lørdag 9. mars 2013

La casa de las muertas vivientes

Spain/Italy, 1972

Directed by Alfonso Balcazar

José Antonio Amor, Daniela Giordano, Nuria Torray, Teresa Gimpera, Gioia Desideri, Osvaldo Genazzani, Alicia Tomás, Carlo Gentili

It recently dawned on me that for the longest time I’ve been reviewing nothing but Italian movies here, even though there are so many strange and wonderful films from Spain, France, Germany etc out there that are equally worthy of rediscovery. So to make amends I have taken a closer look at the forgotten Spanish thriller La casa de las muertas vivientes.

The plot deals with Oliver Bromfield (José Antonio Amor), a handsome but alcoholized young aristocrat who is haunted by the tragic death of his wife Helen (Gioia Desideri). Unable to continue living in the large country mansion he had shared with Helen, Oliver leaves his home in an attempt to forget the past. But he hasn’t been away very long before he finds a new love, the sweet and sexy Ruth (Daniela Giordano), whom he promptly marries. Suddenly, Oliver decides it would be a good idea to move back to his old house and build a new life together with Ruth.

The newlyweds

Ruth is excited about moving into a new home but she’s a bit disappointed to discover that Oliver’s huge mansion is far more secluded than she had pictured. Things aren’t made any better by the fact that she is given a decidedly chilly welcome by Sarah (Nuria Torray), the widow of Oliver’s father. Oliver’s stepmom is actually not that much older than him, and she greets him with an inappropriately passionate kiss on the cheek while giving poor Ruth the evil eye. Sarah is also quick to point out that today is the anniversary of Helen’s death, which visibly upsets Oliver.

Stepmom marks her territory

It quickly transpires that Sarah is madly in love with her stepson and she’s terribly jealous of Ruth. At day, she tries her best to drive Ruth and Oliver apart, and at night she spies on their lovemaking through a secret hole in the wall – obscured by a pendulum clock.

I spy with my little eye...

Also living in the house is Oliver’s sister Jenny (Teresa Gimpera), a reclusive painter and sculptor, who – like Sarah – takes an instant dislike to Ruth. Not for the same reasons, however. Jenny, we learn, had been carrying on a lesbian affair with Helen, and she hates the idea of someone else taking over Helen’s role as the lady of the house.

Jenny laments the loss of her lesbian lover

Poor Ruth doesn’t exactly feel very welcome in the house, and things quickly go from bad to worse as Oliver starts being haunted by memories of his dead wife. He’s drinking heavily and at night he has nightmares about Helen’s mysterious death from falling down the stairs. In his sleep he even shouts out that “I didn’t mean to kill her!”

Oliver has recurring nightmares about Helen’s death

Naturally, all of this has Ruth getting pretty worried. Oliver has told her that Helen fell because she was suffering from a series of dizzy spells but she soon learns from Helen’s physician, Dr. Roberts (Carlo Gentili), that Helen had no history of dizziness. As Ruth continues to look into Helen’s death, strange things start happening to her. Clearly, there is someone who doesn’t want the truth about Helen’s death to be revealed. Could it be that Oliver killed his wife because he was jealous of her lesbian affair with Jenny? Or was it the obsessively jealous Sarah who wanted Oliver all to herself? Or could the suspiciously acting Jenny be responsible?

Who’s the killer?

La casa de las muertas vivientes is a thoroughly obscure little Spanish-Italian co-production and there appear to be very few people who have heard about it – much less actually seen it. The film was released under a series of different titles in Spain and Italy – none of which suit it particularly well. The original Spanish title translates to ‘The House of the Living Dead’, which is highly inappropriate as this is by no means a zombie film, and it never really pursues any supernatural angle either. The Italian title Una tomba aperta... Una bara vuota – i.e. ‘An Open Tomb... An Empty Coffin’, the title used by most of the bootleggers who sell it – is just as unsuitable because the film features neither opened tombs nor empty coffins, or any other kind of beyond the grave shenanigans for that matter. The alternate Italian title Il cadavere di Helen non mi dava pace – i.e. ‘Helen’s Cadaver Gives Me No Peace’ – is probably the most suitable since Oliver being haunted by memories of Helen’s death is a vital part of the plot, but it still hints at a type of film that this certainly isn’t.

Stylish newspaper ad under the film’s alternate Italian title

The misleading and inappropriate titles are probably part of the reason why most of the people who have actually seen the film react negatively to it. Anyone expecting to see some kind of zombie movie or ghost story will be sorely disappointed, and those seeking a flashy and gory Argento-style giallo will not get their money’s worth either. It is important to point out that even though this was an Italian co-production, it is ostensibly a Spanish film, and like many other Spanish productions, La casa de las muertas vivientes is more rustic and old-fashioned in appearance than its stylized Italian counterparts. Giallo elements are certainly present – with a knife-wielding, black-gloved killer coming into play in the last third – but these seem like more of an afterthought and the film draws more on Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) than it does on Argento. I think the best way to describe the film is like a deliberately paced Spanish psycho-drama with a gialloesque final third. If you approach it as such, you are more likely to appreciate the film.

With that said, La casa de las muertas vivientes is still a problematic film in many ways. The story is credited to the director, Euro-western expert Alfonso Balcazar, and José Ramón Larraz, the Spanish director famous for his British-made horror films Scream and Die! (1973), Symptoms (1974) and Vampyres (1974). This appears to have been the first Spanish film Larraz worked on and the plot features several of his characteristic traits, including the secluded country house setting, repressed sexual desires, and intense claustrophobic relationships. It’s just too bad that Larraz didn’t write the actual screenplay, which was instead penned by Balcazar and Italian Eurospy scribe Giovanni Simonelli. Unfortunately, neither of them appear to feel quite at home within the thriller format. Saving all of the killings for the final third is fair enough, but a few more suspense sequences scattered throughout the first two thirds would definitely not have hurt. As it is, the film is too talky and generously paced to keep the interest up for the duration of the film. It must be said, though, that the occasionally waning interest has just as much – if not more – to do with the characters. Oliver is a pretty boring protagonist, and José Antonio Amor’s blank and inexpressive performance fails to ignite any sort of interest for the character. Daniela Giordano on the other hand is perfectly fine in the role of Ruth but the character is so poorly written and developed that it is hard to become particularly invested in her.

The only really interesting characters are Oliver’s sister and stepmother. These sexy and constantly chain-smoking figures are better fleshed out and their dark and mysterious nature makes them very intriguing. They are also very well played, with the always welcome Teresa Gimpera – a familiar face from numerous interesting Spanish-Italian horrors including The Feast of Satan (1971) and Night of the Devils (1972) – giving a wonderful performance as the mysterious lesbian sister who is obsessed by the memory of her dead lover. However, the show is stolen by the sensuous Nuria Torray, who is absolutely terrific as the unbalanced and obsessively jealous Sarah. She’s very sexy in the scenes which require her to act catty or seductive, but Torray is at her very best when she gets to tackle the sinister sides of the character. Her obsessive spying on Oliver and Ruth through the peephole is a good example but the best part is when she has a warped fantasy in which she stabs a sleeping Ruth to death, pushes her out of the bed, wipes her bloody hands on her nightgown and then jumps into the bed to resume Ruth’s place next to Oliver. Torray comes across as thoroughly disturbed and creepy in these scenes, but at the same time she is able to convey a truly heartfelt desperation, which renders the character somewhat pitiful too.

Nuria Torray is fabulous as the disturbed stepmother

Technical credits are solid – boasting some attractive cinematography and art direction, as well as a fine score by Italian composer Piero Piccioni – but the most memorable aspect to the film is its atmosphere. Balcazar successfully imbues the story with an air of morbidness as all of the characters seem obsessed in one way or the other with the death of Helen. The more perverse material in the plot is expertly handled, with the stylishly shot sequences detailing Sarah’s voyeurism coming across as delightfully twisted. Throughout the film there’s a strong aura of unease, repressed emotions and sexual tension seaming through the dysfunctional household and this keeps it all interesting even though if the plot progresses slowly.

In the last 30 minutes, the film finally goes into giallo mode as the cast starts getting picked off by a mysterious black-gloved killer who gorily slashes their throats. As I’ve already mentioned, this plot point seems like somewhat of an afterthought – presumably added at the insistence of the Italian co-producers. It undeniably shakes things up a bit and adds some welcome frisson to the proceedings but not all of the murders are quite successfully staged. It should also be mentioned that the identity of the killer is not too hard to figure out, and the rushed finale, which is more or less over and done with in a matter of seconds, is disappointing.

The horror kicks in during the final act

In spite of its obscurity La casa de las muertas vivientes is not too hard to get hold of but as of now there is no definite version available. A Spanish DVD was released by Filmax, and this release features a good-looking widescreen (albeit non-anamorphic) transfer of the film. The disc features no English options but has been made available in a fan-subbed version among collectors. It is unfortunate, however, that this is the version most people have been exposed to because it is far from an ideal way to watch the film. In the 1970s, the strict Spanish film censorship did not allow nudity, so Spanish productions from this era usually shot two versions of a film’s sexy scenes: a “clothed” one where the actors are covered up by nightgowns or underwear, and an “unclothed” one in which the actors get naked. The clothed variants were released in Spain, while the steamier unclothed versions would be exported to foreign markets with more relaxed censorship policies. The print of La casa de las muertas vivientes featured on the Filmax DVD is the Spanish version and – as expected – it is shorn of all nudity. A stronger version with nude scenes does exist, however, and was released in Italy but it has yet to receive any sort of DVD release. There is a TV rip in circulation, though, and while it is cropped, has a logo in the lower right corner and generally looks a lot less impressive than the Spanish DVD, it is still worth watching since it not only adds nudity but also entire scenes missing from the Spanish print. I have compared the two versions and here is an overview of the differences between the Spanish and Italian cuts of the film:

1. The Italian version obviously has credits in Italian – displaying the title Una tomba aperta... Una bara vuota in bold red letters. If you look closely, you’ll notice that the alternate title Il cadavere di Helen non mi dava pace is printed in smaller letters at the bottom of the screen.

The Italian title card

2. In the Italian cut, each murder is followed by a rapid montage of still shots of the various characters – clearly signaling them as possible suspects. This is a very unwelcome addition that looks cheesy and silly. It plays out much better in the Spanish version, which does not include these shots.

3. After the scene of Helen’s funeral, the Italian version features an extra pre-credits scene in which Oliver announces to Sarah that he’s moving out of the house, and she tries in vain to dissuade him from leaving. The scene runs 2 minutes and 26 seconds, and while it introduces Sarah’s feelings for Oliver at an earlier point than the Spanish version, it doesn’t really add anything new to the proceedings.

Extra scene between Oliver and Sarah

4. The lesbian relationship between Jenny and Helen is more explicit in the Italian version. The flashback scene where Oliver catches them together is very tame in the Spanish version – with Oliver walking in as Helen is merely caressing Jenny’s hair. In the Italian cut, however, Helen pulls down her nightgown to expose her breasts, and the two women press up against each other as Oliver suddenly walks in on them. This situation is a lot more compromising, and consequently Oliver’s angered reaction comes across as much more justified here than it does in the Spanish cut.

This is as steamy as it gets in the Spanish version

The extra naughty bits from the Italian version

5. The Italian version also includes an extra flashback scene between Jenny and Helen which is completely absent from the Spanish cut. In this scene, Helen strips naked and poses on a sofa while Jenny is painting a portrait of her. Helen says that she doesn’t love Oliver and that she only married him for his money. The scene only runs 1 minute and 35 seconds but is fairly important in that it puts Helen in a more negative light than in the Spanish version, and hence also makes Oliver more sympathetic.

Extra scene with Jenny and Helen

6. The scene where Sarah climbs into bed with a drunken Oliver and tries to seduce him is slightly longer in the Italian version, which includes an extra close-up shot of Oliver pulling down Sarah’s nightgown and fondling her breast.

This is as far as it goes in the Spanish version

Additional boob fondling shot from the Italian version

7. Another slight difference between the Spanish and Italian versions occurs in the scene where Sarah tries to entice Oliver by pulling down her dress to show him her bare breasts. In the Spanish cut we only see Sarah from behind and Oliver’s facial reaction, whereas the Italian cut includes a brief shot of her naked breasts. Sarah’s face and breasts never appear in the same shot, however, and it looks as if a body double may have been used for this scene.

How it looks in the Spanish cut

The brief frontal shot from the Italian cut

8. The final addition of nudity occurs in Sarah’s fantasy sequence where she stabs Ruth to death, pushes her out of the bed and climbs in to take her place next to Oliver. The Spanish version obviously does not feature any nudity but the Italian version features an extra shot with rear nudity as we see Sarah climbing into the bed.

Additional rear nudity from the Italian version

It must be mentioned that, surprisingly enough, the Italian and Spanish edits are actually not clothed and unclothed variants of the film. As I’ve already mentioned, the norm with such variants was to shoot the sexy scenes twice – with and without nudity – but the Spanish version of La casa de las muertas vivientes does not feature any kind of alternate scenes. Instead, it merely cuts out all of the nudity shown in the Italian version, and as such it is a censored version rather than a clothed one. Interestingly, there are several scenes where the actors are covered in both the Italian and Spanish versions, including the scene where Sarah spies on Oliver and Ruth making love, and Sarah fantasizing about stabbing Ruth. Indeed, Daniela Giordano and Teresa Gimpera stay fully clothed in both versions – with the majority of the nudity being performed by the sexy Italian actress Gioia Desideri, a minor starlet who was a regular presence in the violent Don Archer photo-novels and who also appeared in Fernando Di Leo’s sleazy giallo Slaughter Hotel (1971).

The fantasy stabbing is clothed in both the Spanish and Italian variants of the film

Daniela Giordano stays decent throughout the film but looks smashing nonetheless

Of course, the real question is whether or not the addition of the nude scenes makes La casa de las muertas vivientes a better film. Well, it doesn’t radically alter the film but it certainly spices it up a bit. Furthermore, the extra details of the lesbian relationship add a few interesting nuances that the film benefits from, and overall the Italian cut plays out better.

In sum, La casa de las muertas vivientes is an interesting little Spanish psycho-drama. It is slow and not always effective but the morbid atmosphere and Nuria Torray’s terrific performance work in its favor, and José Ramón Larraz fans will probably enjoy his contributions to the story. It isn’t a perfect film but it is definitely better than its reputation and well worth a look.

Update May 2013
A mere two months after this review was published, a hitherto unheard of English-dubbed version of the film appeared out of thin air. It’s identical to the stronger Italian cut of the film and bears the English title The Night of the Scorpion, which is just as unsuitable as the various Italian and Spanish titles. It’s a most welcome discovery, though, and English dubbing enthusiasts will be delighted by the presence of many familiar voice actors, including Frank Latimore (dubbing José Antonio Amor), Silvia Faver (dubbing Nuria Torray) and Edward Mannix (dubbing Osvaldo Genazzani).

© 2013 Johan Melle

The cast:

José Antonio Amor as Oliver

Daniela Giordano as Ruth

Nuria Torray as Sarah

Teresa Gimpera as Jenny

Gioia Desideri as Helen

Osvaldo Genazzani as Private Detective

Alicia Tomás as Clara, the maid

??? as Peter, the gardener

Carlo Gentili as Dr. Roberts

2 kommentarer:

Paul WJM sa...

Fantastic look at this film, which I've never actually heard of but am now desperately hoping that it (in its Italian variety of course) gets a Blu-ray release (although I'd settle for a decent DVD). Thanks for the enlightenment!

Johan Melle sa...

Thanks for the kind comments!

I don't think I'll be holding my breath while waiting for a Blu-ray release of this one but you never know. Stranger things have happened. The film is no masterpiece but it's a nice little psycho-drama and IMO not deserving of its ultra obscure status.