C’era una volta, Italy was a world power … in horror. Lucio Fulci, Mario Bava, Michele Soavi, and of course my beloved Dario Argento were i re of horror cinema. But in the year 2021 … non così tanto. After all, there’s a reason that recent giallo throwbacks like Knife + Heart and Berberian Sound Studio don’t take place in Italy itself (the former) or, if they do, why they are set during the height of Italian horror exportation (the latter). When it comes to domination of the international horror market, Italy is a failed state. So when Italy exported the recent Una classica storia dell’orrore, I was excited. And although A Classic Horror Story couldn’t live up to that legend, it does live up to its title.
We meet young lawyer Elisa (Matilda Lutz) as she is preparing to return home to “visit” her parents, but in reality she is leaving her current city to seek to terminate her pregnancy and recuperate afterward with family before heading back to work. To get home, she is carpooling in a small camper with vacationing couple Mark and Sofia (Will Merrick and Yuliia Sobol), unfriendly doctor Riccardo (Peppino Mazzotta), and their driver, the nerdy and talkative Fabrizio (Francesco Russo). It isn’t explicit, but later dialogue between Mark and Fabrizio, in which the latter expresses annoyance with cultural assumptions that northern Italians make about southern Italians (in short, that everyone in the south is involved with the mafia), suggests that they are travelling from the north to the southern coast. Fabrizio plans to film parts of the trip for his YouTube channel, entitled “Friends of Fabrizio,” and asks the four riders to introduce themselves to the camera, saying that it’s important that his audience come to like them, even stocking the camper’s minifridge with beers to act as a social lubricant and get everyone to come out of their shells. Elisa is pressured into taking a sip but immediately falls ill, forcing them crew to stop by the roadside. While Riccardo argues on the phone with his recently estranged wife, a now inebriated Mark forces his way into the driver’s seat, and insists that he drive the rest of the way. The others accept that he cannot be talked out of it, and he does a fairly decent job for a drunk driver, even bonding with Fabrizio along the drive, until he swerves to avoid a dead animal in the road.
It’s daytime when Elisa awakes, and the camper is now in a vast field, encircled by forest. Mark’s leg is broken and there are no signs of civilization other than a rustic cabin that also occupies the clearing. Riccardo and Fabrizio set out to look for the road, but seemingly trace a great circle instead, ending up back at the site where the camper and cabin are located. Another venture into the forest also results in the discovery of some kind of pagan altar to “three knights,” including pig heads on stakes. After their initial reluctance, the group (minus the still-immobilized Mark) enter the cabin looking for a way to contact or locate help when its door opens with a mysterious creak. Inside, they find ritualisting paintings that relay a local legend that Fabrizio summarizes: the tre cavalieri are Osso, Mastrosso and Carcagnosso, pagan deities who blessed local land in exchange for sacrifices, and that these sacrifices involve the ritualistic removal of individual victims’ ears, eyes, and tongue. The only other decorations in the cabin are photos of what appear to be generations of people wearing animalistic masks, or who perhaps have actual animal heads, as the result of their devil’s deal with the Cavalieri. When the clearing is bathed in a saturating red light while ominous sirens sound, Riccardo, Fabrizio, Elisa, and Sofia take shelter in the cabin’s attic, which gives them a bird’s eye view of three masked entities dragging Mark from the camper to the cabin and securing him to the table within and mutilating his eyes before killing him. As if this weren’t horrifying enough, they also discover a child in the attic in a cocoon made of sticks and straw; the group asks for her name, but she is unable to answer, as she has no tongue.
The group makes another attempt to escape through the woods during the day, discovering a graveyard of abandoned vehicles that imply that this kind of sacrifice has been going on for a very long time. One of the vehicles belonged to the young girl’s family, and she reveals her name, Chiara, to Elisa by recovering her diary from within it. She also implies that they are all in some kind of inescapable purgatory, which is supported by their failure to escape the woods once again; worse, when they return to the clearing, the camper is gone.
It’s all but impossible to talk about this much further without getting into major spoilers, so here ye be warned: spoilers abound from here on out.
Elisa wakes in the night to discover that Ciara, Riccardo, and Sofia have been dragged out of the cabin and into the clearing, where a crowd of animal-headed cultists watch with rapt attention as Osso, Mastrosso and Carcagnosso take the older victims’ eyes and ears, respectively. Elisa is rightfully terrified, and when Fabrizio reappears in the cabin saying that they have to escape, she all but collapses into an embrace with him. As they hold one another, however, she can hear a small, tinny voice … as it gives Fabrizio instructions over his earpiece.
There is no sacrifice or ritual here, at least not in service of harvest gods. All of this has been of Fabrizio’s design, as he seeks to craft a classic horror story. He bemoans the state of contemporary Italian cinema, which consists entirely of insipid comedies and brainless YouTube fluff, and wants to make a new Italian classic. Oddly enough, he doesn’t invoke the names of the three giants of giallo cinema that I cited above, and instead draws on comparisons to extremely American representations of the genre: Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Titanic is also mentioned for good measure). The Osso, Mastrosso and Carcagnosso that he mentioned are actually the supposed founders of the three Mediterranean crime families, tying back to his repeated references to the mafia, including a joke that he told to break the tension and lighten Chiara’s spirits during a particularly grim moment. Not that she actually needed this, of course; she’s still alive, and has been in on it the whole time.
Fabrizio’s biggest problem is that, for all his supposed learnedness about the nature of horror, he forgot about one of the genre’s most important features: the final girl. After a brief interlude in which we learn that Fabrizio has the support (or at least the indifference) of local politicians and police, Elisa escapes from the wheelchair to which her hands are nailed, and she turns the tables on Fabrizio and Chiara, and she’s kind enough to film the whole thing before escaping into the woods and eventually finding her way to a beach, where horrified onlookers are briefly stunned by the bloody girl in their midst before they immediately take their phones out and begin to film her.
The first hour or so of A Classic Horror Story isn’t anything to write home about, being more “serviceable” than “good.” But the final 35 minutes more than make up for the water-treading of the first and second acts. What’s also praiseworthy here is how much it fits with what I want to see more of in horror: wherein we are first led to believe that something supernatural is afoot, before we get the important reminder that all evil in this world is done by humans. There’s a genuine eeriness that permeates the proceedings as soon as the travellers find themselves in the clearing, especially with the apparent presence of pagan deities and sacrifices in creepy masks, as well as the strange lighting and the wailing sirens. Unfortunately, those elements suffer from appearing in a film that was released so soon after the higher-budgeted Midsommar, especially given that the source imagery from which both films are borrowing are similar. It’s not identical, of course, but neither are Garden State and Elizabethtown, which didn’t stop contemporary critics from making the same note about the short time between those similar releases. There are very similar scenes of an outdoor cultist feast with our heroine at the head of the table, and it’s even present in the various lodgings, which don’t look alike precisely, but which are both juuust unconventional enough to lend an air of uncanniness to the proceedings.
I truly didn’t see that final act twist coming, and my opinion of the film took a sharp increase as it drew to a conclusion. It didn’t turn this into the instant horror classic that it was aiming for, and there’s an extension of its metacommentary into the end credits that I have mixed feelings about (it’s kind of dumb but the final moment of self-deprication amused me). That’s the element that I think will age the most poorly, but then again, only time will tell. A Classic Horror Story is streaming now on Netflix.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond