A woman masturbates with the head of her deceased lover while a blind man jealously listens on...
No, that’s not the start to this week’s Dear Abby column. It’s the entire plot to Lamberto Bava’s 1980 debut film, Macabre, a.k.a. Frozen Terror.
Mostly known for directing Demons 1 and 2 and being the son of The Godfather of Italian Horror, Mario Bava, Lamberto certainly gets shafted for his contributions to the genre. Hell, I think even Dario Argento gets more credit for Demons these days than he does.
But the guy did direct Demons. And A Blade in the Dark (1983). And Delirium (1987). He seemed more the offspring of Lucio Fulci than Mario Bava with his tactile gore and sleazy escapades. Yet, working with his father all those years instilled in him an appreciation for story and characterization that Fulci never quite grasped.
Though honestly, between Macabre and Fulci’s The Devil Honey (1986), I’m not quite sure any Italian ever completely grasped the idea of the erotic thriller. And that’s to our benefit. Because Macabre is fucking bonkers; it's so nonsensical in its human drama that you may think you stumbled into another dimension where the humans act very similar to us, except THEY FUCK THE DECAPITATED HEADS OF THEIR DEAD LOVERS.
Macabre starts off innocently enough, with Jane Baker (Bernice Stegers), married mother of two leaving her family to go to an apartment she rents solely for her trysts with her boyfriend, Fred. In order to get her mother's attention, her daughter, Lucy, drowns her little brother in the bathtub. Fred offers to drive Jane back home upon getting the news, but on the way, they have an accident that leaves Fred without the ability to pleasure women...or does it?
A year later, Jane is released from a mental institution, divorced, and forced to live in that same apartment. Her passion for Fred hasn't died. Far from it. She keeps his severed head inside her freezer, ready to go whenever it's Sexy Time. The blind caretaker, Robert Duval(!) (Stanko Molnar), crushes hard on Jane and has long, torturous nights listening to her pleasuring herself. (Damn, those old New Orleans houses really need more insulation.)
The film strangely works. The 89 minute run time doesn't hurt, but there is a confidence in its deliberate pacing that allows the film to naturally come to a satisfying head (hehe), despite there not being a third act whatsoever. It skates that uncomfortable line of titillation in the way the best exploitation films do. There is a weird eroticism to the indirect seduction of blind Robert Duval that's relatable and pathetic.
However, the entire thing doesn't really add up to anything bigger than being a shockfest, a curioso designed for maximum sensationalism. Which, hey, who are we to complain? It's clear that right out of the gate, Lamberto was not coasting on his father's laurels. He had an inherent talent and a unique cinematic voice. The film has all the sleaze you’d expect from a Joe D’Amato film, but with the technical craft of Michele Soavi—peppered throughout with a perverse classiness reminiscent of Argento.
And speaking of Argento, one of my main criticisms is that the score, a romantic orchestral ditty meant to elevate the movie, only serves to ripen the cheese, so to speak. The entire affair would have benefitted from a more modern, Goblin-esque soundtrack.
Strangely enough, the film is also hampered a bit by its “based on a true story” origins. As I mentioned previously, there’s no third act. It’s as if they had the newspaper clipping about a New Orleans woman keeping her lover’s head in the freezer, then added all the sensational elements without giving much thought to a conventional story.
But perhaps I’m being too hard on the pinnacle Head in a Freezer film. If nothing else, it allowed Lamberto Bava to showcase his directing chops, opening the door to things like Demons, Dario Argento’s best film. Just kidding.