Synopsis: Young sculptor Roberto Merighi (Anthony Steffen) is hired to restore a statue in a small Italian village. The statue had been lost in the town’s lake for over 200 years, and was only rediscovered when a recent drought lowered the level of the water.
Count Montebruno, who has commissioned the restoration, tells him that the statue had been created to honor a family ancestor, Madelina Montebruno, a woman renowned for her beauty. But the statue was long rumored to carry a curse, and Montebruno warns him that many villagers are angry that the statue is being restored. Soon word comes that the men who rowed Merighi across the lake to the village are dead after their boat overturned — fueling more rumors that the statue will bring bad fortune to the town.
It isn’t long before Merighi learns the Montebruno wasn’t kidding about the villagers being angry. At the local pub Carlo (Mario Brega), purportedly the strongest man in the village, picks a fight with him over the statue, and Merighi bests him — just barely — and exits the bar. He meets the local teacher, another recent arrival named Dario (Vassali Karis), who is dating the Montebruno mansion’s pretty maid Rita (Ursula Davis).
Before long there is a new arrival at the Montebruno household – the beautiful young Harriet (Barbara Steele) who is the exact image of the statue of her ancestor Madelina. Harriet had been studying abroad and will soon come into her inheritance. Merighi asks her to model for him, as her resemblance to Madelina will make the restoration project easier. She agrees and the two begin spending many hours together, and soon fall in love.
One night Merighi awakens, hearing a woman’s ghostly voice calling to him. He follows the voice to his studio, where the voice tells him she is the ghost of Bellinda, cousin to Madelina Montebruno. It was she who placed a curse on the statue, she says. Bellinda had been just as ugly as Madelina was beautiful, and was insanely jealous at the attention that Madelina’s beauty commanded. Bellinda was in love with the sculptor commissioned to create the statue to Madelina, but when she went to his studio at night to visit him, she found Madelina in his arms. Enraged, she went out to the parapet upon which the statue had been mounted and tried to pull it off its pedestal and send it into the lake. She succeeded, but lost her own life when she went into the water too.
Now, she says, the recovery of the statue and Harriet’s arrival have both fueled her hatred, and she is just as determined as ever to have her revenge for the slights and misfortunes she suffered two centuries earlier.
The next evening, Harriet begins to act strangely. She becomes haughty and vicious, and claims to be Bellinda, the ugly cousin of Madelina Montebruno. She goes to the town and begins sowing chaos, by seducing and corrupting the men in town one by one….
Comments: This is our first Italian gothic horror film on Horror Incorporated, and our first movie starring the almost supernaturally beautiful Barbara Steele. An Angel For Satan is a good example of this particular subgenre, with a stylish look, crisp black-and-white photography and, despite a slightly daffy ending, a satisfying mystery.
Good horror movies play on particular nagging fears of the audience, and this one is deeply rooted in the fear of women’s sexuality. When the ghost of ugly (and corrupt) Bellinda takes possession of the beautiful (and pure) Harriet’s body, it’s like a gin-soaked rummy climbing behind the wheel of a Maserati. You know it’s all going to end in a spectacular wreck, but Bellinda is going to have fun while it lasts.
That’s telegraphed when Bellinda first takes possession of Harriet’s body. She stands in front of the mirror, running her hands up and down her amazing new figure — an act of vanity in which Harriet, of course, would never have indulged.
The movie seems to assume that beauty is more than skin-deep. It’s implied that Harriet is a good and pure person because she is beautiful. Conversely, Bellinda’s ugliness goes all the way down to the core of her being. When an ugly soul gets in possession of a beautiful body, the result is chaos.
The mayhem Bellinda-as-Harriet inflicts on the town is entirely a product of her sexual power. She undresses in front of gardener / village idiot Vittorio, driving him wild with desire, then whips him across the face when he dares look at her (so unhinged is Vittorio by the sight of her naked body he begins raping and murdering women in the town). She seduces Dario, and very nearly succeeds in seducing his girlfriend Rita, torpedoing their relationship. She convinces Carlo that she would be willing to have an affair with him — if his wife and children were out of the way. Carlos ends up burning down his house in order to kill his family. Again and again, men are depicted as the helpless pawns of women, completely losing their minds when female beauty is weaponized against them.
It’s been well-documented, of course, that men behave badly and do stupid things where a beautiful woman is involved. But laying waste to an entire village with your looks alone is still a heavy lift, and the producers were wise to cast Barbara Steele as Harriet. Steele had gotten quickly typecast in horror films after a defining turn in Mario Bava’s Black Sunday and while she always regretted being stuck in horror movies again and again, she is simply superb in this film. Much like the men in the village, you can’t take your eyes off her, and she is convincing both as the innocent Harriet and the sinister Bellinda.
The other cast members are pretty strong too. Anthony Steffen was a durable leading man who’d appeared in a number of spaghetti westerns. Mario Brega, who plays Carlo, is probably best known them too, having appeared in both The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and For a Few Dollars More. Ursula Davis appeared in numerous horror films over the years, including Kong Island (1968) and Crypt of the Vampire (1964).
Synopsis: It’s close to midnight at the state penitentiary, where an execution is due to take place. The executioner Ernie Matthews is beside himself with anguish and self loathing. He hates the idea of killing someone at the State’s behest, even if it is a notorious murderer of women. Bob, the prison doctor feels bad too, but understands that they must all do their jobs.
Anyway, that’s what Bob tells nurse Joan, who is also distraught about the pending execution. He tells her that once he’s back from his month-long vacation in Bermuda he will look for another job — one in a pleasant small town. And when he finds that job he will ask Joan to marry him.
But Joan is undecided. She likes Bob but is reluctant to give him an answer.
At midnight the execution takes place. Joan is to take Bob to the airport, and Ernie cadges a ride to a nearby bar to drown his sorrows. The warden asks Johnny Martin, a trusty who is about to be paroled, to drive the car.
When they leave, prison pastor Ira tells the warden that he’s in love with Joan, but she isn’t aware of it; as long as she shows a preference for Bob, he will keep silent about it. But he tells the warden that Ernie is in love with Joan too.”He told me months ago that the only reason he remains here is to be near Joan.”
“Am I running a prison or a lonely hearts club?” the warden wonders, not unreasonably.
Ernie gets dropped off at the bar, where he meets Manning, a loud-mouthed reporter who had covered the execution. The two get into a fight that turns into a full-on barroom brawl. Meanwhile, Joan has dropped Bob off at the airport, and decides to go back to the bar and check on Ernie. Johnny enters the bar to find him and tries to break up the fight. Johnny gets a few punches in, but ends up getting cut in the neck by a broken bottle.
This lands him in the prison hospital where Joan tends to his wounds. She finds herself charmed by Johnny’s aw-shucks attitude. She asks him what he’s in prison for, and while he hints that he’s innocent, he doesn’t claim to be; after all, that’s what all the other guys in stir do. No, he says, he’s just the kind of guy who ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Manning has long wanted to pin a newspaper scandal on the governor, and he sees the barroom brawl as a way to succeed. Soon headlines screaming about the drunken state executioner and the prison trusty engaging in fistfights are coming thick and fast, and the governor tells the warden
that Johnny’s parole will have to be delayed for at least a year, until the scandal blows over.
Ira suggests that Joan spend more time with Johnny to help prepare him for the possibility that he might not make parole. But Joan discovers not only that Johnny has fallen in love with her, but that she has fallen in love with him. This gives Johnny something to live for outside of the prison.
Inevitably, though, things start to go south. One of the prisoners kills a guard while trying to escape. Johnny tries to stop the guy who did it. The prisoner is killed and the authorities assume Johnny was part of the prison break, and finds himself on death row for the crime….
Comments: Romantic love doesn’t usually figure prominently in prison movies, so in that regard at least Buried Alive stands out from your standard issue film of this type. Joan isn’t the only woman on Earth but she might as well be, given the attention that every man around gives to her. Like a lot of the quickly-penned programmers of this era, you get the odd feeling that Buried Alive was written by people who had no first-hand experience in human relationships.
The cavalcade of men who are vying for Joan’s affections becomes unintentionally funny. It would be easier to list the men in the movie who aren’t in love with her. Everyone’s attitude toward capital punishment seems odd as well. People who work in prisons – especially prisons where executions are carried out — become hardened to what they experience every day; they find ways to compartmentalize emotions like pity and empathy. They have to do that in order to carry out their jobs and maintain their sanity. But everyone who works at the prison in this movie seem to be deeply troubled by the prisoners’ lot and extremely upset at the idea of the executions that were, in this era, all too routine. Why would Ernie, the state executioner, constantly wail and agonize about the morality of his job? The explanation we’re given – that he sticks with it because he wants to be near Joan – doesn’t make a lot of sense. Why, after all, did he take the job in the first place? In fact, everyone in the movie seems to be against capital punishment as a matter of principle, with the exception of the cartoonishly slimy Manning.
Little that happens in this movie is remotely plausible, and plot contrivances pile up like cord wood. The entire trip to the airport is cooked up so that we can get Johnny, Ernie and Manning in the same bar on the same evening. And what kind of airline schedules flights to Bermuda at two in the morning?
I know what you’re thinking: a forgotten 79-year-old movie that was broadcast on a medium-market TV station in the middle of the night 46 years ago? Who cares?
Well, I can’t help it. I do care. And I always will.