Tuesday, June 30, 2015

La malédiction de Belphégor (1967)

... aka: Curse of Belphegor, The
... aka: La mortale trappola di Belfagor (The Deadly Trap of Belfagor)

Directed by:
Georges Combret
Jean Maley (co-director)

Arthur Bernède was an accomplished stage writer who went on to also become an important figure in the early days of French silent cinema by co-writing (with Louis Feuillade) several popular serials centered around a shrouded, Shadow-like avenger named Judex. Along with Feuillade, fellow writer Gaston Leroux and actor René Navarre, Bernède helped to form the company Société des Cinéromans, a clever if short-lived outfit which produced both books and film adaptations of said books and released them simultaneously; one of the earliest examples of cross-promotion between entertainment mediums. Société des Cinéromans was eventually dissolved into Pathé Cinema in 1922. Five years later, Bernède wrote the crime novel Belphégor (released in America in 1929 as The Mystery of the Louvre), which centered around Simone Desroches, a villainous thief who “haunts” the famous Louvre museum in Paris in phantom garb and was likely influenced by his old pal Leroux's famous 1911 novel The Phantom of the Opera.  The same year the Belphégor novel was released, a film adaptation starring Navarre as a detective was made. Bernède kept busy the remainder of his days writing novels, screenplays, stage plays, operas and poetry until his death in 1937.

Belphégor the original novel and (below) the 1927 film adaptation.

Belphégor would not be revived again until nearly 40 years later with the release of Belphégor, ou La fantôme du Louvre ("Belphegor, or The Phantom of the Louvre"), a TV miniseries originally shown in four 72 minute increments on French TV in March 1965. The show, which is now considered a landmark program in its home country, was a massive success with audiences of the day. But where there's success there are vultures waiting in the wings ready to cash in. That leads us to La malédiction de Belphégor ("The Curse of Belphegor"), which is a completely unrelated film hoping to rope in the people who were impressed with the tele-film. It has next to nothing to do with Bernède's novel, aside from having a phantom character and using the Belphégor name. The people responsible for this cash-in were able to get away with it simply because "Belphegor" is also the name of a figure in demonology; one of the seven princes of hell. What they came up with not only didn't involve Bernède's creation but it also didn't involve the demon, but is instead a very minor, forgettable little mystery set in the cutthroat world of theater, where those involved in a stage production are bumped off one by one by a mysterious killer.

Belphegor, the demon of discovery and invention. Also makes for a great copyright scapegoat!

At the Opera of Toulon, the cast and crew hoping to put on a Satanism / human sacrifice-themed ballet (!) entitled “La malédiction de Belphégor” soon find their numbers dwindling. First up is the art director, who manages to fall and break his neck after a startle. Afterward, a large gold statue of the demon Belphégor that's set to be used as a centerpiece in the production starts playing what sounds like music. And then it talks. The voice coming from it tells a handful of the ballet's major players that he is “The master of you all!” and that they will all die if they continue on with the play. The voice then lays out the exact order in which they'll be killed. Among the targets are theater co-owners Garnier (Maurice Chevit) and Hubert Delaroche (Achille Zavata), writer Jacques Olivier (Marcel Charvey) and director Fred Daxo (Paul Guers). Police are called and an quick examination of the statue reveals no sound equipment anywhere on it, so the show must go on...

The theater premiere goes off without a hitch, playing to a packed house, good reviews and a month's worth of reservations. However, later that night, Garnier is stalked and stabbed to death with a dagger by an assailant cloaked in black, with gold-painted hands and wearing a gold mask identical to the face of the statue. Pinned to the body is a piece of signature music with Belphegor's name written on it. Inspector Raymond Legris (Raymond Souplex) and his assistant Jean Lefèvre (Jean Daurand) are called in to investigate and weed through the multiple suspects. Garnier was facing major financial problems and already had to sell most of his shares in the theater to Hubert. Garnier's immature 25-year-old ward Roger Rodin (Maurice Sarfati) becomes a chief suspect not only because he's set to inherit his late guardian's share but also because he jokingly threw a dagger at handyman Mr. Plumme (Raymond Bussières). However, Roger's just one of many suspects.

Claude Randall (Noëlle Noblecourt), a reporter for the newspaper Le Provençal, starts looking into matters and finds herself in a relationship with Roger, which begins with her just trying to pump info out of him but then blossoms into something more serious. Claude trails the masked killer back to a secluded, crumbling old farmhouse but doesn't reveal to anyone where it's at because she wants to solve the mystery all on her own. That ends up biting her in the ass when she's kidnapped and held prisoner in a locked room where she's tortured with high-frequency sound waves that manage to knock her unconscious. Later, she and Roger will find themselves tied up to a death trap with a large torch slowly heading toward them. As his coup d'etat, the killer eventually plots to murder the ballet's star attraction dancer, Nadia Strafort (Dominique Boschero), during a live performance right in front of the audience.

“They can't touch my legend. I'll be back!!! Belphégor.”

Among the plot complications (which are vague, confusing and very poorly handled) are blackmail, stolen confidential documents, infidelity and a conspiracy among multiple characters to get ownership of the theater away from its original owner. There's (mostly lame) comic relief from the half-senile old handyman and his frustrated wife (Annette Poivre), as well as a flamboyant gay who prances and skips around everywhere and has a boyfriend named Kitten.

The only interesting thing about this routine, murky film, and it isn't much, is that the killer is something of an electronics wiz. Thanks to hidden cameras and a large satellite dish, he's able to watch the action around his hideout and in the theater on a large TV monitor back in his lair. With the flip of a switch he can close and open doors, toss nets on victims, trap people in his torture room, etc. Elements are blatantly swiped from The Phantom of the Opera as well as numerous James Bond (most especially Goldfinger) and Fu Manchu films. We ultimately learn next to nothing about the killer or his motive and there's no adequate resolution to the film, as if this were intended to kick start a series that never happened.


Monday, June 29, 2015

Purana Mandir (1984)

... aka: Old Temple, The

Directed by:
Shyam Ramsay
Tulsi Ramsay

Starting with 1972's Do Gaz Zameen Ke Neeche (“Two Yards Under the Ground”), the Ramsay family, which includes father / frequent producer F.U. Ramsay (who “presented” / backed many of the films) and SEVEN sons (Shyam, Tulsi, Kiran, Gangu, Kumar, Arjun and Keshu Ramsay) who worked in various capacities on these films, began a horror film legacy in their home country that lasts to this very day. Among their cumulative credits are over 30 genre films and the popular TV series Zee Horror Show. Many outside of India have never even heard of the Ramsay clan nor seen one of their films. I too was one of those people before this fell into my lap. To be honest, I've purposely avoided Indian / Bollywood cinema until now because I've heard certain things about them which just didn't appeal to me. I've heard they're corny as hell. I've heard they're overlong. I've heard they are often structurally all over the place. I've heard that each film, regardless of genre, injects musical numbers and dancing into the works whether it melds with the plot or not. While the Ramsay family are fairly well-known in India, what they were churning out in the 70s, 80s and 90s was pretty much considered lowest common denominator entertainment in Bollywood.

A theatrical hit in its homeland, Purana Mandir (which translates to The Old Temple, though "The Old Palace" may have been more appropriate) was co-directed by brothers Shyam and Tulsi, written by Kumar Ramsay and shot by Gangu Ramsay. Arjun Ramsay was the associate director, Shyam was the editor, Tulsi was the production designer and the sound was by Kiran Ramsay. The producer is Kanta Ramsay (Kanta meaning “beautiful” or “desirable” in Hindi), who is perhaps the Ramsay matriarch or a Ramsay sister or the wife of one of the Ramsay brothers. Maybe I'll eventually figure it out. The only one who appears to have been a no show on this particular production was Keshu.

Things begin 200 years ago in the city of Bijapur. King Hariman Singh (Trilok Kapoor), his daughter and their guards are heading through the woods at night when they encounter the fanged, clawed, forest-dwelling demon Samri (Ajay Agarwal). Samri quickly gets to work slaughtering the men and also gets his hands on the princess. Direct eye contact with the particular demon results in eyes bleeding and turning white in an idea likely swiped from Horror Express (1972). Samri is eventually apprehended and brought before a tribunal, where he's convicted of raping virgins, killing and drinking the blood of children, grave robbing, feasting on corpses and other crimes so bad “even Satan would shun” him. Defying the advice of an old holy man, the king orders the creature's body be buried behind his palace and the head be placed inside a chained trunk with the Holy Trident of Shiva on top, which will then be bricked up inside a hidden chamber. Prior to the execution, Samri curses the king and tells him that as long as his head and body remain separated all of the female heirs in the family will die during childbirth, but if his head and body are somehow reunited, he will put an end to the king's dynasty altogether. I guess damned if you do, damned if you don't with this particular demon!

A series of kings come and go over the years and the palace is eventually vacated altogether and lost to the sands of time. Ranvir Ajit Singh (Pradeep Kumar), the king's last-living descendant, is a wealthy, important man who lives in a mansion in Bombay with his spinster sister Damyanti (Ashalata Wabgaonkar) and his beautiful teen daughter Suman (Arti Gupta). Suman is fast becoming a woman and Ranvir fears that if she falls in love, gets married and becomes pregnant she will die... just like his mother, who gave birth to him, and his wife, who gave birth to Suman. Suman knows nothing about the curse but she does know that her father doesn't want her to date anyone. Unbeknownst to him, she's been sneaking around with the handsome Sanjay (Mohnish Bahl) behind his back and has fallen for him despite the fact he comes from a poor family. Once Ranvir discovers what's going on, he attempts to pay off Sanjay to leave his daughter alone, but he refuses. He then has his bodyguards beat him up and whip him but Sanjay's karate-fighting (!) best friend Anand (Puneet Issar) shows up to save him.

Realizing that his attempts to keep the two young lovebirds apart is a battle he's going to lose, Ranvir decides to come clean about the family curse and the palace where the demon is buried. That prompts Suman and Sanjay, accompanied by Anand and his wife Sapna (Priti Sapru Walia), to sneak off to Bijapur to try to break the curse themselves. Upon arriving at the palace, they meet up with the current caretakers: watchman Durjan (Sadashiv Amrapurkar) and his “dumb” (i.e. retarded) mother Mangli (Sadhana Khote), who speaks only in unintelligibly gibberish. They're shown around and settle in, but it isn't long before all kinds of strange things begin happening. Eyes move on a painting, a portrait bleeds, a woodsman with a half melted face (Satish Shah) lurks around, a black cat and a snake attack and Suman keeps seeing visions of the demon, is caught up in a blood shower and falls down the stairs. Eventually the secret chamber is discovered, as is the chest, which contains Samri's still-living head. It promptly possesses the woodsman (who gets ping pong ball eyes as a result) and sends him out to reunite the head with the body. A gypsy (Dheeraj Kumar) and his “jungle slut” sister (Alka Noopur) also get involved in the action.

So let's go ahead and get the bad stuff out of the way first. This runs a whopping 144 minutes. That's nearly two-and-a-half hours. I wish I could say all that time breezed by but, honestly, it doesn't. There are five full musical numbers performed in this. While several of these are upbeat, include dancing and are fun to watch, there are two syrupy ballads (one of which - Woh Beete DiN Yaad Rahe - was a big hit in India) that are downright excruciating to listen to. Not only are the song lyrics revolting cheese, but these scenes actually harm the narrative. The first is put together like some filmed modeling portfolio with the two young stars posing and pouting in various positions on the beach and the second requires the leading lady to suddenly get jealous and all weepy over her boyfriend trying to get information from "jungle slut." However, even these corny, pointless little musical interludes (which are at least integrated into the plot) aren't what does the most damage here... 

Far more unforgivable is a lengthy and utterly useless “comic” subplot that has nothing at all to do with the main plot. While I don't want to go into too much detail about it, I'll just say it involves an armless man out for revenge, a 70-year-old woman who seems to enjoy being sexually assaulted, a rotten-toothed, completely over-the-top rapist buffoon who mugs directly into the camera and the man's six-member tribe of painted, spear-chucking “Indians” who wear rubber Halloween masks on the back of their heads (!) ... including one of Ronald Reagan (!!) To link these up with the existing characters, Anand meets the rapist guy and devises a scheme to save him from being executed multiple times by villagers to collect reward money; a plot that ends once the goon in thrown into a cage with a live bear. While these scenes may appeal to those who like gonzo filmmaking, they also detract from the pacing and otherwise serious mood of the rest of it. If I were given the job of editing this movie, I would cut all that nonsense, plus a few of the musical numbers, out and save everyone about 40 minutes of their precious time. Trust me, the film would be all the better for it.

But dammit, enough with the negative. I was much more pleasantly surprised by how much I loved pretty much all the rest of the movie. It's fun, fast-paced (whenever it kicks into gear) and even exciting in spots. Many of the horror sequences are also pretty stellar. They're not only edited, lit, photographed and scored in a rather inventive, off-kilter fashion, but the special effects makeup is pretty good and many of the locations used, as well as the art direction and use of both colorful lighting and lots of fog, ensure they're also extremely atmospheric. There's plenty of blood and gore, the design of the hairy demon creature is great and echoes of numerous American, British, Italian and Hong Kong horror movies are felt throughout. I also wouldn't be one bit surprised if there are several hundred zoom shots used in this film. That takes some getting used to but I eventually did. All in all, there was more than enough cool, bizarre-o stuff going on to make me glad I finally watched this.

Unlike most other Indian films, this has received an English-subtitled American DVD release from Mondo Macabro, who've paired it up with the 1990 Ramsay movie Bandh Darwaza (“The Closed Door”) for their Bollywood Horror Collection Volume 1 release. Mondo Macabro followed that up with Bollywood Horror Collection Volume 2, which includes Veerana: Vengeance of the Vampire (1988) and Purani Haveli / “Mansion of Evil” (1989),  and Bollywood Horror Collection Volume 3, which includes Tahkhana / “The Dungeon” (1986) and Mahakaal / “The Monster” (1993). All six of the Ramsay movies in these sets were co-directed by Shyam and Tulsi. To my knowledge, none of the rest of the 30+ films from the family have seen the light of day outside of India.

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