The Strange Case of Casa Papanice

Wednesday, 26 January 2022

In a genre famed for its extravagant interiors and space age sixties design arguably no other Italian genre film interior captivates its audience more than the modernist residence of Julie Wardh in The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh (Sergio Martino, 1971) and Martin Hoffmann in The Red Queen Kills 7 Times (Emilio Miraglia, 1972). Populated with modernist pop art fixtures, stylishly sleek furniture and an arresting use of colour and space, this location has become synonymous with the 1960s and ‘70s design that would come to define the aesthetic of the Italian giallo to modern audiences. However, despite attracting much in the way of visual interest, little has been written about the stylish apartment’s presence in Italian cinema. By highlighting the design ethos behind this impressive architectural feat, we can come to understand the intersection between cinema and architecture and how this apartment would come to define the visual language of three key films of the early 1970s. 


As is typically the case with cinematic locations, the apartment is presented as a separate location in each of these key films. Whilst the apartment is purportedly located in Vienna in The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh and Würzburg in The Red Queen Kills Seven Times, its real life location is actually in Rome; as is depicted in Ettore Scola’s Dramma della gelosia (1970). The apartment, located at via Giuseppe Marchi and known as Casa Papanice, was built between 1966-1970 by Italian architect, Paolo Portoghesi in collaboration with engineer, Vittorio Gigliotti. The residence was commissioned by the Italian entrepreneur, Pasquale Papanice hence its given name of Casa Papanice but to locals, it is informally known as villa del macellaio (The butcher’s villa) due to the distinctive building’s setting as the home of “the butcher”, in Dramma della gelosia




As an architect, Portoghesi was heavily influenced by historicism which informed the architectural style of his builds. As a young architect, Portoghesi studied the work of prominent figures in the field such as Bernardo Vittone, Francesco Borromini and Victor Horta. It was through the study of these lauded individuals that Portoghesi developed his own style as a practising architect, deploying the spatial principles typified by the work of Borromini in conjunction with the freer elements of modernism. An interest in the Art Nouveau and Baroque movements also informed the young Portoghesi who was invested in the way that architecture could be used as a communicative tool and how this waxed and waned as various styles came in and out of fashion. Through his study of Art Nouveau and Horta - who specialised in the movement - Portoghesi became fascinated by how the natural world was replicated within architecture and how buildings mimicked organic forms. This led to Portoghesi’s own blend of organic modernism which married aspects of modernism with softer, more natural forms. 


These aforementioned ideas came to the fore in Portoghesi’s design for Casa Papanice; an exercise in spatial flow and organic modernism executed within a private residence. Laid out across three floors, Casa Papanice was designed with focal spaces in mind at key areas of use within the home such as at the fireplace, seating area and dining table. These spaces were emphasised via the use of architectural concentric circles at said focal points which created a distinct and unconventional floor plan and visual interest via layered circular ceilings and poles. The concentric circles were complemented by curved walls  which directed the user towards views of the outside in which they could appreciate the landscaping and trees of the residence’s grounds. Interior design notes such as the green and blue horizontal banded lines on the walls further instilled a sense of circular movement in the space. This helped to achieve the effect of an almost undulating, moving space.




Alongside designing the building itself, Portoghesi was responsible in the design of its interior. In order to complement the striking circular nature of the building, furniture and dressings with a similar shape and design ethos were incorporated into the layout. The most notable example being the room’s curved plush blue and green velvet sofa that is centred within one of the space’s concentric circles. Further circular design features such as a curved fireplace, circular coffee and dining table, curved chairs and a blue Murano glass spherical lamp by Mazzega are incorporated into the design scheme. A colour palette of blues and greens was utilised to reflect the natural ethos of the build and to create a sense of serenity - this can be seen in the aforementioned wall bands, sofa and lighting fixtures. Whilst these natural shapes and references to the outside world are present, modernist features are still prominent within the apartment with white plastic space age chairs, white high glass formica furniture and space age door panels rooting the stylistic origins firmly in the late 1960s. 


The building naturally attracted interest for its innovative design and appeared in several architectural and design publications upon its completion as an example of cutting edge Italian design. Not surprisingly, production designers and directors - who frequently looked to magazines for potential filming locations (see Nanda Vigo) - were impressed by the unusual home and were keen to shoot there. Casa Papanice with its unique blend of organic modernism lent itself to striking visuals - as evidenced in its on screen appearances - making it one of the most memorable apartments in Italian cinema of the 1970s. Casa Papanice’s appearance within the giallo is of particular interest as the building and its interior became a sort of visual shorthand for the ostentatious wealth, taste and fashion emblematic of the Jetset lifestyle that characterised the filone. 



In Sergio Martino’s The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh, the apartment is home to diplomat Neil Wardh and his young wife, Julie. Julie is frequently left at home whilst her husband is away on business. The stylish, modernist home feels fitting for a young woman in her twenties and one could imagine her being responsible for such interior design as opposed to her staid diplomat husband. Julie’s character is tormented by a tumultuous past and is frequently shown to be paranoid and isolated in her domestic setting. Whilst, Casa Papanice was designed to be a spacious and social home, in Martino’s film it has an almost claustrophobic feel with the horizontal and vertical lines of the interior feeling more akin to a personal prison than a martial home, heightening Julie’s feelings of isolation and paranoia. This paranoia manifests early on in an introductory scene inside the apartment in which Julie moves from her green and blue geometric tiled bathroom cautiously towards the space age front door where a caller has rung the bell. Looking through the peephole, we see a POV shot from Julie’s perspective of a bouquet of roses (a similar POV shot is also utilised in The Red Queen Kills 7 Times) but the viewer is also given the perspective from the visitor of a frightened Julie which contributes to the overarching feel that Julie is constantly being watched. In The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh, Casa Papanice represents the glamorous life of a young diplomat’s wife but it also represents danger as Julie becomes imprisoned in her apartment, scared of the threats presented by the outside world. Even the building’s car park and stairwell become dangerous as the fearful Julie is stalked by a mysterious assailant just outside of her front door. In Strange Vice, glamour is danger and danger is simultaneously glamour, a combination that will become emblematic of the giallo, heightened by the exquisite attention to production design and the aesthetics of Italian mid century design and fashion. One of the most well loved entries in the giallo filone, The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh is undoubtedly remembered for Edwige Fenech’s leading performance and captivating on-screen beauty but it’s also a film filled with memorable visuals, stylish camerawork and stunning locales with Casa Papanice being one of the most enduring images from the film. An image so successful that it will be replicated within the genre a year later. 




In Emilio Miraglia’s The Red Queen Kills 7 Times, Casa Papanice is utilised once again as the home of a central character in a giallo. The Red Queen, alongside Miraglia’s The Night Evelyn Came out of the Grave (1971) both fused elements of the Gothic with Modernism and shared a production designer in Lorenzo Baraldi. This fusion of Gothic and Modernist stylings makes for intriguing visual juxtapositions that relay ideas about the characters that inhabit the film (to find out more read my Arrow booklet essay on production design in Miraglia’s Gothic Gialli). The film’s central protagonist, Kitty Wildenbrück and her sister, Franziska grew up in an imposing Gothic ancestral castle where Franziska still lives. Kitty on the other hand lives in a modern apartment and works at the chic Springe fashion house as a photographer. While much of the film takes place at the Wildenbrück castle, filled with Gothic crypts and dark recessed stairwells, other scenes take place at the modernist building that houses Springe, but more importantly, we also see another location, the apartment of Springe’s manager, Martin Hoffmann set in Casa Papanice. Hoffmann’s role as the manager of the stylish Springe fashion house means he has to reside in an equally stylish home reflective of his chic career. Here, the apartment of Casa Papanice becomes a sumptuous bachelor pad where Hoffmann entertains his lady friends with model Lulu who disrobes and presents herself to Hoffmann on the plush velvet sofa. Kitty, besieged by a rapist and contending with a serial killer on the loose finds refuge in Hoffmann’s home which provides a modicum of comfort for the anxious Kitty. Hoffmann comforts Bruckner in the apartment’s bedroom - a room we also see briefly in The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh - characterised by a white modular bed with built in shelves and a very ‘70s, orange duvet - a colour that visually pops off the screen. One can also note that the blue Murano glass spherical light is relocated to the bedroom for this scene. Whilst Hoffmann’s apartment isn’t the setting for any particularly elaborate set pieces, like in The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh it becomes important onscreen dressing, used to attract the visual interest of its film’s audience and to act as a form of aspirational, interior wish fulfilment and escapism. 




In The Red Queen Kills 7 Times we are briefly shown glimpses of the building’s exterior at ground level, however, the exterior of the building is only seen in proper detail in Dramma della gelosia in which the majestic beauty of Portoghesi’s postmodern design is shown in all its true glory. Dramma della gelosia features a scene in which the film’s protagonist, Adelaide Ciafrocchi stands on the structure’s top balcony and looks down below, the camera pointing upwards towards her and capturing the whole building in frame. Here we see that Casa Papanice partially imitates the structure of a plant with balconies resembling the leaves of an organic structure jutting from the stem like building. Metal pipes, which sadly have been removed in present day, line the residence’s fence and balconies - the fence can be seen when Lulu leaves the residence in The Red Queen Kills 7 Times, in The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh a different exterior location is used. Like in the interior of the building, blue and green stripes are featured on the exterior walls, this time in vertical stripes. Once again, these colours are used to tie the building to the nature around it. 



Ettore Scola’s comedy, Dramma della gelosia utilises the building in a different manner to The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh and The Red Queen Kills 7 Times, instead using the zany pop art decor of Casa Papanice as the perfect location for an eccentric comedy with the visual whimsy of the apartment befitting of the humorous nature of Scola’s film. Few changes have been made to the apartment but a large picture of a butcher’s diagram of a cow hangs on a wooden wall to signify that this is the domain of a butcher. Beyond the aforementioned exterior shots of Casa Papanice, we can also see another design feature not seen in the other films discussed - a glass concave window that acts as a vantage point for Adelaide where she sits forlornly on her white fibreglass chair. As she looks up, one can see the circular motif present in a mirrored ceiling. 


Scola, who was fascinated with the intersection between cinema and architecture, preferred real life sets to constructed ones, believing that such iinteriors and exteriors were reflective of the historical and social environments his films were made within and thus reflective of their time. The grandson of Papanice, Edmondo Papanice, recounts his grandfather’s experiences of the shoot stating how enthralled Monica Vitti was with the building and its interior, examining its beauty in great detail. In one scene in the film, slides are shown of Vitti’s character, Adelaide Ciafrocchi, in a fashion shoot, posing against the exterior of Casa Papanice on balconies and on exterior stairs; a striking backdrop that complements Vitti’s striking looks perfectly. 




Like The Red Queen Kills 7 Times, there’s a predilection here with the home and interior design as an extension of one’s own style and personality. The home becomes a sort of fashionable backdrop for those who reside inside, reflective of their contemporary lives. This is typified in the aforementioned films where their respective directors show an awareness of the significance of architecture’s role in cinema and how it communicates ideas about status, class and cultural capital beyond the surface image. In films with a preoccupation with fashion and photography such as Dramma della gelosia and The Red Queen Kills 7 Times, we the audience have a heightened awareness of such aesthetics due to thematic concerns within the film about the role of fashion and the image resulting in an almost hyper stylised overall feel. Red Queen’s production designer, Lorenzo Baraldi, had a particular interest in the mise-en-scène as a means of creating a cohesive cinematic experience. This was illustrated through his own production design work, in particular, The Red Queen Kills 7 Times where the geometric fashions of Springe (provided by seminal designer, Mila Schön) visually coordinated with the interior of Hoffmann’s apartment and clashed with the Gothic interiors and exteriors of the Wildenbrück castle. 


Casa Papanice is a seminal architectural work that displays an embrace of modernism, new ways of living and the expression of creativity and individuality through interior design; concepts expressive of a new cultural zeitgeist in the late 1960s. By setting their productions in this location, Scola, Martino and Miraglia captured the excitement of the age, celebrating Italian midcentury and postmodern design through the cinematic language and scenography of their productions. By understanding Portoghesi’s iconic design, we are given an insight into the daring intersection between cinema, architecture and design that makes this era of Italian film so fascinating and engaging in the present day. 


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Darkening the Italian Screen

Sunday, 23 January 2022

Whilst film historian, Eugenio Ercolani’s impressive text on the directors of Italian genre cinema is titled Darkening the Italian Screen, if anything, his tome serves to illuminate the key figures of the industry who debuted and worked in its postwar heyday. An insightful and extensive treatment of its subject, Ercolani’s book is a much needed account of the prominent individuals who worked during this period, cataloguing their experiences and recollections and shedding light on the arduous production experiences they encountered and the central figures they worked with. In Darkening the Italian Screen, Ercolani makes the cinema he details come alive. 

Eugenio Ercolani has established himself as a reliable authority on Italian genre cinema with an extensive knowledge of the industry in its boom years and those involved within it. Chances are that if you’ve watched an extra or two on a boutique release of an Italian genre film than Ercolani has been involved in its production; travelling across Italy to meet and interview an array of colourful characters from the golden heyday of genre cinema. Alongside being a talented interviewer and producer of extras, Ercolani is an accomplished writer as evidenced by his work, Darkening the Italian Screen. It’s refreshing to read a text on this field of cinema which treats its subject with reverence, unashamedly detailing a sphere of cinema that is often unfairly derided or over intellectualised. Ercolani straddles the line, managing to be engaging to the more critically minded fan to appealing to those who are more interested in onset stories and personal insights than detailed analysis. 


Darkening the Italian Screen contains plenty of interest for the connoisseur of the Italian genre film. The work of well loved stalwart directors such as Umberto Lenzi, Ruggero Deodato, Enzo G. Castellari and Sergio Martino are covered with interviews from the men themselves alongside accounts from bonafide genre stars such as Giovanni Lombardo Radice and George Hilton and conversations with integral behind the scenes figures like production designer Massimo Antonello Geleng. Whilst these chapters will perhaps be of greatest interest, the directors included with less of a mainstream/popular following (but are no less important), such as Marcello Avallone and Mario Caino, are given as much respect and reverence with more than enough insightful material to pique the curiosities of those still yet to discover all that this fruitful period of cinema has to offer. Genre wise, Darkening the Italian Screen covers spaghetti westerns to commedia all’italiana to giallo and everything in-between. It’s a good, comprehensive look at the genre film without feeling like it is focussing on the more popular entries at the expense of the lesser known. It also proves the interconnectivity of said films with many directors and key players working between genres with experience in one field informing the other. 





Whilst much has been written about the films and characters detailed in Darkening the Italian Screen, Ercolani’s text provides vital new insights which uncover new perspectives and information as well as adding a much needed personal touch, letting the voices of the individuals involved in these films truly come alive. The number of fascinating stories and tidbits of information revealed in the interviews included is simply mind-blowing. For example, you’ll learn that Giorgio Capitani was next-door neighbours with Paolo Villagio but never clicked with him - viewing him as a comedic caricature, and that George Hilton was the one who introduced Edwige Fenech to future husband and producer, Luciano Martino. You’ll hear stories about influential figures in the industry no longer with us and the thoughts of those who worked with them - they’re not always positive! Sadly as time marches onwards, we find ourselves losing many more of these key figures from this era therefore, a book like Darkening the Italian Screen is essential as it preserves the history of these films by highlighting the stories of those with first hand experience of productions made during the golden age of Italian genre cinema.


One could easily dip into the chapters of Darkening the Italian Screen that interest them but to do so would be to miss out on Ercolani’s chronological exploration of the sphere of cinema he’s so ardently focussed on. We start at 1953 and end in 1969 but cover many films and exploits from the subsequent years. The chronological ordering serves the book well as it provides the reader with a historical and sociocultural context for the films covered as well as a window into a fascinating period in Italy’s history that expands one’s knowledge of the climate these films were made within. Reading Ercolani’s text as a whole allows for strands to emerge such as the circumstances that led to the downfall of the Italian genre film and the difficulty in achieving one’s vision whilst appeasing producers and financiers. Most of all, it highlights the incredible work ethic of many of the figures involved in the industry, tirelessly working to produce films within a very short time frame. It's a testament to the abilities of those involved that they were able to make such engaging and thrilling cinema with limited budgets and time. Again, this also helps to create context and makes one more understanding of the circumstances that certain productions were made within leading to new appreciation. 


What makes Darkening the Italian Screen so impressive, is the heart that Ercolani gives to his subject. He is a man who truly cares about his cinematic speciality and his passion for these films, and the pivotal characters who made them, shines throughout. It is such a joy to relive these stories and Ercolani's descriptions of the settings the interviews take place in and the appearance and mannerisms of the interviewees themselves make you feel like you’re right there with them - reliving glory days and the glamour and chaos that came with them. It makes the book feel very much like living film history that transports you back to another place and time. And that’s fundamentally what Darkening the Italian Screen is all about, allowing you the reader to experience an era of film history that is often forgotten or under appreciated; giving you an opportunity to hear stories that are finally being told. 


Darkening the Italian Screen is an essential text for those with an interest in film history and Italian genre cinema. Containing fascinating anecdotes that enrich the experience and appreciation of the films and characters discussed, Ercolani’s book contextualises a prolific period of cinema, giving voice to its creators. As well as being an enjoyable treatment of its subject, Darkening the Italian Screen will prove to be an essential research tool, helping to expand the criticism and understanding of the films produced during this illustrious period of cinema. I can’t recommend it enough and I personally hope to see Ercolani further expand his impressive work in the future.


If you'd like to discover this magical text, you can find it at the following links...



Costuming & Italian Horror: Opera (1987)

Sunday, 11 October 2020

Frequently heralded as Argento's last great giallo and the swan song of the genre at large, 1987's Opera is one of the director's most ostentatious works; perfectly encapsulating the grandiose operatic excesses of Argento's cinematic career in a visually sumptuous and gloriously meta examination of the relationship between creator, performer and audience. Opera showcases the director's uninhibited trademark visual style and is a film imbued with a sense of creativity and dramatic flair that displays Argento at the peak of his mastery. What perhaps makes Argento such a proficient storyteller is his ability to create layered visual narratives that relay the outlandish themes and concepts at the heart of his films in such an aesthetically pleasing and visually cohesive manner. In Opera, Argento conveys thematic ideas pertaining to Shakespearean tragedy, identity, environment and sexual dysfunction through the film's visual storytelling extending through to production and costume design. In order to examine some of the aforementioned themes and characterisation in Opera, I will examine how costume design denotes key themes in Argento's text and conveys the facets of the character of Betty. 


Before discussing Opera’s costuming, it’s worth examining Argento’s foray into the fashion world prior to directing his 1987 giallo. Fashion and contemporary design have always been an integral visual component of Argento’s oeuvre, from the daring Luca Sabatelli designed costumes worn by Catherine Spaak in Cat o’Nine Tails (1971) to the bleached and pastel costuming of Piero Cicoletti and Franco Tomei in Tenebrae (1982). In the examination of costuming in Argento’s films, one of the most interesting case studies is his 1985 supernatural horror, Phenomena which featured designs by Giorgio Armani - somewhat of a rarity for the Italian designer (you can read my thoughts on the subject in my booklet essay for the Arrow 4K release of the film). Argento’s collaboration with Armani yielded impressive results with the sharp tailoring and cool colour palette of Armani’s mid 1980s designs perfectly complimenting the film’s mysteriously cold yet magical feel. Whilst Armani and Argento did not collaborate again post Phenomena, it was the Italian designer who suggested Spanish actress Cristina Marsillach for the leading role in Opera when Argento voiced his desire to cast an actress he had no previous experience of working with.



In 1986, Argento forged another connection with the world of Italian high fashion, directing a fashion show for Italian fashion brand Trussardi (you can read about the show in greater detail here). The runway show was for Trussardi's new fashion line, Trussardi Action - a line focused on emerging new fashion trends such as sportswear, utilitarian and unisex looks for the young adult market. The Trussardi show is an interesting artefact for fans of Argento featuring motifs of the director’s oeuvre staged in the confines of a fashion show. The Autumn/Winter 1986-1987 show also gives an insight into youth fashion trends of the era; some of which are replicated in Opera’s costuming. Whilst Opera was largely inspired by Argento's failed attempt at staging his own characteristically violent production of Rigoletto, it’s likely that the Trussardi fashion show also played a role in influencing his subsequent cinematic work. Opera details the behind the scenes processes of a live production and the subsequent trials and tribulations involved for a creative director - a notion familiar to a director with recent experience of conceiving and directing a live fashion show of his own.


As a production, Opera was marred with difficulties, supposedly befalling to the theatrical curse of “The Scottish Play”. Argento suffered personal tragedy with the loss of his father and relationship difficulties with long term partner and collaborator Dario Nicolodi. The production itself was disrupted by a series of unfortunate events including the death of a minor actor and a car accident involving Ian Charleston who later found out he was HIV positive (Opera was his last cinematic role before his untimely death). Additionally, substantial script changes had to be made when Vanessa Redgrave pulled out of the production at the last minute due to salary negotiations falling though. Yet despite the numerous issues that befell Opera’s production, Argento persevered with the film and cites it as one of his personal favourites. 

For Opera, Argento enlisted a crew made up of familiar names such as editor Franco Fraticelli and  production designer Davide Bassan alongside new collaborators such as British cinematographer, Ronnie Taylor. For Opera’s costume design, Argento collaborated with Italian costume designer Lia Francesca Morandini with costumes provided by Costumi D’arte, Sartoria Ferroni, Basile and children’s fashion label, Magil. Morandini would later collaborate with Argento once again on his 1996 psychological thriller, The Stendhal Syndrome (my piece on the film’s costuming can be found here). There are similarities between the two films in regards to their costuming with the fashions worn by protagonists Betty (Cristina Marsillach) and Anna (Asia Argento) comprising of predominantly casual looks presented in a non form fitting sexualised fashion. In Opera, Marsillach reportedly did not want to be dressed in a sexualised fashion - a request that likely, and unfortunately, added to her reputation as a diva on set. There’s been much discussion surrounding the tempestuous relationship between Argento and Marsillach. The relationship between the two was reportedly so fraught that they couldn’t communicate with one another directly during filming. Whether it was a result of Marsillach’s request or the production’s own direction, Marsillach’s costuming outside of her role as Lady Macbeth, positions her as somewhat childlike and reflective of the teenager she is. As a character, Betty feels somewhat less refined than Argento's previous teenage protagonist, Jennifer Corvino of Phenomena (1985) - a character who is remarkably more mature than her childish peers who worship teenage idols and eat baby food from jars. Whilst Corvino is positioned as a young woman beyond her years, in part due to her unconventional upbringing, Betty seems far more fragile as a character and possesses a sort of childhood innocence which is effectively challenged throughout the film. In Opera, by undertaking the role of Lady Macbeth, Betty is challenged as both a performer and a person. Betty’s relationship with Inspector Santini and his perception of who she is forces her to examine her identity as well as her connection to her opera singer mother - a source of conflict and confusion. Whilst, it’s perhaps not conveyed overtly in the film’s script, Betty as a leading lady is seemingly on a journey of self realisation which is perhaps why she lacks the gumption and pluckiness of some of Argento's previous leading ladies and again, why she attracts criticism in some circles. In Opera the 'who' element of the central mystery is perhaps less important than in Argento's other gialli with the 'why' being far more crucial relating to who Betty is, how she relates to her mother and her past and uncertain future. Throughout the film, costuming helps visually signify aspects of Betty's character that are perhaps not so apparent in the film's storytelling, marking her differences from those around her and the changes she goes through.



When we are first introduced to Betty’s character, her youthful innocence and childlike naivety is immediately apparent. In Betty’s introductory scene, she is shown lying on her bed listening to music before taking a phone call. In these initial moments we see that Betty resides in a grandiose apartment yet despite the opulent setting, her bedroom is littered with teenage and childlike items; a fairy ornament, a cup with drawings, a pink stuffed rabbit and a collection of colourful VHS tapes. Betty, who casually lounges on her bed appears to be your typical teenager but what sets Betty apart from her peers is the music that plays through her modern eighties hi-fi, not pop but opera. Betty is different from her peer group, possessing a talent that has presumably dominated her young life and predestined her future. Betty's profession as an opera singer seems at odds with her youth and this dichotomy in her character casts doubts over her ability to succeed in the coveted role of Lady Macbeth that circumstances catapult her into. We the audience, and the opera’s production team, question the ability of this young teenager who appears lacking in the gravitas and age required for such a monumental role.


Throughout the film Betty is portrayed in a somewhat infantilised manner, or at least her youthful, and at times, naive nature is emphasised in certain scenes. This is arguably to highlight the vast difference between Betty the teenager and Mara the middle aged opera star who she replaces. Betty’s youth is viewed negatively, casting doubts over her proficiency as a singer and ability to perform the coveted part of Lady Macbeth. Betty’s youthful appearance also highlights the differences between Betty and women such as her mother and her agent, Mira. The contrast between the various women in Opera is important as it illustrates the initial youthful naivety of Betty and how this aspect of her character is repeatedly challenged throughout the film. Opera’s cast largely comprises of capable women in various professional roles; Betty’s mother and Mara are commanding opera singers, Giulia is the opera's wardrobe supervisor, Maria is the assistant director, Marion is a successful model and Mira is a powerful agent. Betty enters into a world filled with powerful and dominant women already established in their careers whereas Betty is still unsure of who she is and her capability when it comes to the daunting role ahead of her. It’s interesting to note that many of the women in Opera have almost interchangeable names; Mira, Mara, Maria and Marion. This once again sets Betty apart from the others highlighting that she is different to the women who surround her - a realisation she herself comes to at the film’s end. If anything, the female who Betty seems to relate to the most and finds a kindred spirit in is Alma, the young girl who lives in the apartment next door. Alma, whose mother is shown to be callous and uncaring, feels like a representation of a past version of Betty and a reflection of her past relationship with her mother. Undoubtedly in Betty’s youth, her mother too, decided to forgo her motherly responsibilities in favour of her pursuing her own desires.


Much of Betty’s internal struggle, and the subject of the killer’s fascination, comes from Betty’s connection to her mother and the similarities and differences between the two women. Throughout Opera Betty will battle with comparisons to her mother and will question if she too, embodies her mother’s cruelty and depraved peccadillos or if she will forge a different path of her own volition. The complexities of Betty’s mother’s life and her relationship with her daughter are largely unknown and our experience of her character is contained to a few flashback scenes and Inspector Santini’s reflections. In the flashback scenes, we see Betty’s mother as an unassuming woman dressed in a beige cardigan and black dress. Her daughter, who is watching nearby, also wears a beige cardigan and has her hair styled in a similar fashion to her mother forging a connection between the two, showing that Betty is created in her mother’s image - a notion more overtly shown in Betty’s profession. Due to the absence of Betty’s mother, it is Mira, Betty’s agent, who takes on the substitute maternal role in Betty’s life acting in a career advisory role but also in providing emotional support and guidance to the young opera protege. Argento's films typically lack healthy maternal relationships so, despite being somewhat of an unconventional maternal dynamic, Opera still feels like a marked change for the director with the tender relationship between Mira and Betty reminiscent of the kinship between Professor McGregor and Jennifer Corvino in Phenomena or Cookie and Lori in Cat o’Nine Tails. Argento typically favours paternal relationships with mothers often typifying the monstrous female archetype; shown to either lack or possess a twisted interpretation of the empathetic nurturing qualities associated with motherhood e.g. Deep Red (1975), The Three Mothers Trilogy (1977, 1980, 2007) and Phenomena. In Opera, Mira will ultimately sacrifice herself to protect Betty in an act of motherly love. Whilst Mira and Betty’s relationship is portrayed as warm and nurturing, Betty's mother is painted as a callous women who placed her sexual gratification above her daughter and partner's needs. Mira is the counterpoint to Betty's mother, highlighting the warped unfeeling nature of Betty's mother’s actions. Betty and Mira’s mother daughter style relationship is conveyed through the aforementioned examples but it is also illustrated through the costuming of both women, asserting the generational divide between them and emphasising the childlike nature of Betty compared to her refined mentor.


When Mira first appears in Betty's bedroom at the film’s beginning, the contrast between the two women is stark. Mira towers over Betty creating a visual dynamic of mother and daughter. Betty is dressed in a baby pink top with pink satin lining - evoking the look of a traditional baby blanket - which she wears with a pair of chinos, her hair messy in an unstyled bob. Betty’s overall look is unpolished and lacking in refinement but is perhaps very much the picture of a teenage girl. As she talks to Mira, in tears, she clings to her pink stuffed rabbit - the image of an upset child who needs to be comforted by her mother. In contrast, Mira is dressed in a beautiful black suit with embroidery and a fur stole very much signifying her position as an accomplished woman and refined theatrical agent. Mira's initial costume is somewhat reminiscent of the costume Betty will later wear as Lady Macbeth when she takes to the stage for the first time. The black fur and jewelled brooch of Mira's look drawing comparison with Betty's bejewelled headpiece and feather adorned cape. This could perhaps be viewed as a connection between the two women and the strength and power Betty obtains by taking on the role of Lady Macbeth transitioning the young teenager into womanhood. 


Betty’s transformation from shy, insecure teenage girl into the domineering and forceful Lady Macbeth of Verdi’s opera is accentuated by the elaborate costumes she wears for her debut performance. One of the most fascinating aspects of Opera is horror director, Marco's staging of the classic Verdi opera, Macbeth. In the reviews of his production, Marco is criticised for staging the opera like a music video and this is certainly evident in the elaborate production design in which the stage has been transformed into a post apocalyptic wasteland featuring the charred wreckage of a military plane, a foreboding back projected skull and a large digital clock that hangs ominously above proceedings. As Lady Macbeth, Betty stands out from her surroundings and the other players who are dressed in military uniforms juxtaposed with sunglasses. The transformation of Betty's character from the previous scene is significant - the meek young woman from before has transformed into a powerful opera diva, commanding the stage and stealing the show much to the chagrin of her detractors. Betty's costuming reflects the anachronistic post apocalyptic look of the opera and her outfit is an amalgamation of 1980s jewelled excess and a throughly eighties vision of a dystopian future. The jewels stitched onto her costume and in her statement jewelled headpiece glint in the light like the repeated shot throughout the film of the eye of the raven. In a later scene, we see Giulia repair the costume cutting the jewels from the fabric in a manner similar to the way in which Santini tears through the ravens of the opera house; the billowing fabric in the background moving like the feathers ripped from the creatures. The feathered black cape of Betty’s Lady Macbeth outfit, which reappears in her second costume, mimics the appearance of the ravens who are an integral part of Marco’s staging of Verdi’s opera. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the raven is a bird of ill omen signifying King Duncan’s impending death. Argento’s staging of Macbeth in Opera emphasises the significance of the raven to the production’s narrative by incorporating an unkindness of ravens (technically a murder of crows) into the stage’s production design. The raven provides Opera with much of the film’s distinctive imagery and will play a crucial role in the unmasking of the killer; utilising the bird’s ability to recognise those who have wronged them to bring about Santini’s downfall. Lady Macbeth’s raven like cape adorned with feather detailing invites comparison between her character and the raven positioning them as kindred spirits, intrinsically linked. In Betty's first performance as Lady Macbeth, she outstretches her arms as ravens fly around her and perch on her arms, once again cementing this idea. In Shakespeare’s play, Lady Macbeth speaks the line “The raven himself is hoarse” in reference to Duncan’s imminent death creating a connection between her character and the raven as a harbinger of the bloodshed and darkness to come. Betty, who wears a cloak that imitates the feathers of the ravens that surround her, will act as an ill omen for Santini, ultimately bringing about his downfall in a similar manner to how the ravens enact their own revenge.


What's interesting about Betty's portrayal of Lady Macbeth is how she inadvertently takes on the attributes of her mother in assuming such a notoriously ruthless role. Lady Macbeth, like Betty's mother, is a woman who seemingly lacks humanity, a woman who lacks the caring and compassionate qualities associated with womanhood. Betty's mother's relationship with Inspector Alan Santini also somewhat mirrors Lady Macbeth's relationship with Macbeth as both women cruelly manipulate their lovers into carrying out violent acts. Inspector Santini, despite being portrayed as the villain of the film, is essentially a puppet for Betty's mother and his inability to consummate his relationship with Betty's mother renders his character impotent tying into themes of frigidity, chastity and impotency in the film - particularly in regards to Betty's character. Betty's mother's manipulation drives Santini to carry out depraved acts on her behalf and his character becomes unable to associate love with anything other than brutality when he meets Betty. Santini is desperate to relive the relationship he had with Betty's mother, viewing Betty as a chance to finally receive the sexual and romantic validation he so desperately sought but was unable to fully obtain from her mother.


Santini's first encounter with Betty takes place during her debut performance as Lady Macbeth and the way in which Santini first sees Betty is perhaps key to how he relates to her character for the duration of the film. Santini does not see Betty, the childlike and fragile young woman she initially appears as to us, the audience, but as a powerful dominant young woman who commands the stage in her role as the strong yet heartless Lady Macbeth. In many ways, this warps Santini's perception of Betty as he views her as the character she is playing rather than the woman she is, perhaps due to his desperation to view Betty as a substitute for her deceased mother. When he first her on stage from afar he remarks “You’ve finally returned” believing that Betty is her mother. His failure to see Betty for the person she is and instead a doppelgänger of her opera singer mother fuels his desire to recreate his past relationship despite the differences between the two women. Santini views Betty as a chance to do-over his past failed relationship and to win the affections of the object of his desire, something he was unable to do with her mother as she became greedy and had to be destroyed. Due to his inability to view Betty as a separate entity from her mother, Alan Santini embarks on a killing spree in a desperate attempt to impress Betty unaware that she does not share her mother's predilections. When Santini kidnaps Betty and forces her to watch him murder her love interest, Santini is clearly carrying out the same sadomasochistic behaviours he enacted with her mother seemingly oblivious to Betty's revulsion. Santini feels Betty and remarks that “It’s not true you’re frigid. You’re a bitch in heat” casting aspersions over her Betty’s true nature.



Costuming inevitably ties into these ideas and Betty's initial Lady Macbeth costume is paramount in forging this connection between Betty and her mother. The elaborate costume made up of golden chains, straps and an armorial bodice feels S&M influenced which draws comparison to Betty's mother who liked to be tied up and to engage in the extremities of sadomasochistic behaviour with her lover. Betty’s costume also possesses a regal quality in which she is positioned as a queen of sorts; adorned in jewels, she is a woman to be worshipped and obeyed. In Santini's initial interaction with Betty he is meek and timid, like a star struck fan in awe of the object of his affections. This is somewhat ironic as Betty herself is someone who inhibits these qualities when we are first introduced to her character. Santini acts in a somewhat submissive manner which juxtaposes against his dominance in the capture scenes where he will rejig the power balance between the two as part of his sexual fantasies and desperation to have a woman who submits fully to his love. Betty, the performer is powerful but Betty the teenager is weak and afraid - in order to overcome Santini, she must harness the power that comes from assuming the role of Lady Macbeth without relinquishing her humanity. 


The second Lady Macbeth costume worn by Betty is less elaborate than the first but still embodies the regal and ostentatious feel present in her initial stage look. The dress features pearl beading on the bodice and neckline and is accessorised with matching pearl adornments including an elaborate pearl necklace and a belt and hair tie. The most striking part of the costume is a pair of thick gold arm cuffs that coil around Betty's arms. The serpentine arm cuffs feel like a pertinent addition to a costume designed for Lady Macbeth. In Macbeth, the snake is used as a metaphor for wickedness and treachery. Lady Macbeth speaks the line “… look like t’innocent flower, but be the serpent under’t” meaning her husband must be duplicitous; appearing perfectly innocent and unassuming in order to enact his treacherous plan to kill Duncan so he can assume the throne. Betty and Marco’s plan to unmask the killer in the climatic scenes of the opera mirrors the plans of the Macbeths; they must maintain the illusion of the performance in order to put their plan into motion. In the finale of Opera, Betty must once again deceive Santini in an act of self preservation. Upon the violent murder of Marco, Betty tricks Santini into believing she is just like her mother, sharing in her perverse peccadilloes. By appearing to succumb to Santini’s love and deviant lifestyle, mirroring her own mother’s path, Betty is able to finally thwart Santini double crossing him in the film’s final scenes. Despite Betty’s naive and fragile beginnings, by Opera’s end she grows into a powerful woman able to successfully manipulate and betray Santini. Betty is triumphant in overcoming her childlike fears, transitioning into womanhood and forging a different path to her mother, one of purity - “Because I am different. I don’t even vaguely resemble others, any of them.” 


When the police rush to Betty’s aid in the film’s climatic scenes, we see her delicately handle a flower whilst wearing her signature piece of jewellery; a gold snake ring. This alludes to Lady Macbeth’s quote “… look like t’innocent flower, but be the serpent under’t” exposing the duality of Betty’s character - she is innocent and fragile yet possesses a deceptive quality which allows her to ultimately persevere. When opera singer, Mara, snidely sends Betty a congratulatory gift of perfume she writes "Good luck, little snake” - another allusion to Betty’s affinity with the serpent. Opera’s final scenes concern the choice that Betty will make and the revelation of her true character. Will Betty denounce her mother’s perverse ways or will she reveal an appetite for sexual bloodlust proving Santini’s assertions about her sexual excitement in Stefano’s murder scene to be correct? Opera explores thematic ideas pertaining to nurture versus nature culminating in the film’s finale that takes place outside of the confines of the opera house and in the open landscape of the natural world. Betty rejects the artifice of the modern world and finds solace in the nature around her. Once again she finds affinity with animals, in this case, the lizard. Betty’s snake ring connects her to the natural world she longs for whilst symbolising the connection forged with the character who has become the making of her.

 

The more ostentatious aspects of Opera’s costume design feature the aforementioned distinctive golden jewellery and adornments that characterise Lady Macbeth’s costuming as well as Betty and Mira’s individual pieces. The jewellery on display throughout the film was designed by theatre actor turned jeweller, Nino Lembo, a designer who supplied jewellery for various films such as Danger Diabolik (Bava, 1968), The Girl With a Pistol (Monicelli, 1968), The Night Porter (Cavani, 1974) and Nosferatu in Venice (Caminito, 1988). Lembo's jewellery often possessed a sense of fun and whimsy, created to invite conservation. In Opera, his designs vary from classical pieces to distinctive character pieces such as Betty’s snake ring. Like many other gialli, a piece of jewellery is also pertinent to film’s plot with Santini’s gold inscribed bracelet acting as a clue to the true identity of the killer and his motivations. Another piece of jewellery worth commenting on is the oversized gold pinwheel brooch that Betty wears on her dark blue blazer - a whimsical piece that denotes the youthfulness of her character. The pinwheel, a simple children’s toy, fits in with the stuffed teddies and bird mobile of Betty’s dressing room as visual signifiers of her initial childlike demeanour.



Despite her expensive and distinctive gold jewellery, outside of her operatic performances, Betty is dressed in a fairly casual and typically teenage like manner. Her wardrobe consists of slouchy oversized garments and looks that could be considered unisex fitting in with some of the more androgynous styles of the time, as displayed in the Trussardi Action show. Marco’s wardrobe is also reflective of some of the trends present in the Trussardi show. His character’s costumes are made up of practical and popular items of the time such as chinos, bomber jackets and fisherman jumpers. Interestingly, Betty and Marco’s wardrobes are at times almost interchangeable which again showcases the more unisex trends of the period. Both characters wear practical style clothing in muted colour palettes. In one scene, the two stand side by side both dressed in chinos and t-shirts appearing as a mirror image of one another. In Opera, there is a sense of glamour but one that’s framed as artificial - part of a stage production. Outside of the opera, characters retain a sense of normalcy and practicality and are far removed from the glamour of the decadent 1980s. This contrast is important as it reinforces the idea of Betty's world being somewhat of an illusion, created via smoke and mirrors. In comparison, Inspector Santini dresses in sharp tailored suits accessories with expensive spectacles. Santini presents as a desirable, professional man - a smokescreen for his barbaric identity. Morandini’s costuming for Santini and the character of Alan Santini himself, feels like a precursor for Alfredo Grossi in Argento’s The Stendhal Syndrome - both men masquerade under a veneer of respectability in order to carry out their perverse crimes. 



Like Betty, the opera’s production team are mostly dressed in practical, casual clothing that marks them as behind the scenes players rather than those on the centre stage like the performers in their military clothing and sunglasses. However, costume designer Giulia (played by Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni of Demons 2 infamy) has some of the more interesting outfits of the opera’s production staff. As a costumier working in a creative field, she has an artful flair with her character embodying a sort of eclectic, late 1980s Vivienne Westwood aesthetic with her safety pin brooch, pixie boots, layered necklaces and ethnic inspired accessories. Marco’s partner, the fashion model Marion, is another character who dresses in a decidedly more bold, scene stealing fashion that might be viewed as more “eighties” in style. Throughout the course of the film, Marion dons a pastel blue jumpsuit, a high shine black evening dress with diamanté neck detail, a taffeta ruffled cocktail dress and an oversized Zang Tumb Tumb graphic t-shirt representative of the big logos and graphics that were popular during the period as seen in the Trussardi Action line and Italian fashion brand Moschino’s in your face fashion. Antonella Vitale, who plays Marion, will wear the Zang Tumb Tumb t-shirt once again in the Buona fine e miglior principio episode of the Argento produced miniseries for Giallo Turno di Notte later that year. The fashions for the show were supplied by Italian fashion magazine Moda.


The age old tradition of dressing up for the Opera is naturally on display in the film’s opera scene. The opera gives us a chance to see the film’s characters in all their refinery, displaying some of the more glamorous styles of the era. The aforementioned fashion model, Marion, wears a high shine evening dress whereas Alma’s mother, who is evidently more preoccupied with entertaining gentleman callers than supervising her daughter, wears a very 1980s tailored black suit with matching pillbox hat and white blouse with oversized taffeta collar. She is accompanied by her daughter, Alma, who wears a design by children’s brand Magil - a tartan peter pan collared dress which creates a picture of childhood innocence. The grandiosity of Parma opera house and the ostentatious and expensive fashions worn by the patrons that traverse its hallowed halls is undercut by the savagery of the events that take place there. The pomp and ceremony of the opera dissipates as Betty and Marco’s plan sets into motion. Patrons are crushed by one another as they flee to escape the carnage. As a raven gobbles Santini’s eye, pearls and accessories lie broken on the floor - the grandeur of the evening decimated by the primal nature of both Santini and the ravens’ actions.


As a film predominantly taking place in an opera house, Opera is naturally indebted to the Phantom of the Opera and its various iterations but there’s also clear references to other forms of cinema including Argento’s past oeuvre and the giallo in generalised terms. Perhaps less obviously, the film’s ending feels like a cinematic reference to Robert Wise's 1965 musical, The Sound of Music. The final scenes of both films take place in the Swiss alps against a backdrop of snow capped mountains, crisp blue skies and lush green grass. Argento's sinister take on the beloved musical turns the beautiful Swiss countryside into a place of murder and mayhem but ironically also a place of solace and realisation for protagonist Betty. The audience’s doubt over Betty’s true character accentuated by the blood stain on her blouse denoting the soiling of purity. Beyond the environmental similarities, the character of Betty seems to mimic Julie Andrews’ Maria  Von Trapp running through lush grass wearing a flowing cyan blue ankle length skirt and a white blouse that echoes the costuming of Andrews in the 1965 musical. Of course, Betty the slovenly teenager compliments her Maria Von Trapp style outfit with her signature pair of Stan Smith trainers putting a modern twist on a classic and showcasing that despite her personal growth, she has not completely lost sight of who she is. 


Despite assertions of weak characterisation, Dario Argento’s Opera follows on from thematic ideas in his previous cinematic offering, Phenomena, acting as an examination of a coming of age story framed in the grandiose world of the Italian opera. Costuming in Opera is an imperative part of the film’s visual storytelling conveying pertinent information about Betty’s character and her transformation from frightened child to self assured woman. Opera’s costuming reveals the different facets of Betty’s character and acts as an exploration of her identity in relation to her role as her mother’s daughter as well as her fictional role as Lady Macbeth in Marco’s staging of the Verdi opera. Like with Argento’s other cinematic works, Opera utilises costuming alongside the director’s trademark visual style and distinctive thematic concepts in order to tell a story of self discovery realised through the prism of taking on the identity of another to ascertain who one really is. It is only when Betty understands herself that she can reject the horror of the world she once knew in order to find solace in the purity of nature.


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Gli incubi di Dario Argento (1987)

Monday, 21 September 2020

Gli incubi di Dario Argento (The Nightmares of Dario Argento) was a segment featured on the Italian television series Giallo on Rai 2 which was broadcast from October 1987 to January 1988. The series, which naturally focussed on murder mysteries, was conceived and hosted by Italian television host Enzo Tortora and was a mixture of current affairs and fictional content. Tortora (renowned for his unjust incarceration in a trial involving the Camorra) handled the current affairs segment of the show, which included segments on unsolved crimes and historical accounts of murder cases, whilst Argento was in charge of the show’s more creative, fictional aspects. As part of Argento's creative contribution to Giallo, he directed a series of vignettes which aimed to capture the nightmarish surreality of one's dreams born from his fertile imagination.

Argento often cites his childhood nightmares as a major influence in his creative endeavours and of great importance to the horror genre at large. Gli incubi di Dario Argento was conceived by the director to explore this concept of the nightmare within the framework of a 3 minute short. The format lent itself  to the concept of capsulising a nightmare; allowing Argento to tell a short horror story in a few scenes representing the fragmented surreal nature of a dream. The shorts were often effects laden and a chance for Argento to experiment with visual effects and concepts without the constraints of a feature length film.



Gli incubi di Dario Argento consisted of nine 3 minute episodes directed, introduced and sometimes narrated by Dario Argento. Shot on 35mm, the 3 minute segments told a short horror story accompanied by music from Argento’s films alongside contemporary pop songs. Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni, who starred in Dario Argento’s Opera (1987) the same year, featured in several of the introductory segments and could often be seen mugging behind Argento as he introduced his short in front of a bank of television screens from inside the Giallo studio in Milan. 


As a director, Argento often courted controversy and Gli incubi was no exception. The series attracted the ire of concerned and horrified television viewers who objected to the violent content of Argento's vignettes. One short in particular, Punk Nostalgia, was met with much indignation due to the graphic nature of the violence depicted. As a result, subsequent episodes of Gli incubi were reined in with Rai requesting that Argento moderated the violent content of his vignettes resulting in the latter half of the series feeling less ostentatiously gruesome than the first. 


After Gli incubi di Dario Argento completed its run, Argento produced another series of episodic horror for Giallo with Turno di notte - a successor to Gli incubi di Dario Argento. The series conceived by Argento, compromised of fifteen episodes directed by frequent Argento collaborators Lamberto Bava and Luigi Cozzi with Bava directing the first six episodes and Cozzi directing the remaining nine. The series revolved around the mysterious goings on at a Roman taxi company firm at night and incorporated many key motifs present in Argento's work and Italian horror and thriller cinema at large. 


Argento's final contribution to the Giallo series was a series of films surrounding the making of key scenes in Argento's oeuvre. The films, carried out in a rudimentary documentary styled fashion, explained how various scenes and effects in his films were constructed. For example, the crane shot in Opera, the transformation scene in Demons 2 and sound effects and design in Suspiria and Opera. Behind the scenes footage of how the vignettes for Gli incubi were made also featured. Some of the footage shot for the feature later appeared in Luigi Cozzi's Dario Argento: Master of Horror feature length documentary in 1991.  


Whilst, the vignettes are naturally brief and without much to comment on in a detailed manner, I'll outline the individual episodes for those interested in a quick summation and the odd bit of commentary.




Episode 1: La finestra sul cortile (Rear Window)


Gli incubi di Dario Argento's opening vignette is a homage to the films of Alfred Hitchcock, a fitting choice for a director like Argento who frequently courted comparison to the master of suspense throughout his career. In La finestra sul cortile, a young man named Massimo watches Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window one evening. As he watches the film, Massimo ponders the rear window in his own flat and inspired by the film, grabs a pair of binoculars and looks out onto his courtyard, witnessing a fight taking place between a couple. The man stabs the woman which prompts Massimo to act, grabbing a rope and knife abseiling down to the courtyard. However, the rope snaps and Massimo lands on his knife. Incapacitated, a man with a stocking over his head brandishing a knife gleefully laughs at Massimo as he wrestles with a series of snakes he's unwittingly disturbed. The police arrive assuming that Massimo is the culprit and as he's taken away he hysterically laughs at how events have unfolded. 


Perhaps hindered by the restricted running length, La finestra sul cortile feels like a window into a  longer climatic sequence. Competently executed, the short succinctly captures a nightmarish atmosphere characterised by a series of bizarre misfortunes and the bleed of fiction into reality. Simon Boswell's Sleepwalking from Phenomena (1985) plays in the background which heightens the mood of the piece.



Episode 2: Riti notturni (Night Rituals)


A young couple employ a Haitian maid to clean their home unaware that she is part of a cannibalistic voodoo sect. The maid conducts voodoo rituals in the flat in the couple's absence and on their return, the home is infiltrated by members of the sect who slaughter and devour the couple before filling the fridge with their remaining body parts. In Art of Darkness, Roberto Curti suggests the idea for Riti notturni was born from a film concept in development by Argento about urban voodoo which would later inform the development of Trauma (1993). In most online compilations of Gli incubi di Dario Argento, Rita notturni is absent however, an abridged version can be seen in the documentary, Dario Argento: Museum of Horrors




Episode 3: Il verme (The Worm)


Arguably, the most successful episode of Gli incubi, Il verme is the story of a young woman named Bettina who sits alone one night with her pet cat reading an issue of Dylan Dog. A report on the television about an infectious disease carried by cats that causes worms to propagate in the body prompts Bettina to inspect her own, terrified that she's harbouring the disease. There’s an eroticised feel to the vignette with Bettina stripping down to her underwear in front of a mirror examining her nubile body with a magnifying glass. This eroticised scene promptly shifts to one of horror as Bettina discovers a worm burying itself into her eyeball. Suitably horrified, she attempts to remove the parasitic worm before plunging a knife into her eyeball. 


The special effects in Il verme are suitably crawling with some wonderfully orchestrated, wince inducing eye effects that immediately draw comparison to the work of Lucio Fulci. There’s a nice bit of foreshadowing in the vignette as Bettina casts her magnifying glass over a snake tattoo on her body that resembles the wriggling form of a worm. It's a simple but atmospheric short cast in gorgeous bluish tones and strikingly lit encapsulating a nightmarish, unsettling feel.



Episode 4: Amare e morire (Loving and Dying)


Amare e morire is a short inspired by rape revenge cinema. A hooded man breaks into a woman named Gloria's home and beats and rapes her. After the ordeal, she defiantly vows to kill the man who has savagely violated her. Suspecting the perpetrator is one of the three men who live next door, she invites the men round for a nighttime soirée to deduce who the suspect is using a novel method - she will sleep with each man in order to unveil the rapist who possesses a specific detail that she will instantly recognise. Once unmasked, Glora enacts her revenge on her assailant in typically bloodied Argento fashion. 


There's an intriguing idea in Amare e morire that would have perhaps lent itself to a more fleshed out, extended treatment. Argento later returned to the idea of rape revenge cinema in his complex 1996 thriller, The Stendhal Syndrome. Competently shot with distinctive hues of red and orange, the vignette is one of the more visually pleasing entries of Gli incubiOne of the most surprising aspects of Amare e morire is the use of Michael Jackson’s Bad on the soundtrack during Gloria's unconventional detective work. 



Episode 5: Nostalgia Punk


Nostalgia Punk is the most controversial episode of Gli incubi di Dario Argento, receiving numerous complaints upon its broadcast resulting in the tempering down of horror content in later episodes of the series. The short consists of a young woman having her fortune read by a fortune teller. Unhappy with her reading, the woman casts the fortune teller out of her home. In response, the fortune teller casts a curse on the woman’s glass of water turning it into a poisonous liquid. On drinking the concoction, the woman begins to vomit blood and other liquids; the gruesome display climaxing when she rips open her chest and pulls her guts from her body - an idea replicated in the opening of Argento's Mother of Tears (2007). Nostalgia Punk, and Gli incubi at large, demonstrate Argento's ability to push the boundaries of what was deemed acceptable for televisual broadcast. Alongside, Riti notturni, Nostalgia Punk is one of the shorts missing from online edits of the series but footage from the vignette can be seen in the making of the series.



Episode 6: La strega (The Witch)


La strega takes place at the rather ominous setting of a children’s birthday party. The birthday girl, Cinzia, celebrates with her friends as her father watches on. He suggests the children play a game called 'The Witch" down in the basement which involves the children guessing what objects are by touch, shrouded in darkness. The first objects are fairly innocuous - a hair clip and a shoe but the next objects are shown, to the audience, to be a foot and a head. As the children pass the body parts to one another, a child notes the head is wet and is horrified to discover that it's the decapitated head of Cinzia. Cinzi's father maniacally laughs brandishing a bloody blade. 


Purportedly based on Ray Bradbury's infamous horror short story, The October Game, La strega is a simple yet effective horror short playing on familiar horror tropes. As the children partake in the game, Morricone's score for The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) ominously plays in the background, the childlike singing heightening the macabre scene. 



Episode 7: Addormentarsi (Falling Asleep)


A man lies on his bed, accompanied by his pet dog, restless and unable to sleep. He becomes transfixed by a series of strange shapes cast across his bedroom window - one resembling a devil's face. A malevolent apparition appears at the window as the man's dog furiously barks seemingly aware of an otherworldly presence. The outlined shadow at the window draws a blade and rushes towards the window pane, stabbing the man in the neck in a scene that resembles Helena Markos' death scene in Suspiria (1977). A flash of golden light appears and the Sex Pistols' Anarchy in the UK begins to play as the man comes back to life possessed. His jaw dislocates and grows larger, turning into a grotesque gaping maw, and he eats the dog in a scene reminiscent of the The Little Shop of Horrors (1960).


Addormentarsi captures that strange lucid feeling of being between waking and sleeping combining typical Argento like imagery with grotesque caricature B-movie like special effects. The man in the short is none other than Lino Salemme who played Ripper in Demons (Bava, 1985), Inspector Corsi in Delirium (Bava, 1987) and Turi in Demonia (Fulci, 1990)


Episode 8: Sammy


Set on Christmas Eve, denoted by the use of with Band Aid's Do They Know Its Christmas and festive decorations. A girl named Sammy is left alone at home whilst her parents attend a Christmas party. Hearing a noise, Sammy is curious and decides to investigate its source descending the stairs into the family living room. She sees movement at the front door and runs up the stairs watching from a distance as a figure enters the house and begins to climb the stairs. Entering her room, Sammy is relieved to see that the intruder is a jolly looking Santa. He questions who she thought he was to which she replies 'a monster'. Sammy's relief is short lived when in response, Santa rips off his face revealing a hideous lizard alien monster underneath. 


A Christmas themed outing, albeit strikingly different to Argento's last foray into Christmas set horror with Profondo Rosso (1975), Sammy plays out like a tongue in cheek, child friendly horror short. Father Christmas' true appearance is a surprising yet humorous reveal. Lively behind the scenes footage from the vignette can be seen later on in the Giallo series. 



Episode 9: L’incubo di chi voleva interpretare l’incubo di Dario Argento (The Nightmares of the One who Wished to Explain Dario Argento’s Nightmares)


The final short in the series of Gli incubi di Dario Argento is a gloriously silly meta take on the previous eight episodes. A young man has been given the opportunity to be involved with Gli incubi and arrives at Argento's offices (a poster for Opera can be seen in the corridor) excited to meet the director. Argento, harangued by his staff, asks the young man to return the next day when he's less busy. The young man is sent to a nearby hostel where he's harassed by his roommates who steal his money and documents. Frustrated, the man reports the harassment to the desk clerk and makes a telephone call to Argento Productions explaining his predicament. On returning to the room, the other men chastise him for blabbing and hold him down brandishing a knife. Dario Argento appears flanked by his crew revealing that the scenario was an elaborate set-up as part of the programme. 


The final episode of the Gli incubi series feels like a fitting end to Argento's series of nightmarish shorts. L’incubo di chi voleva interpretare l’incubo di Dario Argento is Argento playfully poking fun at himself as well as his audience by playing with established preconceptions of Argento the director and his work in the horror genre. The short also briefly examines preconceptions in the racism depicted, exhibited by the young man towards his roommates at the hostel. The series, which sought to capture the surreal horror of Argento's nightmares fittingly ends with a nightmare within a nightmare blurring the lines between imagination and reality. 



A follow up post on Turno di notte will follow shortly.


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