Sunday, 19 October 2014

The Witch Returns To Life (1952) Rolan af Hallstrom

So, The Witch Returns to Life is just my second slice of Finnish horror, indeed just my second Finnish film outright, so far as I recall. I don't know whether the country has ever produced many horror films, but its presence even in the minds and collections of thorough going cult fans and explorers is pretty small, less even than the like of Poland or Yugoslavia. And alas on the evidence of this and earlier outing The White Reindeer I'm not surprised by the low profile. Not that The Witch Returns to Life is an outright bad film, in fact its actually rather charming. But it is odd and not necessarily in the popularly sanctioned ways that make cult favourites, I can well imagine a lot of disappointed viewers. 

The set up is solid, archaeologist Hannu is working in a marsh when he comes across an old grave with body staked through. Despite warnings he removes the stake, which I would have thought was a rookie mistake, what with damaging the body and all. But the body is apparently undamaged, and as a storm comes down a naked, very much alive lady is found in the same grave. Superstition and hysteria surge, and the mysterious lady (announcing herself as Birgit) wastes little time in stirring up lust and jealousy, working through the cast, feeling out and preying on division with playful menace. Much potential here for working on the rot of rural living, the peril of superstition, the battle of the sexes and related matters, but little is actually done with any of this. All is simple, the men think that all women are witches and the women think that all men are beasts. The leads are mostly housebound and the villagers mostly dumbly run around, the two have little interaction. And while some ambiguity to Birgit is hinted, this is dispelled by the matter of fact presentation of her powers. Basically this is a sort of parable, its simplicity, emphasis on exposition and slap yourself in the face ending could all be aimed at children. The effects too, almost entirely simple editing tricks which appeal to a primitive, undiscerning wonder. But then there's the dialogue, fairly frank on sex and infidelity, and enough nudity that this was originally touted as erotica in the States. A strange mix really, it should be jarring and offputting but somehow is more often than not simply good fun. Mirja Mane is most pleasing as Birgit, with a demeanour of shifting childlike innocence and crooked, dangerous sensuality she pulls events along nicely. The mounting mischief musters some suspense, chuckles and even mild creeps too, perhaps not especially intense or thrilling but at least quite engaging. Quality cinematography and plenty of fog and wind give this a far off, wistful atmosphere that is quite alluring, and it all moves like a rocket. 

Altogether I'm not sure how much appeal this will have to most viewers. A whole different world and different time, more for explorers than casual genre fans. But definitely of interest and merit and at least a little memorable. Not my heartiest recommendation, but if you're still here reading this it may be for you. Enjoy!

The Venus of Ille (1979) Mario Bava, Lamberto Bava

Until now I've liked through to outright loved every Mario Bava film I've seen, and only once got less than solid cock eyed entertainment from his son Lamberto. I'm fond of ambiguity, fantasy, Gothic romance, not the corrosive kind unfortunately popular these days but real yearning for the beyond. So The Venus of Ille should have been an easy winner for me, co-directed and written by the younger, but instead it only just about passes. The story sees antique lover Matthew come to the town of Ille to see its recent discovery, a bronze statue of Venus that crushes a workman's leg early on but is still generally thought to be a good thing. Matthew is entranced by the Venus, but also by Claire, engaged to boorish and boozy landowners son Alfonzo. Of course there's something more going on, the statue may be haunted or cursed. Could it even be alive? It's a good story, taken from a 19th century tale by Prosper Merimee and filmed several times previously, but the treatment here is not altogether satisfying. Slow burning, intent on character and atmosphere, this is interesting but lacking in drive or true engagement. The best aspect is Daria Nicolodi as Claire, the camera adores her, drawing out strength, intelligence through an enigmatic air, beautiful but unusual, she is just ideal for this sort of film. The Venus is interesting too, the camera also circles to draw out mystery, hints of life, drawing parallels, weaving a spell. I also enjoyed Matthew, his quietness, curiosity, artistic and romantic probing are quite interesting. But really, not enough happens here. Until the climax the few scares are not much effective and filler sequences including tennis and cookery (chopping meat, pulling out guts, cracking eggs etc.) bulk out the plot without adding much beyond a bit of sense of place and time. There are only a few small moments of the old Bava visual magic and those are diminished from his best, fun but not the sort to linger long in the memory. And all in all there's a lack of substance, this intrigues but never really locks down, sizzle without much steak. Not quite full on dull but in the environs, quite disappointing. 

A browse of a few other reviews of this indicates that it is better liked by others, a fitting swansong, superior to Schock, etc. And there's enough here for a tentative recommendation to those like me particularly interested in this kind of thing, especially if they can find a decent looking print (being a TV film I don't suppose its ever looked spectacular but I'm sure some are still better than others). But personally I'm not that convinced. Watch if you must I guess.

Tarot (1973) Jose Maria Forque

I wasn't much impressed by Jose Maria Forque's earlier film In The Eye of the Hurricane, so there was little logical reason for me to watch Tarot, more bloody mindedness. But I'm glad I did and it's a worthy illustration of how hard it is to predict one film from another, even by the same director in much the same field. I like to be reassured of this, that art isn't a one shot and you're out deal but something that can grow and improve, something that lives. Not that Tarot is some gem, in fact it only prowls the edges of being good, committing only rarely, but it's definitely worth a look for serious genre fans, some way more than can be said for the very much completists only stature of In The Eye of the Hurricane.

The key here is that there's enough here to prevent boredom setting in. The story is hardly original, pretty young Angela is invited as a carnal companion to a rich old blind man Arthur (Fernando Rey) but catches his hearts eye instead. But of course there are grasping servants, including handsome young Marc (Julian Ugarte) and older, wiser Natalie (Gloria Grahame), and soon there's deceit afoot, and things going all awry. This works by establishing its atmosphere and its intrigues quite well. Angela, played by Sue "Lolita" Lyon pursues Freedom, biking unbound across the lands, yet she also practices Tarot reading without deceit or apparent irony. The film never turns into an existential study of Being within Fate but the conflict is interesting and Lyon's performance is deftly conflicted, there's manipulation and cruelty there but also fear, naivete, even possibilities of tenderness. Fernando Rey is equally good as Arthur, he's deluded and silly and not even an especially nice guy but he brings pathos and dignity too. Slick, shallow, mean Marc has less to grapple with but is perfectly reasonably essayed, while Gloria Grahame is oddly amusing, pitching almost constant quizzical disdain that after a while comes across directed not just at the other characters but the film itself and probably its makers and audience. It's not exactly "good" work but it is fun and it does work for the character. Other characters have less time and register less, but they work by providing more motivations and possibilities. Arthur's mansion deserves a note too, with zebra striped furnishings, a pool, a set up bowling lane on the lawn and so forth it's a bright, opulent, seductive sort of a place, one could really believe Angela falling under its spell.

This all has a decent pull and its fun trying to figure out how exactly things will come together, but it does take rather too long to do so. Nearly an hour before the turning point, simply too long for interest not to be slipping away. Said turning point is an effectively intense, nasty scene that is worth the wait though. And while the fall out is not as well managed as it might be, with not enough twists and one surprise turn into surreal visuals that is a bit of a misjudgement, it does on the whole work out in a reasonably satisfying manner. I'm sure plenty will be disappointed, especially those not used to this kind of thing, but for the genre it all comes out at about average to me. Others have enjoyed it more so I may be a harsher judge I think. Not something I can fully recommend but if it does seem your cup of tea go for it. You could surely do worse...