The Mondo-Esoterica Guide to

Riccardo Freda


Born in 1909 in Alexandria in Egypt to Italian parents, he was from a young age a fan of the cinema. His family returned to Italy and in 1932 he moved to Rome to work at the Centro Sperimentale film studios. He initially found work as a sculptor, later moving into set design, screenwriting and editing, working in various roles on a variety of films, including Piccoli naufraghi (1939) where he was credited as assistant director. In 1942 he set up his own production company Elica and directed his first film, the period French drama Don Cesare di Bazan (1942). It would be his only production for several years as the Second World War turned against Italy and the country surrendered in 1943. In September of that year, Freda along with his friend the publisher and critic Leo Longanesi crossed south through the Abruzzi mountains disguised as American soldiers to reach the safety of the Allied lines.

Film returned to Italy within days of the Allied liberation and in Rome the Neo-Realist movement was born, but Freda spurned the street-shooting of Rossellini and his followers and continued to work on his historic costume pieces. His breakthrough was the popular Aquila Nera (1946) based on the novel Dubrovsky by Russian author Alexander Pushkin. The film also marked the acting debut of Gianna Maria Canale, a beautiful Italian actress shortly to place second in Miss Italy 1947 and who would go on to appear in numerous Freda films, eventually becoming his wife. Freda's success saw him firmly associated with the historical drama genre and over the next decade he would direct numerous films in this style, including Il cavaliere misterioso (1948), Il figlio di d'Artagnan (1950) and the oft-retold Beatrice Cenci (1956). He also looked further back into history to make Spartaco (1953) about the famous slave revolt and Teodora, imperatrice di Bisanzio (1954), both of which saw Gianna Maria Canale cast in leading roles. A firm part of the film establishment at the time and considered very realiable, Freda was appointed to the Italian censorship bureau and would in time become its head.

Freda's greatest contribution to cinema however was not one of his epic costume dramas, but a small-scale film made as a bet. In the mid-1950s, Italy had no heritage of horror films and the genre as a whole had not recovered since its pre-war boom. Freda asked producers Luigi Carpentieri and Ermanno Donati to fund a vampiric horror film to be known as I Vampiri (1956) - to sweeten the deal, Freda assured the unconvinced producers that as a member of the censorship board he would be able to avoid any trouble there and made a bet that he could complete filming entirely in just twelve days as he was working with one of the most accomplished cameramen and special effects designers of the day, Mario Bava. Freda had met Bava when the latter was called in to provide special effects for the arena sequences in Spartaco - the pair became friends but while Freda had made handsome profits by betting his film earnings on horses and so could pick and choose films to make, Bava was an incredibly hard worker, taking any jobs available to ensure he could keep providing for his family.

Unfortunately, production of I Vampiri took longer than Freda had anticipated and on the tenth day of filming only half of the script had been shot. Freda begged the producers to relent on their bet and let him finish the project but they refused and so he walked off the set. Amazingly Bava and writer Piero Regnoli were able to concoct a script revision that allowed them to complete the film with just the remaining two days of filming. The film was still released with Freda's name on the credits but it was this that seemed to destroy its box office chances, Italian audiences rejected the idea of a home-made horror film and the film performed very poorly domestically - Freda would subsequently use the pseudonym Robert Hampton on most projects. The film did eventually see export release to Britain and the US in 1960 after the gothic horror boom had been kick-started by the British Hammer Films company, although like many Italian films at the time it was re-edited by the distributors and released as The Devil's Commandment in the US, with several newly shot scenes. The British print, released as Lust of the Vampire was further altered with the BBFC imposing several cuts.

At the same time, Bava was kicking off a very different genre as his beautiful photography in Le Fatiche di Ercole (1958) and its sequel Ercole e la Regina di Lidia (1959) marked the dawn of the Peplum when their massively successful US distribution saw money pouring into Italy to make more similar films for export. Freda's previous experience in the historical genre made him an obvious choice as director but while most other film-makers simply followed suit with Greek and Roman stories, Freda took the original Hercules Steve Reeves and cast him in a 19th Century Russian epic Agi Murad il diavolo bianco (1959) with Bava again working as his cinematographer. Although Freda would subsequently direct a more conventional Peplum, I giganti della Tessaglia (1960), he seemed to prefer the more unconventional approach including the Far East setting of Maciste alla corte del Gran Khan (1961) and the hellbound Scottish set Maciste all'inferno (1962).

Freda would return to horror with Caltiki - il mostro immortale (1959), but he had no plans to complete the project. Fed up with seeing Mario Bava working harder than most directors but never getting any further in his career thanks to a lack of ambition, he walked off the set after a couple of days, leaving Bava to shoot the rest of the film on his own. The producers at Galeta Film saw this work and it would eventually see Bava getting offered his chance to make a directoral debut in the iconic gothic horror film La Maschera del Demonio (1960). Freda himself would also move into the field of gothic horror in his masterful L'orribile segreto del Dr. Hichcock (1962) starring Barbara Steele who made her name in Bava's earlier horror, although Freda would push the genre to its very limits with a storyline revolving around necrophilia. The subsequent follow-up Lo spettro (1963) toned down the controversy but the adeptly characterised script still allows it to rank as one of the genre's most effective entries.

Despite his successes in a continuingly popular genre, Freda would not make another horror film during the 1960s, instead he worked on a variety of surprisingly low end productions. In Spain he worked on adaptations of the classic tales of Giulietta e Romeo (1964) and Italian fairytale Genoveffa di Brabante (1964) while in France he worked on the Euro-spy adventures Coplan FX 18 casse tout (1965) and Coplan ouvre le feu Mexico (1967) as well as making his only contribution to the Spaghetti Western in La morte non conta i dollari (1967). His only film of note during the period was a German co-production A doppia faccia (1969) starring Klaus Kinski and marketed in Germany as one of Rialto Film's Edgar Wallace neo-noir thriller series (although it has no links to the Wallace novel 'The Face in the Night' to which it was credited). The film demonstrates the strong and creative direction in which Freda had excelled in his earlier gothic horrors but which had been all but absent in his projects inbetween.

A final return to historical realm came in with La salamandra del deserto (1970), an Israeli co-production telling of the story of Onan from the Old Testament as an erotic film. Aside from the Gialloesque A doppia faccia, L'iguana dalla lingua di fuoco (1971) marked Freda's first entry into the genre that his friend Mario Bava had created almost a decade before. Much like his subsequent Estratto dagli archivi segreti della polizia di una capitale europea (1972), a bizarre modern gothic horror, it is hard to tell just how much part Freda actually played in the filming as the productions seem a world away from his earlier horror works and are generally considered among the lesser genre entries of the era. Freda retired after these films, but inexplicably returned to the director's chair aged 72 to helm Follia omicida (1981), a baffling Giallo co-starring Laura Gemser. It would be a suitably appropriate end for a director for whom every good film had to be balanced out by a handful of uninspired exploitation pieces. Riccardo Freda died in December 1999 in Rome.

DVD Reviews: Films directed by Riccardo Freda

A doppia faccia (1969)

Alfa Digital Region 0 DVD
A very clever and well directed neo-Noir faux-Edgar Wallace thriller starring Klaus Kinski.
Genoveffa di Brabante (1964)

MYA Region 0 DVD
A retelling of the classic Italian fairytale has some good scenes but too small a budget.
Not recommended
Giants of Thessaly (1960)

VCI Region 0 DVD
A surprisingly dull retelling of the classic Argonauts tale in Freda's most conventional Peplum.
Not recommended
Spartaco (1953)

VCI USA Region 0 DVD
One of Freda's early costume pieces makes for a rather dull historical epic.
Not recommended.
Lo spettro (1963)

Retromedia Region 0 DVD
A very adept period horror film with some strong characterisation, starring Barbara Steele.
Tragic Ceremony (1972)

Dark Sky Region 1 DVD
A bizarre attempt to make a modern gothic horror with handheld camera and young cast, but interminable pacing.
Not recommended.
I Vampiri (1956)

Image Region 1 DVD
Freda invents Italian horror here in an incredible film, moreso because he walked off the set leaving Bava to complete.
White Warrior (1959)

VCI Region 0 DVD
An unusual setting in Freda's Russian set costume drama although the script is decidedly generic.
Interesting but not recommended.



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All text in this page written by Timothy Young - October 2011.
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