Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Reincarnation of Isabel (1973)

If ever there was a movie that epitomized the weird, scattered, and strangely erotic nature of Eurohorror the most, that film would most likely be The Reincarnation of Isabel. It’s a work of art where a clear goal-driven narrative seems to have either been purposefully or unknowingly neglected. It’s still a good story but one that is awkwardly told. It may just as well have been that having a story spoon-fed to viewers was of little importance in this case, as director Renato Polselli (Delirium, The Vampire and the Ballerina) might’ve felt he had a lot more to offer by instead unloading his tale of reincarnation in a rather erratic fashion, frequently diverging from the narrative for the sake of overusing the film’s seductive set pieces, with events happening for unclear reasons and moving in unclear directions. It is also nonetheless done with gusto and a unique painterly craftsmanship. Fans of the weird and sexy side of Eurohorror should consider looking to The Reincarnation of Isabel to get their regular fix.

A supposed witch, Isabella (Rita, Nude for Satan, Calderoni), was staked and burned at an altar in front of an attentive mob of villagers. Centuries later, someone or something with a following of cultists and vampires is trying to revive/reincarnate the Great Mistress, Isabella, and they’ll sacrifice as many virgins as it takes for her to live again. Women are turning up dead with their hearts missing and strange bite marks on their necks. It all seems to be connected to a castle that has just been bought and occupied by a Mr. Jack Nelson (Mickey, Bloody Pit of Horror, Hargitay), his wife, and his stepdaughter, Laureen (also played by Calderoni). A special party in celebration of Laureen’s engagement to a local man is underway in the castle, and the epoch involving Isabella’s persecution in the long distant past begins to haunt the inhabitants in erotically bizarre and deadly ways.

What can I say about Rita Calderoni? She’s a delightful and committed lead with very pure good looks. Interestingly enough like in the film Nude for Satan, there are moments where she inexplicably has a single breast exposed without seeming to notice or care that her boob is showing. Seeing her treat us to this provocative sight of her in more than one movie has caused me to consider this look to be her trademark. Calderoni also puts on a convincing performance with her portrayal of the persecuted Isabel. She looks like she went through a lot for us, and it actually looks like it hurts when they drive a stake through her.

The set piece I remembered the most after viewing this movie for the first time involved an overdone witch burning segment that depicted the public execution of Isabella. It’s a flashback to an event that took place five centuries prior, and it occurs during Laureen’s engagement party in the present. It almost seems intrusive at first, abruptly occurring in the middle of a classy party at Jack’s castle. However, things start to get interesting as the scene plays on, cutting back and forth between the two different time periods, slowly revealing that nearly all of the main characters present at the party (there’s a lot of them) are reincarnations of those that played a role in Isabella’s public execution, with numerous people having the same flashback. Jack (Hargitay) slowly sheds a tear, and a couple other characters seem to get emotional about this incident that took place so long ago. It’s almost like a public haunting, and there’s a pretty dramatic payoff, as some people really seem to want their Isabella back. With as long as this part plays out, and with the number of times we cut back and forth, one could say that it’s almost redundant. The point’s been made, but the scene keeps going. It’s such an entertaining, emotional, and bombastic take on the familiar “burn the witch” scene that no amount of redundancy causes it to get tiring.

The castle used in the film, the marvelous Balsorano castle, is an an added strength and is packed to the gills with an unnecessary number of characters. There are really too many characters to keep track of, though it would be unwise to give up on the film because of this flaw. A lot of these characters are pretty quirky creations and each is accompanied with an added dose of entertainment that accumulates into a real fun array of oddball characters. On hand is a large number of Eurobeauties to enjoy looking at, some with real strange, unnatural acting. My favorite, besides Rita Calderoni, is the hyperactively boisterous redhead with big eyelashes that goes by Steffy (Stefania Fassio). She’s noisy, clown-like, and a little irritating, but her overacting is adorable and appears to be intentional. Being that the cult/vampires in this movie need the blood, hearts, and eyes of young virgins to reincarnate Isabella, it would seem like a good idea in this case to lose one’s virginity, and Steffy does just that, with two other characters, in what is quite possibly one of the zaniest and distracting sex scenes ever. Something peculiar about this part is that she sort of acts like she’s being violated but seems pretty happy afterwards, as she can be seen frolicking down the castle hall later, coming back for more.

Despite the silly deflowering of Steffy, there really isn’t an overload of sex scenes to further distract from the turbulent flow of events that make this such an oddly enjoyable experience. The eroticism is a little more on the psychological side, as there seems to be this surreal sexuality that accompanies the threat to all of the female characters that’s a little along the lines of the way a vampire would seduce a victim. At first the victim is like “No.. No,” and eventually it becomes something akin to “Yes.. Yes.” It is sometimes sadistic, as in the ritual scenes involving cult members who look like they came out of a Three Fantastic Supermen movie, and other times it is vampiric.

The vampire aspect feels a little shoehorned, and it’s an additional little facet that complicates things further. In addition to having too many characters that are also reincarnations, a lot of the males seem to be vampires and/or cruel cult members. One ends up being Dracula, and a few who seemed bad turn out to actually be good, and vice versa. It’s a total chaotic mess.

This complicated mess of characters doesn’t necessarily have to be for the worst. It isn’t all that important to try and figure things out since it’s all very seductive and a pleasure to experience. I like to think of the excessive elements as being part of the appeal.

It should be obvious by now, but The Reincarnation of Isabel contains an interesting art-house film quality that makes what many might consider to be ineptitude forgivable and actually an artistic positive. For instance, it is hard to tell if a lot of the characters actually live in the village, if they're relatives and friends who've traveled abroad for the engagement party, or if they’re all just somehow an inherent part of the castle. It’s a little bit of overseen logic that doesn’t quite matter, since this is more about the exploratory opportunities that a cursed castle full of virgins, vampires, cultists, and witches offers for unique, nightmarish filmmaking techniques. Another example to consider is the additional lengthy, present-day, witch persecution scene that occurs in the latter part of the film. After being seduced and nibbled on the neck by vampires, two of the ladies that live in the castle suddenly escape into the village. Upon seeing that a large wooden crucifix has just caught fire, hordes of superstitious villagers crawl out of the woodwork and cacophonously break into the ol’ “burn the witch” nonsense again. This part ends up being very ethereal on account of the segment constantly shifting back and forth between a nighttime and daytime sky. Whether this was a shooting flaw that was edited to seem intentional is unknown to me, but it is ultra-artsy and easily my favorite part.

Any criticizing I’ve done here shouldn’t override the fact that this is still a fun movie that incessantly delivers one intriguing spectacle after another. The story is an unhinged, alternate take on Black Sunday that’s worth getting into despite being as messy as a garage full of junk. It’s a smorgasbord of all the tasty themes that accompany psychological/Gothic/surreal/erotic horror, and it’s all delivered with incoherent pomp and excess by filmmakers who should’ve known better than to not adhere to the boundaries of conventional filmmaking, and because they didn’t, this manages to be something far more attractive and unique then it otherwise would’ve been.


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