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 an Agatha Christie 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 Gadé's 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





7 comments:

  1. Great write up. Added to my list of movies to watch!

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  2. Excellent review sir! Have only seen this full frame via a Mill Creek pack and look forward to seeing a widescreen print in the non too distant. And nice to hear some love for Ida Galli/Evelyn Stewart. She's always a reassuring presence in these films (even when she seems suspicious, which is, as you imply, a lot of the time) and one of my favourite giallo actresses. Must check out Queens of Evil. A friend of mine is a big fan of that one and now I know she's in it I doubly must see it.

    Keep up the great work :)

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    1. Thanks, Simon! The widescreen version wasn’t the best quality, but it could’ve been worse. A movie like Maniac Mansion, with its intense visuals, should always be viewed in widescreen, although I’m not too terribly picky, as I do find a different kind of enjoyment watching a low quality, cropped, full screen version of a rare movie. It just makes the definitive experience seem that much more like forbidden fruit. Bah, what am I saying? Proper restorations are what it’s all about, and I’m grateful that so many rare cult films are constantly reaching new audiences in delightful pristine forms.

      Ida Galli had originally caught my attention, briefly, in several films where she seemed underused, which was really just a waste of her screen presence. I’m glad she does have a chance to shine in this and in the aforementioned films. Queens of Evil is top notch fantasy horror with a poignant social message to it. I’ve been meaning to re-watch it, since I originally saw it in full screen, but a widescreen transfer isn’t that hard to find online.

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    2. I know what you're saying sir, there is something to be said for watching an old beat up VHS or bootleg sometimes... it sort of adds to "the vibe" (a termed coined by my good friends at Hello! This is the Doomed Show). But yes, ultimately we all want to see these hidden gems looking the best they possibly can and in their proper aspect ratio etc. I hope someone gives this the hi-def treatment one day, presuming the materials are available.

      Agreed that Galli is often underused and look forward to checking out Queens of Evil. Looking through her screen credits I just spotted that she's in The Whip and the Body, which I'd either never noticed or forgotten. Possibly having a Bava minithon this Sunday (to premiere the new-ish Girl Who Knew Too Much Blu Ray) and that's one I'm tempted to re-watch incidentally.

      I'm trying to recall films I've seen where she gets plenty of screen time... I think Spirits of Death might qualify there but it's a while since I've seen it. Like other films she appeared in such as The Sweet Body of Deborah and The Weekend Murders, it's an ensemble affair so I guess everyone is kind of competing for screen time by default.

      At any rate, it's always good to see her. Even in bit parts like in The Psychic or Footprints, she makes the most of her limited time onscreen.

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  3. What always gets on my nerves about the hard-core inserts in the complete uncut version of "They Call Her One Eye" AKA "Thriller: A Cruel Picture" (1973), (starring the truly stunning Christina Lindberg), is that although you can clearly see the dick thrusting in and out of the birds bum and then the chopper spunking all over the birds arse when it pulls out the film-makers unfortunately committed the cardinal sin of NOT filming it in POV there-by allowing the hideous and horrifying blokes arse to come into shot which always spoils my wank whenever i try to jerk-off to that movie, its a real shame because Christina Lindberg was such an incredibly hot babe in 1973 when the bird was 21 or 22, why oh why couldn`t those silly bastards have filmed it in POV instead then it would`ve been one of THE greatest masturbation-aids of all-time.

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  4. I have this on a dvd with 8 other horror films but the picture quality is awful!..we need a blu-ray!.

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