Italian director Ivan Zuccon (1972-) is an experienced filmmaker who started his career with the short film Berenice (1997). He made several other short films before his interest in the American horror writer H.P. Lovecraft turned his mind to create horror movies related to that writer’s stories. His early features which were shot on video include The Darkness Beyond (2000) and Unknown Beyond (2001). He hit his stride with The Shunned House (2003) which was based on Lovecraft and weaved different tales and time periods into one. Zuccon tackled Catholicism and Lovecraft in his movie Colour from the Dark (2008) and continued to make horror with Wrath of the Crows (2013). His movie Herbert West: Re-Animator (2017) is a surreal horror masterpiece in which Zuccon appears to create his own horror mythos influenced by the tales of Lovecraft. He has worked as an editor on the films of celebrated Italian director Pupi Avati (1938-) whom Zuccon affectionately calls ‘the maestro’. He is working on another script based on Lovecraft. I asked Zuccon about his horror career in this interview.
How were you introduced to the works of H.P. Lovecraft? Was it through movies or books?
I discovered Lovecraft by chance. I was looking for ideas for a film and my eye fell on some of his books. Reading his stories opened up a new world to my eyes, a world made of terrible and at the same time fascinating elements. The creativity of this author seems unlimited, the cosmic horror he recounts is a source of great inspiration for me. I love everything he wrote, from the very first imitation stories of Poe to his greatest cosmic creations, so ambitious and often breathtakingly successful. Even the collaborations and commissioned writings on behalf of other writers short of ideas and finally the letters, wonderful and full of reflections that could be the basis for an interesting biographical film that one day I hope to be able to make.
What fascinates you about Lovecraft? It is obviously an obsession…
I love Lovecraft, although I’m much more interested in the man than in his stories. I’d like to make a film telling his life story as it really was. His literature comes from the way that he felt a ‘stranger,’ an ‘alien‘ to this world. That’s something I share with him. My interest in HPL comes from this feeling: not the terrible creeping creatures he described but what those creatures really meant to him. Often, I get more excited by how one of his stories was conceived than by the story itself. And I appreciate his efforts in trying to describe what cannot be described.
Have you always been a horror movie fan? What was the first horror movie you saw?
Certain events in life are dictated by chance, while others are the result of precise and conscious choices. The entry of cinema into my life is the result of both chance and a deliberate choice. At the beginning, however, there was more. Initially music, I was a musician determined to explore new musical frontiers, and with my band, Ipnosi, I made some quite interesting products. Then I became interested in drawing, comics to be precise, I remember that as a boy my greatest desire was to become an Alan Ford designer (ed. Alan Ford is an Italian comic book which debuted in 1969 and is a satiric look at secret agents). It was the discovery of horror cinema that gave me the desire to try my hand at the Seventh Art (ed. the Seventh Art is a phrase coined by Italian thinker and early film critic Ricciotto Canudo 1877-1923 about cinema). I had never considered horror much, on the contrary, I was even scared of it. The fact is that once fear was overcome, I realized how much power could be hidden behind this cinematographic genre and how much freedom of expression could be obtained once the limits of the usual clichés were overcome. The first horror movie I experienced was a Roger Corman adaptation of Poe’s… It probably was “The Tomb of Ligeia” (1964). I was a child and that movie shocked me a lot!
Italy has a rich history of horror filmmakers… Bava, Argento and Fulci… Do you have favourite works of these directors?
I think the best horror in the history of Italian cinema is Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath (1963). A film full of inventions and sometimes chilling atmospheres. I love Fulci, above all the cryptic ending of The Beyond (1981) and of Argento I really appreciate Suspiria (1977), a true avant-garde film probably also thanks to two exceptional collaborators: The Goblin for the music and Luciano Tovoli (1936-) for the cinematography.
You seem to be creating your own Lovecraftian mythos, especially with Herbert West: Re-Animator… is this a deliberate departure from Lovecfraft’s mythos? Your films seem use Lovecraft more as a basis, or a jumping off point…
Herbert West: Re-Animator is many things but most of all I want to say what it is not, for the avoidance of doubt: it is not a remake of the Gordon film and there is no Jeffrey Combs in the cast. It is not a horror comedy as it happens in the franchise then continued by Yuzna; on the other hand, the matter here is very serious. It is not an American production but a small independent Italian reality. It was born as a web series but not in the strict sense: it was a film distributed online in small segments and then to be distributed again as a whole film through more traditional channels. It is not a film that takes lightly the author from which it is based. It is not a faithful adaptation of the novel, it is rather an adaptation to the world and universes imagined by Lovecraft in which the character of West stands as a symbol and manifesto of the Lovecraftian unspeakable. What made me try to bring my own version to the screen? Well, because I’m crazy and brave enough! LOL. And yes, I often use Lovecraft as a canvas and I paint over it my personal obsession. That’s the way I work and I discovered in the HPL productions a lot of very interesting material: the crawling chaotic and cosmic fear, it’s a perfect metaphor of the fears of the humans.
The original story of The Colour Out of Space is almost a blank in terms of characters… What made you tackle that story?… Did you have any input into the screenplay? Or your other screenplays?
Writing to me costs a lot of effort. I often write the story of my films, but then for the writing of the script I prefer to collaborate with one or more screenwriters. I find the collaboration very stimulating, even if sometimes we clash and the ideas are divergent. After all, cinema is a collective art, the director is not a one-man-band, he has to deal with his collaborators and also consider their artistic sensibilities; after all it is a continuous mediation. That said, the writers have to follow my direction and the ideas of cinema that represent me. So, answering in short, yes, I put a lot of input into the screenplay.
Colour from the Dark is fascinating to watch because as the evil takes over the colour seems to drain from the scenes towards the end of the film… was the draining of colour your idea?
Yes, it was my idea. It was “The Idea” around which the whole movie was conceived. Working on concept I structured the film as a slow fade to black. Started with saturated, vivid and coloured images and then, after the well accident, the color slowly goes away. The last shot of the movie is black and white.
The religious mania as a side effect of the poison or force is also an ingenious idea and suited to the Italian countryside during that period… Do you believe in possession? Or is it just madness?
I used the Catholic religion in this movie as a weapon in the hand of the characters in order to use it against the obscure force coming from the well. The idea was to contrast our Catholic culture with the Lovecraftian myth. Our god against the terrible deities created by the loner of Providence (ed. a nickname for Lovecraft). In the end, we discover that no weapon is effective against the Great Ancients. The human being cannot help but be annihilated in the face of the blind corrosive force coming “From Beyond”. I don’t know whether to believe in possession or not. I used to be very skeptical but, right now much less. One thing is certain, demonic possessions, dark spirit presences and other such things scare me a lot!
I ask this question because I heard reports that there was a ghost attached to the making of Colour From the Dark… There were malfunctions I understand and ghostly images…
The strangest obstacle in my career I could call “supernatural” was baptized with the name of Trevor. We shot Colour From the Dark in a beautiful old farmhouse where in 1985 Tinto Brass shot the film “Miranda”. Inside there are still some original scenography pieces from the film. The first week, however, was the most difficult due to some strange episodes that drastically slowed down production.
In a few days we had to replace two HD cameras that mysteriously stopped working properly. The second camera even started recording by itself all of a sudden. Fortunately, the third machine did not give any problems. But that’s not all, both of my two cars have suffered strange and inexplicable mechanical failures: the first has suffered a very dangerous break in the brakes, the second has melted the engine. I could go on and on, telling other incidents to people and things, because it happened every day. We were flabbergasted! After the first week we had so many scenes to catch up that we had to shoot even on rest days.
At a certain point the executive producer of the film in taking some stage photos discovered the face of our mysterious guest. Often, in fact, in the midst of the smoke that we used on stage by shooting it with special machines, an unusual sulky face was always formed. From that moment we began to think of a ghost or a slightly spiteful poltergeist. Our visual effects supervisor, also took some mysterious photos, one of them is incredible: in some burst shots a black human-shaped substance was impressed as it rose from the ground adjacent to the farm. An inexplicable and truly disturbing photo!
Be that as it may, after the first week the weird episodes slowly subsided and we were eventually able to finish shooting the film without further delay.
I found Herbert West: Re-Animator almost mind-bending. Sometimes it’s a surreal experience and then at other times it seems to make perfect sense. There’s genius at play there. Were you setting out to achieve something surreal on purpose?
It’s something I did on purpose and you can recognise it in some of my movies. It’s a way of telling stories with mind connections, jumping from concept to concept instead of using a linear story. The Shunned House is partially conceived in this way but, with Herbert West: Re-Animator I decided to give myself the freedom to use this ability without the fear of being misunderstood. I said, who cares, I want to tell a story without worrying about the limit of the humans, that is the obsession to understand things at any cost, unaware of the fact that most things in our world are absolutely beyond our understanding. And this, paradoxically, makes my films more realistic than at first glance you might think!
You seem to use the bare minimum of cast, crew and location and this goes back to The Shunned House… That film seems to have been made with an extraordinary amount of passion… What do you remember about the making of that film?
I shot La Casa Sfuggita freely using all the creativity I had at that time. it’s amazing how, seeing it now, it looks like a film planned shot by shot well in advance, and instead it was the result of my improvisations on the set. Even with the budget limits and that the direction of the actors was still perhaps a bit immature, from the directorial point of view it is at the same time innovative and mature. The idea was to never stop the camera and to move with it between all space-time levels. To date it is perhaps the film I have shot best, which has my best camerawork.
And a final question. How is it that you create and write? Does it come in bursts or do you have a daily discipline of say coffee and cigarettes?
Discipline is not my strong point. I always try to use my instincts and inspiration. it is very difficult to find ideas on commission because the ideas come on their own. For this reason, I keep all my ideas in the silence of my mind even for many years, to then use them when needed. I don’t drink coffee, I don’t smoke and I don’t use alcohol, I simply create the worlds that are in my head.
To read an article about Ivan Zuccon’s H.P. Lovecraft movies PRESS HERE.