Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Bloody Pit of Horror (1965) dir. Massimo Pupillo

a.k.a. Il boia scarlatto 

Logline: In the 17th-century, a megalomaniacal recluse who dons a cape and calls himself the Crimson Executioner (Mickey Hargitay) is executed in an Iron Maiden for the crimes he had committed in his basement's own fully operational torture chamber. In 1965, a plucky group consisting of a book publisher, a photographer, and a fistful of fashion models sneak into the Crimson Executioner's seemingly abandoned Gothic castle abode to snap some kitschy photographs. Soon they discover the castle's new owner, eccentric actor Travis Anderson (also Mickey Hargitay), who is only too happy to let them stay the night and meet a certain resurrected red-hooded fiend.

Bloody Pit of Horror is a fine modern Gothic chiller that-- like the best of them-- uses this context to explore the sexual mores of its age. Unfortunately, what we're given is a rather conservative film seeking to restore heteronormative values against the threat of perversion. Like Freddie Francis' The Skull (also produced in 1965), Bloody Pit of Horror's invocation of the name of the Marquis de Sade (in this case by way of a disingenuous title card claiming that it's "based on the writings of") is intended to clue the viewer into this intention: any proclivities associated with that sick, sick de Sade surely cannot be natural, sane, or morally sound. That's precisely what the film argues with regard to male homosexuality. It's a disappointing thesis, but one that is intriguing for the overt ways the film goes about arguing it and, to a small degree, the ways in which it subverts that same point.

Our homosexual villain is bulging beefcakey muscleman and Italian genre veteran Mickey Hargitay as Travis, a self-obsessed actor turned recluse. Travis' egotism is astounding both for its depth and for his apparent consciousness of it. He has retreated to this abandoned castle in order "to avoid the contagion of human sentiment" by escaping from other humans, those "inferior creatures" who would have "corrupted the harmony of [his] perfect body." (A scene of him delicately oiling up his muscles in front of a mirror confirms he is totally serious about that last part). But Travis isn't being completely forthright in claiming that he's sworn off all human contact: this would be omitting all of the hunky manservants (dressed up in blue and white stripped shirts like sailors, no less!) at his beck and call. Moreover, another of his revealing speeches makes plain his affection for the long departed Crimson Executioner's "magnificent body." It's the male physique he worships, and escaping from society was an escape from the pressures to submit to "a woman's love," which, he freely admits, would have "destroyed" him.

Travis/the Crimson Executioner 2.0 is such a fascinating homosexual villain for 1965 because he exists completely against type. Atypically, the gay man is not a sniveling, effeminate weakling but Mr. Universe 1955. Perhaps it's a stretch to call Hargitay a heartthrob, per se, but his screen presence certainly oozes testosterone. In fact, when he first starts making eyes at the models we imagine him to be leering at and openly coveting them. The movie plays up on this default association of physical manliness with uncontrollable heterosexuality for awhile (preventing us from immediately seeing the fate of a model who we can only assume is about to be sexually assaulted), before it begins to let us realize that Travis in fact despises women and hopes to punish them all for "lechery" and "sin." Under the hood of the Crimson Executioner, Travis attacks femininity, rather than fetishizing it. The torture devices he constructs are methods for him to rebel against the "poisonous" influence of women by destroying those aspects that make them women. Particularly exemplary is a bizarre torture apparatus featuring two women strapped to a revolving pillar, one side of which faces a wall of openings through which adjustable lengths of sword can be slid. Travis violently inches the blades closer to the women's breasts on each pass, taking sadistic pleasure in the feminine symbol he is tearing apart and scarring.

So, of course, the film argues that the only way a homosexual man can stay sane and maintain his lifestyle is by going insane and destroying the women in his life. In other words, the film seems to believe that there is something psychotic, perverse, unnatural, and perhaps even evil in a man (especially a manly man) desiring other men and forsaking women. In the end, Travis is killed by falling into an embrace with his own misogynist creation: a poison-tipped dummy wearing a blonde wig, or his own manufactured symbol of poisonous femininity. Before he meekly collapses to the ground, he moans, "My pure body has been contaminated. My perfect body in the poisonous clutches of the lover of death." Heterosexuality (or the "natural order") is reaffirmed by Travis' death-by-sexual-contact and the reunion of our bland de facto hero Rick (Walter Brandi) with his girlfriend, Edith (Luisa Baratto). But this is troublesome. Rick has proved to be a totally ineffectual schlub throughout the film (he fails to save anyone other than Edith, despite his every halfhearted effort). Placed against Travis' ingenuity, passion, and charisma-- however insane they may be-- Rick is an odd and dissatisfying choice for being the bearer of the new male standard. How sad for Edith. All of those deranged gay musclemen get to frolic around together shirtless in Gothic castles while she's stuck trying to start a conversation with insipid Rick.
I'd be remiss if I failed to point out that I enjoyed Bloody Pit of Horror greatly, in spite of its clunky and backwards subtext. Its sublimely cheap Gothic castle setting, over-elaborate torture devices, giant mechanical spiders, cheesy sense of humor, and bouts of prurient extravagance led me to lend it at least a sliver of my heart. And, furthermore, not all of the film's thematic concerns are completely bunk. Somewhat clever are the macabre photo shoots staged by the hip crew staying at the castle, wherein they lampoon Gothic conventions only to have those same conventions later usher them to their own dooms. One model, staged on the floor in a puddle of blood, quips, "It's no fun being dead"-- a classic case of allowing the harmless simulations of dangers to supplant the real dangers, leaving one totally unprepared and unsuspecting of those very real real dangers (see Dick Richards' Death Valley (1982) for a more developed treatment of the same idea). Director Massimo Pupillo was having his own personal Italian Gothic Renaissance in 1965, directing both this film and Terror-Creatures from the Grave, with Barbara Steele. I've yet to see the latter, but only one of them can boast the proud distinction of being filmed, as Bloody Pit of Horror's credits so garishly (dare we say gaily?) proclaim, "in Psychovision."

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Alucarda (1977) dir. Juan López Moctezuma

a.k.a. Alucarda, la hija de las tinieblas 

Logline: Fresh-faced orphan Justine (Susana Kamini) arrives at an orphanage run by a Mexican convent. While there, she makes fast friends with her spooky and easily attached new roommate, Alucarda (Tina Romero). Not long after a jaunt through the forest, in which the pair encountered a hunchbacked gypsy and broke open a sacred crypt, both girls start hissing at crucifixes.

A cursory search reveals that between the beginning of the 1950s and the close of the 1970s Mexico developed a comparatively small but rather rich horror cinema tradition, of which I remain mostly ignorant. Viewing Juan López Moctezuma's Alucarda was my first step towards a corrective, and while it may only be unearthing the topsoil of the country's deeper filmography, what a way to begin digging myself into the hole. Alucarda is a film quite unlike any other I've seen. It bears traces of the religious hysterics and sacrilege of Ken Russell's The Devils (1971) and the surreality of Alejando Jordorowsky's films (which is appropriate considering Moctezuma was a producer on Fando y Lis (1968) and El Topo (1970) before embarking on his own brief directorial career), but neither of those basic attributes suffices to describe all of the bold, dreamy, gory, histrionic, and excessive levels that Alucarda operates on. What opens as a whimsical period fairytale devolves over the film's condensed duration into inspired bits of madness and bloodshed, accompanied by the wailing of banshees. I'd marvelled at the intensity of Alain Robak's Baby Blood (1990) earlier in the month, but I suppose that was because I hadn't yet seen Alucarda. Moctezuma's film is as much an experience as it is a piece of cinema or a coherent narrative, and it's for this reason that it fits comfortably alongside similarly abstract and sensory  horror productions from the Continent during this same period.

The film centers itself on the taboo relationship between the titular Alucarda and the orphanage/convent's latest recruit, Justine. While Justine is the typical wide-eyed innocent, Tina Romero plays Alucarda as an eccentric and singular oddity. With her flowing brown mane and long black dress, she's the happy goth prancing around the forest, playing with insects, and conspiratorially declaring "every day I find a new secret." The ingratiating extrovert that she is, Alucarda forces her eternal friendship onto Justine, her new roommate. After the two embark on an afternoon's journey to discover some "new secrets," Alucarda confesses her undying love for Justine. Her quite sudden and exaggerated affections take on more of a sexual than a schoolgirl connotation-- she commands that Justine "must love [her] to death," and urges her towards agreeing to a suicide pact sealed with blood. When the girls arrive at Lucy Westenra's tomb (how she arrived in Mexico is beyond me) and crack open her coffin, they unleash demons that possess Alucarda, who goes into a hysterical fit (the word "Satan!" is bandied about quite a lot) and, with the help of a magical hunchbacked goat gypsy and his magic storm of raining blood, possesses Justine as well during an eroticized nude blood sharing ceremony (in which they suck the blood from wounds on each other's breasts). Henceforth Satanically influenced, the girls then fall deeper in love and participate in a kinky and perhaps hallucinatory Satanic orgy led by a goat-headed man. By this point the subtext reveals itself: the perception of lesbianism in society is that it is an anomalous and morally corrupt lifestyle, and its appeal to young girls can only be explained through Satanic and demonic forces. Moreover, lesbians breed lesbianism, as the perverting influence of the aggressive and deranged lesbian Alucarda seduces the helpless innocent Justine into her newfound wicked ways.

But to claim that the film is totally in accordance with this societal perception of the "horrors" of lesbianism would be to overlook the film's overt criticisms of religious moralism. Alucarda makes the religious hypocrisy plain when speaking to Father Lázaro (David Silva) in confession: "I worship life. You worship death. You are afraid of life, afraid of your strong body." She's not wrong. Alucarda and Justine's whimsical lesbianism (and specifically the Satanic orgy that they participate in) is contrasted with the activities of Father Lázaro and his nuns, who in one scene submit themselves to brutal, bloody, and sexually charged flagellation to atone for their sins. As their exposed flesh gleams with sweat and blood and as the nuns writhe in commingled agony/ecstasy, this scene appears to mirror the eroticism of the Satanic orgy but with one key difference: only the participants of one of these gatherings violently denies their own sexual desires. Vowing to protect the religious repression of sexuality and its physical expression by any means, Father Lázaro decides that he and his nuns must destroy the girls in order to set them "free." He surmises that if lesbianism is akin to Satanic possession, then non-heteronormative behavior can be exorcized. They abduct the two girls, and in a perverse ceremony straight out of the 15th century, they repeatedly stab Justine to death while she's strapped to a crucifix-- the violent introduction of the phallic knife into the body in order to cure her of lesbian possession. It's a horrifying and barbaric act, tearing apart two lovers for no valid reason. (The worst they'd done was declare their mutual allegiance to Satan during Bible study, which, sure, was a misapprehension of the situation and audience, but was far less than evil).

Somewhat complicating the above reading of the film is that both demonic and heavenly forces are clearly real in the film (we have levitating nuns and firestarting demons, after all), but neither force is obviously deemed the moral superior. We'd lean towards the demonic side if it weren't for the fact that they start killing the clergy. (But then, one supposes this treatment isn't totally undeserved). After the ceremony in which Justine "dies," the final act begins in earnest, with Alucarda launching into an all out revenge-fueled Carrie rampage, setting nuns and crucifixes on fire with her brain and tearing down the convent's foundations through sheer force of will and a handful of menacing glances. The finale is a frantically paced Grand Guignol, which may distract from the fact that though Alucarda and Justine lay vanquished at the conclusion, this is no moral victory.* The film closes on a shot of the figure of Jesus Christ in flames on a burning crucifix. I suppose one could claim that Alucarda and Justine's sacrilege had led to this defilement of religious imagery, but I'd hazard that the film's sentiments argue that the Church brought such destruction upon itself through the appropriation of that same imagery while committing some very bad deeds.

*Perhaps the surface level victory of "good" over "evil" was just misleading enough to let the film slip past censors and the general public's outrage without too much controversy.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A Bell from Hell (1973) dir. Claudio Guerín

a.k.a. La campana del infierno

Logline: John (Renaud Verley) is a motorcycle-riding, free-loving, intensely serious young man unjustly locked up in an asylum by his aunt and three cousins, who declared him insane so that they could claim the generous inheritance left to him by his parents. Upon his early release, John vows to take revenge against his duplicitous extended family members by concocting an even more elaborate scheme and proving that his confinement has turned him into every bit the psychopath that they said he was.

Enigmatic to a fault, Claudio Guerín's A Bell from Hell is probably best summarized by its most beautiful image: the rebellious John rides his motorcycle across a beach at night towards a Gothic castle shrouded in a layer of fog through which he soon vanishes. It's a suitable metaphor, as a figurative blanket of fog surrounds the entire film, preventing the viewer from grasping any but the most fleeting of impressions or interpretations. As the film concludes, the viewer mostly understands what has happened but the reasons informing the events have slipped away. Character motivations are ambiguous, and sympathies prove difficult to place with any confidence. Tonally hyperactive, it slips from Gothic to sleaze, from Mondo to sex comedy, producing an uneasy intermingling. In one regard, A Bell from Hell feels deliberately abstruse, like an arty European horror in the tradition of Rollin and Franco that strives to embody the thematically ephemeral and morally indistinct. But in other aspects it feels incomplete, like the loose assemblage of the stock situations from a hundred other European horrors with only a shared set of characters connecting them. Perhaps this state of incompleteness is not perceived in error: Guerín, a first time film director, fell to his death on the last day of principal photography from atop the bell tower constructed for the film's climax. The film was completed by compatriot Juan Antonio Bardem (The Corruption of Chris Miller (1973)), who one can say did an admirable job in attempting to fit together the amorphous jigsaw pieces that Guerín left behind him. But there's only so much to be made of this puzzle. A Bell from Hell is a film constructed of barely congruous components striving towards every endpoint at once-- a series of moods and feelings set to images and sounds. To rephrase: a film destined (perhaps desiring) to alienate most viewers.

The foundational ambivalence of the film is seen nowhere more clearly than in the example of its protagonist, John, who is one of those all-too-rare amiable sociopaths. Having been released from his enforced and perhaps wrongful imprisonment in a mental asylum, he immediately begins to plan some grisly revenge against the aunt and cousins who put him there. This isn't any simple sort of revenge: he plans on employing a hive of bees to sting his aunt to death and butchering his cousins like cows in a slaughterhouse. In the film's most chilling scene, John takes a job at an abattoir shortly after being released from the asylum. Only a day in at his his new job, having participated in a few minutes worth of extraordinarily queasy footage of real animal slaughter, John quits, stating that he has "learned enough." We're clearly not dealing with a man who's all there upstairs. But was he certifiably sane before being institutionalized? We never find out for certain, as it seems he was up to similar behavior before his prolonged vacation (pulling pranks, sleeping with his cousins, causing trouble). His aunt attempts to justify her actions, which we previously imagined were fueled by greed alone, by calling John a "malignant tumor" that needs to be cut out of the family. She might be overstating his condition, but John does vacillate between both ends of the morality spectrum rather freely. Throughout most of the film he's playing mean-spirited pranks on the only occasionally deserving townsfolk (by tearing apart marriages, frightening helpless men and women, making stops at the urinal uncomfortable). It's hard to like him much in these moments, but when he saves a poor peasant girl from rape at the hands of some loathsome fishermen it's tough to say he fails to redeem himself. But then, soon after, he's outfitting his basement as a slaughterhouse and hanging up meat hooks for his cousins' stripped and flayed carcasses to rest upon! What a conflicted fellow.

Like a Byronic hero, John is a melancholy and cruel man, yearning towards his own death while ignoring the plights of others. Roughly akin to the titular antihero of Byron's Manfred, John imagines that his own head is full of elemental "dust" and that he resides on a physical plain above that of humankind (easy, then, that he'd be able to see his own cousins as livestock for the slaughter). But, importantly, he eventually begins to realize his own inherent humanity-- right before landing the killing blow on one of his cousins he refrains, citing that "man is a strange animal; he has a conscience." This discovery of his own nascent conscience makes John vulnerable to those who do not, and it's not long after that he's being strung up to his own demise, caught in a macabre execution scenario that would make Poe envious. Literally, John becomes the counterweight for a church bell, hanged by the neck, his death leaving him stranded somewhere between the divinity and salvation that the bell represents and the hellish squabble of the cruel earth that he is suspended above. It would be easy to read the film as John's ambivalent redemption, but there are still a lot of questions to pose here. Why do John's memories of the slaughterhouse convince him to spare his cousins' lives? What do his metaphysical ramblings, such as those he vocalizes when he imagines his cousin's fingers decomposed and reincarnated as the leaves on a tree, mean to signify? What, precisely, are we to make of the film's final minutes and their sculpted wax ruse? I feel no pressing need to offer answers. A Bell from Hell, for reasons that may or may not be entirely of its own choosing, prizes the indeterminate and the ambiguous. It is, accompanied by a chorus of ghost girls chanting "Frère Jacques" through the chill still of the night air, a cinematic fog that never dissipates.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Mill of the Stone Women (1960) dir. Giorgio Ferroni

a.k.a. Il mulino delle donne di pietra

Logline: Young journalist Hans von Arnim (Pierre Brice) travels to an old Dutch mill house to collect information for a story about the eccentric man who lives there, Prof. Wahl (Herbert Boehme). The professor, when not teaching sculpture at the local university, operates his mill's locally famous carousel of blood-curdling wax statues. While studying the history of the mill's macabre exhibit, Hans encounters Prof. Wahl's reclusive daughter, Elfie (Scilla Gabel), who is afflicted with a peculiar disease and who will lead Hans through a hallucinatory nightmare of murder and madness.

Though prevented from attaining the role of protagonist by the presence of the ever so typically "dashing" Hans, Prof. Wahl's daughter, Elfie, remains Mill of the Stone Women's focal point. Elfie becomes so central to the film-- the main attraction in its carousel of horrors, we might say-- because her sad predicament so well encapsulates the film's attitudes towards women. Elfie is, simultaneously, a sort of kept pet and a dangerous fairytale monster, though neither role is one that she has chosen for herself. Rather, these roles have been thrust upon her by the men who control her. Because of a bizarre and fatal condition that corrupts her blood at the slightest shock or provocation, her father and the personal doctor he has hired for her, Dr. Bohlem (Wolfgang Preiss), conspire to keep her alive by giving her complete blood transfusions any time her disease attacks. The fact that this donor blood comes from still breathing victims (kidnapped girls from about town) renders Elfie an unwilling and passive vampire, feeding on the blood of others for life but dependent upon male intervention to do so. (So perhaps calling her a pet vampire would be more appropriate).

Her delicate condition and the two men's unwillingness to simply let her die forces Elfie into becoming a recluse at the mill house in which she lives, lurking its corridors like a trapped spirit. Moreover, Prof. Wahl and Dr. Bohlem continuously squabble throughout the film over ownership of Elfie, making the situation that her disease has wrought even clearer: Elfie has become an object of male desire and utility, despite her own intentions. Even our hero, Hans, is guilty of partaking in such thoughtless treatment of Elfie, as is evident when he gladly sleeps with her and then immediately forsakes her, preferring to confess his love for the safer, less sexually aggressive Liselotte (Danny Carrell). Elfie's ravenous desire for life (both literally through her passive blood consumption and figuratively through her attempts to love whom she chooses and escape her confinement) codes her as abnormal. It's for this reason that Hans forsakes her-- she's had lovers before, and, following the reliable virgin/whore dichotomy, this prevents her from becoming a person he could ever truly love (the virginal Liselotte, eager to be married and tied down, more adequately suits his requirements). As the cowardly Hans tells her as much, she remains steadfast: "What does that matter as long as you'd let me love you?" Scilla Gabel portrays Elfie with a haunting, tortured grace and brimming mania reminiscent of Barbara Steele at her most sympathetic (in, say, Margheriti's Castle of Blood (1964)). Her wraith-like appearances on screen are charged with pathos, her lapses into psychosis fueled by jealously and a basic desire to be allowed to take the independent action denied to her. She is a tragic figure, even if the film appears reluctant to label her as such, and in her heartbreaking lack of autonomy becomes one of the more uniquely ineffectual movie monsters.

But Elfie's story is representative because of its exceptional status. The film's other women acquiesce meekly to the hands of the film's men. They become pliable like wax figures-- literally so, in fact. Taking a page from André De Toth's House of Wax (1953), Prof. Wahl disposes of his victims' bodies by coating them in wax, posing them in the desired positions, and putting them on display in his carousel of sculpted horrors. One victim, Annelore (Liana Orfei), still puts her uncritical trust and faith into a wild-eyed Prof. Wahl as he pushes her towards her exsanguination, despite the fact that she's tied down to a gurney-- fittingly, the wax figure she becomes is shackled with some quite symbolic chains. Prof. Wahl's morbid carousel exclusively features strong or in some way aberrant women dying, being tortured, or being murdered for their troubles. Historical personages (Joan of Arc, Cleopatra, Mary Queen of Scots) commingle with various other women in states of torment or restraint, paraded along a mechanical track as if each was a ghastly monster meant to frighten the intended audience. And perhaps that's so, as the only character we see who is disturbed by the display (rather than fascinated, as all the men invariably are) is the dainty Liselotte, her reaction making plain that she's discerned on some subconscious level the warning implicit in such a horrific attraction: there is only one destination for women who chance to break the mold society has cast for them, and that is preserved in failure on a stage of horrors. The popularity of Wahl's carousel attests to the community's assent of this restrictive message. And through the grim fate of Elfie, Mill of the Stone Women presents the tale of a woman who would find a well deserved place in its own diegetic attraction.

Released the same year as Mario Bava's official directorial debut, Black Sunday (La maschera del demonio; The Mask of Satan), Giorgio Ferroni's Mill of the Stone Women has been almost completely overshadowed by that giant of the Italian Gothic. This is unfortunate considering what a tremendous film Ferroni's is, displaying in nascent though already quite well-developed form the same sort of phantasmagoric imagery that Bava would not perfect until later in the decade with Kill, Baby, Kill! (1966). Ferroni's film is beautifully lensed by cinematographer Pier Ludovico Pavoni, a veteran of sword and sandal epics who had his chance to shine in the horror genre with this film. The camera roams around the titular mill as if it's stuck on the same carousel that's at the center of the film's plot, putting on display the horrific art direction by Arrigo Equini, with its grotesque statuary--the disembodied limbs of women in agony-- adorning every open wall in cluttered fashion. Equini's surreal art direction lays bare the fact that Mill of the Stone Women has a touch of German Expressionism embedded in its DNA, with its windswept Dutch countryside and its creaky, imposing, and slightly askew windmill. It's a film one feels compelled to call "a visual feast" with total earnestness, awash as it is in (as the above poster attests) blazing Technicolor. Ferroni would go on to direct only one other horror film, the almost equally hallucinatory Night of the Devils (1972), another Gothic horrorshow that doubles as a quasi-remake of "The Wurdalak" segment of Bava's Black Sabbath (1963). The shadow of Bava looms large over Ferroni's horror output, but one hopes a greater appreciation of his distinctive, dynamic, and rather groundbreaking style will be fostered by efforts like RaroVideo's new blu-ray release of Night of the Devils.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

La Residencia (1969) dir. Narciso Ibáñez Serrador

a.k.a. The House that Screamed; Finishing School

Logline: Much to her misfortune, young Teresea (Cristina Galbó) is dropped off as the newest resident at a boarding school run with a steely-eyed strictness by the severe Madame Fourneau (Lilli Palmer). Teresea makes friends with the other girls well enough, but some spirited flagellation, sexual tension, the creepy boy who peeps from behind the walls, and a spat of "disappearing" girls guarantee that her stay, however brief, will be an interesting one.

Though often shown to other countries of the world in all of their transgressive glory, the Spanish horror films produced under Franco's dictatorship suffered through that regime's relentless censorship until his death in 1975 and the subsequent dissolution of his control, guaranteeing that none of those previous several decades' most controversial works would be seen as intended in their country of origin. What remains surprising is how many subversive films were able to squeak by the censors up through the early 1970s, films that manage to rather explicitly condemn the fascistic tendencies of the exceedingly "moral" Francoist government through metaphor and allegory. Watching a composite copy of Narciso Ibáñez Serrador's La Residencia (sourced from a Spanish print with English audio and VHS-quality inserts of all the kinky cut material derived  from a weathered stateside release) reveals as much. Yes, all the best bits of sadomasochism, lesbianism, and abusive authority are chopped from the reels, but the implications of these events are never eradicated. Thankfully, the main thrust of La Residencia must have whipped its mark right above the censors' heads. Though perhaps that's not too surprising: at first blush, Serrador (who would proceed to direct one more horror film, the exquisitely intense Who Can Kill A Child? (1976), the year after Franco died) casts his film in the creaky Gothic tradition, light on traditional horror elements but high on degraded stately atmosphere. The film's French boarding house, with its proto-Suspiria eeriness-by-way-of-cattiness, hardly seems the obvious setting for some anti-authoritative statements. But La Residencia's early Gothic giallo trappings are a gaudy blanket of fog obscuring the film's rebellious attitudes. More importantly, the film's concerns being more pointedly focused on authoritarianism doesn't devalue it as a horror film-- if anything, it highlights just how frightening and destructive overbearing authority can be. (Plus, those charms as a late Gothic horror, though all smokescreen, are not unsubstantial-- note, with glee, its denouement's Frankensteinian revelations).

What even the butchered Spanish print can't conceal is the film's criticism of Madame Fourneau's  methods for ensuring the "healthy minds and healthy bodies" of her charges. She advocates and enforces a carceral system of conformity in which she employs the girls of her boarding school to spy on and report each other's aberrant behavior. In fact, Fourneau herself has very little to do throughout the film, other than frown menacingly, as her star pupil, Irene (Mary Maude), and a few other minions carry out much of the grunt work of keeping the school's girls in line (analogous to the Guardia Civil, perhaps?). These girls, bundles of raging hormones all, are placed on strict regimens of typical "lady-like" activities (gardening, cooking, needlework) when all they can think about is the next time that they can sneak out to have a rumble in the hay with the fellow who brings the school some wood every couple of weeks (who, they all admit, is no looker, but is the best they have to fantasize about). For all that Fourneau's methods of turning a fancy boarding house into a ornate penitentiary manage to produce is a whole lot of sexual repression that expresses itself in curious ways.

There are the more obvious motions towards this repression, of course. (Look at a scene of a highly sexualized embroidery lesson in which the girls have conspired to allow one of them to slip out of class for a rendezvous with the wood boy. Her moans of sexual ecstasy are overlay a series of rapid cuts of the girls back in class, biting and licking their lips at the imaginative notion of what their friend is up to in the barn, which all ends when (naturally) one of the girls pricks herself). But I was fascinated by the fact that Fourneau's methods of repression appear to be a reflection of her own self-repression. Throughout we see her predilection towards punishing the rebellious Catalina (Pauline Challoner) commingle with her uncomfortable affection for the girl. After a brutal whipping at Irene's hands, Catalina is left alone in her cell with Fourneau, who chastises the young girl for forcing her hand in ordering the punishment while bending down and tenderly, almost passionately kissing the fresh open wounds on her back. Fourneau costumes her abuse and repression in the finery of "order" and "morality"-- a bleeding back is for Catalina's own good, we're assured. (Draw parallels to Spanish life under Franco whenever you desire). Apparently noticing these affections, Catalina later begins to toy with Fourneau, in one memorable scene disrobing in her shower in front of the headmistress while laughing and rubbing her body as only one of Humbert Humbert's "nymphettes" could (because, yes, in a repressed French boarding school the girls shower in dresses; though, more specifically, in the cinema of Franco's Spain, girls on film shower in dresses in the domestic clothed versions). Fourneau is incredibly unnerved by Catalina's free sexuality-- the same sexuality that Fourneau represses in both herself and her charges-- but after this moment does not possess the courage to punish it. (Catalina fades to the peripheries for the rest of film. Considering the fates of the other girls, I suppose she wins out).

But La Residencia doesn't simply make the point that institutions that foster sexual repression are unstable. Rather, the film makes it fairly apparent that repression drives otherwise healthy young people into becoming sadistic maniacs. Two cases in particular are highlighted, the first being Irene, who is herself a Fourneau in miniature. The chief responsibility of the raven-haired Irene and her cohort, besides the monitoring and regulation of all activities, is doling out punishment. When the diehard rebel Catalina refuses to complete her lessons, Fourneau has her thrown into the dank Gothic equivalent of solitary confinement for a few days and has Irene savagely whip her while the other girls hold her down and Fourneau herself watches stoically from the other side of the room. Irene enjoys the whipping, to say the least. She has developed an interest in members of the same sex that can express itself only through equal moments of tenderness and sadistic punishment. She takes a liking to the new girl, Teresea, our ostensible protagonist. While in one scene Irene creepily rubs Teresea's hands while she's washing them, in another she forces Teresea-- who is openly wailing through tears-- to sing her a tune and "Smile!" while dressed in her prostitute mother's clothing. It's as if, like Fourneau, Irene can only express her sexual desires through the guise of discipline and punishment, but the latent sexual pleasure she derives from such acts transforms them into unabashed sadism.

Irene's actions are certainly not the sign of a good "healthy mind," but we at least receive the sense that she's a human being (in a peculiar realignment, she even momentarily becomes the protagonist in the third act). The same cannot be said of Fourneau's son Luis (John Moulder-Brown, of Deep End (1970) and Vampire Circus (1972)), the wispy haired pretty boy who hides about the boarding house spying on the girls and making fitful plans to run away with some of them when not sneaking them pastries. When we catch him serenely squishing an ant in the pages of a book, we know something is up. Forneau's repression of Luis is rife with Oedipal potential: she keeps him cooped up indoors and away from the other girls, telling him things like, "Those girls are poison. You need a girl like me," punctuated by nearly incestuous kisses. Fourneau is unwilling to give up her son to the "poisoned" world so keeps him cloistered and burdened with her affection, which even in its incestuous perversity is still repressed by both son and mother. But, his environment being so isolated, its clear that no single girl he ever encounters will suffice under his mother's strict standards, so Luis gets creative and cobbles together his own girlfriend with a blade and the best parts of a whole slew of those tainted schoolgirls. By attempting to conserve the sanctity of her son, her most prized possession and her legacy, her authoritarianism corrupts him beyond reprieve. We leave the film with her locked in a room with her son's putrid composite lover, having to face the realities of what she has wrought. With any hope, she'll think long and hard about her methods.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Spider Labyrinth (1988) dir. Gianfranco Giagni

a.k.a. Il nido del ragno

Logline: Professor Whitmore (Roland Wybenga) is recruited by a priest and two businessmen not to enter a bar with them, but to go to Budapest in search of an all-too-silent researcher they hired to study relics of a spider-worshiping religion practiced, inexplicably, throughout the many isolated communities of the ancient world. While in this foreign land, Whitmore dreams of spiders and gets lost in the sticky labyrinth of madness, with squishy black orbs, flame-haired demons, and spider babies around every shadowy corner.

Spider Labyrinth is an excellent late period Italian horror film, a conspiracy-tinged giallo infected with cult and supernatural elements. It reminded me throughout of Pupi Avati's superb and atypical giallo The House with Laughing Windows (1976), with which it would make a perfect uneasy double feature. Like that earlier film, Spider Labyrinth wallows in subtle menace before exploding into absurd, surreal terror at its conclusion, having deliberately ill-prepared its audience for the tonal and aesthetic shifts. Furthermore, the film's cult elements recall a couple other conspiracy gialli, particularly Francesco Barilli's The Perfume of the Lady in Black (1974) and Aldo Lado's Short Night of Glass Dolls (1971), but Spider Labyrinth's intermittent supernatural splatter is so intense and shocking in contrast to those earlier films' more brooding atmospheres that Giagni's film emerges as being quite unique among Italian genre flicks in general and of an astonishingly high quality considering its late date of production. Italian fantastic cinema was, as far the country's filmmaking machine was considered, all but deceased by the late 1980s, so the fact that a film as worthwhile as Spider Labyrinth was skulking out there in the ether attests that some filmmakers still saw potential in the genre. (Sadly, Giagni has yet to direct another horror film, saving his talents for the sporadic documentary or TV project).

Approximately the first half of Spider Labyrinth is devoted to its central mystery involving the questionable religious practices of a spider-worshiping group called the Weavers. As Professor Whitmore lazily travels about Budapest uncovering the macabre secrets of an ancient tablet, the film remains endlessly compelling despite the culprits being apparent. (The culprits are, to no big surprise, almost the entirety of Budapest's population, who all belong to the Weavers cult and who make sure to collectively give Whitmore the evil eye for the duration, which he fails to ever notice). The film remains compelling because of some excellent scenes of tension building, like one wherein Whitmore is loudly discussing his progress in uncovering the cult's secrets over dinner in the dining room of the hotel he's staying at. As he lays out this information, the camera cuts to numerous shots of the various other diners eavesdropping and frowning with menace. One by one, they exit the dining room in deliberate fashion, leaving Whitmore and his companions as the dining room's sole occupants. (Other noteworthy moments of tension: Whitmore's lone, cryptic encounter with the paranoid researcher Holt shortly before his mysterious death; a scene in which he catches the hotel owner, Ms. Kuhn (Stéphane Audran), sitting in the windowless room of her "dead" child and spouting lines like "one gets attached, even to scars"; and some Rear Window peeping as he catches his escort and love interest, Genevieve (Paola Rinaldi), seductively undressing across the way). These aside, it's also the barely felt presence of those wild supernatural elements tantalizing from around the film's corners that keep the viewer enthralled before building to a crescendo of insanity.

For when the tension explodes, it does so with demonic gusto. The film is punctuated with set pieces structured around labyrinths (a subterranean tunnel as labyrinth, the city streets of Budapest as labyrinth), and its most impressive is a slice of Argento-esque opulence involving a construction of hotel bed sheets into a labyrinthine structure through which a shrieking Maria (Claudia Muzi), a hotel chambermaid who betrays the cult, is compelled by sets of hands groping from between the cracks, attempting to pull her under. After this stylish and horrific moment, the proceedings take a turn for the explicitly nutty: we witness squishy black balls that bounce menacingly into frame and presage the demises of the victims, stop-motion spiders (one that blooms out of a black flower), a witch demon with a shock of fiery hair who croaks with fury and can lynch you with her web-like drool, and finally a spider god who at first resembles a shriveled, scalp-less Kuato before messily turning into the spider alien from Carpenter's The Thing. Moreover, while the film elides spelling out every detail of its supernatural manifestations, the cultist nebulousness has a certain sick logic to it, and one wouldn't be wrong to call the film Lovecraftian with its cosmic implications. Spider Labyinth leaves one slack-jawed for the majority of its final ten minutes, which is (from a hardened genre fan) the highest of compliments.