Estratto dagli archivi segreti della polizia di una capitale europea is a strange title for a strange film.
A subtitler's nightmare
It translates as Extracted from the Secret Archives of the Police of a European Capital, suggesting a early 70s poliziotti along the lines of the previous year's Confessione di un commissario di polizia al procuratore della repubblica / Confessions of a Police Captain, whose vagueness in identifying a state compared to this apparent predecessor might be attributed to the combination of Italian and Spanish production money, with many Spanish genre films of the period using foreign settings as a means of getting around the censors by presenting their contents as offering a critique that was not directed at their conservative Francoist regime.
What we actually get, however, is a supernatural / fantastical horror that references in the dialogue to Scotland Yard, Chelsea and “Church Street” indicate to be around London, even as the sun-drenched sea and rural mediterranean locales and distinctly Italian cast to the architecture and fauna indicate very much otherwise.
Simultaneously, however, this also affords a degree of contuinity with director Riccardo Freda's previous British-Isles set, Italian-made gothics The Horrible Secret of Dr Hichcock and The Ghost and the giallo Double Face, on each of which he also used his Robert Hampton pseudonym, even if the motivation underlying this name and perhaps the choice of settings could be understood as more commercial than artistic:
“I was in Sanremo, and I happened to be in front of the cinema where I Vampiri was on. At that time, I would sometimes go into the hall to study the audience's reactions. I don't know why, but the theatre was almost empty. Anyway, many people were attracted by the posters, which were very beautiful. The people would read I Vampiri, I Vampiri and that seemed to tempt them. Then, at the very last moment, they would notice the name: Freda. The reaction was sort of automatic: Freda? It's Italian, it must be horrible, the Italians can't make this kind of movie.”
Yet Tragic Ceremony – as I will from hereon refer to the film, both for brevity and as better suited to its actual content – also evinces elements of continuity even with I Vampiri, through its present-day setting, mixture of aristocratic and commoner characters and theme of the old and powerful feeding upon the young and powerless.
The film opens on a sailing yacht as we are introduced to our four hippie-ish protagonists. Bill (Tony Isbert) is the son of an industrialist, Jane (Camille Keaton) the girl he covets. Joe and Fred (Maximo Valverde and Giovanni Petrucci) are friends, of less privileged backgrounds and happy to take advantage of Bill's seeming gullibility.
The game the three men play here is interesting in the light of Freda's cynical world view and interests in fine art and games of skill and chance, including horseracing and the wager-based origins of some of his films.
Fortune and misfortune as the dune buggy attack batallion meets the mysterious Lord Alexander
Within the context of the film meanwhile it also serves to introduce a pervasive theme, that of the clash of cultures and values between generations and classes, as Joe remarks: “You might be the son of a great industrialist, but as far as boats go you know nothing. You're only good at spending money. It almost seems like you prefer it that way.”
Given Joe's own modest origins and coming from an interior part of Andalucia if an indicental line of dialogue can be accorded any weight, it is less clear where he picked up his specialised knowledge of nautical terminology.
Later, as the group go ashore and make camp for the night, Joe confesses to Fred that he read up on the subject beforehand because it seemed likely to prove useful, highlighting the idea of the working-class student who consciously studies bourgeois tastes and practices to move outwith the world of his own class.
Bill then follows after Jane to give her a gift of a pearl necklace. (Cue ZZ Top lyrics, although in this case it is jewellery we are talking about.) A match cuts as he places it round her neck sees him placing the item around his mother’s instead, following which he tells her – and thus the audience looking in – its curious history.
The necklace is said to contain an evil spirit, which took over the woman who once owned it. A psychic and medium then performed an exorcism, and was given the necklace in gratitude by its previous owner, but then herself died in doubtful circumstances shortly thereafter.
Good bad taste and bad bad taste, to invoke John Waters's distinction
Bill’s mother hesitated to wear his gift, not out of fear of its provenance – or so she claims at least – but rather because she finds this history to be “in bad taste,” to again highlight the film’s distinctive tendency to intertwine aesthetic and moral judgements. Given the relative prevalence of bello and brutto rather than buono and male in Italian compared to their English language counterparts of beautiful and ugly and good and evil, this might also be a wider aspect of Italian culture – note here also the notion of Fascism as the aestheticisation of politics – that Freda and his collaborators are making particularly obvious here.
Whatever the case, Tragic Ceremony is clearly one of that subset of Eurocult films – Bava's Five Dolls for an August Moon would be another obvious example, along with much of Jess Franco's oeuvre – whose own discourses might profitable be analysed using Pierre Bourdieu's ideas around the social judgement of taste, as an ironic point of “distinction” from other examples of the form insofar as they tend to approached and interpreted more externally as cult film objects.
As Jane moves to kiss Bill, a dramatic image from her point of view shows his face all blue, as if he were dead – an image all the more shocking inasmuch as there is no indication that Bill has told her the item’s history and, as such, one which also suggests its curse may not yet have been lifted.
Having rested for a while, the group decides to return home. A few miles along the road their beach buggy runs out of petrol – this despite Bill having checked and being certain the tank should be half-full. Worse, the assistant at the petrol station (Jose Calvo), who seems to appear out of nowhere, is highly distrustful of Bill’s travellers cheques and reluctant gives them a little petrol, albeit for free.
A bit further along, the buggy breaks down again anyway, with the weather also having worsened considerably. Fortuitously there is a large house opposite. Even more fortuitously there are several cars in its driveway, indicating that someone must be at home. Joe rings the doorbell, which is answered by Count Alexander (Luigi Pistilli). He and his wife (Luciana Paluzzi) purport to be firm believers in noble traditions of hospitality and invite the group to stay overnight.
Jane and the Countess
While the three men are assigned the kitchens, the countess takes Jane up to a room of her own, next to the countess, who takes an interest in her the necklace. Elsewhere in the building, preparations are being made for a black magic ceremony – a ceremony in which Jane has been assigned the role of sacrificial victim.
Fortunately Bill, Fred and Joe realise something is up just in time, leading to a shocking orgy of violence and a deliberately confusing extended denouement, the events described thus far barely taking us to the midway point of the film.
The satanic ritual is one of the film's visual highlights, with effective use of black void space and distorting lenses and angles
If Freda's approach to exploitative material in Tragic Ceremony is reminiscent of its immediate predecessor The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire in its general crudity, its distinctive approach towards aesthetics-as-ethics means this also comes across as a more deliberate decision, that Freda was self-consciously indulging in bad taste and deploying techniques like the shock zoom because they were justified by the material.
In other places the film recalls its gothic predecessors more with the emphasis being squarely on atmosphere. The lighting and lightning effects are convincing and many of the individual compositions arresting.
Though the camerawork is mobile, it is not particularly fluid, sometimes having something of a stop-start quality, while the hand-held shots are often a bit on the wobbly side. While we might take these as further expressions of the film's themes, I think this would be going too far and that Freda really needed a better camera operator.
Some of the film's more striking images
Though on paper the film has quite a good cast it should be noted that Pistilli and Paluzzi aren't really in it for very long, with the youthful protagonists on screen for most of the time. Their performances are adequate rather than inspired, although Keaton displays an effective blank / traumatised expression that also served her in good stead as the titular victim in What Have you Done to Solange?
Stelvio Cipriani provides the music, with Freda also contributing lyrics to the opening and closing credit theme. The score is a strange and at times inconsistent seeming mixture of styles, though this could also again be taken as a reflection of the film itself, with the individual cues generally being effective excepting some overly dramatic shock horror pieces.