The Well

The Well (2023)

The Well had its UK première at the Glasgow FrightFest 2024.

When shown in horror films like Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973), Pupi Avati’s The House With Laughing Windows (La casa dalle finestre che ridono, 1976), Adam Rehmeier and Domiziano Christopharo’s H. P. Lovecraft: Two Left Arms (2013) and indeed now Federico Zampaglione’s latest The Well, the restoration of paintings or architecture assumes a metaphorical, even metacinematic function. For this is a film-like activity of both preservation and renewal, where the buried past is gradually revealed, observed and exposed to the light, and dead images are brought back to life, even if the process of restoration itself, not unlike the projection of a film, risks doing further damage to the art’s material base. Restorers must have a studied commitment to history, even as they also subtly adapt it to the present and future – which is something like what we do every time we watch an old film, and seek in it a reflection of our own times and experiences.

The Well certainly feels like an old film, resurrecting the kind of grotesque, gore-inflected cinema in which, over the Sixties, Seventies and early Eighties, Zampaglione’s fellow countrymen Mario Bava, Lucio Fulci, Umberto Lenzi and Joe D’Amato would sometimes dabble – not giallo so much as zombi flicks, cannibal pictures and the kind of sadisto-supernatural gothic that informed Dario Argento’s sensorious Suspiria (1977) and its witchy sequels, and would become the critical focus of Peter Strickland’s negatively nostalgic Berberian Sound Studio (2012), whose unseen-but-heard film within a film from the 1970s The Equestrian Vortex sounds not unlike The Well itself. Not only does Zampaglione deploy a classic castle setting, old-school practical effects and buckets of fake blood to realise his retro picture, but even his characters keep looking obsessively back to a past in which they have become frozen, some happily, some not. 

Lisa Gray (Lauren LaVera, recent star of Damien Leone’s similarly torturous Terrifier 2), a professional art restorer like her father (played by Italian horror icon Giovanni Lombardo Radice), has come to the mist-shrouded village of Sambuci, which, despite its remoteness, boasts a chateau-like villa that has been attracting visits from Italy’s nobility for centuries. Now a guest of the resident Duchess Emma Malvizi (Claudia Gerini), Lisa is tasked with removing the thick patina of ash that covers a fire-damaged fifteenth-century painting, currently the same colour as her surname. 

The more of the creepy painting that Lisa uncovers, the more she feels sick, and the more vivid are her nightmares – of her father, and of a sinister witch (Melanie Gaydos) – all recognised by the young restorer as premonitions of something evil approaching. Certainly Lisa’s deadline is looming, yet even as Emma piles on the pressure for her contracted employee to complete the work within two weeks, Emma’s haunted 13-year-old daughter Giulia (Linda Zampaglione) keeps warning Lisa to stop the restoration and to leave as soon as possible. In the meantime, the two Americans (Taylor Zaudtke, Courage Osabohine) and their Italian guide (Gianluigi Calvani) whom Lisa met and befriended on the bus on their way to Sambuci have been violently abducted from their campsite to a dungeon, where a mute hulk (Lorenzo Renzi) brutalises them with a range of torture tools before feeding them one by one into a stone well.

If that last subplot – Americans punished for adventurism abroad – is reminiscent of Eli Roth’s Hostel (2005), then Zampaglione and his co-writer Stefano Masi are also drawing deep on other myths: of vampires, of Countess Elizabeth Báthory, and the Fountain of Youth. The Well exposes the rotten corruption of those who would like to be at the seat of power and beyond the ravages of time, while delivering a cynical ending reminiscent of the coda to Brandon Cronenberg’s Antiviral (2012) – and like any good restoration, it both dwells in the past (much as Lisa insists on residing in the same room as the old painting), while updating it for a new world where ancient magic has become a prisoner to modern science – but where little else has fundamentally changed about human (and inhuman) nature. 

strap: Federico Zampaglione’s gory gothic delves deep into Italian cinema past to restore and resurrect a particular kind of grotesquery

© Anton Bitel