Author and Critic Kat Ellinger on Sexy, Subversive Italian Gothic Cinema

For a great many American horror folks, Italian horror means either slick Giallo murder mysteries or gory zombie carnage. Maybe with some cannibal grossness thrown in as well. But predating those, and with a much more fascinating pedigree, is the cycle of Italian Gothic films. Bolstered by the success of UK studio Hammer and its subversive, Victorian take on classic monsters, Italy launched its own slate of strange and sexy scares. Severin Films will release a box set of four such oft-forgotten films in their upcoming Danza Macabra Vol. 1 box set.

We spoke to author, critic, and one of the producers of the box set, Kat Ellinger, about the movies in the set, the Italian Gothic cycle itself, and how it differs (for the sexier) compared to British and American Gothic.

Nerdist: Growing up for me in the U.S., if it wasn’t Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, or Mario Bava, it was tough to see any Italian horror, and Gothic, the toughest of all. How did you first find it?

Kat Ellinger: Getting to it was difficult here in the UK. So, my first brush with Italian horror in the ’80s was all the video nasties stuff. It was the Fulci, it was Cannibal Ferox. I sort of did it ass backward because that was what everyone was trading at the time. And I guess one of the good things about that was that set up a solid network in the UK of collectors and traders where people were just swapping stuff and trying to find stuff.

Well, nothing was available here, but I guess it made this a life philosophy to keep looking for stuff. We weren’t ever lazy because we weren’t given anything. If we just stuck to what we could see, it was basically nothing. Or everything that we did have was heavily cut.

The hideous monster in Lady Frankenstein.
Severin Films

And so, it fostered, I guess, this spirit of adventure. But then, we were also really lucky in the ’90s. There’s a TV channel here called Channel 4, it launched in the mid-’80s, and it was the “art channel” or the “punk channel.” And they had a lot of counterculture stuff on there, music programs, art programs. I still don’t know how they got away with half of this because they showed [Paul Morrissey’s] Flesh for Frankenstein in 3D, which was on the nasties list.

That’s wild. On TV?

So, Suspiria was the first [Italian] one that I saw, so that was the real gateway for me. But it wasn’t really until the late-’90s when I was probably in my early twenties. And even though it’s not strictly Gothic horror, it sort of introduced me to the possibilities of European art, stroke horror. So, that was what really fostered my appetite. But then, the internet was just starting off. So, a lot of it was then stuff like Cinemageddon and Demonoid before that where people started then… Somebody opened the Pandora’s Box.

So, you see the sort of stuff that Severin put out, it’s the sort of stuff we were desperately wanting to get our hands on in 1989. So, it’s a dream now to have that almost cinema quality. It just blows my mind. It blows my mind.

The cover of Severin Films' Danza Macabra volume one Blu-ray set shows art of a woman in a negligee holding a candelabra in a crypt with a castle in the background.
Severin Films

This Severin box set has, I would say, lesser-known or at least lesser-circulated Italian Gothic films. What sets the Gothics from Italy apart from British or American Gothic?

So, I have this whole mad theory about this.

Oh, I love a mad theory.

You’ve got two strands of Gothic. You’ve got this what they call the Radcliffian tradition, which comes from Ann Radcliffe [author of The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne], which is more romantic and mystery oriented.

And then, you’ve got the Lewisite tradition, which I call Gothic terror, which stems from Matthew Lewis’ The Monk, which is one of the most transgressive books ever written. It’s got incest, Satanism, burning Nuns, necrophilia, you name it.

And so, the Italians were very adept at actually showing the Lewisite Gothic, whereas the British and Americans didn’t really do that. And Camille Paglia, who I realize isn’t the most popular for feminists. Well, she’s never been popular. But she wrote this book called Sexual Personae, where she basically, it’s an insane book.

A woman shrieks in terror in The Seventh Grave
Severin Films

But it’s one of the most beautifully written things I’ve ever read and very passionate. I don’t agree with all of it. But she studies the entire Western art canon, art and literature. And her theory is that, basically, men are from the Apollonian. And so, they’re all about logic because they fear the feminine, which is the Chthonian, which is closer to the earth.

It hit me that Hammer and the American Gothics are the Apollonian Gothic. They’re very male. They’re very formal. They are all about good triumphs over evil because… Because Van Helsing or whatever is a super professor. Whereas the Italians are always Chthonian. Even the men in Italian Gothic are innately Chthonian, even the so-called good guys. There’s something very queer about Italian Gothic, but also, really female-centric as well.

Oh, that is very different. Women in Hammer are very rarely more than damsels or T&A.

So, that’s always been the appeal to me. Italian Gothic is much more perverse. It’s much more Lewisite. And right off the bat, even, Monster of the Opera, which is in this set, is very perverse. But early on, they’re doing stuff like The Horrible Dr. Hichcock [directed by Riccardo Freda], which is about a necrophile. A necrophile who’s snooping around dead bodies and having kinky sex with his wife, getting her to fake being dead.

I mean, this was 1963, [Mario Bava’s] The Whip and the Body, which is all about a woman’s sexual fantasy. A masochist is so misread, that film, it always makes me laugh, but a lot of classic horror guys read it the other way around. It’s like, “No, this is her sexual fantasy.”

Monster of the Opera
Severin Films

You mentioned Monster of the Opera, so I was wondering if you could talk a bit more about that and the other films in the set.

I was really lucky actually because I got to help create the set, so I worked really closely with Severin, this is basically what I’d like to see. And obviously, there’s more coming as well.

Yeah, you put “volume one” right on the box, which is very bold.

Yeah! So, Monster of the Opera is directed by Renato Polselli. Polselli, I’ve been a longtime fan of, and you know one of his films when you see it. The problem with Polselli is the only way you could see a lot of his work was through bootlegging because, for some inexplicable reason, nobody releases his films. He didn’t do a massive amount of horror, so this is the first time the Monster of the Opera has been restored, and it was just really exciting to see they got that.

It’s kind of like a Giallo, but it’s really psychosexual really, which is absolutely bonkers, and that’s pure Polselli. But none of his earlier stuff, nobody even talks about Polselli, which is disappointing. So, I’m really hoping this will give people a taste for the stuff that he was doing, especially seeing it restored.

So yeah, you’ve got that. Then, you’ve also got Lady Frankenstein, which I love, and I did a commentary on that with Annie Rose. It was obscene, that commentary, I can’t wait for you to hear it.

Lady Frankenstein
Severin Films

I also can’t wait to hear that!

Because the whole thing of Lady Frankenstein. She’s the daughter. And so, he creates the normal monster, but then she takes over from daddy. And he wanted this acclaim from science. She just wants to make a good-looking, living sex toy. She likes the one doctor, but he’s a bit old, so she wants to put his brain in a younger, fitter body, and it is just outrageous. It is an entirely outrageous film.

That sounds amazing.

The Seventh Grave. Now, this one gets totally slagged off by everyone. It’s trying to be more of a traditional Gothic, but it’s all about these people; they go off to this… It’s supposed to be in Scotland, but it’s clearly not. They go off to this Scottish castle and there’s an inheritance and it’s got a bit of a mystery… But it’s so bonkers. It’s so absolutely bonkers. Not loads of sex in it like the later ones, but just so bonkers that I love it. And then, again, seeing it restored, I hope, fingers crossed, people will be a bit kinder to it.

The Seventh Grave
Severin Films

And finally, we got Scream of the Demon Lover, which is as bonkers as Lady Frankenstein, very much in that same vein because you’ve got the female scientist in it. Erna Schurer was in Strip Nude for Your Killer, and a bunch of other stuff. She’s in it, and she goes to this house. So, it’s got a bit of a Jane Eyre thing going on and also, a mad science thing going on and a bit of a Virgin of Nuremberg thing going on; it’s just nuts. And just the extent to which Severin went to restore this is insane. They even got a second scanner in.

Scream of the Demon Lover
Severin Films

Giallo has gotten so much reappraisal, and re-releases, lately; do you think there’s room for that kind of reappraisal for the Gothic?

This is my thinking. Obviously, I love the Giallo as well, it’s one of my specialized subjects, but we’ve had so much Giallo for so long now. Stuff that I never thought would see the light of day. It’s like, “Oh, my God, they’re releasing this!” But it did used to annoy me a bit, I think; where’s the Italian Gothic? It would just be Bava there, and that was it. And nobody seemed that interested in doing the Italian Gothic, so I’m really glad that Severin was totally on board.

Danza Macabra vol. 1 is available from Severin Films beginning March 28.

Kyle Anderson is the Senior Editor for Nerdist. You can find his film and TV reviews here. Follow him on Instagram and Letterboxd.

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