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.

The leading man is Mexican movie star Jorge Rivero (who, like me, graduated college with a degree in chemical engineering) as nightmare-plagued, wealthy, debauched playboy Peter Crane. Despite my issues with the direction of the story, I thought there was something appealing about Peter and the way Rivero portrayed him with minimal charisma and just the right amount of elegance, without seeming too trashy or unlikable. I thought the opening when Peter wakes up (at 6 pm), after having a nightmare about a terrifying cult that is seemingly menacing him, looking absolutely hungover and partied out, surrounded by other passed out partiers, in his own living room, really captured that hedonistic ‘70s vibe, as does a few other parts of the movie. Peter has to walk over passed-out bodies in order to find his servant, Walter, played by Eduardo Fajardo, who kicks the party guests out by first waking them up with loud music.

Peter actually reminds me a lot of a 1970s Dorian Gray; he lives in excess, hosts parties at his mansion, is wealthy but doesn’t work, lives alone with his servant/major-domo, has a reputation for his not so wholesome lifestyle, and has a certain agelessness, mainly thanks to Jorge Rivero’s weightlifter physique.

Peter is plagued with nightmares of an otherworldly cult, and these nightmares are related to blackouts, where he murders people and remembers it later as a dream. It reminds me of the hypno-killer theme seen in many a Jess Franco film. Peter starts to look more and more disheveled as the body count increases.

When he starts to suspect there might be something wrong with himself, Peter visits and eventually checks into a psychiatric hospital under the care of Dr. Stone (Richard Conte). The film does tease with a loose insinuation that Dr. Stone might somehow be involved with what is happening to Peter. Some of the parts where Peter is in the hospital under observation seem wasted and uninteresting (except for when he’s sneaking out with one of the female doctors, played by Pilar Velázquez), where nothing about Peter’s dilemma seems to really be explored satisfactorily. He does mention to his doctors about the people in his dreams and alludes to a kind of “they made me do it” cult conspiracy. At least while he’s in the hospital, Peter’s friend Robert (Luis La Torre) throws a party (consisting of a lot of extra cast members, including Eva Vanicek), where a very PG attempt at an orgy takes place in his living room. (During the party, a lot of times, you’re just like, “I don’t know who these people are or what’s going on, but I kind of like it.”)

Evil Eye is a film that bleeds a little bit of the occult horror into the giallo but only to a degree to where it feels more like a mild accessory to the proceedings. It’s a minor novelty that could’ve gone a long way given how creepy the occult moments are, but it is too loosely/ambiguously integrated into the main plot. The occult parts are awesome and unnerving, but aside from the photo of Peter Crane used in a ritual, it is almost like they could’ve come from another movie or been easily transferred to another movie to simply be nightmares to antagonize another protagonist. (I really like Johan Melle of euro fever's noticing the vague implication that the delirious and tormented looking nude figures in Peter’s dreams are the souls of murdered victims who are channeling energy to get revenge from beyond through Peter, but like a lot of plot threads here, this is never really expanded on and ultimately discarded. Maybe this is what happens when too many ideas are pushed in to the story; the stronger ideas get watered down.)

One of my favorite parts that I recalled the most when I first watched it was when the movie decides to go on a haunted mansion interlude/side-quest, where Peter decides to go for a long drive, alone, after getting a menacing phone call from someone. His car breaks down in front of a spooky house that is occupied by non-other than Italian low-budget cult movie icon Luciano Pigozzi (it really feels like the movie is unknowingly paying fan-service here). It comes off like a mini-vengeful ghost story. This little segment could be expanded into its own movie. Daniela Giordano occupies the house too and is nearly unrecognizable with bobbed red hair. Of course, the occupants seem to know Peter well, but Peter doesn’t seem to know them. The lady of the house even fondly remembers she and Peter spending a night together. Does he just score so much that he can’t remember everyone, or is something else going on?  

The strange Elizabeth Stephens, who remembers having a passionate night with Peter despite his not remembering her, is played by Daniela Giordano.
For some reason, before I saw Evil Eye, I thought Anthonny Steffen would be in the leading role, but Steffen comes in later as the good-guy side character Inspector Ranieri, who's newly assigned to homicide. With Ranieri, the film takes opportunities to try and further explore the supernatural elements by having unexplained hauntings and visions visit the inspector that ultimately come off as ambiguous and insignificant. I don’t believe Ranieri ever even meets Peter in person. I did still enjoy the haunting incidents the inspector endures, particularly the grinning vanishing woman and the creepy sound effects when he temporarily loses his hearing. Ranieri has a little bit of a side story with his wife who paints an impressive portrait of him. She gives him a keychain-like charm of an eye, which you’d think was the evil eye of the title, but it is actually for his protection. (In Italian superstition, the 'evil eye' is considered a curse, and in order to protect oneself from the evil eye, a ‘horno’ charm pendent that resembles a southwestern chile is worn, so having an eye as a protective charm, as in the film, is kind of an interesting inversion of the legend.)

Spoilers: I’m convinced the writers were not sure how to end the movie, or unsure of which of the many alluded possibilities to use to explain Peter’s nightmares, the hauntings, and the murders, and so they took the easy way out with a throwaway ending that had me in disbelief. Jess Franco films of the same nature do at least give far-fetched explanations. But it is what it is, and I’ve come to accept the framing as a sort of ‘Peter in Gialloland’ take on the genre. There is a certain amount of elasticity to it, so that someone could probably develop their own interpretation. I believe it is also suggested that events will repeat themselves only a bit differently, as it is someone else calling Peter on the phone when he awakens. Perhaps by living his life as a dream first, he can do better the second time around. End Spoilers

One of Peter's more steady girlfriends Tanya is played by Maria Pia Giancaro, although she is often mistakenly thought to have been played by Daniela Giordano.

This doll really has nothing to do with anything aside from aiding in the movie's irresistible giallo aesthetic, and I am so here for it!
It also has to be mentioned that Stelvio Cipriani’s score, which ranges from eerie to romantic, does help give the movie a little more emotional substance and bite. 

To watch Evil Eye is to step outside of your life for an hour and a half and put your problems behind you temporarily and take in the beauty of the moment, savoring a period of sweet, relaxing intoxication. Everything the ‘70s cult horror fan could want is here: cult-conspiracy, mystery, murder, dream sequences, sex parties, mansion hauntings, etc. At times it seems empty, and at other times it seems like such a beautifully woven nightmare. There are a number of good directions that either don’t pan out or are discarded. Despite my ambivalent thoughts on it, I still have a lot of love for this film. It hits the sweet spot so many times while also being an unfortunate mess. Evil Eye isn’t very well written as a whole, yet it has so many well written parts, but unfortunately, in the end, it just doesn't end up amounting to much. 

© At the Mansion of Madness

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.

Friday, December 21, 2018

House of the Damned / La loba y la Paloma (1974)

House of the Damned is that generically titled, sort of misleading, pleasant delight that reminds me of why I still enjoy exploring near-forgotten Eurocult films from decades past with the word “House” in their titles. It’s far from the traditional haunted house horror and is more of a peculiar seaside murder drama that still hits a lot of the right notes for Spanish horror fans. The translation of the Spanish title is something like The She Wolf and the Dove, which I think is referring to Sandra and Maria (played by Carmen Sevilla and Muriel Catalá), the two main female characters who are also featured on the different regional title posters.
Which one of them is supposed to be the wolf and which one is the dove?

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

The Dunwich Horror (1970)

Before AIP’s The Dunwich Horror, a 1970 film adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s horror novella of the same name, not a whole lot had been done yet to try and bring Lovecraft to the screen. The Haunted Palace from 1963 is partially based on The Case of Charles Dexter Ward; Die, Monster, Die! from 1965 is a loose adaptation of The Color out of Space; The Shuttered Room from 1967 is an adaptation of August Derleth's story of the same name that was inspired by Lovecraft, and The Crimson Cult from 1969 only takes mild inspiration from Dreams in the Witch House. As far as I can tell, The Dunwich Horror is the first film to be a faithful attempt at a direct title adaptation of an HP Lovecraft story. Not surprisingly some liberties were taken with this film, such as updating it for the late '60s, early '70s, but that’s always to be expected. I do think the The Dunwich Horror movie, for its era, does do Lovecraft justice, even if it doesn’t quite live up to the novella.

It was filmed in Mendocino California, a small coastal community that kind of passes for a New England looking town. I don’t think there was any kind of ocean near Dunwich in the original story, but the seaside connection is suitably Lovecraftian and serves the film well, as it’s usually filmed at night to look dark and ominous with unseen horrors.

The stylish occult and satanic animated intro credits set to the classical and catchy main theme by Les Baxter is a great start that gets you into both a ‘70s and a Lovecraft mood. It has a cartoony and imaginative way of painting the ceremonial birth of the main character Wilbur Whateley on Sentinel Hill. Even the film's detractors agree that this animated segment is terrific.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Sex of the Devil / Il sesso del diavolo - Trittico (1971)

How could any Eurocult horror fan resist being attracted to a movie with a poster like this and a title like Sex of the Devil? Whether or not the movie delivers what it promises on the cover is another matter, but when beholding such an epic, suggestively satanic, occult, and erotic poster like this one (centering on what I thought looked a little like a possessed Mia farrow), a spectacular fantasy of a movie is birthed in the mind of the observer, one that is often very different from the movie in reality, for better or worse. I admit to initially being attracted and baited in to this film based solely on this poster. Sex of the Devil not surprisingly turned out to be something other than I had imagined, and if it weren’t for that advertisement I may have never found it. So basically, the movie poster did its job, and I slowly fell in love with another movie.

Despite not being what I expected and bearing the usual pacing and plot resolution issues, Sex of the Devil still delivered the goods, and, in the end, it ended up delivering what it promised on the poster as well.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

A Whisper in the Dark / Un sussurro nel buio (1976)

A Whisper in the Dark is a personal favorite of mine. It has been referred to as the Italian The Turn of the Screw (1898) and is a subtle take on the haunted family category of storytelling, focusing on a wealthy family living in a gorgeous and at times spooky villa that’s like a hotel resort (probably because it was filmed at a hotel, the five-star Hotel Villa Condulmer near Venice). It’s got that gothic horror aesthetic but downplays the horror in favor of exploring family dynamics with shades of the supernatural that are symbolic of unresolved family problems. The supernatural is always kept ambiguous; almost everything strange that happens can be explained, but the circumstances do leave a lot to the imagination. As is usually the case, the ambiguity is the film’s strength and its weakness.

The cinematography by Claudio Cirillo is really the main attraction, and with Marcello Aliprandi’s direction, the visuals, coupled with Pino Donaggio’s sweet and melancholic score, end up being the stuff of fairytales, comprising some of the most majestic locations and set pieces. The villa and its somber exterior and grounds, dating back to the sixteenth century, have a deep, haunting presence, a rich sense of past generations emanating from it. And the children’s ball is an enchanting segment, with costumes and constantly falling confetti, which concludes with a phantasmagoric night time burning of an effigy floating on the river. According to Cirillo the different weather conditions, such as the foggy atmosphere seen during the opening credits, were by chance. Listening to Cirillo vibrantly talk about his craft on the NoShame DVD interview, you can tell the man is an artist.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Daughter of Dracula / La fille de Dracula (1972)

Jess Franco filmed Daughter of Dracula back to back with the preceding film Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein (1972). These two films seem similar and for me were sometimes easy to confuse with one another, but after reviewing them both back to back, I realize they are quite different in many ways. Unlike the previous film, the eroticism is amped up this time around, particularly with the love/feeding scenes between Franco regulars of the era Anne Libert and Britt Nichols. It isn’t necessarily the monster mashup like the previous film since for monsters we just have Dracula, a femme vampire, and a mystery killer. Perhaps it’s more of a Eurocult genre mashup, as this one has a reputation for being confused as to whether it wants to be an erotic vampire horror film or a giallo-like murder mystery.

Daughter of Dracula doesn’t quite reach its potential, but it’s nonetheless a relaxing Gothic horror with a captivating modern ‘70s setting in an old-world location that provides the right ambiance us Eurocult fans can’t get enough of.

Howard Vernon reprises his role as his own odd, unique, near-lifeless version of Count Dracula from Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein. He’s even less active here, but Britt Nichols and Anne Libert get more to do this time around, even if Nichols’ vampire scenes may’ve soared a little more in the preceding movie.

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