Thursday, August 23, 2012

Black Magic Rites (1973) dir. Renato Polselli

Logline: A group of rich folk are partying at a castle that they can't seem to leave, and when some of the women start being abducted and having their hearts plucked out, the fact that begins to emerge is that somebody or somebodies is desperate to resurrect a witch burned at the stake 500 years prior. That's about as cogent a synopsis as I'll hazard.

With Renato Polselli's Black Magic Rites (a.k.a. The Reincarnation of Isabel), horror cinema has its answer to Last Year at Marienbad (1961). While I acknowledge that such a label sounds like a joke or a jab at Polselli's film, it's actually my honest appraisal. Like Resnais' film, Black Magic Rites concerns itself with a set of characters bound to a location but unstuck in time, traversing it in a fashion most aptly described as "disorienting." (One character admits, "the castle is becoming an obsession for me, too," like a dutiful phantom). Nearly a non-narrative feature, its plot is nigh incomprehensible, but that's suitable as the film seems to prefer operating on a level of feelings and impressions. Its characters jump in and out of frame, the camera crash zooming in on their leering, vampiric faces. (The males enter every scene like Count Dracula himself, while the females are all giddy Lucy Westenras being led to the heart-plucking slaughter). We're continually forced to ponder what timeline theses characters exist in. Are the events we are witnessing transpiring in the film's present day or five hundred years into the past, carried out by the numerous characters' identical ancestors? The hectic, abrupt, non-linear editing refuses to give us a sense of the continuity of events. We're never even allowed a firm grasp on who each character is or how they relate to one another-- all that we know is that they're trapped in their Gothic farce, presumably repeating their fates endlessly. ("It's hard, it's very hard to die," relates one wayward soul to another). It's the sort of film where a death by staking ends roughly five minutes after the stake has pierced the victim's heart, dwelling on each of the three hundred some-odd seconds of wailing.  The sort of film where a line like "it had green hair, like all monsters" is the most natural piece of dialogue. Black Magic Rites out-Francos Jess Franco at his most stylishly obtuse. Which is a roundabout way of saying: it's not for everyone. But for those souls who can brave it, I think they'll discover a film laced with hysterical intrigue and Eurosleazy mania. I found the film to be a hypnotic pleasure, unlike virtually any other European horror film of its era. It's a suite of sound and vision, bold and hyperbolic in its touch. Sure, it's not the least bit subtle, but it's not a cinch to comprehend either-- one's best move is to let it wash over the senses in one gnarly, blissed-out wave, leaving rationality behind on the rocks.

Polselli is the director of one of my favorite sleazy gialli, Delirium (a.k.a. Delirio caldo) (1972). As perverse and off-putting as that earlier film may be, it failed to prepare me for the phantasmagoric mania on display in Black Magic Rites. For that surprise I am grateful-- this film is an experience that neither requires nor submits to expectations. The scant story that is present overtly hints towards the efforts of a cult to resurrect an ancient witch who was staked and burned on the castle grounds through the sacrifice of numerous young women and the stealing of their organs, but this storyline rather abruptly transforms into a series of vampire attacks led by the beefy Mickey Hargitay's Count Drac-proxy. But are the film's other men vampires too? Why are they biting all the women? Is this a sexual thing or overt vamprisim? (Regardless, it's a sexual thing). What does any of this have to do with the parallel storyline concerning one jittery female character's comatose sexcapades, punctuated by the tunes from a jaunty upright piano ("she feels neglected by everyone, even vampires")? Who knows? One character flatly states that one "shouldn't try to understand it. There's a fine line between the known and the unknown." Aptly phrased.

Kino/Redemption's brand new blu-ray release is more than adequate. The print is a tad dirty, and it doesn't quite pop like the best of the high definition horror back catalog, falling a bit on the flat side of the spectrum of images. Regardless, detail is adequate and colors excel. No extras besides a trailer, but the last thing I'd want to see included with this film is any sort of explanation or insight. (I'd say the plot summary on the back of the box is even going too far in trying to simplify the film's story. Naturally, such a synopsis (like my own) fails to convey a smidgen of the film's hyperactivity and ambiguity). Despite its obviously paltry budget, Black Magic Rites makes the most of its visuals, filming its brooding, opulent locations with inventively schlocky flair. This is a dreamy hallucinogenic in cinematic form and it deserves the best presentation possible-- and this Redemption release would be that.

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