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 candelabrum, 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 soon-to-be 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


  1. Such an odd gem! It has a very good cast but is surprisingly obscure. Luigi Pistilli was an amazing character actor, I hated his character so much in Your Vice (in a good way) while here, he's slightly more sympathetic. I agree that Ida Galli does tend to be underused in some of her films but she does have this ethereal quality about her that really works here as you mention. I did enjoy her as the bitchy sister-in-law in Seven Notes in Black!

    The gothic scenes were very well-done with the attention to lighting (especially during the scene where they walk down the stairs with their candelabras and the spotlights gradually dim, other gothic horrors tend to directly shine the spotlight at the actor causing the candles to cast a black shadow on their face). That dinner party definitely is a highlight, I believe the music in that scene borrows a little from Iron Butterfly's In a Gadda da Vida. According to Scavolini, this film was merely a work-for-hire which was originally going to be a conventional horror film but then he changed it up and added the dinner party and other strange moments.

    There were some concepts that felt a bit underdeveloped such as Paolo's possessiveness and other aspects of Mariale's past (we only know about the murder-suicide). Despite that, Spirits of Death is a very solid gothic giallo that doesn't stick to the usual cliches.

    On a side note, I really need to watch Fellini's Spirits of the Dead and I've also been meaning to watch a gothic giallo called The Bloodsucker Leads the Dance but I've heard VERY bad things about it.

    1. There are a couple other reviewers that felt the more unconventional, strange parts in the middle were unfortunate and that the movie would have fared better without them, but I honestly thought those were the best parts (the underground storm and the mad dinner party). Imagining the movie without its quirkiness, it wouldn’t quite stand out as much. It would still be somewhat good, but it wouldn’t be the odd gem it is.

      Pistilli was good at being a bad-guy character or an uncertain bad-guy character, like his role here as Paolo. Thinking about it, his more detestable characteristics in Your Vice were more or less separated out into a couple of the other characters, leaving him a little more likable and sympathetic.

      Yes, with Mariale there was a lot that seemed left out and possibly left to suggestion. So she had a past childhood trauma, but why keep her drugged and cooped up in an isolated castle? Also, I couldn’t tell if the castle was some sort of ancestral castle. It belonged to Paola, but it did have Mariale’s mother’s white dress and her portrait in the crypt, suggesting a family legacy at the castle.

      The Blood Sucker Leads the Dance has gotten some terribly negative reviews. I personally like it, but you have to go in expecting a cheap, sleazy gothic giallo. It’s also on the comical side, and I did once consider reviewing it a long time ago (I might still get back to that). Here’s a positive review from MMMMMovies from a while back that I left a comment on:

      Recalling Bloodsucker, Asylum Erotica, and Spirits of Death I’ve realized a common theme of interracial lesbianism. Not sure if that’s coincidental or not, but it’s obvious some of these films’ were intent on breaking a few old fashioned taboos.

      Haven’t seen Spirits of the Dead either; it sounds like an interesting anthology. It seems that Fellini’s segment is the most favored, but I also love Barbarella, and I see there’s a segment with Roger Vadim directing his wife, Jane Fonda, so that’s a little more incentive as well.

  2. I've had this on my shortlist for some time now and finally found it, and then you go and give me more of a reason to increase the urgency, lol. Love that poster, and can't wait to watch this one now. Excellent write-up.

    1. Thanks Jonny! Definitely check it out, and if you can get a hold of it, the version that was released by Camera Obscura is supposed to be far superior, being longer and much better looking than the bootleg that's floating about online, which I'm sad to say is the version I watched and reviewed (still loved it). Unfortunately the C.O. DVD sold out fast and has been out of print, but C.O. has announced definite plans of releasing it on Blu-ray, and the early screen grabs to that are amazing. I thought about using them for this review, but I felt dishonest.

  3. I do tend to always enjoy the whole "Strange people invited to a strange old house" genre of film. And from this review, I am really interested in this one. Good stuff.

    1. Hi Rob. Me too! It seems like there are so many of these made, but because I can't seem to get enough, I'm hesitant to say that the genre's been done to death. Hope you like Shadows of Death if you do see it.