Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Der Mönch mit der Peitsche (1967)

aka The College Girl Murders (which seems to have been re-cut for those poor, slow Americans)

aka The Prussic Factor

A series of peculiar murders committed with a new-fangled poison gas that is either shot from bibles or contraptions that look - depending on your taste - like ray guns or like hair dryers shakes a girls' boarding school populated by girls who are fastly nearing their thirties in Edgar-Wallace-England.

What neither Scotland Yard's - now psychologically educated for a new running gag - Sir John (the inevitable Siegfried Schürenberg), nor poor, beleaguered gum-chewing Inspector Higgins (Joachim Fuchsberger) know - but may or may not find out - is that the murders are committed by prisoners who are carted in and out of their place of imprisonment as if an open door policy were in place.

Behind it all stands - or rather sits - a shadowy mastermind with an excellent villain lair full of colourful light, alligators, aquariums, snakes and blue cat statues. Apart from the prisoner of the day and an evil chauffeur, said mastermind also has the titular Monk with the Whip working for him, an impressive henchman dressed in a red monk's habit with a red Ku Klux Klan hood, wielding a white, movie-magically neck-breaking whip.

Higgins and Sir John of course have to deal with the usual gallery of suspects in form of various shady, perhaps even sleazy, teachers, a definitely sleazy writer (the always wooden Harry Riebauer), and the main suspect in any cosy piece of crime fiction, a deeply suspicious gardener (Claus Holm). At least, our heroes also have the assistance of girls' school good girl and prospective girl detective Ann Portland (Uschi Glas), who also makes an excellent kidnapping victim; we all know how important that trait is in a Wallace adaptation.

Will Higgins crack the case as long as there are still girls alive in the school?

Now this is the good stuff when it comes to Rialto's cycle of Edgar Wallace adaptations. As its title (which translates to "The Monk with the Whip") promises, Wallace main-stay Alfred Vohrer's Der Mönch mit der Peitsche delights with an eye-poppingly coloured pulp villain with an iconic dress sense working for an evil mastermind with an iconic lair sense (yes, the aquarium/zoo/light show combination is that delightful), doing pulp bad guy stuff that may not make all that much sense as an actual crime plot but is much more fun to watch than something that would make sense.

Vohrer, who sometimes tends to step over the line of winking self-irony a bit too long in these films, here finds the perfect balance between knowingly showing the silly elements (see the plot synopsis as well as a hundred things not mentioned there) of his film as silly half of the time, and just as knowingly accepting the silly as if it were the day-to-day for the rest of the time; it's pretty beautiful, in its own, peculiar way.

Visually, Vohrer has room to indulge in many of his obsessions: there's gothic, incredibly bright fog, colours often nearly as artificial as in a Bava movie (yes, it's that villain lair again), quite a few shots of eyes peeping through various holes (even after having seen the movie, I'm not always sure whose eyes are poking through these holes at all times, since everyone in a Vohrer movie is something of a voyeur - villains, Scotland Yard and would-be girl detectives alike), and camera angles that often point out their own artificiality. It's like a - somewhat provincial, we are still in German pretending to be the UK, after all - pop art dream of a pulp novel made film.

If there is something to criticize about Der Mönch then it is the film's surprising lack in actual action. Joachim Fuchsberger (who was pretty good at this sort of thing, actually) has not much opportunity for fisticuffs or even running around girls' school corridors. He's there to chew gum, crack the case after large parts of the cast are dead, and give the straight man to Schürenberg's - surprisingly funny - "I'm a psychologist now" shtick, but isn't involved in much action. Which is a bit of a strange thing for a film that feels as pulpy in every other respect as Der Mönch does.

However, the film's pacing and style never leave much breathing room to be disappointed in the lack of pulp-appropriate chases and brawls. If done right, and Der Mönch mit der Peitsche does it oh so right, it turns out, it's the mood and not the fist that makes a film part of pulp cinema.

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