Thursday, 31 January 2008

Il Delitto del diavolo / Queens of Evil

A lonely road at night, somewhere by the sea. David (Ray Lovelock), an idealistic young hippie biker type, stops to assist an older man whose Rolls Royce has broken down. David might have wondered why he bothered when the man not only berates him for his unconventional lifestyle, lack of religion and respect for tradition, but also surreptitiously spikes one of his tyres.

The knight of the road on his quest for freedom; note the Laszlo Kovacs style lens flare

The man

Having repaired the flat, David goes off in pursuit of the man, his peace and love philosophy again evident insofar as he wants to know what motivated the older man. His quarry speeds up rather than slowing down, however, precipitating a crash.

Faced with this scene, David attempts to flag down a passing truck. The driver and co-driver only see another dirty hippy and decline to stop. Deciding that there is nothing he can do, David departs. Taking a back road, he finds a cabin in the woods and settles down for the night.

The next morning David is awoken by a beautiful young woman, Liv (Haydee Politoff). She wonders what he is doing there and indicates that he had best leave as soon as possible before anyone else notices his presence. Evidently having past experience of similar situations, David thinks that Liv means her parents, and is accordingly surprised when he is confronted with two slightly older, but equally beautiful women, Samantha (Silvia Monti) and Fabiana (Evelyn Stewart / Ida Galli) – who present themselves as Liv’s elder sisters.


Samantha and Fabiana

They invite him in for breakfast. Both hungry and intrigued, David takes up the offer, finding his curiosity even more piqued by the half-fairytale half-Habitat and Biba décor of the sister's house and their just happening to have baked four large cakes as if expecting a guest.

The sisters' house, dominated by their pictures. Are they to be looked at or looking?

Having gorged his fill – gluttony is evidently not one of the deadly sins on this occasion – the young man moves to leave but has a change of heart; significantly we view this scene with the sisters, who plainly expected to see him return.

Yes, David

An idyllic morning on the lake ensues culminating in an almost miraculous catch of fish. Is it just the spot where they always congregate at noon, as the sisters explain, or something more? Whatever the case, another extravagant repast follows along with another even more half-hearted attempt to leave.

The female gaze

As the days go on, David finds himself increasingly bewitched by the sisters's glamour, his former certainties and resolution dissolving, powerless to avoid the fate that awaits him even as Liv hesitantly once more tries to encourage him to leave before it is too late…

As the back cover review on this DVD indicates, Tonino Cervi's Queens of Evil is best viewed as an allegory, David less an Easy Rider or Wild One situated against a concrete historical and geographical background than a questing knight in a modern yet mythic landscape that could be anywhere in the west. His holy grail is freedom, the three sisters the belle dames sans merci put there to tempt him off his righteous path.

A coach approaches the castle as we move deeper into fairy-tale territory

Following from this allegorical nature, the usual rules of engagement with film do not apply. Rather, as with such other reference points as Riccardo Freda's Tragic Ceremony, Dario Argento's Inferno, Jean Brismee's The Devil's Nightmare, Aldo Lado's Short Night of the Glass Dolls and Giorgio Ferroni's Night of the Devils it is the kind of film where atmosphere and symbolism are more important than narrative logic and the creation of characters and situations we could believe exist in the real world.

Taken in its own terms, the film succeeds admirably.

Though Cervi's direction is sometimes obvious, this obviousness is as much part and parcel of the film's effectiveness as the obvious weight attached to each and every line of dialogue. We know that David knows his resolve is crumbling in the face of the three sisters, and more importantly that he increasingly does not care to resist.

Elsewhere the director's approach is more subtle, with some clever compositions and use of focus to highlight the shifting contours of the relationships between the four characters.

The film's subtexts are also fascinating, whether the play upon the biblical idea of being fishers of men when the sisters take David onto the lake, with the ironic equivalence between his position and that of his erswhile catch, or the entire way in which the film's regimes of looking and being looked at fail to accord with regulation issue male / female active / passive structures and strictures.

No doubt if we wanted to then read the film as ultimately a misogynistic, male paranoid work where active female sexuality is presented as the greatest threat to the ideals of counter-cultural revolution – and here we perhaps have to note the specific historical context of the film's production, coming at a point where gender politics were coming on the agenda more than they had been only a few years earlier – we could do so. The three women, are after all, ultimately obeying the law of their father. His real identity should be obvious even without a consideration of the Italian title, Il Delitto del diavolo: favola thrilling, with this in turn being a title that implies a different degree of agency to the sisters than the English language alternative, where they are The Queens of Evil.

The real point, however, is that things are never quite as simple as either / or theories would have it.

The film's theology is also interesting on this count: Whereas in Rosemary's Baby the Devil's greatest power stems from the fact that few besides his followers really believe in him anymore in the “Age of Aquarius,” here he requires us to have faith, even if only so that this same faith – in David's case in that hope of an alternative way of being – can in turn be broken.

In both films, however, the real absence is perhaps the same one: God's. And yet, again Cervi's film complicates matters. Is a priest who David later encounters at a gathering, and who urges him that the time has come to make a decision – a decision that the rest of the film has been building up to – but who pointedly remains apart from the others there in fact God, his representative or another of the Devil's agents? And, in line with the décor of the elegantly appointed castle at which this gathering takes place, with many of the portraits adorning the walls apparently of cardinals, is there any significant difference? Is, in the end, this a religious or anti-religious allegory? Are the laws of “God the father” and “your father, the Devil” one and the same in terms of subjecting oneself to the other's and society's will?

Whether any of this makes sense in traditional theological terms is, of course, debatable. But whatever the case Queens of Evil is a heady fantastique brew whose only hangover, pleasant rather than nasty, is the stimulus it provides to thought.

The difficulty, as ever, is that the kind of audiences who went go to see Eric Rohmer's “Moral Tale” La Collectioneuse and who might have noticed the presence of Haydee Politioff here and been pleasantly surprised by what they, would likely have pre-judged Cervi's the film as Euro-trash, beneath them, at least in the English-speaking world.

Though not really an actors' film, the four leads are perfectly adequate in their roles. Politoff has perhaps the most challenging role alongside Lovelock, having to play something of the innocent in contrast to the more mature Monti and Stewart whose primary role – which they understandably perform beautifully – is to to be seductive and alluring, although importantly in distinctive ways that suit their respective images, Monti more obviously passionate and Stewart more aloof and icy.

Lovelock displays an easy going naïve charm, and also intriguingly contributes a couple of non-diegetic songs to the soundtrack. They're somewhat sub-Dylan, but come across as genuine and thus add rather than detract from the whole. Francesco Lavagnino provides the rest of the music, an effective selection of empathetic pieces which enhance the mood of any given scene, be it playful or more sinister.

Though one of the supporting characters indicates that “Audio visual means are no longer effective,” the cumulative effect of this beguiling piece of fantastique is to prove otherwise.

This DVD has been put together by Johnny from Lovelock and Load and Marc from Mondo Erotico. It's a by-fans for-fans kind of release rather than a commercial product. You won't find it for sale in your local or online retailer of choice as it isn't for commercial sale. So, of course, how do you get a copy? Visit Johnny's website and find out...

The care and consideration that have gone into the package put many commercial releases of comparable product to shame. The picture is a considerable improvement on the old VHS dupes out there, while the choice of English and Italian audio is always welcome. The inclusion of the two Lovelock songs among the extras is a nice touch, as is the cover art modelled on the film's art deco styled poster.


The-Iron-Inspector said...

Great review. I'm a big Ray Lovelock fan. Almost Human, Autopsy and of course Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue are required viewing.

Great website. For all your Giallo needs.

Mr. Wildenbruck said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mr. Wildenbruck said...

I found this movie incredibly fascinating.
Love the locandina ;-)

Yaeko said...

I have been looking for this film for many, many years since I moved to the U.S. I watched in Japan in my teens and the memory of it never left my heart, in fact I have been humming fragments of the "I Love You Underground" whenever I thought of and missed this film for the last 2 decades.

I have recently found it by chance and purchased it. Many thanks to one who made the DVD...The power of its audio visual beauty left me petrified just as it did 38 years ago.