Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

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18 Nov

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Mario Bava's Lisa e il diavolo (Lisa and the Devil, 1972)HORROR
The Shadow Trickster in Italian horror cinema
Mario Bava's Gli orrori del castello di Norimberga (Baron Blood, 1972) and Lisa e il diavolo (Lisa and the Devil, 1972)

In this Jungian archetypal analysis of two of Bava's later works, James Iaccino examines the simultaneous danger and appeal posed by the "Shadow Trickster" figure in Italian horror cinema.

Characteristics of the Shadow
Trickster in legend and film

According to noted psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung, the Shadow Trickster is a pivotal, archetypal figure that has been portrayed in fairy tales and legends since the dawn of human history. The Trickster is notorious for shape-changing into all sorts of ominous creatures such as a wolf, bat or raven to elude his captor—usually the Hero of the story.[1] Often depicted as a devil or demon residing within the underworld (hence the name "Shadow Trickster"), he is able to mask his evil identity by adopting a charming, mesmerising persona for the purposes of swaying others to his cause. If the Hero does manage to contain the Shadow Trickster, it is only for a limited duration as some unwary fool will eventually free him from his imprisonment so that he might torment humanity again and again.

The Jungian image of the Shadow Trickster has had a successful translation to the screen, particularly in the horror genre.[2] One component that has been added to the cinematic Trickster's arsenal is his ability to subject his targeted victims to a sadistic "dark humour." While his victims are writhing around in agony, the Trickster is frequently found making terrible puns and laughing out loud, clearly enjoying the pain he is inflicting on others. Some of the most popular Shadow Trickster characters in modern horror cinema are Dr Anton Phibes (Vincent Price) in The Abominable Dr Phibes (1971) and Dr Phibes Rises Again (1972), dream-stalker Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) of the Nightmare on Elm Street series (1984-present), and devil doll Chucky of the Child's Play trilogy (1988-1991).

Mario Bava's series of Italian horror films (1960-1977) has effectively used the Shadow Trickster throughout its story lines. Proceeding on the assumption that life is "an uncomfortable union of illusion and reality,"[3] Bava thrusts his cinematic characters into imaginary worlds far removed from the banalities of everyday existence. The Shadow Trickster proves to be a central figure in each of his films, exerting control over the Heroine's (as well as the audience's) perceptions within this "surrealistic" atmosphere, making it difficult for her to distinguish between the fantastic and the commonplace. For example, in Bava's classic La maschera del demonio (Mask of the Demon / Black Sunday, 1960), the centuries-old Trickster witch Princess Asa (Barbara Steele) attempts to rejuvenate herself by assuming the identity of her present-day descendant, Princess Katia (also played by Steele).

This doppelgänger (ie, sinister double) motif creates some very interesting, if not surprising, imagery, especially when the "hidden" Asa possesses Katia and talks through the latter's lips. The Trickster's deception is revealed in the final moments of the film and, as Asa's original body is burned at the stake, Katia's life energy is restored, thereby returning everything to a comfortable normalcy.

While La maschera del demonio has received ample critical praise,[4] two of Bava's less appreciated later works also warrant analysis in the present terms. Both Gli orrori del castello di Norimberga (Baron Blood, aka The Torture Chamber of Baron Blood, 1972) and Lisa e il diavolo (Lisa and the Devil, 1972; not to be confused with the altered and re-released 1975 version, The House of Exorcism) focus almost exclusively on the Heroine's struggle with the Shadow Trickster.

Mario Bava's Lisa e il diavolo (Lisa and the Devil, 1972)By coincidence, the Heroine in each film (Eva and Lisa, respectively) is portrayed by the European starlet, Elke Sommer. And the depiction of the Shadow Trickster is left to the screen talents of American stars Joseph Cotten and Telly Savalas, respectively, who manage to convince the viewer that underneath their everyday personae lurks a demonic presence waiting to be unleashed on an unsuspecting Heroine and the world at large. These two films will now be examined from the perspective of the archetypal Shadow Trickster.

Baron Otto Von Kleist
(aka Baron Blood) as Shadow Trickster

Thanks to Bava's directorial skills, Gli orrori del castello di Norimberga's conventional storyline of a resurrected nobleman wreaking havoc in modern-day Austria becomes an interesting (if not especially enjoyable) cinematic work to watch. As Phil Hardy notes, a pleasingly ghoulish ambience pervades the film right from the opening sequence.[5] While Cotten's Baron Otto Von Kleist does not make his appearance until well after the film's first third, his presence is felt early on by some of the supporting characters. For instance, Peter Kleist's (Antonio Cantafora) Uncle Karl (Massimo Girotti) relates to his nephew that the Baron was a very real person, and that the murders he inflicted on the local populace back in the 16th Century were quite sadistic in nature.

Herr Dortmundt (Dieter Tressler), a visiting entrepreneur responsible for remodeling the Baron's castle as a hotel for tourists, further describes a favourite pastime of this Shadow Trickster: "Von Kleist would impale anyone who incurred his displeasure on stakes, planting their bodies atop [the castle's] towers as a warning to others." And Karl's daughter Gretchen (Nicoletta Elmi) even claims that she has seen the Baron lurking in the woods near the castle. The little girl gives a terrifying description of Von Kleist: "He was tall and thin…with a horribly burnt face" (the latter feature being the result of surviving villagers setting fire to his bed chambers in the dead of night).

Into this Vlad the Impaler-like environment arrives the handsome American Peter (Cantafora), who is taking a break from his dissertation studies to explore the history of his notorious ancestor. He meets up with an architectural student of Dortmundt's, Eva Arnold (Sommer), but before a romance can be established between the two, Peter undertakes an elaborate incantation ritual that will return the Shadow Trickster to this world. Much like the Jungian Fool, the obsessed Peter does not realise the consequences of his actions until it is too late. In typical Heroine fashion, Eva repeatedly warns him to stop reciting the words of the magical spell at the stroke of midnight, but the naïve male does not heed her pleas. The predictable outcome of Peter's meddling with the occult is that Baron Blood is freed from his tomb to continue his bloodletting in the contemporary period.

Sporting a cloak and slouch hat, the resurrected Von Kleist creates a sizable wake of dead bodies, reminiscent of his cinematic Shadow Trickster predecessors Dr Phibes and Freddy Krueger. He brutally slits a doctor's throat, breaks Herr Dortmundt's neck and then hangs him from the staircase railing, as well as pounds a metal rod into the head of the castle caretaker, Fritz (Luciano Pigozzi), before skewering him within a spike-lined coffin (shades of La maschera del demonio).

Bava lingers on each gory death scene in an almost voyeuristic fashion, allowing the viewer to assume the perspective of the Baron stalking and then murdering his prey. While Von Kleist does not utter a single word during the killings, it is his actions that have the true Trickster quality about them. He moves incredibly fast for a dead man, possesses an almost superhuman strength when dealing with those who are targeted and tries to outdo himself by concocting ever-more-innovative ways of slaying additional victims. (This author "takes his hat off" to Bava for giving audiences an early look at the mind of a serial killer; meanwhile, the Baron manages to keep his hat on throughout the very animated proceedings without even breaking into a sweat!)

Just when it appears that Gli orrori del castello di Norimberga is firmly entrenched within stalker film conventions, a new character by the name of Alfred Becker (Joseph Cotten) pops up seemingly out of nowhere to add a complication to the plot. An elderly, wheelchair-bound millionaire, Becker decides to purchase the Von Kleist property and restore the castle to its original condition. He is drawn to Eva and immediately offers her a job as his personal assistant. But when Eva is attacked by the Baron, first at the castle and then at her apartment (again via the stalker's PoV), she tells Becker that she is resigning from the position. While there are more than enough clues to indicate that Becker is, in fact, Baron Blood (from his demonic smile and burning eyes to his almost perverse attraction to the much younger Eva), one is immediately reminded of an almost identical scenario played out in an earlier Dan Curtis film, House of Dark Shadows (1970).

Here we have a mysterious vampire who is released from his coffin by another gullible human. Always in the shadows with only his cloak, cane and ring visible, the creature subsequently engages in a vicious killing spree. Then one night at the Collinwood Estate a cousin from England—Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid)—mysteriously arrives to assume occupancy in one of the run-down buildings. Immediately, he focuses his attentions on a very young governess, Maggie Evans (Katherine Leigh-Scott), and soon she is caught in his clutches. Like Gli orrori del castello di Norimberga, House of Dark Shadows telegraphs fairly early on that the cousin is actually the vampiric night stalker.[6]

A key question to ask is why Baron Blood assumes the vulnerable, human form of Alfred Becker, especially since this is not explained in the film. Several answers can be offered that are consistent with the Shadow Trickster archetype: 1) the Baron can thereby hide his horrific appearance from the central characters and other villagers he wants to eliminate; 2) he wants to play his "cat-and-mouse" games with Eva, obtaining some sadistic pleasure in terrifying her; and 3) as Becker, the Baron is able to converse with the others, adding a three-dimensional personality to an otherwise savage monster. While the viewer suspects that Herr Becker is Von Kleist, it is still an impressive sight to see the aged cripple rise from his wheelchair and transform himself into the Baron before Eva and her associates near the end of the film. The Shadow Trickster's powers of metamorphosis work very effectively in Gli orrori del castello di Norimberga, thanks to the acting talents of "the late Cotten stealing every scene [he can] with his suavely sinister presence."[7]

In many Shadow Trickster films (eg, A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors [1987]), the only way the protagonist can eliminate the evil presence is to resort to the same types of magic and spells that are used by the antagonist. It follows then that Eva, Peter and Uncle Karl consult with a medium, Christina Hoffman (Rada Rassimov), whose connections to the spirit world allow her to converse with one of the Baron's original victims, a witch named Elizabeth Holly. As Gary Morris describes it, an exquisite tableaux in true Bava style unfolds when Christina "in the foreground on the left is slowly possessed by the witch, speaking in her voice, while the witch herself is seen burning in a funeral pyre within the background on the right."[8] Through Elizabeth, Christina tells the trio that the only way the Baron can be destroyed is "by those he has himself destroyed." She also supplies Eva with a magical amulet that should be used on Von Kleist before she meets an untimely fate.

When Becker invites Eva and the others to his castle that night, the Heroine is provided with the perfect opportunity to dispose of the monster forever. As Becker attempts to kill them in his renovated torture chamber, Eva drops the amulet on the corpse of Fritz the caretaker. Before her very eyes (as well as Becker's), Fritz's dead body rises from his coffin. The force contained with the amulet activates other creatures of the undead, who suddenly invade the Baron's castle and begin torturing their former tormentor to death. As the credits roll with the screams of Von Kleist echoing in the background, the viewer comes away with a feeling of morbid satisfaction. The Shadow Trickster has met his "just deserts" at the hands of those he had slain, just as Christina prophesied. It is the finale in particular that makes Gli orrori del castello di Norimberga a memorable entry in Bava's horror film series.

Leandro (aka The Devil) as Shadow Trickster

Mario Bava's Lisa e il diavolo (Lisa and the Devil, 1972)Similar to Gli orrori del castello di Norimberga, Lisa e il diavolo contains a demonic Shadow Trickster, in fact, the most powerful one of them all: the Devil himself.[9] From the beginning of the film to its inevitable conclusion, the Devil is in control of the entire situation. Cast in the role of a menial servant apparently taking orders from a blind Contessa (Alida Valli), Leandro-as-the-Devil (played brilliantly by Savalas) is the one who is really in charge.

He comes and goes from the villa whenever he pleases, spies on the other players who are often found in inappropriate situations (eg, having sex or being bludgeoned to death), gives in to particular vices like smoking or sucking on a sweet lollipop and has a private room filled with an assortment of mannequin companions he has created in his spare time, all of which bear a striking resemblance to the film's principal characters.

Unlike Baron Von Kleist, this Shadow Trickster does not need humans to resurrect him from the grave; he is already in their midst, dealing out their fates in a card game filled with life-or-death consequences (as illustrated in the opening credit sequence). While there is a means to dispose of the sadistic Von Kleist, no such opportunity presents itself in Lisa e il diavolo. Leandro remains the pilot of his own personal plane, transporting his passengers to whatever location he chooses and encountering very little resistance from them (as depicted in the concluding scene). In keeping with a Jungian interpretation, this ultimate Shadow Trickster can never be defeated so long as the supernatural realm continues to exert a powerful influence on the human "plane" of existence.[10]

American Lisa Reiner (Sommer) enters this existential world on holiday with her friends, but soon finds herself lost and all alone, seeking out directions from a strange man who is carrying a life-size dummy. This, of course, happens to be Leandro, who looks remarkably like the devil depicted in the fresco she had seen earlier in the village's main square. Lisa's mistake is that she follows the advice of the lying Trickster Leandro and continues to be trapped in the endless maze of alleys and streets for hours.

As night falls, Lisa's luck seems to be improving when she meets up with some other people who are driving home: Francis Lehar (Eduardo Fajardo), his wife Sophie (Silva Koscina) and their chauffeur George (Gabriele Tinti). Unfortunately, their car breaks down right outside the Contessa's villa, and it is Leandro who greets them at the door and takes the party to one of the cottages to spend the night. All of these events seem to be beautifully staged by the Shadow Trickster, who has led the humans right where he wanted them: to his very doorstep!

Mario Bava's Lisa e il diavolo (Lisa and the Devil, 1972)As Lisa e il diavolo unfolds, the Heroine is caught up in a number of romantic entanglements and brutal deaths. Both the Contessa's husband Carlos (Espartaco Santoni) and her son Maximilian (Alessio Orano) have not gotten over the death of their lover, Elena, but are immediately drawn to Lisa who reminds them of their lost love. Curiously, Lisa reciprocates the affections Carlos and Maximilian display upon her. Most of their meetings are held away from the villa so that the Contessa does not suspect what is going on. But the Shadow Trickster is always present, lurking in the shadows. Troy Howarth points out that when Leandro is watching Lisa and her male companions in the garden, he is like a "serpent in Eden, ready to destroy the romantic idyll of the lovers with his quiet machinations."[11] And while Leandro is not directly involved in the number of grisly killings occurring on the estate, ranging from George being scissored in the throat and Francis being run over by his own car repeatedly, to Carlos and Sophie being hammered in the head, he knows what is transpiring and takes the news of each death with an unnatural calmness. This is in complete contrast to Lisa's growing fear and agitation that something is seriously wrong.

Mario Bava's Lisa e il diavolo (Lisa and the Devil, 1972)It is Leandro's eccentric behavior, especially his dark humour in response to each successive murder, which makes him the perfect Shadow Trickster. When the chauffeur George is found dead by his car, Leandro tells the distraught Sophie that "all you have to do is go and leave the corpse to us," relishing the fact that he can now play the role of mortician able to prepare the body for its last rites. And after Carlos is caned to death, Leandro chastises the look-alike mannequin in these words: "A man—a husband no less—losing his head over a woman [ie, Lisa]. Shame on you!" The Shadow Trickster's best line comes when Maximilian loses his balance by an open patio door and falls onto the spikes of a nearby gate.

"Oh, he slipped!" is all this Devil can say as he gazes down at the bloody body and cracks a smile to no one in particular. Even the Heroine Lisa is on the receiving end of some Leandro's remarks; but she is not aware of what is being communicated to her as she appears to be in an almost comatose state for a good portion of the film. Some of the dialogue between Leandro and the unresponsive Lisa includes the following: "Is this the face that launched so many deaths, our modern-day Helen? Maybe you're Sleeping Beauty, and I'm Prince Charming. [He then kisses Lisa on the cheek, yet she does not awaken.] Oh, it didn't work. Ah well!" Apparently Leandro enjoys playing with his victims, regardless of their condition— whether dead or semi-conscious.

An interesting subplot can be found in Lisa e il diavolo that may remind viewers of the Alfred Hitchcock classic, Psycho (1960), but with a surprising Trickster twist. In Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) fashion, Maximilian has killed his lover Elena, but keeps her skeletal remains in a concealed room so that he can continue to talk to her. He proudly shows off Elena's skeleton to Lisa and admits that he has murdered most of those in her party (including his own mother) so that she can remain with him forever. When Lisa decides to leave, Maximilian chloroforms her and attempts to make love to her on the very bed that Elena is laying. However, he is unable to reach a climax as he hears the dead woman mocking him, similar to Norman's own impotence due to his feeling Mother Bates's ever-domineering presence.[12] Agitated, Maximilian removes himself from the secret chambers and his two loves.

Mario Bava's Lisa e il diavolo (Lisa and the Devil, 1972)Here is where the Shadow Trickster tale intersects with Psycho. Upon entering the dining room, Maximilian finds all of his victims sitting quietly at the table— waiting to be served. The dead Contessa breaks the silence as she moves jerkily into the room, almost like a puppet on invisible strings. The son cannot believe his eyes and falls to his doom. It is then that the real manipulator of events is revealed: none other than the Trickster Leandro who magically appears from behind the Contessa and gazes down at Maximilian with a devilish smile on his face. (Norman Bates never had it so bad.)

The remainder of Lisa e il diavolo focuses on the Heroine recovering from her drugged state and discovering, to her dismay, that she is all alone in the now decaying mansion. Bava has the camera linger on Lisa's nearly perfect, nude body walking through the wild vegetation that is running rampant everywhere, making sure that the audience is able to compare her to the first woman in human history, Eve, who also dealt with the Devil and lost her Paradise as well. Lisa eventually finds her clothes and puts them on, but her re-entry into the present timeline is not a pleasant experience.

Children playing ball close to the villa mistake Lisa for a ghost and hurriedly leave the premises. Most of the people Lisa encounters on her way to the airport seem to ignore her, and when she gets on the plane she soon notices that there are no other passengers on board. Panic-stricken, Lisa searches the jet section by section until she finds the dead bodies of Maximilian and the others propped up in seats within the first class area. She pounds on the door of the cockpit, hoping to get the attention of the pilot. The biggest surprise (or "trick") comes when Leandro, now dressed in a captain's uniform, responds to her cries with an out-of-place smile and a long puff on his cigarette.

Mario Bava's Lisa e il diavolo (Lisa and the Devil, 1972)Howarth summarises the final, shocking moments of the film as follows: "The camera cuts back to Lisa. She is now dressed in [the doppelgänger] Elena's clothing. Her pallor is ghostly and sick, and she slumps to the floor, dead."[13] Herk Harvey's 1962 cult classic, Carnival of Souls, has the same type of disturbing ending, with the apparently "alive" Heroine having been drowned in her boyfriend's vehicle that swerved into a lake shortly after the opening credits. Unlike Carnival of Souls, however, Lisa e il diavolo includes a "prime mover," namely the Shadow Trickster Leandro, who keeps Lisa/Elena alive for his own sadistic pleasure only to withdraw the life force from her whenever he becomes bored. One might say that Leandro is the Circus Ringmaster to his own "carnival of souls."

Final comments on Bava's Shadow Tricksters

Whether the portrayal of the Shadow Trickster is that of a hideous demon summoned from the underworld to wreak havoc on humanity or a more gentlemanly figure who psychologically paralyses his intended victims with a charming smile, Bava has used this archetypal figure to great advantage by transporting his audiences on an ever-reeling roller-coaster ride of reality and illusion as well as life and death in both Gli orrori del castello di Norimberga and Lisa e il diavolo. Mario Bava was one of the great directors of Italian horror cinema in large part because he updated the classic, Jungian image of the Trickster for a new generation of viewers. Perhaps Bava realised that there is some part of Otto Von Kleist or Leandro in each of us, always craving release.

James Iaccino

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Pictures courtesy of the Mario Bava Web Page and Henrik Hemlin

Also of interest
About the author

James Iaccino is Professor of Psychology at Benedictine University in Lisle, Illinois. He has written a number of articles on cult television series (eg, Space: 1999, Babylon 5 and Forever Knight) using a Jungian archetypal perspective and has also authored two definitive texts on the application of Jungian archetypes to various film genres, Psychological Reflections on Cinematic Terror: Jungian Archetypes in Horror Films (Praeger, 1994) and Jungian Reflections within the Cinema: A Psychological Analysis of Sci-Fi and Fantasy Archetypes (Praeger, 1998). Currently, he is teaching a Screenplay Writing course at the University and is hopeful that his modern-day vampire screenplay, The Vidbond Connection, will be accepted by a major studio.

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1. Carl G Jung, "On the Psychology of the Trickster Figure." In The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious: The Collected Works (Vol 9a), trans Hull (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990), 158-59.return to text

2. James Iaccino, Psychological Reflections on Cinematic Terror: Jungian Archetypes in Horror Films (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1994), 167-80.return to text

3. Alain Silver and James Ursini, "Mario Bava: The Illusion of Reality." Images: A Journal of Film and Popular Culture 5: 4.return to text

4. Troy Howarth, The Haunted World of Mario Bava. (Surrey: FAB Press, 2002), 26.return to text

5. Phil Hardy (ed), The Encyclopedia of Horror Films (New York: Harper and Row, 1986), 263.return to text

6. See Iaccino, 66.return to text

7. Howarth, 250.return to text

8. Gary Morris, "Mario Bava's Baron Blood on DVD." Bright Lights Film Journal 26: 3-4.return to text

9. James Iaccino, Jungian Reflections within the Cinema: A Psychological Analysis of Sci-Fi and Fantasy Archetypes (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1998), 149.return to text

10. Carl G Jung, "The Phenomenology of the Spirit in Fairytales." In The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious: The Collected Works (Vol 9a), trans Hull (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990), 208-217.return to text

11. Howarth, 276.return to text

12. Iaccino, Psychological Reflections on Cinematic Terror, 46-48.return to text

13. Howarth, 275.return to text

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