Sunday 24 February 2013

Colour from the Dark

Director: Ivan Zuccon
Writer: Ivo Gazzarrini
Producers: Ivan Zuccon, Roberta Marelli
Cast: Debbie Rochon, Michael Segal, Marysia Kay, Eleanor James
Country: Italy
Year of release: 2008
Reviewed from: screener

I have never made any secret of my admiration for the work of Ivan Zuccon. He’s a good friend (though we have never met in person) and it has been a pleasure to watch each of his films, fresh from the edit suite. I have been able to watch Ivan grow and develop as a director since his feature debut, The Darkness Beyond. I think he gets better with every film.

I think this may be his best yet.

The influence of HP Lovecraft permeates Ivan Zuccon’s work more than almost any other film-maker that I can think of. Possibly only Stuart Gordon comes close in his enthusiasm and admiration for Lovecraft. Here’s a thought. Imagine a two-part Lovecraft anthology: one half directed by Stuart Gordon, one half by Ivan Zuccon. A bit like what Argento and Romero did with Edgar Allan Poe on Two Evil Eyes. I would love to see that.

The Darkness Beyond and Unknown Beyond both wore their Lovecraft influence on their sleeve. The Shunned House was a an intertwining of three narrative strands through space and time, all adapted from HPL stories. Bad Brains and NyMpha both have subtler but undeniable Lovecraftian elements; NyMpha, for example, owes a certain amount to 'The Dunwich Horror'.

Colour from the Dark is the first actual, feature-length adaptation of a single Lovecraft tale which Ivan has filmed. And it’s magnificent.

‘The Colour Out of Space’ is the source material, a novella that was originally published in Amazing Stories in 1927. This has been filmed twice before: in 1965 as Die, Monster, Die! with Boris Karloff and as The Curse in 1987, starring a pre-Star Trek Wil Wheaton. But I’m not here to compare this film with the original story (beyond observing a few salient differences in plot) and certainly not to compare it to loose adaptations made twenty and forty years ago. That would serve no purpose. For the record, all that Ivan has taken from the Lovecraft tale is the most basic concept and the phrase on the poster: ‘sucks the life out’. No, I’m just here to discuss how Colour from the Dark stands up as a film in 2008, and I can tell you that it stands up very well indeed.

The story, truth be told, is pretty simple. The setting is Italy in the early 1940s (the original story was set in New England in 1882) where Pietro, a farmer with a gammy leg whose disability precludes him from war service, lives with his wife Lucia and his mute, retarded sister-in-law Alice who carries a red-headed rag doll everywhere. A fourth member of the family, Luigi, is serving in the army although I couldn’t quite determine whether he is Pietro’s brother, Lucia’s brother or possibly even Alice’s husband. Up the lane from Pietro and Alice’s farm live Giovanni and his grand-daughter Anna, who have been sheltering a young Jewish woman, named Teresa, from the Nazis. Apart from a local priest, that’s pretty much the whole cast.

Something in the farm well gradually affects, through the well water, the crops and then the family. Pietro’s leg injury heals, Alice starts to speak and the tomatoes and peppers grow big and bountiful. But very rapidly things take a turn for the worse. Lucia initially develops a libido but this rapidly descends into violent and sexual behaviour which forces her husband to lock her in the attic. The fruit rots on the vine, Alice spends her days talking to Teresa’s undiscovered corpse, gradually decomposing among trees where she was shot as she tried to escape. Nightmares and hallucinations torture the minds of all concerned as the mysterious something and its effects ‘suck the life out.’

I said that I wouldn’t compare this to the original but it is worth noting that both ‘The Colour Out of Space’ and Colour from the Dark are atypical Lovecraft. There are no Old Ones here, no indescribable horrors, no Necronomicon. What there is instead is a science fictional element, at least in the written story which concerns a meteorite, examined by geologists who discovers within the rock a sort of bubble. It is on the surface of that bubble, which swiftly disappears, that the mysterious, unnameable colour of the title is first seen, later emerging as an indescribable sheen on the plants and animals and rocks of the farm.

In the film there is no meteorite, no suggestion of where this particular form of energy may have originated. And since Ivan is, naturally, limited to the colours of the real world, he cleverly uses instead a computer-generated effect of a web-like, white light, creeping across floors, walls and people, occasionally distorting faces or other images for a moment. It’s a terrific effect and works brilliantly in what it tries to achieve.

And while this may not be typical Lovecraft, nevertheless it’s archetypal Zuccon! An isolated farmhouse, a possessed relative locked away, the breakdown of a dysfunctional family and above all a network of multiple levels of reality, skilfully interwoven so that neither the characters nor the audience can ever be sure what is or isn’t a dream. This is not just a simplistic story in which every horrific, fantastical thing is explained away when someone wakes up, this is Ivan as writer-director twisting reality this way and that with his usual confident eye for frightening images.

For example, when the priest tries to exorcise Lucia, she flings his Holy water back at him, each drop burning his skin like acid as he lies on the floor and defends himself with prayer. Then suddenly - he is back standing at the entrance to the room, untouched. Yet while Lucia straddled the prostrate man of God, burning his skin, we saw Alice and Pietro in other parts of the building, cowering with their hands over their painful ears as an ultra-high pitched sound rent the air. What happened? Did anything happen? This is so, so Ivan Zuccon.

The effects, as mentioned, are excellent. Not only the digital visual effects but also the pale, scratched skin of the possessed Lucia, a number of gore effects, plenty of blood and even a brief, contextual shot of two Luftwaffe fighters passing overhead. Massimo Storari has been working with Ivan since The Darkness Beyond and, like other members of the ‘company’ on both sides of the camera, his work has progressed with each film, especially since he moved into digital work from The Shunned House onwards. On Colour from the Dark Massimo gets two credits: for visual effects and as make-up effects assistant.

The principal make-up effects artist was Fiona Walsh who trained under Neill Gorton and has subsequently worked on Doctor Who and Torchwood as well as ambiguously titled British indie feature Lesbian Vampire Killers. ‘Molding, casting and prosthetic effects’ are credited to Mauro Fabriczky, who has a photo of Debbie Rochon’s scratched arms on his website. Whoever did what, the cumulative effects is that the effects are all excellent and support the story and the characters without overpowering them.

Other Zuccon regulars at the top of their game include costume designer Donatella Ravagnani, set designer Valerio Zuccon, sound designer Antonio Masiero and 1st AD Eugenia Serravalli. Spanish composer Marco Werba previously scored Timo Rose’s Fearmakers (which starred Debbie Rochon) and is now working with Dario Argento. Ivo Gazzarrini, who wrote Bad Brains and NyMpha, provided another very fine script. And then there is the excellent cast which, in terms of this level of film-making, could almost be considered ‘all-star’.

Debbie Rochon is a legend of course, with more than 150 films roles to her credit in the last thirty years or so. But far too many of those are cheesy, semi-sleazy, ultra-low-budget comedy-horror romps, often also featuring Trent Haaga and/or Lloyd Kaufman. It is comparatively rare that Rochon really gets the chance to stretch her serious acting muscles and remind us just what a good actress she is. Opposite Debbie’s Lucia is Michael Segal’s Pietro, a powerful portrayal of a man whose life is torn apart for reasons way beyond his comprehension. Segal has appeared in almost all of Ivan’s features, allowing those of us who have been keeping track of things to watch him develop as an actor. He has always been good but in this film he is simply excellent, establishing a naturalistic and human centre to the supernatural horror tale.

The two UK actresses in the cast have both established themselves as leading lights of the British Horror Revival. Spooky Scottish lady Marysia Kay plays Alice with exactly the brooding intensity that the mostly wordless part requires. She has an impressive CV which include Johannes Roberts’ Forest of the Damned and When Evil Calls, killer scarecrow indie The Scar Crow, vampire picture Blood + Roses and, by way of a change, spoof porno documentary Hardcore: A Poke into the Adult Film Orifice; she has recently completed Forest of the Damned 2. Neighbour Anna is played by Eleanor James who was also in Roberts’ Forest of the Damned as well as HellBride and The Devil’s Music for Pat Higgins and Stuart Brennan’s Zombies of the Night. Most recently she has filmed horror anthology Bordello Death Tales, playing the Bride of Frankenstein-esque lead character in Alan Ronald’s Universal homage segment 'Stitchgirl'.

Irish actor Gerry Shanahan adds to the international nature of the cast, playing Anna’s grandfather and there’s no denying that it takes a while to get used to the idea of a character named Giovanni who has a Dublin accent. But it is clear that Ivan, in wanting to get the best from his actors in this English-language production, has allowed them to use their own accents and trusts his audience to be intelligent enough to see past this. I think we’re all just used to seeing ‘Italian’ characters in movies and TV shows played by British and American actors whereas the Irish/Italian dichotomy stands out as something unusual.

Matteo Tosi, who was so good as Mirco in Bad Brains, is perfectly cast as Don Mario, the sincere young priest who finds himself against an (apparently demonic) entity and calls on all his faith to withstand it. One cannot help thinking of The Exorcist when watching the ghoulish Alice attempting to seduce the strong-hearted but ultimately ineffective padre. Emmett J Scanlan, another Irish actor albeit with a much less noticeable accent, plays the soldier Luigi whose appearance at the farm, bringing a touch of the outside, war-riven world with him, reminded me of Christopher Eccleston’s cameo in The Others. Scanlan is a bit of a horror fan and his other genre work includes Paddy Breathnach’s Freakdog and Renfield in a stage production of Dracula. Alessandra Guerzoni, so effective as the Mother Superior in NyMpha, appears briefly as Teresa the young Jewish woman while effects man Massimo Storari has a cameo as a German soldier.

This is a superb cast, pulling together strong actors, some from previous Zuccon films, others with their own reputation within the independent film sector. Every one of these actors gives a stirling performance so that it is difficult to single out any one performer as the best. Though Rochon and Segal’s names are above the title, this is an ensemble piece without a weak link in its acting chain.

Colour from the Dark is the sixth feature that Ivan has directed although I know he has had plans for this one for a long time so it could have been the fourth or fifth. Tiffany Shepis was going to star at one point but she made NyMpha with Ivan instead (other actors attached at various stages included Katia Winter - who was in Night Junkies and The Seer - and Federico D’Anneo from NyMpha). To be honest, I think the wait was worthwhile because the film benefits not only from year-on-year improvements in the digital effects available to a movie of this size but also from Ivan’s progress as a film-maker - and indeed from the progress in their respective skills of his numerous regular collaborators.

One person whose contribution I haven’t discussed in detail is Ivan himself who not only directs and produces but also shot the film himself (on Digibeta) and cut it. There are some extraordinary camera set-ups, as one would expect, not least excellent use of the well which is shot from above and below. Another noticeable technique is the placing of one character in extreme close-up in the foreground with another seen full-length in the background. At the risk of sounding pretentious, Ivan Zuccon is a poet with a movie camera.

Looking at the Zuccon filmography, I see the two Beyond films as ambitious, imaginative and experimental, with Ivan trying out new film-making ideas in the transition from shorts to features. Then came a pair of very good, solid films - The Shunned House and Bad Brains - which showed Ivan maturing and consolidating his skills, really finding his own style. And the most recent two features, NyMpha and now Colour from the Dark, demonstrate that Ivan is a world class film-maker, not only in his ability to attract international casts and crew but also in the overseas funding that is providing the financial basis for this work; Colour was partly financed from Canada for example.

Is Colour from the Dark Ivan Zuccon’s masterpiece? I suggest a cautious yes because I know how special and personal this project has been to Ivan during its years of development. Everything else has been leading up to this and I fully expect to review Ivan’s seventh feature, whatever that turns out to be, with the observation that it’s a great movie although it doesn’t quite hit the peak that Colour from the Dark reaches, But you know, I’d love to be wrong on that. That’s one reason why I’m giving this magnificent film an A instead of an A+; I want to leave room for Ivan to get even better. The other reason concerns my credo which I have often cited here: that I judge each film on how well it achieves what it sets out to do with what it has available. One of the things that any Ivan Zuccon film has is... Ivan Zuccon. Because Ivan is so good at what he does, that raises my expectations about what each film should be able to achieve, which ironically makes it harder for Ivan to surprise me by being so much better than expected.

And here’s a point to end on. I took a look at the Inaccurate Movie Database and found just over forty Italian horror features listed since 2000. There are undoubtedly a few more. And obviously I haven’t seen most of those films but that's because many of them never made it outside Italy. Among the few which have, the only ones to have received any level of critical discussion are the most recent Argento films, the reaction to which among fans has been, ah, mixed. Even the best-received, Nonhosonno, was compared unfavourably to Dario’s classics from the 1980s.

Apart from Argento, Lamberto Bava has made a couple of tiny-budget pictures, Bruno Mattei is still cranking out dodgy cannibal movies and there’s a bunch of obscurities which, though they may be good, clearly aren’t good enough to break out of the domestic scene. Whereas all of Ivan’s films have been released outside Italy and Colour from the Dark actually went as far as a New York premiere with Ivan, Debbie, Michael and others in attendance.

In respect of the above couple of paragraphs and bearing in mind Ivan’s professional and artistic development with each movie, I am prepared to go on record as saying that Colour from the Dark is the first truly great Italian horror film of the 21st century.

MJS rating: A
review originally posted 7th November 2008

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