Saturday, September 30, 2023

Las crueles (1969)

... aka: Cruel Ones, The
... aka: El cadáver exquisito
... aka: Exquisite Cadaver, The
... aka: Finom holttest (Nice Corpse)

Directed by:
Vicente Aranda

A despondent-looking young woman emerges from some dried corn stalks, takes off her jacket, kneels down and then lies her head on the tracks right before a train comes barreling through. Years later, a book editor (who is annoyingly never given a name despite being the lead character, but is played by Carlos Estrada so I'll be calling him "Carlos" from here on out) receives a small package wrapped in yellow paper. Inside is what appears to be a severed human hand. He refuses to touch it, insists it's fake, made out of wax and must be some kind of joke and makes his secretary (Alicia Tomás) swear she won't tell anybody else about it. He's next seen out in the woods burying the hand and frantically looking around to make sure nobody has seen him.

When Carlos returns home, he's greeted by his two annoying young sons, who inform him that his wife (who is also never given a name but is played by Teresa Gimpera, so she's now "Teresa") is out running around with the new neighbor and the two had been "having drinks in the kitchen" and talking "about clothes... and about men... and pills" before taking off. When the wife finally shows back up, we can quickly see this is a loveless and miserable marriage. She presents him with a telegraph asking if he'd like a forearm next. Signed "Parker."

The following day at work, Carlos receives another yellow package, this one much larger than the last. Too scared to actually open it, he takes it to a public square, leaves it on a seat and waits for a man to steal it and walk off. When he returns home, his wife hands him back the same package and claims a man brought it to their home. This time she opens it. Instead of a body part, there's a dress and a photo of an unknown brunette woman. Suspicious, Teresa starts trailing her husband and discovers the woman in the photo, who dresses in all black and seems to always be wearing black gloves, is stalking her husband and even knows where they live. Another note is left behind at their home, again mentioning the forearm.

The mysterious woman who's been signing all the letters "Parker" turns out to actually be a Parisian woman named Lucia Fonte, who's played by glamorous French actress and model Capucine. When she pulls up next to Carlos one evening and looks over, he feels compelled to hop into the car with her. The two take a silent drive to a mansion, where she tells him all of his questions will be answered if he drinks a glass of whiskey and eats a blotted paper LSD tablet. After he does, he hears voices from a woman bemoaning her lost love, who apparently didn't feel the same way about her as she did him. That's followed by the discovery of a well-preserved nude corpse in an upstairs fridge, a hallucination of a nude woman falling over and over again and brief flashbacks. The spurned lover, Esther Casino (Judy Matheson), turns out to be the train girl from the opening scene, while the man who drove her to suicide was, you guessed it, Carlos.

Carlos awakens the next day at home in his own bed, with his wife informing him that she brought him back there herself at Lucia's insistence. However, Lucia's recollections from the night before do not match the husband's. She claims it's Carlos who's been stalking her for weeks, finally showing up at her home and exposing himself to her. Fearing being raped, she slipped a sleeping pill into his drink and then called Teresa to come fetch her wayward unconscious hubby.

Finally backed into a corner, Carlos is forced to confess his affair to his wife, which we see in flashbacks. Esther was a troubled, aimless, unemployed, bored hippie into astrology and on some kind of medication that she refused to take because it made her put on weight. He first spotted her in a diner drinking a strawberry milkshake and playing with her pills (red flag!), but began a brief, intense affair with her anyway. That all ended with him eventually tiring of her bizarre behavior, moodiness and suicidal tendencies, and literally leaving her in the dust. There's now clearly some scheming going on with at least one of the characters, though it's best I not reveal any more.

This film has no reputation to speak of, few online reviews and has mostly been forgotten, which made the discovery that it's actually quite good all the more sweet. For starters, it's well-written for a change, especially in comparison to most other European mystery / suspense / gialli from this same time. There's an intriguing and twisty plot, some surprising content (electric carving knife dismemberment anyone?), interesting characters and a decent, somber mystery that reveals different layers all the way up to the end. The direction is also nice, with some tastefully done, stylish flourishes here and there using stills, sepia flashbacks, film run backwards in slow motion, out of focus shots, surrealist elements, etc. These are used sparingly to enhance the story, not distract from weak writing as we all too often see in films like this.

Performances are quite strong here, too, especially from the ill-fated Capucine (who committed suicide in 1990) as the enigmatic, possibly lesbian, possibly vengeance-seeking woman in black. On the flip side, the male protagonist is a complete dickhead and difficult to handle on at first, though that just ends up making the finale all the more satisfying. Genre regular Víctor Israel swings by for a minute as a creepy doorman and there are also small parts played by José María Blanco, Luis Ciges and Luis Induni, but focus is placed almost exclusively on the four lead characters.

The director went on to make The Blood-Spattered Bride (1972), which is highly regarded by some, and co-write THE PEOPLE WHO OWN THE DARK (1976) before finally finding some acclaim in his homeland in the 80s and 90s, winning some of the country's top awards in the process. 

It's based on the story "Bailando para Parker" by Gonzalo Suárez, who isn't mentioned much in horror circles despite writing and / or directing some pretty interesting films himself. Some of his other work includes the short El horrible ser nunca visto / "The Horrible Being Never Seen" (1966), El extraño caso del doctor Fausto / "The Strange Case of Dr. Fausto" (1969), the underrated MORBO (1972), La loba y la Paloma (1974; called House of the Damned in the UK and US), Beatriz (1976) and Rowing with the Wind (1988), which netted him a Best Director Goya Award.

Reportedly, the production was beset with problems from the get-go, which also extended to its post production and eventual release. Director Aranda and Suárez were feuding (stemming from a previous production the two had worked on together), Aranda got injured, they went through five different scripts and then, after filming wrapped, there was a lawsuit over ownership and issues with distribution. Quite a headache.

Though this boasts a cast seemingly hand-selected to appeal to international audiences (the four leads are all from different countries: Argentina, England, France and Spain), I'm only aware of a couple of countries this was officially released in. Aside from Spain, a cut, English-language version was released theatrically in the U.S. in 1973. This same print, which is oddly missing any credits and doesn't even have a title screen (the one I'm using was taken from the trailer), was used for the later Something Weird VHS, DVD-R and streaming releases.

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