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The hidden romanticism Lucio Fulci’s Gates of Hell trilogy

Please note that this article may contain spoilers.

The Gates of Hell trilogy of films from the Italian director Lucio Fulci defy classification to a certain extent. Sure they are horror but what type? As fans of the genre will understand, using such a broad classification is too simplistic when discussing not only our love of these films but the artistic intent and style contained within. 

By using such an umbrella term one may fail to do justice to the work and the (variety of the) genre. Consider the films of Lucio Fulci alongside the horror of Tobe Hooper (TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE; POLTERGEIST), Wes Craven (A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET) and Alexandre Aja (HIGH TENSION; PIRANHA 3D). All of which are notably different and may appeal to slightly different audiences but yet all come under the bracket of horror.

So there is often the need to discuss and classify sub-genres but what kind of horror do the Gates of Hell films fall under? 

General consensus would place them in the filone of the zombie sub-genre however at certain points they may also incorporate the supernatural, the haunted house, the fantastical, the slasher and maybe even a little touch of the giallo. One thing however is that these three films are art.

In his book How to Read A Film, James Monaco argues that art is what you can’t specifically define and these three films certainly adhere to this. 

But ironically even the undefinable needs to be classified. I propose that these films do in fact conform to the definition of later period romanticism. That is to argue that they are art for art’s sake; in this case to elicit a sense of trepidation and fear. The same argument could be made for SUSPIRIA by Dario Argento, but that is a topic for another article.

Taking the movement of romanticism, which promoted form over content, we can see clear parallels between it and the work of Lucio Fulci covered here. Hardly surprisingly and I doubt a coincidence or mere conjecture considering that the director himself started out as an art-critic.

Throughout each film of the trilogy we are quick to realise that despite a relatively basic story that the films themselves do not directly relate to our reality, that is the world in which we live in, but rather to the relationship between the film and the artist (that is to say Lucio Fulci) and to the relationship between the film and us – the viewer.

Ever since the Ancient Greeks and their creation of drama a psychological element has been evident in performance but here it is taken to a logical, or perhaps that should be illogical, extreme wherein the emotion felt is the art and therefore is also the film. As such the three films that make up this trilogy focus on the visual and the atmospheric as opposed to plot or character development. A clear prioritisation for the makers is the focus on abstractism.

Although that is not to say the trilogy was exempt from contemporary economic demands or pressures. Those zombies are not there necessarily because they suited Lucio Fulci’s artistic vision but rather because distributors insisted that they be there and besides it was the early nineteen eighties and zombies sold. And who was he to argue with their demands considering it was their money paying for it all. Not to mention that it was arguably the zombie which gave him his biggest box office returns and may do once again.

CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD was originally proposed under the title Paura, which translates as fear in Italian, and according to Italian screenwriting legend and frequent Lucio Fulci collaborator, Dardano Sacchetti, after the success of ZOMBIE FLESH EATERS the director had realised the potential success that could be had from the horror genre and so he began reading H.P. Lovecraft, falling in love with the atmosphere of the books, in a bid to further his own journeyman career. This perhaps explains why the flesh-munching voodoo inspired ghouls from his previous film were put aside for more cranial, teleporting creatures. 

With a desire to reach critical and commercial success, a refined and well-read palette and having shown himself to have his own artistic capabilities (see A LIZARD IN A WOMAN’S SKIN for evidence) it was as if now “(Lucio) Fulci had let go of reality and embraced the fantastic…[taking] horror into a more primal subconscious place” (Eli Roth in An Introduction to The Beyond [Arrow blu-ray booklet]). 

City of the Living Dead

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Starting with CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD, a film which critics and fountains of Italian genre cinema knowledge Antonio Bruschini and Antonio Tentori state “oscillates between splatter and fantasy, visual cruelty and metaphysical poetry” (from their book Lucio Fulci: Poetry and cruelty in the movies). A brief synopsis of the film sees a reporter and a psychic traveling to Dunwich to close a gate of hell which opened due to the suicide of a priest, courtesy of a powerful and heretical opening – it all sounds rather straightforwards.

However a deep Lovecraftian influence pervades the film lending it a sense of the strange. Additionally there is further literary influence as opposed to a cinematic one, by way of the likes of Edgar Allen Poe (the rural gothic atmosphere; premature burial) and Stephen King (influence from Salem’s Lot). These influences are moulded into something that would almost define what many would think of when they think of Lucio Fulci’s body of work – surreal visual horror.

All of the Lovecraftian illogical and unpredictable horror utilised actually generates its real horror from the evil of men and their sadistic nature. This dark cynicism is a theme common in several of Lucio Fulci’s films.

In CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD perhaps this is most clearly shown in the brutal killing of Bob (as played by Giovanni Lombardo Radice). Here this act represents arguably one of the most brutal moments in the film and without a supernatural aspect in sight.

Talking of the supernatural, the séance in the opening of the film is unfortunately borderline Garth Marenghi, just take a look at the flames that occur after the first incident, but does a job in setting the tone for the rest of the movie.

Another moment from the otherworld, and one in which makes very little narrative sense, is where familiar faces Michele Soavi and Daniella Doria are sat in a car when our problematic priest reappears and disappears causing eyes to bleed, intestines being vomited up and skulls being crushed by teleporting zombies. Here the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ are irrelevant making it about the form and not the content. 

Free from the restrictive shackles of the George Romero inspired undead or even the requirement for a tight script and continuity, Lucio Fulci is able to focus more on the form. As Fangoria editor Chris Alexander is quoted in the booklet ‘Fulci of the Living Dead’ by Calum Waddell, CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD see’s “Fulci at his most uninhibited, free to jam his curious camera into the crevices of creepiness…with grandiose, abstract gore and surreal shock.”

Further support for the argument of art for art’s sake can be found in the films ambiguous ending. Like with a painting (more on that later), we the viewer are invited to overlay our own thoughts and interpretation to the piece. This is device that is repeated across the three films and the idea of the innocence of children is explored further also.

The Beyond

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A year later and THE BEYOND would continue with not only many of the same themes but also an ending that is also open to interpretation. 

Due to its focus on visual horror and supernatural themes some have compared THE BEYOND to the first two (SUSPIRIA; INFERNO) of Dario Argento’s ‘3 Mothers’ trilogy however this is slightly misleading as although there are several commonalities the key driver and execution are significantly different. 

In THE BEYOND Lucio Fulci eschews the more traditional thriller plot structure and instead fully commits to creating “an experiment in total terror” (Antonio Bruschini and Antonio Tentori). The film builds on the abstract and the surreal which again gives the director free reign to terrify us with no logical rhyme or reason. But that is ok as this almost dreamlike narrative flows like a nightmare as again the how and why is superfluous to the resulting action. 

Now THE BEYOND is the perhaps the best example of form over content, with critics such as Arnold Blumberg & Andrew Hershberger (in their book Zombiemania: 80 Movies to die for) stating that “the key to appreciating the proceedings is not to get wrapped up in the plot and instead focus on the mood.” Something that the director is on record as stating as the aim indicating a very conscious effort. Upon its release Lucio Fulci is believed to have been quoted as saying:

“People who blame The Beyond for its lack of story have not understood that it’s a film of images, which must be received without any reflection. They say it is very difficult to interpret such a film, but it is very easy to interpret a film with threads: Any idiot can understand Molinaro’s LA CAGE AUX FOLLES, or even Carpenter’s ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, while THE BEYOND or Argento’s INFERNO are absolute films.”

THE BEYOND opens in Louisiana, 1927, as an armed mob slowly descend upon a large rural hotel. A psychic reads the book of Eibon telling us of seven gateways but it is not her that the vigilantes are interested in but an ungodly warlock, played by the distinctive Antoine Saint-John (THE KILLER MUST KILL AGAIN), who resides in room number 36.

More than a simple whipping later we jump to contemporary times as Liza (Catriona MacColl) inherits said old building and is having it renovated so that may give her a much needed fresh start. Throw in a handsome local doctor (as played by David Warbeck) and we get what initially looks like playing out as a classic gothic horror but with Italian horror sensibilities. However after an attack on Joe the friendly plumber, things begin to change. 

This act of shocking barbarity is followed immediately by a beautiful and expansive shot of an empty bridge, save for Liza travelling in her car. But in the middle of the bridge, quite literally stands a blind woman, Emily, and her canine companion. Very strange. Even more so considering Emily was stood there waiting for Eliza and we get a sense that whatever conventional narrative (in horror terms at least) that had begun to take hold was about to be twisted into something a little stranger. On a side note the arthouse film INFERNO VENEZIANO would take influence from the image on the bridge and prove to be equally out-there in terms of abstract horror.

Now after some much needed exposition, courtesy of our blind friend, we get a first look towards a barren and bleak painting, showing us more that what is just on the canvas. Such as with any painting the meaning is personal and open to interpretation. While in his review Donato Totaro states that the “painting that becomes integral to the thematic and metaphysical landscape” and I am certainly one to agree.

In THE BEYOND Lucio Fulci has shown us the materials for which we can either interpret, simply accept and be entertained or as is the case with most genre fare, to scorn and ridicule it’s lack of spoon-fed narrative. However you see it though, you cannot deny that THE BEYOND has the feeling of a film in which anything could happen and it does.

The House by the Cemetery

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It is hardly surprising that the thematic influence of Lovecraft would seep into the final entry of the trilogy, only this time it is seemingly merged with a variation of the myth of Frankenstein. Only this time the doctor and the monster are one and the same.

In the film, rationality once again takes a backseat and rather than mull over lines such as “You really should take those pills your baker prescribed” we should instead accept and appreciate that it plays out almost in a dream-like state where brutal random violence is juxtaposed with childlike innocence by way of situations that assault our senses.

Much like CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD the film is a mesh of several strands of horror; the slasher, the giallo, the supernatural and the haunted house movie. Because of this THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY is the hardest film of the three to rationalise in terms of a (neo)romaticism angle, as it could just as easily be argued for as a disjointed and incomplete mess as it could a poem of childhood anxiety and fear. 

For those unfamiliar with the film the basic storyline focuses on Dr. Norman Boyle (Paolo Malco) and his family, rounded off by Catriona MacCall as the wife and Giovanni Frezza as the oddly voiced son, who relocate to the rural town of New Whitby (a Bram Stoker reference perhaps?) so that he may continue on the research of his recently departed mentor. Oh did I forget to mention that the research was on suicide and the late mentor had also committed suicide – the ill omens are all there. While discussing strange coincidences this is a second pivotal character in the trilogy named Bob. 

From the very beginning Lucio Fulci lays his cards out on the table for all to see, indeed even before the opening titles, a female victim (played by the ever suffering Daniela Doria) is brutally murdered. If anyone had wondered what type of film they were about to watch they did not have long to wait in order to find out. 

Interestingly throughout the film the script drops what may be seen as a few clues as to both the absurd nature of the proceedings and also the underlying objective and direction of the film. Examples of this include when the babysitter (Ania Pieroni) is cleaning up a large pool of blood on the kitchen floor and is questioned about it by the lady of the house, Lucy. Rather than answer she simply states that some coffee is in the pot and this random bit of information placates Lucy who simply forgets about the unexplained spillage. Although this is perhaps also explained by the previously mentioned line regarding Lucy Boyle’s pills (as prescribed by her baker) in order to supress her hallucinations, leading us to question is any of this real? After all Bob is a bit too odd but he seemingly isn’t the only one. 

Talking of odd, a member of the local community while speaking to the Dr suggests that he had visited the town previously only that time with his daughter. While it is very possible that the citizen had heard but not seen Bob and just assumed it was a girl this is very unlikely. However just as these points are raised quite often they are ignored although both do hint at another reality so to speak, one in which the young girl May exists in, only whether this is genuinely real or a figment of someone’s imagination is never made clear. 

Supernatural aside, and there are several ethereal moments, arguments of the neo-romanticism influence on the film can be made rather interestingly through the use of the ugly. Ugly in the terms of the gratuitous violence that is employed. Not only through the framing (credit to Sergio Salvati here) but also in the way that THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY makes the viewer feel like a helpless voyeur during the carnage as the director elects to revel in the violence. Instead of shying away from the action we are actually invited in for a closer, longer look and just like those visiting the grand guignol shows of Paris we love it. We are captivated by it and it draws us in. Check out the death of the Estate Agent for some prime action.

For fans of horror THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY is a must watch. It is a film built on many things including the creation of suspense, the mystery of the murderer and perhaps most of all, the visceral thrills of the violence. In short it is about eliciting and heightening a select group of emotions through its visual medium.

While watching the film viewers will have many questions, including the symbolism at the end as Bob emerges from the tomb that is located in the front room.

What does this all mean? After all he is too young to be ‘born again’ but is it even representative of a birth of anything? Meanwhile his ghostly friend May does not seem too bothered about the final confrontation that Bob had just been a party to but then again neither does Bob despite both parents fates…as he has seemingly travelled back in time without a care in the world. 

A singular vision

The Gates of Hell trilogy are three films brought together by a singular idea; to create emotive horror free from the logical constraints of a traditional narrative. Incorporating a Lovecraftian influence, as Jamie Russell would say in his book “Book of the Dead”, Lucio Fulci and Dardano Sacchetti “set out to create …radical, avant-garde gore movies” and to an extent this is an accurate take.

As all three films reject conventional and traditional film structures instead focusing on “just a succession of images” (Lucio Fulci in a printed interview with Starburst Magazine) that are interested in exploring personal fears and anxieties. 

Indeed the Tate Gallery define Romanticism as a “movement in art and literature distinguished by a new interest in human psychology, expression of personal feeling and interest in the natural world” which Neo-Romanticism builds upon to overlay the more abstract. In which it is the message and not the content that matters. 

Clearly as evidenced by the men involved these three films are built on abstract literary sources and were created for a specific form of expression and feeling in which we, the viewer, are then invited to impose our own interpretations upon.

So it is not surprising when people talk about the poetry of Lucio Fulci’s films, or when some of them are are described as “delirious, dreamy and often demented” (Calum Waddell in his booklet ‘Freudstein Revisited’ for Arrow films) because like a dream many scenes and sequences have no logical starting point or arc to help feed into the narrative but instead jump from action point to action point. Thankfully however Dardano Sacchetti never forgets to throw in some exposition so that we have some context and to aid the flow of images.

The deeper level of artistic endeavour employed adds weight to the argument that Lucio Fulci is, as many of us would already believe, a creative artist and not merely a workmanlike artisan or even a hack as some would have you believe and that the Gates of Hell trilogy stand up as a collective yet singular piece of art.

And remember…Fulci lives!

FROM UNDER THE COVER

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A bit of a more personal post here and one that starts off with a huge thank you to the Italian director Giulio Ciancamerla for taking the time (and cost) to send me a full DVD-CD media book of his film UNDERCOVER MISTRESS which was only just released by X-Rated.

Now UNDERCOVER MISTRESS is a revenge film with a difference…it actually has something to say. Here credit also has to go to producer Lucio Massa and his Aborsky Produktion through which he has overseen five features and this short in under five years in which he has proven himself to never be one to shy away from the extreme, the controversial and the challenging.

Working together for the third time (Giulio Ciamcamerla was the assistant director on both HIPPOCAMPUS M21TH and VIOLENT SHIT: THE MOVIE from Aborsky Produktion) the director would act as a provocateur here and take a story based in the world on bondage and suffuse it with a tale of gender violence and identity.  Now I am not going to go and write a review (I did that here) but I am going to say that X-Rated have done justice to the film with this release which also features a very insightful set of interviews  with several members of cast and crew (in Italian with a choice of English or French subtitles), two additional old short films from the director, footage from the audio recording session and a CD of the music from across all three short films. Oh and a multi-lingual booklet detailing the influences and memories from the older short films.

Now I have waxed lyrical about how good this release looks (available from several independent European web stores and Amazon.it) but why is it a personal post?

Well that is because I had the very good fortune to review the film on my old website Cosi Perversa and a quote from my review made it onto this release! Now for the more seasoned writer or critic this may be a regular occurrence but this is a first for me…and to get a copy of the release is just the icing on the cake. Of course now I have changed sites, rather frustratingly I did this only a week before hearing from Giulio about the release, but I have ported the review across here.

So let’s raise a glass to the discussion about gender identity, revenge and how we perceive others. And then raise it again to Giulio, Lucio, Leonardo, Stefania and the rest of the cast and crew for making this film.

Grazie Giulio.

Cin cin.

AFTER MIDNIGHT (2018) BY VARIOUS DIRECTORS

Reviews

Directors: Various
Writers: Various
Year: 2018 [Various]
Starring: Various

Synopsis:
A collection of eight Italian short horror/sci-fi films.

Review:
Coming from Italian production houses ‘Demented Gore Production’ and ‘Moonlight Legacy Production’ is AFTER MIDNIGHT, a collection of eight short films bundled together.

As a result of this there is little thematic or production conformity between the stories, and as expected the quality does vary particularly as a lot of the short films used in this release were recorded for separate purposes.

On to the films and experienced director Daniele Misischia steps up first to the plate with ‘L’ultimo video di Sara’ (The last video of Sara) which thematically raises questions about not only our online desire for validation but also the attitude and acts in which online behaviour can elicit.

We watch as vlogger Sara tackles the issue of her own online trolls which has caused her to have to ban or ‘censor’ people on her channel. An act that some seemingly obsessive people did not like and have let her know. However as the vlog continues we begin to realise that she is not alone in her house.

On a superficial level this short film reminded me somewhat of the 2015 American horror film Ratter although arguably with a little more to say while the insertion of subliminal cuts offered a smart piece of variety to the single frame shot utilised throughout the rest of the short running time.

In my opinion ‘L’ultimo video di Sara’ is a solid effort but would work best as a web clip as opposed to being on a home entertainment release. Featuring reasonable Fx, a few nice ideas and a reasonable concept this story is a nice start to the collection but I would not have expected any less from this director.

We follow this with ‘The Taste of Survival’ from director Davide Pesca who has recently contributed to the anthologies A TASTE OF PHOBIA and DEEP WEB XXX (as well as previously contributing to the compilation 17 A MEZZANOTTE) and so he too should know a thing or two about making a short story work.

Set 27 years after an almost apocalyptic event, ‘The Taste of Flesh’ plays somewhat with traditional convention (good) but without committing enough to the required grindhouse style (bad – although the music was spot on) and coming across quite frankly as just a bit too modern and digital.

When one of the highlights is that one of the bad guys is wearing a Wacken festival t-shirt then you know that this segment is not living up to its potential and that is a shame as the concept works a little more than the execution.

Third up is ‘Nyctophobia’ from Francesco Longo. This is a short film that I have reviewed in detail previously on this very blog and so I won’t repeat myself and go into detail here. However it forms one of the strongest stories across the board (direction, acting, story) in this release and provides an entertaining, thoughtful and at times tense watch.

A tough act to follow but Davide Cancila is commendable in his effort which centres around an almost catatonic woman and her seemingly guilt-ridden yet caring brother. 

In its short time ‘Nel buio’ manages to smartly tell the past and show the present with a few twists thrown in along the way. Overall the supernatural horror is about guilt, revenge and penance and is worth a watch.

‘Io non le credo’ from Luca Bertossi is next up and sadly compared to the previous two stories feels a little incomplete. The majority of the short follows the dialogue between a man, afflicted by a demonic nun, and an unconvinced priest to whom he is begging for help.

Possessing all of the right pieces ‘Io non le credo’ just fails to pull it off in part due to some weak performances but perhaps mostly due to lacking any real set up or emotional involvement. That having been said it potentially could be seen as a nice critique on the cowardice and ineffective nature of the church. Either that or it was simply made because evil nuns are relatively popular now.

If ‘Io non le credo’ was attempting to capture what is popular now then ‘Escape from Madness’ from Nicola Pegg is trying capture the essence of a classic.

As a woman is walking through an empty park at night she soon realises that perhaps she is not alone as first thought. From here the viewer might be expecting this short to go one way but what classic influence could I have been previously referred to?

Well this influence bizarrely comes from Tobe Hooper and the seminal THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. Now to say this is a rip-off would certainly be a bit harsh but ultimately the story descends into a fanboys dream to make.

Although competently made it would have certainly been improved with better SFX but with a brief ten minute run time ‘Escape from Madness’ does not overrun its welcome and will hit the mark. Not quite prime meat but enjoyable to digest nonetheless.

Now the penultimate story ‘Che serata di merda!’ (I translate as ‘That evening of shit’) from Roberto Albanesi is perhaps the lightest of all the shorts featured in the collection and the only one that is inherently tied to the release due to it’s self-and release-referential nature.

Considering he was behind NON NUATATE IN QUEL FIUME and the sequel, as well as being involved in the wraparound of CATACOMBA I had high hopes for ‘Che sedate di merda’ and the short certainly grew on me as it played.

In the short film a missing farmer re-appears blood covered and staggering through the small town while a couple share a glass of wine and a film at home….the NON NUATATE IN QUEL FIUME references are plentiful, I hope the director paid himself royalties!

In a true case of ‘I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER’ revenge it is unsurprising to see that these characters have some sort of prior business but here the narrative is not so straight forward as first the director himself turns up at the house (playing himself) and then through a dialogue with the farmer in which they discuss being the fictional construction of the real Roberto Albanesi.

It is in using this device that the film excels but the final takeaway message of “Let’s drink up” perhaps resonates the most.

We end with perhaps the most ambitious of all of the stories, ‘Haselwurm’, from director Eugenio Villani, which dates back to 2011 making it a strange choice to feature in terms of contemporary work (although thankfully the quality more than makes up for this).

‘Haselwurm’ initially plays as a sci-fi survival adventure as two explorers manage to capture a mythical haselwurm but during their struggle one of the duo was seemingly scratched by the creature with effects of an almost Lovecraftian or Ridley Scott nature.

Not only is the story interesting, and in my opinion should be developed into a feature-length, but along with ‘Nyctophobic’ it is one of the strongest entries in the collection thanks to a strong story, cinematography, Fx and editing. It is a shame that it is the last story but if you get the opportunity to watch this short – do so.

Overall AFTER MIDNIGHT is, as most collections often are, a mixed bag but unfortunately one where the weaker entries outnumber the strong (‘Nyctophobic’,’Nel buio’,’Haselwurm’). That being said these stronger entries are worth checking out but as someone who advocates the (slow) return of the contemporary Italian horror scene, AFTER MIDNIGHT as a holistic collection is perhaps not the best example to put forwards.

You can find out more about the film on the official Facebook page.

UNDERCOVER MISTRESS (2016) BY GIULIO CIANCAMERLA

Reviews

Director: Giulio Ciancamerla
Writers: Giulio Ciancamerla, Lucio Massa
Year: 2016
Starring: Stefania Visconti, Leonardo Pace, Asia Liguori

This review first appeared on my older website Cosi Perversa.

Synopsis:
During a photo show, a man enjoys scaring a girl until she decides to leave the exhibition. The man runs after her along increasingly dark and isolated streets. A man and a woman? Which one is the dominant genre?

Review:
This short film opens in a contemporary art gallery with a handsome man catching a woman’s eye, if only for a second. Shy and retiring she is clearly too nervous to do anything but steal frequent glances. However she has also caught the eye of another, a sexual predator, who carries a look of disgust and lust over his face and the pursuit of only one action on his mind.

The performances of our two leads, Leonardo Pace and the Cinecittà graduate & transgender model Stefania Visconti, are terrific. Working without dialogue both are still able to convey the required complex emotions required allowing the viewer to innately understand their thought processes. The ability of both helps provide an added level of believability to the films set up.

Now with director Giulio Ciancamerla having established these, sadly prevalent, social norms he immediately sets about subverting the role of gender as a discordant soundtrack emphasises both the sadistic and non-conventional approach the film takes to tacking its subject matter. It is this ‘torture’ sequence that is vaguely reminiscent of the way a couple of giallo masters would frame their sexual transgressions as the activity builds up to a disturbing climax that undoubtedly will elicit a reaction from the viewer.

At the most simplest, base level this is an empowered and violent role reversal of the sexes but Ciancamerla imbues the film with much more complexity for those willing to delve further down the rabbit hole, beyond the preliminary visual layer as he strips away the social concept of gender roles and masculinity in particular as our male (Leonardo Pace) is emasculated rather than dominant.

What we are left with is the realisation that our identities are a performance piece, sometimes for the admiration of others and sometimes for our own gratification at the expense of others. To paraphrase British playwright Shakespeare “All the world’s a stage… and one man in his time plays many parts” and this is never truer in UNDERCOVER MISTRESS where our projected self may in fact be very different and our capabilities exceed that of even what we expect when pushed.

According to the press release the idea behind Undercover Mistress is a contamination of “gender studies” with “erotic…psychological horror” and as such tackles subjects such as sexual identity, harassment and roles. 

It is a challenging movie that no doubt will alienate many but for a few, it will raise societal questions and realisations as ugly as the violent acts it depicts. The fact that UNDERCOVER MISTRESS will appeal just as much to the arthouse liberal as the horror fan provides verification that the film has succeeded in its objectives perhaps even lending creedence to the subjects it tackles.

Visit the films Facebook page here.

Version Reviewed:
I watched an online screener of the 13-minute short film which was at the time was winning several awards on the festival circuit. The film is nicely shot with clean, modern visuals and clear sound.

VIOLENT SHIT (2015) BY LUIGI PASTORE

Reviews

Director: Luigi Pastore
Writers: Emanuele Barbera, Luigi Pastore, Lucio Massa
Year: 2015
Starring: Giovanni Lombardo Radice, Antonio Zequila, Lilli Carati, Steve Aquilina, Vincenzo Pezzopane, Erika Kamese, Antonio Tentori, Luigi Cozzi, Enzo G. Castellari, Barbara Magnolfi

Synopsis:
Rome is shattered by a series of gruesome murders that paint the Eternal City deep red. The suspicion grows that these atrocious crimes are connected with the return of one of the most heinous serial killers of our time – Karl the Butcher.

Review:
The original VIOLENT SHIT was released in 1989 and directed by Andreas Schnass (ANTHROPOPHAGOUS 2000) – who has a cameo in this version along with the returning Steve Aquilina who additionally had a key role in the creating, filming and editing of the version. The original film started off as a gore Fx showreel before turning into a feature length and that initial focus shone through in both the quality of the Fx and the lack of quality in the film…but overall it proved to be a solid amateur effort and an enjoyable watch.

After several sequels of, let’s be honest, limited quality it was quite surprising that Italian director Luigi Pastore became involved in a reboot twenty-five years later. 

Now no contemporary reboot would be complete without an origin story and this is no different with the pre-title sequence set, conveniently, 25 years in the past as we witness a young Karl being locked in a cupboard by his mother and subsequently being seduced (no not like that!) by the devil thereby starting his transformation from human to inhuman.

Now jumping to contemporary times we are treated to a monologue by the late and still beautiful Lilli Carati who continues the occult theme as she foretells of the coming of the antichrist and his puppet thereby setting the scene for the action that will come later.

Only being familiar with the original VIOLENT SHIT and not it’s sequels this supernatural element certainly added something new to the origin of Karl, however I was not expecting this and initially was left confused by the developing, lets call it , triumvirate of evil comprising of the devil, Professor Vassago (Lombardo Radice) and the Kevin Costner lookalike, Senator Vinci (Zequila) in particular the relationship between the three, not to mention the role of Karl the Butcher himself.

In almost complete contrast to the original, and apologies for the seemingly constant comparisons, the opening half hour is primarily taken up with exposition at the expense of any real onscreen action as myths are explored, the past explained and characters introduced. Out of this however we do get to witness the aftermath of  a couple of murders with the finding  of a bloody torso in a Rome park being of key interest.

It is this murder that introduces us to our primary detectives, the young Aristide D’Amato (fantastic joining of the real name of the director Aristide Massaccesi and his alias Joe D’Amato) as competently played by Vincenzo Pezzopane and Interpol agent Hans Ebert, which see’s VIOLENT SHIT stalwart Steve Aquilina reprising his detective role from an earlier film.

After more exposition between the two we are introduced to a couple more characters, and although just a cameo, Enzo Castellari (director of THE BRONX WARRIORS, IL GRANDE RACKET, THE LAST SHARK) and Luigi Cozzi (director of CONTAMINATION, THE KILLER MUST KILL AGAIN) steal the show. In particular, Castellari’s bitter, wise cracking forensic doctor is a particular highlight, emphasised even more thanks to the English dubbing he receives.

Due to this new story angle the occult takes precedence, aided by a creepy looking Giovanni Lombardo Radice (CANNIBAL FEROX, CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD) who in the role of the mysterious Professor Vassago is clearly at the centre of what is going on but as a result of this shift and the inclusion of an origin of Karl’s evil and motives, the plot receives an extended explanation and set-up thereby relegating Karl the Butcher and any violence to the background for the majority of the movie.

It is because of this necessity to explain, or at least the writers belief in its necessity, that the film suffers, in order to allow the new plot narrative greater emphasis needed to be given to character, set up and mystery – which Pastore and co. manage but in a film entitled Violent Shit and one with a history such as it has, fans might be expecting something less subtle and less developed and more direct, more violent.

It is not until the final third that things really begin to heat up as the creepy professor hosts a dinner party cum orgy for the Senator and a few of his friends. Things clearly get out of hand here in an orgy of drugs, sex and cannibalism, with the inclusion and excess of the perversions no doubt aided by the influence of co-writer Lucio Massa (HIPPOCAMPUS M 21th) and this set up perfectly juxtaposes life and sex with death and violence. Pastore delights in showing us the outer flesh one moment and the inner flesh the next as Karl the Butcher finally makes his real entrance and brutally slaughters all those in his path.

As with all lower budget films the performances are mixed both in terms of in front of camera and of course the dubbing, with some suffering more than others and you can’t shake the feeling that some voice actors are just reading through the lines with no inflection, accents or passion while others have that 1980s style high pitched voice that no one actually sounds like. But there are several positives namely Antonio Zequila as the sleazy Senator, Vincenzo Pezzopane as the detective and best of all Enzo Castellari.

Overall this effort is much more restrained than the original films which is a shame as it fails to find that balance between characterisation and extreme violence. However when the violence is shown, much credit must go to David Bracci (SLEEPLESS, EATERS) for his work which is exceptional, in particular the castration of one young male is exceptionally well done and it is clear that he has learned well from the master Sergio Stivaletti.

One could also argue that this is a meta-film, aware of both itself (the detectives watch footage from the original film showing Karl’s past action) and the industry (namely the character names such as D’Amato and Fulci as well as those playing versions of themselves such as Castellari, Cozzi and Tentori) and these moments are both a lot of fun and interwoven well into the story.

VIOLENT SHIT: THE MOVIE makes it difficult for a critic or even a genre fan to either like or dislike. While it is commendable that Pastore and co. take the series in a new direction and attempt to add some texture and background to the characters, it is done so at the expense of the films essence. The very thing that had previously defined the series, namely the frequent over the top gore has been replaced with a supernatural mystery with the result being a more layered and considered film but one lacking the direct, brutal action that it requires.

Credit has to go to the team for trying something new and while it fails to hit the mark the cameos, the references and the humour all work particularly well and make this film worthwhile for fans of Italian horror to check out and ending on a high note, the soundtrack performed by Claudio Simonetti’s Goblin again is spot on. Having previously scored Luigi Pastore’s last work SYMPHONY IN BLOOD RED, these two appear to be forming a strong professional relationship and long may it continue.

Version Reviewed:

I reviewed the 2015 media book version as put out by 8-films which featured a blu ray and dvd version of the film alongside a CD of he original soundtrack by Claudio Simonetti’s Goblin. This version is limited to 999 copies. Standard versions of the film have been released.

The extras feature a stills gallery, the almost mandatory film trailer and international trailer as well as a tribute to the actress Lilli Carati. The tribute features her last interview which although brief is very nice and quite moving as she discusses her past and excitement to working alongside Luigi Pastore and in the horror genre. Unfortunately she passed away before the full project that she was working on could come to fruition.

Other extras include a ten minute ‘The origins of the myth’ in which Steve Aquilina discusses the reason behind the films name and how the reboot came around. Steve is a very interesting guy and the only shame is that this segment was not longer. However a counterview to this comes in the shape of the ‘Making of’ which tells the story of this film came about but from the Italian perspective, adding further context and details alongside several behind the scenes shots and explanation of why certain filming and plot decisions were made. These revelations or rather justifications actually added a different element to the film and made me reconsider my thoughts on the film and its plot points and drivers with Pastore stating that they “tried to combine the German ultra gore with the Italian thriller” and on reflection that does come across even if the balance is not quite right. A further interesting piece goes on to explain the inclusion of the sequence with the late Lilli Carati, which threw me on first watch. Initially her role and the footage was meant for another movie only for it to be adapted posthumously into this film as a tribute.

Finally we are treated to brief interviews with the cast which is interestingly and it is always nice to see on these types of films that the actors are there for the right reasons and not just a paycheque, although it adds little compared the previous two additions it still is worth checking out.

SEXUAL LABYRINTH (2017) BY MORGANA MAYER

Reviews

Director: Morgana Mayer
Writers: Emma Davis, Lucio Massa, Alan Rainer, Marta Rot
Year: 2017
Starring: Marta Rot, Giada DaVinci, Fausto Moreno, Francesco Malcom, Mary Rider, Silvia Lamberti, Stefania Visconti

Synopsis:
A mysterious woman is in love with a girl who, after yet another rejection, is kidnapped and taken to a bizarre and secretive prison where she will undertake a surreal journey through the maze of pleasure.

Review:
The debut film from German director Morgana Mayer opens with some quality extreme metal (which will later be juxtaposed with classical music – seemingly the go-to genre to lend some sophistication to proceedings) and a dedication to Joe D’Amato (the film is peppered with references) and Luigi Zanuso, SEXUAL LABYRINTH sets its intentions out early in regards to both the content and the audience of this 68 minute bizarre erotic horror. Although a comparison to German director Andreas Bethmann wouldn’t be too far off either albeit with more emphasis on conceptual perversity and desire as opposed to the blunt, more direct approach of Bethmann.

Back to the movie and it really starts with a brief bit of exposition thereby setting the scene for our unfortunate lead female, who I have to say undertakes the most lax security in a public toilet cubicle I have ever witnessed and before you can even say ‘occupied’ she is grabbed, drugged and degraded.

Waking up she is told by a spurned, would-be lover, that she is about to go on an erotic journey, one which would end up not only with feelings of love between the two but also a sexual awakening in our kidnapped woman.  What follows is a series of sexual abuse…or exploration, depending on your point of view.

These experiences take place throughout several vignettes, not all including our unwilling slave, and cover areas such as the sharing of (not the usual) bodily fluids, fisting and much more with some of this activity having a brutal, violent effect and others perhaps possessing a metaphorical meaning.

However the latter was few and far between for me and while the aim might have been a strong critique of religion and contemporary society though post-porn art the reality is that several of these attempts came across as purely there to titivate or shock, particularly in reference to the nun scenes although to be fair these deliver visually what THE EXORCIST could only hint at.

As a result I feel there were several missed opportunities for philosophical musing or genuine commentary throughout the film where perhaps Mayer preferred to prioritise and depict perversity.  It must be noted however that I am approaching this film purely from my own experiences and cultural interpretation and therefore others may read more into the proceedings.

On the other hand one area that does his the mark is the cinematography. Perhaps I am doing the film a disservice here when I say that I was pleasantly surprised at how innovative some of the angles and shots were in this film, no doubt a bit more of the D’Amato influence coming across here and credit has to go to Rhea Silvia and Andrej Chinaski from Hot Chilli Productions for this.

It cannot be understated that if you are prudish or narrow minded in terms of sexuality, even just slightly then this film will not be for you and even if this criteria does not disqualify you there is still a high chance that SEXUAL LABYRINTH is not for you, just like BEYOND MADNESS this film is esoteric with an open mind not only being required of the viewer but demanded.

Nauseating, perverse and oddly compelling there is no denying that at times SEXUAL LABYRINTH is an uneasy watch, although I suspect it is meant to be but ultimately it is not as good at covering gender politics and identity as well as others, most notably UNDERCOVER MISTRESS by Giulio Ciancamerla but nonetheless it does explore a niche area of society and manages to capture, in an extreme form, the Annie Sprinkles book ‘Post Porn Modernist’ which is referenced in the final half of the film.

Is SEXUAL LABYRINTH the most extreme, abstract performance piece that discusses the notion of society, religion, true love and the total submission of oneself to another or purely an unadulterated, unabashed decadent piece of trash with a flimsy narrative holding it together. That I cannot answer for you and no doubt the answer will depend on your own interpretation of the film. If you wanted sadism as a metaphor for politics then check out Pasolini’s SALO but if you are happy to settle for sadism masquerading as political commentary then come on down!

What I will say however is that if D’Amato and Zanuso collaborated it is highly likely that post-porn surrealism like this would be the result.

Discover more about the film and yourself over on the official Facebook page.

On a side note I would like to add that although not everything from Black Lava Entertainment is my kind of thing they do put out decent releases with a relatively high standard and so for them to be associated with this film it should act as a seal of quality for fans of this genre.

Version Reviewed:
I watched an online screener of the film.

TWO LEFT ARMS (2013) BY DOMIZIANO CRISTOPHARO

Reviews

Director: Domiziano Cristopharo
Writers: Andrea Cavaletto, Francesco Massaccesi (Translation)
Year: 2013
Starring: Paolo Stella, Federico Pedroni, Yvonne Sciò , Yuri Antonosante, Irene Baruffetti, Carlo De Mejo, Ruggero Deodato

Synopsis:
Randolph Carter arrives in Italy to restore an old painting inside an unconsecrated church. He soon discovers that he is in the middle of a strange, secretive town, surrounded by weird people and a mysterious lake….which legend has it was created by the impact of a meteorite.

Review:
Opening on a dark night in what appears to be a palatial villa, or at least a set designed to emulate one, a man mourns the death of his wife and renounces God for what he has taken away. As his grief overtakes him a meteorite flies overhead and crashes nearby, starting a series of strange events.

This opening pre-credit sequence looks exactly as you would expect from a lower budget independent film and may cause a few viewers to start having doubts about continuing however after this sequence we jump into the modern day and thanks to an engaging (and budget-realistic) script the film succeeds on its own merits and terms.

As per the synopsis, Randolph Carter arrives in a small Italian town having been commissioned to restore an old painting, very HOUSE OF LAUGHING WINDOWS you might think, but here in this place with the stereotypical small town mentality, not only are the locals unfriendly but his contact Emma (Yvonne Sciò – ARMAGEDDON; THE MUSEUM OF WONDERS) seems oddly close to falling apart.

Now at this point it is worth noting that TWO LEFT ARMS is not a direct adaption of any particular Lovecraft story but rather a Lovecraftian story that builds on and takes influence from the writers tales. A couple of key points will jump out to fans of the writer very quickly; for instance the lead character name would be familiar, having ‘starred’, if you will, in several published stories. Although rather than hailing from Boston, here, Randolph (terrifically played by Paolo Stella – MOTHER OF TEARS, who really manages to convey the classic ‘fish out of water’ persona) is an Italian who, after the untimely death of his parents moved to Rhode Island, Providence to be raised by his Uncle. That location should also be familiar to the Lovecraft fans too.

As Randolph acclimatises to his new surroundings his inquisitive nature is met at times with a thin veil of secrecy and at others with outright hostility, one highlight being the town drunk Ernesto (played by famed director Ruggero Deodato) who comes across almost in the same vein as Crazy Ralph from the Friday 13th franchise, but perhaps with less helpful advice.

It is for reasons like this that credit must be given to Andrea Cavaletto for while his script puts Randolph at a disadvantage, we the viewers are given only a few breadcrumbs more. Due to this the story manages to install a certain level of intrigue and as ritual elements appear to enter the fray comparisons with CUSTODES BESTIAE appear, at least on the surface.

As the mystery deepens Randolph becomes drawn further and further in, driven by curiosity yet seemingly compelled to keep going by fear. This is most apparent once he is shown the nearby lake and through his meetings with the mysterious Antonio Mezzanotte. Now the pieces slowly start to come together while his mind does the converse as it begins to dawn on him that the whole town may be in on a bizarre plot to bring about the dawn of chaos and  instill a new world order or rather one should say return to an old world order.

Ultimately TWO LEFT ARMS is a film about the corruption of innocence and the decaying of the soul. To reach this message it takes in concepts such as freedom and slavery but sets these in a Lovecraftian universe where the external is often shown as a physical manifestation of the internal.

A slow burner (much like the previously mentioned CUSTODES BESTIAE, TWO LEFT ARMS is a decent watch thanks to a strong script and highly competent directing and is a film which can be enjoyed with and without prior knowledge of Lovecraft’s tales.

Version Reviewed:

This was reviewed from an online screener. If you are in the USA you can order the film on Amazon.