PURE TERROR MONTH: The Embalmer (1965)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: An American living in London, Jennifer Upton is a freelance writer for International publishers Story Terrace and others. In addition, she has a blog where she frequently writes about horror and sci-fi called Womanycom.

The Embalmer (1965), aka Il Mostro di Venezia is a slow burner that fits somewhere in between the horror sub-genres of early Italian Giallo and the Italian gothic films of the 1960s. It is part murder mystery and part an exercise in atmosphere. 

Several young women have disappeared into the canals of Venice. A visual signifier freeze-frame appears for each victim at the moment the killer chooses them. He then stalks them from the nighttime canals in a scuba suit and pounces once they are alone. He drowns them and takes them through a series of tunnels underneath the city to his abandoned Monastery laboratory lair. Once inside, he skulks around in a monastic Skeletor costume. 

Although his origins are never explained, he’s a mad scientist who has invented a new form of embalming fluid to preserve the dead women’s beauty for all eternity. After the procedure, he stands them up into glass display cases like dolls and talks to them. 

Meanwhile, above ground, handsome newspaper reporter Andrea (Luigi Martocci– billed hilariously as “Gin Mart”) coordinates with the police to uncover information. When a group of visiting schoolgirls arrives and one of them falls victim to the maniac, Andrea becomes deeply involved in trying to solve the mystery. 

In a typical Giallo, the identity and the motives of the killer would become clear at the film’s conclusion. The Embalmer’s thin script falls short. When Andrea finally pulls the killer’s skeleton mask off by in the final chase sequence, it’s just a guy. It’s not someone we’ve even seen before anywhere else in the film and we never find out who he is or why he did what he did before being shot by the police. 

One characteristic of films from this period of Italian cinema is that they often looked and sounded a decade older than they were. This film is no exception. The black and white photography, jazzy soundtrack, long dance sequences and lack of gore place it in stark contrast with the exciting horror films coming from Hammer studios and Herschell Gordon Lewis during the same period. There’s even a ‘50s-style Italian Elvis. Not at all reflective of the beatnik La Dolce Vita culture prevalent in Italy in 1965. 

The acting is average – made worse by a poor English-language dub with some questionable translation. In one scene, there’s a woman dancing at a nightclub who claims to be 42 years old. She’s a minimum of 70. Her dance moves are groovy regardless. 

These shortcomings aside, the film contains some interesting set-pieces. In the best one, the killer, dressed in his robe and skeleton mask, hides out among the preserved corpses of the deceased monks in his underwater monastery. He enjoys a distinct advantage over Andrea when he comes snooping around with only a flashlight as a single source of light. The gag is so good, it’s used twice. 

Setting the film in Venice adds an immeasurable amount of production value for a film with such an obviously small budget. The night streets are deserted, the throngs of tourists having returned to their cruise-ships parked offshore. It’s a city easy to get lost in with its web of narrow shadowed alleys. During the day, the film goes to great lengths to show the beauty of the Venice and nearby Murano with its artisan glass merchants. Without this bonus, the film would be just okay. As it stands it’s basically par and recommended only for those die-hard fans of ‘60s Italian Giallo cinema. 

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