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.

It was directed by Oscar Brazzi, the younger brother of internationally famed actor Rossano Brazzi, who plays Andrea the surgeon in Sex of the Devil. Oscar produced the superb Italian/Argentinian thriller Psychout for Murder (1969), which brother Rossano starred in, directed, and co-wrote with Renato Polselli.

The filmmakers really embraced the location, nicely integrating Turkish culture into Sex of the Devil. The foreign cast and crew spent four weeks in Istanbul, Turkey to make the film. When the film was in production, it was referred to by the working title of “Istanbul Adventure” by the Turkish press.

Filming on the Bosporus at a waterfront house, in the Kanlica neighborhood I believe, really sets it apart. It’s one of the more underused locations, making for a more unique haunted house experience that does provide a pretty unique flavor to most of the ‘70s European horror mainstays fans keep coming back for. I personally enjoyed the idyllic waterfront house setting that the movie benefits from at times. It matches a kind of dreamhouse idea of mine by having an up-close view of the sea directly from the living room, with boats passing by.

I ended up liking all of the characters for various reasons, but, unfortunately, this one is pretty flawed when it comes to the delivery of its story, consisting of a convoluted mystery plot that seems underdeveloped and a little confusing. It teases and fiddles with a number of horror-ish plot threads and seems to provide little in the way of resolution. It unloads a lot of ideas that don’t really come together that well, even though the movie does try.

Story problems aside there are some terrific moments and segments that make Sex of the Devil a great experience, and for something that seems to have little story, the film is layered with a lot of themes exploring impotence, alcoholism, infidelity, art, esotericism, culture, (day)dreams, possession, death-and-rebirth, astrology, and more. A lot of cool, strange stuff happens, but a lot of questions are left unanswered, as storyline payoff in the end is either absent here or hard to notice.

Sex of the Devil can be cherished to an extent on its soundtrack alone, which is comprised of a lot of great themes by Stelvio Cipriani.

Immediately we hear what sounds like Cipriani’s modification of Iron Butterfly’s In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, but Cipriani has really spruced it up with an extra musical layer and a melodic variation that gives it a Cipriani signature and a whole new identity of its own, so much so that I hesitate to call it a shameless rip-off.

The whole ordeal is pretty much a leisurely vacation, for both the characters and the viewers. A surgeon, Andrea, and his wife, Barbara (Maitena Galli (her debut role)), are on holiday with Andrea’s assistant, Sylvia (Sylva Koscina), and a friend Omar (Fikret Hakan) at a lovely house on the Bosporus. Andrea is not able to function anymore, professionally with his job as a surgeon and intimately with his wife. 

Adding the possibility that they may be there by design rather than coincidence, one of them, Omar, is surprised to vaguely remember being there fifteen years prior, after seeing the artwork of a previous occupant, an enigmatic French artist named Claudine (Paola Natale). He knew Claudine, whose arcane, sensual artwork still haunts the place. Claudine hung herself at the same house. The dutiful maid, Fatima (Güzin Özipek), who seems to come with the house, knows magic and has some kind of possibly maleficent but vague agenda that is conveniently put forward with esoteric zodiac symbolism and ritual (as I said in a previous review ambiguity is a strength and a weakness).

On the mansion grounds, there’s a sculpture with three faces, the title triptych that the movie tries to vaguely tie the events to. One of the faces I believe is Claudine, the other two her past lovers. The face on the left becomes disfigured by an unknown assailant. Andrea wants to stay at the house to figure out who the identity of the third face was, despite warnings from Omar who is smart enough to leave.

When Fatima hypnotizes her, Sylvia starts to wear Claudine’s old pink ceremonial robe (a real lovely kaftan) and begins to seemingly take on the identity of the former owner of the house, who like Sylvia was also a Scorpio. Fatima is seemingly hexing people with tea and the power of her zodiac tea cup tray. Someone, a pretty flimsy assassin (Brizio Montinaro), tries to murder Andrea multiple times. I don’t believe we ever know for certain what for (perhaps Fatima needs a sacrifice). Before he leaves the film, Omar explains that there is a terrible secret in the villa, a secret that is connected to the triptych.

I did like the way Claudine’s presence is still felt through her art, which gives her a kind of astral connection to the house even after death. A little girl, Emine (who always seems blissfully spaced out, smiling and staring out into space) comes by often at night to visit the marble lady sculpture (a self-statue of Claudine) outside of the mansion, who she refers to as “the lady who isn’t there anymore.” The statue seems to emit an energy that the girl is drawn to. The girl’s attraction to the statue of a dead woman is strange since Claudine died fifteen years ago, which suggests a spiritual/ghostly connection rather than one made between them when Claudine was alive, seeing as Emine wouldn’t have been born yet.

The art collector, Mr. Oblomoff (Aydin Tezel), is a kind of wild card. He reminds me so much of Eduardo Fajardo’s character from Lisa and the Devil (1973). Oblomoff is frequently seen following Barbara and Sylvia around the city. Since he’s in plain sight and they never see him, he comes off more like a ghost who’s haunting them. These moments are quite peculiar.

Oblomoff is pretty yearnful over Claudine, hoarding her artwork in his own waterside house, brooding over her. It’s hard to believe he hasn’t moved-on after fifteen years, but that might have something to do with the magic he and Claudine shared. With regards to the evil, magical triptych sculpture with the three faces, I think it becomes obvious that one of the faces is supposed to be Oblomoff with the other two being the faces of Claudine and Fatima in what was likely a three-way love triangle that probably didn’t end well.

Brazzi seems to enjoy filming Sylvia and Barbara tour and explore the city, with Sylvia being inspired to photograph Barbara modeling around historic looking architectures, while the viewers lounge to Cipriani’s score as creepy Oblomoff follows them around, maintaining a feeling of leisure and mystery. 

There’s a lot of smooth subtleties to notice on a re-watch for the more attentive and invested viewers. On a repeat view, I noticed at the beginning that the movie subtly reveals to us that Andrea has trouble having sex with his wife, by having her approach him in bed, dropping her clothes, and revealing her nude silhouette. We believe they are about to make love, but then she descends into bed, and the camera lowers revealing that they are in separate beds. Nice touch, movie.

When he does try to have sex with her, it is usually on his terms. During these moments, he seems to be ready, but once she starts to reciprocate and show interest towards his advances, he suddenly loses his libido, and her response is to pitifully laugh at him. It doesn’t help that he also seems to have an attraction to Sylvia. His impotence may be related to potential insecurities about his age and his younger wife talking to other younger men (it could also be all that smoking and drinking he does). He doesn’t seem to jive with her generation’s sense of fashion. It also seems to bother him deep down that his wife does nude modelling.

Late in the movie, after pulling an all-nighter in a nightclub, Andrea has an abrupt hallucinatory dream-like episode during the day that was more of a personal payoff for me. It’s that kind of moment when the movie starts to seem like it’s falling off its rocker and starts to disorient and weird us out, which usually has people wondering what they are watching all of a sudden, but I personally love these kind of left field surprises. It’s mostly about his attraction to Sylvia and a soft-focus fantasy love scene on the beach. Sylvia is a muse-like focus to his hallucinations, an angel-like apparition (Koscina is phenomenal during these moments). He’s drawn to her (could she really be Claudine’s spirit?). In his fantasy, she beckons rather than rebuffs, leaving him with a lot of running to do to catch up with her. The idealized dream sex does not last, as she abruptly begins to hauntingly laugh at him (like his wife does), reminding him of his impotence. I’m not going to try and guess what point the filmmakers are trying to make here, but it is still such a fantastically shot highlight of the film.

Another one of my favorite parts is when Andrea is playing chess with Fatima. It has to be one of the most rock ‘n’ roll chess games I’ve ever seen. The camera floats around the players along to the hard rock Cipriani track that just makes this scene badass. I loved seeing Andrea getting pummeled by the (secret occultist) maid every time. She can navigate the stars from her tea tray, so it makes since she would have the kind of needed foresight to win at chess every time.

Sex of the Devil is a flawed movie that despite its problems I got pretty attached to. It’s convoluted but also so deeply layered, making for a rich re-watch experience, something I enjoyed studying and taking in. It all sort of comes together, just not satisfactorily, as ambiguity and confusion seem to be the final word, but maybe we are not supposed to know all of the answers. It does still deliver the macabre and occult goods up until the end. 

I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it, but I couldn’t resist the urge to write about it, which might say something about the film’s ability to stick with you and become an unusual obsession. 

© At the Mansion of Madness

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 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.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein / Dracula contra Frankenstein (1972)

Jess Franco had already covered Dracula by directing a movie adaption of Bram Stoker’s seminal Gothic horror vampire novel from 1897 a couple years prior. So, what does Jess do next when returning to make another Gothic Count Dracula movie?... Take the Universal route and throw Dracula in with other classic monster figures, like Frankenstein and The Wolfman, to have a go at it and see who would win in a fight.

With Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein, the familiar monster mashup style gets the Jess Franco treatment, which is essentially Classic Universal horror in color with Franco’s flavor of visual and hypnotic storytelling, yet for a Jess Franco film, the eroticism is quite tame, with no nudity to be found. It adapts certain elements from Bram Stoker’s Dracula for the Dracula angle, but the Frankenstein angle borrows more from Franco’s own The Awful Dr. Orlof (1962) and less from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Curiously, the opening text, credited to David H Klunne (a Franco pseudonym), is pretty much a poetic and short synopsis of the film, rather than some sort of backstory setup to get viewers up to date, like an opening Star Wars crawl. That’s OK, because there isn’t really a whole lot to spoil, since the experience of the film, in this case, is a little more important than the story, which I think isn’t necessarily hard to follow, but it doesn’t really sink in either since there is a lot of visual depth, atmosphere, and cool ideas in what is a slow and thin plot.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

School of Fear / Il gioko (1989)

‘80s Italian horror TV movies aren’t always the most memorable and have a tendency to be a little underwhelming in comparison to the classic gialli and Eurohorror films from the ‘60s and ‘70s golden era. By the late ‘80s, we were at, or were even beyond, the tail end of the horror boom, with many Italian directors making movies more for television. Lamberto Bava directed a lot of TV movies throughout his career. His ‘80s horror TV movies paid a lot of homage to the classic gialli and horror films that sculpted the genre like The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), Inferno (1980), House by the Cemetery (1981), his father’s Black Sunday (1960), and even his own Demons (1985). A lot of times his TV films could be a little mediocre and almost feel like near-pointless rehashes, like Demons 3: The Ogre (1988), but Lamberto Bava also had a tendency to catch you by surprise with TV movies like Demons 5: The Devil’s Veil (1989), the hilarious and ‘80s satirical Dinner with a Vampire (1989), and the (previously) hard-to-find School of Fear.

Aside from being an interesting take on the evil kid trope, School of Fear / Il gioko does present a lot to chew on, and like Demons 5: The Devil’s Veil and Macabre (1980) is a little more of what I prefer from director Lamberto Bava. Don’t get me wrong, Demons and A Blade in the Dark (1983) are awesome too, but I honestly lamented for a time that we never really got something as twisted, different, and well-made as Macabre. It’s still no Macabre, but School of Fear feels a little more in the right direction towards something twisted and different.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Count Dracula's Great Love / El gran amor del Conde Dracula (1973)

Paul Naschy had a lot of success in a wide range of film genres, playing an even wider range of characters, but he is mostly remembered for his brand of gritty and beautiful Spanish gothic horror films. These movies had their low budget and pacing issues, but there was still something so attractive about them, with a reverence for the classic monsters, most especially the wolfman, and the inclusion of plenty of female vampires and femme fatales in general. Plus, with his charisma and sincerity to the material, it’s always a joy just seeing Naschy; whenever he makes an entrance in these movies, he causes viewers’ eyes to light up like they’re seeing a dear old friend. For me, it was always interesting to see what a zombie movie, or a mummy movie, or a cannibal movie, or even a giallo would be like after getting the Paul Naschy treatment.

It was my tendency to read other people’s takes on Paul Naschy movies, be they positive or negative, that inspired me to eventually take up the quill to see if I’d have anything interesting to contribute as a genre film blogger.

With Count Dracula’s Great Love, a costume horror drama with a satiable amount of violence and eroticism that according to Naschy in his memoirs was a critic and box office success, we have one of my favorite classic monsters done by one of my favorite filmmakers. It was directed by Javier Aguirre (Hunchback of the Morgue) but was written by Paul Naschy who also stars as Dr. Wendell Marlow and (forgive the spoiler) Count Dracula. I believe it is also the first in a short but notable line of horror films with Naschy and actor Victor Barrera (sometimes credited as Vic Winner or Victor Alcazar); the other three Naschy movies with Barrera are Hunchback of the Morgue (1973), Horror Rises from the Tomb (1973), and Vengeance of the Zombies (1973).

Monday, November 13, 2017

Lips of Blood / Lèvres de sang (1975)

With his first four full length films, between 1968 to 1971, Jean Rollin forged his own brand of erotic and poetic vampirism. The one of a kind auteur painted over the ‘in vogue’ gothic horror tropes, changed up the rules, and gave his vampires reign over dark and melancholic vistas far removed from the familiar world. The experience ends up being fantastically vampiric while also seeming at odds with the classic notion of a vampire movie.
Rollin would shed his brand of tragic vampire lore for a time to experiment with new dark takes on death (The Iron Rose (1973)), adventure, and revenge (The Demoniacs (1974)). To compensate for box office failures, and in order to have steady work between more personal projects, Rollin also directed several porn films under a different name (Michel Gentil).

In 1975, Rollin returned to vampires with the exceptional Lips of Blood, which also ended up being a commercial failure, and so to try and bring in money, Lips of Blood was reformatted with new hardcore pornographic inserts and transformed into the more exploitative movie Suce moi vampire (1976). For me, the existence of Suce moi vampire undermines the significance and spirit of Lips of Blood, and, kind of similar to my feelings on House of Exorcism (1975) (the reworking of Bava’s masterpiece Lisa and the Devil (1973)), I don’t have much interest in seeking it out.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Terror Creatures from the Grave / 5 tombe per un medium (1965)

The onset of the Halloween season this year has really put me on a black-and-white horror kick for some reason. I’m looking forward to checking out some classics I haven’t seen yet, such as City of the Dead (1960) and Eyes Without a Face (1960), and revisiting some favorites like Carnival of Souls (1962) and Night of the Living Dead (1968).

I used to approach black-and-white movies apprehensively, thinking that they would likely be a boring chore to sit through. I missed out on discovering a lot of classics when I was younger with this mindset, a mindset that surprises me considering that I had always been able to enjoy black-and-white TV-shows as a kid like Lassie and The Three Stooges, which happened to give me the false perception that the world must’ve been in black-and-white back then. I had always preferred color, but nowadays I really have no preference. There’s something both oppressive and romantic about black-and-white cinematography, a separate experience with its own charm that I don’t think is inferior to color cinematography. What finally gave me a taste for black-and-white film and caused me to not see it as a diminished experience due to technological limitation was Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (1960), which also turned my interest to the black-and-white Italian horrors of the ‘60s that I probably would’ve had no interest in otherwise.
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