Saturday, February 14, 2015

Maniac Mansion (1972)

The Italian-Spanish co-production La mansión de la niebla / Maniac Mansion was the directorial debut of Spanish filmmaker Francisco Lara Polop, who had been previously working as a unit production manager for about ten years. He would also produce the Paul Naschy classics The Hunchback of the Morgue (1973) and Count Dracula’s Great Love (1973).

Made at the height of the Spanish horror boom, Maniac Mansion really is quite the fanciful gothic horror film with enough giallo and murder mystery influences to make it appealing to all Eurocult fans.

The fiery intro credit sequence is hypnotic and a nice mood setter, featuring a killer theme and a couple of chilling evil-witch cackles. The beginning of the story is a lot more grounded in reality with a somewhat unremarkable setup involving numerous shady characters, among which are a few familiar faces including Jess Franco regular Alberto Dalbés, before derailing into a foggy nightmare world, where things get a lot more interesting. Initially, you might start feeling better off just reading a mystery novel instead, but it does start to get good when all of the characters seemingly enter what feels like Silent Hill all of a sudden.

In traditional murder mystery fashion, the movie does introduce quite a few unscrupulous characters, no doubt for the sake of eventually getting them all together in an eerie cozy mansion by a cemetery. I’m usually better at remembering faces than names, and fortunately the faces here are suitably varied, unlike in Sex of the Witch (1973) where some of the characters kind of looked the same. The character archetypes here are easily resolvable too, such as the cold business woman, the widow, the lawyer, the philandering husband, the biker and his girlfriend, the drunk, the strange woman who just sort of came with the house, etc. Possible motives and character relations were a little difficult to keep track of, so the second time through I found that it helped to write down everyone’s name early on.

I’ll admit to having been attracted to its cool movie poster and the fact that Maniac Mansion was most likely going to be a pretty cool gothic horror, which I’m happy to say it is, but I was also looking forward to the presence of Ida Galli aka Evelyn Stewart, so I was happily surprised to see her not being underused and in a role actually quite similar to her role in Spirits of Death (1972). I’m definitely starting to notice an appealing typecast with Galli playing women who aren’t what they appear to be (see Queens of Evil (1970)), while also feeling kind of ghostly and ethereal underneath.

In addition, I underestimated the character of Elsa (Analía Gadé), who went from being one of the weaker and annoying characters to my absolute favorite by the film’s end. She embodies the unstable woman on the brink of insanity cliché, and I like the way she handles it. When she does go crazy, Elsa all of a sudden becomes the strongest character, just slightly surpassing Ida Galli’s witchy red herring. Her screaming scene in the basement is hair-raising and was used as the face model for the terrified woman on the movie poster. Elsa also ends up being one of the more fleshed out characters with a nicely realized backstory that explores her troubled relationship with her husband (Dalbés) and her elderly father (George Rigaud), who had a habit of hooking up with her young college friends, much to Elsa’s dismay.

Unless there’s an alternate version, there’s no nudity to be had in Maniac Mansion (there are love scenes, but the ladies are all so modest with their nudity), but I’m not going to knock it for that, because nude scenes aren’t really necessary, yet they are an added plus.

When the film does make its supernatural transition, the ambiance really thickens, as characters get lost in the fog, with familiar roads seemingly disappearing or rearranging all together. Despite previously separating, everyone loses their way in the fog before mysteriously meeting up in the titular spooky house, which leaves a little to be desired with regards to its exterior, but its interior is marvelous, with the usual old fashioned décor, unsettling occult paintings, and appealing color gels. Weird things begin to happen in the usual gothic horror fashion, characters start getting bumped off by, what seems to be, a ghost witch and her undead chauffeur, and everything climaxes to a reasonable but unlikely explanation.

It bears mentioning that Maniac Mansion is surprisingly creepy. I’m not that big on jump scares, but there’s a decent one here to look out for.

The answer to the mystery isn’t the most satisfying, but the ending itself is saved by Analía Gadés' unhinged performance and her character’s dramatic final act of vengeance (you go, girl!). I love the way she keeps pulling the trigger even after the bullets are all used up.

Thanks to the soundtrack, a feminine malevolence pervades the whole thing. Even with a slow startup that makes it a little hard to get into at first, I’ve come to like the way the movie is structured and what many have already pointed out as a Scooby Doo style story. Maniac Mansion is a good representation of the, then, fashionable style of horror films in Europe during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.

© At the Mansion of Madness

Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Man with Icy Eyes (1971)

Although commonly referred to as a giallo, Alberto De Martino’s The Man with Icy Eyes would have to be a rather atypical example of the genre, if not an ostensible one. It is set and filmed in a southwestern desert city called Albuquerque, NM (where I’m from, but we’ll get to that later). It doesn’t follow the violent murder mystery plot set forth by Mario Bava and popularized by Dario Argento, nor does it have any of the attractive gothic horror crossovers with ultramodern psychedelic fashions or drug-induced delirium. If anything, the film is more of a rustic detective story with a smattering of the crime thriller and a climax not entirely unlike that of Lucio Fulci’s One On Top of the Other (1969). Given the film’s mystery element, tense soundtrack, and early ‘70s era, and considering the presence of key players like Antonio Sabato (Seven Blood Stained Orchids 1972) and Barbara Bouchet (Don’t Torture a Duckling 1972), I can still dig the giallo tag. It also flirts with the supernatural, just a little, and there’s a colorful nude photography scene with Bouchet to give the film a minimally erotic edge.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Simona / Passion (1974)

You might not know it from looking at the playful erotic movie posters and DVD covers, but Simona is no sex comedy. Though still playful and sexy in certain parts, Patrick Longchamps’ Fellini-inspired adaptation of the French novel Story of the Eye (1928) is a dark oddity of avant-garde filmmaking, with a heavy undercurrent of social alienation.

At the time the film was released its lead actress Laura Antonelli had recently achieved overnight fame from her award winning role in Salvatore Samperi’s sexy, controversial dark-comedy Malizia (1973). She had made such an impact that moviegoers flocked to see Antonelli in Simona, which was actually shot about a year before Malizia (Simona was shelved for a while before being released).

Simona was unfortunately confiscated in Italy for its explicit content. One-time Belgian filmmaker Longchamps had a friend with connections in the Vatican who organized a private screening of the banned film for four priests, and after finally being approved by the church, Simona was released in Italy, where it made a lot of money (the film was never released in its native country of Belgium). Eventually the original film negatives were acquired by "distributors of ill-repute," and as it currently stands, a properly restored version of Simona, as far as I know, remains unrealized.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Night of the Walking Dead / El extraño amor de los vampiros (1975)

"The sun shining in my dreams 
  The light is getting hot
  Saved by eternity
  I have seen death so close
 Away, awhile the angels crossed the sky
 But I'm condemned to stay here." -- Heavenly  

In his memoirs, Paul Naschy said he had referred Argentine film directing stalwart Leon Klimovsky to be director of his seminal Spanish horror classic La noche de Walpurgis, AKA The Werewolf Versus the Vampire Woman (1971), because one of the film’s financers wanted a quick and reliable director.

It would seem that Klimovsky was known for his fast shooting and workmanlike skills, and yet he managed to direct some real atmospheric classics of Spanish horror, often on low budgets and high pressured shooting schedules, and he introduced an oft-imitated technique of filming vampires and zombies in slow-motion, capturing a uniquely nightmarish plane of existence in the process.
Klimovsky’s vampire films are exceptional and interestingly varied, and they belong alongside the best of Jess Franco and Jean Rollin. The aforementioned The Werewolf Versus the Vampire Woman was a record breaking box office success that revived the Spanish horror fantasy genre. The other Klimovsky directed vampire films that followed were the epic The Dracula Saga (1973), the more grindhouse flavored The Vampires’ Night Orgy (1974), and the romantic, adventurous, and somewhat eclectic Night of the Walking Dead / The Strange Love of the Vampires, the topic for tonight

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Shock / Beyond the Door II (1977)

Mario Bava’s final full-length film as director Shock (AKA Beyond the Door II) is like The Amityville Horror (1979), Repulsion (1965), and The Shining (1980) combined into a progressive-rock tinged haunted-house Italian horror/mystery thriller that does manage to be scary. Bava again employs the vengeful ghost story, as in his child-themed Kill Baby Kill (1966), but keeps it in the family, creating a ghost story about marital vengeance, which was based on a true story that Bava weaved in to an already existing script, about a living house, he had co-written with Dardano Sacchetti several years prior. The end product is a slow-paced but ultimately exhilarating experience that succeeds at being one of the creepier Italian horrors. Bava’s son Lamberto Bava, who also contributed to the script, said they were influenced a little more by Stephen King and were attempting to make a modern horror film.

The film also has a possession angle that takes a few cues from The Exorcist (1973), which might have been in response to the success of The House of Exorcism (1975): producer Alfredo Leone’s revamping of Bava’s Lisa and the Devil (1973), with newly filmed possession scenes spliced in.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Mummy’s Revenge / La venganza de la Momia (1973)

When looking over the lengthy cycle of mummy movies, one in particular often goes heavily unmentioned, and that’s Spanish actor, filmmaker Paul Naschy’s take on the mummy myth, The Mummy’s Revenge / La venganza de la Momia.

Being somewhat of a tragic love story, The Mummy’s Revenge is rather faithful to the original Universal film and is also easy to compare to the 1959 Hammer reboot as well. What sets The Mummy’s Revenge apart is that it’s a Paul Naschy film, meaning it’s going to be a little more erotic, a little meaner, more fearsome, more violent, and more personal. There is also a sadomasochistic element too, with a number of maidens strung up for both amusement and sacrificial purposes.

The film is directed by Carlos Aured and is written by and stars Naschy. It is one of four collaborations between Naschy and Aured, with the other three being the seminal Horror Rises from the Tomb (1972), part of the Waldemar Daninsky Werewolf cycle Curse of the Devil (1972), and the Spanish giallo Blue Eyes of the Broken Doll (1973). The Mummy’s Revenge is Naschy’s second, and more focused, take on the mummy, as the creature did appear in Naschy’s horror/sci-fi monster mashup Assignment Terror (1970), along with aliens, the werewolf, Frankenstein's monster, and Dracula.

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