Thursday, January 22, 2009

TRAGIC CEREMONY (Estratto dagli archivi segreti della polizia di una capitale europea, 1972)

Italians, it seems, have never worried about whether movie titles will fit on their marquees. Their tastes run to surrealism as well as verbosity, as any giallo fan knows. The original title of "Robert Hampton's" film translates to "Taken from the secret police archives of a European capital," -- London, to be specific. For that matter, the original title of "Robert Hampton" is Riccardo Freda, the name of a seminal figure in Italian fantasy cinema. Freda used the Hampton pseudonym on several occasions, perhaps sometimes as part of the common Italian scheme of convincing audiences (their own as well as foreign) that they were looking at an American or English film. Freda worked in many genres, including peplums and spaghetti westerns, but was most at home making gothic horror films, from which group I can recommend The Ghost (Lo Spettro), a Barbara Steele vehicle from 1963 released under the Hampton name.

While the Italian title suggests a cop film or possibly something along conspiratorial lines, the title used on the Dark Sky DVD actually better represents what you actually get: a dark film having something to do with a mysterious ceremony. Tragic Ceremony is a late expression of Freda's gothic style, incorporating developments in cinematic bloodshed since his heyday of the 1950s and 1960s.

Over music by Stelvio Cipriani, we're introduced to four young people on a sailboat. The boat belongs to Bill, the scion of a wealthy English family. His pals Joe and Fred are basically sponging off him, while he gives Jane, the lone female, a gift of a pearl necklace he swiped from his mom. The necklace has a curse: it was given to an exorcist by a grateful client, but the exorcist was subsequently killed.

Our crazy kids continue their trek on land until their car runs out of gas. They make it to a gas station where the attendant won't accept Bill's traveller's checks without proper ID. The dumbass left all that important stuff back on the road or on the beach, but the gas guy pities Jane and gives them just enough, he says, to make it into town. They don't get quite that far, but do break down in sight of a gated mansion where they can buzz for assistance. The Alexanders prove generous hosts, giving the gang the run of the servants' quarters.

While the guys vegetate, Jane feels herself strangely drawn deeper within the mansion. In an atmospheric shot reproduced (and enhanced) in the poster art, she descends a staircase in a high-ceilinged chamber as curtains billow with the wind through wide-open windows. Along the way, she breaks the necklace. Jane discovers what appears to be a satanic ritual of some kind. She watches, enthralled, and then approaches languidly like a willing sacrifice.

By now the knuckleheads figure out that Jane's gone and make their way down the stairway and into the ritual area. They don't like what they see: crabby looking elderly devil-worshippers (an all too common motif in this period) about to kill Jane. Bill intervenes and struggles with Lady Alexander for a sacrificial knife. He ends up accidentally killing her. The satanists are understandably irked. Less understandably, instead of going after the meddling kids, they start killing one another. Each death is a set piece gore effect, the highlight being a man getting his head cleaved in half with a sword. It's effectively shocking the first time you see it, but Freda flashes back to it all too often later on. Most of the other effects are too blatantly mechanical to truly shock or chill us. The trailer gives most of them away.

The gang evacuates, dodging people pitching themselves off balconies, and zoom off in their refurbished buggy. They stop at the gas station, but it looks like the attendant's abandoned it. They head to Bill's place, but his mom sends him to his father's hangout. There they learn from TV that the police believe that some Manson-style youth gang annihilated all those poor old people. It might be wise to lay low where they are, except that there it's their turn to start dying....

With the botched sacrifice, Tragic Ceremony jumps the shark. There doesn't seem to be any good reason for the mayhem that follows, and you have no basis for believing that anything really supernatural was going on until the kids start dying later. Until then, Freda has been working a nice, slow burn, building up suspense and atmosphere in deliberate fashion, even including a good old fashioned thunderstorm. Once the gore commences, it's as if he lost heart. There's one good, agitating sequence as the last of the guys flees frantically on a motorcycle from a hallucination of Jane's half-rotten face, but from there the film staggers to a conclusion that tries to explain too much. You suspect that someone lacked confidence in gothic horror's potential to scare 70s audiences, even though this was made around the same time that Mario Bava had a success with the retro-gothic Baron Blood. By the end, you wonder if anyone knew what they were doing -- or what they wanted to do.

The DVD boasts the Italian soundtrack with English subtitles in a letterboxed edition that looks good but far from pristine. The main extra is an English-language interview with Camille Keaton, who played Jane, reviewing her European career prior to her most infamous screen credit, I Spit On Your Grave. I got the disc at a closeout sale at a pretty good discount, so that while I wouldn't really recommend it as a keeper except for Italian horror completists, I can't complain too much about the cost.


Rev. Fred Phantom said...

A very interesting review. This has been on my to see list for a while.

It sounds like I may enjoy it as I am one of those "Italian horror completists".

Samuel Wilson said...

It is not a dishonorable profession, Rev. You may like this one just for the Cipriani soundtrack. It's a mixed bag, but some bits are very nice.