In the wake of the new popularity in which horror films basked in the Fifties " with movies from the English Hammer studios like "The curse of Frankenstein (La maschera di Frankenstein)" (1957) and "Dracula (Dracula il vampiro)" (1958) by Terence Fisher " Italy too registered mounting interest in a genre that had until then enjoyed only modest popularity: perhaps because Italian artistic and literary tradition lacked a figure of the ilk of Bosch or Edgar Allan Poe. Yet if truth be told, with his "Lust of the vampire (I vampiri)" (1957), Riccardo Freda actually anticipated the rebirth of this genre. In terms of box office success, however, results were modest: the film came in seventy-fifth " making around 125 million lire " out of one hundred and twenty five films made in Italy in 1956. Audiences would have to wait another four years before Italian movie-makers would pick up the horror theme again en masse. In 1960, indeed, there were no less than five films linked to the horror genre: "Revenge of the vampire (La maschera del demonio)" by Mario Bava, "Drops of blood (Il mulino delle donne di pietra)" by Giorgio Ferroni, "The playgirls and the vampire (L"ultima preda del vampiro)" by Piero Regnoli, "Atom Age Vampire (Seddock l"erede di Satana)" by Anton Giulio Maiano and "The vampire and the ballerina (L"amante del vampire)" by Renato Polselli. Though admittedly originating, as we said, as a patent imitation of British canons of horror, Italian horror possessed a fil rouge that linked virtually all of the tales narrated: the central role of a fiendish female figure, both in the most classic portrayals (witches) and in more fantastically hybrid inventions (the vampire woman); this distinguishing trait, in the works of the most significant directors (Freda and Bava), was to gradually establish itself as a key element and founding core of a veritable theory of gynophobia. Each director naturally had his own unique defining characteristics: Freda, for example, in his diptych consisting of "The terror of Dr.Hichcock (L"orribile segreto del Dr. Hichcock)" (1962) and "The spectre (Lo spettro)" (1963), showed a consideration of horror as something spawned not by supernatural beings but by human evil, under the banner of a visual frenzy punctuated by necrophilic pulsations and sexual deviancy. On the other hand, Mario Bava, right from his magnificent debut offering of the above-mentioned "Revenge of the vampire (La maschera del demonio)", paid particular attention to figurative aspects and composition, the plot serving merely as a canvas on which to display his visionary talent: works like "Black Christmas (I tre volti della paura)" (1963), "The body and the whip (La frusta e il corpo)" (1963), "Curse of the dead (Operazione paura)" (1966), "Five dolls for an August moon (Cinque bambole per la luna d"agosto)" (1970) and "Blood brides (Il rosso segno della follia)" (1970) aptly prove this point, tantamount as they are to POP exercises, marked by an overexcited lust for colour, frenetic use of zoom and clear ironic emphasis. Other film-makers worth mentioning include Camillo Mastrocinque who " in "Crypt of horror (La cripta e l"incubo)" (1964) and "An angel for Satan (Un angelo per Satana)" (1966) " draws clear inspiration from the stylistic elements of melodrama, and Antonio Margheriti, who with "Castle of blood (Danza macabra)" (1963) gave the big screen one of the most interesting works of the genre, and with "The Innaturals (Contronatura)" (1969) put his name to a poised, striking celebration in articulo mortis of the brief season of Italian horror. At the end of the Seventies, in response to the considerable interest aroused by George Romero"s "Dawn of the living dead (Zombi)" (1978), Italian horror was reincarnated in the unbridled gore of several films by Lucio Fulci" from "Zombie flesh-eaters (Zombi 2)" (1979) to "The house outside the cemetery (Quella villa accanto al cimitero)" (1981) " and by Umberto Lenzi, from "Nightmare city (Incubo sulla città contaiminata)" (1980) to "Make them die slowly (Cannibal ferox)" (1981): in the space of two years, however, it was all over, proffering further evidence that the life cycle of the phenomenon was well and truly over.
2. The thriller
It was yet again Mario Bava who, way ahead of others, shone a light on the path that the thriller was to take after the Sixties: "The girl who knew too much (La ragazza che sapeva troppo)" (1963) and, above all, the seminal "Six women for the murderer (Sei donne per l"assassino)" (1964), gathered together all the archetypes " the murderer dressed in black, the atmosphere of impending doom, the atypical camera work " destined to characterise the whole phenomenon of the Italian thriller (of which in 1971 Bava provided one of the most convincing and stylish examples, with the superb "Bloodbath - Reazione a catena"). His example was followed by young roman director Dario Argento: who, with "The bird with the crystal plumage (L"ucello dalle piume di cristallo)" (1970), came up with a winning format in which the mechanisms of the "thriller" were transplanted into disquieting urban contexts, and injected with a level of violence unknown for that era. Borrowing many horror movie constants (the guilty party is almost invariably a woman, the trauma behind the killing frenzy is often of a sexual nature, the killer generally targets female victims), Argento perfected his formula in "Cat o" nine tails (Il gatto a nove code)" (1971) and "Four flies on grey velvet (Quattro mosche di velluto grigio)" (1971): eventually sanctioning, in the electric "Deep red (Profondo rosso)" (1975), the supremacy of visuals over story and of the aesthetics of any crime over actual verisimilitude, in a blood-thirsty frenzy designed practically to "produce synaesthetic effects, almost giving the impression of spattering the audience"s faces and bodies with warm blood" (G.P.Brunetta). Later, with "Suspiria" (1977) and "Inferno" (1980), Argento appeared to change tack towards even more horrific shores, gradually accentuating the characteristics described above. Many film-makers, meanwhile, were to follow in his footsteps,: among those that stand out from the crowd are works by Lucio Fulci who, in "Don"t torture a duckling (Non si sevizia un paperino)" (1972) delivered a spot-on, southern-Italian rural variation of the genre with the usual string of murders; Sergio Martino, who in "The strange vice of Mrs Wardh (Lo strano vizio della signora Ward)" (1971) successfully experimented with a mix of eroticism and gore, actually anticipating the slasher craze in "Torso (I corpi presentano trace di violenza carnale)" (1973); Pupi Avati, who with "The house with the windows that laugh (La casa dalle finestre che ridono)" (1976) proposed an original rereading of the model, veined by a sense of foreboding helped along by the landscape and the artistic tradition of the Po valley. Displaced in the mid Seventies by the crime film boom synonymous with Merli & C., the thriller gradually disappeared, to enjoy but a brief spell of popularity at the start of the Eighties, with the incredibly brutal "The New York ripper (Lo squartatore di New York)" (1982) by Lucio Fulci and, especially, with "Tenebrae (Tenebre)" (1983) in which Dario Argento condensed all the characteristics of the spaghetti-thriller in a striking, kaleidoscopic digest that constituted the last will and testament both of the genre and of an entire era of Italian cinema.