Saturday, June 24, 2017

Five Naschys on Blu-ray Velvet

I recently cracked open the shrink-wrap on Scream Factory's new release THE PAUL NASCHY COLLECTION. It offers five Naschy vehicles on Blu-ray for the first time: HORROR RISES FROM THE TOMB, VENGEANCE OF THE ZOMBIES, BLUE EYES OF THE BROKEN DOLL, HUMAN BEASTS and NIGHT OF THE WEREWOLF, complete with alternate and deleted scenes, trailers, stills galleries, Spanish credit sequences, a 24-page illustrated booklet featuring production notes by The Mark of Naschy's Mirek Lipinski, and three audio commentaries by Rod Barnett and Troy Guinn, the hosts of the Naschycast podcast.

I have generally positive feelings toward all of the films in this set, but I went directly to Carlos Aured's BLUE EYES OF THE BROKEN DOLL (Los ojos azules de la muñeca rota, 1974), which received a theatrical release in this country (in somewhat censored form) as HOUSE OF PSYCHOTIC WOMEN. I've seen the film many times and primarily wanted to check the commentary, because Rod and Troy are personal friends and I was curious to see how well they adapted their podcast approach to a more formalized commentary presentation. I'm pleased to say that I don't have to take a diversionary "they're both great guys" approach because the commentary managed to be relaxed and entertaining, well-synchronized to the onscreen action and educational. The pronunciations of a name or title or two get slaughtered along the way, but I'm not exactly innocent of this myself; the important thing is that they've done the reading to know these people and topics and they pay them the proper respect. Bottom line: I enjoyed the commentary a great deal, and I came away from it with a deeper appreciation of the film itself - so top marks!

In fact, I'll go that compliment one better in that Rod and Troy's discussion of BLUE EYES OF THE BROKEN DOLL stimulated my own thinking and made me repeatedly wish I could have been a third wheel in their commentary (as I have been a couple of times on their podcast). But therein lies the beauty of still being a blogger at this belated day and age: I can round up some of those thoughts here!

At one point early in the commentary, Rod points out that this film, while Spanish, is actually a giallo and that he won't brook any argument on this subject because it's such an obvious fact that it would be foolish to contradict. To contradict, perhaps; but to discuss, I think not. I personally would argue that BLUE EYES OF THE BROKEN DOLL is a giallo more by design (or imitation) than birthright - by which I mean that it's analogous to a film like Jess Franco's DEATH PACKS A SUITCASE (1970), which was officially part of the West German Bryan Edgar Wallace series of thrillers but didn't quite feel a perfect fit. (Indeed, Dario Argento's THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE was released in Germany as part of Rialto's Edgar Wallace series, which it wasn't properly part of, and I daresay BLUE EYES OF THE BROKEN DOLL wouldn't be, either.) That said, the film has every outward sign of being a giallo, from its abstractly decorative title to its eroticized murder scenes and flaunted cinematographic techniques. But I truly feel that these are present because Naschy was imitating what was then a commercial trend in European cinema, much as he had imitated the Universal Monsters series for so many films. Much as we tend to distinguish between the Spaghetti Western and the Paella Western, BLUE EYES is a different creature from its Italian counterparts; Spain had no giallo tradition because its national censorship forebade this. You  can find paperback counterparts to the Mondadori gialli in Great Britain and France, but not in Spain.

The beauty of BLUE EYES OF THE BROKEN DOLL not belonging at the giallo table proper is that it is therefore free to use its ideas toward becoming its own thing, and Naschy embraces this prospect with anarchistic enthusiasm. I was impressed to notice on this viewing that Naschy and Aured's imitation had some noticeable influence on the giallo itself. Naschy casts himself as Gilles, an ex-convict, hitchhiking through the French countryside following his release from prison, who takes a job as a handyman in a secluded house inhabited by three very different sisters, each of whom is disfigured or disabled in some way. Aside from the obvious value of a "three sisters" concept to Dario Argento, even before Gilles reaches the house, we are privy to a series of red-tinted reveries or fantasies or possibly memories that depict him strangling different women - which don't recall much that existed within the gialli at that point in time, but look very much ahead to the way Argento filmed the roaring headaches suffered by his shadowy killer in TENEBRAE, made almost a decade later in 1981. Likewise, the death shrine exposed in the final reel looks forward to the room reserved for Nicholas in Argento's TRAUMA (1993).

Given these subjective cutaways to the inside of Gilles' mind, by the time he meets his three beautiful co-stars (Maria Perschy, Diana Lorys and Eva Leon), the viewer is somewhat indoctrinated into viewing the sisters less as three distinct women than as three facets of all women, as interpreted by his fractured psyche. There is a sister who is purely physical (because she's a nymphomaniac), one whose disfigured arm and hand cause her to wear a prosthetic, and a third who is more purely intellectual (because she is bound to a wheelchair). The middle sister, the most self-consciously damaged of the three, is thus equal parts mental and physical - and the sisters, as a trinity, can be viewed as semi-mechanical and thus doll-like (though it is not their blue eyes that give the film its title). This being a Naschy film, Gilles gets to assert his bare-chested, axe-wielding masculinity toward two of the sisters; this being a horror film, he suffers to some extent from each conquest.

Which brings me to another important point of reference, namely Don Siegel's THE BEGUILED (1970), a film recently remade by Sofia Coppola and based on a novel (well worth reading) by Thomas Cullinan. In this Civil War-based story, Clint Eastwood played an injured deserter who is found and taken in by the students of a Southern school for young women. There he is furtively cared for by the girls, and his personal charm becomes a lightning rod for arousing their nascent sexual feelings and sparking petty jealousies, until his presence is made known to the adult instructors, whose sexual feelings are more mature and ultimately more deadly. Once the man is properly nursed back to health, he wants to leave, and the women amputate his leg to keep him there - a form of castration that unleashes the worse side of his male character in compensation for his loss.

There is a somewhat complementary scene in BLUE EYES in which Gilles is stabbed in the abdomen by the handyman he's replaced, and his seeping wound is tended by two of the sisters (Lorys and Léon) and Michelle (Inés Morales), the pretty blonde nurse who tends to the needs of the third sister. The close-ups of the seeping and frankly labial injury recall the subversively erotic imagery of Caravaggio's 1603 religious painting "The Incredulity of St. Thomas." Considering Naschy's own recorded comments about his belief that making horror films in Spain at this point in history was a revolutionary act, the comparison isn't far-fetched.

SPOILER: The meaning of the film's baroque title is ultimately revealed when it is learned that the eye-gougings from a rash of murders surrounding the sisters' property are the doing of a local doctor (Eduardo Calvo) determined to reconstruct the corporeal form of his late daughter. This revelation - which follows the surprising death of Naschy's lead protagonist as the film continues for another reel - would seem to wrest the film away from its giallo pretensions back to its fundamentally Spanish origins, as the conceit of a determined doctor working to restore/reconstruct a damaged female form - despite originating in Georges Franju's EYES WITHOUT A FACE (Les yeux sans visage, 1959) literally extends from Jess Franco's seminal THE AWFUL DR ORLOF (Gritos en la noche, 1962) to Narciso Ibańez Serradór's THE HOUSE THAT SCREAMED (La residencia, 1970). The irony of the film's finale resides in the fact that the doctor's selfless (albeit criminal) attempts to make his daughter whole again mirror Gilles' more selfish manipulations of the three sisters, each of them incomplete in some way, which are genuinely curative until the sole unconquered sister brings everything crashing down.

Like its companion feature VENGEANCE OF THE ZOMBIES (directed by Léon Klimovsky), THE BLUE EYES OF THE BROKEN DOLL is presented in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, while the others in the set are framed at the more expected 1.85:1.  It is fairly unusual to see a 1974 film lensed this way, not least of all one involving the precepts of the giallo, a genre almost always composed for anamorphic widescreen lensing. This was almost certainly the choice of cinematographer Francisco Sánchez (who, interestingly, also shot VENGEANCE OF THE ZOMBIES) and perhaps made this decision to better accommodate the high-ceilinged, split-level interiors of the villa in Madrid where they were filming, as well as the tall-treed locations where Naschy's character makes his last run toward freedom. (Sánchez did not always opt for 1.33:1, as his earlier 1.85:1 CURSE OF THE DEVIL with Naschy shows.) I looked very closely at the framing for fault but could find absolutely none; in fact, certain shots - like the overhead climactic shot inside the house - appear ideally composed.

If this first dip into THE PAUL NASCHY COLLECTION is just a taste of its pleasures, it ought to be well worth the purchase price indeed.

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