In the opening scene of director Riccardo Freda’s 1981 horror film Murder Obsession, a woman is assaulted in her home by a man who strips her and chokes her. The good news? The woman and the man are actors, and this is just a scene in a movie. The bad news? The man, played by Stefano Patrizi, is haunted by an old crime, and has a tendency to zone out and lose control of himself—such as when he’s “pretending” to strangle another person in a movie. As Murder Obsession plays out, we learn more about Patrizi’s past: How when he was a boy, he was accused of killing his conductor father during one of those breaks from reality. And now, as a group of Patrizi’s friends are being picked off one by one during a weekend at his family’s country estate, Patrizi seems like a prime suspect, even though the other members of the party include more than one occultist, and more than one person hiding a terrible secret.
Murder Obsession isn’t in the same class as the work of Dario Argento, Mario Bava, or Lucio Fulci, though it is atmospheric, and loaded with cheap thrills. It’s mostly fascinating on a couple of meta levels. First off, it openly steals back what American directors like John Carpenter and Brian DePalma took from the Italian “giallo” thrillers, up to and including DePalma’s “it’s only a movie” fake-outs. Second off, Murder Obsession’s early introduction of the movie-within-a-movie idea recontextualizes everything that follows, reminding us that we’re only ever watching actors in this film, not real people. And yet, like Patrizi—and like the other characters in Murder Obsession who drift into nightmarish reveries—we’re easily lulled into a trance by these flickering, horrific images.
That question about what horror movies do and how they work is at the heart of the recent Italian shocker Ubaldo Terzani Horror Show, directed by the promising young filmmaker Gabriele Albanesi, who previously made the wonderfully gamy The Last House In The Woods. Giuseppe Soleri stars as a horror fanatic who can’t get anyone to finance his first movie because his vision is too retro and too hardcore—too beholden to Argento, Bava, and Fulci, in other words. Soleri is assigned to work with best-selling horror novelist Paolo Sassanelli, and the two of them have long conversations about each other’s lives, tastes, and convictions. But as Soleri reads Sassanelli’s books and falls under his mentor’s influence, he begins imagining appalling horrors all around him. Only maybe it’s not just his imagination.
Unlike the straightforward homage of Last House, Ubaldo Terzani Horror Show nestles a bit too comfortably into its quotation marks, and winds up being too pensive to provoke much real terror. But Albanesi clearly respects his predecessors, and lovingly recreates some of their old tricks: a sinister-sounding synthesizer soundtrack, naked female torsos, big stabbing knives, et cetera. And the movie’s embrace of fantasy serves a purpose. In the last 15 minutes of Horror Show, when the blood and guts become “real,” Albanesi considers the appeal of his countrymen’s classic gore-fests, and whether these images of disemboweling and amputation are harmlessly iconic or legitimately disturbing.
Key features: Multiple lengthy interviews on Murder Obsession; a half-hour featurette and Albanesi commentary track (in Italian) on Horror Show, along with Albanesi’s spaghetti-Western-style 2001 splatter short Braccati, made when he was in his early 20s.