A Love Letter to Italian Horror

Following the release of “Crimson Peak,” which pays beautiful homage to Bava, I think it’s appropriate to discuss the classic art of Italian horror cinema. The bold, Technicolor style of these films is so rarely seen anymore, which is a terrible shame. Some of the best horror films of all time have come out of the Italian tradition. It’s time we, like Guillermo del Toro, pay respect to those masters.

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Most horror fans will have heard of, if not seen, films like “Suspiria,” “Deep Red,” “Black Sunday” and “Zombi.” These are the most well-known, but only a small offering, of the giallo/horror tradition in Italian cinema. None of those films sport very original plots – witches, killers, and zombies are oft seen in horror – but what they do have is an incredibly striking style. Italian filmmakers are masters of sumptuous visuals – everyone from Fellini and Visconti to Argento and Bava craft their works with exquisite production design, color and texture. It becomes so that the style is their substance, and even if the plot is distracted or the characters are thin, the style is so strong that it carries the film.

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In fact, that’s one of my favorite aspects of Italian horror. There is no attention to plot, or dialogue (the films are all dubbed anyway), or traditional storytelling – instead, the films play to the senses, utilizing colorful visuals and soundtrack to evoke emotions. Because of this, the films become like a dream (or nightmare).

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“Suspiria” is a collection of primary hues and jarring sounds, strung together in a hallucinatory tale of witches. “Lisa and the Devil” – my personal favorite Bava – is surreal and spectral, not because of its plot, but because of its disjointed images. Lucio Fulci’s films have some of the worst ADR of all time, and their scenes never match, but who can resist the draw of a film like “The Beyond,” where people get eaten by spiders and decaying zombies float out of a portal to Hell? Watching these films is akin to submerging oneself in water and listening to someone speak above you. It’s otherworldly. Which, for me, is what horror should be.

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There are different schools of giallo. Mario Bava handles the occult and the ghostly, with tales of the undead and fulfilled curses; Dario Argento rolls out grandiose, bloody mysteries; and Lucio Fulci brings the gore, whether it be zombies or people who are ripping out guts. These three directors all have different ticks, but their ethereal scores and moods create a common thread. They have cemented a style of filmmaking that is so hard to find now, because audiences seem to demand a coherent story, rather than submitting themselves to the senses.

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Screenwriting teachers and logical-minded people would certainly disagree, but for a horror fan who enjoys living in a dream, if only for 90 minutes, Italian horror is perfect for me. The cerebral dread and sensory terror that they create is unparalleled. It is hard to think of a better set of directors to choose for Halloween, when the air is filled with a sense of the uncanny, and to live in a nightmare is a dream.

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