Tuesday, July 16, 2013

ITALIAN HORROR WEEK - They're Creeping Up on You: Bugs & Insects In Italian Horror

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.

Sergio Martino uses maggots, the most common of all Italian horror bugs, to show the decayed nature of ancient Etruscan tombs in his quasi-giallo THE SCORPION WITH TWO TAILS from 1982. In this film a woman named Joan Barnard has visions of ancient tombs, the exact one her archaeologist husband is working in. She even foresees his death, which was done in the same manner that the ancient Etruscan’s killed their victims in. She takes a trip to Italy to investigate the weird goings-on only to fall deeper into a world of crime and supernatural horror. There are repeated scenes of maggots spilling from the faces engraved in the ancient tombs, from their eye sockets to their empty mouths it is an important part of showing the decay within the tombs, and perhaps symbolizing the moral decay in the people Joan’s husband was murdered by.

While running through an old mansion during a wonderfully shot and staged nightmare scene a girl runs into a giant spider and web in Riccardo Freda’s very fun genre mash up MURDER OBSESSION (1981). While this example is part of a larger scene and not truly important to the movie or its atmosphere overall it certainly adds to our young victim’s nightmare. Who among us hasn’t stumbled into a spider web of some sort and had a mini-freak out? I know I have all too often.

When Bugs Attack

A memorable scene in Dario Argento’s classic SUSPIRIA (1977) featured an entire student body and staff of a dance academy forced to sleep together in a gymnasium because the upstairs floors had been totally overrun with maggots. Falling from the ceiling and into hair, open mouths, and anywhere else they’d happen to land the staff blamed a case of spoiled food (who keeps cases of food in the attic?). Was it spoiled food or part of the witches game? Either way it sent the students of the academy in to an absolute frenzy of being disgusted by the nasty creatures.

Never to be outdone in terms of gross-out Lucio Fulci may have the most notable use of bugs and insects in his horror films. His own classic maggot scene was in 1980’s zombie gore fest CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD aka GATES OF HELL. In this film a priest in Massachusetts hangs himself which causes the gates of Hell to open, unleashing the walking dead and all sorts of other supernatural occurrences. Fulci had a reputation of being rough on his cast and he certainly earned it during his own maggot scene where a window bursts open and maggots come blasting in with great numbers and force. Several cast members present in the scene get pelted over and over with what had to have been hundreds of thousands of maggots. The force with which these bugs were being pumped into the room looks comparable to a fire hose. It was such torture that it drove at least one actress to tears. It is almost comical that Fulci might have been able to find something grosser than a woman throwing up her own intestines in the same film. 

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).

Who better to personify various forms of nasty creepy crawlers than one of literature’s classic villains? It is easy to see what each form of Dracula represents at that point in the film, his spider form laying in wait for his prey, the cockroach filthily sneaking around, and the swarm of flies almost representing the plague of death that is about to befall the town. The giant Mantis is one that is out there, and possibly just a batshit crazy idea, it did make for a rather bloody kill scene though. While the film leaves much to be desired as one of Argento’s weakest entries into his own filmography, it was an interesting take on Dracula and shows that decades after the glory days of Italian horror are behind us, bugs and insects still play a role in the nightmares being dreamt up by the men behind the camera. The men responsible for our own nightmares.

As the writer of Celluloid Terror, Seth offers his lifelong love of horrors to his readers with attention to detail and love for writing. You can follow Seth on Facebook HERE. Check out his blog HERE. Follow him on Twitter HERE

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