The House of Exorcism (1975): restrospective review

House of Exorcism Elke Sommer and Robert Alda
In cults circles (especially among fans of Italian horror cinema in general and director Mario Bava in particular), THE HOUSE OF EXORCISM is probably the most (in)famous alternate film version in existence – a complete do-over of Bava’s excellent and ethereal LISA AND THE DEVIL (1973) with added scenes of (you guessed it!), exorcism and all that entails: bile, vomit, and profanity. What may make HOUSE OF EXORCISM unique among alternate versions is that (as its producer Alfredo Leone is fond of pointing out) it actually has a separate copyright date, distinguishing HOUSE OF EXORCISM as a separate film unto itself. The irony here is that, if HOUSE OR EXORCISM holds any interest at all (a position seriously open to debate), that interest lies not on the merits of the film itself but on its relationship to LISA AND THE DEVIL.
The original is an atmospheric, ambitious work, filled with suggestion and ambiguity about a tourist named Lisa (Elke Sommer) who loses her way and ends up in a chateau with a strange family, who seem to recognize her as someone named Helena. Is she a reincarnation of a dead woman, or are these the ghosts of the past? Is Leandro (Telly Savalas) simply a butler, or is he an incarnation of the Devil, tormenting Lisa by making her relive events of her previous life over and over?  In the manner of many such movies, which combine artistic aspirations with genre obligations, it’s not a fully satisfying experience in a conventional sense, and it’s sometime hard to determine whether the questions lingering over the narrative are a part of an intricate puzzle box or simply a matter of sloppy screenwriting. Fortunately, the film bravura visual qualities pull you into its weird world, so that any puzzling plot developments become part of the dreamlike experience.
Apparently this was too much for U.S. distributors, who passed on LISA AND THE DEVIL after it was completed in 1973. Hoping to get some return on his investment, Leone went back and shot more footage (apparently directing the additions himself) featuring Sommer and Robert Alda as a priest. The result was THE HOUSE OF EXORCISM, which was released in Italy in 1975 and in the U.S. in 1976 – a film that mimics THE EXORCIST (1973) only close enough to remind viewers how inferior the ripoff is.
HOUSE OF EXORCISM begins with a much more bombastic opening music cue, beneath a completely revised opening credits sequence, with graphics emphasizing crosses against garish red backgrounds. After that, there is some attempt to simulate the visual style of the original, and the new footage blends relatively seamlessly at first (though sharp-eyed viewers will note that Leandro is shot only from behind to disguise the absence of Savalas). In the added scenes, instead of simply losing her way and hitching a ride that takes her to the chateau, Lisa suffers some kind of fit; taken to a hospital, she exhibits signs of possession, so Father Michael (Alda) performs an exorcism, which more or less lasts the rest of the film, with footage from LISA AND THE DEVIL intercut like flashbacks or dreams.
The possession scenes pilfer THE EXORCIST’s bag of tricks, adding little new and nothing worthwhile. There is some stunt work with a contortionist that’s halfway creepy and some belabored attempts to use adult nudity and innuendo show the evil spirit tormenting the priest with his guilty feelings over an affair from before he took to the cloth; a particularly risible moment occurs when Father Michael’s dead girl friend materializes to seduce him – in a room whose walls are covered in puke (it doesn’t help that the hospital set, where the exorcism takes place, looks more like a toolshed). Like almost every other film that followed in the wake of director William Friedkin’s version of William Peter Blatty’s best-seller, HOUSE OF EXORCISM eschews any attempt at grappling with its subject matter in a realistic way, instead simply serving up a bunch of recycled cliches like so many obligatory genre elements: Lisa contorts, pukes, and levitates on cue because that’s what happens in a film with “exorcism” in the title – but it’s all gratuitous mayhem, with no thematic underpinnings.
There are a few transitional bits to visually justify cross-cutting between the two narrative threads (i.e., as Lisa wanders lost in a scene from the original, the camera zooms in on a broken pocket watch, before cutting to a closeup of someone looking at his wrist watch in the hospital to which Lisa has been taken in the new footage). However, the logical connection between the two threads remains elusive. In one early addition, a repairman, working on a mannequin for Leandro, notes that Lisa looks exactly like Helena, suggesting that Leandro plans to “use” her tonight, instead of Helena – presumably in the drama about to unfold at the chateau. Later in the hospital, the possessed Lisa declares to no one in particular, “You won’t use me in your games tonight!” The implication seems to be that the scenes in the chateau represent events that the spirit of Helena is somehow avoiding by possessing the body of Lisa. Or something like that…
What is mildly interesting is that the film eventually feels some obligation to spell out, however incoherently, what is happening. In between hurling profanity and invective at Father Michael (“Don’t break my balls, priest!”), Helena, speaking through Lisa, offers a sort of running commentary on the events in the chateau, spelling out not only what is happening but also why. In a sense, she becomes the Greek Chorus, explaining the story to the audience.
The completely unexpected result of this is that HOUSE OR EXORCISM emerges feeling less like a ripoff of THE EXORCIST and more like DAUGHTER OF HORROR, the re-release version of DEMENTIA (1955), which added narration to clarify a nightmarish scenario that was originally intended to perplex audiences with its dreamlike surrealism. Is this enough to make HOUSE OF EXORCISM interesting, even if not worthwhile? Not really. The explanation proffered by HOUSE OF EXORCISM makes little sense. Unlike DAUGHTER OF HORROR, whose narration may actually have enhanced the movie, providing answers that did not feel tiresome or trite, HOUSE OF EXORCISM does not emerge as an intriguing alternate version; its exposition simply reminds us that we would have been better off watching LISA AND THE DEVIL and figuring things out for ourselves.
In HOUSE OF EXORCISM, Helena is speaking in the past tense about things she has experienced, but she also insists that these events at the chateau are taking place again tonight, though it is not completely clear how that could be possible without her participation. Are we to assume that Helena and Lisa’s spirit have traded places and that Lisa is now in Helena’s place, trapped in some kind of limbo where the events of the past repeat endlessly? If so, the explanation is unsatisfying – why should Lisa suffer for Helena’s sins? As elusive as the original film was, the implication ultimately was that Lisa and Helena were the same, and the events in the chateau represented her past – perhaps another lifetime – catching up with her.
With this element obliterated, the ending pushes Lisa aside to focus on Father Michael as he travels to the chateau to exorcise the house itself. Why? No particular reason, except perhaps that placing this new character in the setting from the old footage would forge a slightly stronger link between the film’s two narrative threads. This leads to a relatively uneventful climax in which the priest wanders around the building, assaulted by wind and threatened by snakes, while shouting to cast out the devil.An abruptly edited flash of lightening seems to show him going up in a puff of smoke, but by that time viewers are past caring.
HOUSE OF EXORCISM is, top put it bluntly, an abomination. Back in 1975, when there was no other way for  U.S. viewers to see LISA AND THE DEVIL in any form, there may have been some justification for the existence of HOUSE OF EXORCISM; now, however, the film is nothing more than a historical footnote, a curiosity for Bava fans who want to see the their idol’s masterpiece bastardized into one in a long line of EXORCIST ripoffs. As understandable as producer Leone’s intentions were (was it better to leave the film unseen in  a vault or get it on the screen in some form?), HOUSE OF EXORCISM takes Bava’s intriguing original and spoils it with crude vulgarity. If you really want to see a marriage of LISA AND THE DEVIL and THE EXORCIST, rent both of them and watch them back to back.
house_of_exorcism_poster_01THE HOUSE OF EXORCISM (1975). Produced by Alfredo Leone. Directed by Mario Bava and Alfredo Leone (as Mickey Lion). Written by Mario Bava, Alberto Cittini, Alfred Leone, Giorgio Maulini, Romano Migliorini, Roberto natale, Francesca Rusishka. Cast: Telly Savalas, Elke Sommer, Sylva Koscina, Alessio Orano, Gabriele Tinit, Kathy Leone, Eduardo Fajardo, Carmen Silva, Franz Von Treuberg, Espartaco Santoni, Alida Valli, Robert Alda. Rated R. 92 minutes.

Blood and Black Lace: Spotlight Podcast 5-11.2

BloodAndBlackLace_Poster resize

A fashion institute becomes a charnel house of death when a masked madman stalks a sextette of glamorous models, each of whom has come in contact with a diary containing a secret that the killer must – at any cost – keep from prying eyes…

It’s time for a 50th Anniversary Podcast celebration of Mario Bava’s BLOOD AND BLACK LACE (a.k.a., Sei Donne per L’Assassino – i.e., “Six Women for the Assassin”). This horrifying 1964 thriller, which sets violent murder in a world of high-fashion glamour, set the template for the Italian genre known as Giallo, which would percolate throughout the cinematic bloodstream for decades to come, offering violent murder-mysteries populated by beautiful victims and masked, black-gloved psycho-killers. Yet Bava’s original stands above the rest, all these decades later, thanks to the director’s genius for stylization – ranking among the best efforts ever in the horror genre.
With two-thirds of the regular Cinefantastique podcasting crew on hiatus, Steve Biodrowski hosts guests Keith Hennessey Brown (Giallo Fever) and Roderick Heath (This Island Rod) in a detailed discussion of what makes BLOOD AND BLACK LACE stand the test of time.


[serialposts]

Dario Argento's Dracula – review

dracula3d

Would be more accurately titled “Dario Argento’s Whatever Popped into My Head.”

DARIO ARGENTO’S DRACULA (as the title appears on screen) is nowhere near as laughably ridiculous as his previous foray into costume bedecked Gothic Horror, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1998), but that is still a long way from good. Fans who take a look out of a misguided sense of loyalty may find a few drops of gory glory in Luciono Tovoli’s luscious cinematography, but like the titular character, the film itself presents a handsome appearance hiding a corrupt, empty soul – animated by blood but devoid of any true life.
The screenplay, loosely cobbled together from Bram Stoker’s novel, feels as if it were written by someone who had read the original text, then scribbled down some fragmentary notes while half awake after suffering a fever dream in which bits and pieces of the source were jumbled together with other adaptations. That may sound off-the-wall enough to be interesting; unfortunately, the finished film feels as if it did not go before the cameras until the fervid dreamer’s mental state had been counter-acted with a heavy dose of valium. Dario Argento’s DRACULA is not only insane; it’s insanely dull.
The story restricts itself to the environs surrounding Dracula’s castle, including a village that owes its prosperity to the Count (though at a terrible price). Jonathan Harker (an unimpressive Unax Ugalde) shows up to catalog Dracula’s library (a plot device lifted from 1958’s HORROR OF DRACULA), but it turns out that the vampire is not really interested in getting his books in order. What he is interested in does not emerge until various other stuff has happened, little of which shows Dracula acting in a way designed to bring about the goal he eventually reveals: getting Mina Harker to his castle because she is the reincarnation of his lost love.
That’s right: Argento re-roasts the old garlic-laced chestnut previously used in DARK SHADOWS; SCREAM, BLACULA, SCREAM; Dan Curtis’s 1974 telefilm version of DRACULA; and Francis Ford Coppola’s overwrought (and embarrassingly mis-titled) BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA. That, however, is not the real problem.

Exactly why did Dracula need to seek victims in Van Helsing's mental hospital? Don't ask!
Exactly why did Dracula need to seek victims in Van Helsing's mental hospital? Don't ask!

The real problem is the same one that plagued THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA: Argento randomly inserts a series of expository scenes and violent set pieces that overshadow the original narrative. You would think that a story about blood-drinking vampires that can be destroyed only be staking and decapitation would provide ample opportunity for sanguinary delights, but that is not enough for Argento, who takes time out to show Renfield splitting someone’s head open with a shovel and another Dracula acolyte hacking someone to death with an ax. As if that were not enough, Van Helsing (Rutger Hauer) is given a back story via flashback, in which he first learned about vampires when he witnessed Dracula attacking the patients of his mental hospital (um, why?); and later Dracula manifests as a giant praying mantis that impales a human victim on its pinchers before eating his head – a scene whose irrelevancy suggests the film should be retitled “Dario Argento’s Whatever Popped into My Head.”*
Consequently, when the scenes from Stoker’s Dracula do arrive (such as the staking of Lucy, played by Asia Argento) they are anti-climactic, their impact diluted by the gore that came before. At times, these bits seem simply shoe-horned into the film at random, as when the famous scene from the book of Dracula, scaling the castle wall like a lizard, flashes by for a second – just long enough for us to wonder why it’s in the film. (For dramatic effect, he pauses to hiss – at nothing in particular, unless perhaps it is the audience.)
It’s not only the onscreen blood that’s thinned by this approach; Stoker’s narrative beats are dulled as well, rendered as obligatory after-thoughts. A major element of the novel is Lucy’s transformation from innocent British lass to sultry vampiress. Argento’s DRACULA, however, begins with a local village girl, Tanya (Miriam Giovanelli) bitten by Dracula and turned into the vampire bride who greets Jonathan Harker when he reaches the castle. Since we have already seen this human-to-vampire transformation take place once, when Lucy’s turn arrives it has a been-there-done-that quality to it, with Argento tossing it off as quickly as possible.
It hardly helps that Argento goes out of his way to sexualize Dracula’s female victims before they fall under his spell: Tanya gets lusty sex scene with her married lover; Lucy and Mina Harker (Marta Gastini) get a nude bathing scene (yes, Dario films his daughter naked once again).  With the women already sexy, there is no opportunity for a startling transformation from virginal innocence to voluptuous wantonness, further undermining the story. (This might have worked if Argento had deliberately inverted expectations, suggesting that the more sexually liberated characters are less likely to be seduced by Dracula’s erotic allure, but no such luck.)
All of this underlines one of the film’s major failings: the story has been ripped out of its original context, robbing scenes of their effectiveness, and little if anything substantial has been added to replace what was lost. Stoker’s Dracula is about an ancient evil that invades modern London, transforming everything it touches with a bloody version of the Midas Touch, spreading a contagion that could potentially sweep the entire country. Argento’s DRACULA is about some guy who wants to get back together with his old girlfriend and doesn’t mind who he has to kill to do it.
This Dracula is a sloppy eater. (The grizzly effect recalls a similar moment in Argento's PHANTOM OF THE OPERA.)
This Dracula is a sloppy eater. (The grizzly effect recalls a similar moment in Argento's PHANTOM OF THE OPERA.)

Unlike London in the novel, the European setting of the film, the village of Passburg, is mere background; Dracula’s impact on it barely registers. There is talk of a pact between the villagers and the Count – presumably a non-aggression pact, though what the villagers get out of it is not clear, and the idea seems to exist only so that there can be a scene wherein some villagers talk about breaking the pact, whereupon Dracula kills them all, providing another opportunity for carnage not related to the main story (including a grizzly throat-ripping and a nicely rendered though completely gratuitous scene of the Count telepathically inducing a victim to blow his own brains out with a gun).
I know what you’re saying: It’s a Dario Argento film – who cares about the plot? It’s the bravura visuals that count! Aye, there’s the rub. Argento’s DRACULA superficially simulates the look and approach of classic Hammer horror films, with a familiar narrative dressed up in colorful new accoutrements, erotically charged and splashed with blood, but the similarity ends there. The staging of the action is lethargic, lacking the gusto of director Terrence Fisher’s work in HORROR OF DRACULA (compare the Count’s interruption of Harker’s brief encounter with vampire bride in both films, and you’ll see what I mean).
In fact, with its more overt sex and nudity – not to mention directorial indulgence – Argento’s DRACULA more resembles a Ken Russell film, but the flamboyance here seems more scatter-shot than enjoyably excessive. The same pictorial beauty is there, the same unfettered urge to overthrow MASTERPIECE THEATRE-style reticence in favor of explicit eruptions of disreputable imagery that would be proscribed in more “respectable” fare. The difference is that, as wild as he was, Russell usually seemed to have a point, and unlike Argento, he knew when he had overstepped the boundary of outrageousness into deliberate camp, inviting the audience to laugh along with him at the material (e.g., THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM).
Argento, on the other hand, seems merely clueless. As a result, DRACULA feels like a more lavishly produced version of 1970s Euro-trash, or a more beautifully photographed version of a Paul Naschy film (think FRANKENSTEIN’S BLOODY TERROR) but without the joyful exploitation energy that made that kind of cinema fun, regardless of whether it was “good” by conventional standards.
Perhaps it’s needless to say that this approach drains the actors of any dramatic blood. Not only do the English-language vocal performances sound phoned in by bored thespians; the cast tends to act as if they never read a script but simply had it explained to them over the phone, after which they arrived on set and Argento simply said, “Do that thing we talked about.” If you hadn’t seen Thomas Krestschmann, Rutger Hauer, and Asia Argento doing better work elsewhere, you might think they were the most untalented actors on the planet. Krestschmann (who was frighteningly deranged in Argento’s THE STENDHAL SYNDROME) is most ill-served, rendering a static Dracula who lacks the hypnotic seductivness of Bela Lugosi, the predatory dynamism of Christopher Lee, and the romantic allure of Frank Langella; hell, he even makes Gary Oldman look good!
For all the film’s faults, DRACULA does feature Claudio Simonetti’s best non-Goblin score, an orchestral work that ditches the composer’s usual synthesizers in favor of theramin and violin solos; sadly, he squanders the dramatic effect of the background music by adding a goofy song over the closing credits, “Kiss Me, Dracula.” which borders on the embarrassing.
Forget the quality of the CGI. The sudden appearance of this praying mantis suggests it wandered in from the set of a sci-fi film.
Forget the quality of the CGI. The sudden appearance of this praying mantis suggests it wandered in from the set of a sci-fi film.

Also, there are a few nice old-fashioned effects – simple jump-cuts and dissolves, used to depict Dracula’s appearances and disappearances – mixed in with more modern computer-generated imagery that turns the count into an owl, a wolf, and an insect (but never a bat, strangely enough – guess that was too old hat). The computerized effects are variable, at times bad. Probably the best use of the digital process is that it allows Argento to fool around with the visual palette in a way we haven’t seen since the post-production Technicolor trickery of SUSPIRIA. On this level only – creating a surreal dreamscape of wooded forests worthy of an adult fairy tale – can Argento’s DRACULA be reckoned a success.
Argento’s career has been hit and miss since the mid 1980s (starting with PHENOMENON). After the dreary low-point of the 1990s, he at least somewhat returned to form in the new millennium, with SLEEPLESS (2001), THE CARD PLAYER (2004), and MOTHER OF TEARS (2007). If we can take any solace from this erratic trajectory, it is that a sharp downswing need not be permanent. If Argento could recover from THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, then perhaps he can recover from DRACULA.
[rating=1]
On the CFQ scale of zero to five stars: a strong recommendation to avoid.

Click to view on demand
Click to view on demand

If you ignore our suggestion, you can view the film via Amazon Video on Demand, or purchase it on Blu-ray or DVD through the Cinefantastique Online Store.

TRIVIA

For those interested, here are some bloody bits that Argento’s DRACULA culls from other Dracula movies – not from Stoker’s text:

  • Dracula wears an outfit that suggests NOSFERATU (1922).
  • Jonathan Harker comes to Castle Dracula not to wrap up a real estate transaction but to catalog the Count’s library. This happened in HORROR OF DRACULA (1958).
  • Jonathan Harker is bitten by Dracula in Transylvania. This happened in HORROR OF DRACULA. Something similar happens in DRACULA (1931), but it is Renfield rather than Harker who travels to Castle Dracula.
  • Jonathan Harker is turned into a vampire who is destroyed by Van Helsing. This happened in HORROR OF DRACULA and in the 1974 telefilm DRACULA with Jack Palance.
  • Count Dracula has only one vampire bride instead of three. Taken from HORROR OF DRACULA.
  • Count Dracula is seeking the reincarnation of his lost love. This happened in the Jack Palance telefilm and in BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992). The concept had previously been used in DARK SHADOWS and SCREAM, BLACULA, SCREAM. Its origin goes back to THE MUMMY (1932), a sort of unofficial remake of DRACULA, starring Boris Karloff.
  • The action never moves to England, instead remaining in Europe. Again, from HORROR OF DRACULA.

FOOTNOTE:

  • This is not entirely a joke. In my interview with Argento regarding MOTHER OF TEARS, he summed up his goal as a filmmaker by saying, “This is my purpose really. To [make] real my imagination, my fantasies.” As if his goal were simply to take what was in his mind and put it on the screen.

Dracula shows Mina the tomb of his lost love, Dolingen of Gratz (a name taken not from Stoker's novel but from the short story "Dracula's Guest")
Dracula shows Mina the tomb of his lost love, Dolingen of Gratz (a name taken not from Stoker's novel but from the short story "Dracula's Guest")

DARIO ARGENTO’S DRACULA (a.k.a., ARGENTO’S DRACULA, DRACULA 3D, 2012). U.S. Release theatrical release in October 2013, home video release on January 28, 2014; distributed by IFC Midnight. Directed by Dario Argento. Screenplay by Dario Argento, Enrique Cerezo, Stefano Piani, Antonio Tentori; based on the novel by Bram Stoker. Music by Claudio Simonetti. Cinematography by Luciano Tovoli. Cast: Thomas Krestschmann as Dracula; Marta Gastini as Mina Harker; Asia Argento as Lucy Kisslinger; Unax Ugalde as Jonathan Harker; Miriam Giovanelli as Tanya; Rutger Hauer as Van Helsing. 150 minutes. Not rated. In 3D.

Podcast 4-49.2: Time of the Doctor, Laserblast & Nightmare Castle

Doctor-Who-Christmas-Speci crop
In Cinefantastique’s final Black Hole Ultra-Lounge Podcast of 2013, Dan Persons and Steve Biodrowski wrestle with the trailer for LEGEND OF HERCULES, travel to the end of Matt Smith’s time as the Doctor, examine the current slate of home video releases for Tuesday, December 31, and explore the public domain horrors of NIGHTMARE CASTLE (a.k.a. AMANTI DOLTRATOMBA [“Lovers from Beyond the Tomb”]), a 1965 Gothic chiller starring Queen of Horror Barbara Steele. The highlight is a review of TIME OF THE DOCTOR, in which Matt Smith winds up his tenure as the famous Time Lord and turns the TARDIS over to Peter Capaldi. Is it a worthwhile farewell or simply a gimmicky geek lovefest? Listen in to find out!


[serialposts]

Beyond the Door II (1977) – Horror Film Review

BEYOND THE DOOR II (titled SHOCK in its native Italy) is the last directorial effort from cult figure Mario Bava, the cinematographer-turned-director who created such horror classics as BLACK SUNDAY (1960) and BLOOD AND BLACK LACE (1965). Unfortunately, this is a weak swan song, a coda that reprises motifs from his earlier operas, but without the bravura brio that elevated those works to the level of macabre art. The film is not without interest to fans with patience to sit through the dull recitatives in exchange for the occasional beautiful aria, but the pleasures are few and far between: the anticipation elicited by the patented slow tracking shots that seem to draw the viewer into the movie; the uneasy shudder as the statue of a hand, propelled by an unseen force, slides along a display case and crashes to the floor; the delirious vertigo of an anti-gravity shot – a prostrate woman’s hair floating up into the hair -that perfectly conveys the mind-spinning rapture of an erotically-charged encounter with her dead lover. Read More