Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Satan's School For Ghouls: El Mariscal Del Infierno (1974)

aka Devil's Possessed

aka Marshall of Hell

This October, the agents of M.O.S.S. are digging deep into the heart of Halloween, taking a look at films about demons, the devil, and every kind of fiend (except US presidents and presidential candidates). You can find our collected annals of evil here.

Speaking of the devil, what would our old friend Satan be without worshippers? And how awesome would these worshippers be if they were played by Spanish super-wolfman Paul Naschy? Actually, not very, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

It's the middle ages. War hero baron Gilles de Lancré (Naschy) feels his influence on the king dwindling, and decides to concentrate even more than before on his true interest: finishing the Great Work of alchemy, so that he can afterwards replace the king (man why doesn't the guy trust him!?) and rule the world. So let's hope for him that Great Work isn't meant quite a metaphorically as some scholars believe.

Gilles's mad plan is driven on by the occultist (and con-woman) Georgelle (Norma Sebre). The two are lovers with quite a Macbeth-ish relationship, for when Gilles's pet alchemist (and Georgelle's co-con-person) tells him he needs virgin blood - and lots of it - to finish the Work, she's the one talking him out of his mild attacks of conscience ("Even more murders!?"). And she's right, too - surely, there can't be nothing wrong with sacrificing young women to Satan? Though it has to be said the film awakens doubts about Gilles's understanding of the word "virgin", seeing as how the way to the sacrificial altar seems to begin in his bed; at least if he's not inconvenienced in the act by an epileptic fit.

So Gilles begins a reign of terror among his serfs, kidnapping and killing young women and bleeding everyone else financially dry to finance the alchemical experiments. He's so enthusiastic he earns himself the nickname "the Marshall of Hell". But even medieval serfs can only take so much, so Gilles soon has a small peasant revolt going on. The serfs' leader, however, is quite easily captured and gotten rid of. Things change when Gilles's old war buddy Gaston de Malebranche (Guillermo Bredeston) comes home from time spent as prisoner of war. Even though the two men were fast friends, Gilles's and Georgette's love for tactically catastrophic violence soon turns Gaston into the baron's most dangerous enemy.

After a failed attempt on his life, Gaston decides to seek out the remnants of the resistance against his former friend, and soon enough turns what had been the demotivated shells of Gilles's enemies into a sub-chapter of Robin Hood's Merry Men. I'm sure Satan would help Gilles out if he actually existed inside of the fictional world of the film, but as it stands, all hope seems lost for the cause of evil, even though Gilles still has a few tricks up his sleeve.

When I started with my films for this October's M.O.S.S. project, I didn't suspect how difficult it would be to set eyes on films that actually contain the devil, demons, or at least supernatural fiends outside of their marketing material. Il Mariscal is not the film I was looking for, for what tries to look for all the world like a horror film variation of the career of Gilles de Rais, is at its heart a rather lame and tame swashbuckler whose bad guy just happens to sacrifice "virgins" to Satan.

Apart from this core disappointment, the film suffers from all the typical Naschy weaknesses: important, possibly exciting plot developments are talked about rather than shown (the build-up of the rebel army - happens off-screen; that first rebel leader - captured off-screen; and so on); a dubious sense of the way time works; a lack of production values that leaves most sets nearly empty; Naschy's obsession with trying to make his bad guy characters look sympathetic by having them whine a lot about what poor dears they are, which is a bit difficult to buy when talking about a character who mass rapes and murders women. Not that we'd actually get to see much of the depravity, because, unlike most of Naschy's films, this one is rather lacking in nudity and gore to help keep the audience awake.

For most of its running time, the film also lacks the secret weapon that keeps many of other Naschy's other films that share Mariscal's flaws at least watchable, often even brilliantly entertaining: an endearing love for the wrong-headed, the bizarre, and the improbable. Naschy's love for these things seems absolutely stunted in this outing, with little happening on or off screen that I wouldn't call quotidian.

I'd be less down on the film if it were any good as a swashbuckler (after all, "Robin Hood versus Satanists" sounds rather great, doesn't it?), but the swashbuckling is so rote and charmless it's impossible to get excited about it. It doesn't help the film's case how little visual imagination Naschy's regular collaborator León Klimovsky brings to the table here. Everything is very brown and slow and realized without passion, as if no one was even trying to let the film look like anything other than a handful of people in school play medieval garb waddling through brown, depopulated locations and sets without a designer. Just look at the so-called tourney with two horses and twenty guys standing in a row in the middle of nowhere and despair!

Among Mariscal's few positives is an expectedly melodramatic and physical performance by Naschy (his antagonist Bredeston is unfortunately not Errol Flynn, or even Richard Harrison). Naschy-the-actor really gets into his character's increasing mental deterioration; unfortunately, Naschy-the-writer doesn't provide him with much of interest to do. The final fight between (a stuntman clearly standing in for) Naschy and Bredeston is also relatively remarkable, with much better choreography and execution than anything that happens before it. In fact, if the rest of the film's action were of this standard, this could have been a rather more decent swashbuckler than it actually is.

That final fight is also the only point where the film does something actually surprising and interesting. Despite all genre conventions and being the designated noble hero of the piece, Bredeston loses the fight against his enemy, and it's the job of the peasant rebels to shoot the enemy of virginhood with arrows. This scene is staged as the only moment of true Naschy weirdness in the movie, with Naschy ranting about the awesome power the devil has provided him with, and the rebels just shrugging and turning him into a porcupine; the working classes finally asserting themselves.

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