Friday, 7 February 2020

On a Thousand Walls #27: Orrore Popolare, Part 3 and a half

The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave
(La notte che Evelyn uscì dalla tomba) (1971);

The Black Cat (Gatto nero) (1981)

(This is a continuation of my discussion of films set in England where everyone speaks Italian. Once again, spoilers abound.)

The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave, another richly saturated, spicy and mainly nutty giallo by Emilio Miraglia, begins with a man trying to escape from a psychiatric institution. He has all the genre movie signifiers of “madness”: he twitches and shakes, his vision is blurred. The orderlies restrain him and drag him back. The credits roll.

On the other side of the credits, we see him again, out of hospital. He is, we discover, Lord Alan Cunningham (Peter Wyngarde lookalike Anthony Steffen), inhabitant of a decaying ancestral pile a short drive from central London (yeah, let that sink in).

He is still not quite right, since it is established very early on that he has a compulsion to bring home red-headed sex workers, get them to wear some very kinky boots, whip them, and murder them. They have to be natural redheads, because Alan's dead wife Evelyn (Paola Natale) was a redhead. Alan didn't apparently murder Evelyn, although he did catch her banging another guy in the castle grounds, and whatever his feelings, it is safe to assume that his reaction to her death has not been processed all that well, and it should not be especially controversial to state that luring exotic dancers who resemble your late wife to your pad, strapping them to a bondage bench and dispatching them is not a valid form of emotional catharsis. Safe, sane and consensual this is not.
The groundsman Albert (Roberto Maldera), Evelyn's brother, knows all about this – he watches, in fact. Although by no means Alan's friend, Albert receives handsome payment for, presumably, helping him dispose of the bodies. It's suggested that playboy cousin George (Rod Murdock) knows too, since he enables Alan horribly (“Dunno what happened to Polly, shame about that, but come to the club on Saturday night and I can sort you out with another redhead”).

The disconcertingly glamorous Agatha (Joan C. Davies), who despite being Alan and George's auntie, is clearly younger than either of them and who although wheelchair bound, is perfectly able to get up and walk when it suits her, suggests that what Alan needs is a séance. A bonkers scene ensues that ends with Alan collapsing at the sight of a see-through apparition of Evelyn standing on the table. Everyone is convinced that Alan will be fixed by the ministrations of a Good Woman. Who is Explicitly Not a Redhead.
Enter Gladys (Italy's cinematic ice queen Marina Malfatti once more) who Alan meets at a party and falls so madly in love with her after one night of passion, Alan proposes on the spot (she's blonde and therefore in no danger of getting murdered, I guess). They marry. The castle gets renovated, and given a new staff of hot housemaids with identical blonde bubble perms – No Redheads – and Gladys moves in. What can possibly go wrong?

Apart from Evelyn's body going missing and Alan's vile family getting bumped off one by one, and the uncanny manifestations of Evelyn that begin to shake Alan's fragile sanity to its foundations, everything is fine.

Why is Agatha in the wheelchair anyway? Could Gladys be as innocent and pure as she appears? Is Evelyn coming back? Or could it be that someone is murdering the relatives and trying to drive Alan back to the asylum for some other reason? Will Alan meet justice?

(Spoilers, in order: fuck knows; no; no; duh, yes; oh hell no.)
Like Miraglia's later The Red Queen Kills Seven Times (a film whose explicit contradiction of its titular body count is only the least bonkers thing about it), The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave is ridiculously absurd from start to end, and possessed of a maniacal energy. Murders are committed with bizarre weapons (hands up who's seen a movie that features Chekhov's Cage Full of Foxes before?) and the whole thing lives by its own idea of sense.

This is another sleazy, pervy movie. No one – no one at all – in this film is good and if they all deserve it, there's no weight to what happens to them. But unlike What Have You Done to Solange? it takes a sort of joy in its trashiness, and the setting is part of that. Here, Britain is the sort of Gothic playground that Dylan Dog would have no problem fitting into – and in fact the classic Dylan Dog adventure “The Return of the Monster” (which was translated as one of the Dark Horse issues) exists in exactly the same space of weird aristocrats, decaying ancestral estates and Country House asylums that Evelyn rises from.

I can't help thinking that Count Dracula is a useful comparison here: Dracula's Transylvania is a place of castles and bats and wolves, an exoticised, orientalised East where someone else's home is our tale of shuddery terror, where vampiric nobility exists in a rarefied world of stately homes and castles and dungeons full of cobwebs and monsters. But Lord Alan and his depraved clan are as exotic as Dracula is; we see our own parasitic aristocracy made into a far-away horror story, and the land we take for granted as home made into an outsider's Gothic bloodbath.
This feeling is only intensified in Lucio Fulci's The Black Cat, a film which is now outside the realm of giallo but definitely within the category of Orrore Popolare. Again, we have the English countryside, full of decaying country houses, riverside retreats, and misty graveyards, and again it's all ever so slightly off.

Early on, American photographer Jill Trevers (the wonderful Mimsy Farmer) trespasses in an open tomb. A village policeman finds her. Instead of perhaps, you know, arresting her or issuing a warning, the bobby tells her that his grandad told him that you should never disturb the dead, that they're “grumpy” (as the subtitle translation has it) and then hops on his bike and rides off.
Jill: I thought policemen weren't superstitious.
Police Sergeant:  Maybe in America. Here, we all believe in certain things.
This is more or less a transposition of a classic horror trope to our vicinity, and the oddness of it makes apparent a thing that is no less present in a lot of British folk horror, but which we don't notice so much, namely folklore that's mangled or even entirely made up for the sake of cinema. Somehow in a British film we're prepared to accept it (consider Blood on Satan's Claw, as the number one example of a film that largely gets away with this). The subject of the film itself is an example of this: it's notionally based on the Edgar Allan Poe short story of the same name, although it's only in the last ten minutes or so where the plot even vaguely resembles Poe's original in even the most superficial terms. And of course, Poe was American. He was trading on the superstition that black cats were ill-starred animals. But in English folklore, black cats are lucky.
This in itself does not harm the film one bit. It largely concerns Professor Miles (Patrick Magee), an eccentric and frankly creepy academic in some unspecified field. Miles is psychic, and spends his time hanging around graveyards, recording messages from the dead, as you do, and it's through finding a lost mic in the tomb that Jill discovers what Miles is doing, or at least some of it.

The thing with the mic and the tape recorder ties into the idea of hauntological tech, that we see in British classics like The Stone Tape or The Shout. Fulci has clearly seen some of these very Radiophonic stories, the films where recording levels and cables communicate with ghosts, the films where the technological and supernatural highlight the juxtaposition of the prosaic and the uncanny that truly comes from a haunted piece of media.

Miles is lonely, bitter and vengeful, and not averse to trying to use his powers of hypnotic influence on Jill when she shows up at his door, and it would work too, except that his black cat ruins it by flying at him just as he gets her under his power.
Miles's cat hates him, and it is also fair to say that the cat, generally, is a complete feline asshole. Right from the beginning of the film we see the supernaturally vindictive little bell-end engineer a succession of miserable, gory demises, each one nastier than the last and each one something to do with Miles. Is the cat performing Miles's psychic bidding (and is this why it hates him so much)? Is it following the subconscious whim of its owner, against his conscious will? Does the cat reflect – as is the case in the tenuously related Poe story, actually – Miles's subconscious urge to self destruction? Is Miles controlling the cat or is the cat controlling him? Can even killing the fuzzy jerk rid him of it?

(Spoilers, in order: maybe; could be; almost certainly; probably the latter, but it's a close call; not a chance.)

While we go back and forth on the question of who's in charge here, we've the cat's entertainingly evil murders to keep us occupied. Jill is smart and resourceful, and unlike a lot of characters in horror films with specialised jobs, is actually good at her profession, with an eye for detail that means she picks up on vital points that others miss – I reckon that she works so well because it's simply easier for a film director to know how a person who's good with a camera thinks, which is pretty obvious if you think about it. Anyway, Jill knows something is up, and, co-opted by the competent and handsome Inspector Gorley of Scotland Yard (David Warbeck) to be a crime scene photographer (there being no one else on hand to do the job), she is there for all the clues.

As a procedural detective story, this makes the whole thing interesting to watch – while Jill only suspects and the police have no clue, we know it's that meowing bastard, and the only question we have is who is supplying the intent. It's the Columbo Structure (the viewer knows and the hero suspects, and the tension lies in how it plays out), only furry and with a penchant for tuna.
This could be a ridiculously silly film, even a terrible one, but it's elevated by some nicely composed camerawork – Fulci particularly does fun things with extreme closeups of eyes, a running visual theme in the piece (even to the extent of treating the dials on the tape recorder like a pair of eyes, which is a beautifully hauntological detail). Fulci, as we discussed before, undeniably knows how to construct a scene.

Even without the pretty look of the thing, nothing could be wholly bad when you have the presence of the two principals. Patrick Magee chews the scenery like a man really possessed (as opposed to a man just playing one).

And then there's Mimsy Farmer.
Farmer, about whom I've not written before, but about whom I am absolutely planning to write again, supplies a degree of commitment that no one else I've seen in Italian horror really reaches. A great survey of Farmer's work can be found in Kier-La Janisse's doubleplusgood book House of Psychotic Women (to which I owe my knowledge of Mimsy Farmer's existence in the first place) and I'm not going to match that, but suffice to say that no one in classic horror is quite as great as losing her shit onscreen as Mimsy Farmer is, and she makes scenes that could be otherwise just embarrassing – such as a scene where she's terrorised by a swarm of bats, which are obviously rubber bats on visible strings – so much better because she is absolutely convincing at selling delirious terror.

Here, once again, we have a film where England – specifically Hambledon, Buckinghamshire – is a foreign place, a place where the dead talk from their graves and black cats are vindictive murderous dicks who come back from the dead and literally teleport with hilarious twinkly sound effects. The presentation of a folk horror that shows England as the foreign country provides a glass that both displays the limitations of folk horror and shows us something of how England (and by extension, Britain) appears to Europe, which, let's face it, is something that England needs more than ever right now.

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