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In Conversation

Giallo Can You Go? Talking Italian Horror With Spector
James Gracey , February 17th, 2012 05:34

You might not guess it from his besuited and bespectacled exterior, but Spector singer Fred Macpherson is a devotee of Italian horror cinema. The BBC Sound Of 2012 nominee reveals more in conversation with Dario Argento biographer James Gracey. Photo by Joe Tovey Frost

A woman has her eye gouged out, slowly, surely, on a large splinter of wood. A group of people are caught in a rain of maggots. A girl flees from an unseen assailant only to fall into a room filled with coiled wire, while another is ripped open by demonic figures and strangled with her own intestines after opening a mysterious witch's earn. The mother of a deformed and murderous child is hacked to death by a chimpanzee with a straight razor. An evil… What? Oh, come on! Have you never watched the films of Italian horror masters Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci?

Vivid, nightmarish and baroque, the work of Argento and Fulci has left an indelible and blood-spattered mark on horror cinema. Between them, they have conjured up some of the most startling, unsettling and exquisite images of violent death to ever slosh across the silver screen. Consistently pushing the boundaries of on-screen violence, the pair are renowned for their outrageous and elaborately constructed set pieces, striking imagery and lurid atmospheres. Lashings of bizarrely fetishistic images abound in Argento's movies, such as the recurring one of the killer's hands, clad in black leather gloves, fondling sharp implements of death. His killers prefer the intimacy of up-close knife attacks. Fulci meanwhile, specialises in sickening, downbeat and illogical narratives in which his pitiful characters are powerless to fight for their lives against vicious sadists. That their pictures are also laced with unflinching imagery of eye-violation is no coincidence: it serves as the perfect metaphor for their brand of retina-searing shock.

The golden age of Italian horror has a far-reaching legacy that impacts on modern cinema and younger viewers, one such enthusiast being London musician Fred Macpherson. We called up the nattily attired frontman of rising indie-pop crew Spector to talk about his macabre obsession...

What formed your introduction to Italian horror?

Fred Macpherson: My journey came about almost by accident. I tuned into a late night screening of Lucio Fulci's The House By The Cemetery a few years back, and found myself gripped by it. The scene where someone has a knife plunged through the back of their head and out of their mouth accompanied by this horrible synth music, just made me think 'What the hell is this?'. After some research, I realised it's generally held that Dario Argento's Suspiria is as good as Italian horror gets, so I took it from there."

One of the things I love most about Italian horror is its unique sense of style and artistry. All these scenes of brutal violence and nightmarish logic are exquisitely choreographed. It's almost balletic.

FM: Yeah, and quite often the actual storylines seem less important than other stuff, like the way everything is filmed. Especially something like Argento's Tenebrae, the lighting in that is fantastic - it's so bright and over-lit. And in Suspiria, the way the music works with the colours gives it this gestalt quality, where everything merges.

It's all about images and atmosphere, something Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci are renowned for. What draws you to them in particular?

FM: After seeing the sensory overload that is Zombie Flesh Eaters I wanted to see more of Fulci's work. It seems Dario Argento is very much the 'chin-strokers' choice of Italian horror. It's okay to like him and he can be understood as an artist. It seemed a bit unfair to me, when reading about Fulci's career after I saw his Gates Of Hell trilogy, that he was always in the shadow of Dario Argento. He was the Christopher Marlowe of Italo-horror. Maybe Fulci's stuff comes across slightly more silly than arty, but I think it's how you interpret it.

It took me a while to appreciate Fulci's work; I've always preferred Argento. Some of the images I've seen in Fulci's films, however, have ingrained themselves into my subconscious. I can't un-see some of that stuff. That is the mark of a great horror film maker: someone who truly understands the nature of horror and has the power to get under your skin. His work has the stench of the grave about it.

FM: What comes through in his work for me is not this sense of individual scary moments, but an overall sense of disgust that penetrates everything. Like in City Of The Living Dead, with these people running around trying to stop something, and essentially fighting a losing battle, it's all so unglamorous. It's not like there's a definite hero trying to save the day. I first saw The Beyond on VHS and it added to the feeling of finding buried treasure. Even though some of his work seems a little cheap and shoddy, you can still see what he was aiming for. The goriness of his films never struck me as being gory for the sake of being gory. It was just like another colour on the palette.  

It's interesting that you use the analogy of an artist's palette. Fulci once said, "Violence is Italian art."

FM: Yes, and he died with nothing. It's hard to see his stuff as artistry when he dealt with violence and gore, sordid themes and all the accusations of misogyny - a bane of both directors. That era of horror, that kind of lower budget horror, is seen as the lowest form of creativity.

Exactly, and as far as misogyny goes, I would argue that Fulci's films are just plain misanthropic. He has this really bleak, nihilistic outlook. No one in his films is safe, regardless of their gender.

FM: There's also a kind of meta-element as well in his films, especially towards the end of his career, like in Cat In The Brain – not one his best, but still interesting. He cast himself as this horror director who is pushed to the brink when reality and the violent films he's making begin to overlap.

Argento also addressed the accusations of misogyny hurled at him with his highly reflexive Tenebrae.

FM: So they were answering their critics with those films? And didn't Argento say something about how he'd rather kill a beautiful woman than a man? Something that maybe didn't prove his misogyny but wasn't the best argument against it either.  

He did! Much of his approach to filming the deaths of his female characters is rooted in the influence of Edgar Allan Poe, who wrote about such matters in The Philosophy Of Composition. Poe remarked that the most poetic topic in the world was the death of a beautiful woman. Argento's work exudes a morbid poetry that intertwines with these Poe-inspired notions.

FM: That's an interesting way to look at it. It's not just all about some hot Hollywood actress getting killed. In a way those '70s and '80s films had a misogynistic element, but it was somehow less patronising. Argento and Fulci acknowledge masters of horror from before. It's through Fulci that I got into HP Lovecraft and Arthur Machen. It's amazing to traverse these more left-field routes of horror that this generation has missed out on.

Fulci is one of the few horror filmmakers to effectively convey Lovecraft's bleak visions of madness, decay and misanthropy.

FM: Younger generations have been spoiled by having too much of what the idea of horror has become; films that don't have the finesse of directors like Argento and Fulci. Their work is still so outrageous. It takes you on a journey that's almost obtuse, especially when it's backed up by inspiration from the likes of Poe and Lovecraft.

When I interviewed Argento, what struck me was the philosophical way in which he approaches his work. He isn't being exploitative for the sake of it. He's reaching into the darkest parts of his subconscious and exploring these twisted theories and concepts. 

FM: With Argento and Fulci the most scary aspects of their work don't make you jump out of your seat - it's the quieter moments, like that scene in Suspiria with the girl just sitting in front of a mirror, brushing her hair and slowly realising that there's maggots falling from the ceiling. That's more effective than just showing some big monster running down the street.

How would you compare these Italian films to more contemporary horror?

FM: There's something really sordid about these old films. They're so freaky and unsettling and unpredictable. These psychedelic set pieces completely contrast with what you get in modern horror. It's amazing looking back at this underground market for films that are just so distorted and odd; films that don't really play by anyone's rules. Argento really turned that into a craft, and while Fulci may not have honed it as finely, he still left such a mark. An absurdity runs through the work of both filmmakers, and its surreal nature is something that is missing from modern horror. Who would think of something as preposterous as a zombie fighting a shark? While he may have arguably been one step behind Argento, in terms of ideas - odd, interesting and horrific ideas - Fulci was really one of a kind.

There was always rivalry between them. Argento believed Fulci was ripping off his work. Eventually they reconciled their differences and planned to make The Wax Mask together. Fulci envisioned it as a darkly romantic epic, but sadly he died before they made it. Argento eventually produced it and dedicated it to Fulci.

FM: That's interesting. There are parallels of that in history where you have, maybe not enemies, but rivals, and they still respect each other. I remember meeting Eli Roth a while back and he was definitely of the opinion that Fulci's work should be reappraised.

The influence of Argento and Fulci is still immense throughout horror today. It's instantly obvious when something has been inspired by Italian horror.

FM: It really is a genre in itself. Argento and Fulci were at the forefront of a generation who could make the rules. It's good to see that there are people who really care about these older films and are being inspired by them and, in a way, are promoting them to younger audiences. The House Of The Devil is almost like a pastiche of Italian horror films. That felt like a really old film, with the makers using old rules and parameters to create something fresh. It's a bit like when a modern garage-rock band decides to record on eight-track or something. Cabin Fever is another recent example of playing around with genre conventions. It was fun and funny.

Do you think because the work of Argento and Fulci has been so influential, and ripped off, it may seem very clichéd to younger audiences who aren't familiar with them and the impact they had on the genre?

FM: If younger audiences were to watch something like Argento's The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, they'd probably think it was the most clichéd thing in the world because of all the subsequent copycats. I can't imagine what it must have been like to watch these films without having the experience marred by the next 20 years worth of less exciting, turgid films.

One of my favourite things about Italian horror is the music. Often it seems so at odds with the violent imagery. It lends proceedings quite a poetic quality.

FM: Some of these films are worth watching just for their soundtracks. The juxtaposition of the music is astounding, like that scene in Zombie Flesh Eaters where the girl is having her eye thrust onto a big splinter and Fabio Frizzi's score is this bizarre mix of Tropicália and desert island funk. It's more disturbing than a traditional score and gives the film such a different feel. I also love Frizzi's work on The Beyond and City Of the Living Dead, and Walter Rizzati's score for The House By The Cemetery. We're actually trying to clear a sample from Frizzi's score for Zombie Flesh Eaters to use in a B-side.

So does this music ever influence your own work?

FM: I'm in an indie band, so it can be quite hard to bring ideas like this in to it, but I'm working on a project that I want to pay tribute to the music of these films. I'm aiming for something between the feel of these soundtracks, and the feeling that you get in motorway service stations throughout the British Isles. Hopefully it'll be a bit left-field and interesting with a real visual feel. It's called Milton Keynes. Whether anyone will care I don't know, but it'll be something fun to do.

What are your favourite titles by Fulci and Argento? What would you recommend to the readers of the Quietus who feel the urge to explore some Italian horror?

FM: Out of Fulci's work I'd have to say Zombie Flesh Eaters, which was called Zombi 2 in some places. I absolutely love that he had the audacity to make his own sequel to Dawn Of The Dead! I found it a lot more shocking than other modern zombie films. From beginning to end, it's a really odd trip. The Gates Of Hell trilogy too, especially The House By The Cemetery. Aside from Argento's Suspiria, I'd recommend the follow-up Inferno, with that scene where the guy drowns a bag of cats and is then murdered by a hotdog salesman!

My favourite scene in Inferno features one of the characters discovering an underwater ballroom in the basement of her building. It's so eerily tranquil and defies logic. Its beauty is almost marred by the discovery of those bodies!

FM: Coming to these films from a fresh perspective is interesting. Once you get a context, they make more sense because they've been so ripped off throughout the years. I watched some of the more outré ones before getting into the typical giallo stuff, like Tenebrae and The Bird With The Crystal Plumage.

I envy the fact that you are getting to see all these films for the first time!

FM: There's a lot to get through! The great thing about discovering these old movies is the abundance. Getting friends together to watch Fulci or Argento is always going to be a fun night.

Dario Argento by James Gracey is published by Kamera Books. Spector are currently on tour around the UK, dates here.