Wednesday, May 8, 2024

Shadow of Illusion / Ombre roventi (1970)

“I understand those who want to live against this century, but I fear those who believe they can live outside of it.”Emmanuelle ArsanMon Emmanuelle, leur pape et mon Eros  

Cults erect out of myth. Myth gives rise to cults. Their members become so enamored in myth that they become grossly detached from reality. Yet, they’ll maintain a strong conviction and belief that they are the ones who are really in tune with reality, above all others. And when this happens, people get hurt.

For fans of ‘60s/70s Italian thrillers, it’s the prospect of a deadly hippie cult that gives a film like Shadow of Illusion its primary appeal to genre explorers, and while that promising aspect might bring us here, we end up finding even more to like about it. One of the film’s strong points is that it does integrate Egyptian mythology, particularly The Osiris Myth, into its plot rather nicely, even to the point of provoking further viewer interest.  

Shadow of Illusion is directed by Mario Caiano (Nightmare Castle (1965) and Eye in the Labyrinth (1972)) and is quite the excavation for the Eurocult archeologist. It is indeed an enjoyable but unusual watch that kind of feels at home alongside other paranoid Italian occult thrillers like All the Colors of the Dark (1972), The Cat in Heat (1972), or even The Perfume of the Lady in Black (1974).


It is a delight to follow Daniela Giordano, dubbed by the great and familiar voice of Carolyn De Fonseca, on her vacation/business-trip to Egypt that does take romantic and dark turns. Giordano plays fashion model Gail Bland, who’s been summoned to Cairo to model, in an all-expenses paid trip by an enigmatic and unreachable company called Isis Cosmetics, on account of her apparent resemblance to the Egyptian Goddess Isis. Her colleague mentions it was her fiery red hair that seduced the designer, who she’s never even met. 

Gail’s plane ride to Egypt makes up the bulk of the intro credits. It’s set to a grooving theme by Carlo Savina that is appropriate for the era but sounds more like the film is setting up a witty ‘60s Eurospy travelogue rather than a dark descent into a cult of Egyptian god worshipers. I’m not complaining, though, because these kind of dated ‘70s flavored plane rides are fun and addicting and remind me a little of Emmanuelle.


When Gail arrives at the airport in Cairo, Isis Cosmetics continues to elude her. Her taxi takes her on a strange route through the hustle and bustle of the cultural focal point of the bazaar. Shit gets rowdy, in the middle of the crowded streets, when a merchant cart gets knocked over, and during the ensuing chaos, folks, including joyful looking hippies, break out into a vibrant and possessed kind of dancing (it’s interesting to see that the youth hippie counterculture was very strong in this part of Cairo). Gail is accosted by pushy merchants and mysterious individuals through the open window in the back of her taxi, including (a first look at) the sorceress Naomi (Carol Lobravico) and a stranger who insists she takes a holder of cigarettes, which she confusedly accepts. This is one of two visits to the bazaar where shit always seems to go down.


Later that night, at her hotel, Gail wastes no time in hitting the obligatory nightclub scene where the lead doesn’t disappoint by ordering a scotch and lighting a cigarette before her ring (her inherited ring of Isis) manages to attract her mysterious love interest Caleb (William Berger). Caleb claims to be a man whose primary interest in life is pleasure, although I get more mysticism vibes from him than libertinism. He’s kindly on hand to accompany Gail around the more mysterious and dangerous parts of the town as they try to get to the bottom of Isis Cosmetics. Even though Caleb smoothly lights her cigarette for her like a gentleman, he still passively reprimands her for smoking, by stating, “I don’t need those things to help me spread my wings.” To this, Gail proudly declares, “excuse me, I want to dance,” as she takes herself and her cigarette to the dance floor while Caleb sits this one out, eventually disappearing on her, as he tends to do.


Daniela Giordano fortunately can be counted on to get down like the best of them during the movie’s dance floor scene, where she meets the strange siblings and their entourage for the first time (even though they’ve been watching her). The outwardly friendly but enigmatic, and probably bad news, brother and sister, who just so happen to go by Seth (the late Antonio Cantafora) and Sekhmet (Krista Nell), know who Gail is, but she has no idea who they are. Their friendliness is suitably uncomfortable. At least for me. I'm not sure if Gail quite senses it yet.


Maybe it was one of those sketchy cigarettes, but a fanciful trip filled with ‘70s arthouse visions awaits her, in what is likely the most memorable sequence of the film. Gail has a delirious dream that seems to have evolved from the influence of the nightclub from earlier that night. The dream includes many menacing and strange disembodied faces (sometimes involving a trippy scanning freeze frame effect) from a few characters that have intrigued her up to this point. She also dreams of an erotic encounter with the one who calls herself Sekhmet (Krista Nell). In the dream, Sekhmet gives an all-welcoming seductive expression towards Gail, whose face flits from blank confusion to repulsion (or is it lust?) at Sekhmet’s embrace. Does Gail usually desire other women, or is this the first time she’s dreamed of being with another woman? It isn’t made clear, but I like to think she’s drawn to the allure of the cult and the kind of hypnotic hold they are starting to hold over her. Even in shoddy pan and scan, this part is still intriguing and beautiful and probably the best-looking part of the film.


The next day, after failing to learn more about Isis Cosmetics, Caleb convinces Gail to enjoy the rest of her time in Egypt, a great opportunity for him to show her around and impress her. The two obviously seem to have an awkward chemistry, but that works to the movie’s advantage here since he is supposed to be a strange enigma who may or may not be an incarnation of Osiris, drawn to Gail’s ring and red hair, causing him to recall the “mistress of his soul.” (Why is it that the lord of the underworld during this era of gothic fiction seems to be such an intriguing and harrowing love interest to the heroine?) He has a protective warmness towards her, but of course he is also suspicious and tends to disappear when the movie wants him to so that Gail can have moments where she is temporarily alone and vulnerable. He also has the tendency to show up at the right time to give Gail a sense of relief, as Caleb seems to be the only one that she can trust, but even this is uncertain.


Their love story is accompanied by a nice legend, based on The Osiris Myth, giving it a bit more meaning and context. He beguiles her with the legend of Osiris and Isis in a museum among Egyptian artifacts, reminding her of her resemblance to Isis. If they really are incarnations of Osiris and Isis, then I’m guessing any future child they have will also be a kind of incarnation of Horus. 

After having her arm twisted by a rando on the street, Gail manages to find herself back at the bazaar, where the hippie cult again eventually causes trouble and chaos to break out, a likely excuse for Seth and Sekhmet to “rescue” her and tell her about their cult of worship, at the temple of Osiris.


They convince her to come to their altar of worship, despite all that’s been happening, by sending her a gift of assorted chocolates, a pleasurable solution to all hazardous prospects it seems. It’s not like they’ll try to sacrifice her to their ancient god or anything like that. 

The set for the temple of Osiris is the grand spectacle for most of the climactic action, not to mention depictions of drug use and veil belly dancing. It really captures the spirit of the era and melds it with Egyptian motifs. It’s actually pretty awesome. To prove to Gail that Osiris sits under the temple, Seth throws a boulder onto the ground that results in flames bursting forth from the impact.


The cult is kind of all over the place, coming off as peace-loving one moment and dangerous the next. They’ll go from a tender moment of music, singing, peace, pleasure, and love, before they go on to torture and rape a couple of individuals who they catch spying on them. 

I would’ve liked to know more about the strange sorceress Naomi (played by Carol Lobravico), but perhaps the mystery behind her is what makes her so memorable. I found her quite an intriguing addition to the cast of characters, but I was saddened to learn of the actress’s tragic death shortly after being in this film.


Shadow of Illusion builds to a rather expected culmination with no shocks or twists, but I did like the idea of fooling the cult at the climax of their psychosis. A good mystery movie doesn’t always have to have a big twist. Some of it is kept ambiguous like the images of Caleb disappearing and later reappearing in the vacation photos of him and Gail by the Sphinx. Despite being a kind of ethereal figure himself, I did like the way Caleb would dispel myth at times for Gail through rational explanation, such as explaining that the natural pockets of gas beneath the temple cause the flames to burst forth and not the actual presence of an ancient god.


Shadow of Illusion’s Egyptian setting is put to good use and in a sense becomes a novelty to kind of distract from the fact that we’ve sort of seen a lot of this before, especially if you’ve seen enough of these films. 

Despite the beauty of the setting, the ordeal is especially nightmarish for the lead. A couple slightly extended scenes of Gail in a panicked flight (running through the woods or through the city) hold a certain aesthetic appeal. 

If you can’t seem to get enough endless takes on gothic Italian and occult horror, this one should easily please. There’s a couple of harsh ritual sacrifice scenes, but the film has a fairly low body-count: Caleb's butler Sade and possibly one of the followers in a ritual sacrifice (I guess we are supposed to assume that the child played by Debra Berger succumbed to her sacrifice ritual involving a voodoo doll. If so, then it represents one of the truly supernatural scenes in the film that can't be explained). The coordinated dance number that precedes the final sacrifice involving Gail is a hoot.

It's interesting to note that the opening credits attribute makeup to Italian makeup legend Giannetto De Rossi (with hair-stylist Mirella Sforza). Assuming he was responsible for her makeup, I really loved the eye shadow glitter and sparkles on Sekhmet’s brow. Kudos to Naomi’s strange and bewitching sorceress look as well.

So, despite the rough look and familiar plot devices, Shadow of Illusion has some staying power as far as I’m concerned. The whole thing is rather strangely compelling.

Hopefully, there’s a print laying around somewhere and someone is interested in restoring it. I would jump at a Blu-ray pre-order. I have a feeling that this one has the potential to look incredible.

© At the Mansion of Madness


Friday, January 26, 2024

The Unnaturals / Schreie in der Nacht (1969)

When poring over the impressively diverse range of genre films from Antonio Margheriti, I realize there’s still a lot more I need to see. I have more blind spots here than I care to admit. I plan on eventually rectifying this issue in good time, maybe starting with some of the derivative sounding ‘80s action/adventure stuff like The Last Blood (1983) or The Ark of the Sun God (1984). I do have a soft spot for retro space movies, so something like Assignment: Outer Space (1960), Margheriti’s first full film as director, would probably make my day. I have been a big fan of Margheriti’s exquisite gothic horror films for quite some time (no surprise there), and I’ve been itching to review one of his least talked about (as far as I can tell) gothic horrors, The Unnaturals / Contronatura

I thought this German / Italian co-production kind of had a classic comic book feel to it (something kind of in the vein of EC’s Crime SuspenStories). It’s also been compared to the krimi thriller, with all the fixings of a crime fueled storyline, only instead of a detective or Scotland Yard, the criminal foil and justice comes in the form of the supernatural beyond. There’s also no denying that the 1920s setting, primarily in a gloomy haunted mansion during a long meditative séance, hosted by none other than Luciano Pigozzi, with a bunch of stranded shady characters seeking shelter on a dark and stormy night is gothic horror as fuck. This is the kind of gathering that I consider a good time.

Sunday, October 29, 2023

Night of the Damned / La notte dei dannati (1971)

“Thank Heaven! The crisis / The danger is past, and the lingering illness, is over at last /, and the fever called “Living” is conquered at last.” Edgar Allan Poe 

Horror films are more traditionally associated with anxiety and sleepless nights. Funny, then, how we tend to look towards horror sometimes to wind down after the day. Now, I love to be scared and shocked just as much as any horror fan, but what about a horror film that can have the opposite effect, one that puts you to sleep through relaxation and comfort? Thanks to the usual languid pace and soothing dark ambiance, a lot of older gothic horror films can serve as a pretty good example of this, such as the gothic literary mashup Night of the Damned. 

Directed by Filippo Walter Ratti and written by Aldo Marcovecchio, Night of the Damned is a quaint little ‘70s Italian gothic horror that hits a lot of the right notes when it comes to style, mood, and atmosphere. Sure, there is better to pick from, but something about this film made me want to revisit and connect with it on a deeper level. The Poe-inspired world is worth getting lost in, and it appeals to my love for the supernatural femme fatales who reign from their remote dark castles, with the occult and hedonistic rituals that usually accompany them.

Sunday, July 30, 2023

Death Falls Lightly / La morte scende leggera (1972)

When analyzed with any degree of honesty, jealous behavior appears, in reality, neither as a duty nor a right, but as a shabby dross of our obsession with possessing.” – Emmanuelle ArsanL’hypothese d’Eros 

A weekend getaway at a resort hotel with your significant other is most people’s idea of a relaxing holiday, but having to hide out in a creepy, possibly haunted hotel with your mistress for the weekend, because your wife turned up murdered, sounds like a more interesting time to me. 

Death Falls Lightly is one of two thrillers directed and co-written by Leopoldo Savona (the other being Byleth – The Demon of Incest (1972)) that I commend for its unusual and multidirectional approach. You’re not really sure what they’re going for, but you kind of like it anyways. Like Byleth, it’s a little hard to compare to other films of its ilk, since it’s kind of an oddball example. It reaches for different ideas, perhaps one too many, while maintaining that appealing ’70s Euro-genre ascetic, so you’re getting something both different and familiar at the same time. Whether or not it’s actually any good is somewhat difficult to tell by the film’s end. 

I personally find this one delightful, as it is a bit of a jack-of-all-trades genre movie that borrows from crime, mystery, giallo, erotic, fantastical, psychological, and occult horror, so it’s like there’s a little bit of something for everyone. It is mostly centered around a claustrophobic and somewhat dark and depressing hotel. Interestingly, this movie predicts The Shining during a few moments, and my mind even thought a little of Silent Hill at times.

Sunday, April 30, 2023

The Witches Mountain / El monte de las brujas (1973)

Cover art by Justin Coffee

 “A woman will sometimes forgive the man who tries to seduce her, but never the man who misses an opportunity when offered.” – Charles Maurice de Talleyrand

I’m hoping that in the coming months and years, more and more people discover, and hopefully enjoy, the unfairly banned and relatively forgotten Spanish horror Raúl Artigot’s The Witches Mountain thanks to Mondo Macabro’s recent release of the film. Lured by its title and because Patty Shepard was in it, I first saw the film as a VHS rip on YouTube back around 2013 and was really floored by how atmospheric and beautifully haunting it was despite the low picture quality. I’m usually easy to please in this area, but every DVD-R and download of this film I came across was quite soft looking and really showed the film’s age. Anytime I thought to review it, I was discouraged, and mildly depressed, by how much the poor-quality screengrabs undersold the film, so I kept holding out for a decent release someday. Years went by, and I personally started to give up hope, so it was miraculous news for me when the HD upgrade of The Witches Mountain was finally announced. There was a significant delay after the Halloween presale, but I thought it was worth the wait.

Thursday, March 2, 2023

Zelda (1974)

“You came to watch this movie just to see two naked women… You have a colonialist mentality.” – Alberto Cavallone on the ending to Le salamandre*  

“I would like, as I said, for the lover’s place to be in the middle of the couple.” – Emmanuelle Arsan**    

Alberto Cavallone’s films are not fun. I can’t think of one I’ve seen that does not have a depressing ending. Whether or not they are entertaining might depend on the viewer’s mindset, but they are almost always enthralling in a way. You might think you’re being lured in for an erotically fun time, with films like Le salamandre (1969) and Blow Job (1980), or a film with a notorious reputation that precedes it like Blue Movie (1978), but that’s just to get you in front of the screen so the film can put a mirror in front of you, whether or not you realize it, and call you a colonizer or a degenerate (who Cavallone referred to as the “raincoat crowd”), crudely interrupting your titillation. Basically, if the film upsets or antagonizes you, then it was made for you. What’s fascinating is that the films nevertheless did well with the audiences Cavallone was hoping to annoy.  

Cavallone dismissed his own erotic thriller Zelda as a commercial effort, lacking the sociopolitical content of his previous films. On the surface, the movie does have an erotic pull to it, with the promise of interracial lesbian scenes, in a manner similar to Le salamandre. Like Le salamandre, the erotic pull ends up not being the main point of the movie, and with Zelda, Cavallone is critical, or at least dreadfully pessimistic, of the loose sex lives of married couples and the en vogue erotic film of the era while also making his film look very much like one.

Sunday, December 4, 2022

Bloody Pit of Horror / Il boia scarlatto (1965)

Fun is only partially the name of the game with a film like Bloody Pit of Horror. With its comic book style influence, there’s lots of fun to be had, but it’s got a mean side too, as sadism is also the name of the game. The mix of fun and dark in the film is an influence from a style of Italian adult-oriented superhero, crime, and erotic comics known as Fumetti Neri, which consists, among many others, of flamboyant masked super heroes/villains: Diabolik, Kriminal, Mister-X, and Satanik. The antagonist in Bloody Pit of Horror could’ve easily come out of this subgenre, but he’s no fantastic masked superman. He’s a fantastically cruel masked super-sadistic-madman, the Crimson Executioner, played with love, enthusiasm, and high energy by a chiseled Mickey Hargitay.

Thursday, September 8, 2022

Marquis (1989)

Only Marquis’ literature can give me a taste for living.” –Justine (Isabelle Wolfe

Marquis is quite the creation. I never knew of its existence until recently. It’s a little like the movie Quills (2000) but with anthropomorphic characters who look like they’ve escaped from Alice in Wonderland. It is set in 1789, shortly before the Storming of the Bastille, in Paris France. The lead character (Francois Marthouret) is an inmate of the Bastille, who is referred to as Marquis and is a talented writer of erotic, violent, and depraved manuscripts. He is not necessarily alone, for his sizeable member who goes by Colin (Valerie Kling) is his close companion, consultant, and conversationalist. In between writing various pieces of salacious stories, Marquis finds himself participating in a ploy to help free a political prisoner, Lupino (Roger Crouzet), for the sake of the Revolution. Another imprisoned woman, Justine (Isabelle Wolfe), who was raped and impregnated by the king, is eventually thrown into the same cell as the Marquis, as a corrupt priest, Dom Pompero (Vicky Messica), intends to divert the blame on to him and cover up the king’s misdeed, but Justine instead finds the Marquis to be a gentleman and an enthralling storyteller.