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Macabre / Macabro
A UK region 2 DVD review by Adam Wilson
 

Married mother-of-two Jane Baker uses a New Orleans boarding house, run by the overbearing Mrs Duval and her blind son Robert, as a base of operations for an adulterous affair. During one of these erotic encounters Jane is interrupted by a call from her psychotic young daughter Lucy, who has drowned her brother in a jealous bid for attention. Rushing home, Jane is involved in a car accident that results in the death of her lover Fred. One year later, newly released from a mental hospital, Jane returns to the boarding house which has now passed into the care of Robert. With Jane occupying her former room, kept just as she left it, Robert starts to hear nocturnal moans of ecstasy coming from her bed...

The premise is set for an intriguing Gothic psychodrama – all Oedipal terrors, hysterical attic-women and shadowy interiors – but the execution here is fundamentally lacking. Veering away for the most part from the treacly gore that characterizes a lot of Italian horror, débutante director Lamberto Bava  focuses instead on the uncanny – bumps in the night and footsteps on the stairway. From the start however the baroque aspirations of the script are undercut by several baffling design choices. The house in which the film is set feels like an appropriately dishevelled colonial pile, complete with hot, dusty rooms, antique furniture and plenty of mirrors. Unfortunately, the way the set is dressed frequently detracts from the archaism: every room is filled with bits of brightly-coloured, incongruous tat. At one point Janice stares into a bathroom mirror and pops a bottle full of anti-depressants to help deal with the trauma seeing her husband and daughter again for the first time in years. As she does so, her face is almost obscured by the bottles of soap, shampoo and make up that fill the bottom of the frame. When it comes time for the shocking twist reveal, its almost impossible not to be looking instead at nearby bottles of red Martini and tomato ketchup.

Similarly distracting is the fractured, occasionally scruffy editing. Scenes cut away before their natural finishing points, highly composed shots are followed by messy ones, the audio (particularly the music) schizophrenically cuts in and out between takes. Shock moments – normally accompanied by loud crashes of sound and lunging close-ups, are sometimes pretty effective, but even at their most affecting the obtuse editing deadens the impact of the scares somewhat. Macabre plods through routine procedural sequences with  more enthusiasm than for some of its more dramatic moments – Robert heating up a can of soup is given more screen time than the fateful car crash, for example. Worse, the film makes little sense spatially, and its hard to get any coherent understanding of the geography of the house, decreasing the tension at several key moments. Rather than give the film a guerilla, rough-around-the-edges vivacity, this fractured and uneven style makes the film incredibly tedious. 89 minutes feels like three hours, not helped by Bava's stilted visual sensibilities – his camera is rooted to the spot for most of the film, with pans, slow zooms and long takes providing a lifeless and uninspired atmosphere. By far the most discordant aspect of the film is the sound. The score is an incessant, sleazy saxophone and bass guitar nonsense reminiscent of a 1980s rural detective drama, with tenser scenes meriting either a harmonica number or a dull drum-machine beat. The horrendous saxophone is almost omnipresent though, even at the scariest moments. Of almost equal creaking quality is the dubbing, a standard practice in Italian cinema of the time but here of such low grade that it sounds as if the actors are talking through balaclavas for most of the action, and in faintly pantomime-dame Louisianan accents.

The actors themselves are a disparate group who give pretty competent results, although the chewing-on-a-wet-sponge dubbing doesn't help. English actress Bernice Stegers puts in a mixed turn as Jane – excelling at creepy necrophiliac but making a bit too much of the character's later, overwrought lunacy. Stanko Molnar (a name the writers of Bond 23 should consider for their arch-villain) has a great look for the part of blind reclusive landlord Robert, with glassy blue eyes and a shock of jet-black hair, and he makes for a pretty convincing socially awkward misfit, even if his character isn't the most convincing hero. As child actors go Veronica Zinny is pretty good, stealing the last section of the film and doing infantile psychosis with commendable zeal. The actors are really making the best of characterization that is elusive and a story which is consequently a little unpredictable, which to an extent works to the film's favour. For the first half of the film the viewer is given no clue as to where the story is going – although the shock reveal is given away on the film's theatrical poster, this DVD release's menu, and the original trailer. For the first handful of scenes we're led to believe that Jane will become the victim of Robert's creepy voyeurism, then, as the extent of Jane's insanity start to emerge, sympathies migrate back to him. With the added influence of Lucy, Jane is turned back into a victim and sympathies are again subverted. Unfortunately, the concessions to extravagant violence and exploitation render this nicely ambiguous plotting more like an uncertainty of tone than a desire for complexity. Macabre features some nakedly leery moments of incongruous gore – including one scene with an open, operating electric oven that defies logic, and some child murders that are questionable at best, contemptible at worst.

In the context of the explicitly uncomfortable pleasures that Giallo cinema offers, these ultra-violent moments cannot come as much of a shock, but I suspect even dedicated acolytes of Italian exploitation will have difficulty with the fracture between Gothic claustrophobia and perverse horror. There are flashes of brilliance (one low angled, first-person creep through the house is chilling), but the overall product is sadly flat and tepid.

sound and vision

Framed 1.85:1 and anamorphically enhanced, the transfer here is in good shape, with decent colour and contrast amd a pleasing sharpness. Damage and dust have been cleaned up but are still visible in places, very visible in a few. Only the whole, though a very reasonable job.

The mono soundtrack does OK, but does suffer from the odd bit of crackle and a few audible pops. The dynamic range is a s narrow as you'd expect.

extra features

Lamberto Bava himself introduces the film, but only speaks for about 20 seconds, telling us the film is 30 years old and that he hopes we enjoy it.

There's a Trailer (2:10) which gives away all the best bits but is interesting in that it markets the film more as a slasher thriller than an unhinged ghost story.

A documentary, Macabre and the Golden Age of Italian Exploitation (11:22) features contributions from Joe Dante, Ruggero Deodato and Bava himself, and gives a good overview of exploitation cinema in Italy, though doesn't lean too heavily on Macabre itself. The contribution of the Italians is in subtitled, broken English which is a little strange, and it sounds as if a helicopter is flying overhead for most of it, but otherwise this is a decent extra that sketches out the context of the film.

Also included is a Photo Gallery, which consists of stills from the film.

summary

Arrow have done a good job on the disc, squeezing as much content as possible from a lacklustre film. Macabre doesn't live up to its admirable ambitions, feeling over-long and uneven; this is probably only going to be of interest to the most die-hard of genre devotees.

Macabre
Macabro

Italy 1980
89 mins
director
Lamberto Bava
starring
Bernice Stegers
Stanko Molnar
Veronica Zinny
Roberto Posse
Ferdinando Orlandi

DVD details
region 2
video
1.85:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 2.0 mono
languages
English
subtitles
none
extras
Director introduction
Trailer
Macabre and the Golden Age of Italian Exploitation featurette
Photo gallery
distributor
Arrow - Masters of Giallo
release date
29 June 2009
review posted
1 July 2009

See all of Adam Wilson's reviews