Arcane Sorcerer (1996)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: A.C. Nicholas, who has a sketchy background and hails from parts unknown in Western Pennsylvania, was once a drive-in theater projectionist and disk jockey, Currently, in addition to being a writer, editor, podcaster, and voice-over artist, he contributes to Drive-In Asylum. His first article, “Grindhouse Memories Across the U.S.A.,” was published in issue #23. He’s also written “I Was a Teenage Drive-in Projectionist” and “Emanuelle in Disney World and Other Weird Tales of a Trash Film Lover” for upcoming issues.

In the world of horror films, there are the great directors who spent almost their entire careers in the genre, like George Romero and John Carpenter. And then there are directors who worked in a variety of genres and, when they dabbled in horror, produced masterpieces. Sometimes just one masterpiece, like Britain’s Michael Powell with Peeping Tom. Or two, like Spain’s Narciso Ibáñez Serrador with The House That Screamed and Who Can Kill a Child? But someone who has three horror masterpieces in his filmography—and is one of my favorites—is the great Italian director Pupi Avati.

Avati has been directing films in different genres for over 50 years. A jazz musician, he even directed a biopic filmed in Davenport, Iowa, about early jazz trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke. I’ve heard him referred to as the “Stephen Spielberg of Italy.” But for me, his three horror films, The House with Laughing Windows (1976), Zeder (1983), and Arcane Sorcerer (1996), stand as some of the least-seen, best horror films ever made. All are slow burns with little violence and action but with the most pervasively chilling atmosphere you can imagine. Perhaps someday folks will recognize Avati as the natural successor to Mario Bava, a director who could create atmosphere with the simplest of things, like the sound of the wind or the movement of a shadow.  I dare you to walk through a cemetery at night after seeing a Pupi Avati horror film.

In Arcane Sorcerer, his third film in the genre, Avati does a couple of striking things. First, he sets his film in rural 18th century Italy. And second, he manages to make a wholly original film, while combining and expanding upon his two previous genre entries.

Without giving much away, the plot concerns a young seminarian played by Stefano Dionisi (Sleepless) who, to avoid prosecution by church authorities for a huge scandal, hides out. He takes a job as the secretary to a defrocked monsignor, a perfectly cast Carlo Cecchi (The Red Violin and Stealing Beauty). The monsignor, who practices the black arts, is a scary figure to the local villagers. Indeed, he lives in isolation in a castle with a huge, foreboding library and does weird stuff like sending coded letters to dead people. Through the course of the film, the young man will see a lot of disturbing things, including a twist that fans of Avati’s work will surely recognize.

Everything about Arcane Sorcerer is first rate. The production design is terrific (love that chandelier in the library), the cinematography is gorgeous, the score by genre favorite Pino Donaggio is spot-on, and it’s all put together with intelligence and loving care. (There’s a memorably creepy scene featuring a long-dead body that must be moved to consecrated ground.) But what impresses me the most is how writer-director Avati scored yet another personal triumph. He has this uncanny, preternatural ability, like Bava, to make the smallest things terrifying. And he makes it all look easy. I have yet to see another living director pull off what he does. (Robert Eggers came close with The VVitch.)  It’s Avati’s special gift, and I’m glad that we have his three horror films. He’s now 83 years old but still working, so I can dream of one last masterwork from this still relatively unknown master of horror.

Apart from a screening at the Toronto International Film Festival, I don’t believe Arcane Sorcerer ever had an official release in any English-speaking territory. Indeed, I only recently tracked down a DVD rip in Italian with dreadful English subtitles loaded with typos. Avati’s The House with Laughing Windows took years to find its U.S. cult following. Arcane Sorcerer would find its cult too if Vinegar Syndrome ever released a Pupi Avati box set. It certainly deserves it.

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