Friday, March 3, 2017

Past Misdeeds: The Swamp of the Ravens (1974)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts without any re-writes or improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

By day, scientist Dr. Frosta (Ramiro Oliveros) works a boring, mechanical research job under a boss who seems to hate him. In the evenings, Frosta visits a woman named Simone (Marcia Bichette) with whom he has an unhealthy, borderline abusive relationship ever since he stole her away from her American lounge singer boyfriend Richard by staring at her very hard. At night, he works in his hidden lab hut in the swamps on experiments meant to explore the boundaries between life and death - sometimes even successfully, going by the abused biological robot working as his assistant. For his work, Frosta needs bodies that have been dead for less than eight minutes, so the only reasonable way for an upstanding mad scientist to get his research material is to decimate the local population of pan-flute playing homeless lepers. The scientist also steals drugs he needs for the experiments from his day job.

Alas, many of the good doctor's experiments tend to fail, and now the swamp in front of his house is full of dead people who pop their heads out of the water from time to time. Despite nature's useful garbage can, the Doctor's dead assistant still manages to lose body parts where others can find them from time to time, so that the police is slowly getting wise to the fact that something's not right in their beautiful city.

As if that weren't troubles enough for one mad scientist, Frosta's life is additionally complicated by Simone slowly falling out of whatever it is between them with him and plans on leaving. Things come to a head when Richard returns, now singing sweet songs about dismembering women who are his robots to a manikin that looks quite a bit like Simone. "What could be better for a girl than to run from one maniac to the next?" thinks our heroine, gets back together with Richard and attempts to leave the country with him to escape Frosta's influence (and, I suspect, get murdered by Richard a few weeks later).

But just before the lovers (or whatever they are) can escape by plane, Frosta snatches Simone from the airport, kills her and starts to regularly replace her body's blood with that of prostitutes he is now beginning to slaughter in addition to the homeless so that he can make sweet sweet love to her undead body. Oh dear.

The Swamp of the Ravens is a Spanish Ecuadorian co-production shot in Ecuador, directed by Manuel Cano whom you might remember as the director of the equally bizarre Voodoo Black Exorcist. Unlike that other film - which is known to contain neither voodoo nor an exorcist - Swamp does in fact feature the things its title promises, namely a swamp full of ravens. Said swamp is the film's secret weapon. Whenever the plot gets too confused, or a murder scene has to be omitted for lack of funds for special effects, Cano just points his camera at the swamp, lets the birds loose and is instantly rewarded with scenes oozing a perfectly repugnant atmosphere.

The swamp here, you see, isn't just any old swamp, it is the Platonic Ideal of a horror movie swamp, looking so naturally bizarre/bizarrely natural that the whole film could consist only of shots of it without anything happening at all and I'd still love Swamp the movie for showing me swamp the (un)natural wonder.

Fortunately, there's no need to be negative about the rest of Cano's film at all. If the swamp's not enough for you (and what in Cthulhu's name is wrong with you?), the film follows the dear European horror tradition of throwing more weird stuff at its audience in a single minute than less enlightened films do in their whole running time. Whatever of the bizarre, creepy and tasteless one's heart might desire, Caño does everything in his power to provide. The unhealthy love triangle between Frosta, Simone and Richard, hell, even the necrophiliac sex scene set to improbable easy listening on the soundtrack, is really just the tip of the iceberg. Further joys can be found in everything, be it the sweaty sleazy chief of police ("Sheriff" the dub says) and his powers of teleporting out of a room by looking at a ceiling ventilator, or the mad science rants Frosta so dearly loves. Swamp is chock-full of peculiar details that make no logical, linear sense (as it is with the plot), but work together to give the film its macabre and off-beat charm.

Hidden among the merely insane mad science stuff are moments of surprisingly effective horror that show Caño to be very adept at turning his weird sensibilities towards the truly creepy. The scenes of the unsmiling, unblinking heads of Frosta's victims, their bodies hidden away in the swamp, staring out over the water's surface at Frosta without attacking are singularly disquieting.

Equally disquieting, if less delightful, is the inclusion of what looks like a real autopsy as the backdrop for a dialogue scene. As such things go, the scene is quite coyly filmed, and not as disgusting as the animal torture in Italian cannibal movies (the guy's already dead, after all), but it is one of these moments that might understandably be a bit too much for a viewer's tastes or morals. I'd love to assume Caño's trying to take a stand for the taboo breaking aspects of horror film here, pushing boundaries, etc and so forth, but the truth of the matter is probably that he could pay off a guy working in a morgue with less money than the special effects would have cost him.

Still, the siren song of the swamps - and basically every other element of the movie - makes it impossible for me not to love The Swamp of the Ravens as the sleazy, weird, cheap and dubiously filmed concoction it is.

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