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

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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 Why don’t they bring Maria home from the convent, nurse the thoroughly mute and withdrawn girl back to health, then (and this is the really cunning part) have her tell them where the treasure is hidden?!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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El liguero mágico (Mariano Ozores, Spain, 1980)

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The first thing that happens after the title card fades is a woman heaves her face into view and warbles incoherently into the camera. And, as the saying goes, “it doesn’t get any better”. Or to be fair, it doesn’t get any more lucid.

This is a gothic haunted house spoof from Spain. Our bumbling hero must deal with a magic garter (for which read jewel-encrusted suspender belt) containing a secret message that (as far as I can gather) can only be read by candlelight reflected off the underside of the breasts of the otherwise naked wearer. Expect more hazards of the genre such as a possible bleeding nun at the bedside, and a manic snub-nosed chambermaid who communicates in oinks and hand gestures (she’s my kind of girl).

Horror fans will spot more specific references. You will see El Hombre Lobo of legendary actor and director Paul Naschy, and best of all the Blind Dead rising from their tombs. Gothic Spanish horror was a lot more violent and unforgiving in spirit than its more famous Hammer contemporaries. It’s not widely seen outside cult circles; the best known example is probably Horror Express (1972), which though a muddle is sometimes shocking in its brutal vigour.

I wonder what those people who sneer at the Carry On films for their broad comedy would make of this flatulent Euro snigger-fest? Actually I can guess: they’d say it was a vibrant and life-affirming repudiation of the repression of the Franco years. Which shows exactly where those people are coming from.

No masterpiece, but recommended for its rapid pace, in-jokes, gorgeous photography and art direction, and last but not least an uncompromising attitude to nudity (bodily hair included).

El liguero mágico clip with Adriana Vega

Adriana Vega in El liguero mágico Adriana Vega in El liguero mágico Adriana Vega in El liguero mágico

Rating:   ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 2/5

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“El liguero mágico” “Adriana Vega” “Mariano Ozore” “Spanish Horror”
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Los amantes frios (Julián Soler et al, Mexico, 1978)

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“Glassblower Loses Bottle” – that’s how The Sun might headline the story that forms the first part of this anthology from Mexico. I’m not quite sure of how this works, but it seems this artisan has run out of “puff”. One day he happens to notice that when his wife screams, he gets enough breath back to blow up any size of bottle he likes. Nothing if not an innovator he come up with increasingly inventive ways of either injuring or scaring the living daylights out of the poor woman (eg. venomous snake in toilet – see picture for effect). The resulting examples of local glassware go down a bomb in the marketplace, but what of his wretched wife? A lady can only run screaming through the house so many times before it begins to take its toll. And I know the hot climate means the much-abused spouse wears loose-fitting garments, but was she always properly underclothed? I worry about these things.

All three of these tales use very dark humour mixing sex and death. The morbid atmosphere and exquisitely framed cinematography are consistent throughout, which is surprising as they all have different directors. Tale number two tells of a recently widowed woman and the still-fresh corpse of her husband. For reasons too convoluted to fully divine this glamorous older lady buys a brand new gilded bed and entertains lovers upon it in the presence of the dear departed “stiff”. A sensual piece with much tantalising unfastening of feminine wearing apparel.

The final tale is lighter in atmosphere, and features another glamorous widow. It tells of a hold-up at a funeral when it is discovered the grave has not yet been dug, and of the intriguing discovery when a plot is hastily excavated. Overall this is a very fine anthology, amongst the best examples of blackly comic short stories I’ve seen. The satire is very reminiscent of Luis Alcoriza. It works better than that of Luis Buñuel, the gentle subversion being less revolutionary and thus hitting closer to home.

 

Los amantes frios clip with Aurora Clavel

Aurora Clavel in Los amantes frios Aurora Clavel in Los amantes frios Aurora Clavel in Los amantes frios

Los amantes frios clip with Pilar Pellicer

Pilar Pellicer in Los amantes frios Pilar Pellicer in Los amantes frios Pilar Pellicer in Los amantes frios

Rating:   ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 4/5

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“Los amantes frios” “Aurora Clavel” “Pilar Pellicer” “Mexican horror”
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L’Alliance (Christian de Chalonge, France, 1971)

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The wedding of the title is so perfunctory you are left uncertain that such a thing has actually taken place. Was it even consummated? It’s not like a French film to leave you in the dark about something like that. Hugues had advertised for a bride via an agency. “Shy vet seeks young beauty with rambling old house containing mysterious locked room”, he wrote, “please send photo of mysterious locked room”. Or at least if he had done he would have saved me a certain amount of exposition.

The young beauty who answers in the positive is Jeanne (Anna Karina). Surely there must be a catch in this? The house is musty and decrepit as only a locked-up town house can be. Putting aside any nagging doubts he may have over what happened to all the other shy young men who went before him and what she did with the bones, Hugues sets about renovating the place and turning it into a modern veterinary surgery.

They make a very dull household; just husband, wife, and housekeeper – and little to look forward to at bedtime either. At first Jeanne seems to be the sinister presence, with her mysterious shopping expeditions, and the vanishing chemical supplies. “What’s happened to all my ether?” – not a question you ever want to ask of your wife. Eventually we suspect that Hugues may be the odd one.

Initially this film shares much of the same atmosphere of the contemporary Le seuil du vide. The black-clad greying old matrons who bring increasingly exotic pets in for consultation are a peculiarly French thing. But the sinister shadow of the past is slowly replaced with the menacing trappings of a scientific age as Hugues gradually installs modern lighting and decor; a research laboratory follows. The animals that inhabit the cages around the walls become more bizarre. Not exactly dangerous, but forbiddingly strange. The housekeeper is the first to crack: “J’ai peur des animaux” she says before leaving. But what of Jeanne?

An absorbing curiosity, a little pretentious maybe, but with an original atmosphere and a notably peculiar ending.

Rating:   ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 3/5

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“L’Alliance” “The Wedding Ring” “Anna Karina” “Christian de Chalonge”
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Le seuil du vide (Jean-François Davy, France, 1972)

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What’s the single most boring way you can start a film? With an airliner taking off probably. (Remember the Jet Age?) That keynote of ‘sixties and ‘seventies glamour familiar from countless formulaic thrillers is enough to provoke a groan of despair. But the focus immediately pulls back to the foreground to show a young woman watching it depart. Short haired, handsome but a little gaunt, she seems to have been crying. Why has she been left behind? The cliché has worked for once; I want to know her story.

Putting aside her past for now, Wanda (Dominique Erlanger) on the spur of the moment takes a train to Paris. Already on the journey, independent and confident though she may be, she is feeling hints of alienation from the passengers packing her in to the threadbare compartment. Her most pressing worries are solved when a kindly old lady offers her a room; shabby it may be, but it’s cheap. Wanda, a painter, could be thirty but is part of the perpetual student class endemic to Paris. The black-clad old lady is a shadow of a bygone age. Nevertheless the two become close, the younger woman reminding her landlady of her youth. But she must promise to never, ever, no matter what, open the mysterious door in her room with the rusty lock. (Seriously folks, don’t open those kind of doors; you’ll have nothing but trouble.)

This is a story of a young woman’s alienation and breakdown, of shifting identities, of present times and lost times, and maybe of evil outside forces. This genre was especially common at the time, though of course can be traced back to The Yellow Wallpaper and beyond. The most obvious comparisons are from Roman Polanski (Repulsion (1965), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Tenant (1976)), amongst many others such as Larraz’s Symptoms (1974). Threshhold of the Void stands up quite strongly against them.

It picks up well on the particular loneliness of rooms at night in a strange city, the unfamiliar creaks from inside and the traffic noises from outside, the rare human voices becoming lost amongst them. The camera is used skillfully, and the art direction is sometimes uniquely beautiful and sinister. A weak point is a lack of range from the lead; she’s unconvincing once she has to go beyond the rather assured and distant persona of the earlier parts of the film. A good example of a rare genre, the French horror film.

 

Rating:   ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 4/5

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“Le seuil du vide” “Jean-François Davy” “Dominique Erlanger” “French horror”
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