Seth Poulin of Celluloid Terror is here to exterminate your fears with a piece about the little guys in Italian Horror. THE BUGS.
Human Fear: An Introduction
Insects and bugs of all forms have been on Earth much longer than the human being. Many of those species are largely unchanged after millions of years of evolution. They’ve adapted to their climate and taken advantage of the advances in human dwellings which continue to provide a perfect dwelling for almost any creepy crawler. While not everybody is bothered by the sight of a spider in the corner, or a fly buzzing around, it goes without saying that most of us find these insects to be at the very least, a pest. Others will seize up, terrified in fear at the mere sight of them.
Dating back to 3200 B.C. there have been Egyptian Pharaohs using the word “scorpion” in their name, undoubtedly to instill fear in their pupils as scorpions are a major threat in the region even to this day. All the while, Egyptians worshiped the Scarab, a beetle they held as their Sun God, representing the death and rebirth of a new day as the beetle buried itself at night. It is an interesting dynamic to think that they worshiped the Scarab but may have also feared it, for if it did not rise from the sands the next morning perhaps the sun would not rise in the sky. Why else do humans praise religious deities if not for fear of the consequences if they don’t? Would the Scarab decide not to rise if the Egyptians didn’t praise it? And would the sun stay black ? It is obvious today that yes, the Scarab would excavate itself and yes, the sun would rise but it is a very early example of how powerful the fear of insects has been to intelligent and advanced human beings.
Jump forward several thousand years and humans worldwide haven’t really advanced in their view of bugs and insects as a whole. Ask everyone you know and I’m sure the majority will say they dislike bugs, perhaps with an exception or two. While science has found some fantastic uses for these things, and their venom when applicable, such as Bee Venom Therapy for patients of Arthritis, Bursitis and many other painful ailments, we’d rather not deal with the pests. They’re dirty, gross and potentially deadly in cases. And perhaps most of all, they invade our territory, our personal sanctuary. And there is no excuse for that. This point is obvious based upon the hundreds if not thousands of horror films center around mutant killer bugs or that use a more realistic version of the creatures to add the shocks and scares that drive the horror genre. We hate insects and sometimes we fear them. It is that fear that drives us to use them as entertainment, like so many other things in the annals of human history.
Italian horror filmmakers have become notorious for their use of insects to the point that it is almost expected to see a scene involving bugs and insects.
A Backdrop, A Set Piece
Perhaps the simplest way that all things creepy crawly are used in Italian horror films is as a part of the set, or a backdrop. Simply something added to the surroundings to add to our discomfort. The bugs may pose no real threat to the characters but they get our skin crawling and make us feel itchy.
When Bugs Attack
Just a year later Fulci would return with THE BEYOND which features a drawn out scene of a man being attacked by a variety of tarantulas. The spiders not only sink their venomous fangs into the victim but rip apart the flesh of his face and leave him a bloody mess by the time they’re done with him. The length of this scene adds to the tension with the slow moving arachnids and all you can do is hope someone is around with a giant can of Raid.
Maggots are disgusting, and spiders instill fear. That is nothing unheard of and are fairly common thoughts among humans. But how about snails? Yes, the incredibly slow moving, shelled garden slug. Aside from their slimy texture I don’t know of too many people that are scared of them or repulsed by them. That didn’t stop Fulci from including them in his film Aenigma (1987). In the scene a nude sleeping girl is over come by hundreds of snails crawling around on her skin. I’m not exactly sure what causes the death as I don’t think snails are dangerous but who knows, maybe she was slimed to death. This particular scene is rather laughable and the film itself is far from top shelf Fulci but it is another great example of the wide, and sometimes ridiculous use of bugs in Italian horror.
They’re Not All Bad…
Rarely do we think of bugs or insects as something we want to be friends with but that is certainly the case in Dario Argento’s PHENOMENA (1985). A young Jennifer Connelly stars as a new girl at a Swiss boarding school and she witnesses a murder (one of many). She finds refuge with Donald Pleasance’s character (and his Chimpanzee assistant) and he quickly discovers that Jennifer has a special telepathic bond with insects. The bond with the insects helps lead Jennifer to the identity of the killer.
It provides a great dynamic to see the insects and a young girl befriending each other and solving a violent murder case to the usual gross out scenes.
The Characterization Of Bugs
While it can be argued that in PHENOMENA Argento used the flies and fireflies as an actual character in their own right. A body guard to Jennifer and perhaps even a detective, it is a fact that Argento used bugs as a character in his take on the classic vampire mythos with DRACULA 3D (2012). Classically vampires can shape shift to bats but Argento took that idea to another level letting his version of Count Dracula turn into a swarm of flies, a cockroach, a spider and even a giant, man-sized praying mantis (among other animals).