Ratings Key

= Excellent. The best the genre has to offer.
1/2 = Very Good. Perhaps not "perfect," but undoubtedly a must-see.
★★★ = Good. Accomplishes what it sets out to do and does it well.
★★1/2 = Fair. Clearly flawed and nothing spectacular, but competently made. OK entertainment.
★★ = Mediocre. Either highly uneven or by-the-numbers and uninspired.
1/2 = Bad. Very little to recommend.
= Very Bad. An absolute chore to sit through.
NO STARS! = Abysmal. Unwatchable dreck that isn't even bad-movie amusing.
SBIG = So Bad It's Good. Technically awful movies with massive entertainment value.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

El rostro del asesino (1967)

... aka: Hand of the Assassin, The
... aka: Hand of the Killer

Directed by:
Pedro Lazaga

This long-forgotten Spanish horror-mystery (currently with just 10 votes on IMDb) has its ups and downs, but I enjoyed it. Romano (José María Caffarel), who runs an old hotel and is having financial problems, his much younger wife Margarita (Katia Loritz), a bitter former singer who despises her life and husband and has turned to the bottle for comfort, and their butler Pablo, send the rest of the staff home and decide to stick out a bad thunder storm there at the hotel. The storm dumps several feet of water, roads flood, the phone goes out and several travelers end up also seeking shelter there. One of the travelers, Oscar Aguilar, has a briefcase full of money, and if you've seen enough of these things you'll know that he doesn't last very long. After he turns up dead (right in the middle of one of Margarita's song-and-dance numbers), the briefcase turns up missing and suspicion basically falls on everyone. The guests, including Suarez (Fernando Sancho), Carlos (Germán Cobos), Lydia (Paloma Valdés), Lydia's irritating granny (Julia Delgado Caro), Oscar's heroine-addicted wife Elena (Perla Cristal), a colonel ("Jorge" / George Rigaud), a professor (Agustín González) and a few others, decide to just lock themselves in their rooms for the night and deal with it the next day.

Now we're at about the half-hour mark, and I've loved what I've seen so far. Sure, the same exact story has been done to death and the (dubbed) dialogue is pretty awful, but the movie is visually very interesting up to this point. The colors - mostly white interiors lit up with bold lighting choices, mainly orange and purple, but also red and blue - reminded me of Bava in their garishness, and some shots even contain three or four different colors that almost seem to leap out at you. Some of the camera-work, which is very sophisticated for the time, even reminded me of the cinematography in Argento movies. There are lots of flowing tracking shots following characters through hallways and corridors, some nicely done low and high angle shots, a few interesting and odd POV camera placements and even some well-done crane shots going up to the second floor or the side of the hotel. Immediately after the murder, the camera is placed on the ground and looks up at all the suspects as it spins in a circle. The direct of photography (Víctor Monreal) did an imaginative and innovation job shooting the film.

Unfortunately, as night turns to day and the principal characters wake and start investigating the murders, the film comes to a screeching halt. The colors seems to disappear and there's way too much flat and stilted dialogue. Sure we want to know who the killer is and where the money disappeared to, but this mid-section provides little of interest and lots of tedium. Thankfully, the film manages to rebound during the last twenty minutes as more people turn up dead and great use is made out of scenic outdoor settings. I have to respectfully disagree with some other reviews about the location used. Sure it doesn't look like your typical hotel, but it's a massive old crumbling castle with very high ceilings and huge archways that reminded me of sets used during the silent era. It was filmed at the picturesque Monasterio of Piedra ("Monastery of the Rock"), a former castle that was converted over to a place of worship in 1194. I did a little research and discovered that its construction passed through three separate architectural phases; Gothic, Renaissance Gothic and Classical-Baroque, which explains its unique look. Even better, outside of the monastery walls is a huge outdoor garden full of plants, mosses, walkways, rope bridges, rivulets and huge waterfalls. They wisely decided to shoot the final suspense scenes here, and cap it off with an unexpected twist or two, which makes for a fairly nice finish.

Now if it weren't for that bloody boring middle portion (or at least some better-written dialogue during those talky passages), I would have given this a higher rating. Fans of old-fashioned Gothic horror films will likely enjoy it, though be forewarned there's not a single drop of blood in the entire film and almost all of the violence takes place off-screen.

The title I saw this under was The Hands of the Assassin; apparently an American TV print. I've already mentioned the negligible dubbing, but I'm not sure whether this was censored or not. I don't remember too many bad editing cuts, so I doubt much is missing from it. The print quality isn't bad at all.


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