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.

1 comment:

  1. I'll readily admit that perhaps I'm simply an ignorant barbarian, however, I really didn't care for this film despite the plethora of glowing reviews. It was hard to sympathize with John's incarceration when his pranks seemed to justify his institutionalization. Interesting review.