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A Waking Nightmare: Italian Horror and Dream Logic

Horror is an expansive genre and I truly believe that within it exist more interesting and unique subgenres than any other type of film. There are creature features, slashers, haunted house, zombie, thriller, psychological horror, cosmic horror, body horror, gothic horror, to name more than a few.

But for me, one has clawed its way above the rest by churning out some of the most bizarre, creative, and, for lack of a better term, batshit insane films of all time: Italian horror. What makes these films so unique? In a word, “style.” Each and every one is unapologetically stylish at the cost of (or perhaps in service of) everything else.

It’s as if back in the 1960s there was a meeting where Italian directors Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, The Bavas, and others all got together over a few barrels of wine and hundreds of cigarettes and said, “So just how stylish should we make these movies?” And then they all answered in unison, “Sì.”

The colors are often bright and saturated. Music fades in and cuts out, jarring your ear and transforming scenes into mini music videos. The blood alternates from a watery dark red to a viscous hot pink. Sometimes, the footsteps in these movies are deafening, as if the foley artists were wearing tap shoes and jumping across a slab of sheet metal. Then there’s the awkwardly dubbed dialogue, but let’s be honest – that’s part of the charm.

These things may sound like complaints or criticisms. They aren’t. These movies are just made by their own set of dreamlike principles. They seem to have no concept of how human bodies work. People’s faces bleed and pop for no other reason than to be more gooey and gory. In Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead [trailer above], a person throws up their own intestines. It takes almost two minutes. Another person has their brain ripped out through their skull. These two things both happen in the same scene. Maybe you think that’s the craziest part of the movie. It’s not.

These films operate by dream logic. They’re waking nightmares. Each one is a journey through surreal, phantasmagoric ambiguity. Not only because the plotting is disjointed and abstract, but because the very structure of them operate outside of normal narrative rules. Scenes exist in a vacuum, rarely addressing or paying off other subplots. Characters show up, do something weird and then vanish, never to be seen or addressed again.

The thin plot isn’t there as a foundation for a meaningful or coherent story. Instead, it serves as a catalyst for a series of dreamlike, macabre set pieces that captivate the viewer. In doing so, it transforms simply sitting and watching into a confusing and disorienting experience itself. The dubbing, charming as it may be, further reinforces the feeling. Like many popular Italian films of the time, these were shot with actors speaking their dialogue in a number of languages. Some in English, others in Italian or German, all to be dubbed later. While some characters speak their lines in sync, others are off, making the delivery and the dialogue often at odds with each other. The disconnect further lulls the viewer into a state of surreality. Was this the intention? Doubtful. Is it effective? Yes.

But within all this, there’s style, there’s creativity. Flourishes of filmmaking that are truly remarkable. The Beyond [trailer above], another film by Fulci, is full of these moments. My personal favorite is an auditory match cut beginning with a young girl screaming before effortlessly transitioning into the following scene, her howling now the wail of a trumpet from a New Orleans jazz band. Later, we see how a common horror cliche can be taken to the square root of bonkers. A dramatic flash of lightning (simultaneously with a deafening thunderclap) in other, lesser horror films would serve as a ham-fisted jump scare. In The Beyond, the lightning blast is so loud and so bright that it knocks a man off of a ladder, where he is slowly devoured by spiders that chirp like birds. It rules.

It may seem like I’m picking on or fanboying over Fulci, but that’s only because he’s amazing and I love him. In the world of Italian horror, he’s one of many. Dario Argento, Mario Bava, his son Lamberto Bava, and screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti are just a few other names integral to the genre. Argento likely had the most mainstream success via his landmark contribution; Suspiria [trailer above], a rainy, neon-drenched fairy tale about a young woman who transfers to a renowned German ballet academy only to discover it’s a front for a murderous supernatural force. Then there’s Phenomena [trailer below], in which a young Jennifer Connolly controls insects to fight back against a serial killer butchering his way through an all-girls Swiss boarding school. Most of these films have synopses that are like mad libs where instead of (noun) and (adverb) there’s (enchanting setting) and (gruesome death).

Suspiria might have had the widest mainstream success but it surely didn’t achieve it by compromising the trademarks of its genre. If anything it embraced them, to fantastic results. The lighting is iconic, bright pinks and deep blues bounce off characters as if they’re always standing beside an illuminated “Open” sign. Often this happens with no source, the lighting never coming from anywhere “real”. It’s just the way this world is. Dreamlike. Wide-angle lenses often distort the edges of the frame, causing vertical lines to bow, warning that if your eyes stray too far from the center of the action, you may go insane.

Italian horror deserves its place alongside popular subgenres such as the slashers and the supernatural. It’s by no means niche, but for every well-known entry, there are countless others slapped together to jump on the trend, and they’re rarely disappointing. My suggestion? Go in blind. If you’re anything like me (and I imagine you are) you won’t be disappointed. Because sometimes movies are a lot like dreams — the most memorable ones are usually nightmares.

Written by Elliott Shaw

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