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Plot: aunt Marta will kill to see her estranged family – or are they already dead?

Don't Be Afraid Of Aunt Marta (released domestically as Non aver paura della zia Marta and for some reason released in North America as either The Murder Secret or The Broken Mirror) is part of I maestri del thriller (what the English-speaking world knows as Lucio Fulcio Presents), a nine-part television and home video series wherein producers Antonio Lucidi and Luigi Nannerini envisioned bringing Italian horror to the small screen with the help of ailing and over-the-hill horror master Lucio Fulci. Don't Be Afraid Of Aunt Marta is late-stage 80s Italian erotic thriller dirge masquerading as either a very lethargic giallo or a hugely ineffective suburban gothic. If it’s remembered for anything it’s that it pretty much was the last straight-up thriller Mario Bianchi would direct before his focus shifted entirely towards hardcore porn in 1989. Don't Be Afraid Of Aunt Marta is a sobering eulogy for the once-formidable Italian gothic. Twenty years after the innovations of Riccardo Freda and Mario Bava this is where the gothic dies. What other reason to check out Don't Be Afraid Of Aunt Marta than to see Maurice Poli hamming it up, a truly emaciated Gabriele Tinti a mere three years before he would succumb to cancer, and Luciana Ottaviani flaunting her delicious shapes and forms?

To keep costs as low as possible and make most of crew and locations this was filmed in between Reflections Of Light (1988) and The Ghosts Of Sodom (1988) retaining much of the principal cast with only the leads rotating. Mario Bianchi was a consummate professional who could be trusted to routinely direct whatever was doing well at the box office within the alloted budgets and time. As such Bianchi has directed spaghetti westerns, peplum, poliziottesco, sex comedies, and the occassional horror. After Satan’s Baby Doll (1982) he retired his long-time exploitation alias Alan W. Cools and like so many (Joe D’Amato, Jess Franco, Jean Rollin, et al) he focused almost exclusively on filming hardcore pornography (usually under his trusty nom de plume Martin White and frequently with Marina Hedman and Ilona Staller sucking a wholly different way) from 1983 onward.

Written by Bianchi and photographed by Silvano Tessicini there’s no way Don't Be Afraid Of Aunt Marta could in any way compete with Fulci’s classic tenure with director of photography Sergio Salvati or his giallo with Luigi Kuveiller and Sergio D'Offizi. Don't Be Afraid of Aunt Marta not only looks cheap the way only a television movie can the cast reflected just how impoverished of a production this was. Tinti and Poli ostensibly were the draw here with Russo and Ottaviani as elder and younger stars. Them excepted the remainder of the warm bodies were, for all intents and purposes, nobodies. If there wasn’t for the inclusion of brief flashes of nudity and extreme gore this could’ve been passed off as a failed 90-minute pilot to an unproduced television series. Here Fulci acted as co-producer and oversaw the gore effects with special effects technician Giuseppe Ferranti. Even in the Ottaviani/Moore canon this (and the two other titles that Luciana/Jessica appeared in) is but a curious and forgotten footnote.

In 1958 Richard Hamilton (Gabriele Tinti) was witness to his mother (Anna Maria Placido) confining her sister (and his aunt) Marta (Sacha Darwin, as Sacha M. Darwin) - who up to that point had acted as his guardian - to a psychiatric ward to get access to her fortune. Not helping is that his mother flung herself out of a window of the house later. Thirty years pass and one day Richard receives a letter from Aunt Marta. She cordially invites Richard and his family to come visit her at the old family seat in the sticks now that she has been released from the clinic. Coming along for the visit are Richard’s wife Nora (Adriana Russo), his daughter Giorgia (Luciana Ottaviani, as Jessica Moore), and his son Maurice (Edoardo Massimi). Also arranged to come over for the getaway at the estate is Richard’s son from a previous marriage, Charles (Massimiliano Massimi). At the estate they are welcomed by administrator (and groundskeeper) Thomas (Maurice Poli) who informs them that Marta has been delayed on some pressing business and will rejoin them the next morning. Richard spents the night in sweat-drenched panic upon receiving a silent phone call. When Marta fails to materialize in the days that follow tensions within the family start to mount. All of this prompts Richard to do some investigating of his own. As long-buried family secrets come to surface members of the family start dying… or were they already dead to begin with?

Arguably the last of the great Italian screamqueens (together with Florence Guérin, Lara Wendel, and Margie Newton) we have warmed up considerably to Luciana Ottaviani over the years. Ottaviani had both the curls and the curves and she was never afraid about flaunting either when and where it mattered. In a blitz career that lasted only four years and 9 movies (three of which were made-for-television bilge) luscious Luciana hid behind 3 different aliases (Jessica Moore being her most widely known) and worked with the likes of Bruno Corbucci, Joe D'Amato, and Mario Bianchi. If there’s one way to describe Luciana’s career it’s that she was the figurehead in lamentable late-stage abortions of once-great Italian exploitation subgenres. While mostly identified with her role as escort-turned-journalist Sarah Asproon in Eleven Days Eleven Nights (1987) and Top Model (1988) Ottaviani debuted in the nunsploitationer Convent Of Sinners (1986) and just before being typecast as the latest softcore sex sensation with the turgid Reflections Of Light (1988) (where she starred alongside Pamela Prati, Loredana Romito, and Laura Gemser) she took on the ghost horror with our current subject, a mild il sadiconazista with The Ghosts Of Sodom (1988), and a light giallo murder mystery with Escape From Death (1989). Suffice to say, in each and without fault Ottaviani was reduced to tits requiring nothing more from her than her usual routine of smiling pretty, flaunting her curls and curves, and getting horrendously murdered for her trouble. Ottaviani was pretty much forced into an early retirement the moment she stopped accepting erotic roles at behest of her partner. No doubt miss Ottaviani could have made a fortune in Spain’s Cine-S and it’s a question for the ages why we were forever denied a Tinto Brass feature with her.

Don't Be Afraid of Aunt Marta was the second in the nine-part I maestri del thriller (or Lucio Fulci presents in the English-speaking world) series of made-for-television and home video horror. As legend has it was cinematographer Silvano Tessicini who got Fulci involved with the operation. Old Lucio had just returned after his Zombi 3 (1988) ran into production woes on the Philippines. With his health deteriorating and cranky the project being overtaken by hired hands Claudio Fragasso and Bruno Mattei (with none of whom Fulci got along), Tessicini figured that this was the distraction Fulci needed. The main series comprises of The Curse (1987), Don't Be Afraid of Aunt Marta, The Red Monks (1988), Massacre (1989), Bloody Psycho (1989), Escape from Death (1989), and Hansel and Gretel (1989). Initially attracted as supervisor Fulci ended up directing two features - Touch of Death (1988) and The Ghosts Of Sodom (1988) – from scripts he had penned earlier with Carlo Alberto Alfieri years before all the same. Even under the most optimistic circumstances Fulci’s involvement throughout was tenuous at best and completely hands-off at worst. Whatever his feelings on the subject Fulci and producers Antonio Lucidi and Luigi Nannerini mined six of these features for special effects footage for the supreme cut-and-paste hackjob A Cat in the Brain (1990).

You know just how impoverished a production is when pulp veteran Gabriele Tinti, Euroshock pillar Maurice Poli from Cross Mission (1988), Adriana Russo (the lesser known sister of comedy evergreen Carmen Russo), and Luciana Ottaviani retroactively can be considered the marquee stars. Tinti and Poli were old hands at this sort of thing and by 1988 both Russo and Ottaviani had carved out enough of a niche for themselves to be considered semi-stars. Sacha Darwin and Anna Maria Placido both were nobodies with mostly indistinct filmographies. To be charitable, Darwin was the daughter of Austrian Golden Age actors Wolf Albach-Retty and Trude Marlen and she was the younger half-sister of Romy Schneider – which probably accounts for how she parlayed her world-famous pedigree into a modest acting career. Placido on the other hand had none such luck – and she was no Mariangela Giordano, Dagmar Lassander, Daria Nicolodi, or Franca Stoppi either. Not even Tinti (who starred in his fair amount of dreck during the wicked and wild seventies) nor Poli deserved ending up in something as lamentable as this. Tinti had at least the good fortune of sharing the sheets with miss Laura Gemser. For a television movie this is quite explicit (Ottaviani has an extended soapy shower scene straight out of the Gloria Guida playbook) and the gore is off the charts when and where it appears. As a sort-of-but-not-really hybrid of Psycho (1960) and Carnival of Souls (1962) it is deadly dull in parts and only sort of gains a faint pulse whenever Poli or Ottaviani enliven proceedings with their hams. Unfortunately there’s more of the former than of the latter. After all, not even luscious Luciana’s ever so inviting tits and ass could save something this dreadful.

Plot: sleepy farming hamlet is terrorized by fierce spectral predator.

As far as we’re aware Thailand never had much of a horror scene in spite their rich history in being a reliable provider of the most wickedly insane action exploitation. Whereas Indonesia had Suzzanna and Malaysia had Maria Menado Thailand never had a horror queen as such – or at least none that we’re aware of. The Krasue has been part of Thai horror at least since 1973. Nang Nak (1999) was at the forefront of the "Thai New Wave" and since that time the country has spawned the very successful Art of the Devil (2004-2008) franchise as well as Ghost Lab (2021) and the Thai-South Korean co-production The Medium (2021). In between those there was Sang Krasue (แสงกระสือ domestically or Inhuman Kiss, internationally) or a ghost horror that used its monster as a metaphor for coming of age and sexual awakening. That the best Thai horror since P (2005) was selected (but not nominated) for Best International Feature Film at the 92nd Academy Awards is enough of a grave injustice by itself. What Suzzanna: Buried Alive (2018) was to Indonesia and what Revenge Of the Pontianak (2019) was to Malaysia, Inhuman Kiss could and should have been to Thailand. This is probably the most enrapturing romance since A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) almost thirty years before.

There’s a world of interesting mythical creatures that speak to the imagination to be found in the folklore of Asia. While the white-robed long black-haired ghosts is the one that has penetrated the Western world through cultural osmosis there are so many others. In Southeast Asia (Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, Philippines, and Vietnam) the most visually interesting of those (at least to undiscerning and unaware Western eyes) ghosts or phi (ผี) is the Krasue (กระสือ) (Kui'yang in Indonesia, Penanggal in Malaysia, or Manananggal in the Philippines) or the floating disembodied head of an attractive woman with the entrails hanging down from the neck. The male counterpart to the Krasue is the Krahang (กระหัง). In the classic Indonesian horror romp Lake Eerie (1974) Suzzanna briefly transforms into a Krasue next to her iconic and beloved sundelbolong as does Amy Weber’s The Evil Queen in Dangerous Seductress (1992). In the Western hemisphere the Far East folkloric and mythological bestiary remains practically unknown, sadly.

Inhuman Kiss is an interesting combination of young talent and dyed-in-the-wool veterans. Sitisiri Mongkolsiri is a relative newcomer in Thai cinema. He directed one of the story vignettes for the Last Summer (2013) anthology as well as two episodes of the series Girl From Nowhere (2018-2021) that had Phantira Pipityakorn as a guest star for an episode on 2021. Chookiat Sakveerakul (who’s also active as a director and occasional editor) wrote Body (2007) and the JeeJa Yanin martial arts classic Chocolate (2008). In all likelihood he’s responsible for the very human story and the romance at the heart of Inhuman Kiss. Sangar Chatchairungruang executive produced the Danny and Oxide Chun Pang crime caper Bangkok Dangerous (2000) (remade for the American market with Nicolas Cage in the headlining role, quite unnecessarily and with little in the way of fanfare, in 2008). What director Sitisiri Mongkolsiri brings to Inhuman Kiss can perhaps best be described as a very humanist approach. The horror (and the Krasue) are obviously the main draw but Mongkolsiri recognizes that the human story is even more important.

Thailand, 1940. At the dawn of World War II, under the military dictatorship of Prime Minister Plaek Phibunsongkhram, the country is engaged in the Japanese invasion of French Indochina and the Franco-Thai War. In a farming muban (hamlet) somewhere in the Phutthamonthon District, west of Bangkok, Sai (Phantira Pipityakorn) is living with her constable father Phaen (Sahatchai Chumrum), her mother (Duangjai Hiransri), and superstitious grandmother (Namngen Boonnark). As a girl on the verge of womanhood she has grown up on old folkloric stories and with her two loyal childhood friends Noi (Oabnithi Wiwattanawarang) and Jerd (Sapol Assawamunkong). Noi is a student of medicine who dreams of becoming a doctor and Sai herself wants nothing more than to be a nurse. The two volunteer at the local hospital. Jerd, coming from a less affluent family, does menial work in the fields as a laborer. For a while now Sai has been waking up with inexplicable scratches on her chest and blood on her sheets. For about as long her sleepy village has seen the equally inexplicable slaughter of chickens, cattle and livestock. This has struck fear into the hearts of the superstitious townsfolk. Unexpectedly brigand Tad (Surasak Wongthai) and his bandits ride into town from Salaya, a nearby tambon (sub-district) of Salaya. Tad claims that the hamlet is hiding a Krasue and that they refuse to leave until they have its head.

Walking through the forest they played in as kids Noi follows the disembodied head of the Krasue only to learn that it’s in fact his beloved Sai. As an ardent student of science and the empirical method Noi undertakes a pilgrimage to the local monastery to learn about Krasue from the monk (Makara Supinacharoen, as Makorn Supinacharoen). He learns of a certain herb that stalls the transformation. This will fix the problem temporarily until the two can come up with a more permanent solution. Jerd meanwhile joins Tard and his bandits to hunt the Krasue. As both Noi and Jerd show romantic interest in Sai she’s left in a terrible predicament with her current condition. As Tard’s grip on Jerd tightens and he sinks into the blackest despair Noi and Sai grow closer as a couple. Meanwhile the bandits resort to increasingly draconic measures to locate the Krasue necessitating Sai’s constable father to stand up to them. Things come to violent head as Tard’s men raid the village during a nocturnal Krasue attack and Tard reveals his true ogrish Krahang form. At wit’s end Noi and Sai try to flee to Bangkok. A terrible revelation kept secret for generations forces Sai’s father into a choice that will change the blossoming romance between the two youngsters forever.

The beauty of Inhuman Kiss lies not so much in what it does but how it goes about doing it. It’s both unassuming and effortlessly multilayered. It’s exactly what you want it to be. First and foremost, Inhuman Kiss is a beautiful coming of age story and a deeply tragic romance. However, look beyond that and there’s an equally solid folkloric horror story here, although that obviously serves more as window-dressing for the larger story being told. It’s absolutely no hyperbole when the most apt comparison is Tsui Hark’s A Chinese Ghost Story (1987). Like that piece of classic Hong Kong horror romance Inhuman Kiss too elegantly fuses horror with romance and terror-inducing denizens of the dark. There’s argument to be made that this might not be as rich in subtext as P (2005) but by the same token P (2005) never was this atmospheric and intense. It is however no question that Inhuman Kiss benefits from all the technological advances of the near decade and a half since. The effects work is a combination of practical in-camera trickery with a helping of digital wizardry for the grander, more ambitious scenes. While the special effects are vitally important for a production like this the lead actress is even moreso. On that front Phantira Pipityakorn is a godsend. Not only is she cute as a dish, she can actually act with the best of them. That she’s able to carry a production of this magnitude by her lonesome speaks volumes to her innate talent. For now she remains just a television actress, the question is how long it will be until she ascends her regional borders and becomes an international force.

It’s a tall order for any director to tell a human story within the confines of a horror framework where the goal is, first and foremost, to scare and repulse. At heart Inhuman Kiss is a coming of age story and a doomed romance that uses the horror as a metaphor for the loss of the innocence of youth and the pains of adolescence. What really speaks to the strength of Inhuman Kiss as a feature is that you glean from it what you want. Ghost horror, coming of age within the context of World War II, the experience of first romances and heartbreaks – it’s all here. That Sitisiri Mongkolsiri makes that delicate balancing act look so effortless makes it all the more impressive. It’s unbelievable that Inhuman Kiss remains so overlooked and underestimated. That Hollywood is slow in recognizing international talent is nothing but a truism at this point. That Inhuman Kiss didn’t even manage to score a nomination says enough about the endemic ignorance and disinterest of the Academy in anything that isn’t American. Those who do enjoy foreign cinema (and who aren’t turned off by the ideas of subtitles) can consider this another Asian horror classic, minor or major.