[a.k.a. Estratto dagli archivi segreti della polizia di una capitale europea / TrŠgica ceremonia en Villa Alexander]
Review By-Kit Gavin Directed by Robert Hampton [Riccardo Freda] Starring Camille Keaton, Tony Isbert, Milo Quesada, Luciana Paluzzi and Luigi Pistilli. Source: Shoarma / Luminous Home Video Wurks (DVD NTSC Region 0)
Following a sail around the (presumably English) coast in a yacht, four youngsters made up of Bill [Isbert], Fred [Giovanni Petrucci], Joe [Maximo Valverde], and the attractive Jane [Keaton] decide to moor and spend the evening camping. Bill, attracted to Jane, presents her with a gift. The gift is that of a pearl necklace. However Bill doesnít relay the fact to Jane that the previous owner met an unpleasant end, dying whilst possessed by a demon during an exorcism. Placing the pearls round Janeís neck, when Jane turns to bestow a kiss of gratitude to Bill, she has a frightening vision of him, blue faced, dead. This horrifying vision causes Jane to back off, leaving Bill feel uncertain and rejected, yet she keeps the gift of the necklace nonetheless. Later, despite Billís apparent interest, Jane still chooses Joe over him, and Jane and Joe make love that evening in the tent. This upset and disappointment provokes Bill to think of his own mother [Irina Demick], who had prior to offering his gift to Jane, turned down the pearl necklace, aware of the fate of the previous owner, and her own sexual dalliance with a much younger man. Bill has a flashback, remembering seeing her in the bathtub with a much younger lover, roughly the same age as Bill.
Later, the youngsters decide to make their way back home to Chelsea in their dune buggy. However whilst travelling back they discover that they are low on, then promptly run out of gas, and out of necessity seek out the first gas station they happen upon. On the way, they happen upon an old fashioned gas station with a grumpy looking black attendant, as remote and removed from reality as the station he inhabits. He seems baffled and confused by their travelers checks, as none of the youngsters seem to possess any cash on their person. However, despite his non-familiarity with the checks, he agrees to give them enough gas to take them as far as the nearest town. However the gas only takes them as far as the austere looking Villa Alexander.
Upon arrival at the Villa, a large manor house, with a violent storm coming in, the foursome is forced to seek help and shelter therein. Upon arrival, they are greeted by their hosts, Lord and Lady Alexander [Pistilli, Paluzzi] who inform them that as they already have guests only Jane can have a bedroom, whereas the three young men can stay in the kitchen for the night. Jane makes her way upstairs to her bedroom, retiring for the evening, leaving her three companions downstairs. However, despite the apparent good intentions of their hosts, not all is quite as it seems at Villa Alexander.
Later that evening, owing to strange noises downstairs and possibly due to the possessed pearls around her neck, the seemingly dazed Jane wonders downstairs carrying a candlestick to guide herself down the darkened staircase. She finds herself wondering through the house before ending up in the cellar. The necklace tightens and tries to choke Jane prior her arrival at the party held by her hosts. However Jane breaks the necklace in order to save her life, the pearls scattering on the stairs. She discovers the party is a Satanic black mass and Jane is the intended victim to be offered up as a human sacrifice (!). However Bill, Joe and Fred seem aware that something is very wrong and gate crash the ceremony, saving the somnambulant Jane from being ritually stabbed by Lady Alexander. Indeed, Joe and Lady Alexander struggle and Lady Alexander ends up stabbing herself in the stomach with her own sacrificial dagger. This results in a blood lust amongst the guests, with lots of blood letting and a gruesome head splitting with a sword, followed by a decapitation, with the foursome watching in shocked horror as the assorted guests butcher each other before fleeing in horror.
Having escaped from the onslaught of carnage within the villa, somehow the dune buggy has replenished its supply of gas; Jane and the three young men drive off. As they leave Lord Alexander throws himself to his death from a window. Speeding away the four youngsters are stopped by the police who ask what they are doing at such a late hour. Jane explains that they are on their way home. Yet somehow find themselves back at the gas station they were at before. However, to their surprise, the station is abandoned and overgrown with weeds. They carry on driving to Chelsea, eventually arriving at Billís motherís house. However Billís mother is entertaining another young man and turns the youngsters away. However she offers to help them by giving them money for a hotel. Leaving the dune buggy behind, they cycle off on the motorcycles there, in case the buggy attracts attention. However, rather than going to the hotel, Bill and his companions choose to break into the villa of his mothers boyfriend.
Watching the television, the four see the slaughter that took place at Villa Alexander being reported on the news, with the slaughter being blamed on hippies. Horrified and afraid, the four stay in the villa, scared that they will be blamed for the carnage that took place. Later on in the evening, Joe finds the corpse of his friend Bill, his face distorted in pain and a sickly blue color, the same as in Janeís earlier premonition. Fred, in the bathroom, whilst in front of a mirror has his throat cut by a straight razor, which causes him to bleed to death.
Fleeing from the house in horror, Joe and Jane escape to the nearby woods. They embrace, however, after kissing Jane, he pulls back to discover Janeís face hideously deformed. Janeís mouth and jawline have had the skin peeled back revealing her skull underneath. Terrified, Joe leaps on his bike and flees, however his mind is clouded by visions of Janeís decomposing face. He crashes and flies off his bike landing in a lake and drowns as Jane watches him, with a vacant expression on her face. Catatonic, Jane is taken to a mental asylum (bizarrely called the "Maggie S Ross Mental Home") where she is found with a pearl from her necklace in her hand. Seeing the pearl, Jane vividly recalls the massacre that took place. Later that evening, the phantom of Lady Alexander appears in a hazy beam of green light, her body never having been found amidst the carnage, unseen by anyone in the hospital. A scream is heard from Janeís room. Having accomplished her task, Lady Alexander slips outside to the chauffeur driven car awaits. Behind the wheel, Lady Alexander tells her driver, the old black man from the gas station, to take her back to the villa. Back at the hospital, Janeís body lies there, stabbed to death with the sacrificial dagger.
The storyline is also far more contemporary and after the gruesome discovery of the bodies of the coven members, the reporter refers to the murder of Sharon Tate (which the world was still recoiling from after the trial of "the Manson Family"). The impact would have been far more shocking for the audience at the time than perhaps to present day audiences, although the thought of those infamous murders are still reviled by many in the present day. Also, the police investigation is suitably crude, having already found a guitar which they know (how?) doesnít belong to the occupants of the villa, deduce that the murder must have been committed by a group of hippies (!!).
Casting and performance in the film are generally good. Camille Keaton, the grand niece of silent star Buster, had just started her career as a movie starlet in Italy, having appeared as a centerfold in the Italian magazine Playmen, and as the eponymous Solange in Massimo Dallamanoís masterful giallo WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO SOLANGE? Keatonís acting range, and especially in a lead role isnít far reaching and here she either looks possessed or pretty, yet the passivity of her performance fits the role. Keaton ultimately would find infamy outside of Italy in the rape-revenge exploitation film I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE. Opposite Keaton is Tony Isbert, still active in Spain, and a familiar face from Naschyís INQUISITION and would crop up in RED RINGS OF FEAR. Valverde too is recognizable (despite hiding behind a beard) from his outings into various Iberian horror / exploitation films and is still active as well. Giovanni Petrucci, the last of the youngsters, seems however to have drifted into obscurity in the late 1970ís.
Supporting the young cast are the beautiful Luciana Paluzzi plays a suitably demure, yet evil personified Lady Alexander, in another small role in another low budget film, having been a Bond villainess and found a certain degree of fame in the United States on television. Opposite her is Luigi Pistilli, a fine theater actor had worked with Freda the year before in THE IGUANA WITH THE TONGUE OF FIRE, and in Bavaís stylish bodycount giallo TWITCH OF THE DEATH NERVE. Also in Sergio Martinoís highly regarded ALL YOUR VICES ARE A LOCKED ROOM AND ONLY I HOLD THE KEY. Both performers use their screen time and presence to best effect, and even though their roles are small, they are pivotal to events taking place.
Supporting players are difficult to pick out, such as Franco regular Paul Muller (who apparently appears as a doctor), Milo Queseda (who played a torturer in THE BLOODY JUDGE), and other actors, here and there. This is doubtless due to Fredaís use of long shots and the below average picture quality of this release which makes characters faces (other than in close ups) appear fuzzy.
Direction by Freda is interesting and the film has been well shot, given the limitations imposed by viewing the film in a panned and scanned version. The opening scenes with the youngsters aboard the yacht are well shot, capturing the motion and movement of the boat on the waves. Also the cinematography is well composed as the camera glides along the moving boat introducing the four main characters, Jane sunbathing, Fred strumming his guitar and Joe and Bill discussing the various names of the boatís sails and parts. This rocking of the yacht is contrasted with the later, frenetic, jagged editing of the mayhem that ensues at the massacre following the apparent death of Lady Alexander with her own sacrificial blade. There are moments in the film, little touches and motifs here and there which mark this film as being a Freda movie. There is a sense of voyeurism, such as the lighting on Billís face, seeing his mother frolicking in a bubble bath with a much younger man, which recalls Klaus Kinskiís expression in DOUBLE FACE when he sees his wife Helen [Margaret Lee] flirting with her secretary Liz. Again, recalling DOUBLE FACE, there is a pearl necklace which plays an important role in the storyline. There is the same morbid sense of unease which permeated Fredaís highly regarded gothic pictures THE HORRIBLE DR. HICHCOCK and THE GHOST. The elements of a Black Mass and Satanism, enjoyed by the wealthy in their own homes, complete with a brooding organ being played, mirrors the later MURDER OBSESSION.
Equally Freda seems keen to keep up with his contemporaries as he did with IGUANA WITH THE TONGUE OF FIRE (which showed faces being splashed with acid and throats being cut) and soon after with MURDER OBSESSION (which Freda unfairly dismissed as being "shit"). The use of over long titles, the reference to animals and also some shocking yet rather mediocre bloody special effects. Freda had been head of the Italian Film Censorship Board yet here he seems he seems to be trying to move with the times, being more "full on" than before, and perhaps having seen his contemporary Mario Bavaís TWITCH OF THE DEATH NERVE, and the bloody scenes of mayhem therein, choose to try and imitate some of the frenetic blood letting therein. The cultured Freda also had started to inject nudity into his films (none of which is found in the Spanish version) Ė but had an erotic love scene between Dagmar Lassander and Luigi Pistilli in IGUANA (which Freda disowned and assumed the pseudonym Willy Pareto when signing the film). Indeed all Fredaís horror films from the Seventies seem to fall uncomfortably between the two stools of contemporary violence and Fredaís roots in story telling and Gothic cinema that had been found in the 60ís. The "invasion" of the hippie youngsters into the Satanic ceremony at Villa Alexander could almost be seen as a metaphor for the film itself. The Villa represents the old, structured values of Freda and the youngsters (when trying to save their friend from being sacrificed) bring about mayhem which is expressed in frantic camera movements, and soft focus shots are representative of the new more stylized directors and DPs (here Francisco Fasile).
There is a creeping sense of incest as well, found in IGUANA WITH A TONGUE OF FIRE, and ultimately in MURDER OBSESSION. The incestuous theme here is with Billís love for his spurned desires for his own mother, and his mental comparison between his own desires for Jane (who frolics with one of his friends at the campsite) and his own dismay at seeing his naked mother, flirting, in the bath. His mother, who has rejected him and his gift of the necklace, and prefers the company of young man, the same age as Bill. And Jane, young, pretty, and passive Ė still thwarts him despite the gift of the same necklace for one of his friends. The film plays out as brooding drama, atmosphere and character development (in particular that of Bill) fleshing out the characters making them more than merely ciphers. The lead protagonist, that of Jane, however is something of an empty canvass, without Keaton conveying much depth other than as a somewhat dismissive flirt and reacting to situations around her, as opposed to acting. The ending seems uncertain and almost slightly rushed, as the build up has kept the viewer interested. The youngsters lost in familiar terrain, the time-space continuum confused, with an abandoned garage from another time being open to lead the youngsters to a trap. The dune buggy running out of gas yet seems full when they flee the bloodshed taking place at the ceremony. Upon leaving the villa they find the gas station over grown with weeds as if they had crossed the barriers of time once again. Yet a present day news report refers to the massacre of the Satanists that has taken place at Villa Alexander, which seemed, itself, to be trapped in the past. This confusion of time and place is an interesting device to be found in various Italian horror films, such as in Lucio Fulciís GHOSTS OF SODOM, again featuring liberated youngsters, unable to flee the past, who keep returning to a house haunted by debauched Nazis.
The most predominant feeling in the movie is that of doom, anxiety, and sadness which saturates the whole picture. The Spanish title for the domestic release of the film, conveys a sense of tragedy (a "tragic ceremony"), which is far more befitting the film under review. This is as opposed to the Italian Ė which followed the then-popular trend for longwinded titles Ė and translates as "Extracts from the Police secret archives of a European Capital", and which couldnít be more cryptic. Indeed, the film plays out with a sense of doom and tragedy throughout. Indeed, all the characters are doomed, having stumbled upon the Satanic ceremony at the Villa Alexander, with Lady Alexander coming back to claim each and everyone of their souls before returning to her villa. The same morbid sense that was to be found in the villa inhabited by Alessio Orano and Alida Valli in LISA AND THE DEVIL, made that same year and previewed at Cannes. Both films had the same Spanish producer Maesso, who claimed some of the credit for being one of the hands behind writing TRAGIC CEREMONY as well. There are moments recalling Fredaís atmospheric artistry however, a room filled with statues (mimicking Bavaís love for mannequins), curtains blowing and billowing like phantoms in the wind. And some of the lighting of the scenes inside the mental home where Keaton is kept for her seemingly own safety at the end, unaware that her nemesis, the phantom of the vengeful Lady Alexander is waiting to claim and destroy her final (and original) victim.
Sadly this DVD release appears to be taken from a censored version, as there seems to be no nudity at all to be found in the film, and the contemporary press synopsis, as well as publicity photos, show and make mention of a bath tub scene in which Jane starts to feel the malevolent force of the necklace round her neck for the first time. Indeed there may have been more nudity featuring Keaton (and Irina Demick too in her bathtub scene too) that has possibly been pruned from this release. Indeed, nudity, especially in foreign films, was heavily censored in Spain at the time under the Franco regime, and the "S" classification for Sexo would only start to allow nudity in Spanish cinemas in the late 1970ís.
Little seen since and outside of itís initial release in Italy in December 1972, and in Spain 1974, there is a bogus belief that the film was released in the United States under an English language title of "Tragic Ceremony in the Alexander Estate" Ė which is an approximate translation of the Spanish into English. However this assertion of a release seems to be unfounded and the only legitimate release until 2004 since itís initial cinema releases seems to have been on Venezuelan videocassette (which is the source material behind this release). An interesting curio is that the script for the film is credited to one Rachel E B Griffiths, a recognized Rome based ex-pat, who has worked on some highly regarded screenplays, most recently Scorceseís GANGS OF NEW YORK. Yet the cast seem to speaking mostly in Italian or Spanish, with only Keaton wording her lines in English. An English language version may have been prepared, but this has never been shown nor surfaced.
The spurious packaging of the DVD claims to be an Australian based company called Shoarma, based in Melbourne, however the game is given away by the fact that the film has been released in an all region NTSC release (whereas PAL is the encoding in Australia), and the simple fact that no such company doesnít exist in Australia. HmmmÖ Also the film betrays all the signs of being a gray market release and Shoarma is really a cover for Luminous Home Video Wurks. Not that this is a bad thing, and as this is the only readily available way to see the film, it is a welcome release. However, in 2004, an Italian print of the film, unseen since early 1973 played as part of a retrospective in Venice, presented as part of the "Italian Kings of the Bís", in a presumably complete uncut Italian language edition of the film. The rights and materials are still held in Italy, and hopefully, these recent screenings might re-juvenate interest in the film, and it might get an official release in Italy. Hopefully the release might be through one of the leading lights in DVD releases, such as Raro Films, as this film seems a title which would fit quite snugly into their release schedule.
As a result of this release being transferred from a long out of print videocassette, picture quality is bound to have suffered. Also the original transfer for the video cassette seems to have been inconsistent to say the least, as well as the problems that occur with old video cassettes, such as dropouts, picture quality depletion over the passage of time, and the occasional tracking problem here and there. All the same, picture quality is pretty good with the image being quite clear, with events on screen being played out clearly, if unexceptional. Flesh tones and colors cannot be described as vivid or fresh, and with scenes of darkness, what is going on onscreen, and especially during the traumatic Satanic bloodbath, not always easy to determine. The transfer has also presented in full screen, which loses a substantial amount of information from the compositions which were presumably originally intended for viewing in 1.85:1 or thereabouts, and certainly will detract the viewer from Fredaís skill as director. The opening credits cut off letters from peopleís names, or make them seem cramped, over a slightly yellow, somewhat dark picture. The soundtrack is pretty clear for the majority of the time, with the odd hiss and crackle here and there, presented in mono, and can be at best considered unexceptional owing to itís source material. Yet at least there are clear and easy to read English subtitles (removable) allowing viewers to understand events as they unfold onscreen. One of the pleasures of the film is the soundtrack by Stelvio Cipriani, with suitably simple eerie, dramatic, and atmospheric music in the more sinister and macabre scenes. Also, there is a wonderful song (a true guilty pleasure) which is crooned over the opening [slightly cramped and cropped] credits, which will be enjoyed of these bizarre songs that crop up in Italian movies from the late Sixties through to the late Seventies, that generally would have nothing to do with the film they accompanied. This opening song plays like a sad melancholic love song, and actually seems to fit the mood of the forthcoming film perfectly.
Extras are non-existent for this release, with static menus and only the option to remove subtitles is given. Equally, and bizarrely the music playing over the menu is by Ennio Morricone, and taken from his THE FIFTH CORD, a giallo/crime thriller by Luigi Bazzoni (!?!). Quite what context it fits in with this film is uncertain, other than with its organ grindings, it sounds semi-sinister in tone.
Freda completists and admirers of unusual Italian cinema will most likely enjoy this film. The print qualityisnít really the best for gorehounds to enjoy the splattery special effects, which are repeated here and there within the narrative, and arenít the best constructed, recalling the somewhat lackluster effects from Fredaís earlier IGUANA WITH A TONGUE OF FIRE and which wouldnít be improved upon much in his last cinematic feature as director, MURDER OBSESSION, which featured a somewhat hokum decapitation scene. Yet TRAGIC CEREMONY is not a film about special effects or slaughter, and if one looks beyond that, and with perseverance, it is revealed that TRAGIC CEREMONY is in fact a far more complex and multi-layered film that improves with repeated viewing. Regrettably, for now, this censored grey market version seems to be the only way to see and enjoy the film short of an official release coming out of Italy. Unlikely, sadly, as Freda hasnít achieved the same status as Mario Bava or Dario Argento, despite having been instrumental in some of the more interesting gothic movies in the early 1960ís. An under rated, under appreciated, undiscovered and misunderstood film; perhaps too avant garde for most horror or Eurocult enthusiasts, and the confusing narrative wonít do the film any favors for itís intended audience.
Story \ Film: 4 / 5 BITCH SLAPS Picture: 2 / 5 BITCH SLAPS Audio: 2 / 5 BITCH SLAPS Extras: 0 / 5 BITCH SLAPS Overall: 2.5 / 5 BITCH SLAPS
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