There’s nothing quite as offbeat and lurid as a good Eurohorror romp – or even a bad one. But rarely, if ever, are any of the films from this vast and variable pantheon considered to fall within the boundaries of the ‘Folk Horror’ subgenre. It’s something we tend to see as uniquely British, or at least English-speaking. And if we’re thinking of corn dollies, stone circles, and Incredible String Band style music numbers, then we’d be mostly correct. But a closer look at a few European entries reveals the same tensions and contradictions at work, and the history goes just as deep.
One of the most well-known and highly regarded horror films to come from Italy – not to mention one of a tiny handful that mainstream critics grudgingly concede is of some merit – is of course Dario Argento’s glorious Suspiria (1977). With Goblin’s unforgettable, clattering, pounding score, its demonic voices whisper-shouting ‘Witch!’ at irregular intervals, this almost psychedelic opus about an American girl’s terrifying experience at a German dance academy run by a coven of murderous witches is unlike any other film ever made. Even by its own director. The fact that its ending is slightly unsatisfactory after all that has gone before, is perhaps unavoidable when one has been bashed over the head with a frying pan for the preceding ninety minutes. We’re pretty much rendered insensate by this point.
The premise for this one came not from one of the usual suspects of the Italian genre movie stable of writers (Ernesto Gastaldi, Dardano Sacchetti, et al) but from Argento himself and his then partner, Daria Nicolodi, based on some family history regarding the latter’s grandmother attending an acting academy that also apparently taught the Black Arts. The since-estranged Argento later rubbished this assertion, claiming that he came across this in a (conveniently unspecified) book. Whatever the case, aside from the ‘school run by witches’ angle, the film takes its title and other primary conceits from Thomas De Quincey’s Suspiria de Profundis (‘Sighs from the Depths’), first published in 1845. The father of addiction literature’s opium visions supposedly revealed to him, amongst many other things, the existence of ‘The Three Mothers’: “Three sisters they are, of one mysterious household: and their paths are wide apart; but of their dominion, there is no end…”
In Argento and Nicolodi’s version of this, one of the Mothers, ‘Mater Suspiriorum’ (‘The Mother of Sighs’), is the ancient witch who presides over the malefic mayhem of the Frieberg Tanz Akademie. However, although Suspiria still stands as unique on the cinematic landscape, this cackling witch figure can be seen time and again in horror films from Italy, Spain, and other western European countries.
Europe has quite a track record with witches. In fact, historians estimate that something in the region of 50,000 people was tried and burned as ‘witches’ between the 15th and 18th centuries. Much of this we can now read as the Catholic church persecuting groups or individuals that represented any opposing ideology that they considered a threat, but just as often the church just wanted to get their hands on the accused’s land and assets. However, more broadly, the suppression of the ‘witch’ figure (or Strega in Italian) can be traced back further to the highly patriarchal Roman culture, in which powerful or independent women were abhorred to the point of being stoned in the streets.
To this day the witch remains a strong and threatening figure to the Catholic-informed Middle-European psyche, with some rural villages in Italy still annually burning effigies of streghe on bonfires, and laying unexplained, frightening occurrences at the door of imagined ‘witchcraft’ or ‘Satanism’. In what is probably Lucio Fulci’s best film, Don’t Torture a Duckling (Non si sevizia un paperino, 1972), we witness a depiction of the latter, with a series of shocking child murders erroneously traced back to mentally damaged hermit Maciara (Florinda Bolkan), who, along with the townspeople, believes herself to be a witch. Once the finger is pointed, the consequences are as tragic as one might predict. In Fulci’s wry condemnation of small-town small-mindedness, the actual murderer turns out to be none other than the local priest.
In the very first Italian horror movie of the sound era, I vampiri (1956, released in the US in a bowdlerized form as The Devil’s Commandment), directed initially by Riccardo Freda but famously completed by Mario Bava, we have a Countess Bathory figure in the form of Marguerita (Gianna Maria Canale), who masquerades by day in her borrowed youthful, beautiful form as ‘Giselle’. When we first see her true form, as a veiled silhouette in a doorway, her rasping, evil voice admonishing her minion, we also have our first glimpse (at least in a genre context) of the strega figure that casts her shadow over many a Eurohorror entry to come.
Although I vampiri turned out to be something of a false start, the European horror movie exploded onto the export market with Mario Bava’s first solo directorial stint, Black Sunday (1960). Here we see an actual witch, Princess Asa (Barbara Steele, in the role that would make her as much of a genre icon as Lee and Cushing), burnt at the stake by her witch-hunting brother, only to return 200 years later to wreak revenge upon his (and obviously her own) descendants. However, Asa’s focus quickly falls on female descendent Katia, her doppelgänger (and hence also played by Steele), who she attempts to replace, planning to live on by using her young body.
And here’s where the genre’s relationship with the strega becomes more complicated. In one scene we see the recently revived Asa, still corpse-like, her face dotted with puncture marks made by the ‘Mask of Satan’ that her persecutors hammered onto her face before burning her, writhe orgasmically on what’s left of her tomb. The camera pulls in on her opening mouth, tempting the unfortunate Dr. Kruvajan (Andrea Checci) to approach and kiss her. “Come, kiss me. My lips will transform you,” says Asa. “You will be dead to man, but you will be alive in death.” At once repulsive and alluring, one can only imagine the confusing effect this scene wrought on many a young male libido at the time of its release.
Black Sunday lit the blue touch paper that launched a thousand Eurohorrors, all fit for export purposes, with Steele as ‘nice girl with supernatural evil doppelgänger’ for a time becoming a mini-subgenre of its own. And through this we eventually end up back at Suspiria, along with its sequels; the nonsensical but beautiful Inferno (1980) and the much belated and frankly idiotic Mother of Tears (La terza madre, 2007), where our mighty witches are reduced to little more than a trainload of particularly obnoxious goth chicks. The fact that these witches simultaneously attract and repel in this fashion directly reflects the Mediterranean patriarchal culture’s love/hate relationship with powerful, capable women.
This cinematic witchery reached its insane nexus point with the likes of Renato Ponselli’s bizarre opus, Reincarnation of Isabel (Riti, magie nere e segrete orge nel trecento, 1973 AKA, wait for it, Black Magic Rites and the Secret Orgies of the 14th Century). The Italian genre film industry was notoriously magpie-like, gleefully stealing from any popular cinematic trend or cultural phenomenon that was doing the rounds. So here we see this inherent anxiety around the strega blended with a more recent development; the notoriety of the late Anton LaVey and his Church of Satan, who was then (and still are, to a certain extent) having a grand old time putting the wind up pious and/or just plain dumb folks the world over.
Here we have witchcraft for sex kicks; with the very thing that’s supposed to scare us also used as an erotic fantasy playground. If anyone’s in any doubt of the LaVeyan influence on this, just look to the fact that Mickey Hargitay was cast as the male lead. The former Mr. Universe had a decade earlier been the husband of Hollywood sex symbol Jayne Mansfield, who notoriously consorted with LaVey to the point of being awarded a special medallion and bestowed with the title of ‘High Priestess of San Francisco’s Church of Satan’ by the latter. Naturally, an over-excited media gleefully linked this to the gruesome manner of her untimely death; she was tragically decapitated in a car accident.
Thus, in Isabel, we have plenty of scenes with male witch Hargitay, in what can only be described as a supervillain costume (tellingly with a big-ass medallion), leading numerous black masses where nubile young girls in kinky boots are offered up in order to help reincarnate the titular vampiric witch who, just like Princess Asa, was burned at the stake hundreds of years earlier. For further sexy witch debauchery, see also Luigi Scattini’s mondo-style ‘expose’ Witchcraft ’70 (Angeli bianchi… angeli neri, 1970), and Jose Larraz’s relatively (!) arty Black Candles (Los ritos sexuales del diablo, 1982), with further Satanic covens, also being found in Short Night of Glass Dolls (1971), All the Colours of the Dark (1972), The Perfume of the Lady in Black (1974), The Sect (1991), and more. And, outside of the genre, let’s not forget The Witches / La streghe (1967), the comedy anthology film where some of Italy’s most respected directors of the day (all male, of course) offered their takes on womanhood. Since none of the five tales contain an ‘actual’ witch, the implication is that all women are witches. Argento’s resolutely unsexy strega burns with her dance academy at the end of Suspiria, meaning that The Three Mothers are reduced to two. And of course, all these witches, sexy or no, are destined to come to a sticky end by the last reel. Reading against the grain can reveal them to represent a safe means of subverting and rebelling against a hopelessly dogmatic and patriarchal culture, especially for female viewers. The fantasy of becoming a powerful and terrifying figure against all the forces that sustain their oppression. But, for all its dark delights, the horror genre, like most others, has ever been ultimately a conservative one, so such wanton heresy can never go unpunished for long.