M.B.S. Cinematografica International released Il boia scarlatto/Bloody Pit of Horror or The Crimson Executioner in Italy on 28 November 1965. Grossing 65 million lire during its domestic theatrical run, it was subsequently purchased by Pacemaker Pictures in the US, where it opened as a double feature with Pupillo’s Cinque tombe per un medium/Terror Creatures from the Grave (1965). Completing his trilogy of gothic horror was La vendetta di Lady Morgan/Lady Morgan’s Vengeance, released in the same year.
The plot of Il boia scarlatto is relatively simple: in medieval Italy, 1648 to be exact, the Crimson Executioner (uncredited) is sentenced to death for pursuing his sadistic fantasies and killing the innocent. In the dungeon of his castle (the actual location of which is Bracciano, just outside of Rome), the Crimson Executioner, who vows his revenge, is entombed in an iron maiden, or virgin of Nuremberg−a medieval torture device, traditionally shaped like a coffin or sarcophagus with the face of a maiden, that slowly kills its victims via strategically placed spikes that do not penetrate any major organs. The narration, the apparent ruling of the tribunal against the murderer, is layered effectively over the scene and informs us that the Crimson Executioner is eternally damned, as is the dungeon and the castle itself, which has seen “such indescribable horrors”. As the Crimson Executioner slowly dies, the device is sealed and the narrator issues a warning: no man should ever dare to break it.
In the present day (1965), Rick (Walter Bigari) is a former journalist who turned to writing horror due to the money involved. He has a new fotoromanzo or photonovel due for release and has travelled with his publicist, Daniel (Alfredo Rizzo), his secretary, Edith (Luisa Baratto), a photographer, Dermott (played by producer Ralph Zucker) and several models to a remote castle in order to shoot the photographs.
Though Daniel supposedly secured the rights to use the castle as a location for their shoot, there is no answer when the crowd arrive in their brightly coloured cars. Believing the castle to be empty, Rick scales the walls and lets the group in-only for them to discover that the castle is inhabited by a reclusive figure. The unseen man initially insists that the group must leave but allows them to stay upon seeing Edith, spying on her from several peepholes throughout the house.
As the group prepare to take the photographs – taking full opportunity of the handy medieval torture devices stored in the dungeon – several members are found dead in various torture devices and scenarios. Edith discovers a portrait of herself in one of the rooms and soon finds herself face to face with the new owner, Travis Anderson (Mickey Hargitay). A former actor, Travis once dated Edith and still appears to be in love with her. He tells Edith that he purchased the castle as he wanted to attain spiritual enlightenment, needing solitude in order to achieve the perfect physical body. The trauma of Edith’s arrival – she is presumably the reason he sought seclusion in the first place – causes Trevor to literally assume the identity of the Crimson Executioner. After escaping a torture device and taking out Trevor’s henchmen, Rick fights Trevor while Edith watches helplessly, tied to a torture device. Trevor dies after falling into “the poisonous clutches of the lover of death”, a dummy studded with poisonous darts. Rick frees Edith and the pair flees the cursed castle.
The ostentatious production design – with its vivacious red palette, embellished décor, and eccentric costumes – results in the film often being cited as camp, trashy and laughable by critics. However, these elements appear to be drawn from the narrative focus on the fotoromanzo written by Rick within the film, which is the reason that the group have travelled to the castle–in order to capture cover photographs. Emerging in Italy during the 1940s, fumetti (translated as ‘little puffs of smoke’ and referring to speech balloons) or photo comics were popular in Italy well into the 1950s. The costumes alone, from the block colours and hooded design of the Crimson Executioner’s outfit, to the matching stripy t-shirts worn by his henchmen, allude to the exaggerated styling of superhero characters, particularly villains, within traditional comic books. The fumetti was the progenitor of the fotoromanzo, which emerged in Latin America, the United States, and Canada during the 1960s and 1970s. Adaptations of popular films, television series, and original stories were extremely popular in these regions until the emergence of home video technology in the 1980s reduced audience demand.
Thus, instead of dismissing the film as a schlocky and inferior entry into Italian horror cinema, further cultural references can be read from the production choices within the film. Perhaps the most ornate torture device within a film, the iron maiden looks as though it would be more at home on the elaborate stage of Italy’s horror theatre. Indeed, the wobbly sets, rudimentary props, and sensational themes of sex and death imbue the interior shots with a sense of temporary disposability and vaudeville that calls to mind Alfredo Sainati’s Italian take on horror theatre, La Compagnia del Grand-Guignol/The Company of Grand-Guignol.
Established in 1908 and dissolved in 1928, the theatre may well have contributed to the myriad of genre influences upon this film, particularly as Italy was a late bloomer in regards to a definitive horror cinema; Riccardo Freda’s I Vampiri or The Vampires from 1957 is critically considered to be the first example. This was of course largely due to regulation from the Fascist government in Italy during the 1930s and 1940s; under Mussolini, the government funded domestic film production and was thus in a position to greatly censor content both locally and internationally via imported features.
The Italian film industry greatly recovered in the decade after the war, thanks in part to the replication of the Hollywood studio system, which itself relocated several productions to Europe – specifically at sites in Britain and Italy, the latter being of course Cinecittà (Cinema City), which was erected during the Fascist era. The strengthened national film industry resulted in much more domestic output – specifically genre content – being produced from the 1940s onwards. In this context, Il boia scarlatto can be read as a wonderful celebration of the genres that Italian audiences were starved of during the war years, including international imports, and specifically American and British genre influences.
As an extension of this, and perfectly matching the garish visual design of the film, is Gino Peguri’s penetrating score, which meshes influences from Italian crime and western films, as well as the country’s burgeoning horror cinema. The use of staccato trumpets bears more than a passing resemblance to Mario Bava’s official directorial debut (he is credited for completing Freda’s Il Vampiri when the director left the project): gothic horror La maschera del demonio/The Mask of the Demon or Black Sunday (1960). The film also features an historical evil returning from the dead – in the form of actress Barbara Steele, who of course starred in Pupillo’s Cinque Tombe per un Medium – to seek revenge, and begins with a similar prologue, complete with an omniscient narrator.
In describing such similarities to other Italian gothic horror cinema, the placing of Il boia scarlatto within this grouping is called into context. The other two entries in Pupillo’s trilogy of gothic horror were very much centred on the female characters at the heart of the stories, allowing Pupillo to explore female hysteria and monstrosity. Both the victim and aggressor in each film – though supported by men – were women, just one of the traditional elements associated with the evolution of Italian gothic horror, which draws heavily on the belles dames san merci from Italian literature and opera.
Though Il boia scarlatto incorporates further tropes of Italian gothic horror, including melodrama, eroticism and sadism, instead of a weak or corruptible male character manipulated by a woman, the film presents a male aggressor with an obsessive nature, a desire to attain the perfect body and live in seclusion, away from the vices of the outside world. Trevor, played by Hargitay, Mr. Universe himself in his first acting role, looks like he has just wandered on set from a peplum film. With his sandy hair, and tanned and toned physique, he looks every part the Herculean, egotistical monster he strives to become.
The representation of the male and female characters in the film has been largely criticised, with Trevor’s narcissism and psychosis, revealed in his adoption of the Crimson Executioner persona and subsequent torturing of his victims – deemed a “homoerotic fantasy “safely” circumvented by the torture of women” (Senn, 2077: 155), which simultaneously masks an exploitative and misogynistic attack upon the female characters. In fact, a large majority of reviews focus entirely on the torture of the women or incorrectly state that Trevor only tortures women. Though two of the male deaths occur off-screen, the audience witnesses the aftermath. Similarly, while the female scenes of torture are more sustained and gratuitous, in terms of the characters’ semi-naked appearance, the reviews completely ignore the male deaths at Trevor’s hands, including a horrific murder by immolation.
The fact that Trevor ultimately assumed the identity of a legendary villain, a person who had secured their place in history via taking the lives of others, is telling and fascinating when considering his personal pursuit of perfection. In revealing Trevor’s psychological breakdown after losing Edith, which resulted in him seeking seclusion from the outside world and striving, and failing, to become the perfect man, instead becoming another man, the film is thus an innovative and wonderfully refreshing inversion of the female hysteria explored within other examples of the genre.
When comparing the films within Pupillo’s trilogy of horrors, it must be noted that his other two entries in the gothic vein are much more critically acclaimed; despite its humor and cultural references, Pupillo’s heart and presence is simply not felt in Il boia scarlatto. The director was no stranger to admitting his grievances with the commercial aspect of filmmaking, and even television. Aside from the somewhat pioneering exploration of male narcissism and psychological trauma, Il boia scarlatto, which focuses on the production of an artistic product within popular entertainment, can be read as a quietly scornful portrayal of the commercial film industry itself. Pupillo only directed three horror films, returning to television and subsequently documentary filmmaking – where his heart seemed to truly lie – after he completed a further couple of genre films: a western, Bill il taciturno/Django Kills Softly (1967), and a mondo, L’amore, questo sconosciuto/Love: The Great Unknown (1969). In a tragic way, Il boia scarlatto feels like Pupillo’s resignation letter from genre filmmaking. Forever cemented as the reluctant director of genre, his triad of gothic horror is a short-lived but lasting legacy.