Sunday, September 2, 2012

Cult Classics Revisited: BLACK MAGIC RITES (1973)

(Italy - 1973)

Directed by Ralph Brown (Renato Polselli).  Written by Renato Polselli.  Cast: Mickey Hargitay, Rita Calderoni, Raoul, Christa Barrymore, William Darni, Max Dorian, Marcello Bonini. (Unrated, 98 mins).

Best known as THE REINCARNATION OF ISABEL but recently released on Blu-ray (and re-released on DVD) by Kino/Redemption as BLACK MAGIC RITES, this incoherent fever dream from Renato Polselli exists under a number of different titles and is one of the strangest of all Italian horror films.  It was considered lost for many years and existed only in a severely truncated 59-minute version back in the days of VHS bootlegs.  But in 1998, Redemption released a complete version of the film and...it probably made even less sense.  The 1998 DVD was letterboxed and non-anamorphic, so this film gets a significant HD upgrade on Blu-ray.  The color and detail are terrific, and the sound is room-shaking, and while this film has numerous admirers who consider it a minor classic in experimental, avant-garde Eurotrash, I still find this a tedious chore to sit through.   Sure, there's a lot of crazy shit, occasionally impressive use of color, some over-the-top gore, and gratuitous nudity by the truckload, but it just goes on and on and while the complete lack of anything resembling a linear story isn't necessarily a bad thing, BLACK MAGIC RITES just gets too repetitive and meandering for its own good.  It's still required viewing for any Eurocult aficionado, and clearly, many people have gotten more out of Polselli's film than I have thus far.

The "plot" has American Jack Nelson (Mickey Hargitay) buying part of a centuries-old castle that's also part-girls' school.  There's also some kind of cultish religious sect inhabiting part of the grounds, led by a high priest (Raoul) who looks like Sacha Baron Cohen as Frank Zappa, along with his scarred henchman Gerg, played by Marcello Bonini, which I believe is Italian for "Almost Donald Pleasence."  It turns out Jack's stepdaughter Laureen (NUDE FOR SATAN's Rita Calderoni) is the reincarnation of Isabella, a young woman accused of witchcraft and burned at the stake at the castle 500 years ago in an endless flashback that seems to go on for 20 minutes. In the present day, the sect is sacrificing the nubile school girls for their hearts and eyes to the still-living (and, of course, topless) spirit of Isabella (also Calderoni).  Everyone in the present day is a reincarnation of someone from 500 years back, and the mayhem began when Isabella's lover (also Hargitay) became so enraged over her sacrifice that he invoked the powers of darkness and became Count Dracula (!).  So all the men are revealed to be vampires--except Laureen's fiance Richard (William Darni)--and they go on a rampage before all hell breaks loose, and Richard asks the high priest what's going on, to which Frank Zappa's stunt double replies "Do not try to understand it."  No shit.

BLACK MAGIC RITES/THE REINCARNATION OF ISABEL is packed with orgies, vampirism, cannibalism, garish colors, hideous fashions, human sacrifice, near-constant nudity, lesbian sex scenes, burnings at the stake, people returning from the dead, non-stop ominous church organ music with bonus theremin and orgasmic moans (with occasional prog-rock freakouts), and trippy strobe lighting.  There's even a three-way scored to old ragtime piano music.  How is something this insane so dull?  The film feels way longer than 98 minutes, and probably should've topped out at around 75.  Who knows?  Maybe that 59-minute bootleg version was the perfect length.  In the years since the DVD Eurocult explosion, this film and 1972's DELIRIUM (which also starred Hargitay, Calderoni, and most of the same actors) have earned Polselli (1922-2006) some significant cred in the world of bizarre cinema.  But while DELIRIUM is still pretty nuts, it at least has some semblance of a plot, while BLACK MAGIC RITES just feels like an Italian Jess Franco film, right down to overstaying its welcome, the overabundance of zooms and the frequently clumsy filmmaking.  But just like many Franco fans insist stuff like that is all part of some subversive master plan, Polselli is also lauded for his work on BLACK MAGIC RITES.  To each their own, but I'm not buying it.

Hard to believe Mickey Hargitay opted
to retire from acting after this film
This was Hungarian bodybuilder and 1955 Mr. Universe Hargitay's last film before his retirement from acting.  His only credit after this before his 2006 death was a cameo on a 2003 episode of LAW & ORDER: SVU, starring his daughter Mariska.  Hargitay was married to Jayne Mansfield and they had three children before their divorce in 1964.  He was acting almost exclusively in Italian B-movies from then on (like BLOODY PIT OF HORROR and LADY FRANKENSTEIN) and raised the children after Mansfield was killed in a car crash in 1967.  I'm always amused at the possibility of young Mariska Hargitay hanging out on the sets of schlocky Italian movies like this.  Hargitay seems pretty bored here, and is absent for long stretches, indicating that he probably wasn't around very much.  This never received a US theatrical release, nor was it ever dubbed into English (or maybe they tried and just gave up).  While his voice isn't used in the film, Hargitay appears to be speaking Italian, as his lip movements match the Italian dialogue and don't match the English subtitles.

I know a lot of serious movie people who greatly admire this film.  I'll agree that the film is completely batshit crazy, but it has some serious pacing issues that accomplish the impossible by making batshit crazy boring.  Even so, it should be seen once just for completism's sake, and there's no denying that it looks spectacular on Blu-ray.

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