Sunday, May 6, 2012

Assignment Naschy (Slight Return): La Cruz Del Diablo (1975)

aka Cross of the Devil

Some time in the 19th century. English writer Alfred Dawson (Ramiro Oliveros) suffers from a bit of writer's block. One may make his love of his hashish pipe responsible for that, as his girlfriend Maria (Carmen Sevilla) clearly does. Be it as it may, Dawson's publisher is getting rather cross with him.

So it's quite useful - if certainly disturbing - when a letter from Alfred's sister Justine (Mónica Randall), who lives with her husband Enrique (Eduardo Fajardo) in his native Spain, arrives, in which she tells him about having had a miscarriage and now being quite at odds with her husband who'll "never forgive her". As a devoted brother, Alfred decides to travel to Spain at once; as a devoted girlfriend and being of Spanish heritage herself, Maria decides to come with him.

Once the couple arrives in Spain, they find Justine dead, supposedly murdered by a vagrant who will all too soon hang himself while in jail. Alfred is not convinced of the man's guilt, suspecting Enrique and his incredibly shady secretary Cesar del Rio (Adolfo Marsillach) of having murdered his sister. In fact, if Alfred were aware of a short scene between Justine and Cesar that reveals she had an inexplicable affair with Cesar and suggests "unnatural experiments" committed by the secretary, he'd be even less convinced of the official story.

Justine wasn't killed close to home, but at something called the "Mountain of Souls", supposedly a place cursed by having been the location of the final stand of the ever evil Templars. Alfred feels so drawn to the place he convinces Enrique and Cesar to travel there with him, possibly in the hope of provoking the true killer to reveal himself. But what Alfred learns there when he and his traveling companions arrive is much stranger than he could ever have expected.

Hammer veteran (among other things - he's also responsible for Mother Riley Meets the Vampire, but it's better not to think about that) director John Gilling's final film after some years working exclusively on British TV shows was produced in Spain, shot in Spanish, and was cast with Spanish actors.

I had expected it to be a piece of Gothic horror in the Hammer tradition, just shot on a lower budget and with less lavish looking sets, but La Cruz Del Diablo is standing with both feet in the tradition of the continental cinema of the fantastic, eschewing the comparatively logical dramaturgy of British horror in the Hammer style for a languidly paced narrative that's so ambiguous it never becomes clear how much of what happens in it only takes place in its protagonist's rather drug-addled mind (I know hashish doesn't work that way, exactly, but the film pretends it does) and how much is truly supernatural horror.

I'm pretty sure Paul Naschy, co-writing under his Jacinto Molina name, is in part responsible for the film's not always logical progression and its dream-like mood, for that's the sort of thing Naschy included in most everything he did with more personal involvement too. I also suspect that it was, at least in part, Naschy's idea to make a film based on themes and motives of Spanish post-romanticist/romanticist (whichever website you want to believe - I'm not knowledgeable enough about Spanish literature to have an opinion here; I only know that the little I read of the writer reminded me of the sensibilities of German romanticist E.T.A. Hoffmann, if clearly coming from a different cultural background) Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer, putting the film into a place far from any interest in realism.

Surprisingly enough, Gilling, whom I usually see as a competent professional with moments of greatness (he did direct two of my favourite Hammer films with the Cornish duo, after all) acquits himself very well in the unfamiliar surroundings and makes a film as fog-shrouded, confusing and strange as any native Spaniard. Even though Gilling's direction isn't flashy, he manages to imbue the slow proceedings with exactly the kind of macabre and decrepit mood they need to suck a viewer in. There may be little happening for most of the film, but it does that with such a weight I found myself quite excited by La Cruz.

But then I do have a weakness for films more interested in building a strange and dreamlike mood than in telling a clear and linear story, so if anyone not quite as in love of mood for mood's sake will be as excited as I was while watching La Cruz Del Diablo is probably doubtful.


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