Lamberto Bava, 1980
Starring: Elisa Kadigia Bove, Bernice Stegers, Stanko Molnar
Jane, a wife and mother living in New Orleans, is secretly renting out an apartment in an old boarding house run by a blind young man and his elderly mother. Her family doesn’t realize that she’s carrying on a passionate affair with Fred, her lover, and her absences take a tragic turn. One day while she and Fred are off having sex, Jane’s daughter drowns her young son in the bathtub. In a rush to get back to the house, she and Fred are in a car accident and he is killed. Jane spends a year in a mental hospital and when she’s released, she returns to the boarding house, now run by the blind man, Robert, after his mother passed away. Robert develops feelings for Jane, but is concerned when he hears moans of pleasure from her room… and she begins screaming Fred’s name.
Written by House with Laughing Windows’ director Pupi Avati and his brother Antonio, this was Lamberto Bava’s first big project as a director. The son of one of horror’s great directors, Mario Bava, Lamberto got his start assistant directing on many of his father’s films — Kill Baby, Kill, Danger: Diabolik, A Bay of Blood, Baron Blood, Lisa and the Devil, Rabid Dogs — and Argento’s Inferno and Tenebre, as well as Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust. Macabre never reaches the heights of his masterpiece, Demons, but is an entertaining glimpse at Bava the Younger’s future promise. It’s also something of a bridge between Avati’s slower-paced, doom-laden films and Lamberto’s own clear style that would more fully emerge throughout the ‘80s.
Oddly convincing and effective at times, it’s a stretch to call this a giallo film, though I’ve included it mainly because of Bava’s connection to the genre. It’s more of a disturbing psychological horror film and one that succeeds in part because of Serbian actor Stanko Molnar as Robert. Molnar would go on to work with Lamberto again in his next film, A Blade in the Dark, and something about him is strange yet compelling (more so here than in that film, where he plays a creepy groundkeeper). I read another review where the writer compared him to a young Anthony Perkins, which is not far off the mark and the tone of Psycho is a not-so-distant cousin to Macabre.
SPOILERS: The overlapping themes include a troubled young man — one who had an odd relationship with his mother — who runs a hotel and becomes fixated on a female guest. But where it was the male character holding on to a female corpse, Lamberto Bava reimagines things so that Jane, far more disturbed than Robert, has been keeping her dead lover’s head in the refrigerator. She keeps it under lock and key but brings it out every night when she has imaginary sex with Fred and makes out with his decaying face. It’s not on the level of Joe D’amato’s Buio Omega, but it’s disturbing thanks to a solid, only occasionally histrionic performance from Bernice Stegers (Fellini’s City of Women and sci-fi horror masterpiece Xtro). There is something about her blend of beauty, sophistication, icy restrained, and perverse madness that reminds me of Clare Higgins’ unforgettable Julie from Hellraiser. Like Clare, she seems to hate children and find them outright disgusting. Her daughter -- remember, the one who killed her own baby brother by drowning him in a bathtub -- is incredibly creepy, so it's easy to see why. Then again it could just be the ‘80s fashion and hairstyles.
Alternating between thoroughly creepy and ridiculously campy, Macabre has some of the Gothic element found in Avati’s House with Laughing Windows but also reminds me of another film from the same period: The House of the Yellow Carpet (1983). Though I’ve decided not to review the latter, both are descended directly from the giallo films of the ‘60s and ‘70s but put their focus more on psychological decay and sexual obsession. The latter is also focused on a woman who moans all night long — a disturbed housewife who calls out her stepfathers name during obvious sex dreams, driving her husband homicidally mad. He contacts psychiatrist to help him stage an elaborate ruse, where the wife attempts to sell a giant yellow carpet her stepfather to a con artist who holds her captive. She believes she has killed him in self defense, but this is all part of an elaborate psychological game meant to be used as therapy.
Both films revolve around similar themes of madness and sexual obsession, though Macabre is ultimately the more satisfying entry. Its grand guignol elements help balance out an inconsistent script and slow pacing in the middle section of the film. Giallo and slasher fans may find it light on the gore — except for the famous reveal scene, where Jane has sex with her lover’s rotting, decapitated head — but sleaze fans will enjoy its perverse eroticism. There’s plenty of female nudity and almost constant moaning and groaning, though none of the sleaze that put directors like Fulci on the map. Speaking of the Godfather of Gore, like his classic The Beyond, Macabre is set in New Orleans and suffers from tragically awful fake Southern accents that fade in and out throughout the film. Whether you find these punishing or just part of the film’s charm, it’s well worth checking out. Pick it up on DVD.