Friday, May 27, 2016

The Worms Are Waiting, the Red Queen Decrees :: A Beer-Gut Reaction to Arrow Video's Emilio Miraglia Double-Feature of The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave (1971) and The Red Queen Kills Seven Times (1972)

Emilio Miraglia worked his way up from script supervisor to assistant director through the course of about two-dozen genre films, shifting between crime dramas [The Terrorist (1963), Wake Up and Die (1966)] and sword and chuckable-styrofoam-boulder epics [Goliath and the Dragon (1960), Hercules Against the Sons of the Sun (1964)], before settling into the director’s chair for his most famous two-punch combo of The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave (1971) and The Red Queen Kills Seven Times (1972). Serving as writer and director for both films, Miraglia’s end result are a bizarre mash-up of a gialli and Gothic melodrama with serpentine plots that are nigh impossible to unravel as they try to devour their own tails, which are then almost completely undone by one (or two or six) plot twist(s) too many.

To be fair, The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave only has one twist but it’s a real slobberknocker that is saved for the climax where things get a bit … messy. Before we spill that milk, we begin with a wealthy English aristocrat named Alan (Steffen), who has recently been released from an asylum after a lengthy stay for suffering a nervous breakdown when he caught his wife, Evelyn, having sex with another man. Seems Evelyn has now passed on, and Alan’s doctor (Stuart) feels his patient is ready to be integrated back into society. But the high-strung Alan is still obsessed with his wife, holding seances to try and contact her spirit (-- that appear to be working), and bringing hookers and strippers, all ringers and surrogates for his late, red-haired wife, back to his palatial estate for his own private therapy sessions, where he gives the nickel tour that always end up in the old ancestral dungeon where the host kinda Hydes-out, whipping his victims before restraining and killing them -- or does he?

See, we always cut away before Alan puts the final exclamation point on these interludes, with him waking up later, alone, somewhere on the grounds, suffering from a seeming lycanthropic hangover with no real memory of what he’s done and no evidence of his deeds to be found. Despite all of this odd behavior -- some might even call it psychotic, his doctor insists Alan is fine; and with the encouragement of his cousin Farley (Raho), Alan decides to get married again, taking Gladys (Malfatti), another *ahem* ‘exotic dancer’, as his wife. And while this seems to calm Alan down considerably, sinister forces seem to be conspiring against Gladys. And once the hired help is ruled out, husband and wife begin to suspect the rumors of Evelyn’s death might’ve been greatly exaggerated. And then these suspicions take us by the hand and lures everybody into a final ambush of double-crosses, gaslight revelations, and an inheritance grab with a climax where things really get twisted into an intractable knot of “You have gotta be kidding me”. Wow.

Watching these kind of euro-sleaze thrillers is like playing a game of chess with the directors who are behind them. After several lengthy moves -- some strategic, others brazen, while others daftly stupid -- and after you’ve spent all that time keeping track of the pawns (-- the victims), rooks (-- the red herrings), bishops (-- the bumbling police force) and knights (-- the protagonist), shifting around the checkered field, trying to make heads or tails out of what your opponent is trying to show you, in the end, when we reach the end of the movie, the director tends to put his finger on his own king and leverages the board into tipping over, scattering the other remaining pieces, then rights it, takes his finger off the still standing king and declares himself the winner. It’s a twist, sure, but it’s also a big old cheat and completely unfair to those playing along and trying to pay attention. And thanks to the ambiguity of that final big twist, the implications of who gets away with what at the end of The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave are a bit scurvy and, dare I say, a bit of a buzzkill. It doesn't help that Miraglia has an eye for a certain type of woman, which resulted in all of his actresses looking nearly identical, making it hard to deduce who we're looking at half the time.

Luckily, The Red Queen Kills Seven Times is a lot more coherent. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it made sense by any means -- well, sort of, and once again his actresses are all ringers for each other, but at least the five-car twist pile-up at the end isn’t a cheat as we find out who was behind the killer’s mask all along. Here, Miraglia really finds a proper balance between Bava’s old school chills and Argento’s sensuous violence. We begin in the past where two feuding sisters, Kitty and Evelyn, get a time-out from dismembering each others dolls long enough for Grandpa Wildenbrück (Schündler) to explain a macabre painting that relates to a centuries old family curse involving two sisters known as the Red and Black Queen. Seems the Red Queen was killed (-- more like put down) but, according to the legend, she rose from the dead and killed seven people in the Wildenbrück circle. AND! This curse appears to hereditary as it cycles around every 100 years, with two more sisters coming under the homicidal influence, with seven more people killed to mark the deadly anniversary. AND! This curse is due to strike again in ten years time in 1972.

We warp ahead, then, only to find out Kitty (Bouchet) kinda jumped the gun on the curse, having accidentally killed Evelyn (Guido) during one hellacious cat-fight. And with the help of her older sister, Francesca (Malfatti again), and her husband, Herbert (Korda), they cover up the crime, hiding the body in a secret chamber deep in the bowels of the family castle and convincing everyone else that the sister moved to America. But this help comes at a price as Kitty must forfeit any claim to the family fortune once their grandfather finally kicks the bucket. And this he does, helped along the way by a mysterious woman in a red cloak, who looks a lot like Evelyn, and who, essentially, frightens him to death. But at the reading of the will, there’s a snag as the old man’s final instructions prevent any disbursement until 1973 when the curse has officially passed. Meanwhile, the same lady in red starts slashing her way through Kitty’s colleagues and business associates at a modeling agency. And while all evidence, motive, and eye-witnesses accounts point to Evelyn being the Red Queen, we all know that’s impossible, right? -- Right?

Sure, there are other suspects, including Kitty’s boyfriend (Pagliai), his estranged wife currently secluded in an insane asylum, and a bevy of models (-- including a young Sybil Danning); but these red-herrings have a tendency to get bumped-off just as each come under suspicion. And as we barrel toward the climax, there’s some last second revelations on some precautions Grandpa Wildenbrück took to derail the curse before it struck again, meaning someone wasn’t who we thought, and points the finger at the real culprit, who in turn was being manipulated by someone else looking not just for a bigger piece of the inheritance but the whole pie. This, in turn, leads to one helluva climax that involves Kitty being lured and locked in the castle basement that is currently being flooded as part of the killer’s wild endgame. Now, some clumsy editing nearly short-circuits everything but this is overcome by the ambitious nature of the scene, that presciently plays out like the climax of The Drowning Pool (1975), as the door is forced open, saving Kitty but wiping out nearly all of her rescuers in the resulting deluge.

When I received Arrow Film’s Killer Dames boxset I was under the impression that I had not seen either Miraglia film before. Turns out that’s only half true as The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave rang a few bells and I finally traced it to a severely truncated and even more nonsensical version seen on the tube, back when our NBC affiliate used to rotate it and The Whip and The Body (1963) -- under its alternate title of What!, every other Sunday night after the news in the late 1970s. And while there were a couple of nifty and effective set-pieces (-- especially when 'Evelyn' actually came out of the grave), of the two films I found The Red Queen ran circles around it co-feature, thanks in most part to a more likeable cast, the addition of Alberto Spagnoli as cinematographer, who really energizes Miraglia’s set-ups and maximizes the German locations, and a hideously infectious score courtesy of Bruno Nicolai. As always, Arrow Film throws in an incredible package of extras, including commentaries and interviews with several actors and the films' production designer, and a couple of featurettes where an expert is brought in to help the audience decipher what they just watched, making the whole package well worth your time. 

The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave (1971) Phoenix Cinematografica :: Phase One / P: Antonio Sarno / D: Emilio Miraglia / W: Fabio Pittorru, Massimo Felisatti / C: Gastone Di Giovanni / E: Romeo Ciatti / M: Bruno Nicolai / S: Anthony Steffen, Marina Malfatti, Enzo Tarascio, Giacomo Rossi Stuart, Umberto Raho

The Red Queen Kills Seven Times (1972) Phoenix Cinematografica :: Romano Film :: Traian Boeru :: Cannon Film Distributors / P: Elio Di Pietro / D: Emilio Miraglia / W: Fabio Pittorru, Emilio Miraglia / C: Alberto Spagnoli / E: Romeo Ciatti / M: Bruno Nicolai / S: Barbara Bouchet, Ugo Pagliai, Marina Malfatti, Nino Korda, Sybil Danning, Rudolf Schündler

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