Thursday, March 21, 2013

A Bell from Hell (1973)

Grey, colorless, and at times very Gothic looking, this Spanish thriller, A Bell from Hell, from director Claudio Guerin Hill has an oppressive, gloomy undertone in its look and feel that, along with the story, feels like a melancholic reminder of a golden past: ruined, overtaken, and killed by treachery and hypocrisy.

After being involuntarily committed to a mental clinic for three years, John (Renaud Verley) is released on probation and given a summons for his case coming up in two months. At the start of his probation, he moves into his deceased mother’s dusty old house, finds a brief job at a cattle slaughtering house, and visits with his aunt, Marta (Viveca Lindfors) and her three lovely daughters. Himself unsure if he’s insane, John alludes to suspicions that his aunt paid a great deal of money to have him committed in order for her to keep his inheritance. Amidst a rather carefree lifestyle and a penchant for practical jokes, some of John’s activities strongly suggest he’s planning something horrible as payback for what his relatives supposedly did to him.

This is indeed a pleasing Spanish thriller. Though it adheres to the commonly used plot devices of vengeance and family inheritance, the story is still well written and kept interesting thanks to the quirky dynamics of the young, mischievous, and darkly humorous protagonist, John. Whether or not viewers end up liking him, John is still an entertaining, multidimensional character, a man-child that’s part hero and part villain. 


"We were all free then; the past didn't exist, and the future wasn't a threat." -- John / Renaud Verley

Viewers may have an uncertainty towards John thanks to the ambivalence he has for his aunt, cousins, and what I’ve assumed to be his past girlfriend, now married to a much older man (Alfredo Mayo), from before he was put in the sanatorium. It’s made obvious that John really is planning an elaborate scheme to do harm to his family; his intentions are made terrifyingly clear after quitting his brief stint working at a slaughter house when he says “I’ve learned enough.” However, two of his three cousins seem to have the utmost respect and admiration for him, which, along with a certain heroic deed, makes it hard to believe he’ll go through with it. The buildup to the vengeful climax takes some time, but I thought the story played out in a fairly unpredictable manner, as the cards of fate were passed around to different hands, with an almost giallo-like ending.




Of interest to me going in was that the film starred Christina von Blanc, the actress in the lead role to one of Jess Franco’s best films, and the subject of a very early but still popular article on this blog, A Virgin among the Living Dead. Though she is in a supporting role here as one of the cousins, Maria, she doesn’t seem underutilized, and she fits nicely in the trio of beautiful cousins who also consist of Teresa (Nuria Gimenol) and Esther (Maribel Martin of The Blood Spattered Bride), whom are always at the beck and call of their mother, Marta. The actress playing Marta, Lindfors, feels like a perfect choice, playing an old fashioned European woman in a wheelchair with a strict and sometimes cold demeanor. Creepshow fans should recognize Lindfors from her role as Bedelia in the Father’s Day (“Where’s my cake?!”) segment.




A clever scene involving one of several pranks that kind of had me fooled and intrigued is a bewitchingly filmed segment that involves the three daughters coming home after a fishing trip in the heavy fog. Things get a little sexier when these three sisters are introduced, but it is also a little awkward since there’s this odd sexual attraction going on between John and his cousins.

A tramp, referred to as the bearded beggar, who I believe lives on the outskirts of town with his daughter, is an unusual and confusing character to place. But he and his daughter are an inclusion to help guide things into an unexpected direction. The part with the beggar’s daughter running into a group of hunters seems a little questionable as to its relevance to the central plot, at first, but it does have a connection, even if it is farfetched, to the finale, and it pours a little unexpected admiration on John since he arrives on a motorcycle, out of nowhere, to save the young girl from being raped by this group of hunters. John ends up being a hero in this regard, and he later follows this up with a weird humiliation prank on one of the hunters (fooling him into thinking he is injured, John has the man hold his member to help him urinate). It’s the start of a battle between the two of who’ll have the last laugh.





Doing things his way, with a sense of liberated freedom, John also doesn’t do well at proving his sanity, since he remodels his mother’s old house to look like a zoo, filling it with numerous animals and doing exactly what his aunt fears: squander away his mother's money. It’s obviously an attempt to antagonize her. When John invites his aunt and cousins to his newly decked out home, he screens some old family footage consisting of him and his cousins during childhood. The past and present collide as things get hairy while the family movies keep playing.




The film is a bit quiet in the way of music, save for an odd theme John plays on his organ as well as the French nursery melody Frère Jacques, sung by a children’s choir. Along with the town's new church bell frequently brought into the frame, Frère Jacques is used with a haunting significance and foreboding – “ding, daing, dong” – to the fateful direction of the story and ironically the fate of the director of the film, who died on the last day of filming this masterpiece by falling to his death from the tower housing the bell from hell. All I can say is that Claudio Guerin Hill proved to be a very skilled and competent filmmaker with this one.




I actually had to watch A Bell from Hell three times before I fully, or at least think I fully, understood it. And let me tell you, it got better each time, a characteristic I regard to truly be an indication of a great movie, considering that it was enjoyable on the first watch, as well. The disturbing slaughter house scene is horrifying, and, from what I could tell, real in its depiction of slaughtered cattle. Of course I don’t approve of the inclusion of this grim reminder of where our meat comes from, but it makes John’s possible intentions that much more gruesome. Though I could understand his contempt for his aunt, I couldn’t quite figure out what John had against the two cousins, Esther and Maria, who seemed to like and admire him, and why they got dragged into his labyrinthine setup for vengeance. I suppose we are supposed to chalk that up to his insanity, ambivalence, and, as his doctors said, irresponsibility. 




11 comments:

  1. I definitely liked this movie on a first watch, but I'm glad to hear it gets more clear with each additional viewing. Cause I didn't get it. Interesting film though without a doubt.

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    1. Yeah, certain things that felt random the first time around made more sense when re-watching it for the review. I was so confused about the plaster mask John was making at the beginning, and it didn’t hit me until the third time around just what that was for. I honestly thought mask making was just what he did to pass the time in the asylum.

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  2. I have this on a fifty movie set, but I'm not sure I want to watch it that way. The stills look far too sumptuous to think a public domain copy will do the film justice.

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    1. I would advise against watching the version from the bargain set. The poor audio on that has ruined this film for so many; I’ve heard it myself from the version that is currently on YouTube. It really sounds dreadful, like all of the sound is in another room. The DVD from Pathfinder, where I got the images from, looks and sounds great.

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  3. Nice review. I've been wanting to pick this up for awhile and this nudged me into ordering it. Thanks - looking forward to watching it.

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    1. Cool! Thanks for letting me know. I'm glad you're going to check it out. It's nice to know I've made a difference, hopefully a positive one.

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  4. I know that this DVD version is missing almost three minutes of crucial dialouge concerning the aunt's motives. I think the only version that contains this scene is the old British VHS. If you look into it, I believe AV Maniacs Forum details the missing plot point.

    Great review! Great film!

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    1. Welcome, Missy! Many thanks for your complement :) I had no idea about the missing dialogue concerning Aunt Marta. You were right about AV maniacs. I believe I found the thread you were referring to: http://www.avmaniacs.com/forums/showthread.php?t=14075&page=1

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  5. None of these comments mention something fundamental to this film that was made while Franco was still alive and Spanish cinema was subject to censorship and therefore had to criticise the especially cruel dictatorship with the use of symbolism and allegory: the man who hangs him (garroting was still a form of execution, and Franco personally signed thousands of death warrants) represents the fascists, and the 'innocent' cousins represent the complicity of the Spanish people who did not fight fascism during the Civil War or the forty years of repression that followed."We were all free then; the past didn't exist, and the future wasn't a threat." That remark refers to the almost utopian state of much of Spain before the fascist coup that provoked the Civil War. Shot in the bleak (sometimes as cold as England!) but beautiful landscape of Galicia, this is a very Spanish film representing the dark and bloody history of Spain in the 20th century. It's also a really nifty horror film!

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    1. I did notice the allegory you mention, and I alluded to it in the first paragraph and that was about as far as I decided to go, because I feel that whenever I identify allegory I do it rather clumsily. But your description is fantastic! Thanks for the awesome comment! You've really clarified the roles of the cousins, which did have me perplexed, but what you've mentioned does make a lot of sense.

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  6. Dear
    I get in touch with you to inform them of the release in the Screenwriting book damn film par excellence of the Spanish Cinema: "THE BELL FROM HELL", script ofSantiago Moncada, directed by Claudio Guerín published in Spanish by Neys Books editions. www.neysbooks.com

    Synopsis: overview
    The bell from hell" is one of European horror films that more importance has reached since its release in 1973. The death of its director, Claudio Guerín, in unexplained circumstances the last day of shooting, that took place from the protagonist of the film scenario, the belfry, added a halo of editing which, however, does not diminish achievements to the excellent script for Santiago Moncada or the splendid film that Guerín.
    Thank you
    neysbooksediciones@gmail.com

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