Blu-Ray Review: Arrow’s ‘Gothic Fantastico: Four Italian Tales of Terror’

by Rachel Bellwoar

America and England may have gotten the ball rolling with bringing Gothic horror films back into the zeitgeist (with Hammer Films and Roger Corman’s ‘Poe Cycle’ being responsible for some of the most popular entries), but Italian cinema’s foray into the Gothic during the late ’50s and ’60s was just as masterful. Now, thanks to Arrow, that period is beautifully showcased in Gothic Fantastico: Four Italian Tales of Terror. If the films in this box set aren’t as celebrated as Mario Bava‘s or any of Barbara Steele‘s star vehicles, it’s time that changed. and no one can say Arrow skimped on the bonus features. All four films are equally showered with love in the form of commentaries, video essays and video interviews.

Massimo Pupillos Lady Morgan’s Vengeance (1965)

Having finally told her uncle (Carlo Kechler) that she wants to marry Pierre (Michel Forain) and not her childhood friend, Harold Morgan (Paul Muller), there’s no reason Susan (Barbara Nelli) shouldn’t be on her way to living happily ever after with the man that she loves. This being a horror film, however, Pierre winds up getting pushed overboard at sea, while Susan agrees to marry Harold, since why not at this point? The first sign of trouble comes when Susan returns home to find all of the servants replaced. Gaslighting ensues, but if the plot may seem familiar at first, it definitely loosens up, until by the end, Giovanni Grimaldi’s script is pulling things out of nowhere at the very last second, but who cares when the late additions are this much fun?

Vengeance does occur (the title isn’t wrong), but Lady Morgan doesn’t necessarily get the last laugh and it’s this decision to eschew a romantic ending for one that’s much more downbeat that’s the most shocking and takes the film from being an extremely competent example of the genre to one that saves the best for last and is willing to take chances (and even be sadistic at times). It’s also got the perfect number of cast members so there’s no glut. Everyone is there for a reason, which can’t be said about the next film in this box set (Gothic Fantastico‘s one weak link…).

First, though, the bonus features!

Every film in this box set comes with an introduction by Italian film devotee, Mark Thompson Ashworth, and what’s great is they actually can be watched before the main feature. That’s not always a given. Some introductions include egregious spoilers or run long (twenty minutes is excessive for an intro). Ashworth’s intros act as the perfect appetizers.

Then, in a visual essay called The Grudge, author and producer, Kat Ellinger, draws attention to how Italian gothic films (unlike Hammer and Corman’s) usually centered around women and also makes connections between Lady Morgan’s Vengeance and Japanese horror films with similar themes.

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas provides the commentary for Lady Morgan’s Vengeance and considers the effectiveness of Susan’s revenge, Pupillo’s unofficial horror trilogy, the possible cribs from Castle of Blood (which was also co-written by Grimaldi), and the decision to set the film in Scotland instead of Italy. She also cites the scholarship of Roberto Curti (who provides an essay for the booklet that comes with this set).

Another essay on this film is written by Rob Talbot and focuses on the gaslighting aspect of the movie. On the disc, Arrow have included the original cinermanzo for Lady Morgan’s Vengeance (which is basically a photo comic). It looks great but hasn’t been translated from Italian. There’s also an audio interview with the director from 1993, as well as two new video interviews with cast members, Erika Blanc and Muller. Unlike the sinister governess she plays in the film, Blanc is lovely and able to share her memories about working with the director, kissing on camera, and various cast members. Muller has less specific things to say about Lady Morgan’s Vengeance or working with Blanc (whereas Blanc recalls them working together on multiple projects) but does talk about how he got into acting and shares an anecdote about meeting Bette Davis.

Alberto De Martino’s The Blancheville Monster (1963)

Watching Lady Morgan’s Vengeance and The Blancheville Monster back-to-back, it’s amazing how much they begin the same way. Like Susan, Emilie (Ombretta Colli) returns home to find that her brother, Rodéric (Gérard Tichy), has replaced all of the staff and hired a creepy governess (Helga Liné). Like Susan, Emilie wants to marry someone considered “unworthy” of her family name. Finally, like Susan, Emilie is made to feel like she’s losing her mind. The same technique is even used (a kind of hypnotism, where she keeps hearing voices when she falls asleep). Sure, there’s also the titular monster locked up in one of the castle’s towers, but it’s not much compensation. The story is slow. There are excess characters (one is killed off so unceremoniously it’s a wonder why screenwriters, Grimaldi and Bruno Corbucci, even bothered), and the ending feels forced.

Writer and pop culture historian, Keith Allison, acknowledges the film’s weaknesses in his video essay, as does movie historian, Antonio Tentori, in a new interview. One storyline in the film that does work (however random and underplayed it is) is when one of the character’s fears they’re about to be buried alive. The film makes no secret of taking inspiration from Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher and The Premature Burial (and, in turn, Jerome Reuter notes how The Blancheville Monster would inspire Gothic giallo like The Red Queen Kills Seven Times in his booklet essay), but one of the highlights of Paul Anthony Nelson‘s commentary is when he gets into what people would actually try and do to prevent being buried alive in the 19th century.

Mino Guerrini’s The Third Eye (1966)

There’s nothing Mino’s mother (Olga Solbelli) would like more than to convince her son (Franco Nero) that marrying Laura (Blanc) would be a big mistake. Her servant, Marta (Gioia Pascal), is equally invested in seeing the couple go their separate ways. In the end, though, neither of them comes out on top, while Mino is left to succumb to his pre-existing Norman Bates-tendencies, from taxidermy to an unhealthy obsession with his mother.

The Third Eye is like if Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and Vertigo had a black-and-white baby. The Vertigo angle comes in when Nino meets Laura’s sister (also played by Blanc), who’s the spitting image of Laura. In her video essay, author and filmmaker, Lindsay Hallam, talks about this gothic trope of doubling as well as how the film reflects contemporary fears about changing gender roles in Italy. Meanwhile in Rachael Nisbit’s commentary, Nisbit points out that Guerrini started out as a painter (which makes perfect sense since, as Nesbit notes, some of the compositions in this film are extremely painterly) and also discusses Joe D’Amato’s remake (Beyond the Darkness) as well Nero’s acting choices and whether “over the top” or “theatrical” is the better way to describe them. Last (but not least), in a newly edited interview, Blanc talks about a prank she pulled on Guerrini while Rod Barnett’s booklet essay looks at The Third Eye as a coming of age story (which is a great take).

Damiano Damiani’s The Witch (1966)

Sergio (Richard Johnson) is being followed. A little old woman (Sarah Ferrati) keeps showing up wherever he goes. When Sergio confronts her, she offers him a job. If he agrees to a few conditions (like staying at her home), he can catalogue her husband’s memoirs. Sergio says “no,” but then he meets the countess’ daughter (Rosanna Schiaffino), and the bad decisions start, until it’s as though Sergio’s been placed under a spell and escape is no longer an option.

Tentori (in another new interview) compares the countess’ house to one of Escher’s paintings and that’s exactly the effect Damiani achieves. Unnerving and erotic in equal measure, all involved give amazing performances (with Ferrati and Schiaffino often asked to mimic each other’s gestures). Sergio soon learns he isn’t the first man they’ve hired to catalog, and now it’s up to him to break the cycle.

Kat Ellinger provides the commentary and brings up Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard and trapped men syndrome. In connection with the countess’ fear of aging, author and academic, Miranda Corcoran, gives a comprehensive overview on satanic witches and how they’ve been portrayed (often as barren or jealous of fertility), while Kimberly Lindbergs’ booklet essay digs up some production stories (and rumors) and considers how the film’s ending differs from the source material’s — Carlos Fuentes’ novel, Aura.

Gothic Fantastico: Four Italian Tales of Terror is available on Blu-Ray from Arrow Films and comes with a double-sided poster (The Blancheville Monster is on one side, The Third Eye on the other).

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