Thanks to the mainstream cinematic releases of the last few decades, the phrase “comic book adaptation” doesn’t exactly scream “cult film,” and certainly doesn’t imply plots teeming with sex, violence, hedonism, or sadomasochism. Enter Italy. Long known for their astounding arthouse and genre cinema — including the Gothic horror of the ‘50s, the lurid giallo thrillers of the ‘70s, and an ‘80s onslaught of hilariously bad (but often irrepressibly entertaining) ripoffs of Hollywood hits like Jaws — there was a brief window when Italian producers decided to capitalize on the popularity of the fumetto nero and adapted some of these adult-themed comic books for the screen.
The fumetto nero — meaning “black comic” (the plural is fumetti neri) — was an invention of the ‘60s. Essentially the first type of Italian comic books to be marketed towards busy adults contending with long hours on public transportation, these pocket-sized stories were chock full of sadism, antiheroes, and often ludicrous acts of criminality and violence inspired by the turn of the century crime serials so popular in French literature and silent films. In Simone Castaldi’s Drawn and Dangerous: Italian Comics of the 1970s and 1980s, she wrote, “Until the publication of the first issue of Diabolik (1962) by sisters Angela and Luciana Giussani, Italian comics were marketed exclusively to children and adolescents. The appearance and immediate success of a comic book whose hero, the mysterious Diabolik, was a cold-blooded criminal and in which homicide was constantly carried out with a considerable dose of sadism, revealed to many publishers the existence of an already available niche of adult readers for the medium. Thus, the genre fumetto nero was born” (13).
In a lot of ways, the fumetti neri were a reaction to the postwar economic boom; while this was experienced in a lot of countries in the ‘50s, such as the United States and West Germany, it didn’t really come to Italy until the ‘60s. The impact was dramatic: directors like Pasolini, Elio Petri, and Ettore Scola (among many more) have explored its effects, which include a shifting emphasis from long-standing cultural and religious traditions towards rampant commercialism. Poor rural populations in the south began emigrating north, particularly to urban centers, and conservative notions of home life began to change thanks to an obsession with newly available appliances. These are just a few examples of some of the widespread social and financial changes, though the emphasis on consumerism, greed, wealth, and class is clearly expressed in the fumetti neri.
Diabolik, and the other antiheroes he inspired, were the ultimate hedonists; primarily amoral and sociopathic, they were concerned with the acquisition of wealth, luxury, and beauty at any cost and with no regard for the law. These plots often involve nonsensical, almost ritualistic crimes, acts that are defiantly antisocial, even antiestablishmentarian. As I’ve mentioned, these take their inspiration from earlier crime serials: “The early Diabolik stories were indebted to the tradition of feuilletons—in particular, to Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain’s Fantomas, Maurice Leblanc’s Arsène Lupin, and in general, to the tradition of gothic” (Castaldi 14). Of course, the fumetti neri creators upped the ante in terms of sex, violence, and ‘60s style, which is part of what made the genre so ripe for cinematic adaptation.
And while Diabolik started the craze, it was quickly followed by imitators: “Demoniak, Sadik, Zakimort, Masokis (all sporting a K in Diabolik fashion!), Fantasm, Tenebrax, Genius, Infernal, and many others” (Castaldi 14). Ironically, Diabolik was not the first adapted for the screen and there were some early precursors. For example, Sadik inspired one of the tales in a comic anthology, Thrilling (1965), though this is ironically more of a satire than a straightforward adaptation, and Kriminal was brought to the screen as early as 1966. But Diabolik, at least in its comic book form, had a profound influence and Mario Bava’s 1968 film is undoubtedly the apex of the cinematic subgenre
Known to Italian audiences as Diabolik and to the English-language market as Danger: Diabolik, the film follows the comic antihero (the perfect John Phillip Law), as he embarks upon on a series of criminal adventures with his lady love, Eva Kant (the equally perfect Marisa Mell), by his side. A master thief, Diabolik can steal absolutely anything and often pushes himself to take on new, seemingly impossible challenges. One of these involves a birthday present for Eva: a gift of one of the rarest jewels in the world, a large emerald necklace that happens to be on exhibition nearby. Local law enforcement, of course, has made it nearly impossible to steal, or so they think, but Diabolik soon makes off with the stone and returns to Eva in their secret underground lair.
In response, the local government — of a Swiss town called Clerville — decides that they have to protect the treasury from Diabolik’s clutches and elects to melt all of the currency in their vault into a giant gold block (!). Diabolik, unable to resist such a challenge, steals the gold, which has been set with a trap: the coffin that holds it has been irradiated, so law enforcement can finally find his lair and bring his days of glory to an end. He, indeed, gets covered by a shower of molten gold, but just as the film’s credits are about to roll, he winks at Eva (and the camera), and it becomes clear that he just happened to be wearing a spacesuit impervious to both radiation and molten gold. As you do.
Sort of an anti-James Bond, Diabolik is an antihero, but even though he’s a thief and a murderer, there’s something deeply charismatic about him. He takes what he wants and makes no apologies, while possessing a sort of anarchic vibe; no rules or morals can stop him, with the possible exception of his love for Eva. Unlike Bond, he’s a devoted partner and is actually monogamous. And unlike the earlier Fantomas or the later Kriminal, there is something of a Robin Hood thread woven into his character and he typically only steals from the gluttonously rich or from organized crime bosses — the latter seen in Bava’s film in the form of Thunderball villain Adolfo Celi.
Bava’s unforgettably stylish film certainly gives a hat tip to the Eurospy thrillers popular at the time — all riffs on the Bond series or Matt Helm films — like the Secret Agent 077 films, Umberto Lenzi’s various stabs at the genre, Chabrol’s Tiger films, as well as series focusing on characters like James Tont, Bob Fleming, and Francis Coplan. There are some beautiful set pieces and lush-looking production details that belie the film’s small budget (Bava allegedly made the film for around $500,000), and its professionalism is enhanced by a wonderful Ennio Morricone score. Of course Diabolik has a signature car (a black Porsche), plenty of clever disguises and improbable gadgets, and occasionally gets up to some master villain activity like when he and Eva interrupt a press conference with laughing gas, and he seems to live to taunt Inspector Ginco (the glorious Michel Piccoli), also his primary nemesis in the comic book. It’s a travesty that Bava wasn’t given a chance to make more of these.
An interesting contrast to Diabolik comes in the form of Kriminal, a follow up that took the former’s use of sex and violence to an entirely different level. In an essay for Offscreen, Roberto Curti wrote, “The most important and influential of all was, undoubtedly, Kriminal. Magnus & Bunker (real names Roberto Raviola and Luciano Secchi) were a pair of young and enthusiastic movie-goers who immediately understood the potentialities of the Diabolik concept, and the improvements they could add to it. Bunker, the writer, came up with grand pulp ideas which Magnus, an original, innovative artist with a peculiar, almost self-parodic style, managed to expand and visualize. Kriminal’s skull-masked trademark costume, for example, is a stunning pop-art creation, something you can never forget once you’ve seen it.”
Unlike Diabolik, Kriminal is an outright villain — with a black, white, and yellow skeleton costume — whose heart has been blackened by a consuming desire for revenge. Like the later Satanik, also created by Magnus & Bunker, there is some real sadism at play here and a much kinkier (even homicidal) approach to sexuality than can be found in the relatively conservative Diabolik. The delightful and underrated Umberto Lenzi beat Bava to the punch by two years when he filmed Kriminal (1966) — apparently because he couldn’t get the rights to Diabolik — starring Glenn Saxon as the titular blond supervillain. The film was released the same year that the Batman television series began and I can’t help but wish that Kriminal has received the same fate; as campy and over-the-top as Batman is, Kriminal is similarly ridiculous, but follows a villain so nefarious that he seduces and murders women (including his own ex-wife), seems to bend the very laws of physics when it suits him, and, is suited up in that unforgettable (glow-in-the-dark) skeleton costume.
As with Bava’s Diabolik, he has a police nemesis — Scotland Yard’s Inspector Milton (Andrea Bosic) — and he’s also in the market for invaluable gems, namely the British Crown Jewels. He gets involved in a complicated plot that includes a diamond heist and an insurance scam, finds his way to casinos and some lovely Mediterranean locales, gets distracted by a pair of twins (both played by cult favorite Helga Liné), and is otherwise a right bastard to everyone in the film. It’s not as well-scripted or as faithful to its source material as Diabolik and feels much more like an outrageous Bond ripoff, but is plenty entertaining as a schlocky Eurospy film.
It was actually followed by a sequel — the far more comic book-influenced (at least in terms of style) Il marchio di Kriminal (Mark of Kriminal, 1968) — which was directed by Fernando Cerchio and is even more over the top: Kriminal passes his time by murdering older women for life insurance money, which leads him to an absurd international hunt for treasure. As a whole, the two films are something like a mashup of Arsène Lupin, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and the Batman TV series — and while that sounds like the greatest thing to happen to cinema, it doesn’t quite reach those heights — but it’s really a shame that there wasn’t more of them. Ludicrous, certainly, but while they don’t quite capture the tone of the comics, partly because of budget issues and partly because of censorship, they’re representative of an under-mined genre that, in a just world, would have been as popular and as explored as the Eurospy films. Certainly there were others that focused on supervillains — like Django-writer Piero Vivarelli’s Mister X (1967) — but overall the fumetti neri films are relegated to a handful of strange, though generally very entertaining experiments.
And that’s not to say that fumetti nero focused exclusively on male protagonists, whether as antiheroes or supervillains. The follow up to Kriminal (and also penned by Magnus & Bunker), Satanik, is a key example. Adapted by Vivarelli for the screen in 1968, this Spanish co-production hits some genre notes even more deeply than Diabolik or Kriminal, though it is far more pedestrian than either of those films, sadly slipping into sort of a routine thriller. Curti wrote, “The subterranean umbilical cord between fumetti neri and genre cinema is even stronger in [Satanik]. The horrific angle is the perfect counterpart for erotic frissons in the adventures of Marny Bannister, an even more unscrupulous incarnation of Duchess Du Grand (I vampiri/The Devil’s Commandment), continuously mutating from old hag to ravishing red-haired slut thanks to a mysterious rejuvenating potion. Satanik predates Italian sex-horror of the seventies, when the loosening of censorship would allow Rosalba Neri to bathe in blood in The Devil’s Wedding Night (Il plenilunio delle vergini, 1973) and Rita Calderoni to walk around in the nude in the aptly titled Nude for Satan (Nuda per Satana, 1974).”
Polish actress Magda Konopka stars as an aged, disfigured scientist, Marny Bannister, who discovers a chemical formula that will transforms her into a young, beautiful woman, but the side effect is that it also turns her into a diabolical mastermind, essentially blending the The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with Kriminal’s basic plot structure. Unfortunately, Vivarelli’s film follows too closely on the heels of Lenzi’s Kriminal, as Bannister also has a police detective nemesis and the film involves a jewel heist. Eschewing the comic’s use of the fantastique and the supernatural, this feels more like a pale imitation of a Jess Franco film in parts — thanks to the use of elements like a nightclub setting and a striptease — and the world is still owed a proper Satanik adaptation complete with the sex, violence, monsters, and the mild feminist themes of the comic.
Of course I would be remiss to explore Italian comic book adaptations with female protagonists without discussing the same year’s Barbarella (1968), though it only deserves a brief mention here because it belongs far more in the realm of pop sci-fi than fumetti neri. This French-Italian coproduction is also based on a French comic, rather than an Italian one, and was helmed by French director Roger Vadim, but has some overlaps with fumetti neri: an incredible sense of style, overwrought use of sexuality that is at times unintentionally comical, and features beautiful women in some outlandish costumes. In a certain sense, Vadim’s attempts to “make something beautiful out of eroticism” and to depict a female character unashamed of her body or her sexuality have something akin with the later female-focused fumetti neri, one of which was brought to the screen as the relatively ignored Isabella, Duchess of the Devils (1969).
Based on a comic of the same name created by Giorgio Cavedon and Sandro Angiolini, this avoids the modern day setting of Diabolik and Kriminal, as well as the caper-themed plot trappings, and is set in seventeenth century France, where the titular noblewoman is subjected to numerous forms of torture and sadomasochism. Bruno Corbucci’s film is an Italian-West German coproduction and follows Isabella (Brigitte Skay), the only surviving member of a slaughtered aristocratic family who is rescued by gypsies as a child, but when she reaches adulthood, she vows to reclaim her family name and inheritance. Really more of an adventure film than a proper fumetti neri adaptation, it’s easy to see Isabella, Duchess of the Devils as having a connection to the later, far weirder Baba Yaga (1973), the crown jewel of the sadomasochism-themed fumetti neri films.
Directed by the criminally ignored Corrado Farina, this 1973 film is a nebulous blend of the Eurohorror, erotica, and exploitation genres, and its fundamental elusiveness is definitely part of its charm. A party-going fashion photographer in Milan, Valentina (Isabelle de Funès), walks home alone from a fete one evening — to escape the aggressive romantic attentions of a filmmaker named Arno (the great and enormously tall George Eastman) — and is nearly hit by a Rolls Royce. Its owner, a wealthy older woman called Baba Yaga (Lenzi favorite Carroll Baker), fascinates Valentina and is fascinated by her in turn. She holds a strange sway over Valentina, who comes to believe that the woman is a witch and has cursed her camera, which seems to have the power to maim or even kill the models she’s photographing. Events become increasingly more surreal as Valentina finds herself in a dreamlike world of lesbian sadomasochistic fantasy, of which Baba Yaga herself seems to be the center.
Belonging roughly in the same strange universe as Belgian horror film Daughters of Darkness (1971) or Bava’s Lisa and the Devil (1973), Baba Yaga has nothing at all to do with the Russian fairytale it’s named after (though that’s something else that needs a strong film adaptation), but is based on the Valentina comic from the great Milanese artist Guido Crepax. His comics are my favorite from this period and, along with his own creation Valentina (itself a spin off of his earlier Neutron), he adapted literary works like Emmanuelle, Venus in Furs, Histoire d’O, Doctor Jekyll, Count Dracula, Kafka’s Trial, and Sade’s Justine; my hardcover books of some of his work are among my most treasured (and heaviest) possessions. Obviously Farina felt the same way about Crepax, as he made a documentary about the artist, though Baba Yaga is more of a spiritual adaptation of Valentina than a literal one.
It is a deeply weird film and it’s no wonder that it hasn’t reached a wider audience. In a world where fetish wear and voodoo dolls meet the throwback swinging ‘60s world of freewheeling sexuality and fashion photography, there isn’t a lot out there like Baba Yaga. To a degree, I can understand why it hasn’t become a popular genre favorite to rival something like Blood and Black Lace or Suspiria. It has a slow pace, a difficult plot to follow, and an unclear conflict and resolution. It lacks explicit gore, highly stylized death scenes, or the sort of suspenseful plot with plenty of twists and red herrings that giallo fans are accustomed to; but it is steeped in surreal imagery and an unnerving sense of anxiety, thanks to the paranoia that begins to grip Valentina and the nightmares that take over her sleeping hours, including a disturbing dream sequence where she is forced by a group of mutated Nazis to jump into a foreboding-looking hole in the ground.
The film’s overall profound sense of disorientation is marred slightly by the fact that Eastman’s character eventually rescues Valentina from her subversive and not entirely unwilling fate as the sadomasochistic plaything of Baba Yaga — to whom she is clearly attracted — returning her to more solid footing in the heteronormative world of straightforward thriller narratives. But Valentina, as a figure in the film but especially as the protagonist of Crepax’s short run of comics, is ultimately a figure of liberty, a woman who casts off limiting social mores and gender stereotypes and reaches out to take what she wants — including ambitions of wealth, social status, and sexual freedom — which places her much closer to fumetti neri antiheroes like Diabolik or Kriminal than to giallo heroines from the same period.