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Is Italian horror cinema really dead? Directors Lamberto Bava, Sergio Stivaletti and Ruggero Deodato have been struggling to make a fright anthology since 2008; genre legend Dario Argento can’t even get his latest picture GIALLO properly released; and in the last 15 years, only singer/director Federico Zampaglione’s SHADOWS has shown a clear personal vision and interesting take on the genre. And Jonathan Zarantonello, director of the new chiller THE BUTTERFLY ROOM, had to leave his homeland in order to make his movie, from which you can see a few exclusive behind-the-scenes photos after the jump.
But just as fans of Italian horror are losing heart, their Gothic queen has finally left her castle and mounted an onscreen comeback. Of course, we’re talking about the divine Barbara Steele, the English actress who, in collaboration with Mario Bava (BLACK SUNDAY), Antonio Margheriti (CASTLE OF BLOOD), Riccardo Freda (THE HORRIBLE DR. HICHCOCK), Mario Caiano (NIGHTMARE CASTLE), Camillo Mastrocinque (AN ANGEL FOR SATAN) and Massimo Pupillo (TERROR CREATURES FROM THE GRAVE), became a true living icon of scare cinema. But the actress hasn’t enchanted us with her unique and magical eyes and presence since 1991, when she played Dr. Julia Hoffman in 12 episodes of the relaunched DARK SHADOWS TV series; since then, she’s done nothing more than a couple of quick cameos.
Now, Bava’s muse returns in grand style with a lead role in BUTTERFLY ROOM, the third film by Zarantonello following the high-school splatter movie MEDLEY (distributed on U.S. DVD by Troma) and the sex comedy UNCUT: MEMBER ONLY, a feature narrated from the point of view of…a penis. Zarantonello, who struggled for more than eight years to get BUTTERFLY off the ground, eventually emigrated to LA in search of financing and finally realized his dream.
The script focuses on an 11-year-old girl, Alice (played by Julie Putnam, pictured above with Steele and Zarantonello), who entices lonely older women, befriending them under false pretenses and worming her way into the “empty nests” that are their lives. But one day she meets Ann (Steele), and shortly thereafter disappears. Ann, it seems, is a very busy lady: She’s busy throwing acid in an elevator shaft (to make a body disappear); she’s busy with an handyman (Ray Wise) and his assistant, who both know too much; and she’s busy with her estranged daughter Dorothy (Heather Langenkamp), whom she hasn’t seen since the dark and terrible days of her childhood. Meanwhile, Ann’s next-door neighbor Claudia (Erica Leerhsen, pictured at bottom of page, left), a recently divorced, attractive single mother, asks Ann to mind her daughter Julie for a weekend. Will Julie discover what happened to Alice? Will Dorothy realize something is horribly wrong in time to save other kids from what she went through? And what exactly is in the butterfly room?
But the most interesting question of all is surely this: How did Zarantonello convince Steele to step back in front of the camera? “One of the reasons I really wanted to do this was because it was an Italian director asking,” the actress tells Fango. “I always had this incredible nostalgia for Italy, because my time there was a sort of determining factor in my life. But this is not a Gothic film, so it has been a totally different experience. All the movies I did in the ’60s, they really had a foot in the 19th century, in a way; the locations, the morality of the stories, etc. In THE BUTTERFLY ROOM, I felt I was playing a kind of cross between Dennis Hopper and Kathy Bates in MISERY; this movie has the anxiety of a David Lynch movie, and not the baroque elements of the Italian Gothic. I believe this extreme subtext of anxiety perfectly reflects these very tense times we’re living in.”
Nostalgia alone was not enough to convince her, however. “I was very conflicted at the beginning whether to accept this movie or not,” Steele notes. “I mean, I was flattered, of course, but I was also insecure about myself acting after all these years. I didn’t want to let anybody down; people had an image of me 100 years younger, and then in horror films, when you’re photographed in HD with low lighting and low camera angles, you end up looking like a dog! I thought it could be an element of self-destruction on my part. But I liked the script very much; it was very intelligent, complex and unusual, a clever and personal puzzle. I gave it to maybe six friends and asked them, ‘Do you think I should do this?’ And everybody said, ‘Of course you should, it’s a fabulous script!’
“Then I met Jonathan,” she continues, “and he was so charming; I was very moved by his presence and his elegance, and so I accepted.”
One of the most interesting aspects of the movie is its female-dominated cast; in recent years, only Neil Marshall has showcased something similar in THE DESCENT. Indeed, Zarantonello has been able to assemble a real scream queen reunion for BUTTERFLY ROOM; beyond the actresses noted above, the cast also includes I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE’s Camille Keaton, FRIDAY THE 13TH’s Adrienne King and HALLOWEEN’s P.J. Soles (pictured below right). Look for more Fango coverage of this exciting project in the near future…
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