The ghost at the window

bava1.jpg

I’ve been taking advantage of the Spook Season to finally watch some of the horror films that I’ve known about for decades but never managed to see until now. Among the collection has been Ishiro Honda’s fungal nightmare, Matango (1963), and the Poe-themed Spirits of the Dead (1968), one of those Italian anthology films that proliferated in the 1960s, this one featuring episodes directed by Roger Vadim, Louis Malle and Federico Fellini. Still to come is Ugetsu Monogatari (1953), Kenji Mizoguchi’s ghost film.

curse.jpg

Topping the list was Curse of the Dead (1966), another ghost film directed by Mario Bava. Ten years ago I wrote a post about a black-and-white still from Bava’s film (see above) which has proved surprisingly popular, finding its way onto a number of book and record covers. The still is one of many that fill the pages of Denis Gifford’s A Pictorial History of Horror Movies (1973), and had intrigued me long before I started to notice its use elsewhere. Gifford, however, wasn’t much help when trying to find out more about the film itself. Curse of the Dead is one of the few films that he doesn’t discuss in his book, and its title compounded the mystery when nothing with that name was listed in film guides. The problem turned out to be one that plagues horror films, especially the older variety, whereby a film’s title changes each time it crosses a national border. Gifford was using the British name given to something originally released in Italy as Operazione Paura (Operation Fear). Curse of the Dead is rather vague—it would suit any number of other films—but it’s preferable to the Italian one, which makes it sound like a spy thriller, and far better than the other alternatives. Since America dominates the film business it’s usually the American title, Kill, Baby, Kill, that you see this one listed under, a typical piece of overkill (so to speak) from US distributors AIP. In Germany it was released as The Thousand Eyes of Dr Dracula, a ridiculous play on Fritz Lang’s final Dr Mabuse film.

bava2.jpg

Curse of the Dead.

Whatever the title, Bava’s film is well worth seeking out. The story concerns a doctor who arrives at a small Carpathian village to perform an autopsy on a young woman who has died in mysterious circumstances. The death is one of several that have blighted the village, all caused by a blonde ghost girl whose appearance at night—always dressed in white, and playing with a bouncing white ball—seals the doom of anyone who encounters her. A story that in other hands might be rote and predictable (hello, Hammer Films) is anything but, thanks to Bava’s visual artistry and inventiveness in the face of a severely limited budget. Halfway through the film the narrative logic dissolves into an extended nocturnal investigation punctuated by remarkable dreamlike moments, notably a scene in which the doctor ends up chasing himself through a succession of doors in identical rooms twenty-five years before Agent Cooper did something similar in Twin Peaks. The “Carpathian” exteriors are mostly Italian countryside, filmed in a mountain village whose ruined nature adds a great deal to the atmosphere. As for the intriguing hands-at-the-window moment, I was prepared to be disappointed by its eventual appearance but Bava makes it a key moment after teasing us with other shots like the one above, showing spectral hands and faces at windows.

fellini.jpg

Toby Dammit.

Bava’s ghost (or a version of her) reappeared two years later in the Fellini episode of Spirits of the Dead, a detail I’d forgotten about until this week. Fellini’s Toby Dammit is the best part of the anthology feature but the Poe story he was adapting, Never Bet the Devil Your Head, doesn’t involve any blonde ghost girls. Terence Stamp is the title character, playing an actor rather like himself who succumbs to an alcohol-fuelled breakdown while being flattered and harassed by fans, paparazzi and a gallery of grotesques from the Italian film business. The ghost haunting him for inexplicable reasons is less a homage than an outright theft (she even has a bouncing white ball), something that apparently dismayed Mario Bava, understandably so after the problems he had to get his own film made. That said, Toby Dammit still carries a spooky charge even if Fellini’s spectre is a poor relation to Bava’s, with the whole episode playing like a particularly nightmarish out-take from 8 1/2.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Juliet of the Spirits
A Pictorial History of Horror Movies by Denis Gifford
Design as virus 14: Curse of the Dead

A Pictorial History of Horror Movies by Denis Gifford

gifford01.jpg

Cover art by Tom Chantrell.

Halloween approaches so here’s a book that suits the season. Denis Gifford’s A Pictorial History of Horror Movies was published in Great Britain by Hamlyn in 1973. A large-format hardback of just over 200 pages, this was a cheap production for wide distribution, and evidently sold well: my edition from 1980 is the 12th reprint, and the book was still in print in 1983, in a slightly longer edition with a new cover.

gifford17.jpg

For a generation of British kids Gifford’s book made an indelible impression, not least because of its ubiquity. It was always easy to find—for years I didn’t have a copy of my own because I invariably seemed to know someone who did—and its mostly black-and-white pictures featured a great deal of imagery that was generally forbidden to those of us under the age of 18. This may seem surprising to Americans, or those in more liberated European countries, but Britain has always had an uneasy relationship with the horror genre despite the legacy of Gothic novels and ghost stories, never mind Dracula, Frankenstein and the rest. Literary manifestations command a grudging acceptance if enough years have passed since first publication but Britain’s moralists and censors have fretted over pictorial horror for decades, especially the film and comic-book variety.

gifford02.jpg

La Belle et la Bête (1946).

Almost all horror films screened in Britain over the past century were for audiences of 18 or over, while horror films on TV were never shown before 10pm. That scene in Halloween (1978) where the kids are watching The Thing From Another World on television in the early evening would have been impossible here. In 1982 we had the start of the “video nasties” panic, a particularly disgraceful episode for those eager to interfere in other people’s entertainment, and an issue that rumbled on for the rest of the decade. As for print media, I still have a leaflet from the late 1980s given to all applicants of UK passports which lists “horror comics” along with weapons, drugs, poisons, etc, among the items forbidden from import into Britain. This climate gave Gifford’s guide an illicit charge it might not have had if published elsewhere: the book delivered a concentrated dose of the forbidden.

gifford03.jpg

Vincent Price as Doctor Phibes.

Denis Gifford (1927–2000) was, among other things, a comics artist, a comics and film historian, and a collector of comic books and horror ephemera. Most of the material in A Pictorial History of Horror Movies is from his own collection, and an excellent collection it was. More than 300 stills run through the entire history of horror cinema from the earliest Méliès shorts to German Expressionism, Universal horror, Hammer horror, AIP monster movies, Toho monster movies, and on to the garish efforts of the late 1960s; he even manages to get in a still from Carry On Screaming. The accompanying text is concise but authoritative, although I doubt anyone ever used the book as a serious study. Yet for a 12-year-old this was a perfect introduction to the genre, as well as a dizzying intimation of hundreds of films yet to be seen. In place of the films you had pictures implying entire worlds of mystery and terror, many of which are so good they give very unrealistic expectations of the films from which they originate. Some of the most memorable examples for me have been those which are more atmospheric or eerie than horrific, like the sinister child at the window in Mario Bava’s Operazione Paura (1966) aka Curse of the Dead. (See this post for more about the extended life of Gifford’s still.) But there were also plenty of monsters, grotesque makeup effects and even some gore; a female friend of mine was obsessed with the picture of a blonde and bloodied young woman with an axe buried in her head (see below). Looking at the book today I suspect Gifford’s punning captions may have been a nod to Famous Monsters of Filmland, a magazine with a devoted readership but not a title I ever read myself.

gifford04.jpg

Peter Cushing (The Skull; 1965).

All the pictures here are from an upload of the entire book at the Internet Archive. Gifford isn’t around to complain about this but the book may not remain there for long so enjoy it while you can. A few more pages follow. For an earlier appraisal of the book’s impact on impressionable minds, there’s this piece by Dave Tompkins.

Continue reading “A Pictorial History of Horror Movies by Denis Gifford”

Design as virus 14: Curse of the Dead

curse.jpg

Curse of the Dead (1966).

Continuing an occasional series. This photograph, reproduced in Denis Gifford’s A Pictorial History of Horror Movies (1973), intrigued me for years. Gifford’s book is a very good collection of stills from horror films of all kinds, ranging from the earliest days of cinema to the 1970s. The pictures are mostly black-and-white, and are often far more stimulating than the films they would have been promoting. The text generally refers to the films depicted but in the case of this picture there’s only a single credit, Curse of the Dead (1966), a film I’d never heard of. These kinds of mysteries have been banished for good now we have resources like IMDB where you can learn immediately that Curse of the Dead is a Mario Bava film whose original Italian title was Operazione Paura. (It’s also known, with the usual hyperbole, as Kill, Baby…Kill!) “An 18th century European village is haunted by the ghost of a murderous little girl” says the summary. Bava’s films were always visually impressive so it’s really no surprise to find it was one of his.

carnacki.jpg

The first repeat usage I know of is this cover from the Dennis Wheatley Library of the Occult series published by Sphere books from 1974–77. Sphere used Wheatley’s name to sell a lot of reprints but the series was substantial and featured a number of titles that would have been appearing in paperback for the first time. Unfortunately the best thing about the covers was the uniform design of the horoscope circle against a coloured background. The quality of the illustrations was very uneven so it’s probably for the best that the artists and photographers went uncredited.

arkham.jpg

Then there’s one of Dave McKean’s title pages for Arkham Asylum (1989), the heavily symbolic Batman book he created with Grant Morrison. There’s only a portion of the picture but I’d say it’s a good guess he used the Gifford book since at least one of the panels in his earlier Violent Cases was based on another of the Gifford photos.

This isn’t all, I’m sure I’ve seen the Gifford picture used on a record sleeve but there’s little way of discovering which one unless somebody recognises the photo. If anyone knows, please leave a comment. And despite all of this I still haven’t seen Bava’s film even though I’m told it had a strong influence on Twin Peaks. This account at The Horror Digest is slightly disappointing when a colour equivalent of the Gifford still lacks the particulated creepiness of the black-and-white version. More surprising is finding yet another film featuring the arms-out-of-the-walls motif. This obviously requires further investigation.

Update: Thanks to Irv in the comments for finding the following singles so quickly. The Decorators sleeve was the one I remembered. (See it larger here.) Kicks were an Australian band. Odd that these were both released in the same year.

decorators.jpg

Twilight View (1980) by The Decorators. Design by Malcolm Garrett.

kicks.jpg

The Secret (1980) by Kicks.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Design as virus 13: Tsunehisa Kimura
Design as virus 12: Barney’s faces
Design as virus 11: Burne Hogarth
Design as virus 10: Victor Moscoso
Design as virus 9: Mondrian fashions
Design as virus 8: Keep Calm and Carry On
Design as virus 7: eyes and triangles
Design as virus 6: Cassandre
Design as virus 5: Gideon Glaser
Design as virus 4: Metamorphoses
Design as virus 3: the sincerest form of flattery
Design as virus 2: album covers
Design as virus 1: Victorian borders