Mention Italian gothics to most genre-movie fans, and they're likely to mention certain directors: Mario Bava, Ricardo Freda, Antonio Margheriti, Mario Caiano, to name a few. Chances are the name "Alberto de Martino" will never come up in the conversation. If Italian horror buffs bring up de Martino at all, it will either be to express deep disappointment over the wasted potential of movies like L'Antecristo/The Tempter or Extrasensorial/Blood Link, or to wonder rhetorically how anybody could make a movie as awful as L'uomo puma/Puma Man or Miami Horror. It may not be surprising that de Martino tried his hand at period gothic horror early in his career -- after all, if the genre or subject matter was popular at the time, chances are Alberto took a swing at it; but it may come as a shock that his results are really pretty good.
Palmerini and Mistretta, in the encyclopedic list of Italian horror films they included at the end of "Spaghetti Nightmares", dismissed de Martino's Horror (1964) as "hackneyed". Originality may not be the movie's strong point, but then again, compared with Italian horror films in general (especially de Martino's later work), Horror holds up rather well. It takes its, ahem, inspiration from other films of its type, rather than plagiarizing one or two obvious examples. De Martino's direction is capable; he knows exactly where to place his actors, and how to position his cameras to keep the action fluid and interesting. He even manages to create some fascinating and atmospheric screen compositions.
Unfortunately, the film comes to grief over its script, which is utter bollocks. The young, handsome heroes are always the least interesting characters in gothic horror films, but in Horror we're given a male lead who is completely useless. I'd like to be kind and suggest that this was deliberate, since the real hero of the movie turns out to be someone you wouldn't expect; but this unexpected switch seems less like defiance of convention than the result of under-written characters. And even though the script attempts to build some sense of mystery over the identity of the true villain, nobody is likely to be surprised when the mystery is revealed. As for the horror elements of the film, they're extremely tame and lacking in spirit -- a big disappointment for a movie with such a lurid title. Although the movie still seems to have a little energy left as it heads into the climax, everything falls apart at the last minute, and Horror comes to an abrupt and unsatisfying end.
As you may have guessed from my comments so far, this review will be revealing most of the movie's plot. To call these revelations "spoilers" would be silly, but I feel I should warn you: if you've never seen a horror movie or read a mystery novel before... or if you're an innocent soul who looks forward with breathless anticipation to seeing which direction the sun will rise in each day... and you want to be surprised by the plot of the film, then you may want to stop here.
Horror is loosely based on "The Fall of the House of Usher", Edgar Allan Poe's famous limerick:
The brother of Madeline Usher
To her grave prematurely did rush her;
He was then heard to say,
"It's much better this way,
'Ere the fall of the mansion could smush her."
(de Martino's version is about as faithful to the source as mine above is.)
The Roderick Usher character of the film, renamed Rodéric de Blancheville, is even made up to look a little bit like an idealized version of Poe himself. But de Martino's movie owes more to Roger Corman's impressions of Poe than it does to Poe's actual writing. Yes, that's right: de Martino's film is a lower-budget ripoff of a Roger Corman flick, a fact which hasn't helped its reputation at all. Yet Horror is one of those films that's actually enhanced by its cheapness. For example, unlike the Corman films, Horror was shot in black and white. Though this was most likely for budgetary rather than artistic reasons, the monochrome photography lends the movie a dignity its script barely deserves. Also, they seem to have economized a bit either by shooting some sequences in an actual castle, or by failing to heat the studio -- it's hard to tell which method they used, but the result is an atmosphere so cold and dank that you can see the actors' breath. As a result, the interior scenes not only look genuine, but feel genuine (and terribly uncomfortable, too).
The plot of the film has young Emilie de Blancheville returning to her home in Brittany after what she describes as her "exile" of many years. With her are two Americans: Alice, her best friend from her English university; and John, Alice's brother. John is in the process of wooing Emilie; he's the obligatory stong, handsome type, and consequently I've forgotten almost everything about him.
Emilie has been forced to remain outside France for most of her life, though the reasons for her banishment have never been clear. She was ordered not to return even after her father's unexpected death. Now, just before her 21st birthday, her brother Rodéric has relented and allowed her to come back to the family estate.
The first shock awaiting poor Emilie is that all the servants she remembered from her childhood have been replaced. There's a forbidding new butler, and in charge of the running of the house is a coldly beautiful young woman named Miss Eleanor (Helga Liné, looking almost exactly as she would two years later in Mario Caiano's Amanti d'Oltre Tomba/Nightmare Castle). The next shock is how deeply the return to those familiar surroundings affects her, especially since her father is no longer living. Still, Rodéric tries to calm her apprehensions by insisting (a little creepily) that she rely on him for everything... that until she reaches her actual majority, her life belongs to him.
Rodéric likes to while away the time playing lugubrious music on his harpsichord -- a little tune of his own, perhaps, from a collection called Tickling the Ivories: Thirty-Two Little Pieces in Memory of Berenice. There's definitely something sinister about Rodéric, though Alice, who's been reading his letters to his sister for many years, is fascinated by him. But even Alice is disconcerted during dinner, when she thinks she hears the sound of a hideous scream coming from somewhere outside. Emilie thinks she might also have heard it, but John (dolt that he is) dismisses it as the sound of a dog baying somewhere. Rodéric and Miss Eleanor sieze on John's suggestion with something like relief. Alice accepts the explanation that Rodéric seems so anxious for them to believe; but before the company has a chance to relax, something equally sinister happens: Vincent Price walks into the room.
OK, it's not really Vincent Price; it's Docteur LaRouche, the de Blancheville's new physician. Still, the actor playing LaRouche looks very much like a poor-man's Vincent Price, and in several scenes he goes to great lengths to imitate Price's familiar gestures. When LaRouche pulls Eleanor aside for a hasty conference out of earshot of the others, you'd be hard-pressed to find a more suspicious-looking pair. There seems to be something going on between them, something which also involves Rodéric. At first it seems to be some sort of criminal conspiracy; later, we'll be led to believe there might be some sort of twisted love-triangle between them, but this is all misdirection.
Late that night, Alice is awakened by more horrible screams coming from somewhere in the castle. She grabs a candle and gropes her way throught the darkened castle. She passes a clock, which strikes midnight just at that moment; thoroughly unnerved, she creeps slowly up a flight of stairs, following the eerie sounds. At the top of the stairs she finds a door, and when she pushes it open, she sees a horribly disfigured man chained to a bed. Miss Eleanor crouches over him holding a hypodermic, as the poor creature screams and tries to break free. The sight is too much for Alice, and she falls in a faint.
When she awakens, she is back in her own room; all traces of her midnight expedition have disappeared. When she confronts Rodéric with the nightmarish scene she saw in the tower room, he insists on taking her there. Naturally, there is no sign of any disfigured man, and though Alice is certain she saw him just at midnight, Rodéric points out that the clock is just striking midnight at this very moment. Perhaps it was a dream?
We in the audience know better, but before we have too much chance to gloat over how clever we are, Rodéric changes his mind. After a brief conversation with Dr. LaRouche, he admits to Emilie and the Americans that there was someone confined up in that terrible room. Rodéric had gone to such extraordinary lengths to convince Alice she had been dreaming because the man in the tower was in fact the old Comte de Blancheville! The Count had not been killed in the chapel fire after all. Instead he was burnt beyond recognition, and driven mad by the constant pain. What Alice saw was not some torture-chamber scene, but Miss Eleanor trying to give the poor man something to relieve his agony. Unfortunately, Alice's interruption was enough to allow the mad count to break free and escape.
This would be bad enough, and a considerable shock for poor Emilie; but there's worse news to come. It seems that the madman has only one lucid thought left in his pain-maddened brain, and that's an obsession with a prophecy carved in the stone over the family crypt: if a female child of the de Blanchevilles should live to her 21st birthday, the de Blancheville line will come to an end. Yes, Emilie: your Dad's alive, disfigured and insane, wandering around in the shadows somewhere... and oh! by the way! he wants nothing more than to kill you. Happy Birthday, and welcome home!
Rodéric gathers a group of local peasants to search for the missing maniac, but nobody finds a trace of him. You'd figure this might give someone a hint that he's still in the castle somewhere; evidently not, since Emilie is left alone and unguarded in her room that night. A secret panel swings open silently, and a hooded figure creeps in. We get a pretty good look at him this time -- imagine what Death from The Seventh Seal would look like if he stopped playing chess with wayward Knights, and starting going in for pie-fights instead. He stands menacingly over the helpless, sleeping girl, waggling his crusty fingers. Poor Emilie is completely at the mercy of the creature, who could fulfill the prophecy right now by strangling her, or smothering her with her pillow.
So what does our maimed madman do? He hypnotizes her.
I know what you're probably thinking at this point: This is a man driven mad by constant pain, who hasn't had his medication in a whole day? This is a homicidal monomaniac bent on killing his daughter? If he is, he's being remarkably circumspect. Instead of killing her outright, he puts her into some sort of trance, all the while gibbering things like, "You are going to die! To die! To die! And then you will be dead!" Having thus lulled her into a stupor, he causes Emilie to sleepwalk out of the castle in her lingerie. Here de Martino gives us a striking image, as the pale girl in stark white disappears into the shadows of the forest, followed closely by the hooded black shape. De Martino emphasizes Emilie's vulnerability by shooting from high atop the castle walls, with Emilie a tiny shape below, getting smaller and smaller as she wanders away. It would be all the more effective if it made any sense.
The hooded figure forces Emilie to go to the family crypt, out in the ruins of the burnt chapel. This, he tells her, is where she will be going soon, because she's going to die! To die! To die! To be dead, and no longer living! And die! And to provide inspiration for John Cleese's lengthy tirade in the Parrot Sketch ("... she's rung down the curtain and joined the bleeding Choir Invisible! This... is an ex-Blancheville!")
(By the way: there really is some sort of ancient inscription carved above the door of the tomb. However, though I haven't been able to read it clearly, I do know it's in English, which strikes me as a tad unlikely. It's rumored, though, that the original Italian version was set in England, featuring a doomed family called the Blackfords. Apparently someone connected with the English version realized that there was nothing remotely English about the goings-on and reset the action in France. I have no proof of this.)
This little drama goes on over several ensuing nights, and as you might expect in such a small household, it isn't long before Emilie's midnight walks are noticed. Suspicion immediately falls on the sinister-looking Doctor, especially when Alice finds a book on Mesmerism tucked in his medical bag. The movie even acknowledges our suspicion about the madman being an impostor by having LaRouche show up in similar clothing just after the hooded figure disappears. But certainly nobody in the audience is going to believe the real monster is the most-likely suspect, just as nobody on-screen does anything particularly sensible to solve the problem of Emilie's sleepwalking.
Eventually, Mr. Crusty gets his fondest wish as Emilie dies — and not, as you might have expected, of old age. On her last trek to the crypt, John attempts to overcome his general uselessness and follows her; however, being completely ineffectual, he is surprised by the hooded figure and beaten unconscious with a cross. The commotion wakes Emilie from her trance, and she runs screaming in terror. The Blancheville monster catches up with her, and just as his fingers grasp her throat, Emilie drops dead from a combination of shock and exhaustion. It's perfect timing for the maniac, since it's on the eve of Emilie's 21st birthday.
Anybody who's read Poe will realize that Emilie's not really dead at all. She's fallen into a cataleptic coma, and will be buried alive. We hear her internal monlog as they carry her open coffin to the ruined cathedral (where they most likely had to dislodge the Russian musicologist sitting in a puddle with his dog). But by this point, the viewer won't have to be familiar with Poe to figure out who's behind the sinister plot against Emilie, simply because there are no other suspects left.
Of course, the Blancheville monster is really Rodéric in a mask. It's Rodéric, not his father, who is a madman, obsessed with continuing the family line.
Here, actually, we've made a very serious departure from Poe, in whose story Roderick Usher sought to bring about the end of his line. Roderick and his sister Madeline represented two parts of a tortured personality, tenants of a crumbling "house" which in turn could be read as the physical body this torn soul inhabits. When Roderick, an intellectual to whom the slightest sensations are painful, tries to bury his sister alive, she claws her way out of her tomb; representing, perhaps, the revenge of the true personality on the public persona after the individual has tried to replace it. Anyway, their relationship is symbolic of the inner contradictions and struggles that may lead to breakdown and madness. We can't read any such symbolism into the relationship between Rodéric and Emilie.
Poe's story also adds to the atmosphere of decay by suggesting that Roderick and Madeline are the products of generations of inbreeding, and strong hints of incest may also be felt in the morbid, unhealthy connection between the brother and sister. Twice in de Martino's file (by my count) we are given explicit hints that Rodéric lusts after his own sister (three times if you count the dream sequence in which Emilie, dressed as a bride, sees the suspicious Doctor turn into the hooded figure, and then metamorphose into her brother... except that John also shows up; so since her dream involves all the significant male characters, it's hard to read any meanings into it...). If more had been made of this suggestion of incest, Rodéric's obsession might have been more convincing. As it is, it's just another wasted opportunity. And thinking of wasted opportunities, there's also Emilie's inevitable return from the tomb: how delightful it would have been if she'd gone mad from the shock, and become the real Blancheville monster — maybe even tearing out her brother's throat with her teeth! Or maybe I'm just a sick, sick man... I just think that alternative would have been better than what we actually get, which is Emilie gibbering weakly while Roddy accidentally trips down a well.
If there's one thing which saves the limp conclusion, it's the fact that this is one of the only films where Vincent Price (if only by proxy) gets the girl in the end. The coach bearing the two happy couples — John and Emilie, LaRouche and Alice — rattles off into the light, treeless plain, and away from the sinister shadows of the forest through which they arrived. In spite of the apparently-happy ending, astute viewers will come to an uncomfortable conclusion: the Blancheville prophecy has come true.
Horror is available on DVD from the infamous budget label Alpha, who released it under its alternate title, The Blancheville Monster. Alpha's image is a little on the soft side; their print starts off letterboxed (incorrectly, with the left side cut off), but reverts to P-and-S full-screen immediately after the credits. However, for seven bucks, you could do much worse.