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Lash of the Penitentes, The
So The Lash Of The Penitentes is the better known version of a film originally released as The Penitente Murder Case that has been, up until this release, ridiculously hard to find. The Lash cut not so much, it was around, but the original version has been tough to come by. Kino Lorber, with some help from both Something Weird Video and the Library Of Congress , have brought to Blu-ray as the ninth installment of their Forbidden Fruit: The Golden Age Of The Exploitation Picture series, both cuts, and those with a taste for the bizarre and/or those who appreciate vintage exploitation pictures have every reason to rejoice.
Before the obligatory plot synopsis, a quick bit of background. Producer and supposed co-director Harry Revier bought himself a bunch of footage shot for an abandoned documentary made a couple of years prior about Los Hermanos Penitentes, a sect of the Catholic Church (soon to be disowned) that was really into flagellation and other brutal punishments. This footage is, in a word, amazing but Revier didn't quite know what to do with it until travel journalist Carl Taylor's murder made the papers. At this point, he or someone close to him, got the idea to incorporate the murder into the Los Hermanos Penitentes footage and, boom, a seriously weird exploitation cinema curio was born as The Penitente Murder Case. In true exploitation movie fashion, the film would, a little while later, be recut and reissued in a different version as The Last Of The Penitentes
And now, the obligatory plot synopsis. George Mack (José Rubio) is a newspaper reporter/travel journalist who heads into the deserts of New Mexico only to come into contact with a Catholic sect referred to as The Penitentes. They take their religion extremely seriously and practice the rite of self-flagellation on a regular basis. Mack winds up teaming up with a local teenager named Chico (William Marcos) in order to gain access to some of The Penitentes' more arcane rites and rituals, hoping to really be able to dig deep and deliver the best story he possibly can for the paper that employs him. To make a not so long story even shorter, it doesn't end well for Mack...
This isn't so much a ‘good' film as it is a fascinating film. The footage of The Penitentes, much of which does appear to be authentic, is going to prove seriously interesting to anyone with an interest in cults, sects, the odd side of Christianity or religion in general. What appears to be authentic really does tie into the narrative quite well, as we definitely do get plenty of clips of members of Los Hermanos Penitentes being whipped, whipping themselves or just generally being tied (not nailed) to a cross and left out there in the hot desert sun for a while. The film does lack context, it would have been much more interesting had it turned out to be the documentary that it was apparently intended as, but the footage itself is strong enough and legitimately weird enough to be the main draw here. The added footage is rarely good but it does provide some links and a narrative of sorts, so it serves its purpose even if it doesn't quite deliver when compared to the footage of the sect itself doing their thing. The acting in the newly provided footage isn't good and overall it doesn't really match the documentary footage but that doesn't matter so much when you get what appears to be a pretty authentic look at a sect as obscure and unusual as Los Hermanos Penitentes seem to have been (and probably still are).
The Penitente Murder Case, which is the feature version included on this disc, is believed to be the complete, uncensored forty-eight-minute cut of the film and is definitely the ‘stronger' version of the movie. The Lash Of The Penitentes version of the film is the more commonly seen (before this release) censored and condensed thirty-five-minute version of the movie.
Some of the differences between the two cuts of the film are:
-Lash has a different, and much longer, scroll that opens the film.
rn-The Penitente Murder Case opens with a montage of the newspaper as it goes into print, whereas The Lash Of The Penitentes puts that sequence at the end, tells things in chronological order.
rn-The Lash Of The Penitentes removes the scene of George and Chico in the cabin and almost all of the of the story about Mack reporting for the paper.-The Lash Of The Penitentes also includes a few shots not in The Penitente Murder Case, specifically a scene that inspires Chico to kill Carl Mack (which has been inserted into the longer cut) on this disc.-The Lash Of The Penitentes also includes footage showing what happened to Chico afterwards that isn't in The Penitente Murder Case.-The scene with the naked woman being whipped that is included in The Penitente Murder Case is excised in The Penitente Murder Case.-In the The Penitente Murder Case cut the blood drip onto the manuscript after the murder is shorter.
Both versions of the movie are presented in AVC encoded 1080p high definition and properly framed at 1.33.1 with both films sharing a 25GB disc. The forty-eight-minute uncut version of the takes up 11.3GBS of space and is taken from better elements than the thirty-five-minute cut down version that uses up 8.3GBs of space. The uncut version (taken from a print supplied by the Library Of Congress) generally looks quite good given the age and obscurity of the picture. Picture quality degrades a bit during fades and transitions and some scenes look cleaner than others but overall it's quite watchable. The Last Of The Penitentes cut is in rougher shape. Detail isn't quite as sharp and some scenes look noticeable darker. Still, again, given the history of this picture it's more than watchable. Both films show decent contrast and the black and white transfers always look nice and natural, always filmic. There are no issues with any noise reduction or edge enhancement though eagle-eyed viewers might spot the odd compression artifact here and there.
Each cut of the film gets a 16-bit English language LPCM 2.0 Mono audio track. The original cut of the movie contains optional English subtitles, the recut version does not. Audio quality is comparable between the two cuts, with dialogue generally coming across fairly clean if a bit on the flat side. For a production not too far from celebrating its centenary, the quality is more than acceptable, though it would have been nice to get subtitles on both versions.
The main extra on the disc is a commentary from series curator Brian Wood, co-author of Forbidden Fruit: The Golden Age Of The Exploitation Film, that plays over The Penitente Murder Case. He talks about the different cuts of the film and how they came to exist, also pointing out the differences between the two versions, the role that producer Harry Revier played in getting this film out into theaters, the 'square up used' in both versions of the film, the sensational ad campaigns employed for both releases, the state of film censorship at the time, the film's connections to Child Bride and Tomorrow's Children, the true story of the murder of journalist/travel writer Carl Taylor that inspired the film and how the film includes actual documentary footage of the tribe at one time considered responsible for his death, shot in 1935 and taken from an uncompleted film by Eisenstein. We learn about the history of Los Hermanos Penitentes, an obscure Catholic sect, and their practices of flagellation, crucifixions and other unusual techniques, some of which are fairly extreme. He also covers how the use of real animal violence in the film harkens back to Luis Bunuel's style, the narration in the film, how the material used in the film that didn't originate from the original documentary footage was shot over three days for $16,000.00, the film's premiere and release history, problems that arose with the Hays office and its history with censorship, specifically a scene where a nude woman is tied up and whipped (the footage exists in the trailer but this bit and other footage from the trailer isn't in any known version of the film and seems to be inserted from something else to spice up the trailer, though there is different footage of a naked woman being whipped in this cut). We also learn about the different cast members that appear in the film, the crew members who worked on it, some of the locations that were used for the picture (some of which Wood admits is guess work), rumors of a Spanish version having been shot at the same time, how this appears to be the completely uncut version of the movie, plans for a stage version, how the complete print of the film was found, the truth surrounding Carl Taylor's death and what happened to his killer and the film's cinematographer. This is an excellent track, very well-researched and consistently interesting from start to finish, offering lot of very welcome background information not only on the film and the people who made it but the cast that inspired it and the cult it's based around as well.
Outside of that, we get a trailer for The Last Of The Penitentes (which does feature the alternate whipping footage mentioned above), a few bonus trailers (Marihuana: Weed With Roots In Hell, Mom And Dad and Test Tube Babies), static menus and chapter selection optinos.
Kino's Blu-ray release of The Lash Of The Penitentes is a fascinating and fairly important historical artifact, documenting not only the practices of a strange religious sect but also those of exploitation pioneers like producer Harry Revier. The presentation on this Blu-ray is quite good given the history of the production and Brian Wood's commentary alone is reason enough to seek this out. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.