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Ten Underrated Italian Horror Soundtracks

Still from the 1988 Italian horror film Ratman

It might be considered questionable parenting these days but when I was a kid, my mom would let me watch horror movies with her. Actually, it’s probably more accurate to say she was watching them for me. If I got scared, I would turn my face and if I didn’t turn away fast enough (when some underdressed co-ed was getting stabbed to death) she’d force my fat little fingers over my eyes. I could imagine what was happening and hear the screaming over the swelling soundtrack, but by the time I could see again, the ghost was gone or the killer was getting arrested or the babysitter was shivering in a blanket, being comforted by a kindly policeman.

All the Colors of the Dark

Later, as an abnormal teen, I would stalk through the aisles of the nearby Hollywood Video in search of outrageous box covers. I must have checked out every blood-saturated slasher they had, but Italian horror films were my favorite: Intoxicating, ominous, and unrepentant. While titles like Suspiria and Demons and Gialli-thrillers like The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Four Flies on Grey Velvet immediately drew me in with their expressionistic set pieces and stylized violence, what really set them apart were their incredible soundtracks. Unlike the predictably moody music of stateside horror films, these scores offered no auditory cues to warn you about what might happen next – either the violence was ever-present in the mix or just wasn’t there at all. An evil, snake-like synth could suddenly give way to a sensual string arrangement, deliberately lulling you into a false sense of security (or worse, you might just watch a woman die an agonizingly slow death to the singing of an infinitely more painful children’s choir).

If you look up any list of the best Italian horror films, you’ll see the same names appear over and over again (see above). Their scores also top numerous “best soundtrack” lists, but considering this particular genre spanned over two decades, some lesser known film soundtracks deserve to have more than an honorable mention. It’s time we take a much closer look at these ten strange, often objectively terrible, and very underrated gems (in no particular order):

 

 

All the Colors of the Dark {Tutti i colori del buio}

(Sergio Martino, 1972)

 

 

In the first few minutes of Sergio Martino’s surrealistic, soft focus nightmare, we’re dreaming right alongside Jane (Edwige Fenech), a woman desperately struggling to hold on to her sanity after the murder of her mother and the loss of her unborn child. Freudian images abound: a pregnant woman in stirrups languidly rubs her bloody belly, a woman resembling Fenech is stabbed on a white bed by a mysterious blue-eyed man, and a doll-like old woman floats oddly over the proceedings – a figure of enduring trauma. When her visions still plague her during the day, Jane seeks out all manner of cures until someone suggests that a black mass might be just the thing she needs to finally be at peace. Although it’s often compared to Rosemary’s Baby and features some of the same elements (a fragile woman involved with a satanic cult, symbolic dream sequences, a prominent child-like chorus as its intro) it’s Bruno Nicolai’s score that really elevates the material and saves it from being derivative. Alessandro Alessandroni’s piercing psychedelic sitar and Edda’Dell Orso’s squalling vocals on tracks like “Sabba” perfectly capture the strange and terrifying experience of engaging in a black mass. A longtime collaborator of legendary Italian composer Ennio Morricone, Nicolai similarly lets fear and violence inform his music to create drama in scenes devoid of any action at all (save for Fenech’s beautiful face).

 

Death Smiles on a Murderer {La morte ha sorriso all’assassino}

(Joe D’Amato, 1973)

 

 

It’s a gorgeously shot film inspired by Edgar Allen Poe that prominently features incestuous sex, necrophilia, ghosts, zombies and a variety of bizarre/gory revenge murders, so it’s safe to say that Berto Pisano’s score is about the only thing anchoring Joe D’Amato’s bonkers gothic giallo pastiche. The film stars Eva Aulin as a young woman named Greta who lead a fairly tragic, short life: she’s sexually assaulted by her brother in the opening scenes, suffers memory loss after a carriage ride and is taken in to a mansion by a wealthy couple whose doctor (played by Klaus Kinski) takes advantage of her before she is eventually walled up and left to die after the mistress of the house grows jealous of her. Don’t worry though, she comes back to life to enact her revenge thanks to an ancient Incan formula! Yeah, it’s all terribly confusing but Pisano’s elegant love theme for Greta is a welcome reprieve and stands out amidst the madness, featuring Edda’Dell Orso’s beautifully ethereal voice over lush instrumentals (a perfect choice for any horror film about a beautiful, put-upon woman).

 

The Antichrist {L’anticristo}

(Alberto De Martino, 1974)

 

 

Also known as The Tempter, this film plays out like a more adult version of The Exorcist (it was even released a year later to cash in on its success). While it still exploits the elements that made The Exorcist so popular like head-spinning and levitation effects as well as some shocking obscenities, it ups the ante by adding in a whole heap of blasphemous and gratuitous nudity! A woman named Ippolita undergoes hypnosis in an attempt to cure her paralysis, which gives her back the use of her legs but leaves her possessed and on the prowl for victims. It’s all a bit tasteless and excessive (and features an insane satanic orgy scene) but Joe D’Amato’s cinematography and a masterful organ fueled score provided by none other than famed composer Ennio Morricone (known for his work on basically any good Italian giallo or spaghetti western ever) and Bruno Nicolai make it well worth watching (or at least listening to).

 

Ratman {Quella villa in fondo al parc}

(Giuliano Carnimeo, 1988)

 

 

A friend of mine warned me against including this film on the list and insisted it didn’t belong here, but I want you to totally ignore the plot for a second (it is indeed about a rat man played by Nelson de la Rosa that runs around an island killing folks) to just focus on the soundtrack, scored by Stefano Mainetti, a composer who also worked on some other terrible films (Zombi 3 and Interzone) and was still somehow brave enough to attach his name to this thing. A heavy, hairspray coated synth pop nightmare that sometimes sounds like a cat (or maybe a rat?) repeatedly jumped onto the keyboard by accident, the soundtrack totally suits this strange film whose REAL tagline apparently was “He’s The Critter From The Shitter!” …I’m not touching that.

 

Ghosthouse {La casa 3}

(Umberto Lenzi, 1988)

 

 

While the atrocious acting, piecemeal plot and truly confusing title of Umberto Lenzi’s Ghosthouse (which claims to be both an unofficial sequel to Evil Dead 2 and a prequel to House 2) would usually deserve a spot somewhere at the bottom of a dusty DVD bargain bin, Piero Montanari’s spectacular score earns the film its cult status by taking the wheel and driving away with the whole damn movie (also, for a movie about a haunted house…too much of this film takes place on the open road). A couple hears a murder over their CB radio and attempts to track down the source, leading them straight to a gigantic old farmhouse haunted by a pale little ghost girl and her very aggressive clown doll. Yeah, the plot is the stuff of typical B-movie fare, but Montanari’s unusual theme “Nenia Suspense” (which follows most of the appearances from the apparition) sounds absolutely creepy and atmospheric paired with the imagery – featuring a strange voice playing backwards on a loop while the mute ghost wreaks havoc on anyone in her path.

 

Baron Blood {Gli orrori del castello di Norimberga}

(Mario Bava, 1972)

 

 

A Bava film with Hammer style, this gothic horror takes oblivious American grad student Peter Kleist on a trip to his family’s castle in Austria, and his questions about their history quickly turn up some less than desirable answers. While the Kleist clan had once been powerful, Peter’s notorious and sadistic “witch-hunter” of a great-grandfather (played by the incredible Joseph Cotten) actually murdered hundreds of people and earned himself the nickname Baron Blood before he was cursed by a real witch – whose dying wish was that he be reanimated and murdered again and again. Stelvio Cipriani’s jazzy score is bossa nova at its best, and while the sing-song vocals of its main theme are kind of silly (and might explain why the soundtrack was ultimately replaced by Les Baxter’s muted score until the film’s 1999 DVD reissue) the evil track “Magia Nera” is amazing – manipulating soft, hazy bass and bongo beats to sound just like someone eternally rising up from the grave (after dying from an acid trip).

 

A White Dress for Marialé {Un bianco vestito per Marialé}

(Romano Scavolini, 1972)

 

 

Speaking of an acid trip, Fiorenzo Carpi’s fuzzy, freaked out music on A White Dress for Marialé is perfectly fitting for a story about a woman who witnessed her mother’s murder at the hands of her father and blocks out her traumatic past as best she can with drugs and distraction – donning her mother’s white dress for a dinner that turns out to be the last supper for many of its guests. This exquisitely weird murder mystery directed by Romano Scavolini is striking, colorful and has a high body count – what more could you ask for from an Italian film? The soundtrack (arranged and composed by Bruno Nicolai – yeah, he’s everywhere!) enchants with slow tracks like “Marialé” and perfect horror hymn “Leggenda” while more beat driven songs like “La Vittima” (dig those paranoid bass riffs) and “Pelle Di Luna” get you right into a party mood (and just try to get its melody out of your head).

 

The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue AKA Let Sleeping Corpses Lie{No profanar el sueño de los muertos}

(Jorge Grau, 1974)

 

 

Also known as Let Sleeping Corpses Lie and Don’t Open the Window, this film sounds like an instruction manual on what to do when you encounter zombies (not that anyone follows this advice). I’m jaded enough to feel that if you’ve seen one zombie movie, you’ve kind of seen them all – and certainly this film has enough obvious nods to Night of the Living Dead that it will feel very familiar to George Romero fans. Fortunately, the gorgeous English countryside setting of Jorge Grau’s Spanish-Italian film (no, it’s not even set in Manchester) and Giuliano Sorgini’s supremely cool soundtrack move this straight to the top of the heap! Grau’s own moans provide some of the creepiest offerings on this score (seriously, don’t listen to this at night if you’re easily spooked) and while some of Sorgini’s classic pipe organ and string arrangements are some of the most standard horror compositions on this list, his ultra-hip period pop theme will sound just as great on your stereo long after the credits roll.

 

Shock {Schock}

(Mario Bava, Lamberto Bava, 1977)

 

 

Distressed and recently released from a mental institution, a young mother (Daria Nicolodi) finds that her son has been possessed by the ghost of her deceased and formerly abusive husband. While it doesn’t exactly sound like a family friendly film, it was directed by father and son team Mario and Lamberto Bava who managed to create something incredibly compelling together in spite of their disparate storytelling styles; Mario Bava (better known as the founding father or Italian gothic horror) was nearing the end of his life while Lamberto (later known for his work on Demons) was at the beginning of his career and frequently drawn to more sleeker, more modern settings. Shock’s avant-garde and atmospheric soundtrack provided by Libra (AKA Walter Martino and Carlo Pennisi, accomplished former members of famed Italian band Goblin) manages to express both styles at once; the demented circus music of “La cantina/The shock: (Reprisa)” and maddening drums on “Transfert I/Hypnos/Transfert II” showcase an experimental flare, while “L’altalena rossa” and “Il Fant Suona Il Piano” utilize more classic and comparatively straightforward instrumentation to round out the score.

 

The Perfume of the Lady in Black {Il profumo della signora in nero}

(Francesco Barilli, 1974)

 

 

This stunning and surrealistic horror-giallo is as pleasing to listen to as it is to watch. Nicola Piovani’s seemingly delicate chamber music sets the tone for the Lady in Black, starring Mimsy Farmer as Sylvia, an overworked and troubled young woman plagued by hallucinations in her small, claustrophobic apartment (honestly, I can relate). It’s a film that keeps you guessing as to whether it’s a supernatural thriller or a woman’s descent into madness, and while it’s constantly compared to Rosemary’s Baby and Repulsion, the art direction alone should set this apart. Barilli purposely maintains a tenuous grasp of what’s reality or reflection by adding in suffocating shots of exteriors covered in vines or interiors covered in dizzying floral wallpaper – further complicated by the placement of mirrors that alienate the heroine from herself (she’s constantly presented with body doubles, as if she isn’t dealing with enough shit when a younger version of herself starts to harass her). Piovani’s soundtrack can be suitably cloying at times, with slow and wilting songs like “Mimsy” (a nod to the film’s obsession with Lewis Carroll) that just sound like a woman in the process of wasting away.

 

Still from The Perfume of the Lady in Black

 

 

 

 

 

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