Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Women Of Italian Horror

I love Italian horror movies. Spaghetti Splatter flicks have always held a special place in my heart. In fact, Lucio Fulci’s The Gates Of Hell was one of the first 3 horror movies I ever bought (along with Night Of The Living Dead and Plan 9 From Outer Space.) There are many reasons why I love them; the avant-garde lighting, the fantastic atmosphere, the copious gore, the bad dubbing, the unflinching violence, the copious gore, the outlandish, often nonsensical plots, the copious gore. Since February is Women in Horror Appreciation month, I decided to pay tribute to one of the big things that make Italian horror flicks like no other country’s genre output, the actresses. The Italians have a way of choosing great actresses. They are talented, usually absolutely beautiful, often have no problem with nudity (what can I say, I consider that a plus), and are willing to go all out and really sell the horrific nature of the story. This is not a definitive tribute by a long shot. There are many other greats that deserve mentioning (Barbara Cupisti, Tisa Farrow, Alexandra Delli Colli, etc), and there will definitely have to be a part 2, but here are 5 of the actresses that make l'horror italiano so good.

Barbara Steele

Barbara Steele, a British actress, was Italy’s first scream queen. Her list of credits in Italian horror films throughout the 60’s is truly impressive, including titles like Nightmare Castle, The Horrible Dr. Hichcock, The Ghost, Castle of Blood, The Long Hair Of Death, and Terror Creatures From The Grave. It is one film, however, that firmly cements her as the “gran damaof Italian Horror, Mario Bava’s 1960 masterpiece (and ironically his feature directing debut), Black Sunday. Steele plays both Katia, a 16th century witch/vampire who is resurrected seeking revenge on the descendants of those who sledge-hammered a spiked mask into her face, and Asa, the sweet, virginal damsel in distress who just so happens to be one of said descendants. Steele brings both sexy, malicious evil and innocent vulnerability to stunning life, employing those incredibly beautiful, expressive eyes. Although she would end up working in other countries and in other genres (Shivers, Pirhana, Fellini’s 8 ½) it was her Italian horror films, particularly Black Sunday (aka Mask of Satan) that made her an icon.

Daria Nicolodi

The story goes that in 1969, as a student at the National Academy of Dramatic Arts in Rome, Daria saw The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, directed by Dario Argento, and decided that she needed to meet the director at all costs. They eventually met, romance blossomed, and for the next 11 years she was his partner, muse and collaborator. The first of their collaborations was Deep Red, where she played the supporting but pivotal role of journalist Gianna Brezzi, as well as introducing Dario to his frequent collaborators, the band Goblin. Her finest acting moment would come next in a film directed not by Argento, but by another Italian horror legend, Mario Bava, 1977’s Shock. While her style is a bit over the top, her performance as a woman being driven mad by guilt, ghosts, visions, and a possessed son is amazing. She varies between looking shaken and perturbed to full on screaming, flailing panic and everything in between. Sometime after Shock, she began to write a story about witchcraft and a cult-run music academy, which became the basis for arguably the greatest Italian horror film of all time, Suspiria. Her stories would also serve as the inspiration for the other 2 entries in the “three mothers” trilogy, Inferno and Mother of Tears, which she also appeared in. She would go on to give memorable performances in other Argento films such as Tenebrae, Phenomena, and Opera. Since the late 80’s her acting work has been sparse, mainly television. Oh wait, I almost forgot, she did produce one other significant collaboration with Dario Argento

Asia Argento

As the Daughter of Dario Argento and Daria Nicolodi, Asia was born Italian horror royalty. She made her acting debut in a comedy with her mother at age 9, and then started in horror with parts in Demons 2 at 10 and the brilliant The Church at 14, both produced by her father. As she embarked on a widely varied and generally critically acclaimed acting career in her late teens, she finally began acting in her father’s directorial efforts, appearing in Trauma, The Stendhal Syndrome, and The Phantom of the Opera. Throughout these films, Asia demonstrated her dramatic range, playing both terrified and vulnerable women in peril and tough as nails survivors. While critics applauded her performances, they and fans alike have always found it strange that she is often nude and placed in sexual situations in her father’s movies. She said in an interview “I never thought it was weird that my father would have me naked and raped in his movies until a friend pointed it out to me. I was just making movies and never even thought about the possible subtext going on.” After that she disappeared from the Italian horror scene but continued acting, making everything from comedies (Viola bacia tutti), to action (XXX), drama (Marie Antoinette), and, of course, horror (Land Of The Dead.) She also began writing and directing material ranging from features to 2 Marilyn Manson music videos. Her films (Scarlet Diva, The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, etc), while not technically horror; do tend to be disturbing, dealing with depraved characters, seedy situations, and the darker side of humanity. In 2007, father, mother, and daughter reunited to make Mother Of Tears, the long awaited third and final installment in the three mothers trilogy. Where will her career go from here? Could her daughter be the next generation of Italian scream queen? Will I finally get to marry her? We’ll just have to wait and see.

Catriona MacColl

Catriona (sometimes credited as Katherine) MacColl is a bit of an enigma. She is a sophisticated British actress who began her career in Shakespeare plays. She has appeared in Sherlock Holmes movies, award winning European television dramas, and epic period dramas. Yet she also starred in the “seven doors” trilogy for infamous Italian horror maestro Lucio Fulci. First came The Gates Of Hell. Yes, I know the original title was City Of The Living Dead, bit it’s alternate title is oh so much cooler. Anyway, she immediately showed that she can portray terror like few others in cinema history have. Her eyes wide, her mouth wider, her face a mask of utter primal fear, she made the “buried alive” scene the most suspenseful in that movie. With a performance like that, and that incredible scream, it’s no wonder she became Fulci’s go-to leading lady for his next two films. In The Beyond, she plays a woman who inherits a Louisiana hotel built atop one of the seven gates of hell. In real life, she now runs rental vacation cottages in France. Hmmm. The ending of The Beyond, driven home by MacColl, is positively mind bending. No, I’m not going to spoil it for you. If you call yourself a horror fan and haven’t seen The Beyond, shame on you! Her performance did just as much to fuel the palpable atmosphere of dread that permeates her next film, House By The Cemetery, as Fulci’s direction and the excellent set design. When the zombie drags her down the stairs, her head bouncing off every step, it is truly a thing of macabre beauty. In only three movies, Catriona cemented her place as one of the queens of Italian horror. As an added bonus, here’s an interview where she talks about working with Fulci. You’re welcome.

Daniela Doria

Two things come to mind when I think of Daniela Doria, great death scenes and her bravery as a performer. Allow me to explain. Daniela was another of Fulci’s girls. In an interview with Deep Red magazine, Fulci stated "Ah Doria, she was one of my favorite actresses. I killed her so many times." Her first film with Lucio was The Black Cat. The image of her suffocating, topless, gasping for breath and foaming at the mouth must have led Fulci to believe that she could be trusted with more extreme material because in The Gates Of Hell, they went for broke! Daniela’s character, bleeding from the eyes, proceeds to vomit her entire intestinal tract. According to Fulci, Doria, and various crew members, she actually swallowed and vomited sheep entrails to make this shot as convincing as possible. Not only did she have to know that this would firmly typecast her as a horror actress and possibly hurt her career, but I doubt many other actresses would have physically put themselves through that for the sake of the film. That kind of dedication to the art is amazing and highly commendable. It worked too, as this scene is one of the most iconic in Italian horror film history. After being stabbed through the back of the head (with the blade sticking out of her mouth) in a great scene one year later in House By The Cemetery, she appeared in Fulci’s most infamous film, New York Ripper. In it she played Kitty, a prostitute who is tied to a bed and sliced across the torso, breasts, and eyeball with a razor blade in a scene so graphic that when it was first distributed, over 2/3 of the scene had to be removed before the film could be distributed in America, England, and almost everywhere else besides Italy. The mixing of the violent and the erotic has always been highly controversial. New York Ripper is even decried by some horror fans as indefensibly misogynistic. Nevertheless, she accepted the risks this could pose to her career and delivered a powerful performance. The scene’s disturbing strength owes as much to her eyes and muffled screams as it does to the effective gore effects. This time her bravery was not rewarded. She never worked in film again. This is unfortunate because, in only 4 films, she cemented a cult following and kudos from this particular horror geek.

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