Sunday, June 14, 2020

A Candle for the Devil / Una vela para el diablo (1973)

“The pleasures I tried to deprive myself of assailed my mind more ardently…” –Madame de Saint-Ange (Marquis de Sade)


I feel like A Candle for the Devil (aka It Happened at Nightmare Inn) from Spanish filmmaker Eugenio Martin, director of the astounding Horror Express (1972) and the rare gem Aquella casa en las afueras (1980), was that demented shocker I was always looking for when I was channel surfing as a kid looking to satiate my thirst for something twisted with big bloody kitchen knives and bloody nightgowns. It’s also an intelligent and thought-provoking film with enough memorable moments to prevent anyone who watches it from entirely forgetting about it. I had only seen it twice, in its cut and uncut version, but for years it had been stored in my memory as a truly special Spanish horror film that I knew I would revisit someday to write about.

After I first watched it, I remember feeling cheated out of the definitive experience of A Candle for the Devil after finding out the version I watched titled It Happened at Nightmare Inn from a bargain DVD box set was heavily cut, omitting the graphic violence and nudity. I still thought it was a pretty sweet film even in its censored form, but of course that’s not the version I wanted for my collection, and so I later ordered off for a DVD-R containing the uncut A Candle for the Devil, with Esperanza Roy’s (from Return of the Evil Dead (1973)) nude scenes thankfully intact. The film has since been released on Blu-ray in 2015 by Scorpion Releasing.



I do like that the two lead characters, Marta (Aurora Batista) and Veronica (Roy), are villains who don’t realize, or at least stubbornly refuse to believe, they are the villains. The sisters commit unplanned murder, which Marta self-justifies in the name of personal convictions that happen to be way out-of-touch. They are the self-righteous who believe they are God’s right hand but are actually the real problem. When they are fueled by their convictions, they have no trouble slaughtering people in their kitchen, the same way they slaughter and cook lambs to serve to their guests.



It isn’t made subtle at all that this is about religious hypocrisy, with characters that don’t live up to their own principles. What’s that saying about “throwing stones in glass houses?”

Sisters Marta and Veronica are a couple of murderesses who run a quaint little boarding house. The immodest behavior of the modern young female tourists who stay at their boarding house does not jive with Marta’s old-fashioned belief that decency and purity are better ideals for a young lady. After they discover one of their guests May (Loreta Tovar) sunbathing on their roof, much to the amusement of the local men, Marta, with Veronica’s help, very rudely starts to physically force May out of her house. While Marta is pushing her, May tumbles down the stairs and crashes into a stained-glass window and instantly dies. This initially was a tragic accident, until Marta believes she sees a religious sign in a broken, bloody piece of stained glass and assures her sister that what just occurred was an act of God. Marta hides the body while Veronica answers the front door to May’s sister Laura (Judy Geeson), who was supposed to meet her sister at the boarding house. Laura spends her time trying to get to the bottom of her sister’s disappearance while murders continue.



A Candle for the Devil is a sort of non-mystery, where we the audience already know what’s going on while we watch Laura and her companion Eduardo (Vic Winner) try to figure it out. This is a relief to viewers who don’t like to be in the dark, but it might be a little bit of a letdown to lovers of mystery. It does lead to an excellent closeout scene that I always fondly remembered. There is also a lot of interesting inner-conflict within Veronica regarding her compliance with her sister’s deeds, and even more interesting is the exploration of the sexuality of the sisters that makes their hypocrisy all the more damning.



Veronica seems to be more in-touch than her sister and questions what is happening but is still always game to take her sister’s side despite the dilemma. She knows what is wrong, but she also knows whose side she’s expected to take; that of blood. What is happening makes her wake up in the night wanting to vomit. She recognizes evil in her own household but is compliant with it. She excuses evil in bad conscience, even deluding herself that the horrible things happening are right by way of mutual belief and a shared bond, but even she knows that something’s eventually got to give before her and her sister are caught.



One of the more intriguing components to the hypocrisy of the sisters is that of sexual purity. Veronica has a lover twenty years younger than her, whom she copulates with in secret and steals money from her sister for, and Marta has a repressed hypersexual side that comes out when she secretly watches nude young males playing in the river. As penance, Marta trudges through thorny shrubbery, cutting herself on pointy dead shrubs along the way. Almost as if revealing she is just like the young women she hates, Marta can be seen later committing the sin of vanity, admiring herself in the mirror, applying lipstick and perfume while wearing a provocative dress and unleashing her inner seductress (because it’s ok when she does it). Despite this, Marta and Veronica have no qualms with murdering the young “hussies,” one of which includes a character played by Lone Fleming, who come through town supposedly scandalizing the village with their provocative clothing. The deep-rooted resentment Marta has towards younger attractive girls is really not even about religion but rather linked to some other personal trauma that occurred in Marta’s life (the real reason she hates young attractive females); she just uses her perverted view of her religion to clear her conscience from the horrible things she’s done. She has no issues with dehumanizing anyone who doesn’t fall into her ideal view of morality. She believes her victims deserve what happened to them. She takes her sister Veronica with her on her journey into being a delusional serial killer fighting against sin by ironically being the ultimate sinner.

In the battle between the evocatively scandalous and the religiously righteous, the sweet, mild-mannered Laura (Geeson) falls on neither side and is tolerant of both. Despite some reservations, she does manage to get along well with the judgmental sisters, and she is not offended by the provocations of the younger flirty, sexy female tourists. Not possessing the traits that offend Marta keeps her in the safe zone for a time, until her sleuthing causes her to get too close to the truth. Laura is a kind, even-keel character who mostly doesn’t have a whole lot to do but converse with the sisters, the villagers, and hang around with Eduardo (Winner). Her moment to shine comes in the final scene.

Bautista and Roy are terrific in their roles and have exquisite chemistry together as killer sisters. The actors play finely off of one another and do show off a good range of acting talent from outwardly pious sisters by day to killers of sinful women by night. Bautista portrays Marta as a much colder killer while Roy gives Veronica a semblance of guilt and remorse over what is happening. I’m not only convinced they are sisters, but I’m also convinced they are psychotic. One of the kills I thought packed an emotional punch, where some serious indignation is felt, is the scene where they murder a mother, Norma (Blanca Estrada), of a baby essentially because they wrongfully thought the mother wasn’t married. The moment is heartbreaking when Norma is killed desperately trying to get her baby back from Veronica.


A Candle for the Devil is a pretty grim affair that also works as an entertaining horror movie. Its two lead killers are memorable and should be considered more iconic in the history of Spanish horror. After I first watched it, I had that same feeling of enthusiasm that I had after first watching other noteworthy Spanish horror films La residencia (1969) and Tombs of the Blind Dead (1972). The gore is actually comic book level appealing, as an eyeball makes its way into a customer’s, Beatrice’s (Montserrat Julió), food, and a severed head manages to make its way into the basement wine cask, which makes for some fun stuff in this sort of depressing film that hopefully won’t detract too much from the seriousness of it.

© At the Mansion of Madness




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