Monday, March 16, 2009

Giallo Fever

Giallos and I didn’t exactly make fast friends. By and large I find them all pretty tedious. The structure is not one I find all that enjoyable: really complicated murder plot involving people whose only defining feature is that they’re all pretty seedy bastards punctuated by squirm-inducing murder scenes. The film I’ve got lined up for today is actually sort of a Giallo, sort of a German offshoot called the Krimi film. It shares a lot in common with two better-known films, Black Sabbath and Bloody Pit of Horror and like Death Smiles On A Murderer it claims patronage from an Edgar Allen Poe story. Having seen both I can say that I like this one better than the films it rips off, but then again, I’m not really the man to talk to about Gialli, I have but a few I can sit through. This is a zombie site, after all.

The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism
by Harold Reinl
Like Black Sabbath, it starts with the public execution of a practitioner of the black arts, in this case a Christopher Lee character called Count Regula. First he’s given a spiked mask to wear a la Barbara Steele and then he’s quartered in the town square. Regula is being executed because he killed 12 virgins and was working on 13 when she escaped. 13 and the judge who sentenced him look on in the crowded square as the whips are cracked and Regula’s limbs are given the big tug. Through a pretty good editing trick, we cut to 35 years later where a peg-legged sideshow worker tells a crowd of people about the man and his execution for pocket change. The drawing of his limbs being pulled off is as close to a real quartering as we see. He stops his barking when a man who looks eerily like the judge called Roger (they’re both played by Lex Barker) passes by in a carriage. That night, the man with the peg leg gives him an envelope from Regula. We all know this can’t be right as we’ve just been shown his execution. Leggy gives the same envelope to Karin Dor, who’d just finished being a bond girl in You Only Live Twice, the next day. As if it needed to be said, Lillian Von Brandt looks like 13. The next day, Lex and his carriage pick up a few hitchhikers on their way to the Castle that Regula has invited him to. The first is an overweight priest who seems destined to be our comic relief; blissfully, he stops about halfway into the film. The second is Lillian and her servant Babette after a bunch of masked marauders loot their carriage and kill their driver. Roger picks them all up, much to the chagrin of his driver.
Things get weird that night. After they arrive at the place the priest was supposed to be headed and finds that its been burned to the ground. A weird looking guy leers at them from behind a pillar. When the driver wants to go home, the clergyman pulls a pistol on him; his excuse about dangerous neighborhoods seems pretty flimsy. When they get close enough to the castle (which, let it be said, we never see) the driver starts seeing dead bodies everywhere. They hang from trees and their limbs seem to stick out of trees and the grounds like someone fused them with the foliage. They stop when they see one of the hanged men still twitching and try to help him. The same man who burned the priest’s destination down kills the driver and rides off with Babette and Lillian. When Roger and the priest find a trap door that leads to what I take to be the castle, the game begins. Regula has been sewn back together by his weird looking assistant and he needs the blood of 13 to come back for real. He invited Roger cause he still feels a little sore about that execution and killing a descendant is just as good as killing the real thing to a mummified Christopher Lee. The only way to evade capture is to face the titular torture chamber and its winding hallways, swinging pendulums, snakes, spiders, and skeletons. If the count doesn’t get the blood of 13 before midnight, he’s doomed.

Why do I like this film. It starts with the name, I can tell you that. By god, have you ever heard anything so poetically misanthropic as that? The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism....Mmm mmm mmm. Just rolls off the tongue. The name of this film goes up there with my favorite exploitation and gialli film titles, even though its only kind of one of those films. The reason I don’t call this a proper gialli, is because there is no black gloved killer, there is no real mystery after the midway mark, and though everyone’s motives are fairly evil or at the very least wrong-headed, they don’t come to much. Why is it important that the priest is actually a robber? I mean, it's cool I guess, but it doesn't really do us much. It's not really a proper exploitation film because no one is murdered on screen and no one gets naked, so, it's really more of a funhouse kind of thing than a horror kind of thing. I call it a sort of Gialli because of its wild set-design, its frequent murder attempts, and its zany villain out for revenge. The production is the thing I liked best about this film. The scene where the carriage driver sees the bodies in the misty forest at night is one of the coolest things I’ve seen in an Italian film of any vintage and to me rivals the best moments in Black Sabbath or Suspiria. The plot, however, has some ‘splainin’ to do.

Because this is ostensibly supposed to be a retelling of The Pit And The Pendulum, we have a count and we have the all-important swinging pendulum scene. The problem with this is that Harald Reinl isn’t much with suspense. After you’ve seen Roger Corman’s take on this scene, there isn’t much room for anyone to do better. His film of The Pit and the Pendulum hinges on the success of that scene (and of course Vincent Price’s performance) and Corman’s take is beautifully shot and full of great hallucinatory colors. Price in that ridiculous costume just makes it all the better. Reinl’s scene is flat and lifeless by comparison. He has a few places in the torture chamber where he does good; the appearance of the insects and those great stop-motion bullet wounds are both fun and campy. Christopher Lee does a pretty remarkable job, as always, even though the script doesn’t give him much to do. Squaring off against Lex Barker and Vladimir Medar is a little like Vincent Price squaring off against Nick Adams and Bruno VeSota, but that’s forgivable because Lee really didn’t have to try to act circles around everyone around him.
The plot is fairly ordinary once we get inside the castle (castle, set, same thing) and it stops being a gothic and starts ripping off Bloody Pit of Horror, but I like this pacing and the way it looks. Mostly, it’s just fun and moody and no one gets their hands burned off by a furnace, so I’m happy. It is, all things considered, at least as good as the name would imply.

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