Here's the thing about classic horror movie fans: they'll eagerly sample absolutely everything, no matter how awful, how outré. I've known many such fans who will spend a considerable sum acquiring an obscure Turkish Dracula movie, suffer gladly through the worst David F. Friedman or Al Adamson thriller, or watch Return of the Ape Man annually. But, suggest watching something like Citizen Kane or Casablanca and they wince like the Our Gang kids swallowing a spoonful of castor oil.
Nevertheless, this strange loyalty certainly has benefitted the horror movie genre. Of the hundreds upon hundreds of horror movies released between, say, 1930-1980, the number that haven't made it to DVD and/or Blu-ray is relatively small, certainly compared to other movie genres covering the same time frame. That so many of these releases offer films in their original languages, uncut, in widescreen where applicable, and often are accompanied by thick booklets and/or exhaustively researched audio commentaries has facilitated a major reexamination of the genre's farthest reaches. Heretofore dismissed directors are being reappraised, while even the most exploitative junk, if nothing else, is at least put in the best possible light.
The latter certainly holds true of Black Magic Rites (Riti, magie nere e segrete orge nel trecento..., or "Rites, Black Magic and Secret Orgies in the 14th Century," 1973), an incomprehensible parade of nude women and their torture at the hands of Satanists-vampires, including Count Dracula (Raul Loveccio) himself. Also known as The Reincarnation of Isabel, this Redemption Films release through Kino Lorber may be spectacularly bad, but its high-definition presentation can't be faulted.
To say Black Magic Rites is hard to follow implies there's something to be following. The film has only the sketchiest semblance of a story, and I wouldn't be surprised if most of it was shot without a real script, the filmmakers thinking they could fill in the blanks - and there are many - later on.
Despite the original Italian title, most of the film takes place in the present day, at a very picturesque mountaintop castle (Balsorano Castle in L'Aquila, according the IMDb). There, buxom young women stay for no clear reason, along with a motley band of reincarnated (?) vampires/Satanists. In his highly recommended review of this same Blu-ray disc, DVD Savant rightly traces the story's origins to two very tame but entertaining films made a dozen years earlier, The Vampire and the Ballerina (L'amante del vampire, 1960), made by the same writer-director as this, Renato Polselli; and The Playgirls and the Vampire (L'ultima preda del vampire, also 1960).
(Sergei Hasenecz adds, "Neither you nor DVD Savant mention another possible antecedent in Bloody Pit of Horror [Il Boia Scarlatto, 1965]. Hargitay starred in that one as an actor possessed (or was he reincarnated?) by the spirit of an ancient sadist, the Crimson Executioner [as he's called in the dubbed version]. And again, there is a group of beautiful women trapped in his castle for him to torture. It too was filmed at Balsorano Castle. I first saw it on a double-bill with Terror Creatures from Beyond the Grave on 42nd St.")
Black Magic Rites also clearly was influenced by the wave of sadistic torture films, again mainly involving beautiful naked women, made in the wake of several movies but most directly the West German Mark of the Devil (Hexen bis aufs Blut gequält, 1970). Like that film, Black Magic Rites is a veritable catalog of misogyny. In every reel women in various states of undress are stabbed, buried alive, subjected to torture devices, burned at the stake, or have their hearts ripped out, etc.
Only the slightest wisps of a narrative connect it all. Mostly it has to do with attempts by the vampire-Satanists to resurrect a witch named Isabella (Rita Calderoni) burned at the stake centuries before but now inexplicably half-alive with a pasty face but perfectly preserved (nude) body. Perfect, that is, except for the giant burnt hole between her breasts (an excellent make-up effect in an otherwise crudely-made production).
Even the back cover text seems confused. It explains that "The castle is purchased by the unwitting Jack Nelson (Mickey Hargitay)" but he looks pretty darn witting to me. Is he one of the Satanists, too, or merely under their spell? Who knows? The nominal hero appears to be Richard (William Darni), the fiancé of Laureen (also Calderoni), a dead ringer for Isabella and also Jack Nelson's niece.
Hargitay (Mariska's father and Jayne Mansfield's ex) and director Renato Polselli were old friends, having worked before on Sheriff Won't Shoot (1965), a spaghetti Western, and Delirium (Delirio caldo, 1972), also starring Rita Calderoni and many other cast and crew members. Indeed, so many worked on both films I strongly suspect Black Magic Rites was thrown together at the last minute as a means to make two films for nearly the price of one, along the lines of what director Roger Corman did with The Terror (1963).
From a production standpoint though, Black Magic Rites is amateurish. The rushed look of the production and possible lack of a final shooting script may account for its dreadful editing, which resorts to two favorites of ultra-low budget filmmakers: the swish-pan edit and, as Savant notes, staggered cuts, both for transitioning from once scene to the next. The later is extravagantly overused. The cheapness also bubbles up when angry villagers decide to storm the castle and burn a few alleged witches (this in 1973 Italy?). Locals were hired, and many can't hide their unabashed delight at being in a real movie, smiling broadly as they pass the camera lens.
Video & Audio
Presented in 1080p, 1.78:1 full-frame and thus approximating its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, Black Magic Rites' transfer was sourced from the original negative and looks very good, considering. The image is sharp with accurate color, and arguably provides too much information: the women's hairy legs and armpits, acne, scars, and other blemishes don't exactly arouse (Lovely Rita Calderoni is an exception, however). The film is presented in Italian mono only with optional English subtitles.
The only real supplement is an unsubtitled Italian trailer, but it's in high-def, too, as are a batch of other Kino-Lorber trailers, including the Mario Bava films Lisa and the Devil and Hatchet for a Honeymoon.
Black Magic Rites is really for the die-hardest of horror movie fans only, though they should be delighted with the excellent transfer, so for them it's Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.