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Reportedly never the recipient of a formal American release, Renato Polselli's Black Magic Rites is one of those horror movies known to most fans as a blurry videotape, or a confusing entry in a catalogue of exotic and unsee-able attractions. The listing in the Hardy Encyclopedia of Horror tells us little except that the film wasn't released until 1976. What purchasers of this good-looking Kino Blu-ray will find is a nearly incoherent narrative dealing with satanic sacrifice, sex, torturing women, a 500 year-old curse, and finally a group of honest-to-Bava vampires.
The only readily familiar name in the cast is Mickey Hargitay, who had acted for Polselli before, notably in Spaghetti Westerns. A description of the story is difficult because most of the film's events are shapeless episodes in an ongoing series of torture scenes. A group of visitors at a rich man's new castle seems rather unconcerned when some of them -- beautiful young women -- disappear. As is evident from the first scene forward, the men are actually ageless vampires cursed by an event from 500 years ago, when the innocent Isabella (Rita Calderoni) was tortured at the stake as a witch. Her lover Jack Nelson (Mickey Hargitay) has
In horror movies there can be a fine distinction between incoherence and artistic expressions of delirium; established greats like Vampyr and Dementia abound with dreamlike imagery that defies explanation even as it stirs something within the viewer. Mario Bava's Lisa and the Devil achieves some of this quality -- its artistic mission outweighs the commercially exploitative content. Black Magic Rites is pure exploitation, Euro style. Every scene contains copious female nudity, as gorgeous women are molested, raped, chained in torture devices, burned at the stake, impaled with stakes, and sacrificed on Satanic altars. Cameraman Ugo Brunelli (Delirium) keeps the nude women well lit at all times, while harsh colors wash over reverse angles of the demonic torturers. The contrast between this artless lighting and that of a master like Mario Bava is immediately apparent: a frequent effect sees a face hit by rotating green and red lights from what has to be a Christmas color wheel!
The pictures' one disturbing image is of the (preserved?) Isabella strapped spread-eagled to the dungeon wall. The pasty makeup on her face is surprisingly effective, and right in the middle of her chest is what looks like a big burned hole, as if a giant used her for an ashtray. This mummified, silent Isabella doesn't look like she needs some other woman's eyes; in one scene they dart left and right, almost reminding us of the Martian Intelligence in Invaders from Mars. And that's a stretch, as we have no emotional involvement with her situation, yea or nay.
The film's action is split (rather inconsistently) between past, present, and at least one additional supernatural plane. The flashbacks to the 1400s are sometimes 'intuited' by the modern women, as they lie in bed patiently waiting for some fiends to come along and enliven their sex lives. The dungeon is sometimes a real room in the bowels of the castle, and at the end of the show seems to be treated as an alternate reality that simply disappears when the spell is broken. As the characters mostly stare into the camera, they don't really have personalities -- when Laureen or Glenda or Steffy is writhing away while chained to the dungeon wall, it's not easy to remember who exactly they are. Director Polselli's goal seems to be to populate the film with wall-to-wall writhing nude figures.
Polselli also edited. In what seems to be desperation to give the footage some snap, he fractures the footage with stagger cuts (jumping back and forth between two otherwise uninteresting shots) and cuts to black, colored pinwheels, bits of future action or fragmented flashback. The effect is not very exciting, although it must be said that the screen is at least more active than in the soporific 'surrealism' of Jean Rollin. The film's original title makes it sound like a much more daring enterprise. 1
The dauntless Renato Polselli was having a second run at girly-show vampire movies, due the relaxing of censorship rules. Ten years before, the enterprising filmmaker did well with The Vampire and the Ballerina (L'amante del vampiro). The rather similar horror show is also about a troupe of exotic dancers visiting a castle haunted by vampires, only to be decimated by an interesting husband-wife vampire tag team. The original Italian version is very chaste in the skin department. It has an (intentionally?) funny ending, with the vampire queen henpecking her hapless vampire hubby as both are forced up to the castle battlements with the sun rising. The movie was remade almost immediately by director Piero Regnoli, as The Playgirls and the Vampire (L'ultima preda del vampiro). Regnoli 'pushed the outside of the envelope' by including brief shots of peek-a-boo nudity, which was presumably snipped out for Italian screenings (but found immortality as hot stills in Lo Duca's sexy European coffee table picture book L'Erotisme au Cinema).
By 1973 (or 1976, if the Hardy book is correct), the imagery in Black Magic Rites was so commonplace that nobody would bat an eye, let alone publish samples in a saucy picture book.
Kino and Redemption's Blu-ray of Black Magic Rites is yet another high quality transfer of printing elements in excellent condition. The color pops, the images are almost spotless and the show looks to be completely uncut. Romolo Forlai and Gianfranco Reverberi's uneven music score changes tone throughout the picture, but is well recorded. The sparse Italian dialogue ("Monsters! Monsters!") is communicated with removable English subs. The one extra is a trailer, and we also get to see an excellent-quality trailer for the upcoming Mario Bava thriller Hatchet for the Honeymoon. This is an excellent time to become a collector of arcane Euro-horror titles, as labels like Redemption/Kino and Severin are coming out with truly flawless Blu-rays.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Black Magic Rites Blu-ray rates:
1. The original title Riti, magie nere e segrete orge nel trecento... (Black Magic Rites and Secret Orgies of the 14th Century...) suggests a more academic documentary approach, like Benjamin Christensen's epochal Häxan (Witchcraft Through the Ages. In the spectrum of fantasy film art, Polselli's picture exhibits a somewhat different vibe, more of a 'show us what you've got and shake it a little more' quality.
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