Sunday, October 28, 2018

BELL FROM HELL (1973) DVD review

Bell from Hell (aka La Campana del Infierno) (1973) d. Claudio Guerin Hill (Spain)

In an era when Spain’s genre output consisted primarily of Paul Naschy’s hirsute efforts and Jess Franco’s loopy zoom lenses, this atmospheric psychological horror offering from Claudio Guerin Hill (with uncredited assistance from Juan Antonio Bardem – more on that in a second) provides a splash of fresh blood. A dark and twisted tale of revenge and madness whose bleak tone never lets up, Hill and screenwriter Santiago Moncada (All the Colors of the Dark, Hatchet for the Honeymoon) also work in a vivid condemnation of the petty bourgeois during the last years of the Franco regime.

A young man Juan/John (Renaud Verley) is released from an asylum and returns home to his wheelchair- bound Aunt Marta (Creepshow’s Viveca Lindfors) and her three daughters who had him declared insane after his mother’s suicide in order to steal his inheritance. Prior to arriving, he stops off to work for a spell at a slaughterhouse, quitting after he “has learned enough.” (These unsettling scenes feature authentic cattle slaying – performed by Verley himself! – and will likely upset animal activist viewers to no end.) From there, the labyrinthian plot unfolds with elements of bondage, incest, and rape, culminating in a twist-upon-a-twist ending that will confound the most sharp-minded (although things do become clearer upon a second viewing – Hint: Keep an eye on the old forest hermit).

The most intriguing – and for some, off-putting – element of Bell from Hell is the lack of anyone to root for, as all the characters are pretty despicable. Hill and Moncada shade Verley’s character as a sociopathic psycho in some scenes, then as a savior in others (as when he rescues a young girl from sexual assault at the hands of four “respectable” men out on a hunting trip). We are obviously meant to identify with John, but witnessing his often sadistic practical jokes on those around him tests our sensibilities. Aunt Marta is film’s villainous heavy, but when John wheels her out into a field and unleashes a swarm of bees while she dozes, one can’t help wonder if the punishment truly fits the crime.

The elder sisters are also of dubious moral character; Maria (Christine Betzner) being a sexual wanton and Teresa (Nuria Gimeno) an uptight conniving lady who falsely testified against John in court (accusing him of attempted rape in order to have him institutionalized). But again, as we watch John dole out his elaborate scheme of vengeance, our sympathies are torn. The closest thing to an “innocent” within the family is Esther (Maribel Martin, familiar to fans from 1969’s La Residencia and 1972’s The Blood Spattered Bride), and even she flirts with incestuous inclinations.

But the film’s artistic merits, especially Hill’s atmospheric visual panache, carry the day. The recurring images of a church bell slowly moving towards town, ultimately raised to its place in the cathedral tower, have a mythic solemnity. The haunting refrains of young girls singing “Frère Jacques” – combined with Moncada’s invocation of Saki’s short story, “The Open Window” – are also quite effective. While there are no supernatural elements on display here, there is an obvious and oppressive Gothic tone that holds sway throughout.

The indelible imagery within the basement of John’s mother’s house – tricked out as a makeshift abattoir – are among the most memorable in European horror. While there is an absence of explicit flesh and blood (save for the unfortunate cattle), the exploitation elements are decidedly in place – the result being a case of art-house sleaze. In a macabre footnote, Hill jumped or fell to his death from the constructed bell tower on the final day of shooting – the footage eventually assembled by his mentor, the uncredited Bardem (whom I suspect is the one responsible for the cryptic motorcycle sound cue at the picture’s close).

On the other other hand, an oft-heard complaint (one that I initially voiced myself) is the obtuse and unsatisfying conclusion of the should-be climactic scenes of revenge. We have anticipated John’s payback the entire picture, yet for Hill to offer up the resolution that he does seems to go against everything the director was building towards. Perhaps the young artist decided that inconclusive was preferable to overt, or perhaps Bardem was working with what he had.

Whatever the case, the final 20 minutes of Bell almost undo all that came before, waylaying our affections for what has gone before. You’ll have to judge for yourself as to how it sits with you; Personally, while initially frustrated, after several viewings I now thoroughly enjoy the film’s ambiguous tone.

In 2005, after years of obscurity and bootleg prints, Pathfinder Home Entertainment released Bell from Hell on DVD, but with unfortunately mixed results. On the plus side, it is presented in a cleaned-up 16x9 Anamorphic letterbox print that looks terrific at first glance. There are English, French and Spanish language audio options, a stills gallery, Spanish opening and closing credits, and an informative essay on the film and its participants by author Chris Desjardins., who repeats much of the same information in his somewhat dry and halting audio commentary.

However, purists beware: Pathfinder’s version is not without its significant flaws. (Many thanks to Video Junkie’s Will Wilson and John Bernhard at Mobius for pointing me in the right direction.) In comparing the UK VHS release to the DVD, one can instantly see that the framing is way off, with the bottom overmatted and a large portion of image missing on the right side of the frame. Also, the on screen title is The Bells, which is a bit odd. But more alarming are the missing three scenes, right around the 47-minute mark, all of which contain pertinent information. On the DVD, the scene of John dancing with Esther cuts to the dinner table sequence. Missing are:

1) a scene of John and Esther horsing around near the beehives

2) a scene with Maria on a swing while John and Esther talk about his sexual history with the older sisters, Esther provocatively adding “I’m the only one left” with a flirtatious glint in her eye. Cut to inside the house...

3) where Aunt Marta says to Teresa, “After the verdict, we’ll sell the house,” illuminating her true intentions, and there is also mention of the locks on the cellar door having been changed. This then cuts to the turtle on the dinner table with the DVD picking up this scene up in progress.

(Oddly enough, Mill Creek Entertainment’s “Chilling Classics 50 Pack” full-frame version retains these scenes intact, though there are obvious trims in the slaughterhouse scenes and, as one might expect, the print and sound are of inferior quality.)

In conclusion, even in its incomplete state – which is all that seems to be available for the time being – there is much to recommend Bell from Hell, especially for fans of Euro-Shock horror; from Hill’s incredible frame-filling flair to the well-crafted performances across the board to the subversive socio-political commentary. It is unfortunate that its young director met such an untimely end, as his work here seems to indicate a wealth of untapped potential.

Bell from Hell is well-worth seeking out and available now on Amazon streaming (or DVD) and can be viewed HERE:


No comments:

Post a Comment