Italian horror is a strong tradition — the country churned out film after film for decades and in various subgenres. The ’80s gave us all manner of zombie films and uber-gory Lucio Fulci fare, not to mention all the supernatural and stylishly violent Dario Argento movies. But I’ve become much more enamored of the early-to-mid-’70s gialli, or sexy whodunit slasher films usually with an extra twisty plot. Most of these are thoroughly modern (or modern for the time) and never touched on any “old” kind of horror.
But two movies made by Emilio P. Miraglia in 1971 and 1972 sought to combine the typical giallo plot with undeniably Gothic touches. The first of these was the gloriously titled The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave.
Miraglia’s two gialli (of only six movies directed by him) represent a side of the genre that didn’t get explored much. There are old, musty castles, familial insanity, wealthy people fighting over inheritance, and the possibility of the supernatural. Even though the ghost in both end up being just a ruse, the trappings of Gothic Horror remain steadfast throughout and make them more than just your typical Italian slashers. (I’ll look at the second of the films — the equally awesome title The Red Queen Kills Seven Times — in a few weeks.)
As is very typical of this kind of film, the ostensible protagonist of The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave is not a very likable guy, and in this case, he’s downright awful and totally unsympathetic. The movie opens with Lord Alan Cunningham (Anthony Steffen) out of his mind following the death of his redheaded beloved wife. We find out she died following his discovery that she’d been having an affair and he was unable to get his “revenge” on her while she was alive. After this clearly still unstable but rich (so I guess he’s fine) man is released from the hospital, he takes to picking up redheaded women (strippers and prostitutes), taking them back to his castle, and whipping them and apparently eventually killing them. This is our LEAD CHARACTER, you guys. It also doesn’t help that Steffen looks exactly like a ’70s Italian Mads Mikkelsen.
Several people in his life are trying to help him get over his wife, including his friend Dr. Timberlane (Giacomo Rossi Stuart) and his cousin Farley (Umberto Raho), who takes him to a strip club where he picks up another redhead (Erika Blanc) but doesn’t kill her (even though he tries). Later, Farley convinces Alan to move from the ancestral home to London. At a party, Alan meets yet another redhead, Gladys (Marina Malfatti) to whom he proposes almost instantly. She agrees, and begins to see into Alan’s strange psyche. But the weird thing is, despite Evelyn’s death, evidence starts to pile up that maybe she’s back and prepared to enact her revenge on Alan. It would be easy to say he’s just insane, but when Gladys starts seeing her ghostly visage too, things get particularly freaky.
What I enjoy about this movie is how you could think it’s going to be some kind of supernatural ghost story, but it ends up all being a fiendish plot to get Alan’s money by someone (or someones) with a lot of time on their hands. However, just like the best gialli, nobody is particularly innocent, and the most noble characters are also the least integral to the plot. While it may seem like early in the narrative, we’re just watching salacious scenes of Alan’s trysts with women, it all becomes important to the plot later. It turns into a twisty little murder story where there are no damsels in distress, only women with scores to settle and men with nefarious intent. And maybe Alan didn’t actually kill those women… but maybe he did. It’s impossible to know with the way the movie is structured.
The standout performance in this movie has to be Marisa Malfatti as Gladys. She appears in both of Miraglia’s giallo films and has a distinctive look that sets her apart from all the other glamour girls in the films. She’s definitely of the supermodel variety, but she’s much more versatile. She comes a fair ways into the movie and as the story progresses, she has to play innocent, victim, sleuth, schemer, revenge-seeker, and she has to do it almost entirely with her eyes because giallo dialogue isn’t the most subtle. She’s great in the movie. And she has to act like she’s attracted to Italian Hannibal so it’s clear she’s a pretty good actress.
In the annals of gialli, The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave is among the handful of interesting outliers. It was too horror-y to be considered a straight murder mystery but not Gothic enough to be a ghost story. The U.S. distributors didn’t know what to do either. The original American poster had a woman with a bare skull holding up a severed head of a man. This image appears nowhere in the film. At all. Zero places. They also, as a gimmick, served “Bloodcorn” at participating cinemas, which was just popcorn dyed red. Of all the movies to come out of Italy that deserved some kind of blood-red popcorn, this isn’t one of them. But, whatever gets butts in seats, I guess.
The surprise success of The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave precipitated another giallo from Emilio P. Miraglia. This second one would keep with much of the Gothic tropes introduced here, but would lighten the mood a bit. A BIT. It also featured another possible ghost named Evelyn. We’ll talk about The Red Queen Kills Seven Times in a future Schlock & Awe. Both films are being released on Blu-ray from Arrow Video on May 24.
Images: Arrow Films Video