2016, Signum Books
This lavishly illustrated 416 page tome is an overview of approximately 80 years of horror cinema from France, Italy, Spain and Germany. Films from Belgium and Switzerland are also included across six long chapters covering releases from 1896 to 1983 and beyond. Rigby (ENGLISH GOTHIC, AMERICAN GOTHIC), focuses on 113 films, from Germany's UNHEIMLICHE GESCHICHTEN to Pupi Avati's ZEDER. The original title, the UK/US release titles, countries of production and release date, full cast lists, exact dates of production commencement,, technical credits, production companies and countries, quotes from contemporary reviews, commentary and promos are provided.
I haven't read the author's acclaimed AMERICAN GOTHIC or ENGLISH GOTHIC, but this 2016 tome, which despite its feast of information and images, handles like a dream, and it passed the test I give all new book purchases. Instead of starting at the beginning or working back from the end, I simply let the book plop down in my lap and begin reading wherever it falls open. In this case it was almost at the halfway mark and I continued to read for a good 90 minutes without stopping. This is as difficult to put down as it is easy to get lost in. And you don't have to be a Euro horror scholar to enjoy/learn from it. It's both concise and expansive when needed. Part One: Warning Shadows, 1896-1954 is the long, immersive groundwork on which the sequential study is built. Mathew Lewis (THE MONK) and Poe are examined as historical architects of German and American terror tales. France's fantasist Maurice Tourneur is also noted before a discussion of Paul Wegener's early Expressionist adventures and the landmark DAS CABINET DES DR. CALIGARI (1919). From there on it's literally from Caligari to Hitler and beyond.... way beyond. The fact that such often deconstructed titles as DER MUDE TOD (1921) and DER GOLEM WIE ER IN DIE WELT KAM (1920) are discussed with fresh insight is especially impressive in an age where critic-historians often come up with the same "insights" into the same films, often using the exact same syntax.
It's also instructive that Cocteau's symbolist BLOOD OF A POET and later ORPHEE enter the discussion as models for less personal and artful projects. The book really shifts into high gear in Experiments in Evil, 1954-1963, an extended consideration of what has become known as "the Italian Golden Age" of horror cinema. Rigby's comparison of Riccardo Freda's epoch changing I VAMPIRI (1957) to Billy Wilder's 1950 SUNSET BLVD. is especially well taken. The book literally catches fire in ANGELS FOR SATAN 1963-1966, where the best films of Mario Bava and Jess Franco lead the way. Scream queens-femme fatales such as Barbara Steele (AN ANGEL FOR SATAN, DANZA MACABRA/CASTLE OF BLOOD), Dahlia Lavi (THE WHIP AND THE BODY), Estella Blain (MISS MUERTE) and Soledad Miranda lit up the screens with addicting perversity in mind reeling scenarios and the author appreciates them all while admitting to the flaws in the sometimes rushed scripting/directing. It's especially good to read such usually neglected/underrated titles as THE SADISTIC BARON VON KLAUS, EL SECRETO DEL DR. ORLOFF (1964) and IL TERZO OCCHIO (1966) given deserved attention and reappraisal here as 2 of the 113 focus titles. The piece on Franco's Pamela Stanford fronted transgression LORNA... L'EXORCISTE (1974) is one of the most perceptive things I've read about that shocking mixture of near hardcore sex and macabre imagery (the vaginal crabs!), again rightly nailing the Faustian aspects of the scenario. My favorite review in the previous sections is the nuanced appreciation of Riccardo Freda's iconic L'ORRIBLE SEGRETO DEL DR. HICHCOCK, the still shocking 1962 necrophilia melodrama, nailing the most evocative scenes, along with the quieter interludes where the creeping madness of the insane doctor becomes inescapable. The author also comes equipped with a deep knowledge of literature and music, enabling him to quote Poe's THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH in describing the incandescent visuals in Hichcock and also rightly hitting the notes of the slightly off key score, "Roman Vlad's exceptional score slurs into funereal strings." Exactly. Many lesser known titles and such cult figure as Spain's Paul Naschy are also given detailed attention. It's all put into historical perspective in terms of such external forces as the economic, military, geopolitical, cultural backgrounds which spawned the various products. The book is well aware that this ain't Hollywood, after all.
Jean Rollin's Fantastique vampire and zombie reveries are also given their due, while their classical influences are duly noted, such as Browning's DRACULA being the template for THE SHIVER OF THE VAMPIRE (1970), something Rollin himself confirmed to me when I interviewed him in 1990. Speaking of Fantastique, the unfortunately obscure LE SEUIL DU VIDE, a 1971 dream-play by future porn director Jean- Francois Davy is deconstructed in such detail that one only wishes a restored HD release were available somewhere in the world. I have to admit that film flew completely under my radar until reading about it here and now it's near the top of my most wanted list.
My only complaint about this book is that it isn't longer. It pretty much cuts off after the mid 1980s as such titans as Lucio Fulci, Dario Argento, Jess Franco and Joe D'Amato were powering down, losing reliable funding resources and evolving their styles in unexpected ways. Franco's 1980s output, particularly his highly personal and underrated Golden Films Internacional period, deserve more in-depth consideration, while two of the best, EL SINIESTRO DEL DR. ORLOFF and LA MANSION DE MANSION MUERTOS VIVIENTES (both 1982), are dismissed out-of-hand. Of course, there's a context here and dozens more films to be considered. Franco's even more difficult digital period, running from the late 1990s to his death in 2013 isn't covered at all. The equally troublesome 21 Century record of Dario Argento is also missing. And I wish it had included Michele Soavi's elegant zombie fairy tale, DELLAMOTRE DELLAMORE, as number 114 in the survey, and maybe Argento's THE STENDHAL SYNDROME or Mariano Biano's DARK WATERS (1994) to make it 115. Those films all evoke the end of a special era in Italian fantastic cinema. But what is good here is very good indeed and one has to stop somewhere. The fact that we set the book down wanting more speaks well of what is between its covers and is a rare feeling in contemporary film publications. Detailed source notes and a useful title index are included. This book will definitely replace Phil Hardy's ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE HORROR FILM as my go-to European horror reference guide.
Reviewed by and (C) Robert Monell, 2017. All Rights Reserved