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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: tourists are stalked by cannibalistic killer on remote Greek island.

The nineteen-eighties were an interesting time for American cinema. The old fashioned terror and suspense films were given a new coat of paint and updated for the new decade. Halloween (1978) was instrumental in that regard. John Carpenter’s little fright flick was just as much indebted to grindhouse features as Wicked, Wicked (1973) and The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976) as it was revolutionary the way it upgraded worn-out conventions of the decade past making them relevant again for a completely new audience. It was Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (1980) that, for better or worse, codified and cemented the slasher as it’s known and understood today. Whereas Halloween (1978) was a murder mystery (although there’s never any doubt about who’s doing the slashing and hacking) Friday the 13th (1980) had no such aspirations. First and foremost, Friday the 13th (1980) was horror with not an ounce of suspense. Stylistic decisions aside, it was a critical failure but a resounding box office success. Naturally, European producers/directors wanted to get in on the international slasher boom and wasted exactly zero time in formulating their own slashers. Who better to imitate yet another American art form than the birthplace of such things, la bella Italia?

That Europeans, especially those in the continental regions such as Italy and Spain, had an entirely different concept of what a murder mystery entailed, should surprise exactly no one. The Italian giallo and the German krimi existed and evolved parallel from each other all through the sixties and seventies. While they’re generally considered the common ancestor to the American slasher and frequently overlap in terms of conventions they don’t strictly abide by those rules or parameters. By 1980 Italy had accumulated around 15 to 20 years of giallo tradition. Spain had a tradition of horror and macabre cinema that existed for about as long. They were in a habit of imitating their Italian brethren when the occasion arose but never with any regularity. Spain responded to the American slasher with Pieces (1980) and Bloody Moon (1981). Leave it to professional pornographer and part time smut peddler Aristide Massaccesi (under his English nom de plume Joe D'Amato) to throw a wrench into the slasher formula. Before he introduced the world to Jessica Moore with Eleven Days, Eleven Nights (1987) and Top Model (1988) there was this. Old Joe had just made Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals (1977) and Beyond the Darkness (1979) and wasn’t ready (or willing) to meet American tastes fully. He hadn’t gotten that cannibalism itch out of his system yet. Something had to give. Filmed in a month (31 March 1980 to May 1980) on location in Greece (mostly around the Acropolis in Athens) and in Sperlonga, Viterbo and Ponza, Italy as the launch title of his Filmirage Anthropophagus (released in censored form in North America as The Grim Reaper and as The Savage Island in the rest of the world) is a slasher on the American model but one that’s all all’Italiana.

American tourist Julie (Tisa Farrow) has come to the Greek islands to reconnect with old friends. En route to her destination she tries to charter a boat making her acquaintance with a party of five friends about to go on a boat tour of the Aegean. She’s first approached by medical student Arnold (Bob Larson) and his very pregnant wife Maggie (Serena Grandi, as Vanessa Steiger), their friend Alan (Saverio Vallone) and his superstitious sister Carol (Zora Kerova) as well as the group’s would-be playboy friend Daniel (Mark Bodin). When Julie asks the group to sail to a remote island only Carol, an avid believer in Tarocco Piemontese lays her cards and has a chilling premonition. She insists that something terrible will befall them if they do choose to travel there. As they make landfall on the island Maggie sprains her ankle and stays behinds with the boat. She’s attacked and dragged off by an unseen assailant. While the group explores what appears to be a ghost town a mysterious old lady gives them ominous cryptic warnings to steer clear from the island. The woman eventually identifies herself as Ruth Wortmann (Karamanlis in some versions) (Rubina Rey) and when the group reaches the abandoned house of Julie’s French friends Carol senses an evil presence that she can’t explain. The discovery of an assortment of desiccated corpses don’t help her fragile mental state nor for do things improve when the group happens upon Ariette (Margaret Mazzantini, as Margaret Donnelly), the blind daughter of Julie’s friends, blood-caked and screaming murder about a madman who smells of blood.

In the mansion they find a diary about one Klaus Wortmann (Nikos Karamanlis in some versions) (Luigi Montefiori, as George Eastman), his wife and their son having been presumed dead after a shipwreck. Then the terrible realization dawns upon them that Ruth was Klaus’/Nikos’ sister and that the incident sundered her sanity. They learn that Klaus/Nikos had been stranded at sea and in his desperation accidentally killed his wife in an argument about eating their son to survive. Driven mad by hunger he ate the remains of both his son and his wife and now has developed a cannibalistic appetite. As the shades of night descend upon the abandoned mansion and the group falls apart through arguments and romantic conflicts they realize that Klaus/Nikos is aware of their presence and surely will come to hunt them down. What was supposed to be a relaxing holiday soon will become a terrible ordeal for all involved. Soon they will come face to face with the prowler of the Greek islands, the eater of man, the Anthropophagus.

Headlined by a would-be American star, an accidental one and domestic one in the making and supported by no one in particular Anthropophagus has the good fortune of featuring a few familiar faces. The biggest name here is Tisa Farrow, Mia’s less popular sister who had starred in Some Call It Loving (1973) and played a small role in Woody Allen's Manhattan (1979). Somehow she got got mixed up in Italian exploitation and etched her name into the annals of cult cinema history with Lucio Fulci’s Zombie (1979). Apparently she took fashion advice from German sexbomb Olivia Pascal. Zora Kerova hailed from East-Europe and commuted between her native Czech Republic (then still Czechoslovakia) and Italy. While hardly an actress of great talent, she had much more of an actual career than, say, Mónica Zanchi or Cindy Leadbetter. Although she had starred in The House of the Laughing Windows (1976), and Escape From Women’s Prison (1978) Kerova would be the Italian exploitation pillar of the 1980s with roles in Umberto Lenzi’s patently ridiculous Cannibal Ferox (1981) as well as latter-day Fulci romps as The New York Ripper (1982), The New Barbarians (1983), as well as Fulci adjacent gore epics as Touch Of Death (1988), Sodoma’s Ghost (1988) and Escape from Death (1989) (often in tandem with Luciana Ottaviani). The other nominal star is Luigi Montefiori (or George Eastman) who had worked with D’Amato on Emanuelle Around the World (1977) and would star in, among others, Ironmaster (1983), Hands Of Steel (1986), and the Lamberto Bava giallo Delirium (1987). The remainder of the cast comprised of Mark Bodin from Alien 2: On Earth (1980) and Bob Larson from Filipino topless kickboxing sub-classic Angelfist (1993).

Looking almost matronly and modest compared most of her work by mid of the decade Anthropophagus introduced the world to one of the prime pin-up girls of the day, she who was loving dubbed the Italian Dolly Parton, miss Serena Grandi. Serena was a graduate in computer programming and initially employed in a scientific analysis laboratory and like her contemporaries Donatella Damiani and Pamela Prati her curvaceous, plus size figure soon to led to bigger opportunities. After playing roles of no real weight in the comedies The Traveling Companion (1980), The Women of Quiet Country (1980) and My Wife Is A Witch (1980) la Grandi got her first big break here and she had dialogue and actual things to do. Serena’s body of a goddess – an eye-watering 38D (85D) bust with an ass to match - didn’t go unnoticed and by 1982 she was in the Italian Penthouse. This brought her to the attention of professional worshipper of the female form Tinto Brass, who casted her in and as Miranda (1985), a high-profile role requiring extensive (partial and full frontal) nudity. From there Serena became a regular in glossy men’s magazines. First she landed a role in Luigi Cozzi's The Adventures Of Hercules (1985) and spent the rest of the decade showing off her divine dimensions in erotic romps as Desiring Julia (1986), Exploits Of a Young Don Juan (1986), Rimini Rimini (1987), and Delirium (1987). By the next decade her star had faded until Brass casted her again in Monella (1998). Grandi continues to act to this day and has settled into supporting maternal roles. Also making her screen debut was Margaret Mazzantini who, unbelievable as it may sound, was poised to become one of Italy’s leading figures in literature and who as an award-winning novelist saw her work translated into thirty-five languages worldwide.

Anthropophagus is interesting in how it adapts an old favorite into a newly codified subgenre. In 1980 the Italian cannibal craze was still in full swing and despite yielding a classic or two in the prior decade the classics were very well a thing of the past. This in no way slowed down to pretenders and wannabees from hacking out a few memorable hybrids and creative experiments during the ongoing feeding frenzy. D’Amato had dabbled with cannibalism in Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals (1977) and to a lesser extent in his necrophilia epic Beyond the Darkness (1979) and Eastman was very much his go-to man for his greatest gross out and sleaze fests. As a collaborative effort between the two Anthropophagus bears hallmarks from both (D’Amato and Eastman shared writing and production credits on this after all). Director of photography Enrico Biribicchi had worked as a camera operator with Fernando Di Leo and Roberto Rossellini but by the late ‘70s was working with shlockmeisters Andrea Bianchi and D'Amato.

As one of the more prolific composers of the day Marcello Giombini is known around these parts for the Bella Cortez spectacular Vulcan, Son Of Jupiter (1962), the gialli Murder Mansion (1972), The Flower with the Deadly Sting (1973), the enjoyable The Exorcist (1973) imitation Enter the Devil (1974) (with future realtor of the rich and famous Stella Carnacina), the Venezuelan Laura Gemser jungle romp A Beach Called Desire (1976) and his association with Alfonso Brescia. None of which really changes that Giombini completely phoned it in here with disconnected washes of tranquil ambient, random sci-fi blips and plops and a vaguely Greek sounding theme. He wasn’t exactly giving Klaus Schulze, Michael Stearns or Vangelis a run for their money. The special effects by Giuseppe Ferranti and Pietro Tenoglio are effective in their brutally utilitarian minimalism. Then again, Ferranti was busy that year with Hell Of the Living Dead (1980) from masters of disaster Bruno Mattei and Claudio Fragasso, Umberto Lenzi’s Nightmare City (1980) and Fernando Di Leo’s Madness (1980). No wonder then that Anthropophagus is hardly remembered as any of these men’s (or the director's for that matter) finest hour.

Had things been allowed to run their natural course than perhaps Anthropophagus would have been remembered as nothing but a curious footnote in D’Amato’s massive filmography. Yet never underestimate a zealot on a mission. By the early eighties Great Britain was in the grip of yet another moral panic: the unregulated home video market and the corruption of the minds and hearts of the youth it (supposedly) threatened. In a crusade spearheaded by conservative activist (and teacher) Mary Whitehouse the National Viewers' and Listeners' Association (NVALA) compiled a list of 72 films they believed to violate the Obscene Publications Act 1959. An additional 82 titles were confiscated under the Act's forfeiture laws. The entire sordid episode became known as the Video Nasties. If it weren’t for Whitehouse perhaps a great deal of these admittedly shoddy shockers wouldn’t be as legendary as they (often unjustly and most of them undeservedly) became in the aftermath. Then again, what are conservatives without a good moral panic; manufactured, imaginary, or otherwise?

The outrage and moral panic was perhaps indirectly responsible for spawning the nominal sequel Absurd (1981), which also ended up on the Video Nasties list. Almost twenty years later German gorehound Andreas Schnaas unofficially remade it as Anthropophagus 2000 (1999) and another twenty years later the D’Amato original begat a very belated spiritual sequel with Antropophagus II (2022) from director Dario Germani and sometime D’Amato producers Franco Gaudenzi, and Gianni Paolucci. For those in the know, Gaudenzi was the man that produced some of Bruno Mattei’s prime works in the ‘80s and Paolucci, lest we forget, facilitated a late-stage career revival for Mattei when he allowed him to direct shot-on-video sequels to his beloved/detested classics. Anthropophagus does a lot with very little and that was always D’Amato’s forte.