Color, 2003, 83m. / Directed by Ivan Zuccon / Starring Giuseppe Lorusso, Federica Quadlieri / Salvation (UK R0 PAL) / WS (1.85:1) / DD2.0

Outside the realm of Stuart Gordon, adapting H.P. Lovecraft is a feat that still confounds most directors as they try to balance out that tricky mixture of unseen dread and grotesque, cosmic beasties. The Shunned House, a shot-on-DV Italian horror effort from up and comer director Zuccon, sidesteps this problem by adapting three of Lovecraft's more obtuse, monster-free stores, "The Shunned House," "The Music of Eric Zann," and "The Dreams in the Witch House" (also the basis for the radically different Curse of the Crimson Altar). As far as Lovecraft anthologies go, this is more consistent and successful than Brian Yuzna's Necronomicon but still misses as often as it hits.

In the moody prologue (which owes more than a tad to A Blade in the Dark), a young boy follows his lost ball into a spooky, abandoned house only to find something very nasty inside. Years later he returns as an adult, Alex (Lorusso), a paranormal writer investigating the building, a former inn, along with his mealy-mouthed girlfriend, Rita (Quadlieri). Their exploration of the haunted premises dovetails with two other stories, cutting back and forth over the decades. Mathematician Luigi (Emanuele Cerman) engages in a series of chess games with fellow resident Nora (Silvia Ferreri) as he tries to uncover the perplexing schematics of the building's construction; in the process he becomes the target for supernatural forces, leading to an unnerving sequence in which he strings tiny bells around his bed to alert him if anything nasty tries to pay a visit during the night. In an even earlier tale, writer Marco (Michael Segal) is enchanted by violinist Carlotta (Cristiana Vaccaro), his mute neighbor. Soon he's having unearthly, music-inspired visions of Carlotta slicing herself with razors and another dark figure in the house playing a violin elsewhere in the house. Finally the three narratives tie together for a gory finale, combining a blood-spattered surgeon, a hidden lair filled with candles, and more than a few ghostly twists.

First the positive: The Shunned House is a rich-looking affair despite the video format, and Zuccon certainly knows how to use a camera; his rich chiaroscuro lighting and elegant tracking shots create a feeling of poetic apprehension from the opening moments. He also pulls off some very nice scares, including the aforementioned bells scene, and conjures up some nightmarish imagery such as a blonde girl repeatedly knocking her bloody head against a wall. Unfortunately the decision to shoot the film in English was a very bad call; the actors seem very uncomfortable with their lines, and their shaky delivery is hampered further by the decision to have many scenes delivered in a whisper. At least half the dialogue is completely incomprehensible, which doesn't help the already muddy narrative. The best of the stories by far involves Marco/Carlotta, perhaps because dialogue is kept to a bare minimum; the camera really cuts loose here, telling an almost entirely visual story that caps off with a memorably sick shock ending. (Inexplicably, Carlotta scribbles her thoughts out in Italian while Marco is speaking English to her.) Gore fans will be pleased at the amount of bodily fluids on display, though the blood-drenched surgeon seems more appropriate for a Hellraiser film.

Salvation's DVD does its best to pass this off as a return to form for Italian horror, which is fair enough considering there hasn't been a decent non-Argento pasta horror title in years. Contrary to the packaging, this is not a 16:9 transfer; the presentation looks decent but not exceptional, with some of the darker scenes clogged by dodgy compression and indistinct blacks. The stereo audio is fine, though the wildly inconsistent music tends to drown out the dialogue on more than one occasion. Extras include the UK theatrical trailer, an international trailer, a handful of innocuous deleted scenes, a stills gallery, completely unrelated trailers for The Bunker and The Playgirls and the Vampire, essays on Italian horror (blah) and H.P. Lovecraft (better), Philip Ilson's perplexing 10-minute short film "Blood," and more in the usual Salvation vein, a music video for "White Slave" by the Nuns, directed by Razor Blade Smile's Jake West and featuring the usual bevy of leather-clad lesbian vampires.

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