This is one of those Spanish-Italian co-productions where the preponderance of Spanish names amongst the cast, including actors Andrés Resino, Analía Gadé, Alberto Dalbés and Edouardo Fajardo, and crew, most prominently director Francisco Lara Polop, leave one in little doubt as to who were the dominant partners.
The impression is further enhanced by small details like the pouring of a whisky from a Cutty Sark rather than a J&B bottle, if not the prominence given giallo regular Evelyn Stewart / Ida Galli amongst the performers.
Reading the signs
While somewhat slow to get started, the credits being followed by a five-minute, dialogue-free driving sequence, it's not padding, instead serving to neatly introduce some of the characters and something of their respective personalities, as we witness a macho competition between a young motorcycle riding vaguely counter-culture type, Fred, and his older sports coupe driving counterpart, Mr Porter, soon centring around their rivalry for the attentions of attractive hitch-hiker Laura.
Meanwhile, the middle aged Mr and Mrs Tremont calmly continue on in their VW beetle, declining to get involved.
Following some more introductions and exposition involving the pre-existing relationships between philandering husband, Ernest, and his neurotic, father-fixated wife, Elsa, everyone then finds themselves lost some way from their mutual destination, Milen.
Fortunately a mansion house is nearby. Even more fortuitously the house's owner, Martha, happens to be there. This is an especially lucky coincidence given that she was herself only visiting to do a spot of work on the dilapidated property.
As everyone introduce themselves attention turns to the portrait of Martha's grandmother above the fireplace. The woman, a well-known occultist who looks curiously like her granddaughter, apparently died alongside her chauffer in a car accident some 30 years before, but is rumoured to haunt the area, with the nearest village having been abandoned as a result of a wave of mysterious deaths.
Combined with the Bosch and Eliphas Levi style images all around the mansion, it hardly makes for a terribly reassuring place to spend the night – especially for Elsa, who had a terrifying encounter with the selfsame chauffer in the cemetery just beyond the mansion only a few minutes before.
Elsa encounters the chauffeur and the witch / vampire
Though himself almost run over by the chauffer's phantom car Fred proves more skeptical and, accompanied by Laura, adopts the role of investigator determined to get to the bottom of the mansion's many secrets...
Murder Mansion is one of those old-fashioned horror-thriller crossovers that hedges its bets around supernatural versus naturalistic explanations for most of its running time before ultimately plumping for the latter in the manner of the giallo. The most relevant reference points thus emerge as the likes of Something is Creeping in the Dark, with its similarly ill-matched group of travellers stranded in a remote “old dark house” location, and The Night Evelyn Came out of the Grave, with its tomb-using noir-style conspiracy of passion and wealth.
Against giallo convention this black glove is worn by the film's hero, Fred, as part of his motorcycling get up
Given Fred's role and apt name, the film is also clearly one of those “Scooby Doo” gialli identified by Mikel Koven, where the bad guys – don't worry, I won't reveal he, she or they are – would have “gotten away with it” were it not for the “pesky meddling kids”
Grandmother Martha and her reincarnation?
Though certainly featuring traditional horror devices like creepy music and shock zooms, Francisco Lara Polop's direction is also surprisingly subtle at times.
He often blurs the image to transition from one scene to the next rather than making a straight cut – a simple technique but undeniably also effective in imparting a oneiric sense to proceedings, especially when used both for routine changes of scene and as a route into the flashback sequences around Elsa and her father, played by familiar giallo film face Jorge Rigaud, and with whom she seems to have something of a Jocasta complex, if we want to be psychoanalytic about things.
Similarly Polop sometimes opens a scene on a detail rather than with an establishing shot, to momentarily make us that bit more confused as to our location and whose perspectives we are sharing.
The film's colour schemes is also interesting. The mansion interiors are dominated by orange, the exteriors of its surroundings by blue, thus creating a striking visual contrast between the two and a subtle recurring theme of the blurring and / or encroaching on these boundaries – further echoing the fantasy and reality theme – as when, for example, Martha and Elsa, the two most sensitive characters in the piece, don bright blue dresses.
Blurring the boundaries – sexual orientation, living and dead, past and present, reality and nightmare, orange and blue
Another major strength of the film is the sheer tangibility of its fog. Rather than looking all too obviously like the artificial, cliché, product of a smoke machine situated just off camera it has the cloying, obscuring physicality of the real thing, further helping location and studio material blend seamlessly and adding to the believability of the supernatural or otherwise manifestations, such that we don't immediately dismiss them as the obvious products of smoke and mirrors which our onscreen surrogates are curiously unable to see through.
Amongst the performers no one really stands out positively or negatively, the women being glamorous and threatened, the men heroic and shifty, all very much in accordance with types. Curious as it may sound this also contributes to the effectiveness of the film as a whole, precisely because there is thereby a uniformity of style and approach by which no-one stands out, in sharp contrast to some Italian or Spanish productions starring out of place ex-pat Americans. (As with many films of its type the setting is somewhat unclear, the names of the places and people – Soren, Milen, the Clinton family – serving instead to indicate that we're in that mythic Eurotrash land where “any reference to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental”. )
Marcello Giombini's music is characteristically idiosyncratic, blending traditional horror pipe organs and the like with strange noises, laughter and screams, but generally works and further contributes to the atmosphere.