“I like Mario Bava’s films very much. Hardly any story, just atmosphere with all that fog and ladies walking down corridors – a kind of Italian gothic. I would just put them on loops and have one going in one room in my house, one going on in another…creating a whole mood.”
Martin Scorsese, Scorsese on Scorsese
Italy has had a significant impact on the horror film genre with directors such as Mario Bava, Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci, who became cult figures amongst horror fans. The horror cinema of Italy tends to not concern itself too much with a linear plot, and rather aims for more of a cinematic experience, underpinning and mirroring the multi-faceted and complex changes occurring in the Italian society of those years at the same time. Many Italian horror films are also known for brutal violence and gore and tend to be a breath of fresh air when compared to their more formulaic relatives from North America and the UK.
While the best Italian horror is found in the films of the 1960s, 1970s and the early 1980s, to find the origins of Italian horror we must travel back to 1957. It was in this year that director Riccardo Freda made I Vampiri (aka The Devil’s Commandment), a film revolving around young women being abducted and having their blood drained. While the film was a box office flop, it paved the way for more successful Italian films. It should also be noted that Freda left the project unfinished, and the film was completed by his cameraman Mario Bava (whose career would go on as one of the best-known Italian horror directors).
In 1960, Renato Polselli directed The Vampire and the Ballerina (aka The Vampire’s Lover), but the audience response did not raise much enthusiasm. That all changed later in 1960, however, as Mario Bava made his debut as the solo director with The Mask of Satan (aka Black Sunday). Considered one of the all-time best and most original Italian horror films, The Mask of Satan told the story of a witch who returned from the grave to seek revenge on the descendents of her killers. As several Bava’s films, The Mask of Satan takes its inspiration from a literary work, being a partial adaptation of Nikolaj Gogol’s The Vij. Many critics pointed to Bava’s intricate and highly creative use of light and shadow to create mood and tension. The film launched Bava’s directorial career, and it also served as a vehicle for actress Barbara Steele, who would appear in a total of nine Italian horror movies.
The son of Eugenio, an early Italian cinematographer, sculptor and special effects creator, Bava studied art before entering his father’s profession. Exhibiting great talent as a cameraman, he worked for Roberto Rossellini, Raoul Walsh and Jacques Tourneur, and was known for his ability to create special effects and complete the unfinished work of others. He directed –often uncredited- a number of short films in the 1940s, and some sequences of feature films for which he was the cameraman in the 1950s, but it was another abrupt departure of Riccardo Freda from the obscure sci-fi film Caltiki in 1960 that gave Bava his first co-directorial credit on a feature. The grateful producer subsequently entrusted Bava with his first effort as director, The Mask of Satan.
A most remarkable debut film, The Mask of Satan is shot in a stunning black-and-white and ranks among Bava’s finest work, foreshadowing his interest in gothic horror, and exploring literature, mythology, and the rituals of Catholicism to evoke the dark side of the human soul. All of Bava’s films were low-budget, yet he succeeded in crafting evocative, richly imaginative films utilizing his superb skills as a cameraman and lighting technician to overcome his poverty of means.
Bava has long been an influential cult figure, but just how influential has remained a secret due to the fact that his imaginative low-budget work was drastically altered in U.S. distribution and often limited to the drive-in circuit. Yet his brilliance shone through, and his films had a direct influence on the work of other filmmakers. Directors including Dario Argento, Martin Scorsese, Joe Dante, Tim Burton, and Quentin Tarantino have paid homage to him in interviews and in their films.
After the presentation of Bava’s masterpiece, the exciting retrospective continues with the screening of Dario Argento’s Deep Red, a “giallo” thriller that sets the trends for Argento’s subsequent films and uses strategies belonging to the horror genre, and Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond, a film that opens a new season of Italian horror, based on extreme graphical gore and the theme of the invincibility of Evil.
The Italian Cultural Institute in Toronto, in collaboration with the Italian Contemporary Film Festival and Royal Cinema is proud to present a retrospective of three Italian horror films from the three most renowned directors of the genre:
Black Sunday, directed by Mario Bava (1960) – MARCH 13
Deep Red, directed by Dario Argento (1975) – APRIL 10
The Beyond, directed by Lucio Fulci (1981) – MAY 16
None Currently Scheduled