Jul 28, 2013

A Bell from Hell

Attempting to dig up a decent horror-related film that I had yet to see became a rather redundant task for me a while ago and I have essentially given up on attempting to defend the genre (with a couple exceptions, of course), but when I do end up happening upon a surprisingly decent film from the genre, it happens to have at least one (but usually both) of the following qualities: 1. It's European 2. It is at least over 30 years old. Of course, it was no surprise for me that my latest noteworthy horror-related discovery, A Bell from Hell (1973) aka La campana del infierno, was not only made over a decade before I was born and is a Spanish-French coproduction, but also features a fairly decent cast, including French actor Renaud Verley (who played the troubled young man Gunther Von Essenbeck in Visconti’s high-camp masterpiece The Damned (1969)) in the lead role and Swedish-born veteran actress Viveca Lindfors (who horror fans will recognized for her performance as ‘Aunt Bedelia’ in Creepshow (1982) segment “Father’s Day”) in the role of an evil wheelchair-bound cripple aunt who perniciously plots to steal the protagonist’s inheritance. Featuring a quasi-psychopathic and highly charismatic anti-hero who beats Alex in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) in terms of sadistic suaveness and aberrant allure as the lead character, A Bell from Hell is undoubtedly a character-driven work yet it also a scandalously sardonic scare-fest featuring a startlingly idiosyncratic hodgepodge of surrealist, gothic, and Mondo Cane-esque imagery to the point of almost aesthetic overload. In fact, like most great films, A Bell from Hell is so chock full of captivating imagery and cleverly naughty nuances that a mere single viewing of the film will not suffice for the viewer to appreciate what a truly lavish and meticulously assembled work ill-fated Spanish auteur Claudio Guerín (The Challenges aka Los desafíos, The House of the Doves aka La casa de las palomas) assembled. Surprisingly Buñuel-esque in its absurdist attacks on the Spanish bourgeoisie, yet all the more brutal due to its utilization of then-totally-taboo horror imagery, including blood and guts, full-frontal nudity, and incestuous eroticism, A Bell from Hell is a radically rare piece of left-wing gothic-gore that actually manages not to bore the viewer due to its patently political persuasion. Foretelling the psychosexual sadism that would dominate Italian cinema in the late-1970s but with the poesy aesthetic cultivation of Italian maestro Mario Bava (Black Sunday, Blood and Black Lace) and the more interesting works of Hammer Films, A Bell from Hell also manages to reconcile the aesthetic and thematic differences of the horror genre of old and new in a most strikingly seamless manner. In fact, A Bell from Hell was penned by Santiago Moncada, who also wrote the script for the Bava flick Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1970) aka Il rosso segno della follia and actress Christina von Blanc appeared in the Jess Franco/Jean Rollin flick A Virgin Among the Living Dead (1973), thus illustrating the ‘range’ of horror talent in Guerín’s artful horror-thriller. The wantonly and recklessly witty tale of a black sheep of a bourgeoisie who gets out of a mental institution and seeks revenge against the aunt and relatives who put him there so as to steal inheritance, A Bell from Hell is the kind of conspicuously class-conscious cinematic work you would have been directed by a bloodthirsty Bolshevik revolutionary with a scathing and seemingly Satanic sense of humor and a cultivated bourgeois talent for cinematic art. 

 John (Renaud Verley)—a rather peculiar pretty boy with a seemingly sadistic yet good humored knack for elaborate practical jokes and creating realistic mask replicas of his own face—is randomly released from a mental institution on probation and given a summons for his upcoming hearing in two months regarding whether or not he is sane enough to become a productive member of society.  John moves into his deceased mother's home, which is somewhat dilapidated and dust-ridden due to be being unoccupied for what seems like a number of years. Although bourgeois by way of blood and a rather large inheritance, John decides to take up the less than glorious work-class trade of working as a butcher (actor Verley gutted a cow in real-life for the film), but he suddenly quits after he’s “learned enough” as it seems he wants to utilize his new slaughtering skills on a more bipedal sort of animal. Even more endlessly explicit than the bloody slaughterhouse scene in Fassbinder’s In a Year of 13 Moons (1978), A Bell from Hell spares no viewer in depicting the grizzly process it takes to turn cute cows into ground beef. Although destined to inherit a hefty fortune due to his mother tragically committing suicide by way of apparently jumping off a cliff, John believes his wheelchair-bound witch of an aunt Marta (Viveca Lindfors) wants to get rid of him so she can get the money and that his stint in the loony bin was a result of his aunt bribing a doctor to declare him insane. Marta also has three gorgeous teenage daughters that include Esther (Maribel Martin), Maria (Christina von Blanc), and Teresa (Nuria Gimenol), the latter two seeming to be still attached to their mother by the umbilical cord due to their groveling natures. It is quite apparent upon reuniting with his trio of cute cousins that John and his blood kin share incestuous feelings, which is further supported by the fact that he has nude photos of one of them on his wall. John also has feelings for an elder woman (Nicole Vesperini) who he is most mad at for selling-out and marrying an old bourgeois bastard named Pedro (Alfredo Mayo), so he plays an elaborate practical joke on her by pretending to rip out both of his own eyes, which causes the petrified woman to faint. Of course, the pernicious prankster does not stop there as John also takes off the panties of the newly married woman after she passes out and makes it seem like he molested her so as to play another vengeful joke on her. An uniquely unhinged yet contradictory young man, John becomes a hero the same day by saving the local town hermit shepherd’s daughter from being raped by some bourgeois hunters, which includes pernicious prick Pedro, after showing up on his motorcycle like a knight in shining amour. Pretending to break his arms, which are in ridiculous wing-like casts, John plays a joke on prick Pedro by convincing him to hold his cock whilst pissing in a urinal. Meanwhile, John begins constructing an elaborate torture chamber at his mother’s home, which he has also redecorated entirely with a curious combination of pop-art and gothic themes. John has also filled his house with wild animals, including monkeys, birds, turtles, etc. and when his aunt asks him why he has so many animals, he matter-of-factly states, “I like animals…they're real…they eat when they're hungry…they sleep when they're tired…and they fuck when they're in heat,” thus hinting at what he believes is the soulless, pretentious, repressive, suppressive, and oppressive nature of the bourgeois, especially in regard to his own family. In a postmodern tribute to horror films of the past, John madly plays an organ like The Phantom of the Opera while a black Poe-esque raven sits perched to his side. When John has his aunt and three cousins come over for a special dinner, he arrives at the conclusion that he must take total revenge against his relatives after pleading to Marta, “Give me back my passport…you’ll never hear from me again, I swear it,” and she turns him down.  It becomes quite apparent in this scene that aunt Marta not only wants John's inheritance, but it seems that she is even more concerned about her naughty nephew 'tainting' the reputation of her incestuous family.

 A mental young man with a more bitter than sweet nostalgia for the past, John fanatically watches old homemovies and looks at pictures of his family, reminiscing over singing the French nursery melody “Frère Jacques,” and even sentimentally declaring to one of his cousins, “We were all free then…the past didn’t exist and the future wasn’t a threat. We weren’t trapped in a web.” Unwilling to break with the past, John sets to take revenge against his relatives and his first target is aunt Marta, who John, after nursing her to sleep in her wheelchair by sociopathically acting like a truly empathetic gentleman, unleashes a horde of bees on her in a scene in the spirit of Curtis Harrington’s TV-movie Killer Bees (1974). Not long after, John ties up his most innocent cousin Esther after sexually seducing her and then goes to his room where he finds succubus Maria, who he has presumably had a sexual relationship with in the past as his cousin begins to undress and attempts to seduce him. After rejecting her sexual advancement, bragging about killing her mother, and proudly proclaiming, “I don’t know the difference between right and wrong…and do you know why?!...there is no difference” as a man who has gone beyond good and evil, John slaps and smacks his unclad cousin Maria around and subsequently ties her up. Teresa, the most intelligent and perceptive yet bitchy of the cousins who once made up a complete fabrication about her cousin raping her to help get him committed to a mental institution, is the last of the titillating threesome to be tied up, but he rapes her for real beforehand in an act of perverse poetic justice and she actually begins to enjoy it. With their clothes stripped off, mouths taped shut, and hands and feet bound, the three cousins’ disrobed bodies are hung from meat racks by John, who intends to slaughter them like the bourgeois cattle that they are, but he does not have the gall to go through with it and the girls ultimately escape after Pedro’s wife rings his doorbell to confront the boy about his pigheaded pranks. Not long after, John goes outside and is hit on the head with a shovel by Pedro, who is in cahoots with aunt Marta, who, although disfigured, has surprisingly survived the bee attack. Pedro, aunt Marta, and cousins Maria and Teresa have John tied to the rope of a new church bell, where he will be hanged the next day at a Catholic sermon celebrating the new church. Before he is left to die, John asks his aunt if he really is insane or if she had him setup and she callously responds without the slightest sense of guilt, “A malignant tumor must be cut out. I could not sleep as long as you were alive,” thereupon expressing her lack of guilt for her conspiratorial deceit.  Assumedly dead, John still manages to have the “last laugh” against senior Pedro with the help of the eccentric shepherd whose daughter he saved from being vaginally pillaged from bourgeoisie bastards of the village.  Not not does John have the literal and figurative 'last laugh,' but his murder inspires his sweetest and most rebellious cousin Esther to leave the family and move faraway, thus the anti-hero's spirit lives on in a sense as his cousin vicariously enjoys the freedom he had always sought but failed to obtain.

 Rather ironically yet somewhat karmically, A Bell from Hell director Claudio Guerín fell to his death in real-life from the tower containing same title bell responsible for killing the angst-ridden anti-hero John of his film. Although it will forever remain unknown whether Guerín committed suicide or just simply fell in what was a senseless freak accident, I like to think he took his own his own life as such nihilistic and self-destructive tendencies are certainly reflected in A Bell from Hell via anti-hero John, who although extremely talented and artistic, cannot seem to stop himself from sabotaging his own life as a self-loathing member of the illiberal bourgeois who will do every and anything to uproot himself from his background. Made during the last years of Francisco Franco’s reign in Spain, A Bell from Hell is not only an aesthetically and thematically subversive work, but also a lurid far-left-leaning satire of the sort of ‘repressive’ bourgeois church-going types who helped the Spanish dictator stay in power for so long. The fact that the protagonist of Guerín’s film was institutionalized by his aunt after he ran off to London and became a hippie libertine only goes to show the traditional Catholic background in regard to the 'unconventional' villains of A Bell from Hell. Unfortunately, aside from one other (and ultimately inferior) feature-length film, The House of the Doves (1972), directing a segment from the omnibus film The Challenges (1969), and a couple shorts and one TV show, talented auteur Claudio Guerín never directed any other notable works aside from A Bell from Hell, which is indubitably his magnum opus. After his tragic death via falling from a real-life bell from hell on the last day of shooting A Bell From Hell, Juan Antonio Bardem (incidentally, the uncle of popular actor Javier Bardem), who, like alpha-surrealist Luis Buñuel, faced persecution under Franco’s regime, was responsible for editing/finishing the film. One can only guess where Guerín’s career would have went had he not tragically fallen to his death at the mere age of 33, but few other horror filmmakers can boast directing a horror film so masterful, nicely nuanced, and poetically allegorical as A Bell from Hell, which is undoubtedly one of the most underrated works of not just the 1970s, but in the history of the mostly disposable genre. 

-Ty E

No comments: