Director Ivan Zuccon’s H.P. Lovecraft Italian Style

*contains spoilers

The H.P. Lovecraft adaptations, if you want to call them that, of Italian director Ivan Zuccon (1972-) are interesting horror. There is a trio of films which I have seen and they comprise of The Shunned House (2003 shot on video), Colour from the Dark (2008) and Herbert West: Re-Animator (2017). The best is possibly the last one.

Director Ivan Zuccon

Zuccon is also responsible for scripting, at least partially, two of the films except for Colour from the Dark, which makes sense as that film is the more linear in terms of narrative.

Herbert West: Re-Animator has little to do with the original story by Lovecraft nor Stuart Gordon’s (1947-2020 multiple organ failure) movie made in 1985.

There is the homage of the Herbert West Jr. character in the movie who resembles Jeffrey Combs (1954-) from Gordon’s movie in that he is wearing glasses but that’s about it. Oh, and the dead are revived with green liquid filled syringes!

Ad for Herbert West: Re-Animator

Zuccon’s movie chooses not to be a straight narrative but instead goes off in all directions and parallel universes. Perhaps it really is a straight narrative after all – but overall it is a surreal experience. Upon a first viewing this is a distraction… but, if you choose to watch it again, with a “what the hell was that?” attitude, you may even find it a slightly beautiful horror. By the way, unlike Zuccon’s first two films in the trio, this one is subtitled, so beware if you don’t like reading them.

The Herbert West of the title is played by Emanuele Cerman (1976-) who also appeared in other Zuccon movies including The Shunned House.

Jeffrey Combs in Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator (1985)

We learn that West has lost his daughter in a car accident after she is hit by a car. He loves her too much and cannot let her go and so uses his experiments with the famed re-animator re-agent to bring her back from the dead. Only what comes back from the dead is evil… And later we believe that West covers up the crimes of his grown daughter as she matures into a fine violinist.

Daughter Eleanor turns out to have an even more evil side

And later there is the moment when daughter Eleanor immerses herself in her bath only for Herbert West Jr. to arise from the murky pus-filled bathtub. This pus has arrived like loose faecal matter from between the legs of Eleanor and later Herbert West Jr. will vomit up the same sort of liquid.

Things have been strange in this movie all along as the corpses that lay on the slabs in the lab come to life when West Sr. leaves the room and they plot their escape, only to return to the slabs and their cadaverous form when the doctor returns.

The door to a alternate universe is a simple bathtub in Herbert West: Re-Animator

Meanwhile the bathtub where West Jr. arrived is a doorway to another world, perhaps the afterlife and there is another parallel universe called “the dark” which is somewhere in between. It is there at one stage of the movie where West searches the darkness for his daughter and where he encounters other lost souls.

Upon watching the film a second time, this time with a friend, I gave up trying to follow any ‘plot’ and just took it in as a piece of horror art. But watching it a third time and it seems to make more sense… it needs further investigation, like an alternate universe.

Zuccon directs the tortured soul played by Marrelli

Caught in between life and death is the tortured soul of a character played by actress Roberta Marrelli (no info), another Zuccon regular, who had the misfortune of running over Eleanor with her car. Talk about the suffering this character goes through… but suffering seems to be the key to this movie as almost every soul in it seems to be searching for or trying to escape something that will lead to some sort of finality in the infinite realms shown in this movie.

There appears to be none as to escape one realm means to enter another… and there is no end to the pain or even thirst… Don’t expect the end of Zuccon’s Herbert West: Re-Animator to make much sense either as it leaves us, like the characters, in limbo.

Made with a minimum of cast members and sets, with isolated location work in forests as well as desolate locations… oh, and “the dark” which is just that, a dark place of nothing where people shed black cocoons to emerge… and what could be cheaper than a bathtub as the doorway to another world.

Herbert West: Re-Animator (2018) trailer

Lovecraft’s original story was about raising the dead and finding that they have no real intelligence and they just perform evil acts. Zuccon’s film goes further afield into the hellish abysses and deserted deserts of the beyond. There is no rest for the dead.

Colour from the Dark is another adaption of the Lovecraft story The Color Out of Space and it is a nightmare… or the awakening from one into a new one. Like you’re going to have a bad day no matter what.

Poster for Colour from the Dark (2008)

This one is set in the Italian countryside during World War Two and there is no meteorite this time which in Lovecraft’s story falls from the sky onto an isolated farm. Instead, the well in this movie is poisoned by a fissure erupting from deep underground. Or so we suspect. Perhaps what is in the water arrived on a meteorite in ages gone by.

Colour from the Dark has the growing madness of the people who drink from the farm well and who also eat the large and bitter fruit and vegetables which come from the garden irrigated by the well.

What is in the well in Colour from the Dark (2008)?

The family in Zuccon’s movie are good Catholics in comparison to the Nicolas Cage version of the movie released in 2020 who were not religious at all. Zuccon’s husband and wife may not frequent church as they are so isolated on their farm but they have a crucifix on the wall. And as the couple and the wife’s autistic younger sister fall under the influence of this poisoned water there is a sense of enflamed religious mania of a type which could only happen in the rural 1940s Italian setting. This is what sets the film apart.

H.P. Lovecraft’s Color Out of Space (2020) trailer

Is it a poison or a force? In Lovecraft’s story and the Cage film it was more an alien force and this force did not seem to harbor an intelligence. In this film, there are moments of a glowing force but its effects are more that of poisoning and ensuing madness. There also seems to be no difference in this film between madness and possession… they seem to be one and the same. Even the local priest believes what is happening to the wife, whose eyes turn into black marbles and who spits on the crucifix and is locked up in the attic to protect herself and others, thinks it is possession.

So, the film is another take on the Lovecraft tale, more faithful than Herbert West: Re-Animator which was merely based on Lovecraft or merely stole the title. This one shows originality within the confines of it low budget.

The farmer and his wife face madness and possession by some strange force

This hallucinogenic force and this movie take place in the matter of about a week as its effects come and go, like there is some sort of demon trying to trick those who witness its effects by letting the ‘possessed’ souls free momentarily.

The autistic sister of the possessed wife is mute and she carries a doll around with her almost everywhere she goes. The doll has red hair at the beginning but as the film progresses the colour seems to fade from the spectrum of light and the film appears to get darker as the doll’s hair no longer has colour… on this level it really is Colour from the Dark.

The veggie garden from another take on the same story The Curse (1987)

“Thank God,” says the farmer’s wife in the beginning about the giant vegetables, while the farmer’s lame leg heals and the mute girl talks. What begins as apparent miracles will soon be curses from beyond, or below… from the depths of what maybe hell. Was this force banished into the bowels of the earth and forgotten? Or did it simply hide there, lying dormant? Whatever it is, man has no dominion over this force of nature and the viewer must contend with what is nightmare and what is real as this poisonous force reckons with us the viewer as well as the characters in the movie.

A crucifix is used more nastily in a possession scene for The Exorcist (1973)

This is central to Zuccon’s work as a filmmaker in these Lovecraft movies. Are we all prey to forces from beyond which perhaps enforce our beliefs in religion or spirituality as a result? And when our own beliefs and hallucinations and neuroses meet the world of horror filmmakers, in this case Zuccon’s Lovecraft-ian horror stories, there is some sort of force of the mind at work… no matter how basic and, dare I say, cheap his productions are. There is genius to be found in Zuccon’s horror tales. But don’t expect to immediately know what is real and what is not.

“Let’s do it right here,” says the farmer’s wife to her husband as she sits atop of him and the kitchen table while she is wearing no panties. There is a feeling that inhibition is a disease which causes physical maladies that just a small dose of poison will cure. It’s just there is no tap on this well and there is no ‘off’ once you have too much.

The Catholic faith is used to scare us in The Nun (2018) trailer

“Our God doesn’t love us, does he?,” says the once mute girl.

Compare this to his previous Lovecraft film The Shunned House and Zuccon has made the leap to a professional filmmaker, something he would build upon with Herbert West: Re-Animator. Let’s hope he will continue to challenge us in the future.

Colour from the Dark is a better script than his earlier The Shunned House although not as flashy as that video shot movie in terms of the lighting and camerawork which are quite innovative.

Colour from the Dark (2008) trailer

If you are a fan of the original story, then Colour from the Dark may have you suitably beguiled. Others will think it as nothing more than a waste of time. You’ll know in the opening minutes of a Zuccon film whether you’ll enjoy them or not.

It has an international cast, including Debbie Rochon (1968-) whose reputation as a scream queen goes back to an early appearance in Slime City (1988) and progressed with the Charles Band (1951-) produced Bleed (2002). She won some sort of an award as scream queen of the decade for her work in the 1990s.

Scream Queen Debbie Rochon

There was talk among the filmmakers of Colour from the Dark that there was a ghost attached to the film who they nicknamed Trevor. There were various technical malfunctions and ghostly images on some of the still frames attributed to this spirit.

Who is alive? Who is dead? As a microcosm of the confusing horrors of World War Two, Colour from the Dark, is on those terms, a foreign and nasty Nazi force to be reckoned with and one which threatens to envelope the very place where your family lives.

Going back further and as for Zuccon’s The Shunned House (2003), it is the least of his Lovecraft films – but that is not to dismiss it. If only he had a bigger budget! The version I watched was such a poor transfer of what was originally shot on video, that it was a challenge to enjoy. Zuccon had to start somewhere and his technique is erratic but often superb.

The Shunned House (2003) DVD cover

The Shunned House was shot on location in an Italian villa. Emanuele Cerman plays a mathematician from the past who ends up getting his arm slashed by a spectre, while in another modern-day period entirely, a journalist and his girlfriend research The Shunned House. There is also an even earlier character in the film in the 1920s who is a writer obsessed by a violin playing mute in the inn which is The Shunned House. These three threads of the story are edited together and like Colour from the Dark, there are times when we don’t know what is dream and what is reality… and the slashing of the mathematician’s arm maybe a murder that opens a doorway in time. Not that it makes a whole lot of sense at times which is why this film is the beginning of Zuccon’s own Lovecraft mythos, crowned by the debatable near masterpiece of Herbert West: Re-Animator.

A young photo of Emanuele Cerman who is in several of Zuccon’s films

There are some bloody scenes in the dreamlike structure of this movie which uses a violinist and a mute, something Zuccon would use again as central characters. There’s good use of music and sound effects have been employed to give the limited video shot visuals some atmosphere. Zuccon doesn’t fix his camera, as it is constantly moving with many scenes using dolly shots.

One of the victims forever caught in The Shunned House

The three Lovecraft stories which are spliced here are The Shunned House, The Music of Erich Zann and Dreams in the Witch House, but they are only a launching pad as Zuccon would continue to do with the other stories. The director as editor has triumphed over the budget, but don’t go into this film expecting The Shining (1980) with its tale of a building which holds hellish powers. Again, if only it were shot on 35mm and with a bigger budget and we might have had an instant classic in the manner of Lucio Fulci (1927-96 complications of diabetes) and Dario Argento’s (1940-) work. In terms of compromise, The Shunned House can be watched uneasily as a result. You need to be a very loyal Lovecraft fan to enjoy Zuccon’s take on the mythos.

The Shunned House (2003) trailer

“…Zero… infinity,” discovers the mathematician. “It’s that simple.”

He has been looking for the key to the design of the inn and I guess his discovery is that the horrors and murder go on forever in a sort of figure eight design. There is also the hint that the house may contain a hallucinogenic mould which may be the root of it all. But who knows, as this is a Zuccon movie after all… And it all could have been triggered by a lost soccer ball 25 years earlier!!

Author H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937 intestinal cancer)

That is the trilogy for you. But Zuccon didn’t start his Lovecraft obsession with The Shunned House. It goes back further with his video shot movies The Darkness Beyond (2000) and Unknown Beyond (2001). The first runs only 70 minutes and concerns the Necronomicon and also stars Emanuele Cerman, while the second also concerns that darned book once more but is of feature length.

They are both not based on Lovecraft stories but concern themselves with the mythos. I haven’t seen either but as a completist they sound of interest.

Is it a masterpiece or just a question of taste?

Zuccon’s Lovecraft trio have progressed from the exceptionally low budget The Shunned House, through to the more linear Colour from the Dark to the insanity inducing experience – for the viewer as well – of Herbert West: Re-Animator. What poison is Zuccon taking?

He explores dark regions and you will either love the places he takes you, or you will automatically be abhorred by them. Like the inn in The Shunned House, they are mathematically designed as all good films are to be watched over and over… despite there often being no accompanying logic in the stories.

For an interview with Ivan Zuccon PRESS HERE.

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