This is a slightly unusual guest post for Silent London, by Daniel Riccuito from the Chiseler, who promised me he could persuade us that 1964’s Castle of Blood/La Danza Macabra was essentially a silent film. What do you think?
Her appearance in 1960’s Black Sunday had already conquered him. And thereby imbued Raymond Durgnat’s now famous one-liner – “She is the only girl in films whose eyelids can snarl” – with more than surrealist fancy. His Companion to Violence and Sadism in the Cinema came out in February 1963. Reading it today, I’m humbled by its prescience: Barbara Steele would soon prove that “snarls” should remain metaphors, and that synchronised sound never amounted to more than a tattered cloak. Cinema is visual and, therefore, silent.
And the screen’s own metaphorical whisper (“There must be other Alices”) invites new, unexpected iterations of Lewis Carroll’s looking glass.
Enter a 26-year-old: maturing as an actress while retaining a profound sense of uncontrollable childhood rage, capable of playing emotions too vast for the human body — commanding them into air. Barbara Steele, who holds the patent on gothic atmosphere, occasionally leases it to cinema. Here, she’s pursued by a camera that may as well be the all-engulfing eye of some hypnotised cat, as Ricardo Pallottini’s lens captures the most erotic blacks and whites ever filmed. Picture the primordial shadow, rather than the reflection of Alice to fathom 1964’s cinematic tone poem La Danza Macabra AKA Castle of Blood. Her face “chops and changes its character as the lights carve at its neat, stark cheekbones, high forehead.” I share Durgnat’s rather pointed fascination with the way Steele transforms via filmic reproduction, as if he were channeling Jean Epstein’s theories of “photogénie”, the notion that movies can reveal and magnify a subject’s moral character.
Steele’s mutable visage, its discordant composition (Durgnat calls it “an art-school face, with something wild and regional, possibly even Mary Webb-ish”) finds a dark liquid pool to be Protean in. American films use the camera to bird-dog the cast, or to push in, making thought perceptible. Since Cabiria, Italian films have used the camera to explore space, show off the sets, bring the environment to dimensional life. In horror cinema, this becomes an atmospheric duty, the prowling lens that suggests a roving POV dislocated from anyone onscreen. Thus, Danza Macabra presents “Elizabeth Blackwood” as a revenant without hope, forced to relive her own violent death once a year — denied redemption, knowledge or peace. Absorbing Steele’s autumnal presence, Pallottini’s cinematography is all mien, silent-era Gothic.
Because Danza Macabra is an unlikely masterpiece, I recently asked horror savant and Video Watchdog founder Tim Lucas to help me sort out its elusive provenance. Antonio Margheriti remains the credited director but I have my doubts. Lucas apparently shares them: “This is far and away Margheriti’s best work, and it has always confounded me because it doesn’t feel like his other work; it has more taste.” The (normally) self-evident division of labor between director and director of photography buckles and gives way to seamless expression of the kind cinephiles generally attribute to their favorite auteurs. Is Margheriti capable of such piercing visual thrall? Sergio Corbucci (father of spaghetti western sadism with Django) is a better bet. Or so Lucas implies: “Corbucci shot the first week before Margheriti replaced him, but who really knows to what extent Margheriti replaced him? He agreed to be listed as director to help the film get completed, and surely he was on the set (we see him giving a cameo in the tavern scene), but that doesn’t mean he necessarily directed so much as ‘stood guard’.”
Danza Macabra begins with the old chestnut of the hale and hearty chap induced to spend the night in a haunted castle for a bet. It also throws in Edgar Allan Poe, and uses its subsequent apparitions as a kind of time travel device, allowing the penurious hero to glimpse the demises of those who have gone before him. One of these is Steele, yet again up to Lady Chatterley antics with the muscle-bound gardener in the stables. And then everyone turns out to be a vampire, though the origins of the bloodsucking plague are never established.
Corbucci serves up murky travelogue of the Gothic mind, wafting down draughty corridors for minutes on end, while a musical saw whines eerily on the soundtrack. Steele is already enmeshed in an undead love quadrangle (husband/lover/lesbian stalker) when the hero crashes in to complicate her existence, shagging her as the camera pans to the fire and only noticing her lack of heartbeat afterwards. Steele is a good bad girl, whose motivation and true nature remain up in the air until the last few minutes, which manage to chuck fragments of Lost Horizon and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow into the seething stew. The appallingly cynical conclusion (Poe worries that nobody’s going to believe this one) confirms the hero’s earlier observation: it’s the living you really have to watch out for.
“Italians make visually gorgeous but incoherent movies,” quipped Pauline Kael.
I’ll allow Kael her pronouncement in this particular case — glib though it be. She never condescended to address Italian genre horror, but I like to imagine the late hero of American film criticism thrilling to this B-grade masterpiece, in which the camera eye extends, wraith-like, from a personal source. This illusory sense of one-point perspective gliding alongside the actors, and inside their strangely integrated collective mind-frame, creates a funny feeling; as if the viewer were in the audience watching his own spectral image glower back into the darkened theatre. Tim Lucas provides more context, this time regarding Danza Macabra’s self-fractionating storylines and their shared Italian wellspring.
I also think we find a certain kind of forebears in the Italian anthology films, which would tell numerous stories – usually romantic or tragic – that took place over a period of time at the same location, like the movie Villa Borghese, for example. But Danza Macabra opens a door to a whole subgenre in which a modern person enters an antiquated villa and goes back in time, revealed to be a kind of hero/heroine in an Eternal Return scenario – in essence, a tragedy they have lived through must be lived through again, as a circle of Hell or karmic lesson. It can also be triggered by the introduction of the twin of a lost love, as in I Vampiri, The Third Eye, and Black Sunday.
While American horror movies struggle for a prosaic sense of following characters into danger, Italian entries in the genre float or somnambulate, adrift from narrative and character, jerking into sudden focus in shock moments and then gliding off again, glassy-eyed and detached. Barbara Steele’s face follows the same identikit pattern as the cinema that launched her – possessing beauty that invites mixed metaphors. The American camera eye is a stalker, the Italian a gawping tourist. And its viewfinder aims at the wanton hypnagogia of shadows, the infinity of indwelling vistas turned outward, coarsely referred to as “visuals.” La Danza Macabra stretches Alice on the rack, swathes her in the diaphanous fraudulence of Italian genre horror, a post-modern dream jumble – kabuki wig, eyelashes that go on for ever. Others may ask for more. For me, that’s sufficient.
By Daniel Riccuito
Special thanks to Marilyn Palmeri, Barbara Steele, David Cairns, Tim Lucas and David Ehrenstein.
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