Bad Books for Bad People: The Bloody Chamber

Listen to the podcast here!

In the latest mini episode of my podcast, Bad Books for Bad People, Jack and I take a look at the “title track” from Angela Carter’s famed short story collection, The Bloody Chamber. This feminist reimagining of the Bluebeard story blends sensuous language, heady atmosphere, and clever inversions of typical fairy tale tropes.

What perils await young women as they venture into the wider world? How do fairy tales translate into the modern world? Is there a reason why some stories end exactly where they do? Find out all this and more in this month’s mini episode of Bad Books for Bad People.

BBfBP theme song by True Creature 

Find us at, on Twitter @badbooksbadppl, Instagram @badbooksbadpeople and on Facebook. You can discover where to get all the books featured on Bad Books for Bad People on our About Page.

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February Reads: Eurocomix, Medieval Tragedy, and WWII Espionage

I have to say that GoodReads has been a great tool for me to get through some of the books I’ve been hoarding! There’s something to be said about the accountability of having a “Books I’m Reading” update glaring at me every time I log on. In addition to my podcast reads, here are a few titles that stood out for me this month.

Much as a I hate star ratings from a principled standpoint, they’re a good tool when seeking automated recommendations–sort of a way of saying “more like THIS, please.” I’m always going to default high when star-rating creative works in these kinds of online platforms, since my real approach is more of a “pass/fail” depending on what I’m looking to be entertained by at that specific moment.

The Nikopol TrilogyThe Nikopol Trilogy by Enki Bilal
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

By turns sardonic, mystical, romantic, witty, and violent, this lushly illustrated trio of stories builds an immersive fantasy-futurist vision that one won’t soon forget. Bilal seems to take a “more is more” approach, blending elements of espionage, mythology, film noir, surrealism, and meta-narrative into these stories. Each panel is exquisitely detailed, encouraging a pleasurably slow reading process. A spiritual cousin to The Incal but from a grimier, more pessimistic perspective.

Collection of ShaCollection of Sha by Pat Mills
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Completely over the top horror SF fantasy from the team that created Requiem Vampire Knight. This is very much a Heavy Metal title, with all the violence, acerbic satire, and weird sexual politics that implies. Ledroit’s visionary art style brings Mills’ dystopian occult revenge plot to life. This very much feels like a test run for the more immersive (and more outrageous) Requiem.

By Chance or ProvidenceBy Chance or Providence by Becky Cloonan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Becky Cloonan’s gifts as a visual storyteller are aptly demonstrated in this trio of short stories linked by themes of loss, heartbreak, and the cruelty of fate. The juxtaposition of her thoroughly modern visual style with the weighty supernatural tales she weaves creates an impact that lasts long after the final frame. There’s a restraint present here that focuses the attention on small gestures and facial expressions, making climactic moments land all that much harder. The added “Concept Sketches & Illustrations” are a welcome treat that allow the reader to linger in Cloonan’s medieval world a bit longer. Highly recommended.

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's BerlinIn the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The real joy of Larson’s narrative approach to writing about history is found in the small moments he captures. While the broad strokes of Hitler’s consolidation of power are known to virtually all readers with a passing interest in military and political history, Larson narrows the focus and depicts events as experienced by a very specific set of personalities. This is a book about romantic entanglements, over-dinner conversations, and personal diary confessions, all of which grow to have dire consequences in the charged, bloody, and tragic atmosphere in which they occur. Larson mentions the influence of Christopher Isherwood on the development of the book, and that’s an apt point of reference for potential readers. This is a real page-turner with two captivating, flawed American characters (scholarly Ambassador Dodd and his vivacious twenty-something daughter Martha) at its center.

View all my reviews

Bad Books for Bad People: Creatures of Will and Temper

There are a lot of things to be afraid of in the world: bees, nuclear annihilation, identity theft, having all your teeth fall out, and so on. To this non-comprehensive list, I’d like to add one of my personal fears: “contemporary reinterpretations of historical periods about which I know enough to be dangerous.” Molly Tanzer’s novel Creatures of Will and Temper falls into this category. What did I make of a playful reimagining of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray but with gender-bending, swordplay, and demons? Frankly, I found it to be quite a bit of fun!

Listen to the Podcast Here.

In Creatures of Will and Temper, Molly Tanzer takes elements of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and crafts a story of romance, swordplay, and demonology. It’s an ambitious premise that goes beyond simply gender-swapping its source material. Listen and find out what Jack, a Wilde scholar, and Kate, a reader with a deep fear of contemporary takes on fin de siecle themes, think about this supernatural adventure.

Just how bent do genders get in this story? How much of the artistic process involves drinking, crying, and puking? Will these fencers ever get an opportunity to have some sexytimes? How do demons fit into the worldview of the Aesthetic movement? Find out all this and more in this month’s episode of Bad Books for Bad People.

NOTE: I want to personally apologize for mis-naming the lead character throughout this episode. Her name is “Dorina Gray,” not “Doriana Gray.” I made a typo in the show notes because I was thinking about Jess Franco’s Doriana Gray. I’m always kind of thinking about Jess Franco movies, really.

Bad Books for Bad People: Podcast and Additional Reading

Sometimes I sit here and reflect on how extremely fortunate I am to know smart people who agree to work on projects with me. It’s through some wonder of fate that I’ve managed to convince Jack Guignol to continue participating in Bad Books for Bad People, our two-person, twice-a-month book club disguised as a podcast. We had a blast with our two most recent episodes and if you enjoy the very bizarre side of vintage fiction, you should probably check these out.

Ray Russell’s Incubus is one of those books that comes up a lot in horror fiction circles. My pal Unkle Lancifer at Kindertrauma has discussed it, I endured the horrifying film adaptation of the book, and after Will Errickson recommended giving it a shot during our conversation with him, I took the plunge. Some time after the folksy doctor writes a “witty” editorial disparaging the use of the term “Ms.” and well before the magical properties of the hymeneal blood of nuns comes into play, I realized this book was something that Jack and I would need to discuss together. So we did, and it was the most fun (if perhaps a little scarring). Listen here.

I had another such “we have to cover this” experience when reading through the massive Big Book of Rogues and Villains, edited by Otto Penzler. It takes a very particular set of personality traits to chuckle at an anti-suffragette comedy involving phrenology and jewel theft, but I possess exactly those personality traits and felt the need to inflict the tale on Jack. We traded short stories in this mini episode, and I feel a little guilty that he sent me something sophisticated and intellectual when I presented him so proudly with my silly dustbin treasure. It’s the nature of our friendship, I guess. Listen here.

A little more about The Big Book of Rogues and Villains: I’m having the same experience reading this as when I read the Megapacks available for the Kindle. It’s terrific that anthologists are unearthing a lot of overlooked or “lost” pulp authors and I find myself tearing through these compilations when I get my hands on a new one. Every time, though, I experience the “too much of a good thing” moment where I begin to anticipate the shape of the stories within the first couple of paragraphs. At that point, I need to take a break and acknowledge that these stories are best consumed one at a time, interspersed between lengthier reads.  Essentially, I’m the dog that will eat itself sick on garbage, except the garbage is made up of trashy short stories.

During our recent Best of 2017 episode, Jack reminded me I should read Becky Cloonan’s By Chance or Providence, a compilation of three short stories in comics form that are not at all of the trashy variety. I sure am glad I remembered to read this, because each section packs an emotional wallop in remarkably few pages. I adore Cloonan’s artwork and got to meet her briefly at Roadburn last year where I was able to tell her how very much I love her work. It’s a wonderful experience to get a chance to tell artists that they’re making the world a more excellent place by putting their work out into it. But seriously–check out her work for a second and see how much atmosphere she captures in just one page:

Speaking of historical gothickry, Jack’s much-anticipated new role-playing book, Krevborna: A Gothic Blood Opera has just been released. Jack is a gifted writer and fantasist, and the book features beautiful art by Becky Munich and Michael Gibbons.  You can purchase your copy via Drive Thru RPG. Just check out that cover:

New Swag: Witch King Enamel Pins and Decadent Art Sticker Packs

Witch King Enamel Pin

Friends, I have leapt into the world of designing enamel pins! My first pin release is available now through the Heretical Sexts storefront and features my tribute to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Witch-King of Angmar. Measuring a (dare I say it) tasteful 1.5″ h by .75″ w and cast in black nickel with hard enamel finishing, this creepy ring wraith features glow-in-the-dark white details. I’m releasing a limited quantity through the online sale, and will have more available at my table at the upcoming Jersey City Oddities “Til Death Do Us Part 2” Market on Saturday February 10th , 2018 (definitely plan to attend–it takes place in a converted church space and so many great creators and oddities vendors will be there!).  Buy your pin online now! Free US shipping on all orders, all the time. Salome and Gilles de Rais stickers

I’ve also added a two-sticker pack featuring my brand new illustrations of decadent-era icons Salome and Gilles de Rais. A perfect choice for those who want to show the world that you’re literate and historically-minded while ALSO macabre and sensual, and really–doesn’t that describe you? Buy stickers online now! Free US shipping, every day.

A few pieces of original art remain in the online store, and I’m hard at work on new, original mini illustrations that will be for sale at Jersey City Oddities Market on February 10th at beautiful Cathedral Hall at 380 Montgomery Street in Downtown Jersey City. I’m planning on honoring the Valentines Day theme of the event with some artwork featuring appropriately romantic imagery. Of course there will be plentiful witches, vampires, and other assorted creeps, too, since I know you guys love this stuff as much as I do. Attendees will have first  crack at bringing their favorites home, so don’t miss the market!

Keep an eye on my Instagram for previews of upcoming swag and art for purchase.

Streaming Options: A Dazzling Kaleidoscope of Bad Taste

Upon seeing my name mentioned recently in the context of film writing by the exceedingly talented Heather Drain, it struck me that I haven’t actually written about film in a long time. I’m not sure how much the following list counts as breaking that streak, but I will take a minute to talk about some of the more memorable titles I’ve watched recently.

I’m consistently shocked at the excellence of the selection at We live in a beautiful world where $50 a year gets you access to titles like The Devils, Erotic Rites of Frankenstein, and Dr. Jekyll and His Women. Selling me on a “horror streaming service” is a dicey proposition, since I’m more incidentally interested in horror. It’s not so much the horror-ness of a movie that attracts me, as it is that stories classed as “horror” are reliable sources of the kind of bizarre and thrilling things that I enjoy. As such, here are a few Shudder titles I can recommend.

The real horror is that she’s drinking a martini with a drink stirrer

Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion [1970]: DELICIOUS fashion, bad behavior, duplicitous women, and really awful personal decisions combine to make this Italo-thriller sizzle. So long as you’re not at 101-level gore-seeker status (and if you are, why are you reading anything I write?), this is a keeper.

Play Motel [1979]: OH MY GOD there’s a bouncy, soft-rock theme song that references the title of the movie and this was made for a dollar ninety-nine and I feel like I’m coated in a thin sheen of something slimy and disquietingly organic after accidentally stumbling into a sex party and then staying because dude, it’s a sex party–what am I going to do, LEAVE? Perfect, perfect, perfect. You, too, will be havin’ fun at the Play Motel, but you’ll feel super-gross about it afterwards.

“No, really, I hated acting in this movie.”

Lust for a Vampire [1971]: Ralph Bates has gone on record saying this is “one of the worst films ever made,” which makes me sad. That the actor who is Hammer Films’ answer to Crispin Glover failed to see the beauty of this ode to lesbonic passion in a continental girls’ school where the heavy-bosomed students traipse about performing pseudo-Grecian dances while giggling is one of the great mysteries of cinema.

Amazon Prime Video is a reliable source for weirdness dredged up from god knows where, often with dubious-quality prints. All of this makes their pristine streaming copies of vintage Shaw Brothers movies even more of a treasure. It’s impossible to pick a favorite, but Human Lanterns can’t be rivaled for sheer Grand Guignol monstrosity. You’re gonna have a bad day after watching this martial arts revenge film whose “surprise” is right in the title. That is either a recommendation or a warning depending on your personality. Also: if you’re not watching movies starring the Venom Mob, then I just don’t know what you’re doing with your life. These martial arts masters make it all look so damn easy, capable of doling out serious ass whippings even when wearing bespangled, chest-baring satin outfits. Check out Flag of Iron, Five Elements Ninjasand of course Five Venoms and prepare to be amazed.

I finally watched Fatal Attraction which is a wry comedy from the point of view of a middle-aged office worker who imagines himself to be an object of unbearable sexual desire, like some darkest timeline Walter Mitty (unless I’m reading this movie incorrectly…?). Following closely on the heels of this absurdist romp, I figured it was high time that I checked out Basic Instinct. The latter title was, if anything, even more bananas than I’d been led to believe. Sure, at one point in my life Basic Instinct was just a cultural artifact that brought me great pleasure when denying its rental to teen boys during my stint as a video store manager. I used to dismiss these 1990s erotic thrillers as aesthetically weak-sauce knockoffs of giallo, and while younger me was not entirely wrong in that assessment, I was very mistaken to think that this particular brand of bad taste was meritless as a result. Twenty-five years after its release, Basic Instinct has aged into a surprisingly heady brand of grotesque charm.

Speaking of grotesque charm, I blind-watched The Devil’s Mistress, a 2016 Czech docu-drama about actress Lída Baarová’s affair with Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels, and walked away satisfied. Have you ever wanted to see a telenovela-style love scene featuring a close-up on Goebbels’ leg brace set to Wagner’s Tannhäuser? Well, if you do now, you can head to Netflix and sate your curiosity.

Cinematic Wanderings: the Sinful Dwarf, Naughty Nuns, and Varied Pulp Smut

I realize that the TRVER members of the cult film community will get the vapors upon reading this, but I’ve become a convert to the world of streaming cinema. HEAR ME OUT, friends–I retain enough firing neurons from back in the day to tell you that your local mom & pop video store wasn’t exactly the Library of Alexandria, so you can leave your belly aching about “selection” at the door. Unless the specific thrill of the DVD hunt moistens your undercarriage, I defy you to have a better movie-watching experience than the one provided by the archives at Fandor (a site that I pay for and that in no way compensates me for saying nice things). Below are just a handful of titles I’ve watched over the past few months on this thoroughly wonderful site.


The Sinful Dwarf: OK, so a lot of you have told me to watch this, and I ignored you. Joke’s on me, because this was exploitation bliss. For the uninitiated, this is the tale of Olaf, a little person who traps unsuspecting young women into lives of drugged-up sex slavery in a bordello run by his mother, a fading former cabaret star. It doesn’t sound appetizing, and it is indeed a thoroughly unsavory viewing experience. The Sinful Dwarf is elevated past similar fare by its details: close-ups on wind-up toys, lengthy song and dance performances, and an underlying moral about the dangers of a career as a screenwriter combine to make this an unforgettable trash cinema classic. Thanks, Denmark!


Cloistered Nun: Runa’s Confession: The Japanese have weird ideas about both consent and Christianity, so proceed with caution. Should you be able to deal with that, then boyfriend-stealing, double-crossing, sexed-up melodrama awaits you!


The Secret of Dorian Gray: Look, I already wrote about this one five years ago. It’s got Helmut Berger in all states of sexy dress and undress, plus it’s a Harry Alan Towers “literary” adaptation. I love those things. You should love those things, too.


The Sin of Nora Moran: This is THE most melodramatic title on the list. A pre-Hayes Code doozie, this tale of a young woman wronged by the men around her is much more than the sum of its story. The frequently clunky acting combined with numerous montages and utterly absurd plot details (ALERT: vintage circus nonsense) make this a wonderful artifact of its time and place. I hesitate to use the word “underrated” since the relative buzz about a work shouldn’t impact the degree to which one appreciates it, but this movie might qualify as an “underrated” gem.


Christina: I feel like this is the real DISCOVERY from my Fandor wanderings. This 1984 sex adventure is the second Harry Alan Towers pulp adaptation on this list. I don’t even seek these out–they seem to find me! Based on an expansive series of pulp novels written under the female pseudonym Blakely St. James (a psuedonym that was shared by multiple authors, including noted science fiction author, journalist, and computer programmer Charles Platt), Christina was intended to be a star-making vehicle for Jewel Shepard. The director of this slice of 80s culture is Paco Lara, whose version of The Monk I found so baffling at one point. Recounting the adventures of the world’s richest heiress, Christina screws her way across the Iberian peninsula while attempting to evade lesbian terrorists, pirates, and other assorted ne’er do wells. The plot hardly matters; what’s of importance here is that this is the sort of movie that thinks black leather gloved hands rolling toy cars across a woman’s abdomen is a reasonable representation of lesbian sex. Pure stupidity, pure joy.

Teen Witches, Russian Bloodsuckers, and Lunatics Running the Asylum: Recent Watch Run-down

It’s that time again: here’s some stuff I’ve watched recently that you, too, can view on your streaming service of choice.


The Sisterhood of Night (2014)

As the one woman my age who was not enchanted with “The Craft,” I really wanted the recent teen witch outsider movie “Sisterhood of the Night” to satisfy my yearning for an occult thriller that fully exploits the nightmarish hellscape of American high school. I feel like younger viewers will probably get more out of this modern-day “Crucible” story of ostracization, mania, and eventual redemption than I did. Director Caryn Waechter does a fine job eliciting memorable performances from her cast of young woman actors, and Georgie Henley plays lead witchy-chick Mary with a fine balance of charisma and vulnerability.  Perhaps the most refreshing thing about this movie is seeing teenage girls portrayed with a degree of nuance and realism not usually seen in movies (god, being a teenage girl was horrible–I DO NOT RECOMMEND the experience to others).


Night Watch (2004)

This tale of warring factions of Russian supernatural creatures is like being inside someone else’s migraine for almost two hours. Frenetic, inscrutable, and with far more mythos-building than any movie about monsters punching each other deserves, it does have a beautiful handling of animated, artistic subtitles in the US release going for it.


Stonehearst Asylum (2014)

Holy cow, was I charmed by this adaptation of Poe’s “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Father.” I went into this suspicious of any adaptation of that story, which had already been done with psychedelic bombast in 1973 by Juan Lopez Moctezuma in “Mansion of Madness.” Fortunately, the movie doesn’t chiefly turn on Poe’s famous twist ending–this same twist does appear early in the movie but it’s used to set the stage for further convolutions of the pleasantly gothic variety. Directed by Brad Anderson (who’s also responsible for haunted asylum-themed cult fave “Session 9”), “Stonehearst Asylum” balances the darkness of gothic fiction with a pleasant dose of the cheekiness that can also be found in that source material, but is often overlooked by modern adaptations. Hell, even Kate Beckinsdale (star of the “Underworld” franchise, speaking of movies with way too much backstory to their monster-punching) is a delight in this.


London in the Raw (1965)

The Mondo well must have been running dry at this point, as the big gore/surgery setpiece involves a man getting hairplugs. Thanks, but I’ll take the mensur fencers and Grand Guignol in “Ecco!”

Cataclysmic Decadence in Porta Nigra’s “Kaiserschnitt”


Music puts me at a loss for words. Maybe I just prefer to let the visceral experience of bathing in sound remain a private one. Today, I’m going to make an exception to this muteness because I simply cannot contain my delight at listening to Kaiserschnitt, the most recent release from self-described “dark decadent metal” duo Porta Nigra. A work of malefic gorgeousness and sophisticated extremity, something REAL special would have to come out to unseat this album as my favorite of 2015.

Let’s talk about the use of the word “decadent.” A term defanged over the course of decades by ad men who use it to describe chocolatey desserts and lipstick textures, Porta Nigra employs the term in its most literary sense: Decadence as a nihilistic celebration of decay, madness, and vice. While many of the topics covered by the band will be familiar to heavy metal fans (war, sex, insanity), their work is inspired by works of art and literature that are a far cry from the pop/pulp influences more typically found in this kind of music. Borrowing the Satanism of J.K. Huysmans’ “La Bas,”* the diseased eroticism of Felicien Rops, and the martial symbolism of Gabriele D’Annunzio, Porta Nigra create a soundscape that, while extreme, has a sense of musical control and aesthetic refinement. Each sound–whether expressed through guitar, drum, vocals, samples, or keyboards–is carefully selected for maximum theatrical impact. The rapid-fire drums of opening track “Die Mensur” call to mind the quick slashing strikes of German academic fencing, while “Hepatits Libido” features a drunk reel alternating with punctuated stabs to conjure dizzying eros-thanatos.

*It’s noteworthy that a member of the band goes by the moniker Gilles de Rais, the child-murdering black magician once associated with Joan of Arc and a central figure in “La Bas.”

Porta Nigra hails from Germany, and Kaiserschnitt does a breathtaking job of conjuring an “ecstatic truth” vision of that country in the 1910s and 1920s. The album’s title translates to “Caesarian section” (literally: “Kaiser/Emperor Cut”), a grisly, interventionist method of birth that evokes the chaos of Germany’s military exploits and downfall in the early 20th Century (to say nothing of the bloodshed that would follow with the rise of the Nazis in the 1930s). In addition to the influence of the Decadents, there is a strong sense of Germany’s artistic heritage during this time period in Kaiserschnitt. Known for their unflinching portrayals of taboo topics like battlefield casualties, criminals, prostitutes, and other inhabitants of the demimonde, the German Expressionist painter’s toolkit consisted of energetic strokes, lurid colors, and dynamic compositions–the same experience delivered by Porta Nigra’s musical arrangements. While the album’s subject matter isn’t explicitly supernatural or fantastical, there’s also an aesthetic whiff of Decadent- and Expressionist-adjacent German occult novelists like Gustav Meyrink and Hanns Heinz Ewers** on this record.

**Ewers’ 1916 novel “Alraune” was the best book I read in the year I discovered it, and is far ghastlier, sexier, and funnier than you probably expect it to be. Please thank me for that recommendation later.


I would be terribly remiss if I didn’t mention Porta Nigra’s marvelous visual presentation. Their promotional photo for Kaiserschnitt depicts the pair decked out in full mensur fencing gear. I’ll permit myself an indulgent aside here to tell you how much I adore mensur (I’m working on A Whole Thing that involves mensur). An academic form of fencing, mensur is practiced in fraternities in Germany and Austria, and unlike what we think of as “fencing,” it’s not a duel with a winner but rather a sort of maniac’s version of a character building exercise. Each bout finds two participants in neck guards, vests, and goggles (and probably bellies full of delicious German beer for added courage) facing off with rapiers held above the head, rapidly swinging them about without flinching. The resulting facial scars–schmiss–were worn with pride.

And then there’s Kaiserschnitt’s arresting cover artwork, with its bloody-mouthed, world-devouring beast in Prussian headgear. The art was created by Valnoir, a French designer whose Metastazis studio website opens with  a warning to potential clients that includes the following: “to the plebeian who says ‘you should know how to accept criticism,’ we respond ‘not when it’s ludicrous.'” This is probably my new favorite design site.

At this point, I hope I’ve titillated you to the point that you’re aching to listen to Kaiserschnitt for yourself. Thanks to the magic of the information superhighway, you can have just this kind of instant gratification! Stream Porta Nigra’s latest album below, and visit their Bandcamp page to purchase a digital copy. Porta Nigra is active on Facebook as well, for those who are of the social-media-using sort.

A Tale of Three Livias: Female Desire and Military Decadence in Senso


“Senso:” the title of Camillo Boito’s 1882 novella evokes the senses, primal feelings that are more immediate than reason. A stunning work of decadent fiction, “Senso” is the story of Livia, a 22-year-old countess married to a much older man who recounts her obsession with her “strong, handsome, degenerate, reprobate” lover, the soldier Romigio. I have a soft spot for horrible leading characters, and Livia is truly dreadful: she’s vain, impulsive, and vengeful with a complete disregard for anyone by herself. The very name “Livia” evokes the deified wife of the Roman emperor Augustus, known as an idealized, queenly matriarch, but this Livia is called “Messalina” by her lover, linking her more closely to the wife of Emperor Claudius who was rumored to be wildly promiscuous. Romigio proves himself to be precisely the kind of scoundrel he’s always presented himself to be, wheedling lavish gifts from Livia, who delights in stealing her husband’s money for her roguish, beautiful side piece. Things turn sour when Livia discovers that—in addition to his gambling, drinking, and excesses—Romigio also keeps other lovers, she finds a final way to squeeze pleasure out of her relationship with him: ratting him out as a deserter and watching his execution. A story of lust, extreme selfishness, and power against the backdrop of war, “Senso” begs to be adapted for the screen.


Luchino Visconti’s 1954 version of “Senso” is a lavish period piece set, like Boito’s novella, in Italy during the 1860s at a time of escalating tension with Austria. Livia (Alida Valli) is married to an aristocrat with ties to Austria, but Visconti adds a “competing loyalties” storyline with the new character of Livia’s cousin, the leader of an Italian rebellion against the Austrian occupiers. Visconti’s Livia is not the arrogant young woman depicted by Boito; instead she an aging beauty plagued by anxieties who is swept away by the dashing Lieutenant Franz Mahler (the renamed Romogio, played by Farley Granger who used the time in between filming to carry on an affair with Jean Marais). It’s clear that Franz is bad news, but Livia convinces herself he loves only her, in spite of his known reputation as a drunk and a womanizer. Rather than being a headstrong femme fatale—the Satanic Female so favored by the decadent movement—Visconti’s Livia is a tragic figure and this is the story of her downfall.


Key moments of sensuality populate the novella: Livia examines bruises on her body, her first tryst with Romigio takes place while swimming nude in a public bath, and there are references to her body being “crushed” and “bitten” during sex. Visconti transforms this physical sensuality into a purely visual beauty. Bruised, bitten shoulders are replaced by sumptuous layers of silk gowns and crushing sex becomes smoldering eye contact of the kind Visconti films so adeptly. It’s a breathlessness not of exertion and exhaustion, but of constraint. This Livia doesn’t pant from her unrestrainable sexual urges, but is unable to breathe due to tight bodices and heavy gowns.


Toxic intimacy gives way to sweeping battlefield sequences, shifting focus from Livia and Franz to the greater impact of war on the country. Livia’s obsession feels trivial when contrasted with images of wounded soldiers and chaotic fighting. Livia isn’t so much driven by desire, as she is hysterical. In fact, her neglect of duties to her countrymen is made explicit when she gives money earmarked for her cousin’s resistance efforts to her lover so he can avoid active duty. The consequences of her choice are made terribly obvious when the Austrian army defeats the Italian partisans.


In a final departure from Boito, Visconti constructs a confrontation between Livia and her cheating lover that doesn’t exist for Boito. It is enough for Boito’s Livia to witness Romigio’s unfaithfulness without being seen, but Visconti depicts a heartrending scene in which Franz, caught in the arms of a prostitute and bragging about taking Livia’s money, rants his explanation at Livia, maddening her with grief and regret. This Livia musters the last of her dignity to turn him in, instead of ruthlessly informing on him and taking pleasure in his death.

Visconti’s film is a breathtaking one in its beauty, if not due to the dark sensuality evoked by Boito. To watch one of the director’s period pieces is to be put into an idealized, luxurious vision of the aristocratic past, where rooms are decorated in museum-worthy furnishings, every uniform is crisp and spotless, and one can hear the rustle of crinolines in the gowns worn by the women. While Visconti’s “Senso” leaves a lot to be desired in terms of decadence, it’s a stunner of a melodrama.

The view of Visconti’s “Senso” as a none-too-authentic adaptation Boito’s novella was one held by the director himself (who at one point wanted to rename the project entirely) as well as by Tinto Brass. Brass has mastered bringing the decadent aesthetic to the screen: plush, beautiful, immersive, horrific, and explicitly sexual, Brass fills his films with images designed to provoke a reaction. If decadence is defined as the rejection of realism in favor of artifice, then movies like “Caligula” and “Salon Kitty”—rooted in history but not terribly mindful of depicting it accurately—were cast in the decadent mold.


Tinto Brass’ 2002 “Senso ‘45” (aka ”Black Angel”) is the director’s attempt to connect the “Sensos” of Boito and Visconti, taking the latter’s adaptation and reworking many of the threads missing from the former’s novella. Revisiting the operatic fascism of “Salon Kitty,” though this time in the declining days of the German occupation of Italy, Brass recasts Livia (Anna Galiena) as the wife of an Italian fascist official and Romigio as SS Lieutenant Helmut Schultz (Gabriel Garko, sporting a regrettable bleach-blonde hairstyle).


The older woman/younger man dynamic of Visconti is present in “Senso ’45.” It’s noteworthy that the age shift on the part of the woman makes her a sympathetic figure—for a woman to begin to lose the beauty traditionally associated with youth is seen as tragic, but to depict a young woman in full realization of the power of this same beauty makes her demonic and threatening. To have the demonic female in a relationship with the demonic male (made explicitly demonic in Brass by his Nazi affiliation) creates an ambiguous balance of power and one that’s arguably closer to Boito’s original intent.


What Brass does bring to the forefront from Boito is the emphasis on sexual passion. The bodies so carefully disguised in meticulous period costuming in Visconti are on full display here—Brass’ no-less-gorgeous costumes are designed to be stripped from the players in moments of animal passion, with all the “crushing” and “biting” described by Boito. “Senso ‘45” is an extremely dark and cynical romance, with Livia frequently put into situations that force her to “overcome” some kind of inhibition (in contrast to the fully-realized sexuality of Boito’s protagonist). Of course, this being a Tinto Brass movie, we get a first row seat to Livia indulging in oral sex, group sex, public sex, anal sex, and transforming herself into a sexually awakened being as a result. There’s even a tonally bizarre scene—likely included to show us her point of view—where Livia and her SS boy-toy frolic at the seashore in a moment that feel like it would be at home in “The Blue Lagoon.”

Where Boito’s Livia is responding to her true nature and acting on her impulses, Brass’ Livia finds herself guided down a path of decadence. A character invented by Brass is Elsa, the procuress who ushers Livia into her first sexual encounter with Helmut and later is shown running a bordello and gambling den.


It’s noteworthy that, unlike the vast majority of Italian Nazi epics, “Senso ‘45” is set in and explicitly features images of Italian fascism. The streets of Venice are plastered with huge images of Mussolini and rifle-toting black-shirted troops roam the streets. While the movie never shows the front, the realities of war are present with blackouts and air raids a constant reminder that the social order is collapsing (or being returned to its proper alignment, with the ever-advancing Allies). World War II atrocities are evoked when Livia and Helmut witness the shooting of an unarmed woman in the streets. This does little to dampen their ardor, however, as they’re shown in their love nest apartment moments later.

The degree to which Helmut has exploited Livia is revealed when she discovers him spending the money she’d given him to save him from the front alongside a prostitute. The cruelty of the confrontation is emphasized here, with Helmut pointing out Livia’s age and laughing at her conviction that he loved her. What’s devastating to Livia has been obvious to the audience from the moment Helmut’s black-uniformed figure appeared on screen: he’s a vicious, amoral degenerate without a care for any other human being. The eroticism of Livia’s revenge on Helmut is emphasized in Brass, but a feeling of justification detracts from the shock at her final act of vindictiveness. Helmut/Romigio was not her equal in degeneracy, as is implied in Boito, but rather a far more horrible creature whose seductive power overwhelmed the already morally ambivalent politician’s wife.

This shift of power away from Livia as the stunning young noblewoman of Boito that transforms her into the elegant neurotic of Visconti and the late-blooming hothouse flower of Brass is an interesting choice. It’s almost as if the directors find it impossible to think the audience would be able to watch a movie focused on the demonic woman of decadent literature. Do they see her as a misogynist relic of a time past? Do they simply feel the viewer requires a sympathetic woman at the center of their stories in order to “sell” a narrative that hinges on revenge, rather than on Boito’s carnal death drive climax? Is it possible that, in recasting Livia as the “woman scorned” they’ve missed a key part of the power at the heart of the source novella?