Sunday, June 14, 2020

A Candle for the Devil / Una vela para el diablo (1973)

“The pleasures I tried to deprive myself of assailed my mind more ardently…” –Madame de Saint-Ange (Marquis de Sade)

I feel like A Candle for the Devil (aka It Happened at Nightmare Inn) from Spanish filmmaker Eugenio Martin, director of the astounding Horror Express (1972) and the rare gem Aquella casa en las afueras (1980), was that demented shocker I was always looking for when I was channel surfing as a kid looking to satiate my thirst for something twisted with big bloody kitchen knives and bloody nightgowns. It’s also an intelligent and thought-provoking film with enough memorable moments to prevent anyone who watches it from entirely forgetting about it. I had only seen it twice, in its cut and uncut version, but for years it had been stored in my memory as a truly special Spanish horror film that I knew I would revisit someday to write about.

After I first watched it, I remember feeling cheated out of the definitive experience of A Candle for the Devil after finding out the version I watched titled It Happened at Nightmare Inn from a bargain DVD box set was heavily cut, omitting the graphic violence and nudity. I still thought it was a pretty sweet film even in its censored form, but of course that’s not the version I wanted for my collection, and so I later ordered off for a DVD-R containing the uncut A Candle for the Devil, with Esperanza Roy’s (from Return of the Evil Dead (1973)) nude scenes thankfully intact. The film has since been released on Blu-ray in 2015 by Scorpion Releasing.

I do like that the two lead characters, Marta (Aurora Batista) and Veronica (Roy), are villains who don’t realize, or at least stubbornly refuse to believe, they are the villains. The sisters commit unplanned murder, which Marta self-justifies in the name of personal convictions that happen to be way out-of-touch. They are the self-righteous who believe they are God’s right hand but are actually the real problem. When they are fueled by their convictions, they have no trouble slaughtering people in their kitchen, the same way they slaughter and cook lambs to serve to their guests.

It isn’t made subtle at all that this is about religious hypocrisy, with characters that don’t live up to their own principles. What’s that saying about “throwing stones in glass houses?”

Sisters Marta and Veronica are a couple of murderesses who run a quaint little boarding house. The immodest behavior of the modern young female tourists who stay at their boarding house does not jive with Marta’s old-fashioned belief that decency and purity are better ideals for a young lady. After they discover one of their guests May (Loreta Tovar) sunbathing on their roof, much to the amusement of the local men, Marta, with Veronica’s help, very rudely starts to physically force May out of her house. While Marta is pushing her, May tumbles down the stairs and crashes into a stained-glass window and instantly dies. This initially was a tragic accident, until Marta believes she sees a religious sign in a broken, bloody piece of stained glass and assures her sister that what just occurred was an act of God. Marta hides the body while Veronica answers the front door to May’s sister Laura (Judy Geeson), who was supposed to meet her sister at the boarding house. Laura spends her time trying to get to the bottom of her sister’s disappearance while murders continue.

A Candle for the Devil is a sort of non-mystery, where we the audience already know what’s going on while we watch Laura and her companion Eduardo (Vic Winner) try to figure it out. This is a relief to viewers who don’t like to be in the dark, but it might be a little bit of a letdown to lovers of mystery. It does lead to an excellent closeout scene that I always fondly remembered. There is also a lot of interesting inner-conflict within Veronica regarding her compliance with her sister’s deeds, and even more interesting is the exploration of the sexuality of the sisters that makes their hypocrisy all the more damning.

Veronica seems to be more in-touch than her sister and questions what is happening but is still always game to take her sister’s side despite the dilemma. She knows what is wrong, but she also knows whose side she’s expected to take; that of blood. What is happening makes her wake up in the night wanting to vomit. She recognizes evil in her own household but is compliant with it. She excuses evil in bad conscience, even deluding herself that the horrible things happening are right by way of mutual belief and a shared bond, but even she knows that something’s eventually got to give before her and her sister are caught.

One of the more intriguing components to the hypocrisy of the sisters is that of sexual purity. Veronica has a lover twenty years younger than her, whom she copulates with in secret and steals money from her sister for, and Marta has a repressed hypersexual side that comes out when she secretly watches nude young males playing in the river. As penance, Marta trudges through thorny shrubbery, cutting herself on pointy dead shrubs along the way. Almost as if revealing she is just like the young women she hates, Marta can be seen later committing the sin of vanity, admiring herself in the mirror, applying lipstick and perfume while wearing a provocative dress and unleashing her inner seductress (because it’s ok when she does it). Despite this, Marta and Veronica have no qualms with murdering the young “hussies,” one of which includes a character played by Lone Fleming, who come through town supposedly scandalizing the village with their provocative clothing. The deep-rooted resentment Marta has towards younger attractive girls is really not even about religion but rather linked to some other personal trauma that occurred in Marta’s life (the real reason she hates young attractive females); she just uses her perverted view of her religion to clear her conscience from the horrible things she’s done. She has no issues with dehumanizing anyone who doesn’t fall into her ideal view of morality. She believes her victims deserve what happened to them. She takes her sister Veronica with her on her journey into being a delusional serial killer fighting against sin by ironically being the ultimate sinner.

In the battle between the evocatively scandalous and the religiously righteous, the sweet, mild-mannered Laura (Geeson) falls on neither side and is tolerant of both. Despite some reservations, she does manage to get along well with the judgmental sisters, and she is not offended by the provocations of the younger flirty, sexy female tourists. Not possessing the traits that offend Marta keeps her in the safe zone for a time, until her sleuthing causes her to get too close to the truth. Laura is a kind, even-keel character who mostly doesn’t have a whole lot to do but converse with the sisters, the villagers, and hang around with Eduardo (Winner). Her moment to shine comes in the final scene.

Bautista and Roy are terrific in their roles and have exquisite chemistry together as killer sisters. The actors play finely off of one another and do show off a good range of acting talent from outwardly pious sisters by day to killers of sinful women by night. Bautista portrays Marta as a much colder killer while Roy gives Veronica a semblance of guilt and remorse over what is happening. I’m not only convinced they are sisters, but I’m also convinced they are psychotic. One of the kills I thought packed an emotional punch, where some serious indignation is felt, is the scene where they murder a mother, Norma (Blanca Estrada), of a baby essentially because they wrongfully thought the mother wasn’t married. The moment is heartbreaking when Norma is killed desperately trying to get her baby back from Veronica.

A Candle for the Devil is a pretty grim affair that also works as an entertaining horror movie. Its two lead killers are memorable and should be considered more iconic in the history of Spanish horror. After I first watched it, I had that same feeling of enthusiasm that I had after first watching other noteworthy Spanish horror films La residencia (1969) and Tombs of the Blind Dead (1972). The gore is actually comic book level appealing, as an eyeball makes its way into a customer’s, Beatrice’s (Montserrat Julió), food, and a severed head manages to make its way into the basement wine cask, which makes for some fun stuff in this sort of depressing film that hopefully won’t detract too much from the seriousness of it.

© At the Mansion of Madness

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Devil in the Flesh / Venus in Furs (1969)

“Have you heard about the lonesome loser, beaten by the Queen of Hearts every time?” -Little River Band 

The book by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch Venus in Furs (1870) is a great inspiration to those of us who wish to be better poets for the women we love, the women we worship, the women we want to be dominated and enslaved by in the bedroom. I found a lot to relate to from Masoch’s writing, but I was kind of bummed that the book turned out to be a cautionary tale in the end. (Way to kink-shame, Book.)
Massimo Dallamano, cowriter and director of one of the best gialli ever made, What Have You Done to Solange? (1972), directed a couple good modern adaptations of Victorian era books: the aforementioned Venus in Furs and The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) by Oscar Wilde. Dallamano’s Dorian Gray from 1970 really feels updated for its era, trying something a little bit different while remaining faithful to the spirit of the novel. The same could be said of the Dallamano directed Devil in the Flesh (aka Venus in Furs, not to be confused with the Jess Franco film of the same name, from the same year).

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Justine (2016)

“Justine, your prison was my kingdom come.” -Virgin Steele 

Were it not for Jess Franco, I probably would not have had even a passing interest in the writings of eighteenth century troublemaker Marquis de Sade, Donatien Alphonse Franҫois, but thanks to Franco films like Marquis de Sade’s Justine (1969), Eugenie (1970), Eugenie de Sade (1973), and this prominent S&M aesthetic very much characteristic to a lot of Franco’s films (as well as Renato Polselli’s), it was only a matter of time before I would wonder: “why the hell am I not reading de Sade?”. Reading a book by de Sade had been on my bucket list for a good six or seven years. (It didn’t help that I was partially turned off by de Sade after watching Pier Paolo Passolini’s Salo or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) due to the film’s shocking depictions of cruelty and grossness that the Jess Franco films rarely reached). 

Well, I finally read my first de Sade novel, recently, titled Justine, or The Misfortunes of Virtue (1791), and it was all kinds of fucked up. It was cruel, disgusting, evil, sickeningly disagreeable… And I could hardly put it down. I won’t go as far as to call it a horror novel, but a lot of the sadists poor Justine encounters are outright terrifying, especially the head-cutter character. De Sade seemed to pull no punches. He morally outraged to the extreme and probably intended to.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Assignment Terror / Los monstruos del terror (1970)

Halloween always gets me in the mood for the classic Universal monsters, so I thought I would revisit a Spanish monster mash-up (done in the vein of Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943) and House of Frankenstein (1944)) that I had not seen in over ten years.

Assignment Terror is one of the Paul Naschy films I revisited the least for some reason. Naschy wrote and starred in it, but at the same time I couldn’t help thinking it needed a little more Naschy. Paul Naschy’s scripts usually come off as real personal projects, but, even with the presence of the Universal monsters that inspired Naschy’s childhood love for horror, I didn’t quite feel that as much with Assignment Terror. But to be fair, it is quite early in Naschy’s filmography. Plus, I can see how Naschy might’ve thought it best to have his tragic lycanthrope character Waldemar Daninsky step aside a little to make room for the other classic monsters. In the end, it still ends up being Naschy’s show and what I think is an alright old-school monster movie that has got a few neat tricks up its sleeve. The whole thing is of course messy and flawed but also kind of whacky and fun.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Macumba Sexual (1983)

For me, going back to Macumba Sexual is going back to my Jess Franco origins, as it was the second Jess Franco film I ever saw, the first being Mansion of the Living Dead (1982). I came across both Severin DVDs of these films at a video store in 2007 and took a chance with Mansion first even though I was expecting it to be terrible (I had heard of Jess Franco and a not so revered zombie movie by the name of Oasis of the Zombies (1982)). At the time, I was desperate for something new, and I was sort of fascinated by the cheap looking blind dead Templar rip-offs on the DVD cover (Diet Tombs of the Blind Dead?). My expectations were low, but it turned out to be a funny, sexy, ultra-weird, and surprisingly atmospheric horror movie with a captivating lead actress, Lina Romay (born Rosa Maria Almirall). I shortly went back to the store for Macumba Sexual and, despite some frustrations, have been hooked on Jess Franco ever since (thanks Severin!).

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Evil Eye / Malocchio (1975)

Evil Eye is that kind of movie that gracefully tries to do it all but ends up not really knowing what to do with itself afterwards. When looking at the film as a whole, it feels like a nice recap of the enduring motifs of the giallo, occult, gothic horror, and erotica film, and for that it will surely find a place in the hearts of Eurocult fans (it certainly has for me), but it’s hard to tell if it is a work of genius, a mistake of a masterpiece, or just an empty, routine cash-in. Is it great or not-great? I honestly have referred to it as both.
The Spanish, Italian, Mexican co-production Evil Eye (aka Mal de ojo in Spain, Malocchio and Eroticofollia in Italy, and Más allá del exorcismo in Mexico) is directed and co-written by Mario Siciliano. It was also co-written by Spanish writers Julio Buchs and Federico De Urrutia. Interestingly, Buchs and De Urrutia have several co-writing credits together, such as Alta tension (1972) and A Bullet for Sandoval (1969), many of which Buchs directed. Evil Eye seems to be the very last film either writer worked on. Julio Buchs died in 1973 before the film was released.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

The Sex of Angels / Il sesso degli angeli (1968)

This wicked looking poster for the nominally X-rated Italian/German drama The Sex of Angels and the Google plot synopsis, which reads “young women steal a yacht and kidnap a young man and spend a weekend having sex and doing drugs,” really aren’t all that misleading, although there’s a lot more to the story. The poster also exaggerates the situation, as what is depicted is rather the result of a conundrum brought on by irresponsibility followed by an even more irresponsible course of action. 

The setup to The Sex of Angels is, of course, an appealing one to the male fancy. Being seized by three beautiful modern-day angels and taken on a boat ride into the endless summer of ’68? Why not? It sounds like a good time, and for the most part it is, but in trying to postulate what the film might be trying to say with its outcome, I can’t help but put it in the context of ‘60s youth counter culture and the sexual revolution and see it as a cautionary tale of seduction and widespread use of LSD and what I thought was a kind of critical impression of the behaviors of the “sexually liberated.”

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Alice or the Last Escapade / Alice ou la dernière fugue (1977)

I’ve been a fan of Alice in Wonderland since I was a kid, although I didn’t read Lewis Carroll’s Alice books until I was an adult, which was prompted by my first viewing of Jan Svankmajer’s Alice (1988), and ever since reading them I’ve been pretty enthusiastic about keeping an eye out for films inspired by or adapted from the books, which was what attracted me to the French surrealist film Alice or the Last Escapade in the first place. I thought the film did a pretty good job at creating an interesting new take on Alice in Wonderland (without actually being about Alice in Wonderland) while also being a bit derivative and having an ending that viewers will no doubt have seen before that I still thought was beautifully executed. It’s also very much of the ‘70s Eurocult sensibility and a product of its time, but it feels like there’s also a little something here for everyone, including the curious Alice in wonderland fan (who doesn’t mind a lightly inspired non-adaptation), and even the surreal, the arthouse, or even the gothic horror fan.
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