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Black Magic Rites (DVD)

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Genre: Horror / Suitable for 18 years and over / Director: Renato Polselli / Actors: Micky Hargitay, Rita Calderoni, Raoul Traucher, Christa Barrymore, Moschera Consolata ... / DVD released 2004-03-29 at Redemption Films / Features of the DVD: PAL

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      15.11.2010 08:44
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      A crazy Italian horror film on DVD

      A review of the Redemption DVD, currently selling for £13 new on amazon, but available cheaper second hand.

      This Italian film from 1973 also goes by the snappy title 'Rites, Black Magic and Secret Orgies in the Fourteenth Century'.

      I can't really account for the plot properly, even after watching it twice. This has one of the most shambolic, fragmentary stories I've ever seen. There was a witch who was executed in the Middle Ages. Now the modern inhabitants of her castle seem to be trying to resurrect her by sacrificing virgin girls, and there are some vampires knocking around too. But there's a fair bit I didn't quite understand - like, who on earth most of the characters were - so it's not that simple. It doesn't matter, of course. Plot is an unnecessary luxury in a film like this.

      The characters are reasonably stock horror types. The new owners of the castle have a pretty daughter, and you can quickly guess what her intended fate is. Her fiancé is disdainful of superstition, which you can tell is going to rebound on him at some point. The local doctor, the priest, the stepfather and the deformed servant are all easy enough to second guess. And there's wall-to-wall Euro totty to get naked, fondle each other, and fall victim to various unpleasant fates.

      I only recognised two of the cast. Mickey Hargitay was an American body builder who was famous for being married to large-breasted car-crash victim Jayne Mansfield. After Jayne's death, Mickey got work in a few Italian exploitation films (including the camp classic Bloody Pit of Horror). Here he's fairly restrained as the castle's new owner, although he does get to go properly overboard at the end. Meanwhile Rita Calderoni, playing the menaced heroine, also exposed herself in the tawdry but rather charming Nude For Satan. The rest of the cast include an uncanny Donald Pleasence lookalike and a number of actresses who were probably not hired for their acting ability. No one does too badly, although the lip-synching is shocking (the version on the DVD is in Italian with subtitles).

      What's surprising is how good this looks. The director didn't make many other films, which is a pity, but this is filmed rather nicely. A real effort has been made to find striking new ways to film familiar actions. The editing is very good indeed, often synching with the music. And the lighting is amazing, both in the way it uses darkness and light, and in the good use of coloured light playing across characters' faces. All this is very noticeable, and in some films it would be really annoying, but given that this film seems to be making a virtue of its own incoherence, the OTT direction and editing are entirely appropriate. And the film is so crazy that even things that are probably mistakes - basic continuity errors such as characters wearing different clothes between shots - might all be part of some incomprehensible plan. An early party scene has characters eyeing each other suspiciously and exchanging barbed dialogue in a way that relates to absolutely nothing that happens later.

      The music is often very good - insistent bass lines, bongos, women moaning. But occasionally it goes into unbelievable synth schmooze mode, resulting in music that feels like it belongs in an 80s corporate training video. Given that this music accompanies a lengthy flashback to the witch being burned at the stake, it feels incredibly out of place. (You can clearly see the 14th century witch's fillings when she screams. Tsk.)

      Surprisingly, it does have a couple of genuinely horrific moments, especially the premature burial. Even more surprising, some of the sexy bits are actually quite... well... sexy. There's a real kinky frisson to some of it, and the ladies are all plenty cute. No real sex scenes, and no full frontal, but all the better for it. (Actually, there is one absolutely dreadful comedy threesome scene, which is glaringly out of place, especially since it occurs at the moment the main plot of the film is at its most atmospheric. The comic relief characters are terrible, but the fact they're there just serves to emphasise what a deeply odd film this is.)

      I don't want to oversell this. It's a cheap film (seriously, I have never seen a more rubbish snake pit). The dialogue is often risible and obviously anyone expecting plot or character development will probably not enjoy themselves at all. But it feels like abandoning plot has liberated the film, and it stands as perhaps the prime example of a certain type of sleazy Euro horror, somehow incorporating the best elements of all the many films involving old castles, reincarnated villains from the Middle Ages, occultism, lesbians and bondage. It even borrows visually from Jean Rollin's surreal vampire movies. If you ever felt tempted to watch a grotty Italian softcore gothic, I would contend that this is the one to go for.

      The picture quality isn't pristine, but it's perfectly watchable. I'd love to see a fully restored version of this, which I think would look great, but I doubt it's going to happen. I think the print here has been pieced together from a few sources, as some of the (more explicit) scenes are noticeably of different quality to the rest of the film.

      Unfortunately, the DVD is released by Redemption, so has all their usual faults (Redemption has gone bust, which is a shame; that's why this is over-priced.) The problem with Redemption is that, although they made some good, rare films available, their branding is appalling.

      So before we even get to the DVD menu we have to watch two gothed up models with inflated boobs pretend to be lesbian vampires. And one of the extras is a dire music video from some metal band. And the cover image bears no relation to anything we see in the film. There's a trailer for the film (in Italian, no subtitles), plus trailers for a couple of other films. The stills gallery contains what are obviously just screenshots from the print of the film used on the DVD, and most of the other images are of old Redemption video and DVD covers.

      Still, if you ignore the lack of extras and pretend not to notice Redemption's silly intro, there's a lot to enjoy in this film. It surprised me in a good way, and very few old Euro horrors do that these days.

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