Friday, 24 May 2013

Wrath of the Crows

Director: Ivan Zuccon
Writers: Ivan Zuccon, Gerardo Di Filippo
Producer: Zack Ewans
Cast: Tiffany Shepis, Debbie Rochon, Suzi Lorraine
Country: Italy
Year of release: 2013
Reviewed from: screener

Ivan Zuccon made his feature debut 13 years ago with The Darkness Beyond. Now, with his seventh feature, Ivan has come of age. Wrath of the Crows, coming to us a full five years after the terrific Colour from the Dark, is his most mature and accomplished film to date. But it’s more than that, it’s magnificent: a whole new level of film-making. In my opinion, this is a genuine, no-holds-barred, world-class masterpiece which finally establishes Zuccon as a globally important director. In years to come, perhaps this will be seen as an iconic title in the history of Italian horror (or maybe not - I’m notoriously bad at predicting these things...).

Wrath is also (if this stuff matters to you) by a considerable margin Ivan’s goriest film, with simply masses of blood and some superb prosthetics.

As so often with Ivan’s films, a somewhat rundown location is key to the story; in this case, a prison where a handful of inmates await the verdict of an unseen Judge, spending their days in bare cells with shit- and straw-covered floors. But, through some finely integrated stock footage, the story does take us outside the prison walls for some scenes. (We know it’s stock footage because there’s an elephant in one shot. It looks like Ivan’s working with a bigger budget, but there’s no way he’s hiring elephants.)

It’s clear that this prison, with its two uniformed, sadistic guards and a slavering, animalistic human guard dog, is not in the real world. This is a film of allegory, or metaphor, or fantasy, maybe nightmares. A gripping ten-minute prologue sees one prisoner offered freedom, then tortured - but cuts suddenly to the same character in a very different situation. Then cuts back equally suddenly to the prison. Is one of these a dream? Is either real? Or neither?

There is a natural assumption - and I’ll make it for you - that in a situation like this, we’re in Hell (or Limbo or somewhere) and everyone is dead. That’s along the right lines but there is much, much more to Wrath of the Crows than a simple ‘they were dead all along’ twist. This isn’t a film that builds towards a twist, it’s a finely wrought, expertly crafted exploration of morality, reality, brutality and fatality (and indeed fatalism) - but, as one expects from a Zuccon picture, never normality.

These prisoners, these lost souls in a borderline unreal world which, from their limited, caged viewpoint, could be as real as many a 21st century third world prison, are not simple cyphers who can be summed up with individual glib sentences. They are at one and the same time complex, real people yet also hollow shells of humanity. We know nothing about them except what we can see in their interactions and relationships with each other and with the guards. The interstitial scenes which take us outside the prison walls (and back? forwards? sideways? in time) tell us more but are not simple, pat explanations of how and why these benighted figures ended up in this hellhole, resigned to their fate. And they feed directly into the main story in a variety of sometimes startling ways.

Debbie Rochon, returning to Studio Interzona after her fine performance in Colour from the Dark, is Debby. The awesomely named Domiziano Arcangeli is Larry. Brian Fortune (looking exactly like a post-revolution, pre-execution Saddam Hussein) is Hugo. Tara Cardinal is Liza. These characters are individuals, united only by their isolated existence, sharing only Ivan and Gerardo Di Filippo’s carefully chosen words as days become weeks become years and they lose all memory of a life before prison. They never question what might be happening in the outside world. For them, there is no outside world. They have been locked away and forgotten.

Then Princess arrives: a new prisoner, with a different attitude. Dressed in an amazing crows’-feather cloak over a leather basque, she exudes a brash confidence that the others have lost, but intriguingly exhibits no overt defiance against the rules or the system, despite being penned into the same row of barred cells as the rest. Princess is as accepting of the filthy, bleak, sunless world of the gaol as the four others; in fact she almost seems to relish her new life and the chance to taunt, cajole and maybe even dominate her neighbours.

Everyone in the international cast, without exception, gives their all. As in the past, Ivan has coaxed magnificent performances from actors who all too often ply their trade in hoky B-movies where opportunities for characterisation are sparse. Debbie Rochon’s 18 other 2013-listed IMDB titles, for example, include Return to Nuke ‘Em High and Bikini Bloodbath Shakespeare. Those sort of gigs are fun - God knows I love Uncle Lloyd and can’t wait to see a new Nuke ‘Em High movie - but they don’t stretch an actor. Sometimes an actor wants to take their tongue out of their cheek and really, you know, act. Rochon is a fine actress, but like every other fine actress she needs the roles.

Tara Cardinal is a name I’m not familiar with but that’s because I’ve never been sent copies of Bite Nite, Quest for Comic-Con or Fable: Teeth of Beasts. I don’t think I’m prejudging these movies of which I know nothing in assuming, based solely on their titles, that they aren’t deep character studies. And Domiziano Arcangeli is another new name to me, although he has been making films since he was discovered at the age of eleven in 1979, with more than 150 IMDB credits, about two thirds in Italy and the rest following his move to Hollywood in about 2006-ish.

He was in a 1982 ETA Hoffman adaptation, Vampirismus, and that same year appeared in Antonio Margheriti’s Hunters of the Golden Cobra opposite David Warbeck (reteaming with both for 1984’s Ark of the Sun God). His CV is packed with legendary European directors albeit not necessarily their best-known - or best - works. So we find him in films by Lucio Fulci (Ghosts of Sodom), Aldo Lado (Ritual of Love), Umberto Lenzi (Demons 3), Tinto Brass (Paprika), Andrea Bianchi (Le Perversioni degli Angeli), Bruno Mattei (Capriccio Veneziano, Land of Death, Mondo Cannibale) and even a spell working for Jesus Franco (Vampire Blues, Red Silk, Incubus). (But interestingly not, so far as I can tell, Argento.)

Once Stateside, Arcangeli started out in such low-rent titles as Jeff Leroy’s Werewolf in a Women’s Prison, The Asylum’s Omen knock-off 666: The Beast and Sean Cain’s heartwarming festive classic Silent Night, Zombie Night. He was Victor Frankenstein in Frankenstein Rising, Renfield in Waiting for Dracula (which he also wrote and directed) and Dr Van Sloan in something called Creep Creepersin’s Dracula. (Mr Creepersin has previously escaped my attention, despite making about 40 films in the past seven years; Arcangeli is also in his delightful romcoms Orgy of Blood, Alien Babes in Heat and Brides of Sodom.) My point is that Arcangeli has, like Debbie and Tara, paid his dues in the Z-league but, despite having actually worked with Fellini (an uncredited bit-part in Intervista but hey, it’s still good), it looks like he has rarely been stretched. Directors who average more than five films a year rarely provide the most satisfying opportunities for their casts.

Irish actor Brian Fortune has a less obviously cheap’n’cheerful CV: mostly Dublin-based shorts but with a few horror features including Dave McCabe’s Shackled, Eoin Macken’s The Inside and Eric Courtney’s An Irish Exorcism (maybe there’s an Irish Horror Revival...) plus he was in a couple of episodes of Game of Thrones, which probably paid the rent for a few months. So: a quartet of solid, talented thespians, capable of turning their hands to anything but rarely given the opportunity to explore a story and characters as powerful and thought-provoking, as harrowing and haunted as Larry, Debby, Hugo and Liza. Great work by all.

But Princess is something else. Princess is Tiffany Shepis.

Seriously, if you retained any doubts that Shepis is the reining Queen of Horror, dispel them now, because in Wrath of the Crows La Shep is simply awesome. I won’t bore you with a canter through Tiff’s recent career - the IMDB is over there if you want to take a look - but I will point out how I have observed before that, when given the chance, she is a fantastic actress with a sympathy for the genre that shines through every role. Sometimes, amid the gleeful horror hoopla, Shepis finds a part - and a film, and a director - that she can work with: a complex mixture of confidence, vulnerability, mystique, danger, passion, torment, reproach, violence, horror (of course) and a dozen other personality traits, mixed in the right proportions to make a character cocktail. Stirred, not shaken. We saw this in Zuccon’s NyMpha, we saw it in The Frankenstein Experiment/Syndrome, and we can see it again here. (Frankenstein Experiment helmer Sean Tretta shot second unit for Ivan; he also has the envious position of being Mr Shepis.)

Princess is an amazing performance of an amazing role, standing out even among such a strong and well-handled cast. This is an extraordinary character: layers of understanding and mystery gradually peeling away as we start to find out more about who she is, and why. The other prisoners consider her a witch, maybe because of her costume if nothing else. What does she know? Where has she come from? What makes her different from the others? Should they welcome her or reject her, fear her or trust her? Shepis strides through the film, investing every syllable of dialogue, every glance, every movement, every frame with fantastical, horrific significance. I‘ve never seen her better than this.

So now I’ve gushed about the principal cast (and skipped through their filmographies), let’s return to the movie itself. This is more accessible and less obtuse than some of Ivan’s earlier work, which often prioritised elegiac qualities over straightforward narrative, but that is not to say that there is a simple story here or a simple structure. This is a multi-dimensional web of narrative which is so bound up with characters and settings - and indeed photography, editing, costumes, make-up... - that the film feels like a total cinematic package rather than just a story told on screen. There is a clear third act, a development of the story which introduces a new set of prisoners and I’ll not deny that I found that slightly disconcerting but it serves its purpose and does not in any way detract from the sheer enjoyment of this amazing horror film.

Ivan’s work has always been influenced to a greater or lesser degree by his love of HP Lovecraft but Wrath of the Crows seemed less Lovecraftian and in fact reminded me more of another much-adapted classic author (one whom, truth be told, I have always preferred). And that is Poe (and not just because of the corvid connection). Edgar Allan Poe was a poet: even his fiction has a poetic quality to it, a lyrical evocation of gothic imagery in contrast to Lovecraft’s reliance on things being ‘indescribable’ (both approaches have their merits). Wrath of the Crows is a film poem, and I know that sounds pretentious but that’s the impression that I got while sitting, spellbound for an hour and half. Every syllable of every word of every sentence has been carefully selected and positioned, and the same approach has been made to every camera angle, every lighting choice, every cut, every sound, every costume, every scattering of straw on the prison floor.

Just like a poem, the film only really works as a whole. That’s the main reason I’m not going into too much detail about the plot. Not because it’s unfathomable, but because a summary could never do it adequate justice. It would be like summarising a poem: well, there’s a raven which has learned to mimic a word and it perches on a bust... See what I mean? Just like a cloak of crows’ feathers, Ivan has taken dark and rarely considered things then woven them together to create a satisfying, unexpected, extraordinary whole which works brilliantly in both what it does and how it does it. Taking that apart again wouldn’t leave a cloak, just a pile of old feathers.

One of the feathers that Ivan has woven into his witch’s cloak of darkness is a level of blood and gore above anything he has done previously but this is never gratuitous, never used to just titillate the baser elements of the audience (though it might well enhance their enjoyment of the movie). People are stabbed, people are beaten, people are bitten, people are mauled. Eyes are gouged, throats are slit, skulls are cleaved, teeth are pulled, a tongue is cut out. But every violent act - and its consequences, fatal or otherwise - feeds into the greater body of the film and is handled with the skill of a past master who loves and understand horror cinema.

And there’s religion, and there’s sex, and there's families. Because it wouldn’t be an Italian horror film without those. (Oh, and there are crows too, though quite how wrathful they are is hard to determine.)

This is the key to Ivan Zuccon’s success: he is Italian horror. He knows and loves this genre. But what he is not is a slave to tradition; quite the opposite. Ivan is at the forefront of what, for want of a better phrase, I’ll call the Italian Horror Revival. The IMDB lists about a hundred Italian horror features released since 2000, seven of them Ivan Zuccon joints. So clearly something is going on but people aren’t seeing the bigger picture, just like the British Horror Revival (and potentially that Irish one I mentioned). Many people ignored the boom in fantastic home-grown horror because they believed that British horror would only rise again when Hammer returned. But The Woman in Black was an anomaly (and an over-rated one at that).

By the same token, Italian horror fans seem to live in expectation of the Second Coming of Dario Argento - but he is an old man who, however good his 21st century outings, is never going to make anything like Suspiria or The Bird with the Crystal Plumage again, no matter how many times his prophet Alan Jones raises people’s hopes. The best modern Italian horror is new and different and vital and low-budget and fiercely independent and contemporary and very, very Italian and it reacts against, at least as much as it is influenced by, classic Italian horror. I bet Ireland’s the same. Heck, I bet every country’s the same. They’re all just waiting for somebody to join the dots and realise what has been happening in the indie/DTV market while everyone was suffering from terminal nostalgia.

Ivan has moved on from the Italian Horror Revival. His last film premiered in London; this one premiered in Hollywood. All six of his previous features have achieved international distribution, something that virtually none of those other 2000-and-after spaghetti horrors have managed, a couple of latter-day Argentos notwithstanding. He is a cinematic force to be reckoned with, and Wrath of the Crows is the next step in his journey towards global acclaim.

So who else can we spot in this international all-star cast? Well, Suzi Lorraine plays a number of roles. She has more than 70 IMDB credits including Sea of Dust, Last Rites of the Dead, She-Demons of the Black Sun, Satan’s Schoolgirls, a bunch of Seduction Cinema crap from the early 2000s (under a different name - smart move) and a handful of BHR entries including Monitor, Three’s a Shroud and Dead of the Nite. Zuccon regulars Michael Segal, Giuseppe Gobbato, Matteo Tosi and Emanuele Cerman are respectively the head warden, the savage ‘dog solder’ he keeps on a lead, an executioner and ‘Spoon’, a trustee prisoner with OCD who distributes the slop (and has a disturbing interest in cutlery).

Gerry Shanahan is another Irish actor and another alumnus of Studio Interzona. Since making Colour from the Dark he has appeared in three gore’n’Guinness features - Shackled, Hotel Darklight, and Portrait of a Zombie - plus another Italian horror flick, Zombie Massacre (which also features Michael Segal, Tara Cardinal and... Uwe Boll as the President of the USA?). John Game, who plays the prisoner featured in the prologue, is a British actor who is also in a new Benelux film called A Warning to the Curious (which may or may not be an MR James adaptation). He’s particularly good in a physically demanding role and I suspect we’ll be seeing more of him in the future.

Other cast include Carl Wharton (Zombie Massacre again, plus British SF-thriller The Turing Enigma), Andreea Togan, Chris Pybus, Svetlana Bekleseva (also one of two credited Tiffany Shepis body doubles), Roberta Marelli (also co-producer), Marcella Braga (who was in an Italian Star Wars fan film!) and Ivan’s young daughter Miriam (in two roles, including ‘Young Debby’). To a man and woman (and child) they are all excellent.

Danilo Carignola and Elena Sardelli of leading Italian make-up effects house Crea-Fx provided the excellent blood’n’gore; what a busy time they must have had. Visual effects supervisor Luca Auletta worked recently on an intriguing-looking spaghetti horror-western, Undead Men. Antonio Masiero was the sound designer but there is no composer credited: all the music came from stock libraries. David Bracci, who has worked on most of Argento’s pictures since the late 1990s, gets an ‘additional special effects’ credit. The production designer, as ever, was Valeria Zuccon and the costume designer was once again Donatella Ravagnani. As with the cast, all those behind the camera worked their socks off and have produced outstanding work.

And holding it all together is Ivan, the director, the co-writer but also the cinematographer and the editor (“cut and shot” as his credits traditionally say). As director he leads his cast into wonderful performances, but they would go to waste without the exquisite camera-work, extraordinary lighting and spot-on editing. But this time, curiously, he is not the producer. That is someone named Zack Ewans, a name which returns precisely no hits on Google, not even an IMDB credit. Is it Ivan under a pseudonym? Could be: it is sort of a bit like his names reversed.

Look, I know this epic review has seemed like a gushing love-in, and I know that I always rave about Ivan’s films, and I also know that there are people out there who disagree with me and don’t like the Zuccon movie(s) they’ve seen (hey, some folk can’t stand the Beatles). But you all know by now that I only ever write honestly. I write what I feel about each individual film. And if I keep giving the impression that every Ivan Zuccon picture is better than the last one, that’s because in my opinion, each one is. I still recall that day in 2000 when I first met Ivan at Cannes (in a hotel suite being rented by Tiffany,as it happens - my god, we were all so much younger then).

Ivan’s career since then has been a journey, a progression through which he has taken his natural, God-given talent and refined his skills through a succession of fascinating horror films. And it has been a privilege to travel alongside Ivan on that journey towards Wrath of the Crows, eagerly unwrapping each new VHS tape or DVD as soon as it arrives and watching his body of work develop. Yes, Ivan is my mate. But I’ve had mates who have dropped their game and made poor films, or at least films which weren’t up to their usual standards. If that happens with Ivan, I’ll say so. (Or I’ll say nothing; if I ever don’t review one his movies, you’ll know I found it disappointing). So yes I know Ivan personally, and a few of the other names here, but I don’t praise things because I know the people who made them. I praise things because they’re great. And Wrath of the Crows is great.

I expect good things from an Ivan Zuccon film, but Wrath exceeded even my high expectations, and for that I have to give serious consideration to awarding it my highest rating. I very, very rarely give a film A+, not least because if I do, there will be nowhere to go if something better comes along. Perhaps Ivan’s next film will be even better than this one. But, realistically, I was so blown away with Wrath of the Crows, with the work of Ivan, Tiffany, Debbie and everyone else involved, that if I am honest with myself I have to say this is a perfect horror film. Instantly one of my favourites ever. I want to watch it again. Now.

Bravo maestro.

MJS rating: A+


  1. Fantastic review Mr Simpson. Thank you so much.
    I watched the movie for the first time a couple of days ago and was blown away by Ivan's immeasurable talent. So well 'Cut and Shot' and directed. The cast were amazing.
    I really hope I get to work with Ivan again, I see great things for that man!

    Brian Fortune

  2. Much thanks to you Mr. Simpson for putting out the amazing and informative review. I've seen other films from Ivan and have become a long time fan and from this review I am very excited to see this film as soon as it comes out. Does anyone have a release date yet or know when it may come out in the US? I've been a long time fan of Italian horror films and truly believe Ivan is the new successor to the throne of this genre. I agree with your comments on Tiffany Shepis as well and I am very much anticipating seeing the work of Tiffany and Ivan together again. And from what you are saying it seems as though she has found a great new vehicle moving her career forward.
    I also very much follow Domiziano Arcangeli and his career being again very excited about his role in the film and working with Ivan as well! I have to say though, I'm surprised with your knowledge of cinema that you would only focus on some of his lessor films. I read about and saw some of his earlier films in Europe as well as his early films and tv shows shot in the US that weren't mentioned like Zalman King's Chromium Blue that was actually in 2001, where Domiziano stood out very early for me as a brilliant actor, also great in Sin's Kitchen opposite the amazing Jeffrey Wright, cult classic Samurai Avenger: The Blind Wolf and most recently in Lionsgate's The Ghostmaker.
    Again, great all around review as always from you Mr. Simpson. I really can't wait to see Wrath of the Crows as it very much sound like more than just a horror film but a real classic.

    Jake Parsons