An overlooked example of queer horror cinema, Il boia scarlatto both invokes and departs from the conventions of the peplum in its depiction of a sadistic—and narcissistic—male murderer. Leon Hunt explains.
Insofar as Massimo Pupillo's Il boia scarlatto (Bloody Pit of Horror, Italy/US 1965) has a "reputation," it is largely confined to the ambivalent psychotronic gaze of trash aesthetes—according to Frank Henenlotter, "a breathtaking blend of cheesecake, pop art, and Sadean excess." But there seems to be a cult consensus both that the film showcases a barnstorming performance by former Mr Universe Mickey Hargitay, and that something very queer is going on in this particular Bloody Pit. The Aurum Film Encyclopedia discerns "a classic example of repressed homosexuality transformed into sadistic aggression towards women," while one of Amazon.com's customer reviews wonders whether "they (were) also going for a gay audience." Hargitay is, after all, the man who shared Jayne Mansfield's "Pink Palace" and compared chests with her in Gli Amori Di Ercole (The Loves of Hercules, 1960). But it is worth pondering the relationship between bodybuilding, sado-erotic spectacle and male narcissism.
A new Executioner
Travis Anderson (Hargitay), a former actor who "used to be a muscleman in costume pictures," occupies the castle that belonged to the sadistic Crimson Executioner three centuries earlier. Travis is obsessed, equally, by the castle's former owner and by his own "perfect body." His isolation is rudely interrupted by a group of photographers and models in search of a suitable locale for horror/giallo book covers—the group includes horror writer Rick (Walter Brandi, comatose as usual) and Travis's former fiancé Edith (Luisa Baratto).
Travis's male victims meet with perfunctory demises, but the "Cover Girls" receive rather more lascivious treatment. One is tied to a gigantic spider web as a bizarre, mechanical arachnid closes in, another two are strapped to a revolving pylon as a column of knives is pushed ever closer by Travis—in a series of close-ups, the knives scrape their cleavages and tear off slivers of black brassiere. This is just a prelude to the rack, icy cold water and boiling oil. Travis oils himself up in front of multiply reflecting mirrors and dresses in the Executioner's outfit (bare chest, medallion, crimson hood and tights). "Now you'll be punished for your lechery," he promises, but he is finally impaled on a spiked dummy, the "Lover of Death," during a struggle with Rick—"My body, my pure body has been contaminated," he gasps before expiring.
Hybrid genres and ambiguous messages
Il boia scarlatto is a hybrid of the Gothic and the peplum (Italian "Sword and Sandal" movies), but it also anticipates the Italian comic-strip adaptations based on Kriminal (1967), Diabolik, Satanik and Mr X (all 1968). Travis is a hybrid too, a mixture of Kriminal, Hercules and Gothic sadist. Kriminal was an Italian comic book focusing on the exploits of a masked criminal, and the film explicitly alludes to its eponymous anti-hero in the figure of "Skeletrix," a black skeletal bodystocking used in the photo shoot. The horror and crime comics (fumetti neri) of the 1960s are in fact an important intermediary between the Gothic and the titillating excesses of the giallo.
Carlo Dumontet suggests that the new breed of bodystocking-wearing anti-heroes in the fumetti neri indicated some significant cultural shifts in Italy. The 50s and 60s marked a period of economic growth, improved living standards and, consequently, some changes in moral and cultural values. Dumontet sees this as a break from dominant Catholic values, but perhaps it was more of a renegotiation—it is difficult to think of a more puritanical sub-genre than the giallo, even if it displayed more flesh than Italian cinema had previously been used to.
Equally, Diabolik and, particularly, Kriminal may have embodied a kind of permissiveness, but they usually punished it, too: "Each issue [of Kriminal] abounded in scantily attired young ladies, who frequently ended up as half-naked subjects of brutal homicides" (Dumontet, 9). Often, they were the victims of Kriminal himself, like the girl in "Omicidio al rigormatorio" ("Murder at the Reformatory," Kriminal 5, 1964), impaled on a spiked fence and positioned for the best view of her knickers and stockings. The women in Bloody Pit could easily have been drawn by comic book artist Magnus (Roberto Raviola)—curvy, scantily clad, in unspeakable peril if not already dead.
The Crimson Executioner, like Kriminal, simultaneously embodies sexuality and chastises it. He decries lechery just as his crimson outfit suggests a state of perpetual engorgement. Kriminal first appeared in 1964 and pushed the sado-erotic boat further than the already quite racy Diabolik. But by 1965, the year of Il boia scarlatto, a backlash had set in, a campaign against fumetti neri not dissimilar to those that took place in America and Britain in the 1950s. Travis's descent into dementia is exacerbated by the production of precisely the kind of images that were causing so much concern in 1965—thus, he is both libidinous and puritanical, both Kriminal and what Henenlotter calls "a Censor from Hell."
Mussolini in tights
1965 was also the year that the peplum cycle began to fizzle out and Il boia scarlatto both references and distances itself from their body-beautiful aesthetics. Richard Dyer sees the peplum as a complex coming-to-terms with fascism. They offer images of transcendent white male bodies, an aesthetic prominent both in the Mussolini era and in Il Duce himself, "the Maciste of fascist Italy," but their narratives explicitly reject fascism, often embodied in autocratic villains holding forth about "purity" and "inferior races."
Where Il boia scarlatto departs from the peplum is in embodying fascist aesthetics and fascist politics in the same figure—it is the Maciste figure who now talks about "inferior creatures, spiritually and physically deformed." He is a figure from the past, unsuccessfully "hidden" and forgotten, who returns and regains control over the imagination of the "disempowered" white male. In short, he is Mussolini in tights, back at the film studio (Cinecitta) built in accordance with his "vision" but which had subsequently become the site of the cinematic excesses of the 60s.
According to Mark Simpson, bodybuilding typifies the way that "everytime men try to grasp something consolingly, sturdily, essentially masculine, it all too easily transforms into its opposite." By the 1960s, there were already (homophobic) concerns about all this obsessive interest in male perfection. Wardell Pomeroy's Boys and Sex (1968) spells out exactly the scenario of Pupillo's film: if boys obsess over their own bodies, they are already a short step away from getting interested in other male bodies. Thus, Travis's self-love is inextricably linked to his desire for the Crimson Executioner's "perfect body."
Where do the "Cover Girls" fit into all this? The film's original English title, A Tale of Torture, gives us a clue, because bodybuilding itself is usually a tale of torture, self-improvement enacted within a matrix of discipline and self-punishment. Simpson calls the gymnasium a "hi-tech dungeon where the weak flesh is punished by the willing/willful spirit" (38). Travis's torture chamber is a kind of inverted gym, the women's suffering mirroring his own acquisition of a supposedly perfect, but all too vulnerable/penetrable body. The rack stands in for weights machines, icy water for cold showers, the knives "trim" excess flesh (toned, muscular bodies are often referred to as "cut").
In "A Child is Being Beaten," Freud analyses children's fantasies of being beaten as displaced incestuous desire for the father. As a further disguise/displacement, a third party is often substituted for the subject—it is someone else being beaten. We don't need to look very far for the desired "father" of Il boia scarlatto. Travis gazes longingly at the facsimile of the Crimson Executioner—an omnipotent Super Ego—and subsequently is "possessed" by him. But if Travis substitutes for the Executioner, someone else needs to substitute for Travis, which is where the Cover Girls stand in for the Cover Boy. This substitution is made particularly explicit when Travis tries to force Annie (Femi Benussi) into the "poisonous clutches of the lover of death," the male figure who will embrace/penetrate him in the final scene. If Travis looks distinctly surprised when he is "contaminated," he is also, in a sense, getting exactly what he wants: to be fucked by the Crimson Executioner.
At one level, this leaves the male viewer out of the homosexual circuit of desire, which is both opened and closed by Travis, ultimately another example of what Harry Benshoff calls the "Monster Queer." But because the "beating" fantasy keeps identification and gender in a state of flux, it also does not. Henenlotter recalls seeing the film for the first time in a cinema on 42nd Street in Manhattan, "where the bloodthirsty crowd wildly cheered Hargitay on, obviously recognizing a role model when they saw one." But as Henenlotter jokily signs off his DVD liner notes, he promises that "now you too will be punished for your lechery!" Maybe the viewer will (silently) cheer that proposition, too.
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