One of the more controversial films to hit the horror festival circuit in recent years is Morituris. It debuted at the 2011 FantAsia film festival and easily divided audiences, with some hailing it as a result to grim, old-school Italian horror (something the producers play up in its ad campaign) and others criticizing it for being mean-spirited and misogynistic. The film seems more like a mixture of impulses, with the finished product caught somewhere between those impulses.

The story’s setup offers a nod to the ’70s, with a trio of well-to-do young Italian men escort a pair of women visiting from Romania into the forest for a rave. They arrive near a set of ruins and find no one in sight so they decide to have a private party until the real party shows up. Unfortunately for the women, the men have some nasty surprises up their sleeves for their new lady friends. Unfortunately for the men, their chosen party site is the burial place of a group of renegade Roman prisoners who rebelled against their captors – and the Morit-bluactivity wakes them up for a new round of carnage.

Morituris lives up to its promise of brutality: the final third delivers plentiful grue done in a vintage practical effects style, courtesy of 80’s Italian horror alumnus Sergio Stivaletti. The impalings, flesh-ripping and head-crushing all look impressive and are blessedly free of digital enhancements.

That said, the film also features a lot of sexual violence towards women, including a subplot that throws in a nasty American Psycho homage. The latter element is a dealbreaker for a lot of viewers and it’s not difficult to understand why as it is choreographed in a disturbing and convincing manner, with director Raffaele Picchio sparing the viewer little of the women’s suffering. Even when the supernatural menace is unleashed, there is no E.C. comics-style justice and the women suffer as much as the men do.

However, to call Morituris a misogynistic film is off-base. It never show sympathy for the male aggressors and the violence towards the female characters is presented in a brutal way, with no attempts to give the brutality any S&M eroticism. Picchio and his collaborators have said the plot of the film was inspired in part by an infamous Italian case and their intention was to force the viewers to contemplate the evil that wealthy men get to perpetrate on others, particularly women.

Sadly, the attempt by Morituris to explore such ideas is half-baked at best. After rubbing the audience’s nose in the evil that men do, it fails to do take the idea in any direction beyond shock value and instead shifts to a generic no-hope supernatural horror tale. The first hour of the story was clearly modeled on films like I Spit On Your Grave and Last House On The Left but it fails to give the viewer the moment of catharsis that those films ultimately achieve. Instead, it goes for a cheap, knee-jerk nihilism that feels like a copout.

Thus, Morituris is a shock-horror item that is more interesting than it is good. It clearly aspires to disturb the viewer but either shies away from the ideas that would allow its visceral content to add up to more than an endurance test.

Blu-Ray Notes: Synapse Films recently released this controversial film on blu-ray. The transfer does well by the digital photography and frequent night exteriors. Both 5.1 and 2.0 lossless Italian language stereo tracks are offered: the 5.1 was used for this review and it adds some nice dimension to the sound, particularly in the use of music. The one extra is a trailer.