Refusing to play by the often mundane rules of their Western counterparts, the European horror moviemaker loves to serve up the shocks in his or her own deliciously demented way. Perhaps because of the old world classicism that surrounds them, the tight connection to traditional folk tales and legends, or a real need to feel different from the hindering Hollywood hierarchy, the Italian or Spanish shockmeister strives to stand out from the standard Tinsel Town terrors – what with their radioactive Hell beasts and shape-shifting polymorphs. Implementing their proud proclivity toward gore and sometimes spicing things up with a desire to exploit surrealism as much as scare, the fright filled tales from across the ocean swell with situations both strange and sadistic, and are consistently drenched in deep red bloodletting. As a result, you hear the names of the amazing masters of the genre whispered in those hallowed halls of the macabre, menacing monikers like Fulci or Argento resonating with a kind of creep show power along the rotting and redolent walls of that most baneful of shrines.
Few, if any, have probably heard of Claudio Guerìn however. Indeed, his career did not last long enough, or contain enough movies, to truly cement his name in the annals of anguish. Instead, what he left behind was forgettable, sporadic and rarely revisited – with the sole exception of his final film, the oddly named A Bell from Hell (from the Spanish La Campana del infierno). Quite accomplished and filled with the kind of ethereal dread that foreign fright flicks often excel in, it's not hard to see why fans and critics have generally gravitated toward this scurrilous story of insanity and revenge. But this is hardly a flawless film. Indeed, A Bell from Hell suffers from the equally bizarre circumstances under which it was made. In the end, what Guerìn intended, and what is up on the screen never seems to effectively gel. Consequently, what should have been a violent slice of madness-mired vindication is frequently too dreamy and disjointed for its own good.
John has been locked up in an asylum for three years, ever since the suicide of his beloved mother. During that time, his aunt and her trio of twisted daughters have sued him for control of the estate. They want the money at any costs, and see John and his sanity as the only roadblock toward getting it. Successfully slandering his mental makeup, they have had the run of the riches. Unfortunately, the State cannot hold him forever. He is pronounced as "cured", and released. Returning to his mother's abandoned home, John gets a job at a local slaughterhouse, quitting when he believes he's "learned enough". He then begins to retrofit his basement with all the accoutrement of an abattoir. He pays a visit to his aunt, and invites the family to visit him at his newly appointed home. They begrudgingly accept. In the meantime, John plays mind games with the people of his small seaside village, using practical jokes and a sick sense of humor to turn husband against wife, friend against friend and daughter against mother. When the fateful visit from his relatives finally occurs, John can hardly contain himself. He has everything planned out – and a nasty surprise waiting for everyone in the cellar down below.
Equal parts disturbing and distracting, A Bell from Hell marks a valiant effort on the part of director Claudio Guerìn. You can sense from his cinematic design and attention to ambiance a deep desire to stand next to such international horror heroes as Dario Argento, Mario Bava and Coffin Joe himself, Jose Mojica Marins. Unfortunately, he never got to see this vision fully completed. On the last day of shooting, Guerìn fell (or, some speculate jumped) from the church tower that plays a prominent part in Bell's finale. It was left to Juan Antonio Bardem to complete the movie and all the post-production facets. Maybe this would explain why the film feels unfinished. There are parts of Bell that are painfully stunning. There are other aspects that are as vile and disgusting as any Mondo-style movie you've seen. Yet just when it appears Guerìn will pull it all together, to gel his Gothic with his Grand Guignol, the movie makes a major misstep and continues to stumble from there. The result is something that feels fragmented, as if it was edited together by someone unsure of the original creator's intent.
If you've seen a single European horror film from the 1970s, you've seen several of the scenes in A Bell from Hell. Relying on that most resonate of horror movie premises – familial infighting – and lacing it with the lunatic asylum circumstances (another paragon of the fright flick), Guerìn does a delightful job of setting up his story. Using hints and half-truths, all filtered through a densely foggy, forest-laden seaside locale, the backdrop really prepares us for something dark and foreboding. And after we watch our would-be protagonist John garret and gut several cows as part of his post-nut house employment, the tension is already tweaking the hairs on the back of our necks. You just know that this visceral training is going to come in handy down the road. We are then treated to an equally suspenseful sequence where John convinces a local contractor visiting his family that his aunt is insane, only imagining the daughters she speaks about. As the camera points out a vaulted archway, the opening shrouded in spooky mist, the dread is delightful.
But our first filmic failure comes at about the same time. A young girl is accosted by four of the town elders (which includes the contractor), and they give the distinct impression that they are all interested in a little pedophilic rape. As the scene plays out, it has no obvious initial connection to the main narrative, and merely seems stuck inside the story to add a nauseating amount of underage titillation. Later on we learn that there is some connection between these men, and the Bell of the title, but that seems to be the only rational for their appearance in the movie. Even with our so-called hero John added into the mix, nothing here defines the sequence's utility. While we do get some minor payoff when John later confronts the gratuitous gang at a gentlemen's club, it's our first indication that something is amiss in Guerìn's world. Up until this point, A Bell from Hell was a systematic story of revenge, a step-by-step decent into the vengeance-fueled psychosis of a lethal young man. But once the jailbaiting buffoons decide to diddle that little local lass (whose also mute, by the way), the story and its startling suspense seems to wane.
And it never really picks up again. Sure, the dinner party cat and mouse between John and his relatives has a few certified goose pimple moments, and we find ourselves cheering this cruel, callous killer as he lulls each lady to her potential doom. But then Guerìn again does something that is almost cinematically suicidal. He decides not to deliver. Anyone interested in seeing the film sans spoilers should skip down to the next paragraph now. Otherwise, a major plot point is about to be revealed. Okay, you've been warned (SPOILER). As John prepares his three cousins to be carved up, slaughterhouse style, Guerìn follows each phase with giddy anticipation. We watch as John prepares the tools of his torment. Each gal, now stripped naked, is systematically hung up by her hands along a metal track that leads to the gutting table. We watch as the motor whirs and the hooks travel toward their diabolical destination. Our first victim is laid out on the slab. John grabs his horrible blade and prepares to cut. But then he stops. He has second thoughts and some remorse of sorts. Indeed, he decides not to go through with it at all. He answers a knock at the door instead, giving the girls a chance to escape, which they do (END SPOILER).
It is at this moment, and another much later on in the story, where Guerìn really tests our tolerance of his obtuse storytelling. We have anticipated this payback all film, sympathizing with this psycho as his family proves time and time again that they deserve everything they are about to get. Yet to offer up the resolution that he does seems to go against everything the director was supposedly building to in the first place. This does happen again as well, at the very end of the film. To say that the conclusion is unsatisfying is to argue the bloody (or make that bloodLESS) obvious – we learn nothing of anyone's fate. We are frustrated by the last minute inclusion of the title entity, start to see the plot holes opening up and don't really have all the necessary facts or configurations to buy into the last act shown onscreen. It is here where A Bell from Hell appears the most slapdash. Perhaps Bardem was only working with what he had, unable to flesh out the film with the material Guerìn left behind. Maybe this moviemaker wanted to leave his own indelible stamp of the story, and decided that being ambiguous was better than being apparent. Whatever the case may be, the final 30 minutes of Bell tries to undo all that came before. What it does do is taint the entire project, undermining your affection for its otherwise dark designs and atmospheric moodiness.
Yet, there is still so much that is magically macabre about this movie, from the doom and gloom drenching the town and its people with a kind of perverted pallor, to the acting of everyone involved (the cast is first rate and never off the mark, performance wise). Indeed, A Bell from Hell has too many moments of unqualified queasiness to be totally dismissed. But as anyone familiar with the foreign filmmakers Guerìn is measuring himself against knows, leaving the audience unfulfilled is not the highest compliment that can be paid to a motion picture, or the most intelligent conceit of a fright filmmaker. Such a schizophrenic situation can instantly sour even the most sensational slice of cinema. Thankfully, A Bell from Hell has enough interesting invention and environmental eeriness to recommend its viewing. Though it won't survive a serious examination, the evocative visuals and disturbing ideas will keep you engaged and, often, on the edge of your seat. That all this angst never properly pays off completely is one of Guerìn's unfortunate legacies. A Bell from Hell may have been better had he lived. In death, it's a decidedly incomplete epitaph.
Visually, Pathfinder Pictures anamorphic widescreen image is excellent. The 1.85:1 image does appear to be poorly cropped, since we lose a lot of information at the sides, especially during the opening credits, and the important dinner party scene where John's aunt is almost completely missing from the right side of the screen. Still the colors are vibrant and correct and the contrasts are adjusted to provide maximum detail. The overall print does feel a bit dark, but this could have been Guerìn's idea of ambience. With a few scratches here and there, and a couple of spots where dirt and defects are noticeable, this is far from a reference quality offering. But A Bell from Hell still looks surprisingly fresh in this professional preservation job by Pathfinder.
On the sound side, A Bell from Hell is basic at best. We get a solid soundtrack filled with a combination of dramatic and droning compositions. The overdubbed voices are clear and crisp, and the conversations always appear audible over the occasional orchestration. Guerìn did not use sound as a significant part of his horror palette, so there is not much here musically or aurally to be overwhelmed by. Still, it's clear that a lot of care was taken when crafting this DVD, and the amiable tech specs more than bear this out.
Pathfinder also does a nice job in fleshing out this home video version of the film, providing a good selection of added content to aid in our understanding of Guerìn and his muse. We are treated to a biography and filmography for the director, as well as a list of selected films for other members of the cast. There is an essay on A Bell from Hell by scholar/critic Chris D., as well as a selection of Spanish language scenes that differ only slightly from the English versions (perhaps the biggest change is in a sex scene, where our once naked girl is now fully clothed as she tries to seduce John).
But the best bonus here is Mr. D's audio commentary. Though he tends to trail off toward the end, leaving large gaps of dead air, D. does have a unique perspective and some crucial insight into the film. Likening the entire production to those of the politically charge surrealists movement in Spain, Chris comments on the significance of the slaughterhouse footage, why the underage rape sequence is necessary (and darkly humorous?), and how the failure of the finale (though he doesn't believe it's a bungle) actually adds to the movie's message. While he does confuse a couple of issues (he never addresses how John set up the "last laugh" gag before meeting his fate), this is a wonderful addition to the package. Pathfinder proves that, with a movie as mixed up as A Bell from Hell, an alternate narrative track really helps to explain and celebrate such a title.
The sensation of dreadful disappointed that occurs after watching A Bell from Hell has two very real and very vital consequences. First, it proves that this movie, for the most part, was actually having its way with you. It was subverting your sense of security while simultaneously feeding all your fan based fear factors. If it had merely been a mess from beginning to end, had it systematically stunk up the screen with its laughable lunacy or amateurish antics, the last Act would have simply been par for the course. Instead, it is perplexing and unsatisfactory. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, it proves that, given time, Claudio Guerìn could have developed into a truly talented and timeless terror titan. A Bell from Hell stings with a kind of antiseptic imagination that combines classical and clinical scares in a prurient pool of perversion. It is stunning to look at and loaded with incredible visual flair. Had he been given the opportunity to fully expand and explore his filmmaking style, Guerìn could have easily taken his place along the other great Mediterranean masters of the macabre. Still, this is a fine foray into the horror genre, recommended more for what it gets right than condemned for it's poorly realized resolution. Sadly, Guerìn is not here to defend himself or his ideas. And just like the circumstances surrounding his death, A Bell from Hell will probably always remain shrouded in conjecture and mystery. It is a potent example of that most aggravating of critical considerations: what if.
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