With Kenneth Branagh’s unexpectedly wonderful and horror-laden “A Haunting in Venice” now in theaters, let’s explore the films that inspired some of its most audacious creative choices.
5. The Haunting (1963)
Perhaps the film “A Haunting in Venice” (and pretty much every haunted house film ever made, including even the Disney Imagineers behind the designing of the original Haunted Mansion ride) is modeled mostly after Robert Wise’s seminal “The Haunting,” and for good reason.
Shirley Jackson’s iconic novel has seen numerous adaptations over the years, but this first cinematic adaptation of the work remains monumental. Robert Wise had an illustrious career, editing “Citizen Kane,” directing “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” and even helming “West Side Story.” Amidst these achievements, he casually delivered one of the definitive interpretations of haunted house cinema, a work that has directly influenced everything from Mike Flanagan’s excellent series “The Haunting of Hill House” to Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead” films.
If you’ve never seen it, you absolutely owe it to yourself to check this out. You’ll be surprised at just how gnarly it is.
4. The Old Dark House (1932)
Speaking of vintage haunted house cinema, between “Frankenstein” in 1931 and “The Invisible Man” in 1933, legendary horror auteur James Whale directed another iconic Universal horror classic: “The Old Dark House.”
Elegant, horrifying, and subversive, this classic slice of pre-code Hollywood horror is riotously entertaining at every turn. In many ways, “A Haunting in Venice” bears a striking resemblance to the film (even the central premise, with a group of unrelated characters trapped in an old dark house by storms outside and deadly mysteries within, is nearly identical) but with notably fewer transgressive elements.
“The Old Dark House” was where James Whale first showcased his talent as a filmmaker who could seamlessly blend horror and comedy, resulting in relentlessly delightful moments. Viewers are drawn to the delectably spooky story, intrigued by the impressive miniature work, captivated by Boris Karloff’s standout performance (he even receives a post-hoc credit for “Frankenstein” in the opening credits), and pleasantly surprised by the film’s surprisingly good rendition of “Singin’ in the Rain.”
3. Blood and Black Lace (1964)
As previously mentioned, giallo is an incredibly significant Italian contribution to the world of cinema, and one of its most prominent figures is Mario Bava. Bava gained recognition for his pulse-pounding gothic horror films in the early 1960s (notably, “Black Sunday” and “Black Sabbath,” both exceptional works that nearly made it onto this list). However, when it comes to quintessential giallo filmmaking, few films capture it as definitively as “Blood and Black Lace.”
In essence, while Christie’s stories emphasize the mystery aspect of murder mystery, giallo works shift the focus to the murders themselves. They often feature antagonists wearing black gloves, committing horrific, blood-soaked killings, all captured in breathtaking Cinemascope and Technicolor. “Blood and Black Lace” stands as a perfect example of precisely what giallo entails and is a flawlessly executed giallo film. Its breathtaking cinematography, vibrant colors, abundance of setpieces, and sheer satisfaction are truly remarkable. It’s a cinematic gem.
If you’ve never delved into Bava’s work, I highly recommend exploring “Black Sunday” and “Black Sabbath” as well. However, if you’ve never experienced a giallo film and want to gain a better understanding of how the subgenre continues to influence contemporary films (such as “A Haunting in Venice” or even James Wan’s “Malignant”), “Blood and Black Lace” is an absolute must-see. You won’t regret it.
2. The Innocents (1961)
The film that most notably influences the visual craftsmanship in “A Haunting in Venice” is Jack Clayton’s immaculate and profoundly unsettling horror film, “The Innocents.”
An adaptation of Henry James’ iconic “The Turn of the Screw,” “The Innocents” weaves a tale of childhood, lost innocence, and a beautiful estate haunted by potentially malevolent spirits. It stands as an incredible film on multiple levels, boasting one of the most famously melancholic endings in cinematic history. For our current discussion, the cinematography in “The Innocents” is nothing short of remarkable. Cinematographer Freddie Francis (known for later works such as David Lynch’s “The Elephant Man” and Martin Scorsese’s “Cape Fear”) collaborated with Jack Clayton to meticulously craft a wide-angle, deep-focus, CinemaScope-aided visual language that rightfully earned them an Academy Award.
“The Innocents” is a visually stunning affair, with an exceptionally wide frame that sometimes results in distortion around the middle of the screen due to the extreme stretching of the image. This distortion enhances the surreal ambiance and unrelenting horror of the narrative. “A Haunting in Venice” deliberately draws visual inspiration from “The Innocents,” which is why I wholeheartedly recommend experiencing “Venice” in IMAX to fully appreciate its visuals.
1. Suspiria (1977)
If Mario Bava’s “Blood and Black Lace” solidified the definition of a giallo film and showcased the subgenre’s potential in 1963, Dario Argento’s “Suspiria” gleefully shattered these conventions in 1977.
Before 1977, Argento was already a highly skilled and inventive giallo filmmaker. His films, such as “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage,” “The Cat o’ Nine Tails,” and “Deep Red” (known as “Profondo Rosso” if you’re a fan), became instant classics within the giallo subgenre, propelling Argento to both creative and commercial success. With each new film, he meticulously refined his craft. However, after “Profondo Rosso” in 1975, Argento took an audacious step: he created a film that would deconstruct the very subgenre he had spent his career perfecting.
“Suspiria” contains all the elements of a giallo film but subverts them, capitalizing on audience expectations to deliver something that defied the mold of the niche genre, making it one of Argento’s finest works. Without revealing too much, “Suspiria” sets up scenarios typical of giallo films but offers entirely unexpected payoffs.
“A Haunting in Venice” draws significant inspiration from Argento’s film, even featuring a clear homage in its first shot. “Suspiria” is an extraordinary film and stands as one of the most intense and genuinely spooky cinematic experiences, cementing its status as an absolute classic.