduces Roberto only to accuse him of attempted rape. All within a couple of days. Here we have the consummate “evil harpy”, that the sexual politics of yesteryear would have us believe lurks just beneath the surface of every woman, just waiting to break out if she isn’t God-fearing enough, or maybe just doesn’t have dinner ready on time. Objectionable? Well, yes. An inordinate amount of fun to watch? Also yes. Categorically. Along with Riccardo Freda’s The Ghost (1963), this stands as one of Steele’s most riveting Gothic turns. As critic Glenn Erickson once put it, An Angel for Satan “could have been remade starring Joan Collins!” Few things are more entertaining than watching a “super bitch” in action, and here this comes armed with the malefic sneer and sinister beauty of the First Lady of Horror herself.
Of course, it helps that An Angel for Satan is in fact a very slickly-made film in many respects. Mastrocinque’s veteran status, comprising three decades more experience as a director than either Fulci or Margheriti (or Bava, for that matter), shows itself in his fluid roving camera movements; almost bravura at times but, crucially, enhancing the storytelling rather than distracting from it. The editing by Gisa Radicchi Levi (another Totò and Franco & Ciccio veteran) is razor-sharp and involving, giving the film a more “modern” feel than many of its contemporaries. Compared to others, there isn’t a great deal of traditionally Gothic iconography on display – by this time, the sight of Barbara in black was enough on its own to drag the viewer through the Gothic gateway. And Mastrocinque adds some wonderful imagery to the Steele canon, whether she’s stripped down to just her hat to give Victor a good horse-whipping or caressing herself in front of the mirror, overdone eye-shadow and caked-on foundation making her almost resemble a sixties version of Blade Runner‘s Pris.
If the lack of traditional horror imagery and increased emphasis on sex aren’t enough, we can also see from the film’s climax that a sea-change in audience tastes was occurring and the days of the “straight” Italian Gothic were coming to a close. Matters take a turn for the Edgar Wallace when we discover that Harriet’s “possession” by the ghost of Belinda is a state of affairs very much brought about by very human hands, and Harriet has simply been a convenient pawn in someone else’s game. Despite the fact these revelations serve to make what has gone before more “rational”, bringing it out of the realm of the supernatural, they actually serve to make the narrative as a whole more difficult to swallow, creating the odd plot-hole into the bargain. This forms perhaps the film’s biggest fault, but it’s easy to see why the decision was made.
The timeline of the Italian Gothic horror cycle runs almost exactly concurrently with that of the West German krimi genre, the lurid contemporary thrillers based (or often just claiming to based) on the works of Wallace. With a template set by Bava’s Blood and Black Lace in 1965, the giallo, bloodier, edgier and sexier, was waiting in the wings to eclipse both genres. However, elements of both would pervade this new style of thriller and many of the hands that toiled on the Gothics would find new work here. Along with An Angel for Satan, the previous year’s Il mostro di Venezia (The Embalmer, The Monster of Venice, 1965), can also be seen in retrospect to be paving the way for this new direction, being a giallo-style contemporary murder mystery with heavy Gothic overtones, chiefly in the scenes taking place in the killer’s ancient lair under the City of Canals. Italian Gothic wasn’t going away – it was just moving away from its “purer” (i.e., period set and chaste by today’s standards) form.
1966 also saw Bava return to the cycle he’d initiated with Operazione paura (unfortunately saddled with the ill-fitting title Kill, Baby, Kill! in the US), a full-colour phantasmagoria that could just as easily have been the basis for this final column – if it hadn’t already been written about so beautifully and at great length by others elsewhere. Of course, Bava wasn’t by any means done with the Gothic yet, but Operazione paura would be the last one to be grounded in a period setting. It is also arguably Bava’s best.
However, while the above may make it sound as though the Gothics were simply “replaced” by gialli, matters are of course nowhere near as simple than that – in fact, the Gothic in its broader sense (“small g” gothic?) was and still is ingrained into the very fabric of most imaginative cinema. The subsequent years of popular Italian cinema, still in its heyday, would see many more excursions into the territory – just with altered emphases and selling points. Fare such as Byleth: The Demon of Incest (1972), Black Magic Rites (aka The Reincarnation of Isabel, 1972), and Nude for Satan (1974) would make healthy doses of softcore sex and sleaze their true raison d’être; Bava’s Baron Blood (1972), Lisa and the Devil (1973) and Shock (1977) would be contemporary-set horrors with heavy Gothic overtones and also elements of giallo; Gothic-giallo hybrids with side orders of sleaze included the likes of Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eye (1973), The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave and The Red Queen Kills Seven Times (1972); Night of the Devils (1972) offered a gorier, sleazier, but equally good version of “The Wurdulak”, last seen as a segment of Bava’s Black Sabbath (1963), and Antonio Margheriti would colour-remake his own sublime Castle of Blood to lesser effect as Web of the Spider (1971); the late seventies/early eighties films of Lucio Fulci (making up for his lack of Gothic output in the sixties) would subvert the Gothic into a nihilistic theatre of cruelty, ultra-violence and nihilism; when at his best, to devastating effect. And, while we refer to our sixties Gothics as forming the “Golden Age”, the crowing glories of Italian cinematic horror are, arguably, Pupi Avati’s The House with Laughing Windows (1976) and Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977). For the most part, more modern architecture and concerns (not to mention gleefully rampant gore) would provide the backdrop to the Italian horrors of the seventies and eighties – tragically, the entire Italian genre film factory itself would essentially die with its boots on by the end of the latter decade.
While the Gothic itself is still very much alive and well, with its scaly gargoyle talons firmly embedded in every storytelling media imaginable (including the news headlines), the sixties work of Bava, Mastrocinque, Riccardo Freda, Antonio Margheriti and others will always hold a special place in the heart of any real film connoisseur. If in doubt of this, just ask the likes of Martin Scorsese, Tim Burton, or Francis Ford Coppola. And today, far from being some half-forgotten films of yesteryear, or just a handful of lurid stills in horror film books or magazines for young fans to longingly stare at, most of them are now a mere mouse-click away, waiting to be discovered anew. And although her legacy rests mainly on those nine films she made, increasingly reluctantly, way back in the sixties, Barbara Steele will undoubtedly remain the “Queen of Horror” and the dark muse of many a clued-up outsider for many a decade to come.