Thursday, January 5, 2012

La casa del sortilegio (1989)

... aka: Doomed Houses: The House of Witchcraft
... aka: House of Witchcraft, The
... aka: Le case maledette: La casa del sortilegio

Directed by:
Umberto Lenzi

Luke Palmer (Andy J. Forest) has been having a recurring nightmare for the past six months. In it, he encounters a grinning hag witch (Maria Clementina Cumani Quasimodo) after going to a large country home, and the dream always ends the same way: "...with my head boiling in that God damn huge cauldron!" So troubling are the dreams that Luke's checked himself into a hospital for a nervous breakdown. His widowed sister-in-law Elsa (Susanna Martinková) is his doctor. She gives him a few pills and asks about how his six-month-long marriage to Martha (Sonia Petrovna) is going. Not well, he says. There's no sex and she's obsessed with the occult. Elsa tells him to stop "dwelling on the morbid." Luke checks out and is picked up by his wife, who has arranged one final little get-away so the two can determine whether or not their marriage is worth saving. Going by the fact they sleep in separate bedrooms upon arrival and she refers to him as "the most abominable being in the world" at a larger junction, my advice is "Time for a divorce!" The house Martha has rented ends up being the same large country home from Luke's nightmare. If the bad omens couldn't get any worse, Luke and Martha are involved in a car accident where the passengers of the other vehicle end up dead. She shrugs it off and demands they split before the police arrive.

Upon arriving at the house, the couple meets the owner of the house; blind former concert pianist Andrew Mason (Paul Muller) and his German Shepherd, Eram. Andy tells them that he hasn't rented the home because it "exherts a sorcery upon whoever lives in it." Andrew's niece Sharon (Marina Giulia Cavalli) is headed there for a break between studies at "architecture school." Immediately, Luke begins seeing and hearing mysterious things. For starters, he witnesses a priest getting beat to death with a crow bar in the front lawn by the witch. The body disappears, but Luke finds a bloody bible and later discovers that the man's death was attributed to a hit-and-run accident. Does Luke do what any other rational human being would do and get the hell out of there? Of course not! Instead he invites his sister-in-law and her teenage daughter Deborah (Maria Stella Musy) down for the weekend. And things only get worse from there.

Everything becomes hopelessly convoluted after awhile. I guess we have the director to thank for that since he scripted this thing (basing it on a story from the prolific Gianfranco Clerici and Daniele Stroppa). Andrew tells Sharon their family is cursed because his wife had burned to death in a fire and her mother died giving birth to her, but what does any of that have to do with Martha; who dresses up in a white robe and - in a trance-like state - takes midnight strolls through the garden in a white robe? Martha also may be able to transform into a black cat; which pops up every time there's a death. She leaves Death tarot cards all over the place and the dog constantly "senses her evil" and won't stop barking. Martha also tries to run over Sharon and the dog with her car and may be possessed by the spirit of a witch who was bricked up behind a wall in the home several centuries earlier.

Deborah's boyfriend Steven (Alberto Frasca) tries to sneak over for some lovin' but "banana oil" (her pet name for him - gag!) gets chopped with a pair of hedge clipped and pushed down a artesian well. Deborah herself ends up trapped in the cellar and gets stabbed to death. In the film's only standout scene, Deb's mama goes down to the basement only to find that it's snowing and her daughter is a rotten-faced ghost. There are sudden gusts of wind, flying feathers, vases and lights exploding in slow-motion and plants wilting, bleeding and smelling like rotten flesh. The film has a very confused sense to the paranormal elements. Aside from the standard witchcraft, tarot cards and the family curse, there's mention of the madness-inducing orchids from the West Indies and Haitian voodoo, plus a special medallion full of Egyptian symbols. A skeletal, maggot-faced grim reaper with a scythe even makes a special appearance during the finale.

The production values are fair, the music score's OK, there's a decent shooting location as well as some blood (including several decapitations) and brief nudity (which doesn't happen until the last ten minutes). Cast-wise, the actress playing the old witch does an effective enough job and it's nice to see genre vet Muller again. Sadly, all of the positives are constantly at odds with the terribly muddled plotting and laughable dialogue (the horrid English dub certainly doesn't help matters), which keep this from realizing its full potential.

Amongst his fellow Italian directors, Lenzi had one of the most varied careers. He all but started the Italian cannibal craze with 1972's MAN FROM DEEP RIVER (later adding EATEN ALIVE BY CANNIBALS and CANNIBAL FEROX to the cycle), made many gialli (four of which starred American actress Carroll Baker) and even made slasher (1988's NIGHTMARE BEACH), zombie (1980's NIGHTMARE CITY), haunted house (1987's Ghosthouse) and demon (1991's Black Demons) movies. Sadly, this trip to the witch well (a popular subgenre at the time) sinks.

This was the third entry in a proposed four-part series entitled "Le case maledette" (or "The Doomed Houses"), which were intended to play on Italian TV, though some apparently didn't. The others were THE HOUSE OF CLOCKS This was the third entery and The Sweet House of Horrors (both directed by Lucio Fulci) and House of Lost Souls, also from Lenzi.


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