MY TAKE: RetroGothic Film Series

March 18, 2024 by Sandy Lerebours

The heyday of the gothic horror pictures spanned the 1950s through the 1970s with glorious gothic and giallo takes on classic stories. Senior Director of Film, Jim Carl, highlights the history behind the gothic and giallo genres and the films featured in this year’s RetroGothic Film Series, March 22-28 at the Carolina Theatre. 

HOUSE OF WAX —April 25, 1953

After the success of the independent 3-D film, “Bwana Devil,” in 1952, all the major Hollywood studios rushed to make their own 3-D movies. “House of Wax” was Warner Brothers’ entry into this new gimmick. To keep costs low, Warner Brothers decided to remake their own 1933 thriller, “Mystery of the Wax Museum.” In a twist of irony, they hired a director who was blind in one eye and couldn’t see the 3-D effects at all. “House of Wax” would be the first 3-D film in color. Despite mixed reviews, it became one of the highest-grossing films of 1953. It would later be deemed one of the best 3-D films of the 1950s. “House of Wax” revitalized the film career of Vincent Price, who had been playing secondary character parts and occasional sympathetic leads since the late 1930s. After this high-profile role, he was in high demand for the rest of his career to play fiendish villains, mad scientists, and other deranged characters in horror films.


BLOOD AND BLACK LACE —March 14, 1964

“Blood and Black Lace” has retrospectively been described as being among the first-ever giallo films. Its exaggerated use of color photography and a focus on graphic murder set-pieces would later become staples of the genre. Because the production company which financed his previous films had gone bankrupt, Director Mario Bava shot the picture with a very small budget compared to his other works. He intentionally shot all dialogue in English to secure international distribution. “Blood and Black Lace” would be a box office bomb in Italy. Despite being released almost uncut in the US, the film tanked there as well. Bava rebounded in 1965 with “Planet of the Vampires.” It is not until 1970 when Dario Argento releases “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage” that Italian giallo films become a true genre.  However, much like the success of “Friday the 13th” is owed to “Halloween,” so does “Crystal Plumage” owe much of its stature to “Blood and Black Lace.”



By the 1960s, Italian horror films were more violent, sexualized, and downbeat than the horror films created in America. American studios focused on a youth-oriented audience whereas horror in Europe was intended for adults. This clash in perspectives greatly affected “Black Sabbath,” which was produced in Europe but financed with American money. Although Mario Bava attempted to inject Italian sensibilities into the picture, American producers kept cutting it out. To keep costs down, aging horror stars such as Boris Karloff were hired because they were familiar to American audiences. Upcoming Italian stars were cast to appease the European ones. “Black Sabbath” was heavily edited for its US release and became a box office bomb. The European version fared even worse. In later years, the film would be critically re-evaluated and become a cult classic.


CASTLE OF BLOOD—July 29, 1964

With expensive sets leftover from 1963’s “The Monk of Monza,” Director Sergio Corbucci conceived of the plot of this picture so that the sets wouldn’t go to waste. Corbucci and his brother wrote the script. Barbara Steele had just finished filming “8 1/2” with Frederico Fellini and didn’t want to appear in horror movies anymore but was persuaded to return for this one as a favor to Corbucci. When he started shooting the film, Corbucci realized he had a scheduling conflict and called upon his friend Antonio Margheriti to finish directing the film. Margheriti shots more than 90% of the picture. “Castle of Blood” would be a box office bomb, but Margheriti loved the material so much he remade the film in color in 1970 as “Web of the Spider.” “Blood” would be re-evaluated in later years and is now considered an eerie and effective entry in early Italian horror.


EYE OF THE DEVIL —March 3, 1968

Originally, Kim Novak was cast as the lead actress in this picture, but after filming more than three-quarters of the movie, she suffered a horseback riding incident and was too injured to continue. The film was almost entirely reshot with Deborah Kerr. Some long shots of Novak, filmed before her injury, do make it into the movie. This is the feature film debut of Sharon Tate. She had been discovered by the film’s producer while auditioning for “Petticoat Junction.” Impressed, he signed her to a seven-year contract. Although it was not a commercial success in the US, “Eye of the Devil” was popular in Europe. It would later acquire cult status, largely due to its surreal themes and the murder of Tate in 1969, as well as its distinguished supporting cast. “Eye of the Devil” would be the last black-and-white film released by MGM. By 1967, all of the major studios had effectively moved entirely to color.



Dario Argento originally had no plans to direct his own screenplay but after several other directors turned him down, he decided to turn this into his feature film directorial debut. The giallo trope of a masked killer wearing a black raincoat, hat, and gloves was originally introduced in 1963’s “Blood and Black Lace” but Argento loved this concept and included it here; thus, cementing its appearance for decades to come in other horror movies. Although Italian giallos would later be traced as far back to Mario Bava’s 1963 film, “The Girl Who Knew Too Much,” it is “Crystal Plumage” which brought the genre to international attention. The film would be an international, commercial, and critical success. “Crystal Plumage” launched Argento’s career as a director. It would be the first film in his “Animal Trilogy” which also includes 1971’s “The Cat O’Nine Tails” and 1972’s “Four Flies on Grey Velvet.” It is now considered one of the best giallos of all time.


THE VAMPIRE DOLL—July 4, 1970 

The Vampire Doll showcase for Yamamoto’s obvious passion for Western styled “things that go bump in the night” told from a Japanese point of view.Yamamoto was enamored of both Hitchcock and oldeworld horror heritage.The film employs a twist ending reminiscent of “Psycho” or “City of the Dead”



This Amicus production is a collection of four short stories. All of the stories were originally written, and subsequently scripted, by Robert Bloch, author of “Psycho.”  Halfway through shooting, producers realized that director Peter Duffell was filming the picture as a horror-comedy. Furious, they forced him to stop and shoot it as a straight horror film, resulting in many scenes being cut from the final print. Duffell also wanted the movie to be called “Death and the Maiden,” but producers insisted on “The House That Dripped Blood” because that title would sell more tickets. Not one drop of blood appears in the actual film. The outfit that Jon Pertwee wears in the first scene, complete with the cloak, is almost exactly his costume from “Doctor Who,” which he was still playing at this time in 1971. Although a low-budget film, “The House That Dripped Blood” performed very well in the US, grossing more than $1 million at the box office.


DEEP RED—March 7, 1975 

1975 was the height of the Italian giallo craze in cinemas. Director Dario Argento had tried to break away with his 1974 historical drama, “The Five Days,” but its failure drew him back to the horror genre. The film’s working title is “The Saber-Toothed Tiger,” but Argento felt too many giallo films at that time had an animal in their title, so he changed the name to “Deep Red.” He himself started this gimmick with 1970’s “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage.” All of the close-up shots of the killer’s hands, clad in black leather gloves, were performed by Argento himself. He believed this would be quicker and easier than teaching the moves to an actor, who would require endless re-takes to perform everything to his satisfaction. “Deep Red” was a box office and critical hit. It is considered a transitional work for Argento between his earlier whodunit plots and the more supernatural-themed films of his later career such as 1977’s “Suspiria.”