Director: Jonathan Zarantonello
Writers: Jonathan Zarantonello (novel and screenplay), Paolo Guerrieri, Luigi Sardiello
Stars: Barbara Steele, Ray Wise, Erica Leerhsen
Maybe one of the major problems afflicting Italian horror cinema at the moment is its inability to extricate itself from the influence of the past. Whereas, for instance, the genre in Britain has been experiencing a revival since it cast aside it’s Gothic traditions and began concentrating more on the present day, Italian filmmakers seem almost entirely in thrall to the films being made in the 1960s and 70s. Case in point: The Butterfly Room, a hodge-podge of genre references and clichés which – although decently made – has very little to say about present day Italy (partially because it follows the annoying recent trend of Italian films being shot and set in America).
The plot Julie (Ellery Sprayberry), a young girl who lives win a San Francisco apartment block. With her mother out pursuing her doomed love live, she spends increasing amounts of time with the elderly lady who lives next door, Ann (Barbara Steele). Ann is, to say the least, an eccentric: she is obsessed with collecting butterflies which she keeps in a forbidden room and she has an estranged daughter Dorothy (Heather Langenkamp) who is visibly terrified of her. Through the use of flashbacks it is also revealed that she struck up a similar relationship with another young girl, Alice (Julia Puttnam) a few months earlier; Alice has now disappeared along with her mother and nobody knows what’s happened to them.
It’s been a while since there’s been a batty biddy film and in the early moments – which introduce Ann as she walks down the street and surreptitiously kicks the ladder out from under an unsuspecting tree surgeon – this looks promising. However the story never develops upon its central premise and is bogged down by its chosen multiple flashback structure. As the running time goes on the number of unlikely plot developments increase and it all becomes frankly rather silly, which is a shame as there’s the essence here of a neat little film. The butterfly motif is interesting, the apartment block setting works well and there’s some effective cinematography. Some sequences also work very well – the handyman stuck in a wardrobe, Ann doing dark deeds in an elevator – but as a whole its just not particularly memorable.
Unfortunately, you can’t help but feel that once the basic premise had been sketched out the filmmakers became more interested in filling up the cast with genre icons than anything else. Barbara Steele is great in the lead role, channeling Bette Davis and looking authentically witch-like. In support you get the likes of Langenkamp (Nightmare on Elm Street), Camille Keaton (I Spit on Your Grave), Adrienne King (Friday the 13th), P.J. Soles (Halloween), Ray Wise (Twin Peaks) and James Karen (Return of the Living Dead), not to mention a fleeting cameo from Joe Dante. The benefit of this is that at least there isn’t the stilted acting which afflicts so much contemporary product and the very least that can be said about this is that it is a much more marketable and accessible product than most Italian horror films.