On a dark and stormy night somewhere in England in the 1920s a group of party-loving rich folks are stranded when their car breaks down near a spooky old abandoned mansion. Ben Taylor (Joachim Fuchsberger), his closeted lesbian wife Vivian (Marianne Koch), her lust object Margaret (Dominique Boschero), the latter's lover Alfred Sinclair (Claudio Camaso) and egotistical aristocrat Archibald Barrett (Giuliano Raffaelli) venture inside where they discover creepy caretaker Uriat (bug-eyed Euro-horror staple Luciano Pigozzi) and his mother (Mariane Leibl), a spiritual medium who is in a trance. Claiming these guests were expected, Uriat invites them to join a séance that will reveal the truth behind a terrible crime in which they were all involved.
The late Antonio Margheriti was more capable at handling multiple genres than his contemporaries Mario Bava or Lucio Fulci but does not command the same fervent fan-base. Perhaps because unlike those two he never crafted a distinctive identity as an auteur. Nonetheless Margheriti himself rated Contronatura, a horror film he wrote and directed, as his finest work. Carlo Savina's classy score conjures a jazzy variation on Hammer horror but while the plot takes a supernatural turn there no ghosts, witches or even masked murderers here. Instead of garish gothic thrills The Unnaturals deals in subdued psychological terror laced with social satire.
Few Italian horror films revolve around innocent victims. In most cases the haunted are guilty of something. Here flashbacks fill in the blanks for each character, detailing their past sins. We learn Alfred abandoned his wife Diana (Gudrun Schmidt-May) for a fling with his boss' mistress Margaret, Vivian lusted after the lovely, doe-eyed Elizabeth (Helga Anders) with fatal results while Archibald tricked a trusted friend into believing he was guilty of murder. Halfway between an Amicus horror anthology and an arty, disorienting murder mystery, Margheriti's unusually structured story is an eerie exercise in suspense. It roots its horror in the protagonists' own guilt and anxieties, be they greed, infidelity or repressed sexual urges. This being an Italian production from the Sixties the script has scant sympathy for its lesbian character and no problem lumping her in with the other 'unnaturals' although Marianne Koch, who played a notable supporting role in Sergio Leone's seminal spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars (1964), invests Vivian with some sensitivity. What is more Margheriti stages the mild lesbian love scenes (one intercut with a sinister fox hunt across the English countryside) for tasteful eroticism, closer to D.H. Lawrence than, say, Jess Franco.
With embittered, vengeful working class characters exposing the torrid secrets of devious toffs the script exhibits a mild social agenda yet displays some flawed logic. The most guilt-ridden character suffers the ghastliest demise while the most blatantly self-serving and evil gets one last shot at revenge. A lack of any sympathetic characters renders the story a bit cold but Margheriti keeps thing compelling throughout, masterfully mounting suspense with his prowling camera while milking the spooky atmosphere of the haunted house, with its dark empty spaces and creepy stuffed animals, for all it is worth. Though it seems to be heading towards the kind of twist ending indebted to Ealing Films' seminal Dead of Night the plot scores points for not recycling the same punchline that graced every Amicus horror anthology of the Seventies and lingered well into the twenty-first century with The Others (2001). Instead the spectacular denouement showcases Margheriti's celebrated skill with miniature effects. Contranatura is perhaps less fun than his other kitschier comic book horrors - e.g. Seven Deaths in the Cat's Eye (1973), The Virgin of Nuremberg (1963), The Long Hair of Death (1964) - but more substantial.