Friday, August 15, 2014

Spirits of Death / A White Dress for Marialé (1972)

With Spirits of Death, I’m reminded of how pleasing it is to keep discovering new worthwhile Eurocult movies of the vintage variety. Years ago I thought that I might have been coming close to exhausting my selection of every notable Eurohorror / giallo / surreal-art-house-drama film. However, that notion seems to become more and more untrue with time, which is counterintuitive, as it would seem that the more movies of this type you see the closer you would be to seeing them all, but it nonetheless keeps opening up a world that always seems bigger the further you go in.

Spirits of Death is one of those arty, Eurohorror, giallo movies of a particular brand that I can’t believe I went so long without knowing (let’s see if we can coin the term “Sleeping Eurocult” – in winking reference to Agatha Christie’s Sleeping Murder). Spirits of Death is directed and cinematographed by Romano Scavolini, who many may know as the director of an infamous Video Nasty from the early ‘80s, Nightmares in a Damaged Brain. He is also the brother of Sauro Scavolini, director of another marvelous “Sleeping Eurocult” Love and Death in the Garden of the Gods.

The film is essentially a gathering of colorful guests, who have been invited by one of the proprietors, Marialé (Ida Galli aka Evelyn Stewart), with mysterious motives, to a spooky old castle. It might sound familiar, and it is, but the gathering turns into a fascinating, candlelit journey into the underground caverns of the castle as well as a delirious entertaining descent into a batshit crazy Fellini-esque masquerade dinner party before things turn over to a more traditional murder mystery, as party guests start getting knocked off by an unseen assailant in the latter half.

Most of the male characters in the film are abusive towards the female characters. The exception is Massimo (Ivan Rassimov) the poet, suggesting that the artist is a more compassionate individual in comparison to the more brutish, philistine individuals with a propensity towards sexual violence and causing humiliation. It’s also interesting that two of the abused female characters, Mercedes (Pilar Velázquez) and Semy (Shawn Robinson), find solace and love by getting away from their racist male chauvinist lovers and into one another’s arms, a possible message about some women being better off leaving their abusive men to pursue lesbian relationships.

While the gothic sights can be somewhat traditional, there is still something much grander about the visuals in Spirits of Death, in comparison to some of its more subtle gothic horror predecessors. The party ultimately shifts to the dark lower levels of the castle, affording an opportunity for the abundance of characters to travel in procession, with multiple characters each holding a candelabra, resulting in a busy but pleasing gothic sight, as the party-goers explore the castle depths.

It gets remarkably surreal when an inexplicable indoor storm picks up in the underground crypt-like caverns. The setting starts to become very disorienting, as we start to abandon logic for a more favorable nightmarish experience and the first implication of any spirits of death. With all the screams and emotional outburst for seemingly little reason, it starts to feel a little like a Renato Polselli film – think about the tape recorder scene from Delirium. There are several dressed mannequins in the underground area that almost resemble rotting corpses. Eventually, the storm softly subsides from what feels like the result of a few characters relighting the candles, assumedly blown out from the storm, and the film's calming, enchanting theme chiming in. Everyone regains their composure in what feels like some sort of reawakening. The candles are lit and everyone seems in awe at their surroundings now that the storm has passed.

Eventually, the party transitions into a masquerade, as characters borrow different costumes from the corpse-like dummies and undergo bizarre cartoon-like transformations. The movie toys a little with the idea of their being possessed by the spirits of death but ends up feeling more like everyone getting in touch with their wild, primitive sides, a kind of liberalization, becoming informal and hedonistic, acting out behaviors they wouldn’t normally act out. Basically they’re partying, but what peculiar partying it is. It isn’t classy at all but still entertaining to watch. As usual the soundtrack contributes a lot to the crazy dinner party.

The dinner party would have to be the highlight of highlights. It feels climactic despite taking place in the middle of the movie. There's some underlying suspicions that the film might be escalating into a mass sex orgy, but instead, it turns the insanity meter down afterwards and begins to play out as a more low key murder mystery with an immodest body count and, for their time, adequate murder scenes. Also, I never seem to tire of the “oh, it’s you” cliché, establishing that the victims are familiar with their killer.

Luigi Pistilli plays a somewhat similar role as his character from Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key, and, as usual, he’s incapable of disappointing. Also, I truly enjoyed Ida Galli as Marialé, appearing almost ghostlike in the background sometimes, overseeing, possibly manipulating, but never really quite participating in most of the events. Aside from Queens of Evil, I always felt she seemed a little underused in everything else I’d seen her in. 

Spirits of Death does predict the violent childhood flashback scene that Scavolini would explore more graphically in Nightmares in a Damaged Brain. The flashback scene isn’t overused here, used at the very beginning and brought up again at just the right time during the climax to cap the proceedings with a chilling sense of continuity. The climax isn’t that shocking, but I still really like it (especially the way two characters fall dead in each other’s arms). I also couldn’t help thinking a little of the spaghetti western standoff climax.

Upon further re-watches, I found Spirits of Death to be a rather mind-expanding experience. I think it’s a movie that viewers should get a little deeper with and view as art as opposed to simple entertainment; although it’s still very entertaining.

© At the Mansion of Madness

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Asylum Erotica / Slaughter Hotel (1971)

I was charmed the other day by a 1915 vintage, almost Victorian looking, Kellogg’s Corn Flakes advertisement poster I spotted amongst the old-fashioned-decor adorned on the walls at a local Cracker Barrel diner. While staring at the ad, for some reason, I became curious as to the origin of Corn Flakes. Where were they invented, and how did they come about? I previously had a stereotypical notion that they may have originated in farming communities, due to the rooster, Cornelius, usually observed on the boxes. After ordering pancakes (not the multigrain or wheat ones but the regular pancakes), I googled “Kellogg’s Corn Flakes history” on my phone, and the results were a little startling.

It appears the invention that brought about Corn Flakes was discovered by accident in 1894, at the Battle Creek Sanitarium in Michigan by health reformist Dr. John Harvey Kellogg and his brother Will Keith Kellogg as part of a bland diet to keep the patients from having increased passions, i.e. to keep them from masturbating.

One day, the Kellogg brothers left a batch of cooked wheat out to sit, when they were diverted by urgent matters at the sanitarium. Upon their return, they’d found that the wheat had gone stale, but because they were under a strict budget, they decided to salvage the wheat. After pressing the wheat through rollers, it formed, to their surprise, wheat flakes that were subsequently toasted and served to the patients; it ended up being a hit. Later Will Keith Kellogg experimented with flaking corn, which he eventually made into a successful business.

Dr. John Harvey Kellogg was a pioneer surgeon, who succeeded in having exceptionally low mortality rates with his surgery practice. He was the superintendent of the Battle Creek Sanitarium and pioneered numerous health reform treatments, some of which still hold up today. However, the good doctor sometimes missed the mark.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Daughters of Darkness (1971)

“Genre rules” seem to be most common in zombie and vampire films, and it’s with these particular genres that breaking the “rules” ends up being the most controversial. Yet, these so called rules are non-existent, and filmmakers can do whatever they want. Of course, the big risk with breaking too many rules is that so many people will already hate the movie before/without even bothering to see it. On the other hand, sticking with the rules and relying too heavily on clichés is too easy and contributes to oversaturation of a genre. I personally enjoy the best of both worlds, classic and innovative, the best of the old with the best of the new. Give me what I came for, but surprise me too. Clichés are important but more for the sake of maintaining a basis of familiarity.

Harry Kümel’s emblematic, chic, and sensual vampire seduction Daughters of Darkness falls somewhere in the middle ground between familiar and different. It probably isn’t even worth mentioning the many parallels between this movie and The Blood Spattered Bride or The Shiver of the Vampires, other than to note they were made around the same time and manage to be so different from one another, even though they tell similar stories. They all contain a common sapphic vampire story that owes a lot to Sheridan Le Fanu’s novel Carmilla, which was adapted a year earlier with The Vampire Lovers in 1970 and ten years before that with Blood and Roses.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Zombie / Zombi 2 (1979)

I used to not be able to stomach gory zombie films very well. Despite being excited and thoroughly fascinated after watching zombie films in my youth, I suffered from a loss of appetite for a while. Anytime I was trying to eat, my brain would be like “you know what’s a good movie? Dawn of the Dead (1978),” and images from the scene with zombies eating in the cellar would pop into my mind, and I would be turned off to eating meat or anything savory for that matter. Sweets or French fries were fine, but my mind just would not cease to relate the taste and consistency of anything else, especially if it was slimy, to what it was the zombies were chomping on. I was disgusted by zombie carnage but still thought it was so cool.

The zombie film that grossed me out the most, which is really saying something, was Lucio Fulci’s Zombie. As a kid, I used to hate looking at the VHS cover with the iconic, rotting, worm eyed, conquistador zombie (Ottaviano Dell'Acqua). I wasn’t scared; I was repulsed. Being a growing boy on the verge of puberty, I didn’t think it wise to be turned off to protein, either. And so, the tape just sat on my movie shelf, after only being watched once, collecting dust, never to be touched again for quite some time.

Needless to say, I eventually overcame this sort of appetite-loss problem and no longer felt sick after watching zombie films. I don’t know if it is enhanced mental discipline or desensitization, but I can now eat pizza while watching movies like Zombie and Burial Ground without getting nauseous.

Anyone who may have read my article for The Beyond during last year’s gore-a-thon may recall that I wasn’t a fan of Zombie for a while. It took seeing The Beyond for me to re-evaluate what was my negative stand on Zombie. I was guilty of hoping for another Dawn of the Dead, ignorantly overlooking every one of the film’s strengths.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Wax Mask / M.D.C. – Maschera di cera (1997)

The last film Lucio Fulci ever worked on, The Wax Mask, was supposed to have been the grand collaboration between Fulci and Dario Argento, had it not been for Fulci’s tragic death some few weeks before filming was to begin. The project came about after Argento had approached Fulci at a 1994 film festival in Rome and suggested they work together on a new film. This was more of a sympathetic gesture from Argento who had intentions of reviving the spirits of an ailing Fulci in a wheelchair, who, at the time, had not worked on a new film in years. The two were never the best of friends, as Argento always thought Fulci imitated his filmmaking style (the separate camps weren’t only with the fan base it would seem).

Differences aside, they mutually agreed upon recreating House of Wax with Fulci directing. Along with Daniele Stroppa (The House of Clocks), they wrote the script for The Wax Mask, an alternate take on the wax museum myth that doesn’t necessarily feel like a remake of House of Wax (1953), even if it is.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Announcing the Second Annual Gore-a-thon

“Do you hear the clarion call? It’s calling out to one and all.” –Falconer

The horror blogging clarion call sounds again! That’s right; it’s almost time for Blood Sucking Geek’s second annual Ultimate Gore-a-thon 2014 -- Another Splatterific Extravaganza! I hope a fraction of you fantabulously awesome readers remember this event from last year, when nine sites came together to embark on an ultimate gore-centric blog-a-thon! The event will run from June 15th to the 21st. Including At the Mansion of Madness, there are, so far, twelve sites. The other blogs/sites taking part in the upcoming Gore-a-thon are as follows:

90s Horror Movies

Blood Sucking Geek 

Candy-Coated Razor Blades

Craft Fear  

The Info Zombie 

Love Horror 

Midnight Cinephile 

Movies at Dog Farm 

Slasher Studios 


Wide Weird World of Cult Films 

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