Tuesday, 26 April 2022

Italian Horror Cinema

Genre Splicing

Italian Horror Cinema
Edited by Stefano Baschiera
and Russ Hunter
Edinburgh University Press
ISBN: 9781474419680

Oof... okay, I nearly didn’t publish this review. I almost let it die along with a few others which I’ve never published for fear my scathing indictment of the authors not knowing anything about their subject matter would hurt someone’s feelings (not to mention mine in the event people might enthusiastically disagree with me). To be fair to around half the authors in the book, though, I’ve decided as I type these words to press ahead with it and see what comes up. If, indeed, you are reading these words now, then that means I didn’t lie to myself in the opening of this paragraph.

Okay, so first off let me thank my friend who got me this for Christmas. It’s a book I definitely wanted to read and, truth be told, I did find it interesting. And, to be fair, it’s a collection of various essays by multiple authors and, while I might suggest that the essays maybe belong in a different tome, there are some good things here, despite some of my problems with them which I’ll highlight in a moment.

Okay, so, my number one bug bear with this book is I was, perhaps justifiably, expecting a book entitled Italian Horror Cinema to actually have a fair amount about Italian horror films within its pages and, certainly, the cover photo of the shark vs zombie fight from Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2 (aka Zombie Flesh Eaters, which I reviewed here) would re-enforce that understandable expectation. Alas, some of the authors/editors here, don’t seem to know the difference between various film genres and have mixed up Italian giallo movies as somehow being horror movies (are you really going to tell me that gialli such as A Black Veil For Lisa, One On Top Of The Other, The Sweet Body Of Deborah, The Girl Who Knew Too Much and a gazillion others I could name off the top of my head are somehow magically transformed into horror movies?). They’ve also, bizarrely, lumped other genres like the cannibal movie or the slasher movie into convenient (and frankly non-existent) sub-genres of horror too. By that I mean, they are a genre unto themselves, not subservient to the horror field in any way, shape or form.

Frankly, I’ve been fighting against this notion where every film a horror afficionado likes is somehow suddenly lumped into the genre, for most of my adult life (arguably a status not as attributable to me as you might think, in terms of behaving like an actual adult). Horror is a bit of a misnomer as a genre term anyway because, not everyone will be able to agree on something that horrifies them and if you’re under the belief that, say, a ‘human monster’ such as a serial killer somehow designates a film’s status as a horror movie, then I’m sure the writers and directors of such pieces as, say, The Blue Dahlia or While The City Sleeps would take umbrage with that idea. Something that horrifies is not enough of a genre definition, it’s too broad and what I might find horrifying will, I assure you, often be very different to what the next person in line does... and so on. So, I tend to take the tack that it’s anything which includes either a supernatural, alien or, if I really want to stretch the genre to include such films as Frankenstein, a weird science element. After all, many of John Carpenter’s films such as Assault On Precinct 13 or Ghosts Of Mars are generally (and correctly) identified as westerns (or possibly neo westerns) without a cowboy hat or Winchester rifle in evidence.

So, yeah, not only do the editors (who I hold accountable here) lump all these other genres under the horror label, including some quite wonderful essays on gialli, which seems to be the most referenced genre in the book... there also seems to be very few references to actual Italian horror within the various texts at all. Sure, there will be mentions of the occasional horror film by, say, Dario Argento or Mario Bava but, also quite a big mention of their gialli too. One or two writers here actually referenced a great giallo director as being the king of Italian horror. Well I’m sorry but, of the 23 feature films (including a few TV episodes for fairness) Argento’s directed to date, just 6 of them, by my count, would qualify as horror. Prince of giallo (in deference to certain others) I could possibly be persuaded by but, King of Italian Horror... no. After all, he’s known as the Italian Hitchcok, right? Seriously, do you think Alfred Hitchcock would stand to be called a horror director?

My other big problem with this book, which is a common one in many modern studies of various genres of interest, is the bizarre and outdated academic way in which pretty much all of the essays here are couched. The structure of these things is ludicrous. When I was a schoolboy and had to write up a chemistry experiment as an essay, I had to write a Method section telling the reader what I was setting out to do, an Experiment section recording the experiment and its findings and then finally, a Conclusion section, basically reiterating those findings as a way of, I don’t know, patting myself on the back for discovering what I set out to find? And honestly, even in my early teens I recognised the redundancy of this approach. It’s like I was writing exactly the same thing in three different ways (and tenses) where, frankly, you only needed the middle section to make the point and tell the results. The other stuff is just padding. Well, yep, pretty much all the essays in the book, even the brilliant ones by the likes of Francesco Di Chiara, Johnny Walker and Austin Fisher, tend to adopt this style of ‘this is what I’m going to do, this is me doing it and this is me telling you I did what I set out to do’ style of writing. Frankly, I’d rather people got to the point and, in the unlikely event that the third section didn’t actually prove what it is the writer set out to do... well, then why tell me about it at all? If it’s a failed experiment, I really don’t need to hear about it (but obviously, these things wouldn’t get written unless the writer knew what they were talking about and felt that they could make their points).

Okay, rant over. Asides from all this, there are some really interesting sections, such as the aforementioned Austin Fisher’s essay Political Memory in the Italian Hinterland: Locating the Rural Giallo (again not horror but, about half the writers, including this one, do at least seem to know the difference between a giallo and a horror and some even make the quite implicit and obvious case that they are completely different genres as an aside... bravo). And much thanks to Craig Hatch’s chapter, The Horror of Progressive Rock - Goblin and Horror Soundtracks which, while not making the distinction between the many gialli scores mentioned, at least turned me on to the fact that a specific progressive rock album by an Italian group New Trolls is, in fact, a rearranged presentation of their score to the giallo The Designated Victim (and I am awaiting my order of the CD from Discogs to come through with joyful anticipation). Even Mark Bernard’s look at real animal killings made to give fake human deaths in cannibal films more credibility... regardless of the fact that I don’t agree with killing animals for movies, don’t like cannibal films and am conscious of the fact that they don’t fall into the category of horror...is a very interesting read.

There are, of course, some things here I’m less in agreement with. For instance, the idea that Tim Lucas’ excellent and hefty tome on Mario Bava - All The Colours Of The Dark (the perfect film book), is somehow so thorough that it negates the idea that Bava was an auteur filmmaker is, frankly, ridiculous. And Russ Hunter’s argument (perhaps included as a defence of the title of this collection) that genre definitions should be as flexible as the perceived shifting and changing use of language is also something I find untenable... and I similarly find the practice of mutating grammar and word usage equally suspect and usually only propositioned as ‘language changes’ by people who have allowed the ignorance of using words incorrectly to remain unchallenged. Not something I would find easy to defend, for sure.

One other thing I noticed was that one of the authors seems to be either missing a point or, perhaps, not finding it relevant to his own observations about the subject matter (in as much as the subject matter here could be agreed upon). It’s to do with the, quite correctly highlighted fact about Italian genre films making use of international stars to sell them to other countries. So, for example, David Hemmings in Deep Red, John Saxon in Tenebrae, Carrol Baker in Orgasmo etc. However, as Sir Christopher Frayling once pointed out in a seminar I attended at an Italian poster art exhibition, these actors (and also the practice of Italian directors substituting American sounding names instead of their own on the credits) were tapped not just to sell these films to the international marketplaces but, as importantly, to sell the film back to their own Italian market, who were much more likely to venture out of their homes to the cinema to see an American made movie than something they perceived as being home grown in Italy.

So, yeah, it would be fair to say I had a few problems with this book but, despite this, Italian Horror Cinema is a fascinating collection of essays, many of them with something to say and with a hit and miss ratio completely, as anything, based on the interests of the reader. So worth a read if you are interested in certain areas of exploitation cinema but don’t, I would say, expect it to be dealing specifically with Italian horror (if at all, it’s the least touched upon genre in the book).

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