Macabre (1980) Movie Review

“Macabre” was originally released back in 1980 and marked the debut of Italian horror director Lamberto Bava. The son of the legendary Mario Bava, who was responsible for countless influential genre classics including “Black Sunday” and “Black Sabbath”, his works were always somewhat overshadowed by those of his father, though he did manage a few gems himself, including Giallo thriller “A Blade in the Dark”, the “Demons” films, and of course, “Macabre”. A truly bizarre and unsettling film drawing upon both psychological suspense and exploitative shocks to entertain, it has at last been given a proper UK release on DVD through Arrow Video and their Masters of Giallo series, complete with featurettes on the director and the production.

Opening with the claim that it was inspired by true events, the film begins in New Orleans as housewife Jane (Bernice Stegers, from Federico Fellini’s “City of Women”) leaves her two young children at home while she heads across town for an illicit liaison with her lover Fred (Italian exploitation regular Roberto Posse, also in such classics as “Nazi Love Camp 27” and “The Island of the Fishmen”). In revenge, her creepy daughter Lucy (Veronica Zinny) drowns her brother in the bathtub and calls her mother to tell her a terrible accident has happened. Rushing home, she and Fred crash their car, decapitating him. Fast forward a year and Jane has just been released from an asylum. She goes to live in a boarding house run by a quiet blind man called Robert (Stanko Molnar, also in Bava’s “A Blade in the Dark” and “Demons 5”), who seems to take a liking to her. Lucy comes back into her mother’s life and strange things are soon afoot, with cries of passion coming from Jane’s room despite the fact that she never has any visitors. Robert decides to investigate, and discovers that she has a sinister secret in her freezer, something which she keeps locked away….

Although the film’s big revelation is widely known (not least since it features on the DVD cover), “Macabre” remains a highly successful psycho sexual mystery with plenty of degenerate twists and turns. The film has the feel of a Giallo, though with Bava obviously having been influenced not only by his father, but by Hitchcock’s “Psycho” and Polanski’s “Repulsion”. The plot is actually quite clever despite the simple oddball premise, and plays upon what is real and what is going on only in the minds of the characters. On this score, it helps that all the characters are crazed though believable, being mostly homicidal or insane. The central mystery is very engaging, even though most of the film revolves around people creeping around the house and spying on each other. Despite being clearly telegraphed, the shock ending still packs a punch, and the fact that it makes absolutely no sense only serves to make it all the more amusing. The film is actually quite funny in a number of places, especially on second viewing, with Bava showing a darkly droll sense of humour without ever undermining the psychological depth and tension of the narrative.

It’s easy to see why “Macabre” is still hailed by many as being Bava’s best film, as his direction is assured and shows lessons well learned from his father. The film is genuinely suspenseful throughout, making great ironic use of Robert’s blindness as he fumbles his way around the house, constantly being on the verge of putting his hands on something horrible. The crumbling houses and misty graveyards of New Orleans make for a suitably modern gothic atmosphere, which he makes the very most of with some accomplished camera work and colours.

The film is light on gore, though is still very disturbing and frequently makes for queasy viewing, especially towards the end. The subject matter is certainly gruesome and perverse, enough so to make the film only suitable for those with a stomach for this sort of thing. This is largely down to Bava’s skill, as he plays with the viewer through disquieting insinuation, and by cutting between contrasting events, such as between Jane and her lover and her son being drowned in the bathtub.

Thanks to touches like this “Macabre” remains a cut above most other Italian Giallo or genre mysteries, and is a very welcome re-release. As yet unmatched by Bava in his subsequent career, it stands as required viewing for horror fans or aficionados of weird cinema in general.

Lamberto Bava (director) / Antonio Avati, Pupi Avati, Lamberto Bava, Roberto Gandus (screenplay)
CAST: Bernice Stegers … Jane Baker
Stanko Molnar … Robert Duval
Veronica Zinny … Lucy Baker
Roberto Posse … Fred Kellerman
Ferdinando Orlandi … Mr. Wells
Fernando Pannullo … Leslie Baker
Elisa Kadigia Bove … Mrs. Duval

Buy Macabre on DVD