Monday, April 20, 2015

Riccardo Freda: The Neglected Work of an Italian Genre Pioneer

Obscured by the shadow of his more famous protégé, Mario Bava, director Riccardo Freda (1909-1999) was an innovator of Italian genre cinema. With films like I Vampiri (1957), The Horrible Dr. Hichcock (1962), and The Ghost (1963), he helped plant the seeds of Eurocult and Italian horror. Freda’s contributions to a wide variety of European cult genres are indispensable, including his role as one of the greatest directors of peplum (or sword-and-sandal) films. He was initially ignored by contemporary Italian audiences who felt that genre films could not come from within Italy. Freda and other directors of the period went so far as to adopt English/American sounding pseudonyms to fool Italian theater patrons and get wider releases in the U.K. and U.S. Even now, in a decade where everything is out on DVD, Blu-ray, or at least streaming on Netflix, many of his key films are still only available in bootleg, subpar DVDs, or out-of-print versions, with releases trickling along over the years.

Born in Egypt, educated in Milan, and professionally established in Rome, Freda got his start in the fine arts as a sculptor and art critic – beginning the trend of other artists and writers turned director like Mario Bava and Dario Argento – eventually moving to cinema in the late ‘30s. Within a few years he established himself as an innovative director who rejected the neorealist cinema popular after the war to make lush films in a wide variety of genres, including historical costume dramas, pepla (the plural of peplum), spy films, horror movies, crime, melodrama, some war-action efforts, a spaghetti western, and even a slasher film. 

The Early Years:
Freda’s first film was an action-adventure-comedy, Don Cesare di Bazan (1942), based on a comic French opera about a dueling Spaniard forced to untangle political and romantic turmoil. It was followed by a few comedies at the end of the war before Freda turned to the successful, historical costume dramas he loved to make. Namely Return of the Black Eagle (1946), an adaptation of a Pushkin story, and a well-received version of Hugo’s Les Miserables (1948), which helped establish Freda as a director with visual panache. From there he graduated to action, with such titles as The Mysterious Rider (1948) and The Iron Swordsman (1949), also turning out a few war films.

With 1953’s Spartaco aka The Sins of Rome, he showed his skill for sword-and-sandal epics and stuck with this genre for the next several years. The following year’s Theodora, Slave Empress, details the exploits of the historical Empress Theodora, who allegedly to rose from her position as a slave and courtesan to marry the Emperor Justinian; in this film his mixed peplum and costume drama. Throughout the ‘50s and early ‘60s he had a slew of these popular action-adventure films that established his name and brought him acclaim with mainstream Italian filmgoers. His Castle of the Banned Lovers (1956) is based on the same historical story that Fulci would later adapt as Beatrice Cenci (1969) (which nearly ruined Fulci’s career).

1959 brought Sheba and the Gladiator, about a Queen who leads a revolt against the Romans but falls in love with one of their officers. This effectively began his foray into Italian cult cinema, as Sergio Leone was one of the film’s writers and later giallo regular Anita Ekberg starred. This was followed in the same year by The White Warrior, about a Chechen warlord, and The Giants of Thessaly (1960), a different version of the Jason and the Argonauts story filmed a few years before the beloved Harryhausen spectacle.

Most of these films focused on a hero, usually part action star and part romantic lead, who used sword fighting, fisticuffs, and rippling muscles to head a rebellion. Genre fans will find some interest in the “Maciste” films, a series of action-fantasy films that focus on an heroic, Hercules-like character renamed Samson for English speaking audiences. Maciste alla corte del Gran Khan (1961) aka Samson and the Seven Miracles of the World was the first Freda-helmed Maciste film and combines the figure with Freda’s previous Eastern-themed peplums: Maciste has to battle raiding warriors to save a Chinese princess. Maciste all’inferno (1962) aka The Witch’s Curse is the most interesting of these early films and actually garnered a DVD release from Something Weird Video (as a double feature with 1964’s Hercules Against the Moon Men). Maciste travels to Hell to battle a witch to save a beautiful woman. Part witch-burning, inquisition tale and part peplum, this hard to classify film is on the cheesy side, but contains plenty of action, atmosphere, and imagination, even if it does borrow from Bava’s spectacular Hercules in the Haunted World (1961). It is worth seeing for Freda’s colorful imagining of the underworld. 

First Forays into Horror:
A few years before Maciste went to hell, Freda and his then cinematographer Bava took their first journey into horror with I Vampiri (1956), which was ultimately co-directed by both men after Freda stormed off the set and passed the film on to Bava. Though it is debatable how much Bava filmed, or which scenes, this film has a marked visual style that had a definite influence of future European horror. It was produced by the team of Luigi Carpentieri and Ermanno Donati, who would go on to make more films with Freda even though I Vampiri wasn’t financially successful. There is a writing credit for Piero Regnoli, who went on to pen such genre classics as Nightmare City (1980) and Burial Ground (1981). Starring Italian beauty queen (and Freda’s wife) Gianna Maria Canale, I Vampiri is one of the first European horror films in a long tradition to be loosely based on Elizabeth Bathory.

A lovely vampire, Giselle, uses a virgin-blood serum to preserve her youth. When she demands more from the crazed scientist who invented it, things begin to get messy and a trail of bodies leads back to the Countess. Also known as The Vampires, The Devil’s Commandment, and Lust of the Vampire, it is available on DVD from Image Entertainment as part of their Mario Bava collection. It gets a certain amount of historical distinction for being the first sound-era Italian horror film. It’s a must-see for its status as the pre-cursor to Eurotrash and giallo films, plus it gives an indication of what to expect stylistically from Bava’s bright future. The atmospheric, but somewhat uneven black and white cinematography is beautiful and even though the plot leaves a little to be desired, Freda was clearly hampered by a small budget, too little shooting time, and a country that didn’t yet take homegrown horror very seriously. 

Freda’s next horror film, Caltiki – The Immortal Monster (1959), aka Caltiki – il mostro immortale, is a bizarre amalgamation of The Blob (1958), British sci-fi classic The Quatermass Experiment (1955), and giant monster movies. Archaeologists at a Mayan ruin discover a blob monster. Unfortunately for them, they try to destroy it and preserve a section to study at the same time. Coincidentally, a comet heads towards earth. With lovely black and white cinematography and effects by Bava, Caltiki will enjoy anyone who loves Godmonster of the Indian Flats as much as I do. It has sadly gone the way of a lot of obscure European horror in the sense that it’s available on a number of incredibly cheap region 1 DVDs, usually split with other neglected films (like the above-linked PR bootleg disc that features Caltiki and Attack of the Monsters). Caltiki, by the way, is the name of a terrifying Mayan goddess who was regularly presented with human sacrifices.

A Gothic Masterpiece:
None of his films have reached the visual splendor or cult acclaim of The Horrible Dr. Hichcock (1962), which is a Hitchcock-influenced Gothic horror tale of necrophilia, hauntings, nuptial horror, and obsession. Horror vixen Barbara Steele stars as the new bride and unwitting victim of her husband, the titular Dr. Hichcock, who is a talented anesthesiologist by day and a necrophiliac by night. He accidentally killed his former wife during their mutually consensual sex games which involved her playing dead. After a long time away from London, he returns, marrying Cynthia (Steele) in the hope that he can use her to resurrect his beloved first wife. 

Cynthia deals with a two-fold of terror, between the Rebecca-like hauntings from Hichcock’s previous wife and the murderous, obsessive passion of her new husband. Though some of the acting seems a bit undirected, the overall powerful performances and creepy psychological subtext make this a film worth seeing for both genre fans and cinephiles. Again produced by the Carpentieri-Donati team, Hichcock was written by Ernesto Gastaldi, who single-handedly penned most of the early giallo and spaghetti western films. It stars the British actor Robert Flemyng and scream queen Barbara Steele. This Italian production features some stunning cinematography by Raffaele Masciocchi who would go on to work with Freda on his next Steele vehicle, The Ghost (1963). 

I had the fortune to see this on 35mm during a late night Italian film festival and I’ll never forget the moment I realized that this obscure, early ‘60s gem seemed more shocking than the blood and guts soaking the screen from the other films on the roster. It’s also visually stunning; Masciocchi’s cinematography perfectly captures the Gothic dread that pervades the film, operating solely on expressionistic blocks of light and dark despite the fact that this is a color film. The film is notable for its early portrayal of a necrophiliac (though it is certainly less graphic than Nekromantik). Hichcock lacks nudity or gore, relying instead on melodramatic techniques to deliver the scares and perversity, which seemed to confound censors. They wanted to cut the film, and did for the U.S. print, but nothing is directly censorship-worthy.

A word on the title: There’s a good chance you may have seen the film referred to as The Terror of Dr. Hichcock and as The Horrible Dr Hichcock, the difference being that Terrible is the longer English print, while Horrible is the U.S. version cut by almost 12 minutes. Its original Italian title is L’orribile segreto del Dr. Hichcock, which translates literally to “The Horrible Secret of Dr. Hichcock.” It was also known by its working title, Raptus. Though it was generally critically well received, particularly by Surrealists, the shocking subject matter seems to have kept it away from audiences at home and overseas. This film, more than any other in the Freda canon, has been written about by cinephiles and cult genre fans alike, namely in webzines like Images, Kino Eye, and DVD Savant.

This masterpiece was immediately followed by The Ghost, another collaboration with Steele. Also known as Lo Spettro del Dr. Hichcock, it is a loose sequel to Hichcock, though in name only. It reunites the same producers, Carpentieri and Donati, as well as cinematographer Masciocchi, and costars British stage actor Peter Baldwin. The Ghost is sort of an inversion of Hichcock’s plot, retaining similar character names and actors. Steele and her lover plan to murder her sick, occult-obsessed husband, Dr. Hichcock, but when they do, everything goes awry. Not only will they not get the bulk of his considerable fortune, but it seems that he is haunting them from beyond the grave. 

With similarly beautiful cinematography and the same rich atmosphere of Hichcock, The Ghost is not as successful as its predecessor, sticking more to genre conventions and not really treading any new ground. It’s also weighed down by an unimaginative, generic title. It does have plenty of weird elements of Gothic horror, particularly Dr. Hichcock’s way of dealing with his illness, though the script also attempts to wander into crime/murder mystery territory, and certainly borrows some elements from Clouzot’s excellent Diabolique (1955). This is worth watching for Steele’s intense performance; indeed, she seems to shine as a romantic villainess, a role she would repeat in other Italian genre films. The Ghost is available on DVD from Alpha Video, though with a poor transfer.

After these two major horror efforts, Freda returned briefly to action, then to a few costume-drama literary adaptations, including Romeo and Juliet in 1964. He made a few films in this period that might interest genre fans, including the crime/spy film Coplan FX 18 casse tout (1965) aka FX 18 Superspy and its sequel Coplan ouvre le feu a Mexico aka Mexican Slayride (1967). Coplan is essentially a French James Bond with less panache and a smaller budget, though these films are interesting for Freda’s visual flair and the entertaining stunt work. In 1967 he also filmed his only spaghetti western, Death Doesn’t Count the Dollars, which is a pretty straight forward revenge film set in Arizona.

Crime, Mystery, and Giallo:
With 1969’s Double Face aka A doppia faccia, Freda ventured into the giallo sub-genre. Based very loosely on an Edgar Wallace novel, The Face in the Night, Wallace was an English novelist whose works were frequently adapted in Germany as krimi or crime/noir films. This West German/Italian co-production is more of a giallo than a krimi, but was advertised as such for the German audience. Double Face is of note for genre fans because it stars the great Klaus Kinski in an uncharacteristic role as the innocent protagonist, and also because a writing credit is given to the Godfather of Gore, Lucio Fulci, who was just beginning to establish himself as a genre director at that time. 

Kinski stars as John Alexander, a wealthy man whose wife is unfaithful – with her best friend. She soon dies in a strange car accident that seems to be murder and Alexander discovers to his horror that his wife appeared in several porn films. While he is being investigated for her murder he begins to suspect that she may still be alive. Interestingly, the French release in 1976 has hardcore inserts with actress Alice Arno, who had a starring role in Justine de Sade (1972), an uncredited role in Jess Franco’s Virgin Among the Living Dead (1973), and was also in Franco’s Kiss Me Killer (1977). Like many gialli before and after, Double Face has more titles than necessary, including the German title Das Gesicht Im Dunkeln (the name of the Wallace book), Puzzle of Horrors, and Liz et Helen. Fortunately you can find it streaming or on DVD from Sinister Cinema as A Double Face, which is part of their very cheaply made Edgar Wallace series.

Freda followed this up with L’iguana dalla lingua di fuoco (1971) aka The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire. It is reminiscent of several other colorful, animal related giallo titles from the same period like Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971), Black Belly of the Tarantula (1971), and The Case of the Scorpion’s Tale (1971). Iguana has other similar genre conventions: first-person camera angles during murder scenes, a black-gloved killer, sexual repression, and more violence than any of Freda’s previous films combined. Interestingly, the killer strikes by cutting women’s throats with a razor blade and melting their faces with acid so that they cannot be identified – a particularly gory element even for a giallo film.

A body is found in the truck of a Swiss ambassador (Anton Diffring), who cannot be investigated because of his diplomatic immunity. Soon the police inspector in charge of the case discovers a plot involving blackmail and drug smuggling. Though it is not a stand-out of the genre, Iguana will appeal to giallo fans. For some bizarre reason it is set in Dublin and, as I said earlier, contains an unusual amount of graphic violence. It also has a strange number of twists and red herrings, which will make it confusing for genre-newbies but is otherwise very entertaining. Look for a more in depth review as part of my giallo series.

Tragic Ceremony (1972) aka Estratto degli archivi segreti della polizia di una capitale europea (which literally translated to “Taken from the Secret Police Archives of a European Capital”) has a mind-bogglingly long title and an equally absurd plot, though – spoilers ahead – it is ultimately about a Satanic cult. Some vacationing hippies seek shelter from a storm when their car runs out of gas. It turns out they picked the wrong mansion, because there’s a black mass going on in the basement with a coven of Satan worshippers who happen to be looking for a human sacrifice. Like many of Freda’s earlier films, it allegedly has a British setting, but isn’t fooling anyone.

Starring Camille Keaton (I Spit on Your Grave, What Have You Done to Solange?) and Tony Isbert (Paul Naschy’s Inquisition), the two inexperienced leads soak up screen time while there are a bevy of genre notables in the background, namely Luigi Pistilli (Twitch of the Death Nerve, The Case of the Scorpion’s Tale, The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly). Part giallo and part Gothic horror, Tragic Ceremony has an interesting premise, but unfortunately plods along and gets overwhelmed by its own attempts at plot twists, including one with a cursed pearl necklace (get your mind out of the gutter). Fans of Jess Franco will likely find this a charming effort, but it lacks the atmosphere or consistency of Freda’s earlier films. Tragic Ceremony should be seen for the satanic mass sequence and an orgy of violence that quickly dissolves into ridiculousness. This Italian/Spanish co-production is one of the few Freda efforts available on DVD in a nice release from Dark Sky Films that features a trailer and an interview with Keaton.

Follia omicida (1981) aka The Murder Syndrome, is Freda’s somewhat unfortunate final film. Featuring the lovely Anita Strindberg (Lizard in a Woman’s Skin and Case of the Scorpion’s Tale) and Laura Gemser (of the Emmanuelle series), there is more nudity than any of Freda’s other work and this can only really be described as Eurotrash. Borrowing loosely from Argento’s Deep Red (1975), a successful actor has a dark secret – as a child he stabbed his father to death. When he, his girlfriend, and their film production team visit his family mansion for a few days, the killings begin again and he fears the worst. Though enjoyable for its sheer trashiness, there’s some gore, more Satanism, sleazy sexual violence, and a spider scene that makes The Beyond (1981) look like National Geographic. Also known as Murder Obsession, Fear, and The Wailing, I believe this is Freda’s first film to receive a Blu-ray release from the wonderful Raro Video.

It seems inevitable that Freda’s work will eventually find its way to DVD, hopefully with restored prints, original dialogue tracks, and plenty of special features. Though a lot of more mainstream horror fans are ignorant of his Gothic horror spectacles, some more underground genre publications have touted the director over the years, including the much loved Video Watchdog magazine, and webzines like Images and Kino Eye, as well as blogs focusing on Italian horror like Giallo Fever. Do yourself a favor and find a copy of The Horrible Dr. Hichcock. It is inconceivable that genre fans, cinephiles, and even lovers of Hitchcock are being deprived of this great example of Gothic horror.

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