Sunday, June 5, 2011

Un Angelo Per Satana (1966)

Warning: I'm going to spoil the film's rather annoying ending, for that's what you deserve when your movie uses that particular trope.

Some time during the 19th century. Sculptor Roberto Merigi (Anthony Steffen) has been invited by the Conte Montebruno (Claudio Gora) to a small village by the side of a lake to restore a statue that had lain on the lake's ground for a few hundred years before the Conte decided to bring it back on land again. The villagers are not impressed by the idea, fearing a curse laying upon the statue, but, being the modern men they are, neither the Conte nor Roberto are afraid of magic.

The start of Merigi's work on the statue marks the beginning of interesting times for the village. At the same time, the Conte's niece Harriet (Barbara Steele) is returning from her education in England to take possession of the estate that her uncle has been managing for her until now. To Roberto's fascination, Harriet looks quite a lot like the woman who must have modelled for the statue. Intrigued, the young artist asks Harriet to now model for him to make the restoration easier, a proposal to which the young woman agrees. Of course, the two fall in swooning, melodramatic love.

But all is not well: a woman's voice calls Roberto into the attic one night, and there exposits the nature of the curse the villagers fear to him. The voice claims to belong to a certain Belinda, who was the ugly rival of Harriet's facial ancestor, and caused various fatal occurrences in the village as well as the death of that ancestor. Now, Belinda has returned to begin her work of evil again.

And soon enough, Harriet begins to act strange, as if she were possessed by Belinda. She sado-masochistically messes with the minds of various male villagers, confuses the easily confused Roberto and seems to be set on a path of destruction of all love and happiness around her.

But not all is as it seems.

And it's exactly here that the film's problem lies. Up until the final thirty minutes, Un Angelo Per Satana is a minor, yet interesting Gothic horror film, directed by Camillo Mastrocinque - a veteran quite at the end of his career as a director - not with the mastery of mood or the stylistic flourishes of a Mario Bava, but a clear, professional assuredness that knows what's best about the film - Barbara Steele and the various heatedly sexual over- and undertones - and milks it for all that it's worth. Steele is - as always in roles like this - utterly convincing as the innocent Harriet as well as the ruthless and dominant Belinda. In the latter case, the actress projects an astonishing amount of negatively loaded sexual energy, making the grotesque and melodramatic emotional carnage she causes in men look nearly believable. Given how overwritten the script in this respect is, that's even more of an achievement.

What the film's script lacks is subtlety. As much as I enjoy thickly laid on sadism and masochism in my gothic horror movies, and as convincing as Steele is, it's still a little too much to ask from me to believable that five minutes with her will turn a loving family father into a raving family killer, or the local harmless loon into a budding serial killer; emotionally, the film is all turned up to eleven where a nine or ten from time to time would have been more convincing.

For a time, it's easy enough to explain the extremity of Steele's effect on men with the supernatural agency of Belinda, but once the film decides to have a "natural explanation" for everything that's happening, this excuse falls through and leaves a film full of people emotionally so strained that it's hard to believe they'd be able to cook a meal without having some sort of violent fit or trying to have sex with their soup bowls. Our romantic lead Anthony Steffen is the exception here, because he's in his fullest "piece of wood" mode and doesn't seem to know a single feeling well enough to show it.

I might have mentioned my hatred for the "natural explanation" ending in horror movies ten or twelve times in the past, but here's the problem in a nutshell: once you have built up the supernatural in a movie so that it becomes believable for your audience, it has become the baseline reality of your movie's world for a viewer, and changing that baseline back again to some stuff about hypnotism and legacy-hunting after an hour of running time is admitting you lied to your audience for the whole film without signalling the presence of an unreliable narrator; it's a betrayal of audience trust for a cheap gimmick, and so hardly ever worth it.


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