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August 16, 2016

Italian Horror Cinema

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Edited by Stefano Baschiera and Russ Hunter
Edinburgh University Press - 2016

Presented by and primarily for academics, this is a collection of essays that should have some value for those interested in Italian genre films and also Italian film history. What I like is that the editors position their book as part of an on-going discussion of film studies, and none of the authors act as gatekeepers, demanding agreement as to the worthiness of specific filmmakers. Rather than a chronological history or survey of filmmakers, we have a collection of thirteen essays on different aspects of Italian horror films.

Two of the essays are devoted to Dario Argento. No surprise as Argento is the best known, and most commercially successful filmmaker, with several English language books discussing his work. These are also the most academic of the essays. Marcia Landy quotes Walter Benjamin, Antonio Gramsci, Antonin Artaud and Gilles Deleuze, making me think I was reading the work of a Ph.D. candidate desperate to justify Argento to a group of professors who wouldn't be caught dead watching a film titled Four Flies on Grey Velvet. Landy points to various markers in Deep Red as pointing to Italy's fascist past, but fails to mention that Clara Calamai, in her final film role, was a top star during that era. Karl Schoonover's essay discussing Argento in terms of neoliberalism and global capitalism goes into area that Argento probably hadn't intended. Schoonover writes about sexual ambiguity in Tenebre without mentioning the presence of transgender actress Eva Robin's (sic) in the key flashback scene. If there is a second edition, I hope someone correctly names the editor of Four Flies, the Oscar winning Francoise Bonnot.


Better are the essays devoted to Mario Bava. I'm tempted to say that Tim Lucas should be getting some kind of co-author credit as his epic study of Bava is referred to repeatedly. Peter Hutchings uses Lucas' study as an argument both for and against Bava as an auteur. Adam Lowenstein details the relationship between Bava's Bay of Blood and Friday the 13th, as well as examining the significance of the location where the Bava film takes place. Several times, it is discussed whether the genre of the giallo film really began with Bava's The Girl who Knew Too Much or Blood and Black Lace, especially linking the latter film with the fumetti, adult comic books that featured extreme violence carried out by disguised assailants, or the German krimi films that were adapted from the books by Edgar Wallace and his son, Bryan Edgar Wallace. Blood and Black Lace was co-produced by a German company that made krimi films, but what is not mentioned are several other giallo films by Italian filmmakers that also adapted Edgar Wallace.

Of interest is a look at Italian cinema during the silent era, with its elements of horror such as the cinematic versions of Dante's Inferno, and a since lost adventure film featuring the Frankenstein monster. What is also notable is the pointing out that the genre known as the horror film was not named as such until several years after the advent of Universal's Frankenstein and Dracula.

A look at contemporary cinema by Johnny Walker is primarily devoted to Peter Strickland's Berberian Sound Studio and the two giallo inspired films by Helen Cattet and Bruno Forzani. Italian cinema is limited to Emanuele De Santi's Adam Chaplin and the films by Ivan Zuccon. Not mentioned are several other younger Italian filmmakers like Domiziano Cristopharo and Luigi Pastore, who were not only inspired by Argento, but also the less critically esteemed Rino Di Silvestro and Joe D'Amato.

Mark Bernard's look at the cannibal films reviews the arguments for and against these films and especially their use of animal cruelty, their roots in the Mondo documentaries of the Sixties, and the changes in how contemporary audiences view these films.

Certainly, there is more excavating to be done as films continue to be rediscovered and made more widely available in home video formats. What is gleaned from the introduction, and the look at the Italian film criticism at the time the films were made, is that film genre studies are continually evolving, and that there is sometimes more than meets the eye regarding films dismissed at the time of initial release.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at August 16, 2016 01:49 PM