While Mike held down the fort (sorry, buddy), I just got back from a long trip to the gorgeous mountains of West Virginia, my home state, for the funeral of my grandmother. She was 86 years of age, but even so, it took us by surprise because she was very spry and looked about 20 years younger. She lived in a rural town in WV, but her roots are in Palermo, Sicily, having come over with my grandfather during World War II. She was very proud of her Italian heritage and made sure everyone knew it. From her I inherited a love and appreciation of Italian music, art, and film. I’d love to say she was a huge horror fan, but that’s not the case. However, she did instill in me an appetite to seek out the many gorgeous Italian horror films and talented filmmakers who lived and worked in the beautiful boot-shaped Mediterranean country.
When I was a kid, she lived in Connecticut and I would visit for entire summers. We frequented a cool little video store on Franklin Avenue, the “Little Italy” of the township in which she lived. The first time I saw an adult man’s butt was on that street after Italy had won the World Cup that year when a truckload of celebrating guys mooned the crowd. Luckily, my grandparents sanitized me with some lemon Italian ice a little later and I was able to repress it. We had all manners of arguments when we visited the video store. Though it was mostly populated with Italian films with no subtitles, there was a nice section of American movies in English. When I came up to her with a fistful of Creepshow for the hundredth time, or The Evil Dead, she would look at me skeptically and with her thick accent say “Why don’t you get some beautiful movies? Get some smart movies instead of these movies with all those ugly people”. I wore her down and was able to rent them, but I had to wait to watch until she had gone to bed.
When I was in fifth grade or so, I discovered Italian horror films. The first one I checked out was Lamberto Bava’s Demons and absolutely loved it. It was just the sort of anarchic horror that I’d been looking for with its loose structure and narrative, and bloody style over substance. I only wanted action and gore at that time, and I got it. That led me to a fascinating VHS tape called Dario Argento’s World of Horror. I had only meant to learn more about Demons, but was introduced to the person who has become one of my absolute favorite horror filmmakers. In World of Horror, all of Argento’s best-known films are explored and analyzed such as Suspiria (personal favorite), Deep Red, and Tenebre. I made a mental list to seek out every single film mentioned and couldn’t wait to get to the video store. To my chagrin, the only one available was Phenomenon (aka Creepers), but I got it and watched it voraciously. It scared the hell out of me. About two years later, I was finally able to rent Suspiria and it traumatized me with its uncompromising surreal tone, color, and unflinching horror. This Argento guy was going to be a big presence in my life, I just knew it.
Another great discovery was the work of stylish gore-monger Lucio Fulci. My introduction was House by the Cemetery which really unsettled me. That was followed by The Gates of Hell, only watched on a dare between me and my best friend Dave. We’d been avid readers of Fangoria, and were thrilled by the “gut vomit” picture in the magazine. Of course we had to watch it, even if it was through our hands and with a bucket nearby. I’d seen some gory stuff by this point, but this was a whole new level of brutality.
When I became a more *ahem* sophisticated lad, I sought the work of Mario Bava. To me, Mario is the cream of the crop when it comes to Italian horror and horror in general. Sure, his films were disturbing. And yes, they were very violent. Yet, the thing I loved most about Mario Bava’s films was the attention- to-detail in the style and tone. The work was striking, and Bava was able to capture a certain beauty in depravity that is unmatched, even by his closest collaborators. If there was ever an Italian horror filmmaker my grandmother could truly appreciate, it would be Mario Bava. Did she watch any of his work? Certainly not, but I like to think he’s the one through which we could have connected. Films like Black Sunday, Baron of Blood, Blood & Black Lace, and Twitch of the Death Nerve would have made her proud of yet another talented Italian son and assured me as a life-long fan.
Oddly enough, I have two Mario Bava films at home I was planning to watch just before hearing of my grandmother’s sudden illness and subsequent death. In her honor, I think I’ll have a little double feature with some good food, a little vino, and many great memories. Viva Italian Horror and Viva Nonna D’Angelo!