10 great Italian gothic horror films

The Mask of Satan launched the cult of Barbara Steele and ushered in a golden age of Italian horror films. From houses of the damned to flesh-eating zombies, we tuck into 10 gothic greats all’italiana.

Chris Gallant
Updated:

The Mask of Satan (1960)

The Mask of Satan (1960)

A handful of publicity material might be all that’s left of Eugenio Testa’s Il mostro di Frankenstein (1920). Long considered lost, it’s widely believed to be the first Italian horror film – and the last until Riccardo Freda’s I vampiri (1956) three and a half decades later. During the fascist era, ‘white telephone’ bourgeois comedies were all the rage while strict censorship helped keep horror films in check. But in the decades that followed, Italy made up for lost time; and the 1960s witnessed an explosion of gothic horror and dark, violent murder mysteries with a distinctly Italian flavour.

Freda’s film may have come first, but it took the international success of Mario Bava’s The Mask of Satan (1960; also known as Black Sunday) to kickstart this new wave of Italian horror. Adapted from Nikolai Gogol’s The Viy, Bava’s film follows the resurrection of a 17th-century witch (played by Barbara Steele, in her first major role) as she sets out to inhabit the body one of her descendants and avenge her death.

A master of light, composition and expressive camera movement, from the outset Bava displays a visual flair that sets him apart from his British and American gothic peers. The film’s monochrome photography has a dark, ethereal beauty, punctuated by moments of haunting surrealism.

With The Mask of Satan screening at BFI Southbank as part of our four-month gothic celebration, join us as we lift the lid on the murky world of the spaghetti shocker.

I vampiri (1956)

Director Riccardo Freda

Riccardo Freda’s collaboration with then-cinematographer Mario Bava was the first Italian horror film of the sound era. But Freda reportedly stormed off the set after just 10 days of filming, leaving Bava to complete the picture in post-production, simplifying the plot and cobbling it all together with stock footage.

Their retelling of the Elizabeth Báthory legend, history’s famous real-life vampire, casts former Miss Italy runner-up Gianna Maria Canale as a reclusive grande dame residing in an imposing castle – who might just know a thing or two about a series local murders, whose victims have been drained of blood.

Freda’s film fuses modern-day settings with the romantic style of his previous period pieces. Decadence and decay are wrapped up in the mise en scène of its dilapidated interiors, and it makes ingenious use of lighting and shadow play to unsettling effect. The sepulchral grandeur of Canale’s castle is shot with the painterly sensibility that would come so strikingly to the fore in The Mask of Satan. In fact, it’s in I vampiri that the style of the Italian horror film begins to take shape, privileging imagery and atmosphere over logic and realism.

Black Sabbath (1963)

Director Mario Bava

After The Mask of Satan, Mario Bava returned to the horror genre with a portmanteau chiller: three short films, wrapped up anthology-style with an introduction by Boris Karloff. For years only available to British audiences in a heavily reworked American edit, the recent release of the Italian original showcases Bava’s genius in its full gothic glory.

The film’s opening chapter, ‘The Telephone’, once often dismissed as the weakest of the three, is revealed in the Italian edit as a bravura exercise in razor-sharp suspense. Set in a locked apartment over one evening, it has a glamorous party girl (possibly call girl, the film delicately implies) menaced by a series of anonymous phone calls. A set-up to which Scream’s (1996) famous curtain raiser owes everything, it gives Bava the scope to masterfully crank up the tension as our heroine’s mood passes from irritation to perplexity – and finally terror.

The film’s latter two segments – ‘The Wurdulak’ and ‘The Drop of Water’, based on tales by Tolstoy and Chekhov – make greater use of the expressionist lighting style that was fast becoming Bava’s signature. His kaleidoscopic palette would be a conspicuous feature of his stylish murder-mystery Blood and Black Lace (1964) and gothic classics The Whip and the Flesh (1963) and Kill Baby, Kill (1966). It’s a visual style that has echoed across the output of his most notable successor, Dario Argento – most prominently in Inferno (1980).

Flesh for Frankenstein (1973)

Director Paul Morrissey

This gory, camp-as-Christmas reworking of Mary Shelley’s classic tale was an Italian-American co-production. Relocating the story to the Balkans, Andy Warhol associate Paul Morrissey shot the film back to back with his Blood for Dracula (1974) in Rome’s famous Cinecittà studio.

Udo Kier is brilliantly barmy as the unhinged Baron Frankenstein, whose grotesque experiments function as a barely-concealed excuse for his own necrophilia. In Morrissey’s version, he’s obsessed with creating not one but two monsters – a male and a female – so he can mate them and breed a Serbian master race. The Baroness (Monique van Vooren), meanwhile, is a frustrated nymphomaniac who goes to elaborate lengths to bed labourer Joe Dallesandro.

Joyfully tasteless, Flesh for Frankenstein delights in shattering taboos with pointed irreverence. Morrissey piles on gratuitous sex and gore with rapturous abandon, and the film is notable for its visceral use of 3D photography (with every opportunity taken to have entrails burst from the screen). Morrissey’s preference for improv is a surprisingly good fit. Kier and van Vooren are clearly having a whale of a time with their often improvised-sounding dialogue, peppered with quotable one-liners.

Lisa and the Devil (1973)

Director Mario Bava

When producer Alfredo Leone gave Mario Bava carte blanche and a generous budget for his next project, Bava chose to make this extraordinary, logic-defying riddle of a film. It should have been his magnum opus but it so completely baffled distributors that Leone had it recut, commissioning extra footage to transform Bava’s baroque fantasy into a crass Exorcist cash-in and retitling it The House of Exorcism.

In Bava’s original, Elke Sommer takes a wrong turn while visiting a picturesque Spanish town and comes face to face with the devil. It’s an encounter that leads her to a derelict mansion, where her story becomes interwoven with that of a set of bizarre, Pirandellian characters, as reality and hallucination become more and more indistinct.

Surreal, perplexing and hauntingly beautiful, it’s Bava’s most complex and ambitious work – and probably his most divisive. To some it’s his greatest achievement, the film that perfectly crystallises his morbid obsessions, while others write it off as self-indulgent gobbledegook. Tragically, Bava died believing his version would never again see the light of day.

The House with Laughing Windows (1976)

Director Pupi Avati

Giuseppe ‘Pupi’ Avati may be better known for his Palme d’or-nominated Incantato (2003) or his Mozart biopic Noi tre (1984). But his contribution to Italian horror has not been insignificant, the former jazz musician having helmed a series of powerfully sinister rural gothic chillers, all set in his home region of Emilia-Romagna.

In The House with Laughing Windows a young artist’s (Lino Capolicchio) restoration of a crumbling church fresco uncovers a grotesque local history of incest, madness and murder. What lingers in the memory is the film’s morbid obsession with decay and corruption. There’s a persistent sense that something rotten festers in the horrible history of this dying town as much as in its physical environment. It’s a theme that would reverberate through Avati’s screenplay for Lamberto Bava’s Macabre (1980), as well as his own zombie-thriller hybrid Zeder (1983) and neglected L’arcano incantatore (1996).

Suspiria (1977)

Director Dario Argento

The gothic godmother of Italian horror films, Dario Argento’s landmark supernatural shocker cemented his reputation as one of the greatest talents in modern horror cinema. Folklore meets savage ultra-violence against psychedelic backdrops in his terrifying fairy tale of modern witchery.

Jessica Harper stars as a young ballerina who secures a place at one of Europe’s most exclusive dance schools, the Tam Academy of Freiburg. But at the academy, things aren’t quite as they should be: one of its pupils is horribly murdered, a sudden infestation causes maggots to rain from the ceiling and there’s some kind of conspiracy afoot that causes the sinister teachers to close ranks around their elusive director.

Argento and director of photography Luciano Tovoli made a wise decision to handle most of the film’s special effects in-camera. Their unfussy illusions have a believable simplicity about them; it’s perhaps why Argento’s fairy-tale vision of the supernatural feels convincing despite the film’s dreamlike lapses in logic. The academy has an unnerving atmosphere – suggested in the saturated hues of the light and the eerie whispers that invade the soundtrack at moments of high tension – associated with witchcraft and its omnipresence. As one character comments, “magic is everywhere”.

It’s an inimitable, one-off experience of a film; and Argentophiles can breathe a sigh of relief that talk of a US remake appears to have receded.

Inferno (1980)

Director Dario Argento

Argento’s follow-up to Suspiria gave it a backstory, weaving it into a projected trilogy (the third and least successful part, Mother of Tears, didn’t emerge until 2007). Suspiria’s dance academy is revealed to be just one of three houses of the damned, from which three mythical sisters – all witches – exert their evil influence across the globe. Inferno continues the saga in New York, where a young poet has discovered the witches’ secret, inadvertently setting in motion an increasingly bloody chain of events.

More self-consciously gothic than its predecessor, medievalism mingles with art deco in Inferno’s lavish sets. In this chapter, Argento’s house of horrors is a towering apartment block, an elegantly dilapidated labyrinth full of secret rooms and forgotten staircases. The witch’s influence seems to have spread beyond its walls, infecting the cluttered antique shop across the alley; in fact even Central Park, where one of the characters meets his grisly end, assumes a strange aura of garish unreality.

The House by the Cemetery (1981)

Director Lucio Fulci

Made by Lucio Fulci at the height of his powers, The House by the Cemetery forms the third part of an informal trilogy initiated with City of the Living Dead (1980) and The Beyond (1981). One of euro-horror’s most prolific contributors, Fulci was rarely slow to pick up on a genre trend – and there are certainly shades of The Amityville Horror (1977) in the film’s premise: a young family relocates from the city to an isolated house in New England, unsuspecting of its troubled past and unprepared for the supernatural horrors it’s about to unleash.

But it’s not an entirely fair comparison. Fulci turns his haunted house story into a fragmented nightmare full of narrative loose ends, disorienting set pieces, sudden shifts in tone between slasher-style suspense and jarring melancholy. There are glimpses of existentialism and buckets of gore. Derivative or not, it wipes the floor with its prosaic American cousin. And far from restoring order at the end, Fulci’s family-in-peril caper reaches an altogether more pessimistic conclusion.

Demons (1985)

Director Lamberto Bava

We’re stretching our definition of ‘great’ with this one. Produced by Dario Argento, this offering from Mario Bava’s less illustrious progeny is a frankly schlocky piece of work. As an excursion into undiluted anarchy, though, it’s in a league of its own.

An outbreak of contagious demonic possession in a locked cinema is the premise for this energetic splatterfest, co-written by Argento, Bava and Italo-horror regulars Dardano Sacchetti and Franco Ferrini. Not so much a possession drama as a full-on zombie actioner, it’s a slice of camped-up mayhem of the silliest kind. And in that respect, it does its job. It’s big and brash and 80s; a loud, unapologetically vacuous counteragent to the troubling psychological horrors of the previous decade.

Lamberto Bava showed promise with his early Macabre (1980), having worked closely with his father on Rabid Dogs (1974) and Shock (1977). It was a potential he never fully realised. With a series of made-for-TV horrors he appeared to hit a career low, until La maschera del demonio (1989), an ill-conceived remake of Bava Sr’s classic, revealed he had further yet to fall.

Dellamorte Dellamore (1994)

Director Michele Soavi

It was in the 90s that the wheels finally fell off the Italian horror bandwagon. This witty, eccentric effort from former Argento assistant Michele Soavi – who directed supernatural shockers The Church (1989) and The Sect (1990) with Argento as producer – might be seen as the last chapter in the story of Italy’s horror golden age. Dellamorte Dellamore sees Soavi stepping out from under his mentor’s shadow and developing his own style with this adaptation of a darkly comic novel by Tiziano Sclavi. Famous in Italy for his comic-book sensation Dylan Dog, Sclavi also wrote the anarchic comedy-noir Nero, filmed by Giancarlo Soldi.

Set in a remote Lombaria cemetery, the film pits misanthropic loner Francesco Dellamorte (Rupert Everett) against an army of zombies, the cemetery having been hit with an epidemic that has the dead digging their way out of their graves, hungry for flesh.

Stylistically, it parodies entries from across the catalogue of Italian living dead flicks. But it’s far from standard zombie fare. With the introduction of Dellamorte’s love interest (model Anna Falchi), Soavi’s film veers off into a lyrical contemplation of love and death, twin themes that become locked in patterns of endless repetition.

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