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CULTOGRAPHIES is a list of individual studies devoted to the analysis of cult film. The series provides a comprehensive introduction to those films which have attained the coveted status of a cult classic, focusing on their particular appeal, the ways in which they have been conceived, constructed and received, and their place in the broader popular cultural landscape.




BAD TASTE Jim Barratt


Geoff King





Glyn Davis



D. Harlan Wilson

Ian Cooper

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

MS. 45



Kate Egan

Alexia Kannas



Matt Hills

Jamie Sexton



Alessandra Santos

Frederick Blichert



A Wallflower Press Book Published by Columbia University Press Publishers Since 1893 New York • Chichester, West Sussex Copyright © 2018 Columbia University Press All rights reserved. A complete CIP record is available from the Library of Congress ISBN 978-0-231-18281-2 (pbk: alk. paper) ISBN 978-0-231-85112-1 (e-book) Series and Cover design by Elsa Mathern

Columbia University Press books are printed on permanent and durable acid-free paper. Printed in the United States of America





Introduction: Diabolik, chi sei?


From fumetto nero to ‘wild and kooky cape-opera’: Production, promotion, initial reception


‘Uh-oh – it’s getting groovy!’: The cult afterlife of Danger: Diabolik



Fantômas all’italiana: Analysis



Genius of Crime: The place of the film










This book is dedicated to the memory of my sister Lisbeth Hunt


Many thanks to Jamie Sexton and Ernest Mathijs for their enthusiasm for this volume and for bringing it to the Cultographies series, and to Yoram Allon, Commissioning Editor at Wallflower Press, for seeing it through to publication. The following people read draft chapters and offered comments and suggestions: Susy Campanale, Erin Pearson and Milly Williamson. Thanks also to Iain Robert Smith and the Cult Reading Group. Peter Stanfield first prompted me to think about Lawrence Alloway at the Repetition/Repetition symposium he organised at the ICA in 2012. Russ Hunter provided good advice on conducting research in Italy, and Gavin Hogg drew my attention to Il giaguaro magazine (and generously supplied me with copies). The Bibliomediateca ‘Mario Gromo’ at the Museo Nazionale del Cinema in Turin could not have been more helpful. The BBFC quickly and patiently answered all my questions regarding the single cut they made to the film (even though the cuts made subsequently remain a mystery for now – Maledizione! as Diabolik is fond of saying).


INTRODUCTION DIABOLIK, CHI SEI? ‘Which comics do you prefer?’ ‘The masked man. I’m a romantic.’1 – La decima vittima/The Tenth Victim (1965) According to J. P. Telotte, the film cultist experiences a ‘movement beyond reason, beyond the usual ways of seeing, caring about and identifying with a film or its characters’ (1991: 5). But as several volumes in the Cultographies series confirm, not all cult films are immediate in triggering this departure from rational engagement with cinema. Others take longer to insinuate their way into our affections. This was my experience with Danger: Diabolik (1968; original title: Diabolik). I can think of other cult favourites that had a more dramatic effect on first contact – Enter the Dragon (1973) and Suspiria (1976), for example, two life-changing films that I saw close to their original releases. My encounters with Diabolik were shaped more noticeably by context, by viewing conditions and by my developing Italophilia, which led me also to the comic on which it is based. If the other two films might have provided more dramatic opening scenes for this book, perhaps I have a more interesting story to tell about Diabolik and me. 1


I can put an exact date on my first viewing of the film – 19 November 1982, when it was shown in the ‘Late Film’ slot on BBC1 at 10.50pm. The Radio Times synopsis describes the film as follows: The hijack of a ten-million-dollar gold shipment is the latest in a series of robberies by daring master criminal Diabolik, and Inspector Ginco (sic) is out to trap him. Italy’s finances totter as a million-dollar necklace is used as a lure for Diabolik but he has some cunning tricks to outwit his pursuers. Hero-villain Diabolik pulls off some superior triumphs in this entertaining comicstrip adventure. (Anon. 1982) The spelling of Ginko’s name can be traced back to the film’s (English-language) screenplay (Maiuri et al. 1967), but more striking here is the identification of the film’s setting as Italy, something which, as we shall see in later chapters, is by no means clear. Television has often played an important role in the cult film experience, late night screenings providing experiences of films that arrive as unknown quantities but leave indelible marks. The cultification of British horror film The Wicker Man (1973), for example, seems to owe as much to its TV screenings catching viewers unawares as its original theatrical pairing with Don’t Look Now (1973). Seeing Diabolik for the first time, I knew one important thing about it – it was directed by Mario Bava. I had not at that point seen any Bava films, but I had read enough about him (thanks mainly to House of Hammer magazine) to know that he sounded like my kind of filmmaker. Moreover, I had already had some encounters with Italian horror, fantasy and what now gets commonly referred to as the giallo. Suspiria had blown me away, and I had seen Sergio Martino’s I corpi presentano tracce di violenza carnale/Torso (1973) on a double-bill with 2


Flesh Gordon (1974), although I was probably unaware at the time that it was Italian, merely that it was dubbed and European. The Bava films I most wanted to see were his Gothic horror films, but they had long since disappeared from cinemas, had not been shown on TV in the UK, and I did not yet have access to a VCR. I was intrigued by Diabolik, certainly. It felt a bit like a superhero film (especially when one of Ennio Morricone’s cues resembled the Batman theme), but clearly wasn’t. Its genre was difficult to determine, in fact. The casting of John Philip Law put me in mind of Barbarella (1968) (which I had already seen), and Adolfo Celi immediately evoked Thunderball (1965), even down to having a luxurious boat in both films, but what exactly was Terry-Thomas doing here? This was a curio for which I didn’t quite have sufficient context to fully understand, and it left me feeling that the ‘real’ Bava was probably to be found elsewhere – amongst vampires and spiked masks, not futuristic burglars climbing walls and driving E-type Jaguars. My second encounter with Diabolik took place seven years later, on 9 May 1989, at arguably the most cultish of British locations, London’s Scala cinema, a unique (at least in the UK) combination of cutting edge arthouse repertory cinema and dissolute grindhouse. Originally built as the Kings Cross Cinema in 1920, at various points in its history it was a Gaumont cinema, an adult film cinema, a live rock venue, and even a Primatarium (appropriately enough, when it reverted to being a cinema, it both re-opened and eventually closed with King Kong). But the Scala is best remembered for what it became between 1981 and 1993, the year it went into receivership partly as a result of illegal screenings of thenbanned A Clockwork Orange (1971). Originating at another venue in London in 1979, it moved to the Kings Cross cinema in 1981. Nostalgic accounts of the Scala are remarkably consistent, and accord largely with my own memories of it. Mark 3


Pilkington recalls the ‘lurid psychedelic comic strip mural of Bmovie moments’ in the foyer and ‘the cavernous darkness of the auditorium’ (2011) – one frequently found oneself sharing the latter with the cinema’s resident black cat. Richard Stanley makes it sound even more like a cinematic demi-monde: ‘a house of dreams redolent of an opium den with its haze of psychoactive smoke and its delirious, half-glimpsed denizens’ (2002: 185). Little wonder that more recently the Scala has given its name to UK-wide seasons of film club screenings such as Scala Forever and Scalarama (see Paley 2011). The Scala was where I first saw Bava’s La maschera del demonio/ Black Sunday (1960) in its censored UK cut Revenge of the Vampire, Dario Argento’s L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo/Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1969) and his otherwise elusive 4 mosche di velluto grigio/Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971). The Scala’s speciality was double- and triple-bills or all-nighters devoted to the likes of Argento, Walerian Borowczyk and John Waters or themed programmes with a subcultural or transgressive flavour. On one occasion it screened William Castle’s The Tingler and House on Haunted Hill (both 1959) in their original ‘Percepto’ and ‘Emergo’ formats (in other words, electric shocks for the former, a plastic skeleton on a wire for the latter). Annual membership was less than a pound and the programme took the form of a foldout poster-sized calendar. If you didn’t live in London (which I didn’t at the time), the all-nighters provided a convenient way of staying over in the capital on a Saturday night, although they were often raucous affairs, a lairy mix of alcohol and cinematic mayhem. If you attended enough double and triple bills, you were destined to eventually encounter perhaps the most Scala-ish of all films, Thundercrack! (1975). Daytime screenings were generally calmer affairs, and this is how I saw Diabolik on a near-perfect triple-bill with Barbarella and Batman (1966), billed as ‘Campy Comic Strip 4


Capers’.2 I add a qualifying ‘near’ because my feeling now is that Modesty Blaise (1966) was the missing guest at that particular pop art party. The comic book movie is now dominated by superheroes and by Hollywood, but on this bill, Batman was in some ways the odd one out. The 1960s comic book movie was more likely to be European (mainly Italian or French – and Modesty Blaise casts an Italian in the titular role) and leaning towards comics aimed at adults. Batman was a spin-off from a TV series aimed at the family; thrills and excitement for children, knowing laughs for the grown-ups who recognised costumed squares when they saw them. But one aspect of the 1960s screen Batman in particular was very much in tune with the Euro-comic book movie – Catwoman, a figure who had been absent from the comic since the arrival of the Comics Code in 1954 had made DC Comics cautious about showcasing sexy bad girls. On television, Julie Newmar and later Eartha Kitt donned the black catsuit and purred their way through the role, while in the film Lee Meriwether adds a toughness to the role and seduces Bruce Wayne while disguised as the Russian Miss Kitka. Here was a figure who had more than a little in common with both Eva Kant and Modesty Blaise (not to mention Cathy Gale and Emma Peel on television). Overall, this was the perfect context in which to revisit Diabolik, both in terms of location and the cinematic company it was in. Batman and Robin, Diabolik and Eva, Barbarella and Pygar. The Batmobile and the black E-type Jaguar. Barbarella stripping in zero gravity, Diabolik and Eva making out on a revolving bed covered in money. The Batcave and Diabolik’s underground hideout, the latter looking like Ken Adam had given the former a makeover. Blond John Philip Law with wings, John Philip Law with black widow’s peak, aptly characterised by Mystery Science Theater 3000 as ‘an eyebrow-delivery system’. Things were starting to click into place. 5


Not surprisingly, I liked Diabolik much more a second time. I’d seen other Bava films in the meantime and was feeling more and more invested in him as a filmmaker. The tone of the film made more sense alongside the other two films. Diabolik felt a bit like a version of Batman in which The Riddler was the hero and Catwoman was his girlfriend and partnerin-crime. Of the three films, Batman was the only one whose comic book incarnation I was familiar with. My knowledge of European comics was patchy, and on the basis of the films, I assumed that Diabolik and Barbarella were based on the same kind of semi-erotic graphic novel. Ideally, this should be the point in the narrative where Diabolik becomes one of my favourite films, but that didn’t quite happen yet, even if I was moving in that direction. One of the likely reasons for this is indicative of some interesting shifts in cult exhibition and home media and the way we value or fetishise certain viewing platforms. As mainstream film exhibition later moved almost exclusively to digital, celluloid unsurprisingly assumed an ‘old media’ aura for cinephiles. Screenings on 35mm have become a cult selling point at repertory cinemas and film clubs (or an ‘event’ like Tarantino’s 70mm roadshow exhibition of The Hateful Eight (2015)), and the rarer the film, the more the fragility of the format becomes a source of distinction that separates the devoted from the ‘casual’ viewer. Celluloid cinephilia requires an acceptance of flaws and a putting aside of the emphasis on completeness that accompanies home media (the only available print might be cut, damaged or missing key scenes for some other reason, it might have a different title or have intrusive subtitles in an unfamiliar language). As one London-based independent film programmer, irritated by constant questions about whether he was screening films ‘the way the artist intended it’, puts it: ‘Is it cut?’ is a home entertainment question. Distri6


butors like Arrow, Shameless, 88 Films etc do a wonderful job of digging through various prints and materials and creating versions of a film that arguably never saw a cinema screen before. ‘Is it cut?’ is not a question applicable to 35mm. (Cigarette Burns 2015) As these comments suggest, celluloid cinephilia – the desire to see a film on 35mm or even 16mm at almost any cost – is not an alternative to but rather complementary to home entertainment cinephilia, which has served a director like Bava particularly well, as a director whose films often existed in very different versions. It’s possible that the version of Diabolik I saw at the Scala was the shorter 88-minute UK version – I didn’t know the film well enough to determine that. What is more to the point is that celluloid did not yet have the aura of an ‘obsolete’ technology; its fragility and unpredictability still seemed more of a liability than something that might one day be nostalgically sought, let alone remediated in the simulated print damage, colour deterioration and missing reels of films like Grindhouse (2007). Given that Diabolik had yet to be released on video, and not been repeated on TV since 1982, this was the only way to see it, but that faded and scratched print, while enjoyable enough to be my favourite of the three films, was nevertheless withholding some of visual pleasures that would only become apparent on DVD. Bava’s films began to re-surface on video in the late 1980s and early 1990s, particularly when specialist labels such as the UK company Redemption emerged. Given that his developing reputation was primarily that of a horror director, some titles were inevitably prioritised over others. But if Diabolik hasn’t enjoyed quite the same attention as La maschera del demonio or Sei donne per l’assassino/Blood and Black Lace (1964), nor does it have the lesser status of one of his west7


erns or his commercially successful but still critically unloved pairing of Vincent Price with Franco and Ciccio, Le spie vengono dal semifreddo/Dr Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs (1966). Its slightly late arrival on home video perhaps had more to do with its rights being held by a major Hollywood studio, Paramount, its original American distributor. According to Tim Lucas, when they finally released it in 1993, it was in response to a letter-writing campaign from Bava fans (2007: 730). Nevertheless, it was a budget release in a cardboard sleeve and an EP/SLP format, an extended play mode that sacrifices some picture quality by playing at a slower speed in order to make room for more material on the tape. Much like celluloid, video is another ‘obsolete’ platform that has generated a retro-fan subculture (see Church 2015). I will admit to some fond memories of VHS – certain beloved video cases and the pleasure of labelling tapes recorded from television – but that nostalgia does not extend to the experience of actually watching them, of films often in the wrong ratio, with a ‘soft’ or sometimes fuzzy picture and what has become the most enduring image of video ‘authenticity’, dropout. In other words, this was still not the format to do full justice to the film’s luxurious sets and colours. Nor is it the only Bava film of which that is true. Video served Bava’s black and white films and the gorier aspects of his colour films well enough. But what we might call his ‘pop’ films – 5 bambole per la luna d’agosto/Five Dolls for an August Moon (1970), for example – looked less and less ‘minor’ as each format upgrade made their strengths and rewards more apparent. Diabolik fully ‘arrived’ for me on DVD. It’s possible that if I had ever invested in Laserdisc, its earlier release in that format might have had the same effect. Paramount’s 2005 release of Diabolik is a comparatively modest DVD package compared to some of the Bava releases on niche labels, but the film had never looked better. Diabolik and Eva driving into 8


their underground hideout and the notorious ‘money-bed’ scene felt like some of the most perfect cinema ever created. Moreover, Ennio Morricone’s glorious soundtrack, mixed a little low on VHS, came to the fore as never before (as we shall see, the music is a core component of the film’s cult reputation). In one viewing, it leapfrogged gialli and Gothic horrors to become my favourite Bava film. I started screening it to students, who generally liked it too. Thus far, this has been a very Bava-centred account, the story of format upgrades finally doing justice to the auteur’s visual genius. But that isn’t necessarily the story I want to tell in this book – if anything, I aim to de-emphasise Bava a little in order to look at the film in other ways. Nor is it the whole story of my own relationship with the film, even though that was initially driven by my fascination with Bava as a mysterious and difficult-to-see filmmaker. There is an overlapping narrative to be told, too, of my engagement with the comic and with its specifically Italian context. My first encounter with the original fumetto came via an exhibition of Italian horror and crime comics at London’s National Art Library in 1998. If the film took a while to fully find its way into my personal canon, my first encounter with the comic was even less auspicious. It struck me as just plain dull, particularly in the company of the lurid thrills offered by the fumetti neri (black comics) it spawned such as Kriminal and Satanik, let alone such semi-pornographic horror comics as Sukia or Zora la vampira. I had expected something like Barbarella (which I had also yet to read in comic book form), but it looked more like a daily newspaper strip with uninspired art and pedestrian stories. Where were the Bond-like hideouts and revolving circular beds, the sensuality and glamour of the film? This was reinforcing the picture of Bava the genius, transforming an undistinguished and presumably long-discontinued comic book into cinematic gold. 9


By the time I owned the DVD, I had begun to visit Italy more regularly (and have continued to do so). I also began learning Italian – what better way to practice than buying and reading fumetti? My favourite was Dylan Dog, the Rupert Everett look-alike who investigates supernatural cases from his house in London, aided (or, just as often, hindered) by a Groucho Marx impersonator. I was intrigued by Italy’s newsstand comics culture and particularly by the discovery that Diabolik was still very much part of it. Regardless of my initial disappointment with it as a comic, I began to buy that, too, initially unsure whether these were new stories or reprints – to confuse the outsider, two of the monthly titles (Diabolik R and Diabolik Swiisss) reprint older stories while the third (Diabolik Inedito) prints new stories that don’t look significantly different from the older ones. Apart from the bi-annual Il Grande Diabolik, which showcases more ambitious stories and more exciting artwork (particularly that of Giuseppe Palumbo), the impression was of a comic that hadn’t changed in fifty years. That was not an entirely false impression, I would discover, and Italy’s love affair with Diabolik and Eva became more and more interesting. My initial antipathy towards the comic gradually turned into an obsession. Dylan Dog still seemed a better comic, wittier and more imaginative, but Diabolik was and is a cultural phenomenon, deeply embedded in Italian culture. When Diabolik’s publisher Astorina made subscriptions available to international readers, I jumped at the opportunity. In his book The Italians, John Hooper comments on the enduring visibility in Italy of icons of the era of the country’s ‘economic miracle’ such as Totò and Alberto Sordi. He attributes their continuing ubiquity on fridge magnets or DVDs sold at newsstands as a ‘cocoon nostalgia which surrounds that era of hope and prosperity’ (2015: 109). Diabolik strikes me as similarly frozen in that period, a story of prosperity and accelerated technological mo10


dernity, just as the film leaves him frozen in molten gold in its final scene – an anti-hero who creates his own economic miracle. This began to feed into my perception of the film, which was no longer solely ‘a film by Mario Bava’ – it was an adaptation of a comic which, while no masterpiece of the medium, was of huge cultural importance (and to which I was quite addicted). In some respects, the film is faithful to its source to the point of adapting scenes and images from it, but in other ways it is very different. My overall feeling is that Diabolik is a better film than it is a comic, in that it better exploits its medium that its source does. However, to engage with the character’s place in Italian culture is to quickly become aware of the importance of Eva Kant in her own right, and perhaps to feel that in some ways the film sells her slightly short. There are a number of Diabolik stories that have taken on a ‘classic’ status with readers over the years. One of the most frequently reprinted is number 107 (or Anno VII no. 5, to use the comic’s eccentric numbering system), ‘Diabolik, chi sei?’ (‘Diabolik, who are you?’), first published in 1968, less than two months after the film was released. Diabolik and his nemesis Inspector Ginko are captured and tied up, forced to spend more time together than they might choose. Ginko seizes the opportunity to ask the question he has always wanted to ask, the question that is also the title of the story. It is a question that the comic can never afford to fully answer, even though for the first time it did provide some backstory for the character, preserving the mystery of ‘Il re del terrore’ (the King of Terror), who is partly a mystery even to himself – ‘Non so chi sono’, he replies (‘I don’t know who I am’). In some ways, ‘Diabolik, chi sei?’ is the question I have been asking since November 1982 when I first saw the film and wasn’t quite sure what I was seeing – King of Terror, 11


Fantômas all’italiana, ‘psychedelic-era thief’ (as the VHS and DVD sleeves call him) or, as in the US trailer, ‘a bankrobbing hood who battles the cops’. This short monograph examines the origins of the film, the roles of Bava, Morricone, Dino De Laurentiis and others in its production, its reception, its cult afterlife (or afterlives), and its reputation as a ‘pop art’ movie. But underpinning all of this is that same question: Diabolik, who are you?


Danger: Diabolik (Introduction)  
Danger: Diabolik (Introduction)  

Read the introduction of Danger: Diabolik by Leon Hunt. For more information about this book visit: