... aka: Edgar Wallace e l'abate nero
Franz Josef Gottlieb
I usually like to start out my reviews doing a cursory overview of the plot and characters, but I'm really going to have to restrain myself here. I could probably do a write-up as long as the Edgar Wallace novel this is based upon if I don't watch it. A very complex mystery that requires a viewer's full attention, this is filled with scheming, duplicitous characters who are all linked together in a variety of different ways. Each has a past and each has their own possible motive for murder. The events take place in and around the Chelford Manor; a huge estate owned by the paranoid and possibly insane Harry Chelford (Dieter Borsch) and rumored to have two-and-a-half tons of gold hidden somewhere on the grounds. The film opens with the murder of a man lurking around the abbey, who's stabbed in the back by a killer dressed in a black abbot's robe. Harry was just taking a midnight stroll around where the murder took place. His administrator Dick Alford (Joachim Fuchsberger) found the body... and left behind his pipe at the scene of the crime. Ex con butler Thomas Streisser (Klaus Kinski), who's now going by the alias Thomas Fortuna, also stumbled upon the body... and Dick's pipe next to it. These three are just the tip of the iceberg as far as suspects are concerned.
Scotland Yard Inspector Puddler (Charles Régnier) and his goofy assistant Horatio W. Smith (Eddi Arent) set up shop inside the Chelford home until the crime is solved and meet a host of potential murderers. Harry is engaged to be married to the much-younger Leslie Gine (Grit Böttcher), who's actually in love with Dick (and vice versa). Harry really has nothing to do with her ("Love is for people who lack the ability needed to face reality.") and just wants her to produce an heir. She claims she's only agreed to the loveless union because her lawyer brother Arthur (Harry Wüstenhagen) is in dire need of money. Harry's former private secretary (and lover) Mary Wenner (Eva Ingeborg Scholz) once almost became the Lady of the estate, until he tossed her aside. Now determined to get her hands on the treasure, she's discovered the whereabouts of the gold but isn't going to squeal until Harry and Leslie are split up so she can marry him and become the lady of the estate. Meanwhile, Fabian Gilder (Werner Peters), pudgy head office clerk at Arthur's firm, discovers his boss has falsified documents and forged signatures pertaining to the Chelford estate. Having already skimmed 160,000 dollars from the company using a variety of false names, Gilder decides to blackmail Arthur. What does he want? Well, he's also in love with Leslie and wants to marry her...
So basically, Harry is set to be married to Leslie who is actually in love with Dick but Fabian wants to marry Leslie and Mary wants to marry Harry. Aside from the romantic complications, there's are a lot of business intermingling I won't go into detail about. The less said about the mystery the better. Horror fans can feast on atmospheric, foggy scenes set in a cemetery and forest, a bat-filled secret tomb containing pieces of a treasure map, the (maybe) ghost of the (supposedly) dead former lady of the manor wandering the grounds and, or course, many sightings of the black abbot phantom figure. And, of course, several more murders as the suspect roster is whittled down. Though often confusing and hurt some by Arent's irritating comic character, it's well-acted and very handsomely photographed. Some of the camerawork is pretty offbeat (like an upside down shot flipping around) and there are some great catacomb sets used at the very end.
Something Weird originally released this on VHS and there's a restored German DVD from Kinowelt (which has an English subtitle option). Director Gottlieb directed numerous other Wallace adaptations (like the following year's The Phantom of Soho) and the non-Wallace vampire flick Lady Vampire (1975), which is difficult to find these days.