Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Ivan Zuccon's NYMPHA (2007): Contemporary Italian Horror Done Right

Ivan Zuccon's NYMPHA begins in much the same way as Dario Argento's SUSPIRIA: a young American woman makes her way through a violent night rainstorm to take her place in a foreign institution for women--in this case, a convent. The young woman, Sarah (played by the fetching Tiffany Shepis), discovers in the most painful way that this order of nuns observe an unorthodox set of rituals. As the film progresses, she finds herself humiliated and tortured, even as she experiences past visions of an old man living with a daughter who has been impregnated under mysterious circumstances. Thanks to the alcoholic, broken down doctor working for the convent, Sarah gradually loses each of her senses; at the same time, however, new sensory doors open for her, and she begins to "see" the nightmarish truth of Nympha's birth and what her grandfather harbored in his attic.

After cutting his teeth on a series of H. P. Lovecraft-based films, including the commendable THE SHUNNED HOUSE (2003), Zuccon brings us this fresh exploration of tropes and images that had become prevalent in past decades of Italian horror and nunspoitation cinema, calling to mind such films as THE OTHER HELL, THE HOUSE WITH LAUGHING WINDOWS, and any number of films directed by Lucio Fulci. Even as Zuccon pays his respect to these previous films (even including some cringe-worthy eye violence that would have made Fulci proud of his fellow Italian), his references suggest something other than slavish fan adoration. Rather, we can see evidence that Zuccon sees himself as part of a tradition that has, unfortunately, fallen on hard times since the early 90s.

Zuccon appears to be on the verge of finding a truly distinct voice, even as he continues to explore the kind of source material that clearly obsesses him. In some ways, NYMPHA calls to mind H. P. Lovecraft's "The Color Out of Space," sharing with that story a focus on pregnancy that may have an otherworldly or supernatural origin. However, unlike his previous Lovecraft films, Zuccon does not draw directly from Lovecraft, and the ultimate revelation of his film involves something very different from what Lovecraft would conceive in his own work.

Zuccon also brings us plenty of exploitation goodies, including gore, nudity, and a lesbian encounter that didn't necessary develop the narrative, but still manages to add a surreal quality. Although shot on what appears to be digital video, NYMPHA nevertheless looks elegant, punctuated by Zuccon's flair for chiaroscuro. An uneasy co-existence of exploitation and arthouse sensibility emerges, but that's nothing new to anyone who watches Italian horror. What's refreshing is to see someone doing it now. Bear in mind, I don't mean to say that Zuccon has come forth as some kind of second coming; in fact, he seems to have plenty of detractors out there, as evidenced by the miserable 3.1 rating garnered by NYMPHA on the imdb. However, NYMPHA strikes me as a worthy effort that deserves a spot on your Netflix cue.

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