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{Blu-ray Review} To Wander in Darkness: The Gothic Fantastico Collection from Arrow Video

While the giallo is the form most commonly associated with horror films from Italy, the Italian gothic has given us nearly as many classics as that subgenre. And even while most horror fans are likely familiar with such seminal works as Mario Bava’s Black Sunday, there’s a rich vein of Italian gothics that have rarely been seen beyond the borders of their home country. Enter Arrow Video’s Gothic Fantastico collection, which gathers – on Blu-ray often for the first time – four black-and-white Italian gothics of various stripes from throughout the 1960s. Here, we’ll find tales reminiscent of Corman’s Technicolor Poe adaptations, stories influenced by Psycho, and everything in-between.

Courtesy Arrow Video

“I’ve had enough of the dead…” – Lady Morgan’s Vengeance (1965)

“I started in the horror genre because I wanted to get out of documentaries,” director Massimo Pupillo wrote about his decision to stop doing horror pictures after helming Lady Morgan’s Vengeance, “I wanted to enter the commercial market. In Italy, when you do a certain type of film, you become labeled and you can’t do anything else. I remember one day, a producer called me to do a film only because the other producers told him he had to get either Mario Bava or me. When I understood this, I felt dead.”

This may help to explain why Lady Morgan’s Vengeance was Pupillo’s last horror film, following on the heels of the better-known Terror Creatures from the Grave and Bloody Pit of Horror, both also released in 1965. Compared to those pictures, Lady Morgan’s Vengeance is a fairly bog-standard gothic, complete with just about every trope from the genre’s roots that you can imagine. There’s gaslighting aplenty, a true love with amnesia, hypnotism, secret passages, a dungeon beneath a crypt, and loads of sneaking amid gravestones on a dark and stormy night.

Until its denouement, this makes Lady Morgan’s Vengeance enjoyable enough but largely undistinguished. Writing in his book Italian Horror Film Directors, Louis Paul called the picture “a successful attempt at emulating the better Gothic horror films of earlier years” but argued that “audiences were tuned into and expecting more from the colorful and violence-soaked horror films other filmmakers were churning out.” Perhaps that is the reason for the hard turn that Lady Morgan’s Vengeance takes in its last legs, when the fate of all involved is told via flashback, and the story introduces vampiric ghosts that resemble the ghouls of Carnival of Souls into the mix.

Courtesy Arrow Video

“One is surrounded by sadness in these ruins.” – The Blancheville Monster (1963)

Opening with a slow pan in the rain to a drawing of a castle, accompanied by overwrought music, The Blancheville Monster makes clear right from the jump that it shares more DNA with Roger Corman’s Technicolor Poe adaptations than with its Italian gothic contemporaries. And yet, watching this hard on the heels of Lady Morgan’s Vengeance, it’s impossible not to notice some dramatic similarities that go beyond the standard gothic trappings of sinister servants and creaky old castles.

When Miss Eleanor (Helga Line, doing her best Barbara Steele) is introduced, the dialogue is almost word-for-word the same as in the introduction of the sinister housekeeper in Lady Morgan’s Vengeance, and both films feature their protagonists hypnotized in their sleep. There are also plenty of differences, though. For starters, The Blancheville Monster traffics in pretty much the one classic gothic trope that Lady Morgan’s Vengeance didn’t: the deformed relative up in the attic. It also distinguishes itself from Corman’s gothics with its use of dramatic real-world ruins, including the Monastery of Santa Maria La Real de Valdeiglesias in Spain.

It was directed by Alberto De Martino, who helmed a whole passel of movies in various genres, including the MST3K “classic” Pumaman, while its similarities to Lady Morgan’s Vengeance might be chalked up to the fact that the two films share a screenwriter in Giovanni Grimaldi. Martino himself didn’t think much of this flick, calling it “a little film of no importance,” which is probably a bit harsh to it, considering some of the other titles in his filmography…

Courtesy Arrow Video

“There’s always a point where the past and future meet.” – The Third Eye (1966)

Released just a year after Lady Morgan’s Vengeance, Mino Guerrini’s The Third Eye takes a hard turn from the previous two films in this set. Where those were classic Italian gothics in the “women running away from a dark castle in their nightdress” vein, this one is emphatically Psycho-inflected and, as a result, feels much more modern – and not just because it is set in a present day of cars and filling stations.

Naturally, though, there is still a big, dark house where our tormented protagonist Count Mino lives with his overbearing mother and his scheming housekeeper. (This honestly could have been called the Sinister Housekeeper Collection.) Where the plot seems like it’s going to go in the first act is not quite where it ends up, however. Franco Nero plays the young count in an early role, where he is called upon primarily to do crazy eyes, and does them very well. He’s in love with a young woman who he intends to marry, but his mother opposes the union. Unfortunately for all involved, both mother and fiancée die on the same day, both the result of foul play.

The tragedy drives our count over the edge, and he embarks on his Norman Bates-esque slaughter of various women before everything comes tumbling down with the introduction of his fiancee’s sister, who is also played by Erika Blanc. The whole thing drags a bit in parts, but its atmosphere of decay and madness is undeniable.

Courtesy Arrow Video

“It must be difficult growing old when you used to be very beautiful.” – The Witch (1966)

Released stateside simply as The Witch, this film is far better represented by a literal translation of its Italian title, The Witch in Love. I guess American distributors didn’t think their audiences would flock to a horror flick with that title, let alone one drawn from the unlikely well of a novel by Carlos Fuentes.

A dreamy tale of what one Letterboxd user dubs “a psychosexual battle of wills,” of uncanny doubles and unfortunate doublings, The Witch feels less like a horror film than the other pictures in this set, though it certainly descends into horrific territory before all is said and done, and it’s worth noting that romance is as much a part of the gothic blueprint as horror. Instead, it’s a battle of the sexes film that’s set in an eternal feverish moment, locked in virtually a single location, a palace of decayed grandeur that, in proper gothic tradition, represents much more than just a building.

It is, perhaps more so than any of the others contained here, a beautiful film, kept from greater heights than it reaches by its own sexual politics, more than anything. Whether the film is ultimately misogynistic – and who is the real villain of the piece – is something largely left to the interpretation of the individual viewer, however.