Thursday, May 5, 2016

Horror (1963)

... aka: Blancheville Monster, The
... aka: Démoniac
... aka: Edgar Allan Poe: Horror
... aka: Edgar Allan Poe's Horror
... aka: Horror: The Blancheville Monster
... aka: Le manoir de la terreur (The Mansion of Terror)

Directed by:
"Martin Herbert" (Alberto De Martino)

A week before her 21st birthday, Emilie De Blancheville (“Joan Hills” / Ombretta Colli) returns to her family castle in England for the first time in many years, bringing along her best friend Alice Taylor (Irán Eory), who she met in college in America, and Alice's brother John (“Richard Davis” / Vanni Materassi). Since her father was burned to death in a fire while she was away, or so she's been told, Emilie's brother Rodéric (Gérard Tichy) has taken over and there have been a number of big changes made in the interim. For starters, all of the staff members Emilie remembers from her childhood are gone and they've all been replaced by a mysterious and shady new group of servants. The new housekeeper is Miss Eleonore (Helga Liné) who, despite being gorgeous and not the old crone usually seen in these films, is so solemn and sinister she manages to give Emilie a fright by just standing there, and new butler Alistair ("Frank Moran" / Paco Morán) isn't much better. The family physician, who'd treated the past three generations of the De Blancheville family has also been replaced by a newer / younger model in Doctor LaRouche (Leo Anchóriz).

During dinner, the visitors hear some strange noises that Rodéric tells them are dogs. Later that night, Alice wakes from her sleep to go on a midnight stroll, only to stumble upon some strange goings-on in the tower involving Eleonore, a syringe and a wailing, disfigured “monster.” Alice passes out, wakes in her bed and is told it was all in her imagination. Later, Rodéric gathers everyone together and finally spills the beans. The father wasn't actually killed in the fire; only severely disfigured and turned into a raving maniac in need of constant sedation. After Alice interrupted Eleonore giving him his treatment, he escaped into the woods and is now haunting the grounds. Carved on the headstone of the family tomb is a prophecy that states that the De Blancheville bloodline is set to end during this generation when the last female descendant reaches the age of 21. Now that her father is a grotesque madman, some believe he'd like to make the prophecy come true.

A search party is organized to scour the woods looking for the father but they can find no trace of him. That night, he pays a visit to Emilie, hypnotizes her and leads her outside to the family tomb and tries to temp her to crawl into her grave to experience “the sweetness of death.” Luckily for her, both the butler and the doctor saw her leave the castle and followed them there, which sends the father running off before he can complete his task. The next day, Emilie wakes up with a muddy nightgown feeling very peculiar, disoriented and with no idea what had happened the night before. She's not quite the same after that, starts having fainting spells and falls into a depression. Alice and her brother John (who's fallen in love with Emilie) attempt to find out just what's going on. Is her father really lurking around trying to fulfill the family prophecy? Is she being driven mad? Is she being slowly poisoned? Is someone making good use of Franz Anton Mesmer's book Hypnotism and Magnetism?

I consider myself a pretty patient person, but this dreary little mystery takes so long to really kick into gear it's going to make most people check out long before any of the better sequences even occur. Instead of the moody Gothic horror we all came to see, for a good hour we are treated to something more akin to a Gothic soap opera. It's talky, set bound and filled with the usual shady characters played by actors attempting to give off an ambiguously suspicious vibe. The numerous romantic entanglements get to be a bit much as well. Of course, Emilie and John have their thing but then we have the doctor falling in love with Alice who's already in love with Rodéric who already has a thing going on with Eleonore who's also got something going on with... Yeah, you get the picture.

Not that this doesn't have its moments. There's good, high contrast, shadow-filled black-and-white photography courtesy of Alejandro Ulloa, decent art direction, lots of candlelit strolls down dark corridors and all of the expected atmospheric Gothic accoutrements. At around the hour mark, there's a pretty good Corman-esque nightmare sequence shot on blank sets with lots of fog and use of superimposition. The last fifteen minutes are pretty solid, with all of the story threads getting adequately tied together. It helps that some of these later scenes take us outside the dreary castle to an amazing old crumbling church that looks identical to the main shooting location used in the first Blind Dead film. Hell, it may even be the same exact location. That place is far too cool not to show up in other horror films shot in Spain.

Shades of Edgar Allan Poe abound, as this pinches ideas from several of his stories, most obviously The Fall of the House of Usher, but also a little Premature Burial toward the end. Interestingly, Poe's name is nowhere in the film's actual credits but was used extensively in the advertising, with many posters placing his name right above the title.

The cast is fairly decent in this one and there are a number of lovely actresses on hand. Former beauty queen Eory (who was born Elvira Teresa Eory Sidi and took her stage name from her country of birth) and Colli, a frequent presence in peplum and sci-fi films for a number of years before becoming a singer and eventually a politician, are nothing to sneeze at. Hell, Colli even does the late night corridor shuffle at one point clad in a sheer nightgown that doesn't leave much to the imagination. However, it's the presence of a completely buttoned-up Liné (in her first genre role) that garners the most attention. Like Barbara Steele, this woman was absolutely perfect for these kind of films so it's no wonder she landed many other similar roles throughout her career. She's pretty much matched in the sinister department by Anchóriz in what was sadly his only horror role. How this man never got cast as Satan at least once in his career is beyond me.

Though a cut English-dubbed version was distributed by AIP for TV showings, this took forever to get a home video release here in America. That wouldn't occur until a rather shoddy print (the same dubbed AIP-TV cut) popped up on numerous cheap sets distributed by Alpha and Mill Creek in the mid 2000s. There are differences between the various releases but only minor ones, including a different opening sequence depending on which version you see. The British theatrical cut (which has the alternate opening not seen in the U.S. version) was made available on DVD by Retromedia in 2013, which was the best-quality version of the film up to that point. In France, they got a sepia-tinted VHS release in the 80s under the title Démoniac (Delta Video) and, in 2015, a widescreen remastered DVD under the title Le manoir de la terreur. Unfortunately, the latter doesn't come with an English option but the Retromedia release was just fine by my standards.

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