May 24, 2014
Out of all the surrealist oriented Mexican filmmakers like Gelsen Gas (Anticlimax), Alejandro Jodorowsky (Santa Sangre, The Dance of Reality), and Rafael Corkidi (Angels and Cherubs, Pafnucio Santo) that were revolutionizing cinema during the late-1960s/early-1970s, Juan López Moctezuma—an auteur best known for his salaciously sacrilegious vampire flick Alucarda (1977) and producing his Latinized Jewish buds’ masterpieces Fando y Lis (1968) and El Topo (1970)—seemed to be the one most desiring of mainstream success, especially in America. Indeed, for his most popular works, The Mansion of Madness (1973) and Alucarda (1977), the director opted for shooting in English instead of his native Spanish because, as the auteur stated in an interview, “It was shot in English, as it was aimed at the American market,” thus most viewers would probably assume his works were directed by a degenerate European if they did not know better (indeed, a number of ignorant reviewers on imdb.com described The Mansion of Madness as 'European' and 'Eurotrash'). In fact, when asked in an interview if the film was influenced by popular Mexican cinema, Moctezuma firmly answered, “No. The Mexican tradition for such films is very simplistic and very conformist, in my opinion, in spite of their surface delirium. I don't really like them very much,” and indeed, to this very day, the director is still considered a cult filmmaker in his homeland. I was certainly shocked to see that The Mansion of Madness does not feature a single Mestizo, but then again, the film is supposed to be set in the outskirts of Southern France. Known by a number of alternate titles, including Dr. Goudron's System aka Dr. Tarr's Pit of Horrors aka Dr. Tarr's Torture Dungeon aka House of Madness aka The System of Dr. Tarr and Professor Feather aka La mansión de la locura aka Edgar Allan Poe: Dr. Tarr's Torture Dungeon, Moctezuma’s film is loosely based on Edgar Allan Poe’s darkly comedic short story The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether (1845), which was written is promotion of mental asylum reform, as medical care for the insane was apparently a highly politically-charged topic in America during the mid-19th-century. Of course, as a psychedelic artsploitation flick, The Mansion of Madness is not exactly a work that demonstrates a special sensitivity for the mentally deranged, as it makes a marvelous mockery of the mentally ill, but then again, the film features gorgeous and lecherous lunatics that one does not mind seeing running around naked and doing nonsensical things. Shot by filmmaker/cinematographer Rafael Corkidi, who is best known as the guy who helmed Jodorowsky’s El Topo and The Holy Mountain (1973), The Mansion of Madness is the sort of insanely aesthetically idiosyncratic work that you might suspect of having been directed by a wayward white Mexican of pure Spanish blood who was intoxicated on cheap Mexican beer and Ken Russell flicks, as a work in the humorously heretical spirit of The Devils (1971), albeit taken to more whimsically wacky and innately incoherent extremes. A exceedingly goofy flick featuring an unhinged hermetic universe where an eclectic collection of mental patients have taken over the nuthouse, The Mansion of Madness is a merry yet mischievous and morally retarded dark comedy where mental illness is treated as the most literally and figuratively colorful of vaudeville acts, as a work that is like the Grand Guignol meets a less politically conscious Luis Buñuel. A consciously eccentric celluloid endurance test full of playfully perverse pageantry, pseudo-Sadean sexual savagery, and delightful one-dimensional deranged degenerates all suffering from some sort of unbelievably pronounced mental pathology, The Mansion of Madness is the dubious, if not intriguing and reasonably worthwhile, result of what happens when a seemingly ethno-masochistic Mexican suffers from a bad case of the cultural cringes, binge eats European art cinema, and suffers from culturally confused celluloid diarrhea.
Gaston LeBlanc (played by Arthur Hansel, who would later star in Moctezuma’s 1975 slasher film Mary, Mary, Bloody Mary) is a famous journalist who is excited about going back to the remote rural area of Southern France where he was born, but was forced to leave after his mother died and his father was placed into a mental institution. As LeBlanc explains, his maternal side blamed his father for his mother’s death, thus resulting in his padre’s placement in a sanatorium where he eventually died under questionable circumstances. Planning to write a piece on a mental institution that is famous for its novel methods of treating the mentally perturbed, LeBlanc is travelling by coach with his school friend Julien Couvier (played by Martin LaSalle, who previously starred in Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959)) and his cousin/lover Blanche (Mónica Serna) to the nuthouse in question, but when they get near the gates of the countryside loony bin, they have guns pointed at them by whacked out soldiers that would have probably made for fitting revolutionaries during the French revolution. Needless to say, Julien opts for abandoning his trip to the nut ward after his cousin/girlfriend Blanche becomes afraid, but LeBlanc is not about to abandon his one-in-a-lifetime opportunity to stay at the world’s most bizarre sanatorium. Upon arriving at the mansion of madness, LeBlanc is given a guided tour of the perturbing place by a discernibly dubious dude named Dr. Maillard (portrayed by Claudio Brook, who starred in a couple of Buñuel films, including The Exterminating Angel (1962) and Simon of the Desert (1965)), who also introduces the journalist to his beauteous harp-playing niece Eugénie (Ellen Sherman, whose credits include an appearance on Three's Company), as well as a funny fellow named ‘Mr. Chicken’ who naturally believes himself to be a chicken. Meanwhile, Julien and Blanche are attacked in their coach by a gang of weirdo warriors wearing antlers on their heads. Of course, Blanche is raped and she, Julien, and the Coachman, Henri (Jorge Bekris), are tied up and taken hostage.
Undoubtedly, it is only at about the halfway point of The Mansion of Madness that the film begins to develop anything resembling a coherent narrative structure. When Dr. Maillard takes LeBlanc on a tour of an underground dungeon prison where he discovers a starving man crucified on a cross and hundreds of dirty and dejected prisoners caged in cave-like jail cells, the journalist complains, “I have seen enough to last me a lifetime.” That night while sitting in a bedroom he has been assigned by the good Doctor, LeBlanc begins to lose consciousness upon reading an ancient book and then see’s an arousing vision of Dr. Maillard's supposed niece Eugénie, who is totally unclad and begs him to meet her at a garden that night. When LeBlanc begins wandering around the mansion, Dr. Maillard catches him and has him locked in his bedroom, but the journalist manages to escape by tying a bunch of bedsheets into a rope and eventually climbs out the window of the building where he takes his chances against the asylum's legion of psychotic soldiers. LeBlanc eventually finds Eugénie, who is stark-naked aside from some grapes, lying on a ritual table in a greenhouse, so he shoots some fat bald ‘Cult Priest’ (David Silva) that is attempting to perform a bizarre ritual on the beauteous girl and saves her life. After being saved from a ritualistic death, Eugénie reveals to LeBlanc that Dr. Maillard is not really Dr. Maillard, but an imposter named Raoul Fragonard who took over the asylum after convincing the mental patients to run a coup d'état against their caretakers. The real Dr. Maillard is Eugénie’s father and Fragonard led a revolution against him that involved him not only taking over the mental institution but also allowing the mental patients to trade places with the doctors and throwing said doctors in the dungeons where the mental patients once stayed. Eventually, Julien, who is tied up, ‘hops’ into LeBlanc and Eugénie and the three manage to kill a couple of a deranged mental patient soldiers by using the beautiful young woman as bait, but eventually Fragonard and his motley crew of degenerates capture them. Among other things, Fragonard takes his prisoners on a tour of his underground spa/orgy room where tons of beautiful nuts hang out naked and do nonsensical things like fish for imaginary fish and give the prisoners erotic massages. The prisoners also witness a wack-job practicing necrophilic bestiality with a skinned goat corpse, among other things. After revealing that the real Dr. Maillard is alive and well (and covered with celery!), Fragonard brags about his rather unlikely plans for world domination and tells his prisoners that he is going to burn them alive because “fire purifies everything.” Of course, Eugénie begs for a pardon, so the great Dictator unleashes a trio of murderous bird-women who dance in a provocative fashion on her and LeBlanc, but luckily the real Dr. Maillard and his doctors manage to escape from their jail cells and lead a counter-revolution against Fragonard. In the end, Julien’s cousin Blanche shoots Fragonard, who absurdly uses a giant dead sea turtle as a weapon, in the heart and declares, “Vive la Revolution!”
Heavily inspired by the American experimental theatre group The Living Theatre, the Panic Movement, Antonin Artaud’s “Theatre of Cruelty,” and Juan López Moctezuma's own experience as a stage director, not to mention the counter-culture aesthetics that was still popular at that time, The Mansion of Madness certainly has an absurdly outmoded look, but that is also one of the film's greatest appeals, as a psychedelic celluloid romp that acts as a sort of accidental parody of its aesthetic influences. It should also be noted that British-born Mexican surrealist artist Leonora Carrington was both the art and wardrobe supervisor of the film, so she must be largely credited for the film’s intensely idiosyncratic look, as The Mansion of Madness has the eccentric essence of a work created by an occult artist, as if the director was attempting to make a movie in the esoteric ritual orgy spirit of Kenneth Anger's Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1966), albeit made palatable for mainstream audiences. Despite its rather revolutionary and subversive aesthetics, the film also has a notable counter-revolutionary message as a work that depicts a revolutionary leader as a murderous raving mad megalomaniac and his followers as literal mental patients who blindly obey his orders. An anti-revolutionary political fable featuring slapstick surrealism and a mirthful mockery of utopian dreams, The Mansion of Madness is more or less a Mexican equivalent to Johannes Schaaf’s rather underrated dystopian flick that was released the same year, Dream City (1973) aka Traumstadt, which also features highly theatrical Panic Movement-esque eccentricities. Undoubtedly, compared to his comrade Jodorowsky's work, Moctezuma’s film is fair less serious and certainly not a celluloid spiritual quest, but an art film for those that can only handle so much art. Undoubtedly, in its aesthetically corrosive celluloid cocktail of art, exploitation, and eroticism, The Manson of Madness makes the perfect double feature with French auteur Jacques Scandelari’s de Sade adaption Beyond Love and Evil (1971). Indeed, if you like exotic olive-skinned Mediterranean chicks with marvelous mammary glands who sport striking surrealist makeup, exceedingly charismatic villains that are far more likeable than the hero, grotesque antique puppets, and pretty feral people inside glass cages, The Mansion of Madness makes for a delectable celluloid treat that may not be a Jodorowsky masterpiece, but is surely one of the greatest and original horror comedies ever made.
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 11:07 PM
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