Five Graves for a Medium / Terror Creatures from the Grave / Cemetery of the Living Dead / Coffin of Terror / Tombs of Horror / Cinque Tombe per un Medium (1965) -**½
Remember when I said I was going to have to keep a sharp lookout for movies directed by Massimo Pupillo? No, I didn’t think so. Don’t worry about it— it was a long time ago, back in my review of Bloody Pit of Horror. The point is, I’ve finally found one, and on the face of it, Five Graves for a Medium sounds like a real treat. It’s got zombies, it’s got the plague, and it’s even got Barbara Steele! How could you go wrong with a lineup like that? Well, for starters, you could be Massimo Pupillo. This is a guy who has turned dropping the ball into something like a form of art, and as he demonstrates here, sometimes that anti-talent swings both ways. While missing the mark for quality by a country mile, Five Graves for a Medium lamentably never swerves as far into utter lunacy as Bloody Pit of Horror, and its most glaring, staggering fuck-up is one that most people will find detracts from its entertainment value rather than magnifying it. The movie still has a fair amount to recommend it, however.
A man with the worst goatee you’ll ever lay eyes on leaves his house on the middle of the night, with a look of extreme nervousness on his face. He makes his way rapidly through the cramped streets of a little European town, looking frequently over his shoulder, until finally he reaches a stable. He lets himself in and saddles up one of the horses, but before he can climb on, something spooks the horse. It rears up on its hind legs and kicks the man in the face until he dies.
But never mind all that, okay? We won’t really have any reason to care about the Man with the World’s Worst Goatee until the final act, at which point we’re going to wonder just why Pupillo and screenwriters Roman Miglorini and Roberto Natale thought he was sufficiently important to build a pre-credits sequence around him. Instead, let’s give our attention to attorney Albert Kovac (Walter Brandi, from The Slaughter of the Vampires and Zorikan the Barbarian), who has just driven out from the city to the Villa Hauf, overlooking the little village where the Man with the World’s Worst Goatee lived up until recently. Kovac, as he explains to the twenty-ish Corinne Hauf (Mirella Maravidi, aka Marilyn Mitchell) upon his arrival, has come in response to an urgent summons from the master of the house, who wants someone to look over his last will and testament. Strictly speaking, the letter of summons was for Kovac’s partner, Joseph Morgan (who’ll be played by Ricardo Garrone, of The Night Child and Naughty Nun, when he finally shows up), but because Morgan will be out of town on other business for another couple of days, the other lawyer figured he should come out to the villa and take care of it himself. This business about checking the will comes as a shock both to Corinne and to her stepmother, Cleo (Barbara Steele, from Castle of Blood and The Horrible Dr. Hichcock), and not just because no one said anything to them about it until now. Jeronimus Hauf has been dead since a year ago tomorrow!
Corinne, for her part, thinks she knows what this is all about. Her father worked as a doctor in the village, but he saw that only as a trade. Hauf’s true calling was spiritualism, and he devoted the lion’s share of his energies to finding ways to make contact with the world of the dead. In fact, that’s why he bought the old villa in the first place— it had been built atop the ruins of a fifteenth-century hospital, and thousands of people died of the plague on the ground it now occupies. It is Corinne’s belief that her father’s spirit still roams the villa, and is trying to get in touch with people in the world of the living in order to warn them of some terrible peril. Kovac thinks that’s a crock, as does the town doctor (Alfredo Rizzo, from The Playgirls and the Vampire and SS Hell Camp), to whom Corinne also puts forth her hypothesis. The other townspeople, however, seem to think the girl is on to something. One of Dr. Nemek’s regular patients (Ennio Balbo), for example, contends that Jeronimus Hauf laid a curse on the entire village when he died, and it is his opinion that anyone who stays at the villa after dark is simply asking for trouble. Even Louise the maid (Tilde Till) makes a point of being away from the Hauf place by sunset each day.
But whether Kovac believes in ghosts or not, somebody sent that letter to his partner in Hauf’s name, and he is determined to stick around until he gets to the bottom of it. Thus he’s still at the villa when the mayor dies mysteriously (it looks like somebody doused his face with acid, but Nemek inexplicably declares heart failure the cause of death), and when subsequent investigation into the circumstances of the mayor’s demise reveals that he was a longtime acquaintance of Jeronimus Hauf’s. In fact, the mayor was one of five witnesses to Hauf’s death certificate, and he is the third to die recently. (A flashback will later show that the first to kick off was the Man with the World’s Worst Goatee.) The signature of Dr. Nemek’s wheelchair-bound patient is also on the certificate, and he too turns up dead a day or so later. Kovac thinks maybe Hauf is really alive after all, and that he is systematically killing off all the people who might be able to trace him, a theory which takes on some urgency when the lawyer finally deciphers the nearly illegible fifth signature on the certificate, and realizes that it belongs to his partner, Joseph Morgan. Morgan himself shows off his impeccable sense of timing by coming to Villa Hauf immediately thereafter. Kovac has it wrong, though. Jeronimus is most assuredly dead, and the five men who signed his death certificate were all parties to his murder, as was his wife, who was cheating on him with Morgan. Hauf made lots of friends on the other side while he was alive, and now that he’s dead, everybody staying at the villa can expect a visit from some of them. The backyard, you see, contains the unhallowed cemetery where the hospital staff once interred the bodies of men who were executed for deliberately helping to spread the bubonic plague. And now that Hauf’s last remaining enemy has come to the villa, the centuries-old dead are gearing up to rise from their graves and give him and Cleo— along with anyone else who gets in the way— the plague too.
So what’s the biggest, most incomprehensible blunder you’ve ever seen a director make in a zombie movie? Well how about never showing the zombies? You heard me. The closest thing we ever get to a look at the living dead in Five Graves for a Medium comes on two occasions when the camera shows us their hands. When the cripple gets it, we see a pitted and pock-marked hand take hold of his wheelchair, and when the siege of the villa finally commences, its beginning is heralded by a close-up on the preserved severed hands of several executed plague-spreaders, which twitch back to life in their display case in the villa lobby. Otherwise the zombies are represented solely by POV cams and sound effects. It’s really an incredibly ill-considered way to handle the climax of a film, and I find myself waffling back and forth between the extreme displeasure that was my initial reaction in the face of it and a sort of bemused humor at the prospect. After all, it isn’t often that one sees a director get something so spectacularly wrong.
Otherwise, Five Graves for a Medium is a fairly routine mid-60’s Italian horror film. While it isn’t nearly as goofy as Pupillo’s contemporary Bloody Pit of Horror had led me to anticipate, it certainly isn’t any good either, at least in the sense that normal people use the term. I still found it moderately enjoyable, though. There are a few outbursts of amusingly incontinent overacting, some really choice dialogue (particularly in the oratory which the Haufs’ ordinarily reticent handyman, Kurt [Luciano Pigozzi, from The Whip and the Body and Baron Blood], gives over his deceased master’s embalmed corpse), and the perversely entertaining spectacle of Barbara Steele gleefully lowering herself to the level of the rest of the film. My enthusiasm for Massimo Pupillo may have been blunted by Five Graves for a Medium, but only very slightly.