Regular readers know that, as a general rule, I tend not to cut the alleged masters of Italian horror filmmaking much slack. Jeremiads regarding this bunch's heavy-handed "artistry," a seemingly national aversion to the basics of narrative structure, and their much touted stylishness, which is reminiscent less of glamour's swinging age than of Christopher Walken's SNL character The Continental, are practically a regular feature on this here blog.
Well, Screamers and Screamettes, I may have been too harsh on these jokers.
It takes a brave man to admit he's wrong. It takes a considerably less brave man to admit this over the anonymity of the blog-o-sphere. And I, Screamers and Screamettes, am that considerably less brave man!
Now let's no go overboard. I'm still confident that, even when viewed in light of my Saul on the road to Argento style conversion, most of the stuff cranked out by the genre masters of the boot of the Mediterrean is more shit than shinola. There are, however, far greater levels of shinola present than I was previously willing to admit.
And what, you may well ask, is responsible for this change of heart?
Go ahead. Ask. Oh, c'mon. Somebody, please: ask.
Thank you. I'm glad you asked.
Basically, it took Lamberto Bava, the lesser of two Bava's, to show me the way. And he did so via his 1980 directorial debut flick: the neo-gothic suspense flick Macabre.
I was originally hipped to this pic by long-time ANTSS fave, the lovely and talented Mermaid Heather (see sidebar), who gave the flick a luke-warm review, but praised its bizarre ending and noted some of the more over-the-top plot points. Something in her review must have caught my eye, because I Netflixed it up.
Now astute readers might have eyeballed the date of Heather's review. It is more than two years old. Yes. The middle of my Netflix queue is like the freakin' Bermuda Triangle of films. There you can spy the wreckage of aborted projects – such as the ill-fated "every film of Myrna Loy" expedition of 2006 – and wonder at the ruins of long lost television series I queued up on an extremely short-lived and now utterly forgotten impulse – "Wow, a BBC adaptation of Anthony Trollope's He Knew He Was Right. That's, like, only my eighth favorite Trollope novel ever. That's 100% fun sounding." If it's not at the top, where laziness might get a flick shipped out accidentally, or at the bottom, where impulse selections land before being kicked up, it's possible that a film can spend years in this online equivalent of the Black Hole of Calcutta.
Somehow, enduring God only knows what tests of character and strength, Macabre escaped and made it to my house.
And I'm glad it made it.
Film itself is a sleazy take on the classic gothic trope of love that never dies. We open on a suburban house in suburbs New Orleans. After watching her husband leave for work, MILF-ish housewife Jane slips into some daring daywear and tells her daughter, the creepy Lucy, to look after her younger brother. Jane then dashes off to a nearby boarding house to make the beast with two backs with her lover, the almost entirely characterless Fred. Lucy, clued in to her mother's trampin' about, finds the number to the boarding house (in her mother's day planner, where it is apparently listed as "Mommy's sex with not daddy place – LUCY, DO NOT CALL") and calls to throw a wet blanket on her mother's nasty groove thing. But it is to no avail, her mother's desire is too strong to be sidetracked by a little thing like one's own daughter calling the flop house where you bump uglies with your lover.
As Jane and Fred show they are most definitely down with OPP, Lucy murders her brother. With nothing in the way of pretext or explanation, the girl drowns him in a bathtub.
When the body is discovered, a call is placed to what must be the worst concealed secret rendezvous spot in the history of illicit romance. Panicked, Jane and Fred leap from bed and race towards Jane's home in Fred's car. But, before they can reach their destination, there's an accident and Fred gets beheaded by a highway traffic rail that comes plowing through the windshield.
Thus ends the first 10 minutes of Macabre.
Jane ends up in a mental institution for a year and, after the film takes a short breather, we see she's getting out.
Instead of heading back home, she takes up residence in the same boarding house that she and Fred used to meet at. Robert, the blind owner of the place, is happy to have her stay, but he's confused by some of her activities – most notably the fact that sounds as if she has a guest in her room every night and she and this mystery person do some serious shake-the-room, shout-out-loud, seven-come-eleven grade humping. This is especially heartbreaking for Robert, as he's developing a crush on Jane.
What Robert doesn't know, but we the viewers are hip to, is that Jane keeps a small shrine her lover in her room. Nightly, she "does devotions," as it were.
She also keeps a big old pad lock on the freezer of her fridge. You've probably already guessed why.
Jane eventually makes an effort to reach out to family. She rebuffed by her husband, but her creepy freakin' daughter – who apparently was not discovered as a murder because the death of Jane's son was ruled an accident, the unfortunate consequence of Jane's lust-fueled negligence – starts hanging out a the boarding house more and more often. However, Lucy seems less intent on reconnecting with her mother, than on gaslighting her and driving her back into the loony bin. A short, thinly coded exchange suggests the reason why: Lucy and Daddy are developing an unhealthy interest of their own.
All this comes to a head, so to speak, and Robert, Jane, and Lucy are all put on murderous collision course that becomes a pile-up in the final moments of the flick. Good times.
The key to enjoying Macabre is, I think, revealed by Lamberto Bava in a short making-of featurette that can be found in special features of the Blue Underground edition DVD. Twice in short piece Bava admits that the script was basically a joke. He claims it was inspired by a new clipping he saw, and that he and his two or three co-writers produced the script for laughs.
That's not to say that Macabre is funny. Though, often, it lapses into gross out humor. Rather, it plays out like a burlesque of the gothic. It isn't a spoof, in the way that, say, Airplane! was a spoof of Zero Hour! and similar disaster pics. Rather it just takes the template and pushes every aspect as far as it can go before it gets utter stupid. Every relationship in the film is tinged with a little kinkiness, everybody is off center, nothing's health or stable, and the creepy details just keep piling on until it all fall over – and then gets topped of with a WTF non sequitor that is actually laugh out loud goofy.
Visually, the film is fairly restrained. Bava the Younger does occasionally attempt to lapse in to the visual "lyricism" that's the hallmark of Italian horror, and the result is one too many ponderous and interminable shots of empty stairways. Mostly, Bava's direction is clean, efficient, controlled, and generous. It has a steady craftsmanship that is welcome and necessary. Without the sense of a stable narrator viewpoint that Bava's direction provides, the flick's story would feel so disjointed and absurd that the feeling of mounting suspense would be lost. I should point out too that his direction feels careful and easy despite a tiny budget and a packed shooting schedule – in 1980 Bava not only shot his own debut, but he served as second unit director on both Cannibal Holocaust and Inferno.
In the making of featurette, Bava mentions that he got great feedback regarding Macabre from other filmmakers, but the fans were somewhat indifferent. "Not violent enough," he said. Then, in a display of the dry but over the top humor that informs the film, Bava leans back and ponders his own statement. Discussing a film with necrophilia, incest, child murder, and sexual obsession, Bava says, "To add violence, that would have been in bad taste."
I don't know if its in good taste or not, but Macabre is certainly entertaining.