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Black Gloves and Black Magic: Investigating the Gothic Giallo (part two)

The Gothic is a vast literary and cinematic mode, incorporating the supernatural terror of ghosts, ghouls, mummies and werewolves, as well as ‘real horror’ of insanity, murder, torture and necrophilia, with settings ranging from shadowy corridors in isolated castles, to the paranoia of the modern city. It is a spiraling form of terror that Catherine Spooner and Emma McEvoy define “according to its emphasis on the returning past, its dual interest in transgression and decay, and its cross-contamination of reality and fantasy.” Nightmare stories in Gothic gialli are underpinned with these themes of transgression, a revisiting of past horror and the fantastic and the supernatural. 

Although the giallo is transgressive by nature, the violation of social and moral codes is violently exploited in the Gothic giallo. Fred Botting notes that the Gothic is “fascinated by objects and practices that are constructed as negative, irrational, immoral or fantastic.” One film fascinated with the transgressive is The Night Evelyn Came out of the Grave. In the film the decadent Lord Alan has a deadly vice: murdering young women with red hair. In the opening scene of the film he picks up a prostitute and drive her to his castle, where he takes her to a secret room resembling a medieval torture chamber, complete with whips, weapons and pain devices used for S&M sex. She strips and he whips her repeatedly before strapping her down, chest first, to a leather stool. The camera zooms in on her face as she screams before he kills her. Cinematographer Gastone Di Giovanni camera is mesmerized by the violent and perverse scene; with its lingering shots on the bodily abuse of the prostitute, it is fascinated with the immoral and the negative, and invites spectatorial pleasure in witnessing the crime. It is learnt that Alan’s desire to kill red-haired women stems from the death of Evelyn, his redheaded girlfriend. The causality between Evelyn’s death and Alan’s madness is not explained beyond driving him to murder, however, the lack of development here is exactly the point. This is a film unconcerned with rationality. Its focus is on aestheticising the transgressive, producing a fascination with the perverse, the decadent and the macabre.  

The Night Evelyn Came out of the Grave (1971).

Similar sadosexual eroticism laces the excessively violent murders in The Beast Kills in Cold Blood. Set in an isolated rural asylum (the same filming location used in The Murder Clinic) Di Leo’s film features a black-clad figure stalking and murdering patients with an array of medieval weapons: scythe, crossbow, mace, axe. The excessive nature of these killing of, often nude, young women demonstrates a similar transgressive fascination with the immoral and the negative. In one scene the killer choses an axe from a display of the weapons to dice up one victim (Rosalba Neri), writhing naked on an iron frame bed. Shots through the wrought iron bed frame and close-ups of the women’s dead naked bloody, pale and red, contrasted with shadowy corners of the room, entwine the scene in transgressive eroticism and magnify the Gothic spectacle.

 In Silvio Amadio’s Amuck! transgression comes in a more subtle, psychological form. It tells the story of Greta (Barbara Bouchet) a young woman who travels to an isolated costal mansion to take an assistant job for a famous writer and his wife (Rosalba Neri). Her friend Sally had previously held the position but has gone missing and Greta seeks to learn her fate. Recalling Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), Amadio’s film is a psychological thriller that eschews much of the giallo’s excessive violence. Positioning eroticism at the fore with a number of dreamlike slow motion scenes of Sapphic sex, transgression takes the form of sexual and psychological abuse. The twisted couple torments Greta for their own sadistic, sexual desires by making cruel references to Sally’s death, drugging and seducing her and firing their shotguns above her head while on a hunting trip. The climax of the torment comes when it is revealed Greta’s friend was killed when the couple forced a local fisherman to rape and kill Sally while heavily intoxicated.

Amuck! (1972).

In Amuck! there is a gentle revisiting of past horror with the revelation of Sally’s murder via a flashback, however, elsewhere in the Gothic giallo, we see the dreadful past return its horrors on the present with far less subtlety. Botting notes that, “Gothic atmospheres – gloomy and mysterious – have repeatedly signaled the disturbing return of pasts upon presents and evoked emotions of terror and laughter.” Although, there is not much laughter in these films (unless perhaps the odd unintentional chuckle), the past is regularly visited on the present in the form of spooky portraiture or gruesome legends that provides a window on past horrors.

The portrait is one of the Gothic’s most evocative elements, providing a chilling connection to the past. It conjures Lacanian anxieties of bodily disintegration (imagery presents a body being attacked) and fears of the ‘uncanny of the monumental’, which David Punter defines as referring “to the ‘cults of the famous or the dead’” and “that which haunts, we might say looms ‘monumentally’ larger than life (Punter, 2007: 135).”

 One film employing ‘looming’ portraiture as a window on past horror is The Red Queen Kills Seven Times. Miraglia’s haunting giallo begins with two young girls fighting over a toy in their ancestral German castle. Their grandfather breaks up the fight, and their collective gazes move to a macabre portrait hanging on the wall, depicting a woman clothed in red being stabbed in the neck by a woman clothed in black: the Red Queen and the Black Queen. As the old legend goes, the Black Queen was bullied by her cruel sister, the Red Queen, and she vowed one day to get revenge. The Black Queen got her revenge when they were older, brutally stabbing the Red Queen seven times. A year after her death, the Red Queen came back to life and murdered seven people, including her sister. Every 100 years history repeats itself, when the ghost of the Red Queen enacts her brutal revenge on seven people. This legend underpins the mystery narrative of the film, much of which takes place in the gorgeous Gothic castle setting, complete with cobwebbed cellars, long wooden clad halls, suits of amour and red velvet curtains. Seven people are murdered by a figured caped in red as the dreadful past seems to revisits itself on the present. With the conclusion, supernatural causality is absolved as it transpires one of the modern day ancestors is killing to inherit the castle and the family fortune. Although the supernatural is dismissed, the prevalence of the Red Queen haunts throughout the film.

The Red Queen Kills Seven Times (1972).

The central narrative positioning of a horrific painting is perhaps most potent in The House with the Laughing Windows, where a macabre fresco in a church provides a far more real link to past horror, than the legends of Miraglia’s gialli. Stefano, an art restorer, is working on the restoration of a fresco in an isolated rural village. What seems at first to be merely a macabre depiction of a St Sebastian like figure with two grotesque women either side of him, turns out to be one of many paintings by a deceased local artist who painted the images of people he murdered, abetted by his two wicked sisters. Much like in Amuck!, the Gothic takes a subtle form. The film is shot on location in sunny rural Italy and for the most part it lacks the Gothic intertextuality present in many other gialli. It is with the film’s Grand Guignol climax that its transgressive fascination with the macabre is revealed. As Xavier Reyes has observed, “a film such as The House of the Laughing Windows…which appears to be a straight giallo, becomes harder to categorise after the introduction of two demented witch sisters and a corpse kept in formaldehyde that apparently paints church frescoes from beyond (Reyes, 2013).”

The House with Laughing Windows (1976).

The use of portraiture looming monumentally over the present can also be found in the Night Evelyn Came out of the Grave in which Lord Alan is ‘haunted’ by Evelyn’s ghostly portrait and in Your Vice is Locked Room and Only I Have the Key, in which a sadistic central character with Oedpial issues is plagued by a painting of his overbearing mother. Moreover, it is worth noting the prevalence of legends, as a way of revisiting past horror. As noted previously, in The Red Queen Kills Seven Times, a legend provides both the mystery and the horror of the film. In The Killer Reserved Nine Seats, nine people visit a decaying theatre where, on arrival, their host tells them it is haunted, and in Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eyes, which I have written about previously on this site, an old family legend warns that any member of the family will turn into a vampire if murdered by another.

If the creeping revelation of witchcraft in The House with Laughing Windows flirts with the supernatural, other films are far more bravura in their dances with the devil. The most potent of these is Aldo Lado’s Short Night of Glass Dolls, in which a Satanic cult is on the prowl for young girls. Short Night of Glass Doll tells the story of an American journalist, Gregory Moore (Jean Sorel), whose body is found in the opening minutes of the film. He is bought to a morgue, and we discover he is dead but somehow still conscious. The film’s narrative is told from the point of view of Moore’s cognizant cadaver via a series of flashbacks during which he investigates the disappearance of his girlfriend Mira, and uncovers a Satanic cult that sacrifices the weak and unwilling to secure power, influence and wealth for its members. In Short Night of the Glass Dolls, the supernatural is crucial, accounting for the entire narrative, as the spectator experiences Moore’s visions from beyond the grave.

Short Night of the Glass Dolls (1971).

 In All the Colours of the Dark the film’s central character Jane Harrison (Edwige Fenech) is initiated into a black magic cult on the auspices that it will rid her of the nightmares that plague her sleep. Her husband suggests medicine and her sister suggests psychoanalysis, introducing a narrative antagonism between rationalism and superstition. The captivating centerpiece of the film is a heady Black Mass in which Jane witnesses the ritual sacrifice of her neighbour (Marina Malfatti). As Jane succumbs to terrifying visions, both her and the spectator are unclear whether these are supernatural manifestations of witchcraft or her mind failing her. This ambiguity is used to thrilling and inconclusive effect by Martino, who borrows heavily from Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968). After the credits begin to roll, it is still unclear whether Jane’s visions were the result of black magic or neurosis, as she utters the film’s final line: “Oh Richard I’m so frightened, I feel as if some strange force were controlling me. Oh darling, help me.”

 The supernatural also abounds in The Killer Reserved 9 Seats, where spectral happenings are posited throughout the film’s narrative as a reason for the string of murders taking place inside the haunted theatre, and bizarrely in Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eyes, which implies a cat’s complicity in murder as it appears at the scene of each killing, complete with crash zooms on its eyes. Most oddly of all, the supernatural also makes its way into Enzo Milioni’s sunny sexploitation giallo The Sister of Ursula (La sorella di Ursula, 1976), when a door slams shut on its own during a scene towards the end of the film. It is a highly incongruous moment in a film that is otherwise unconcerned with spooky goings on.  

Conclusion

Xavier Reyes has suggested that the relationship between the Gothic and the giallo is “complicated, namely because directors…produced both gialli and more straightforward Gothic products, sometimes in close proximity, to the point that their aesthetic and thematic preoccupations cross over and blend (Reyes, 2013).” Reyes only mentions directors, but it is important not to exclude the role of producers and screenwriters. I have written previously about how Seven Deaths in the Cats Eye’s exemplifies this ‘complication’ because of its incongruous blend of Gothic and giallo, and Margheriti’s work across different Italian horror cycles. All the Colours of the Dark likewise demonstrates this complication, due in part to the involvement of writers Santiago Moncada and Ernesto Gastaldi, who both worked in the giallo and the Gothic mode. The film is considered a highpoint of 1970s giallo by fans and critics, exemplary of the diversity of the filone and a shining example of Martino’s work. However, its central positioning of Gothic aesthetics and the fantastic has lead to commentators such as Koven, defining it as a ‘gialli-like’ film. More generally, the Gothic barely factors into both Koven and Needham’s important and foundational work on the giallo as filone.

   While it might be difficult to fully assess the extent of the relationship between the Gothic and the giallo, owing to the fact that there is fundamental debate over what exactly constitutes both, it is certainly true there is an underappreciated Gothic influence on the gialli of the 1960s and 1970s, whether it is through the use of macabre, transgressive themes, a focus on the supernatural or intertextualiy between other Gothic texts. Additionally, the giallo proved to be influential on swathes of European Gothic horror films produced in 1960s and 1970s. The gialli discussed in this article as well as others (they are not the only ones) should be assessed both in the Italian and international European context, with regards to their relationship to the Gothic. Perhaps the picture has become clearer in recent years with increasing numbers of films being made available on DVD and Blu-ray as well as online platforms, allowing for aesthetic and thematic comparisons to be more made more easily. Let us hope this continues.    

Works cited

Bondanella. Peter. A History of Italian Cinema, Continuum, 2009.

Botting. Fred. Gothic. Routledge, 1996.

Fisher. Austin. ‘Political Memory in the Italian hinterland: locating the “rural giallo”’ in Italian Horror Cinema, edited by Stefano Baschiera and Russ Hunter, Edinburgh University Press, 2016.

Hunt. Leon. ‘A (Sadistic) Night at the Opera: Notes on the Italian Horror Film’ in The Horror Reader, edited by Ken Gelder, Routledge, 2000.

Hunt. Leon. ‘Kings of Terror, Geniuses of Crime: Giallo Cinema and Fumetti Neri’ in Italian Horror Cinema, edited by Stefano Baschiera and Russ Hunter, Edinburgh University Press, 2016.

Hunter. Russ. ‘Early Italian Horror Cinema’ in Italian Horror Cinema, edited by Stefano Baschiera and Russ Hunter, Edinburgh University Press, 2016.

Hutchings. Peter. ‘Bavaesque: the making of Mario Bava as Italian horror auteur’ in Italian Horror Cinema, edited by Stefano Baschiera and Russ Hunter, Edinburgh University Press, 2016.

Koven. Mikel J. La Dolce Morte: Vernacular Cinema and the Italian Giallo Film, The Scarecrow Press, 2006.

Needham. Gary. Playing with genre: an introduction to the Italian giallo, https://www.kinoeye.org/02/11/needham11.php. 2002, (accessed on 19 May 2017).

Punter. David. ‘The Uncanny’ in The Routledge Companion to Gothic edited by Catherine and Emma McEvoy, Routledge, 2007.

Spooner. Catherine and Emma McEvoy. ‘Introduction’ in The Routledge Companion to Gothic edited by Catherine and Emma McEvoy, Routledge, 2007.

Reyes, Xavier. Italian Gothic Horror. https://www.gothic.stir.ac.uk/guestblog/italian-gothic-horror/, 2013, (accessed on 7 May 2017).

About Alex Morris

Alex Morris studied MA History of Film at Birkbeck, University of London, writing his dissertation on gender in the Italian giallo. He now works for a charity that advocates for the use of moving image in higher education and research, and also freelance for a distributor specialising in cult and exploitation cinema. Follow him on Twitter @necrobaker.

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