11 February, 2008

TRAGIC CEREMONY: DVD Review


Riccardo Freda's penultimate film is a fascinating mess... but where's Dr. Hichcock?!


It begins with a group of outcasts from society taking a boat trip in the Mediterranean. On shore and out of provisions they are directed to the forbidding castle of a witch whom is slain by the group's troubled leader who only wants to get back home. This causes the stranded mariners to be pursued by a curse which threatens to destroy them. That's the basic plot of Riccardo Freda's TRAGICA CEREMONIA EN VILLA ALEXANDER (Spanish title), right? Technically correct. But I was thinking about a much superior Freda directed title, the 1960 mythological fantasy GIANTS OF THESSALY (see the image above).



In one of the film's most memorable scenes the heroine, about to stumble into a chamber of horrors, explores a darkened passage. I'm describing the scene in TRAGIC CEREMONY (the title of the new DARK SKY FILMS DVD preseentation of the 1972 film) where Camille Keaton walks down that atmospherically photographed staircase toward the satanic ceremony, right? Actually, I was thinking of the scene where Barbara Steele explores the tunnels below the manse of the horrible Dr. Hichcock in L'ORRIBLE SEGRETO DEL DR HICHCOCK (seen in the above image) Freda's 1962 classic horror film. Now let's have deluxe North American DVD presentations of those films!

All the above is a way of admitting that my mind kept drifting away from the very predictable action of ESTRATTO DAGLI ARCHIVI SEGRETI DELLA POLIZIA DI UNA CAPITALE EUROPEA (the title of the Italian version which is presented on the DVD), toward the far more compelling treatments and images of these two earlier films. Of course, there is no film entitled TRAGIC CEREMONY, but the English language contraction of the Spanish title is an obviously useful handle when it comes to presenting and discussing the film itself. Given that it was a Spanish-Italian coproduction and in such enterprises it was common that cast and crew members were often assigned for tax shelter/quota reasons (Carla Mancini CSC, credited on the Italian print, never materializes) the entire thing looks like it may have been a write-off intended for limited playoff. The Spanish version was finally released in 1974.

Released in Italy at the end of 1972, it's instructive to look at the Italian version first. The story and screenplay are credited to the happy hack Mario Bianchi, whose 1982 directorial effort LA BIMBA DI SATANA has some similar thematic and visual elements and is a lot more fun. As a scenarist ten years earlier he seems to have bypassed screenwriting 101. It's bascially a compilation of ideas and situations from previous horror films including Edgar G. Ulmer's 1934 THE BLACK CAT (the black mass as Rotary Club function), the 1944 Bela Lugosi Monogram programmer THE VOODOO MAN (never trust a gas station attendant to give you directions), Jacques Tourneur's NIGHT OF THE DEMON (don't accept gifts from anyone!), Mario Bava's TWITCH OF THE DEATH NERVE (worthless hippies in dune buggies had better not stray off the main road), the aforementioned Riccardo Freda titles and the Manson gang's massacre of actress Sharon Tate and her friends in 1969 (the writer even has the bad taste to mention Ms. Tate by name).

The first act of the film is bloated with banal dialogue between the youthful protagonists and introduces an awkward flashback to telegraph the dysfunctional relationship (possibly undermined with a twisted sexual dynamic) between Bill (Tony Isbert) a withdrawn young man and his wealthy, manipulative mother (Irina Demick). What connects this opening with the remainder is the cursed neclace given to Jane (Camille Keaton) after it has been rejected by the mother. It seems that the object has been contamined by the evil force exorcised from its original owner. Whoever holds it will suffer the fate of the exorcist. There's a lot more plot, including the appearance of a man the local police suggest is the devil himself or at least a reasonable facsimile. This character is played by Pepe Calvo, most recognizable as Clint Eastwood's only friend in the hostile village from FISTFUL OF DOLLARS. You see, Satan is operating undercover in this region as the local gas station owner. And that's about as far as I'm willing to go in describing the increasingly ridiculous plot.

The "tragic ceremony" ends with the wealthy and powerful participants (they arrive in Rolls Royces) suddenly turning on each other with swords, pistols and medieval implements. The subsequent impalings, head splittings and other Fulci-esque spurtings are courtesy of the great Carlo Rambaldi, who is only credited on the present Italian print. This is where the variances between the two versions becomes interesting. Spanish makeup technicians are credited on the TRAGICA CEREMONIA... print, whom are left off, along with most of the other Spanish production personnel, from the Italian credits seen here, as are the names of the Spanish coproducer, Tecisa Executive Jose G. Maesso and Leonardo Martin, whom are credited as co-writers, along with Bianchi. The Spanish version's final credit roll is simply eliminated on the Italian print when it fades to black after crediting the haunting theme song to Stelvio Ciprian (music) and Freda (lyrics) along with the vocalist.

Seen for the first time on this DVD presentation are several images of topless nudity from Ms. Keaton and a final scene where a clinical psychiatrist (Paul Muller) didactically, and implausibly, explains that the events of the film's second half were the result of the soul migration (metempsychosis) of the cult leader Lady Alexander (Luciana Paluzzi). How did he figure it all out since everyone who was there is dead?! Jose Maesso wisely cut this scene for the Spanish version but it's nice to have it here for the sake of comparison. Muller and Fulvio Mingozzi (as the local police official) are always reliable Eurogenre character actors but they are totally wasted here as are Luigi Pistilli and the stunningly beautiful Ms. Paluzzi.

Freda would later disown this film and it's easy to see why. There have even been persistent unverified reports that parts of the film were directed by Gianna Maria Canale (Freda's wife) or the director's daughter! It wouldn't be the first time that the volatile titan walked and left someone else holding the bag (cf Mario Bava having to complete the Freda initiated I VAMPIRI and CALTIKI... in the late 1950s), and one can't really blame him if he did. The film's main defects, the lack of a coherent script and the inability of his lead actress to deliver an acceptable performance, were beyond his control. Tony Isbert, a good actor, is left without any playable scenes or any support from his colleagues.

Rambaldi's visual effects (I assume he designed the bloodbath) are graphic but unimpressive when considering the arrestingly gruesome make-up work Mario Bava provided for Freda's CALTIKI and his own TWITCH OF THE DEATH NERVE. The massacre is repeatedly intercut into the final third of the film, in what seems a rather desperate attempt to ramp up the downward spiral. It doesn't work.

The proceedings may have an edge if you are an auteurist steeped in the works of Riccardo Freda. As in the director's previous project, the underrated 1971 giallo THE IGUANA WITH THE TONGUE OF FIRE (how I wish they had dug up an equally good print of THAT and gave it a much needed US DVD presentation), both the contemporary counterculture of long haired, lazy young people who spend their elder's money on Carnaby Street fashions, and the older, conservative generation, are equally depraved. In TRAGIC CEREMONY the young protagonists are pathetic victims of an degenerate order which hides behind wealth and appearances. Perhaps that element is what drew the director to the project.

Freda improves upon Francisco Friale's bascially mediocre cinematography by setting up a few interestingly lit compositions, deploying some stylish dolly shots and applying an extreme wide angle lens to the aforementioned scenes with Ms. Keaton and the satanists. But it's not enough. The real value of this film is a historical record of the attempts of a prodigiously talented director to stay afloat in a rapidly changing industry where the demand for graphic violence and explicit sex overshadowed any artistic considerations. Freda would return with a vengeance with the excellent and similarly themed MURDER OBSESSION in 1980, yet another film long overdue for a decent North Amercian digital presentation.

Deservedly obscure, TRAGIC CEREMONY, can best be appreciated as an interesting, unintentionally amusing example of Le Bad Cinema. Or as a party film to be enjoyed with friends for a good laugh with the proper refreshments. That's if you have the money and time to expend and absolutely need to see each and every Riccardo Freda effort no matter how dire. This nice DVD presentation also contains an interview with Camille Keaton, who seems a rather pleasant lady and a trouper who speaks in more detail about her other 1970's exploitation films than TRAGIC CERMEMONY. But this rare, complete Italian language print, presented in Anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1aspect ratio, from decent elements, is a welcome R1 transfer, especially if one has only been able to access the film via the inferior Spanish language bootleg which has been circulating for years. The original Italian trailer is also included.

Finally, one is left wondering about the typically long winded Italian title, which evokes a mid-1970's Maurizio Merli action vehicle. Another signal that times had changed. The stylish, bloody gialli of Fulci and Argento were the rage of the day and the kind of gothic horror which ruled over the Italian Golden Age of horror was a thing of the past.

Thanks to Kit Gavin for providing information and discussion about this film.

(C) Robert Monell, 2008


5 comments:

Jeremy Richey said...

I share your very mixed feelings on the film but really am curious to check out that interview with Keaton as I have always found her to be an interesting figure.
Thanks for the very solid look at this flawed work...

Robert Monell said...

It's a nice DVD presentation, Jeremy. I kind of feel sorry for her when I watch the film. It's certainly an improvement over the years of just having the censored Spanish version on fuzzy bootlegs. Thanks for your feedback.

cinebeats said...

Damn! just wrote a long reply but Blogger decided to eat it.

Anyway, I wanted to say that I saw the film for the first time last night and I enjoyed it more then you did, but it does have problems. I'm afraid I'm not a big fan of Camille Keaton and her performance here was just dull and really didn't help the film at all. I really like Luigi Pistilli and Luciana Paluzzi, but both actors were wasted here.

I also thought the whole silly gas station attendant story should have been axed from the script. Last but not least, I really disliked most of Stelvio Cipriani's soundtrack, which is odd since I normally really enjoy his scores.

With all its problems I still thought the direction was interesting at times and I'm glad I finally saw it. I found it entertaining even if it didn't always succeed.

Robert Monell said...

My thoughts exactly, cinebeats. She doesn't appear to be present as an actress for some reason and never establishes a character. She just looks uncomfortable. There must have been a lot of problems on the set. At least it looks that way. I would recommend people who want to see it to rent it rather than purchase it. Thanks for your comments!

Terence said...

Robert, I personally don't think Tragic Ceremony was that bad a film. A wasted opportunity to tell an innovative story yes but it's not Freda's worst (that'll be Murder Obsession). I think if the script was revised to remove some unnecessary scenes (ESPECIALLY that Paul Muller scene), the film could have been much better, warts and all. I really liked the attempt to mix old Gothic horror with modern exploitation (pretty much the main theme of the film).

Camille Keaton's performance may not have been super impressive in this, but that's probably because the character is hypnotised/drugged during the mansion sequences and succumbing to the curse of Lady Alexander in the rest of the film (notice the creepy smirks she makes whenever her friends die, I'm pretty sure that was intentional). Keaton is actually a pretty good actress and her best performance is in the very rare psychological drama "Madeleine, anatomia di un incubo" where we get to see a broad range of emotions from her.

In my opinion, the fact that Freda abandoned the film speaks more about his artistic integrity than the crew's effort. After all, he was in charge of editing the mess that was IGUANA so why couldn't he have edited Tragic Ceremony to get rid of the unnecessary scenes?