Skip to content

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: high-class escort Sarah Asproon moonlights as a novelist researching a new book.

Let it be known that Joe D’Amato can never be accused of not completely milking an idea while it was still profitable. A year after Eleven Days, Eleven Nights (1987) old Joe returned to New Orleans for Top Model (1988), a sequel of sorts to his earlier Nine 1/2 Weeks (1986) knockoff. Back again is ravishing Luciana Ottaviani and in what would be her swansong in the franchise she's given every chance to show off that impressive body of hers. With a screenplay from Rossella Drudi and Sheila Goldberg (as Gloria Miles) Top Model does have an unexpected romantic undercurrent. Which still doesn’t make it anything more than a bog-standard inexpensive soft erotic potboiler for late night cable. At least a Joe D’Amato soft erotic feature isn’t as heinous and painful as some of his infamous horror movies.

The success of a soft erotic movie is relative to the willingness of its star to shed clothes and cavort around naked. Ottaviani, to her everlasting credit, doesn’t shy away from either – even though she’s hardly what you'd call an actress. Ottaviani is exactly what Laura Gemser was in the 1970s. Gemser, three years away from announcing her retirement in 1991, will not be shedding any garments but she still looks rather dashing at 38. The cast is nothing but unknowns. James Sutterfield and Lin Gathright were in Killing Birds (1987), one of the many unofficial sequels to Lucio Fulci’s often imitated Zombie (1979). Gathright would resurface in the series American Horror Story (2014). Jason Saucier had guest roles in Dawson’s Creek (1999) and One Tree Hill (2004). Top Model was Laura Gemser’s first venture as a costume designer and unfortunately she never transcended beyond D’Amato and his ilk. There's something inherently ironic about Gemser, famous for getting out of her clothes for a living, making sure that other actors stay in theirs.

After having engaged in a brief but steamy affair with a dopey construction engineer the year before alleged novelist and present high-end escort Sarah Asproon (Luciana Ottaviani, as Jessica Moore) is working on a new book about high-class prostitution. To legitimize her efforts Asproon and her publisher Dorothy Tipton (Laura Gemser) set up a call-girl agency. Tipton adopts the alias Eva North while Asproon calls herself Gloria. To maximize efficiency and to keep track of customer information and appointments receptionist Sharon (Lin Gathright) and shy programmer Cliff Evans (James Sutterfield) are hired. One of Sarah’s clients Peter McLaris (Ale Dugas) threatens to expose Asproon to the police, which would ruin her career as a novelist. Despite the threats Sarah continues to work and finds herself falling in love with Evans, who initially remains reserved towards her advances. Jason (Jason Saucier), Cliff’s apparently homosexual friend, competes for Sarah’s affection after she properly rode him. Spurring Jason’s advances and foiling McLaris’ blackmailing Sarah and Cliff choose each other. Asproon bids her life of prostitution farewell and focuses on her new career as a novelist. The two move to another city to start anew.

The dreary, humid New Orleans locales ooze with all the depravity and sleaze you’d expect of a Joe D’Amato movie. The men that circle Asproon come from both ends of the spectrum. Cliff and James are regular guys confused why a sensual vixen like Sarah would take an active interest in them, let alone a sexual one. Peter the blackmailing toy factory owner is a sleazebag of the highest order that it makes you wonder why he wasn’t played by Gabrielle Tinti or David Hess. Asproon’s clients are the usual variety of reptilian abusers, including an exploitative photographer, a profusely sweating toned African-American that should have been Fred Williamson, and the client that books Sarah for himself and requests that her friend Eva North rides him like a bull. An entire subplot is dedicated to the sexual dynamic between Cliff and James, who are obviously attracted to each other, sensual Sarah cures both men of their confusion by mounting and riding them, seperately. In fact Sarah rides James to such an extent that he becomes straight. Cliff, feeling merely sexually inadequate in Sarah’s presence, is mounted creatively into self-confidence.

It’s hard to believe that Top Model was helmed by the director that gave the world Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals (1977), the gothic horror-slasher hybrid Buio Omega (1979), and the splatter classic Anthropophagus (1980). There's an inherent sweetness to the entire thing that you'd earlier find in Bitto Albertini's erotic potboilers. Luciana Ottaviani wasn’t much of an actress, and she was cast in movies mostly to take her clothes off, but she never deserved to dwell in the muck that she did. Ottaviani had a body similar to Serena Grandi, Donatella Damiani, and Debora Caprioglio, and it’s nothing short of puzzling that she never appeared in a Tinto Brass production. Ottaviani had junk in the trunk and Brass loves a baby that got back as much as Sir Mix-A-Lot. That she somehow never entered the sphere of Jess Franco is a miracle in itself. It stands to reason that luscious Luciana was tainted by her exploitation beginnings, and she would never ascend to the A-list erotica of, say, Bernardo Bertolucci. Not that she would be able to carry such a movie by herself, mind. Top Model is curiously low on dialogue for a reason and that the plot is moved forward by every other character that isn’t Sarah Asproon should clue anybody in exactly how much of an actress Ottaviani really was.

After Top Model Ottaviani moved on from the franchise and D’Amato continued with new lead Kristine Rose, who prior to acting appeared in Playboy (August 1991, February and April 1993 – never making it to the cover). Rose starred in a further third sequel confusingly titled Eleven Days, Eleven Nights 2 (1990). Like in much of his 1980s output Laura Gemser has only a supporting role, and unlike in The Alcove (1985) she refrains from shedding fabric. A year later Moore would be starring opposite of Pamela Prati, Loredana Romito, Laura Gemser, and Gabrielle Tinti in the erotic potboiler Reflections Of Light (1988). That one did give her a chance to act. After her tenure with D’Amato Rose made appearances in the actioner Total Exposure (1991), the Charles Band production Demonic Toys (1992) and the Zach Galligan-Corey Feldman comedy Roundtrip to Heaven (1992). Rose has filmography so depressing that she played second fiddle to latter-day Andy Sidaris regulars Julie Strain, and Teri Weigel. Not exactly something to be very proud of, or at all.

That Joe D’Amato’s voluminous softcore output is far more enjoyable (and often technically superior) to the many and maddeningly wild exploitation – and horror movies that made him famous was a foregone conclusion. What is also evident is that D’Amato’s direction is technically solid, workmanlike, and indifferently professional, even when Ottaviani is naked and in the frame. D'Amato doesn't exude any kind of the artistry, individuality, or thematic follow-through that made Tinto Brass such a revered household name. Luciana Ottaviani is given enough flattering angles whenever possible and D'Amato will let his camera glide across her curvaceous canvas every chance he gets, but isn’t nearly enough to make Top Model anything more than a bog-standard erotic potboiler marginally better than late night skinflicks headlined by the likes of Shannon Tweed, Julie Strain, Lisa Boyle, Sherilyn Fenn, or Tanya Roberts. Joe D'Amato was infamous for a reason, yet Top Model isn’t nearly as grime and sleazy as you’d expect. In fact it's stoically demure and unrepentantly utilitarian. Everything works and everything is where it should be, yet if this was meant to be Luciana's star-making vehicle, it missed the mark.

As part of his prolific 1980s period, a decade wherein D’Amato concentrated almost exclusively on soft- and hardcore pornography, Top Model is an unassuming and ultimately forgettable exercise in softcore tedium were it not for the illuminating and arousing presence of Luciana Ottaviani, the embodiment of curly 1980s sassiness. The score consists of pulsating electronic music from Piero Montanari, René de Versailles, and Jacob Wheeler. This should have been the Black Emanuelle series for the eighties. Ottaviani's premature departure deflated the franchise before it could begin, and that was very unfortunate indeed. Eleven Days, Eleven Nights never recovered from the exit of its original and biggest star, and the numerous in-name-only sequels only made that more obvious.