Saturday, June 17, 2017

TOWER OF SCREAMING VIRGINS reviewed

Teri Tordai as Marguerite of Burgundy.




A title like TOWER OF SCREAMING VIRGINS conjures up a certain set of preconceptions, most of which this 1968 German/French/Italian co-production (originally titled Der Turm der verbotenen liebe, or "The Tower of Forbidden Love") quickly dispatches. 

There is no screaming, per se; there is only one virgin in the scenario, and he's male; however, there is a tower - a not very convincing scale model of one, not unlike those we see under the main titles of Hammer films. The direction, credited to François Legrand, was actually a collaboration between Franz Antel and Fritz Umgelter. Now comes the real surprise: it's a swashbuckler, which the English credits vaguely inform us was based on a novel by Alexandre Dumas; that novel was in fact a play entitled La Tour de Nesle, which Dumas only revised from an original text by Frédéric Gaillardet, based on the stories of debauchery concerning Marguerite, daughter of the Duke of Burgundy, and other members of the royal families of France and England, who were said to use an old guard tower on the edge of the river Seine for their adulterous revels in 14th century France. In 1955, the great Abel Gance adapted the play into a fantastic and erotic adventure concoction, La Tour des Nesles, starring Pierre Brasseur (EYES WITHOUT A FACE) as the heroic swordsman Buridan and Silvana Pampanini as Marguerite de Bourgogne. In Gance's telling, Marguerite was the kinky ringleader of a scheme in which new young men were serially invited to the Tower for a night of bliss, with either her or one of her handmaidens, dressed in a mask and nothing else, after which they were slain by the armed guards and tossed into the Seine.





Jean Piat as the dashing Buridan.

 If it surprises some that something called TOWER OF SCREAMING VIRGINS is a remake of an Abel Gance film, it's still more surprising that it's not a bad one. It's actually a good deal like Gance's film (alas, only available as a French DVD without English options), including an abundance of bare breasts, but without any of the shock value accrued by being made in 1955. Made in 1968, which accounts for some of the punches it pulls in terms of violence, it is beautifully photographed by Oberdan Trojani - whose screen credits include Orson Welles' OTHELLO, THE GIANT OF METROPOLIS, HERCULES AGAINST THE MOON MEN and THE LEGEND OF BLOOD CASTLE - a brace of marvelous titles I've never suspected of sharing such patrimony. 



Jacques Herlin and Uschi Glas. 

And yet there is something delightfully off-kilter about it all: despite its dark subject matter, it's an exuberantly happy swashbuckler, thanks to an irresistibly charming, sometimes fourth-wall-breaking lead performance by Jean Piat (who made his screen debut playing Gaston Leroux's detective character Joseph Rouletabille and was featured in Sascha Guitry's 1955 remake of Gance's NAPOLEON, along with Orson Welles); the women (led by Teri Tordai and Uschi Glas) are just as relentlessly beautiful, garbed in a kind of kinky fantasy version of 14th century dress - half fairy tale, half Roger Vadim/Barbarella fantasy; it boasts some extremely grand production design by Peter Rothe, which extends to a giant chessboard obsessed over by the King (THE WHIP AND THE BODY's Jacques Herlin); it's scored (by Mario Migliardi, Margheriti's BATTLE OF THE WORLDS) against its historical setting with music that seems to have escaped from an Edgar Wallace krimi, with lots of blood-icing organ and skulking electric bass; and it's dubbed with those bright, uber-contemporary voices you may remember from the English versions of the SCHOOLGIRL REPORT pictures. It may be a mutt, but so is Spumoni ice cream.




TOWER OF SCREAMING VIRGINS was first released on home video, decades ago, as a scratchy, washed-out, poor quality VHS from Video Yesteryear. Seeing the film on this limited edition BD-R disc from Snappy Video, with its rich - if often fluctuating and overly hot - color intact, is a pleasant surprise, a delicious and sometimes delirious sensual experience. It was originally announced as having a limited run of only 100 copies, but after these sold out from Snappy's website, the title reappeared at Amazon. The disc is sourced from a surviving 35mm release print from its US distributor Maron Films Limited - the same company that released Luís Buñuel's TRISTANA, Sergio Martino's THE STRANGE VICE OF MRS WARDH as NEXT!, and the Fima Noveck-doctored version of Harry Kumel's DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS, so I presume the actual rights to this film are held by some overseas company, as is the case with those other imports. I'll leave it to others to decide how authorized a release this Region A/B/C disc is, with its "M" (Mature) rating (it was rated X and reduced to an R rating in its US theatrical release) - but I will say that, while it's the very definition of a no-frills package, with no extras, no subtitles, and no color timing (there's a bit too much magenta in this Spumoni), it's a nice souvenir of a mostly forgotten and diverting picture, which you may find worth seeking out.

(c) 2017 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

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