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La Loba y la Paloma (Gonzalo Suárez, Spain, 1974)

The hoary old plot of the villain returning to reclaim his loot is behind this Spanish chiller with heavy gothic trappings. Wily desperado Donald Pleasance stabbed a man to death over this particular loot, leaving himself unconscious and his victim’s daughter in an enduring catatonic state. All in a night’s work for The Plez, but now the treasure has vanished and only the girl holds the key to its location…

Director Gonzalo Suárez is best known for his arthouse work, but wasn’t ashamed to make crowd-pleasing horror-themed films as well back in the early ‘seventies. Using a cast of familiar genre stars, his strengths of mobile camerawork, attention to detail in art direction, and carefully composed atmospheric photography suited the prevailing gothic style very well. Beatriz (1976) featuring Nadiuska and Sandra Mozarowsky is a fine dark period drama, while the Psycho inspired Morbo (1972) is a true modern classic. It’s no surprise that this one (distributed in English as House of the Damned) turns out to be a minor classic as well, but what is puzzling is the obscurity it has fallen into, especially considering the rise in popularity of Spanish horror in recent years.

Standing in for the traditional gothic castle is a large house in the Spanish hills, a gatekeeper’s house apparently, that controls the sluices that drain the dank reservoir behind it. The householders are a swarthy thug with a menacing version of the looming physique of Bernard Bresslaw (Aldo Sambrell), and his wife a fantastically juicy red-headed tart in the shape of Carmen Sevilla. These are the remaining family of our orphaned heroine Maria. Pleasance, the cause of the orphaning, turns up on the doorstep one day with a cunning plan. Why don’t they bring Maria home from the convent, nurse the thoroughly mute and withdrawn girl back to health, then (and this is the really cunning part) have her tell them where the treasure is hidden?!

Unfortunately these unsophisticated people have the ‘grab, shake and slap’ approach to extracting information from a young female, going about it in much the same way as they would get a dog to tell them where it buried the Sunday joint. Clearly something more subtle is called for, so step up manservant Michael Dunn, a dwarf, and a small one at that. An alternatively cheery and scheming fellow (who walks like Mr. Bean), he has the advantages of both intelligence and closeness to Maria’s emotional wavelength. Egged on by Pleasance he uses the girl’s mangy old dolls to re-enact the tragic night of her father’s murder. It’s a grotesque and disturbing performance in which the puppet artiste gets quite carried away, but it draws the first glimmer of a response from Maria…

Muriel Catalá makes a classic gothic heroine, something of a surprise to those of us who only remember her for splashing around with nothing on in Le sauveur (1971). The camera loves her with her clothes on too, and never misses a chance to focus on a new angle of her distant and fragile beauty. She is the timeless gothic archetype, struggling against all the odds, fortified only by resourcefulness and inner purity, while the villains, cursed by innate wickedness, destine themselves to DOOM.

Suárez treats it all with tongue a little in cheek, sometimes verging on parody with overheated melodrama. It is probably significant that the treasure is a shapeless lump of a statuette that nobody could possibly want if it was not made of precious metal, and its all-important location hardly a secret from the audience given that the imagery is positively drenched in clues. But overall the film hangs together very well, and the best parts are visually intense and memorably thrilling.

Clip with Carmen Sevilla

scene from La Loba y la Paloma scene from La Loba y la Paloma scene from La Loba y la Paloma

Rating:   ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 4/5

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