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.


Death Weekend (1976)

... aka: House by the Lake, The

Directed by:
William Fruet

Thrillers featuring "normal" people being held hostage and terrorized by criminal degenerates were mighty popular during the 70s, thanks in no due part to the success of Sam Peckinpah's STRAW DOGS (1971) and Wes Craven's THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972). While Peckinpah's film was about the unfortunate *need* for violence (and how pacifism is more idealistic than realistic in contemporary society), Craven's dealt with how violence dehumanizes everyone involved, not just victims and their attackers, but also those involved in using violence to enact revenge. Most of the films influenced by these two trailblazers really didn't have much to say outside of what had already been said and usually went for straight-up exploitation. Death Weekend is something of a happy medium between exploitative thrills and substantative content. While many others of this type are a bit lopsided in painting those in the lower-class as the bad guys and the successful, wealthy ones as the victims, this film smartly counteracts that by making the rich guy 'victim' a scumbag, too. The key character to pay attention to here is the woman caught in the middle of it all. How she deals with the constant sexual threats and attempts by men to manipulate and violate her, and eventually triumphs over all of the macho bullshit, is the core of the film.

Rich, womanizing oral surgeon Harry (Chuck Shamata), who's used to having his way with the ladies, and a thrill-seeking, independent-minded model / actress Diane (Brenda Vaccaro) plan to spend a weekend at his isolated country mansion ten miles removed from civilization. He's promised a weekend party, but in actuality has lured her there simply to try to get her in the sack. On the road heading toward his place, Harry and Diane are harassed by a quartet of thugs, which escalates to a dangerous car chase. The thugs, led by the sadistic Lep (Don Stroud), end up wrecking their car and then go about hunting the duo down to enact their revenge. Thinking they've eluded the thugs, Harry and Diane make it to his home. He immediately gets to work trying to conquer his prey; attempting to impress her with his material possessions, complementing her physique, trying to ply her with drinks to loosen her up, etc. He's a bit disappointed to find out that Diane is having none of it. She's not naive... and after his spectacle, she's now not interested. Little does she know, Harry has already spied on her taking a shower and took photographs of her naked utilizing a two-way mirror.

When Diane figures out Harry isn't having a party and she's been tricked into going there, she insists he take her back to town. He tells her to walk. Before anyone can go anywhere, the thugs (who'd already taken time out of their busy schedule to drag a park ranger with their car) show up to turn Diane's annoyance with one man into a struggle for survival against four. Lep and company proceed to guzzle down liquor, bust out windows, destroy Harry's expensive decorations, grope and threaten Diane with rape and trash the entire home. After they take a ride in his speed boat and run over and kill two men, Diane realizes that if she doesn't manage to escape, she's going to be raped and killed. And later on that evening, after Harry is murdered, and she's set to get assaulted and sliced up with a razor, Diane's survivalist instincts kick in. Because she's shown to be a strong, assertive and intelligent woman from the very beginning, her resorting to violence in order to protect herself is a bit more plausible than usual for this type of film.

But don't get me wrong, not once does the director blatantly beat viewers over the head with the feminism stick. The film can simply be enjoyed as a rape-revenge or home invasion suspense thriller and that's that. I'm just pointing out that it happens to involve a woman who refuses to be influenced, compromised or overpowered by a man's wealth, power or physical strength and that certainly is no coincidence. In an interview with director Fruet I read years ago he stated that the husky-voiced Vaccaro basically shrugged this film off after she'd received an Oscar nomination for JACQUELINE SUSANN'S ONCE IS NOT ENOUGH (which was released the same year). I've read elsewhere that Vaccaro went all the way to England to plead the BBFC censors to allow the film to pass uncut; successfully. Either way, she needn't be embarrassed by her work here, nor the film itself. Her performance is very good and this material is actually far less offensive than brainless modern 'girl power' crap like CHARLIE'S ANGELS.

Aside from Vaccaro, the other actors all do fine work. All four of the men cast as the assailants (also including Richard Ayres, Kyle Edwards and Don Granberry) are convincing, display varying degrees of instability, actually look their parts and are given some kind of quirk to differentiate them from the others. From top to bottom, it's made with skill, and things get pretty grisly and violent at the end. The "road rage" incident that opens the film is based on an actual occurrence that happened to the director and his friend; who were harassed by a group of drunken thugs who tried to run them off the road while out driving in the country.

The film was released on VHS by Vestron. Sadly, there's no DVD release.

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