This month’s Blog has been inspired by something I read inThe Dark Side. Issue 149 (with Leatherface on the cover) has a feature about Italian film-making brothers Marco and Antonio Manetti, whose horror feature Paura 3D played at this year’s Frightfest (and whose sci-fi feature The Arrival of Wang - no, seriously - has been released in the UK by Peccadillo Pictures). The article, by Alan Jones, begins thus: 'After many years in the genre wilderness it finally seems like Italy is getting its act together again. Decades in the Dario Argento solo doldrums looks set to come to an end as Federico Zampaglione releases the follow-up to Shadow, the post-modern giallo Tulpa.'
Tulpa was also shown at Frightfest (which Alan, of course, organises) and while the reviews of Paura 3D are generally middling (looks good, but not much of a story is the vibe I’m getting), reports of the Tulpa screening say that the audience were laughing through most of the film. And it’s not a comedy. But that’s by-the-by. What annoyed me, well irritated me, well just sort of rankled - enough to make me write this - was the phrase 'Dario Argento solo doldrums' with its implication that for a number of years now old Dario has basically been carrying the Italian horror industry by himself.
Alan Jones (who I don’t know personally, beyond a nodding acquaintance) is widely acknowledged as the world’s leading expert on Argento, with whom he is good pals. If Argento is Dr Johnson, Alan is Boswell. He’s the go-to guy for everything Argento, he literally wrote the book, and indeed he ported Dario across to Frightfest this year as a special guest. And why not: back in the 1970s and 1980s he made some of the best ever Italian horror films - heck, some of the best horror films from any country. But in the past couple of decades, Argento has been off the boil, largely cruising on past glories. Alan, being Dario’s mate and the principle source of pre-release magazine features on each new film, invariably bigs up every upcoming movie. Then when people get a chance to see it... well, Rotten Tomatoes tells its own story (20% for The Card Player, ouch).
Now, despite what it may appear, I’m not here to have a pop at Dario Argento for making bad films or Alan Jones for regularly trying to persuade people that his bezzie mate’s latest opus is back to Suspiria standards. My point (and I do have one) is that Italian horror is actually doing okay in the 21st century and has very definitely not spent 'decades in the Dario Argento solo doldrums'. There are Italian horror filmmakers out there, some of them making cracking films, but their exposure is limited and is always going to pale beside that of Argento who has (a) name value and (b) guaranteed positive international genre press coverage, no matter what.
I want to take this opportunity to tell you about one of these filmmakers, who I believe to be the best - and most consistently successful - horror director currently working in Italy (sorry Dario, sorry Alan). His name is Ivan Zuccon and yes, he is a mate of mine, though I try not to let that influence what I write about his films. (I’ve never been afraid to criticise a friend’s work if I think it falls well below their usual standard; Ivan has been getting better with every film).
I first met Ivan at Cannes in 2000 where he was showing off his debut feature The Beyond. Retitled The Darkness Beyond to avoid Fulci-related confusion, this is a Lovecraftian nightmare about a squad of soldiers stalked through tunnels by puppets of the Old Ones seeking to reclaim the Necronomicon. With a 16th century prologue of Al-Caleb translating the book for Dr John Dee, a bleak far-future epilogue and lots of hallucinations in the middle, The Darkness Beyond is complex and convoluted but never chaotic or confusing. Yes, it was shot on video for budgetary reasons but the undeniable artistic and technical skill of Ivan and his cast and crew shines through and it was very obvious that something new and exciting was happening in Italian horror cinema.
A year or so later, Ivan’s second feature Unknown Beyond appeared, continuing the Lovecraft-inspired horror. In the opening scene, a lone soldier stumbling through a desolate wasteland - the one we witness in the first film’s epilogue - finds a crucifixion. At the foot of the cross is a pram from whence emanate the cries of a baby - which on inspection turns out to be a reel-to-reel tape recorder. The film continues in that vein, but it’s not just a random jumble of surreal imagery: there’s a plot and characters and, of course, plenty of blood. Our main character, Private Hicks, is played by Emanuele Cerman, who was Private Randolph Carter in the first film and may be the same person, or not.
For his third feature, building on his experience (and his increased confidence), Ivan decided to actually tackle some actual HPL stories. Three of them in fact. The Shunned House was based on not only the title tale (a Lovecraft/August Derleth collaboration which was adapted in 1967 as a British obscurity) but also ‘Dreams in the Witch House’ (the inspiration for 1968’s Curse of the Crimson Altar, and later adapted by Mick Garris for a Stuart Gordon-directed episode of Masters of Horror) and ‘The Music of Eric Zann’ (which has been the basis for two or three shorts over the years).
Most filmmakers would have shot three half-hour shorts and bolted them together but Ivan was more ambitious, working with Enrico Saletti (who had scripted Unknown Beyond) to weave the three stories together, shifting time-periods within a single, atmospheric building. Filming in English for the first time, this was where Ivan really showed his full talents, fulfilling the promise of the Beyond films and proving he was no one-trick pony. (The conclusion of the trilogy, The Lost Beyond, was announced but has presumably spent the past few years sitting in a draw marked ‘uno giorno?’.)
Back in 1998, Ivan’s short Degenerazione was based on a short story by Saletti. Eight years later, three years after The Shunned House, that same story formed the basis of Ivan’s fourth feature, Bad Brains (scripted by Ivo Gazzarrini). Zuccon regulars Emanuele Cerman and Valeria Sannino star in this extraordinarily powerful film as a couple of serial killers whose activities are driven by a belief that, if they look inside the bodies of enough people, they will find the thing they are looking for. Shooting in Italian once again, with some scenes documented through the unblinking eye of a video camera which the couple use to film the murders (though this is far from being a ‘found footage’ picture), Bad Brains marked Ivan’s first step away from HPL - with only a paperback on a table as a nod to the man.
Unfortunately, Bad Brains is probably Ivan’s least known work, having neither an overt Lovecraftian aspect (which will always attract interest from HPL completists) nor an international cast (which always attracts distributors). His first three films were released in the UK by Salvation and had (or have since) also been released in Germany, France, Spain, the USA, Greece, Japan - and even Italy (a lot harder than you might imagine). But I think only Italy and Germany picked up Bad Brains, which is a real shame because it’s a terrific film.
When I met Ivan at Cannes in 2000 it was in the office of Prescription Films, a short-lived company run by Jennifer Kennedy (whom I knew from her previous role at Troma) and Tiffany Shepis, a hot starlet who was already demonstrating the sound business sense (and genuine acting talent) which would subsequently mark her out from so many ‘scream queens’ who are little more than bikini models with Facebook pages. Ivan had evidently kept in touch with Tiff because she travelled to Italy to star in his fifth film (which was, like the first four - and indeed the next two - his most accomplished work yet).
Entitled NyMpha (yes, the capital M is deliberate; no, Ivan won’t explain why) this proved to be Ivan’s most Italian film to date. That’s one the things I love about Ivan Zuccon’s films: they are distinctively and obviously Italian, but at the same time they’re not just rehashes of that nation’s past glories. That Dark Side article I referenced above notes with pleasure that the Manetti Brothers 'have been asked to direct a sequel to Sergio Martino’s Torso and the remake of Michele Soavi’s Stagefright' - but you can’t base a successful national cinema on remakes and latter-day sequels. Italian horror films in the 21st century need to be ‘21st century Italian horror films’, not 1970s or 1980s films. We don’t need another giallo: all the really good ones have already been made, thank you very much.
One phrase which I seem to have used a lot over the years in my various reviews of Ivan Zuccon films, and which is emblematic of their ‘Italian-ness’, is ‘Catholic guilt’. And NyMpha possibly drips with it. Shepis plays Sarah, an American initiate at an Italian convent who undergoes four horrific tortures designed to bring her closer to God. At the same time, she establishes a connection, across time, with Ninfa, a young woman who lived in the house before it became a convent. (This is the third Zuccon film in a row set in a building which may itself be considered a character in the story.) This is one of the relatively few films in Shepis’s extensive career where she has the chance to really show her talent and she delivers an amazing performance, helped by Zuccon’s direction and Gazzarrini’s script. Adding to the internationalisation, British actor Allan McKenna plays Ninfa’s grandfather and some of the budget came from Ivan’s German distributor. The dialogue is a mixture of English and subtitled Italian.
For his next feature, Ivan returned to the works of Mr Lovecraft, loosely adapting ‘The Colour Out of Space’ (which had previously been filmed as Monster of Terror in 1965, The Curse in 1987 and Die Farbe in 2010) as Colour from the Dark. Debbie Rochon, another often woefully underserved and undervalued US actress, starred in this tale of a mysterious alien influence, passionately delivering, like Shepis before her, a simply magnificent performance which blows away most of her American B-movie roles. Zuccon regular Michael Segal also stars alongside two busy actresses very familiar to fans of contemporary British horror: Eleanor James (HellBride, Bordello Death Tales etc) and Marysia Kay (Blood + Roses, The Scar Crow etc). Adding an Irish element, veteran actor Gerry Shanahan plays the grandfather and Fiona Walsh, who worked on Doctor Who, provided the very impressive make-up effects. Ivo Gazzarrini’s script sets the action in rural wartime Italy, with the rotting corpse of a Nazi-shot Jew as a significant plot point.
Despite a host of International releases (there was even a box set in Germany), Ivan Zuccon’s work - and the Italian horror revival which it leads - remains under-appreciated. A few years back I mentioned Ivan to Tim Lucas at Video Watchdog (world expert on Mario Bava) who, to my surprise, had never heard of him. I know Alan Jones is familiar with his work because I sat next to him at the London premiere of Colour from the Dark. But still when people think of Italian horror they think Argento, they think Fulci, they think of the past and - just like the British Horror Revival of recent years - somehow miss the new, exciting films that are being made.
Next up from Ivan Zuccon is Wrath of the Crows, with both Shepis and Rochon in the cast (and Suzi Lorraine). But Ivan isn’t a lone voice; there are other indie Italian horror directors making impressive shorts and features. Take the time to seek them out if you can (some are online) and bring yourself up to speed with current Italian horror.
MJ Simpson has been writing since he found out which end of a pencil makes a mark. After editing sci-fan club mags he spent three years on the staff of SFX and helped to launch Total Film before switching to freelance work for Fangoria, Shivers, Video Watchdog, DeathRay and other cult movie magazines. He has a number of scripts in development and has been working on his third book, a biography of 'Bride of Frankenstein' Elsa Lanchester, for a very long time, but he promises to have it finished soon (-ish). Mike lives in Leicester with his wife, Mrs S, and his young son, TF Simpson. By day he edits the university's website and in the evenings he edits MJSimpson.co.uk. He should probably get out more.