Macabre (UK - DVD R2)
The Wilson Bros cruise for some head with Arrow's DVD release of Macabre...
Since time immemorial, there has been the struggle for a son to step out his fathers’ shadow and gain individual success. “Baby Doc” Duvalier fought against the might of “Papa Doc’s” iron-fisted reputation in Haiti. William Pitt added the suffix of “The Younger” to distinguish himself from his father. Martin Daniels, despite his best efforts, could never match his dad Paul’s success. Then we come to the work of Lamberto Bava.
With Mario Bava being the pioneering genius of Italian cinema, it was only natural for his son to want to follow his father into the business. Once he proved his worth with more menial tasks on the set, he became assistant director on the rest of the legend’s films. Although technically competent, he never captured the flair his father was famous for. A case in point is that there are still those who regard his tampering with Mario’s Lisa and the Devil and transforming it into the tacky William Peter Blatty cash-in House of Exorcism as a form of cinematic vandalism.
Since the Italian horror genre (and the Italian film industry as a whole) went into freefall, Bava Jr has spent the last twenty years so closely associated with TV that you’d think he was a candidate for a sex change. This is not a reflection on his ability to put a project together; merely that he suffered the same fate which greeted so many of Italy’s filmmakers. This period saw him further trying to break out of Papa Bava’s shadow, with a remake of Mask of Satan, and while you might think this would be both blasphemy and defeating his attempt at individuality, Bava Jr did enough to make it different and a decent ride at the same time. But with his latest movie ( Ghost Son) barely getting released, despite John Hannah and Pete Postlethwaite headlining, it’s best we take a look back at one of his best works, in the form of Macabre.
Beware! This review be chock full of spoilers, so turn back now if ye don’t want blow the surprises in store—not to mention ye ending to an Orson Welles classic! Pirate accent optional, by the way.
Although he had his biggest hit with Demons—a staple of video shops across both the UK and the world in the 80s— Macabre was the first time Bava Jr had a movie all to himself, and it is fitting that a project made so close to the death of his father is the one which is most in the style of the great auteur. As if to take out insurance, he roped in a name in Italian genre films which will guarantee a good time, the great Pupi Avati. The two spearhead a twisted tale of lust, perversion and something kept in the salad-tray more hideous than radishes. Ripped from the headlines about a woman in New Orleans who kept her lovers’ head, hold on tight as we delve into the world where a frigid partner can give the best lovin ‘ever!
Down in New Orleans, the Baker family is experiencing the strains of modern living, stagnating in familiarity and life is dull. Breaking away from tedium, Jane Baker (Bernice Stegers) seeks thrills in the arms of her lover. During one such liaison, her daughter drowns the younger brother in a bath. Racing home, her lover is decapitated in a horrific car accident. The family is torn apart, but love is the answer to Mrs Baker’s problems, albeit in the most unconventional way.
The son’s death is attributed to an accident, and after a year under psychiatric care, Mrs Baker moves into her former love-nest apartment, with only the blind Robert taking care of the place. As the reunion with her estranged family draws near, who is the mysterious lover whom Robert hears giving Mrs Baker a good seeing to? Will Robert get lucky? Does her daughter have murder on her mind once again? Above all, what is the mysterious secret of the locked fridge? All we can say is that it really isn’t very pretty.
Macabre is a movie of many enemies, including marital transgressors, unwelcome snoopers, murderous children and the other of whom breaks laws of nature God hadn’t even thought of when he handed down the ten commandments. Lust is the centre of all things, and there is a superb motif running through the movie, with the hue of red being the colour-coding for filth. This is reminiscent of Tak Fujimoto’s technique in using the same tones to subliminally indicate danger, as seen in his work on Silence of the Lambs. Mrs Baker has a red bed, telling us she’s a slut, not to mention a penchant for red dresses. Being an insatiable purveyor of original sin, and having her amorous exploits overheard, she resorts to the oldest of bribes.
Combining a bid to get her rocks off whilst smoothing out relations with her fellow resident, Mrs Baker goes ahead with a plan to seduce the blind Robert, but all goes embarrassingly wrong, bringing with it a prime example of the subtext littered throughout the movie, more than most would expect from Bava Jr. Here the blind character is a man who fixes musical instruments, but the asexual nature of the character means an inability to get laid with the perma-horny Mrs Baker, and his tinkering with horns without knowing how to play them is a delicious conceit. Oh, and Baker pulls a red sheet off of the bed as she begins her ill-fated plan…
To top things all off, the homecoming reunion with Mrs Baker’s horrid little brat brings with it one of the most uncomfortable family reunions since Marie Osmond’s repressed memories surfacing when her brothers lit up cigarettes around the Christmas table. This homicidal tweenager really is one heartless little bitch, as we already know that she killed her little brother, but she really goes too far when asking her mother “Am I going to get wrinkles round my eyes, too?” Surely things couldn’t get any worse when they sit down for tea? Wanna’ bet?
Macabre hosts so many moments to pick from as great examples of Italian genre cinema. The key event which sets the dire events in motion is the murder of Mrs Baker’s young son, and we doff our hats (if we wore them, anyway) to the very brave choice to inter-cut some hot sex action between lustful adults with the his murder. There are few movies that pushed the boundaries this far at that time. If you cannonball that with the scene immediately afterwards, where Baker’s lover literally loses his head in the most horrific Volkswagen car-crash since Herbie went bananas, you have a movie which grabs you from the outset.
Bava Jrs’ confidence behind the camera is plainly evident, and not merely making things look pretty. Our introduction to the character of Robert is one which perfectly captures the lack of privacy and dearth of shame common to a lot of blind people. Where any other actor would have make sure that a bottle of Mr Matey bubble bath was on hand to keep any trace of their genitals covered in suds, it isn’t the case here. Given that his mother is washing him down makes the scene so damn creepy that you actually yearn for the same strategically-place sponge that Kenneth Connor had in Carry on Girls.
While this and other elements of the movie might be in strictly execrable taste, there is certainly good work from some of the cast. Anyone who has seen the Fantastic 4 movies will know that Kerry Washington seemed to fall back on her drama school training when portraying a blind woman, but this is not the case here. The wonderfully named Stanko Molnar gives a particularly good performance as Robert, the sightless resident of the house from Hell. There is no trace of over-expression when confronted by something unexpected, and doesn’t rely on a fixed glare to indicate lack of vision. On a related note, take a look on a rare instance where he closes his eyes: his eyelids are bright white, but we can’t figure if it is either attention to detail or a mistake in not putting makeup on them.
When evaluating performances, special mention should go to the rampant qualities of Bernice Stegers, who is a fascinating combination of elements which really shouldn’t work, but do. There is a fierce sexuality about her, and she is a few pounds heavier than the average cynical studio would have selected, but she has the body of an absolute corker and all the hornier for it. She is a Milf, and one whose throbbing loins take priority over the safety of her kids. Stegers puts in convincing work, and you are left in no doubt that she is falling apart at the burden of not only knowing that her son died at the hands of her daughter, or her marriage breaking up, but topping it all off is her perverted obsession with the decapitated head of her lover. It takes a considerable amount of talent to pull this little lot off, but Stegers does it with aplomb, especially as she has the face of a particularly sad Labrador, and offers an interesting look at what Cherie Blair might have looked had she been attractive.
Above all, the central theme of Macabre is that of things being hidden in plain sight, or right under your nose, for that matter. The murder of Baker’s son was attributed to an accident, even though the truth is literally right in front of them. The necrophilic perversions of Jane Baker are heard throughout the house, but to a blind man, the truth is hidden, and merely sounds like heady sex with a smuggled-in guest. The theme is turned on its’ head when a vital clue is uncovered by our sightless occupant, but he sees far more than the audience expects…
There is an intimacy between characters in communal housing and the desperate nature of their situation which is reminiscent of Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker, and the atmosphere of mental illness bubbling under the surface is just as pertinent. The building is almost as twisted and rotten as Mrs Baker and her twisted kin, as if Rising Damps’ Mr Rigsby was taking on psychopaths as lodgers. The strength of a story can sometimes be decided by the environment it is set in, and Bava Jr picked a real winner with Macabre.
While the crew of Macabre might have only been out filming in the American south for just a week, they manage to capture the smell of old Louisiana in a way that probably eclipses Fulci’s efforts on The Beyond, making much better use of its streets and the people found on them. The sets are convincingly blended with the location work, and you’d be hard-pushed to pick holes in the work done by the differing units—if there were separate ones, you understand!
Sex has to mentioned, as much of the movie is built upon it. The carnal exploits are varied, to say the least, and Stegers really makes the blood rush to the right places when wearing an alluring nightie which would make Ed Wood drool with envy. One thing struck us when watching the most normal of sex scenes, and that is how most Italian horror movies only show rather mundane variations, flying in the face of the “liberated” image of Europeans. OK, the movie was shot partly in New Orleans, but as most was filmed in Salo, it would have been more appropriate for them to have adopted the classic Italian sexual position: man on top, woman in kitchen.
European movie fans take note that while there is no trace of the beloved J&B in this most Italian of films, you have to remember that this is set down south, not really allowing for many opportunities to slip in a plug. By way of compensation, bringing a smile to our lips was a bottle of Four Roses bourbon which makes its way onto the screen, and it really isn’t a bad drop, if we say so ourselves.
Ok, back to the movie after that little alcoholic diversion! While there are a number of gross-out moments which will have the more sensitive of viewers curling their toes and squealing like teeny-tiny little girls (yes, it’s bait!) and aside from the obvious “woman has sex with dismembered head” motif which runs throughout the movie, one of the best is when a mystery ingredient is discovered in the soup served at the aforementioned uncomfortable family dinner. This sits proudly alongside The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2’s “hard-shell peppercorns” scene when Drayton Sawyer’s quality control goes awry at the wrong moment.
The one thing which you are sure to come away with after watching the movie is the absolutely batshit ending. We are not exaggerating when we say that it is one of the most hallucinogenic, brain-bending things you are likely to see! You will get the overwhelming urge—no, need—to repeatedly smash yourself over the head with a tin tray in order to test-fire your senses to ensure they are working properly! There are some movies which have been sold on their “trick” endings in the past, but this one makes them all look like they’re running in slow motion. See it and freak out.
With so much entertainment going on with this movie, it seems almost wrong to point out a few of the flaws, but these are minor ones which enthusiasts of the genre are big enough to overlook. Primarily, there are more than a few suspect accents, with some of them bringing to mind the bridge of the theme to The Beverly Hillbillies. “Mrs Baker, sit a spell. Take your shoes off. Y’all come back now, y’hear”.
Maybe we’ve become jaded, but when Mrs Baker is getting her rocks off with her former partner, she seems to have gotten all of her carnal utterances from Uncle Spurty’s Big Book of Porno Phrases. If you bring the most trite old line to mind, we guarantee that it’s in there. It reminds us of a really bad piece of erotic fiction in a porno mag from years ago, where they had one guy unloading his manly seed into a comely wench, with the raw smegma and rampant release summed up by the words “Oh Christ…” said Bob. That was it, as flat, dull and lifeless as that. Not “exclaimed Bob”. Nor even “roared Bob“. Maybe they should have consulted Uncle Spurty on that one, too.
Whilst the above is mostly due to international dubbing, there is the occasional cock-up which occurred during filming and was left in with the hope that they would go unnoticed. The only example we will point you in the direction of is a rather hilarious one, which occurs towards the end, when a character is dropped off at their destination and gets out the car. The vehicle slowly pulls away and accelerates off… or that’s what the soundtrack was hoping you would think, anyway. The shadow of the car is clearly seen slowly exiting the frame, seemingly ignoring the sound of its own engine roaring away. This is reminiscent of Bela Lugosi's unceremonious exit in Plan Nine From Outer Space—"never to return again..."
We’re not sure if we are able to pick these things out or if it is just the novelty of seeing them in an Italian movie, but there is a box of Oreos on the shelf in Baker’s kitchen, which was presumably a tasty treat for her kids that might have been the key to solving why her son was murdered: the girl simply wanted more Oreos, and with her brother out of the way… OK, so maybe we are reading too much into things, but said box of American cookies causes a bit of a credibility glitch. When Mrs Baker returns to her home a year later, the same pack of Oreos resides on the shelf of the kitchen, indicating that the janitor took great pains to preserve her apartment just how she left it, or that the scenes were shot on the same day and the packet was missed when they went to film the later sequences.
We said at the start that we were putting spoilers in, but we’re probably right to have a clean conscience about doing so. Why is this? Anyone who has ever seen artwork relating to Macabre will have had the central “mystery” blown for them, as the head in the fridge is on every poster and video cover every printed! It’s like putting a picture of a sledge on the sleeve of Citizen Kane, for God’s sake. Anyway, the big reveal comes just over an hour in, and once you know that the head is in the fridge, logic dictates that she’s having sex with it. Necrophilia with a decapitated head doesn’t offer a lot of possibilities, so it’s safe to assume that to get herself off, Mrs Baker uses her former lover to do that thing that Elvis wouldn’t do for the ladies. Still, if Reanimator’s Dr Hill doesn’t mind older brunettes, we’ve found him the perfect date in Mrs Baker.
Speaking of the big mystery, there is a barrage of dialogue when Mrs Baker’s secret is threatened with exposure, and while they might seem like warning to stop the cat getting out of the bag, they said something entirely different to us. Macabre was made at the end of the “instructional” era of horror movies, when films came with their own warnings about what not to do in order to stay alive. You know, ‘don’t go in the house’, ‘don’t answer the phone’, ‘don’t go near the park’, etc, and these consecutive lines could have been used to re-market the movie - a common practice before video, getting poor sods to pay to see the same movie twice. Rather than watching Macabre, how would you feel about seeing “Don’t Go in the Kitchen” or “Don’t Go in the Refrigerator”? Mouth-watering titles, aren’t they...?
Macabre is possibly the best genre film to come from Lamberto Bava, as watching Demons again recently revealed it to have lost a hell of a lot of its lustre over the last (almost) twenty-five years. Bava Jr’s work here is a hardy perennial in the garden of twisted pleasure, and we get a very respectable treatment from Arrow. Speaking of which, let’s see how it looks.
The 1.85:1 anamorphic image is rather pleasing, boasting strong, stable colours and an overall look which serves the film well. Given Macabre’s origins, it was never going to look freshly-minted, but the minimal and unobtrusive examples of dirt and debris are all part of the experience. We were used to watching it on the crappy old pre-cert Go Video release, and were blown away at how it looks on DVD. Granted, the opening credits look bloody awful, but they were obviously sourced from any English print available, but the rest comes from nicely preserved archived material. We do get some hefty splices between reels, but once again, it’s all part of the charm. It will be a cold day in hell before Macabre looks better than it does here, and that’s pretty damn nice.
While you wouldn’t expect (or even want) anything like lossless 7.1 audio for a movie like Macabre, we have precious few complaints about the 2.0 mono sound. The dialogue recording will be warmly comforting to fans of the genre (with the familiar tones of Carolyn De Fonseca dubbing Steger’s performance) and levels are kept consistent throughout. Ubaldo Continiello’s saxophone-led score is reproduced with efficiency, and gives it that New Orleans touch. The only real grouse is the occasional pop and crackle, normally associated with a reel-change.
‘Macabre and the Golden Age of Italian Horror’: Coming in at eleven minutes, Lamberto Bava is on hand to give some background on the movie, and is an agreeable character, with interesting tales to tell. He details his choice in Bernice Stegers, a British actress in an Italian film playing an American who sleeps with a decapitated head—his reasoning comes across as perfectly sound! This featurette seems to lack a little focus, with some at least one participant brought in just because they could get hold of him—OK, we mean Ruggero Deodato. We met Deodato in the 90s, and he is a really cool guy, and he explained his rationale behind the animal killings in Cannibal Holocaust much better than he does here. On a side note, he was quite stunned when he met us, as we looked identically weird at the time—”You… you brothers?? Twins???”—so we won’t hear a bad word against him. Joe Dante’s statement that the zombie/cannibal sub-genre was in “the sewer” and about the death of Italian horror is a very sweeping statement, as they brought worldwide interest and subsequent revenue to the industry—Something Looney Tunes: Back in Action failed to do. Said subgenres were long gone by the time things really hit the skids in the late 80s, but it’s admirable that he acknowledges the American industry’s part in such matters. As with Fulci and his peers, Deodato reveals the reason for his longevity in the business: diversity. Keep switching genres and you don’t get pigeonholed, something which George Romero was keen to do at the outset but failed (and after seeing There’s Always Vanilla, it’s not really a surprise). Apart from a few quibbles, this is a very nice extra, and a treat for something which could have easily been a bare-bones release.
We also get the trailer, and one from the classic school of showing the audience everything in the hopes they will plunk down cash to see it. No twist is left a mystery, no surprise unshown—apart from the mind-scrambling ending, of course! It’s the kind of trailer which would have the faithful salivating at the prospect of sitting in a particularly grotty cinema. Watch the movie first, for sure.
The photo gallery is in the same style as Arrows’ other new genre releases, and showcases a number of pictures to the theme of the movie, with the ability to skip to the next one in the set. The snaps are actual stills, rather than the cheat of resorting to screen-captures as many other companies do, and the presentation is most agreeable.
We also get a brief, but specially-filmed introduction by Lamberto Bava, who eases you into the oncoming bout of necrophillic madness.
Arrow set out their new genre store with a very good release of Macabre, the peak of Lamberto Bava’s genre work. The presentation is impressive, with a strong transfer and decent sound. That a genre company in the UK is creating their own featurettes puts them in a very exclusive club, and we can only commend their commitment to giving enthusiasts what they want. Macabre is a solidly entertaining movie, with more sleaze than any one film has a right to. Show Arrow that you appreciate their efforts and you’ll be rewarded with not only more releases to come, but with one of the best nights-in with a DVD you’ll have in months. Recommended!
Review by Wilson Bros
Suitable only for persons of 18 years and over
Release Date: 29th June 2009
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono English
Extras: Featurette, Photo Gallery, Intro, Trailer
Easter Egg: No
Director: Lamberto Bava
Cast: Bernice Stegers, Stanko Molnar
Length: 89 minutes
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