Monday, April 7, 2014

Morgiana (1972)

Morgiana, by Slovak director Juraj Herz, is a seldom spoken of curio from the Czechoslovak New Wave that’s heavily stylized with regards to its visuals and mood but is straightforward with its story and might feel a little influenced by the ‘Grand Dame Guignol’ horror of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?. Much like Poe’s The Black Cat, there is an escalating sense of guilt in its protagonist, aristocratic villainess Viktorie (Iva Janzurová), that’s not particularly out of remorse or regret for her crime, but from paranoia, constant annoying reminders of her misdeed, and fear of being found out, which is where I think a lot of the suspense comes from.

I like that there is a lot of appeal to its detestable, unsympathetic villain. Viktorie (Viki) is probably one of my new favorite villains. She emanates a wicked aura, primarily due to her excessively evil gothic look that pretty much gives away the nature of her game at first glance. Janzurová's performance is frightening, stellar, and versatile. I say versatile because she also plays Viki’s sister, Klára. The personalities and appearances between the sisters are like night and day, and I don’t know if I was a bit naïve at the time, but after watching the whole movie for the first time, I had no idea the same actress played both sisters.

The music is by Valerie and Her Week of Wonders composer Lubos Fiser and it is exquisite, with a main theme that has a terrifying foreboding in its melody, which I think works as a leitmotif for Viki and her cat, Morgiana.

The story concerns the conditional inheritance granted to Klára and Viki after the recent funeral of their father. Klára must have been the favorite because she inherits the villa and all bank accounts and shares, while Viki only gets the country house. It really isn’t Klára’s fault fortune shines on her; she’s also very innocent as well as respectful and kind to her less favored sister. The men are more interested in her, too. A tarot reading convinces Viki that she is the Black Queen, deserving great fortune, while an obstacle, the Queen of Hearts, stands in her way. Not surprisingly, Viki acquires a slow acting, unidentifiable poison and slips it to her sister. Klára’s health slowly declines as Viki’s sense of guilt increases.

Something most will remember from this movie is the large but fabulous looking Victorian feathered hats the upper class females in the movie wear. They seem oversized and almost look like they are ready to fall off or be blown away by the wind at times, and I do think the excessive gothic feel this movie has does owe a lot to those excessive feathered hats.

Color is used to define and contrast characters, and it isn’t subtle at all. The good and evil human duality is an obvious theme, a la Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde but split into two different characters, with the light and dark sister, yin and yang, or, given their high social standing and nobility, a possible black queen and red queen in what could be compared to a game of chess.

Scenes with Viki in the attic reflect her paranoia and unease but are also an exemplification of her vanity and conceit, reveling in ancestral garments and jewels, without the slightest bit of remorse for her sister she’s poisoned. She is a psychopath. These scenes in the attic, though detached a little from the central story, are some of the best, very chilling and beautiful.

An odd and creepy part where Viki takes off her luscious black wig reveals a more accurate appearance that resembles her tainted soul, unveiling the grime beneath the grandeur. It reminds me of when Captain Hook lost his wig in Hook.

The plot rides on a simple yet effective idea, and at the same time the stylistic flair is top notch. I love the visual of the gothic noble lady, holding her cat, walking through the country house sectors with her loyal house servants following in a kind of single file. Another stylistic treat, which would have Argento applauding, is the roaming cat cam point-of-view shots.

Disorienting camera prism effects are used to give a subjective point-of-view from Klára as her central nervous system seems to be deteriorating from the slow-acting poison. It’s nothing too technically spectacular, but it gets the point across and translates her exhaustion into the viewer a little. Hallucinations of herself, or maybe a kind of nonexistent third sister in red, are creepy and surreal but are nonetheless a little inconclusive as to its significance. Perhaps a suggestion of schizophrenia?

Morgiana shares a similar aesthetic to another Czechoslovak New Wave film, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, but the story is so much more straightforward, here. It’s a little more theatre dramatic than Herz’ previous disturbing political thriller The Cremator. The ending is good, if perhaps not the most climactic; I like the way the cat was involved, but it probably could have been a little more twisty and shocking.

There are a number of additional characters to supplement the central story, such as a persistent blackmailer (Nina Divisková) throwing a wrench into Viki’s plans, as well as a love interest for Klára, Marek (Josef Abrhám), in what does amount to an authentic love connection. While Morgiana may not be the most exciting at times, it is very well made, with an imaginative yet convincing Victorian era setting and beautiful gothic ambiance. It may roll heavy on the melodrama side, but this doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

© At the Mansion of Madness

Monday, March 10, 2014

Sex of the Witch (1973)

Witchcraft, tainted family history, and murder mysteries are very agreeable story themes, but writer and director Angelo Pannaccio, hitherto unknown to me, gives these horror hallmarks an attractively perverse edge with Sex of the Witch.

This is one of those films that brings a substantially large group of shady relatives together in a family mansion for the reading of a will, with the inheritance being split equally among the relatives, with an added stipulation that if any beneficiary should die before a certain time, their share must be split among the surviving heirs. Of course this will inevitably create a murderer or two, amongst the family. I’ve seen a similar plot device in a couple other movies, One Body Too Many and Legacy of Blood, but something different with Sex of the Witch is the inclusion of a perverse, evil witch relative with a good measure of hate and malice for the family, which gives what could’ve been a routine plot device a rather demented and supernatural spin.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Love and Death in the Garden of the Gods (1972)

Being a conversation heavy drama mystery with a bit of a dreamy languor about it, Love and Death in the Garden of the Gods may require a little focus from viewers if they hope to get absorbed in its compelling story, beautiful scenery, and tragic characters, but it is worth it. The plot is more or less structured to be an exploration of a hazy backstory that slowly crystalizes before eventually catching up with the present.

The film is directed by Sauro Scavolini, a prolific screenwriter (All the Colors of the Dark, amongst many others) with few directing credits. He is the brother of director Romano Scavolini (Nightmares in a Damaged Brain), who also helmed cinematography for Love and Death in the Garden of the Gods.

The story is fed to us in fragmented bits and pieces from an inquisitive Professor of ornithology (Franz von Treuberg), restoring and listening to a heap of tangled audio recording tape he discovered in the forest outside the villa he’s rented to study the non-indigenous birds of the region. As the Professor listens to the tape recordings, the film cuts to flashbacks of the previous inhabitants of the villa, making the place seem haunted by a past that is both alarming and fascinating. While the past is the primary setting of the story, the film still emphases events in the present, particularly the relation between the professor and the seedy estate administrator, Dominici (Vittorio Duse), giving the Professor dimension and making him more than just an avenue of backstory disclosure.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

News Update: Lord of Tears

The astounding gothic chiller Lord of Tears is an official selection for the 32nd Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival (BIFFF), one of the biggest genre film events in Europe. Lord of Tears will be screened against some of the best independent and studio-based films. The event runs from April 8th to the 20th. 

In other news, Lord of Tears' very own Owlman has been making the rounds stalking users on the chat roulette site Omegle, a site that randomly pairs people around the world to have a go at a webcam-based conversation. Watch the amusing responses from terrified users who found themselves face to face with The Owlman, on the video clip below. 

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Delirium / Delirio caldo (1972)

At first glance, Renato Polselli’s stylistic S&M fever nightmare, Delirium, might feel like an interesting case study of psychopathy, but I’m hesitant to call the film’s protagonist a psychopath. He’s definitely a sadistic maniac of sorts, but a psychopath has no conscience and therefore cannot feel empathy and remorse. Our maniac, here, feels remorse and is at odds with himself. After doing harm, he gets emotional and curses his reflection before shattering the mirror. Just to stop the monster, he tries to set himself up to be caught by the police.

No sir, he may be a serial killer, but the highly respected, criminal psychologist and police consultant Dr. Herbert Lyutak (Mickey Hargitay) is no psychopath.

He actually makes for a compelling lead, thanks to a fair amount of charisma and outward charm that contrasts with his hidden sick side. It’s made known early on that Herbert’s a particularly nasty fellow, with a pitch black disturbing murder sequence involving a young lady (Stefania Fassio). In making its protagonist a murderer, we have something more unique from the get go. Though we know Herbert’s a killer, murders still continue in the traditional ‘whodunit’ giallo style, which imposes the question of Herbert being the only killer. The multiple murder scenes of pretty girls getting killed are cruel, which isn’t surprising for a giallo, but Polselli really seems to be trying to outdo them all.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Top Sensation (1969)

It seems there are always new potentials to explore with an isolated movie setting in a mansion, small villa, or castle, where a number of situations with fixed conditions can arise, murders can go unnoticed, and the sexually liberated can binge to their heart’s content. The peculiar sex crime thriller Top Sensation (aka The Seducers) embraces the many possibilities of the isolated story setting but does away with the more conventional remote house and substitutes it with a private recreational yacht, setting most of the movie on the open sea. Cabins below deck are the lavish bedrooms, the control room makes a nice study, and the poop deck is obviously the lounge, for partying, adultery, and all other manner of fun nonsense.

Top Sensation was directed and written by Ottavio Alessi who has writing credits for some thirty-two movies, which include Dick Smart 2007 and Emmanuelle in America, but only two directing credits with Top Sensation being the last film he ever worked on as a director. The soundtrack, by Sante Maria Romitelli, consists of a melodic and epic sounding piece that could’ve come from a Spaghetti Western but does still manage to feel very welcome here and is extremely memorable.

A big selling point to this movie is the fact that it stars Edwige Fenech and Rosalba Neri. Both of these Eurocult goddesses in the same movie, in the same sex scenes together, is a big deal. Fenech hadn’t quite cemented her fame in several giallo films yet at the time the film was made, and so the fact that she and Neri were together in the same movie was probably incidental, but in retrospect it’s a glorious spectacle. However, after watching Top Sensation it should be apparent that this is not the film’s only credential.

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