The subtitle of this shamelessly enjoyable study of a disreputable genre is ‘The Exploitation Cinema of Italy, Spain and France 1960-1980’, and for those au fait with the idiosyncratic delights to be discovered within this particular category, Danny Shipka’s book will be an invaluable guide; quirkily written (as befits the subject — it’s notably hard to be po-faced when discussing some of the outrageously lurid titles on offer here), but always informed with an exuberant enthusiasm, even for the bad films – and there are plenty of those discussed in these pages. There is also scholarship here, as one expects from entries in McFarlane’s invaluable series of studies of popular culture, and although there are several notably maladroit film directors examined, there are also some prodigious talents — demonstrating that exploitation cinema is indeed a wide church.
Prominently represented is the Italian horror film, which was probably the finest flower of the country’s popular cinema, along with the stylish murder thriller (or gialli). The most notable exponents of these fields (apart from the groundbreaking Riccardo Freda) were Mario Bava, Dario Argento and the less-talented Lucio Fulci. Bava’s Black Sunday (La Maschera del Demonio (1960), for instance. This hypnotic black and white cult classic easily transcends its indifferent acting and wretched dubbing to come across, even today, as one of the most poetic and lyrical of vampire movies. The performance of Barbara Steele as the vengeful witch who possesses the body of the young daughter of a 19th century nobleman is a triumph of charisma and presence over really rather crude acting. (Her fainting spells are one of several elements in the film one has to bear with to appreciate the virtues abounding). Bava’s fluid camera and brilliant use of atmospheric sets creates a haunting sense of unease in the viewer, and his years of experience as a lighting cameraman result in what has justly been called the finest monochrome photography in the horror genre. Of course, Bava’s film is equally famous for its censorship troubles – details such as the spiked demon mask driven into Steele’s face resulted in an outright ban by the British censor which lasted seven years. The heavily cut version held sway for many years. Shipka’s analysis is lively and insightful.
Similarly, Sei Donne per l’Assassino (Blood and Black Lace, 1964) Bava’s tale of a masked killer prowling a fashion house, remains the most influential giallo ever made. In the UK, the film was sometimes hooted off the screen for the achingly crass dubbing. But new Italian language prints have made it possible for viewers to feast on the visual delights afforded by chiffon, marble, and the director’s cat-like camera. The crippling censorship cuts that truncated every murder are restored and the elegantly rendered tension is now unspoilt. Again, Shipka does full justice to Bava’s skills.
If you have a taste for the kind of forbidden film that is still held to be reprehensible in certain unenlightened film criticism circles, then, frankly, this is an indispensable purchase.
Perverse Titillation by Danny Shipka is published by McFarland 9780786448883