Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Italian Horror Blogathon: The Red Queen Kills Seven Times (aka La dama rossa uccide sette volte, Blood Feast)

The previous two years I’ve done this blogathon I’ve always wanted to make sure that I had time to see something that I haven’t seen or heard of before. The first year I did this blogathon it was Pupi Avati’s The House with the Laughing Windows; the second year it was Francesco Barilli’s The Perfume of the Lady in Black. This year I wanted to make sure I had time for Emilio Miraglia’s The Red Queen Kills Seven Times. Boy, am I glad I made time for this gem. Miraglia’s film is a masterpiece of the genre; something akin to the best of Bava. A hybrid Gothic horror picture/giallo, The Red Queen Kills Seven Times is a prime example of why I love this subgenre so much: there’s always some kind of gem like this unearth.

Much like Avati and Barilli’s film, Miraglia’s was a lost, little-seen masterpiece. Avati’s film, thanks to Image Entertainment, was given a Region 1 release in 2003, Raro Video just released Barilli’s film last year (a beautiful transfer, too), and in 2006 Miraglia’s film was given a Region 1 release when it was released as part of a box set (alongside Miraglia’s more popular exploitation film The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave), but it is now (as far as I can tell) out of print. There are always films like these to discover when one begins searching in earnest for off-the-beaten-path Italian horror films. Sure, they’re not as popular as Bava or Argento or Fulci, but they’re just as important to the subgenre (and in some cases, they’re better films). Miraglia’s film reminded me of the aforementioned classics in other ways, too. Most notably, all three of these films have a first act that present themselves as Gothic horror films before expanding into something more complex: they turn into a Gothic giallo. All three of these films* have filmmakers that want us to be comfortable in thinking we’re watching one very specific type of horror movie, and then they flip it on us. The Gothic aesthetics still exist, but these films now contain a procedural element in their narrative that is owed to the giallo – only instead of taking the protagonists down a seedy path, the investigations of these particular hybrid films usually has the protagonists stumbling upon some otherworldly catalyst for what has transpired in the film. It’s really quite a fascinating amalgam, a fine balancing act by these particular filmmakers to since they’re not overtly one particular type of style over the other. But that’s what makes them standout to me; that’s what makes these three films – especially the one I’m about to review –  just as vital to one’s understanding of Italian horror as something like Blood and Black Lace, Suspiria, or The Beyond.

*And yes, I am purposefully using this post to also pimp the Avati and Barilli films; they are must-sees.

The film opens with sisters Kitty and Evelyn Wildenbruk outside their family castle. Kitty, the blonde sister, is brushing the hair of her doll, and Evelyn, the brunette sister (you see, because these details actually are important here), is messing with her sister. Evelyn steals Kitty’s doll, and the two begin chasing one another through the villa – the camera sweeping through the beautiful setting – until the reach inside the castle and begin to bother their grandfather, Tobias. As Tobias tries to break up the sibling spat, Evelyn wanders off towards a picture – a violent portrait of a woman in black attire stabbing a woman in red attire – and begins to chant as if she were having an out-of-body experience. She then grabs a knife and begins stabbing the doll until she rips its head off and laughs maniacally. The grandfather calms her down (after the two sisters fight some more) as Evelyn explains that she didn’t know what she was doing; that when she gets near the picture, it does “funny” things to her. Tobias then explains the legend behind the picture.

The story behind the painting is one of those wonderful bits of in-your-face metaphor that are littered throughout Gothic horror and the giallo. The legend goes, as Tobias explains, that the women – a black queen and a red queen – were sisters who have always hated each other since they were children (hmmm). The black queen, having been fed up with her sisters pranks, stabbed the red queen seven times while she slept. Tobias continues telling the girls that a year after her death, the red queen arose from the grave and murdered six people before finally killing the black queen. It is only after the red queen has killed for the seventh time that she can return to her grave in peace. This is a curse, though, so we can’t expect the red queen to really rest in peace. And indeed Tobias explains that the same thing has been known to occur every 100 years, always involves two sisters from the family bloodline, and that the next curse is about 14 years away. Convenient, I know. The whole opening with Kitty and Evelyn has this great fairy tale feel to it that is punctuated by a tremendous opening credits montage. This opening is just all kinds of awesome as we see Evelyn annoy the hell out of Kitty – all while laughing in her face – with an array of pranks: swatting a ball away from her, pushing her off of a swing, etc. And all of this takes place with one of the most entrancing and absolute best scores in all of ‘70s horror moving the action along. The film’s bewitching score by composer Bruno Nicolai is something else, alright, and it’s the perfect kind of music (and we get to hear it a lot throughout the movie) for the tremendous Gothic setting of the Wildenbruk castle and villa.

Flash forward 14 years (uh oh) to old man Tobias (in worse health) being taken care of by his third granddaughter, Franziska (Marina Malfatti), who we weren’t introduced to in the opening. Tobias doesn’t hear too much from his other granddaughter these days as Evelyn is supposedly living in America while Kitty (Don’t Torture a Duckling’s  Barbara Bouchet) is the head fashion photographer working for the fashion house Springe Fashions (it is here that the film draws the most obvious comparison to Blood and Black Lace). One night while Tobias is sleeping, he is aroused by a figure in a red coat in his room. Is it the red queen coming back to kill? Here’s the brilliant thing about Miraglia’s film: it wanders so effortlessly between the giallo and the Gothic horror film that we’re never quite sure when certain events unfold which angle we’re supposed to approach them from. There’s no way to get you footing with this film, and that’s what I love so much about the way it unfolds. Returning to the plot, the image Tobias sees is too much for his heart, and he dies of a heart attack immediately after. Tobias’ death results in the family coming together to hear about the estate and to collect inheritance; however, Tobias has left cryptic details about the inheritance not being meted out until the curse has passed.

The last little bit of plot synopsis before I move on (I dare not spoil the film for you): When the family gets together to discuss the estate, Evelyn is conspicuously absent. No one can seem to track her down, and it is here that we find out a major clue to the story’s mystery as we flashback to Kitty and Evelyn in a catfight (older now, but still fighting like they did when they were children). During the fight, Kitty slaps Evelyn hard enough that her head smacks back against a stone monument, accidentally killing her. The only witnesses to the act were Franziska and her husband Herbert who all decide to spare Tobias the horror of it all. So, they cover up the murder and bury Evelyn in the crypt of the castle (a great setpiece, by the way). Lest you think I’ve given away a major spoiler, I have not. The synopsis I have given so far – all three paragraphs – occurs within the first 15 minutes of the movie. The Red Queen Kills Seven Times moves like no other giallo I’ve ever seen, and it is with this important flashback that Miraglia is allowed to play around with the audience: Is it Evelyn that has donned the red cape and killed Tobias, or is it the red queen? Or is it something more ordinary? The former question falls into the Gothic category while the latter falls more into the convoluted mysteries found in numerous gialli of the time. What’s amazing is that The Red Queen Kills Seven Times does both so brilliantly.

Boy, where do I start? There’s so much more to admire about the way Miraglia crafts this tale. There are so many more characters I wish to talk about; so many more moments of seemingly trite dialogue that somehow pays off by the end of the film. But alas, I’m not much for just typing up essays that are nothing but plot synopsis even though I’m so tempted to here because the stories central mystery – and the energy that this film moves with – is just that damn engrossing. There’s a reason why I brought up The House with Laughing Windows and The Perfume of the Lady in Black – these are a kind of “classier” giallo (I even watched it with subtitels, so, you know…classy!). Not quite lurid in its erotic violence but not quite without the “whodunit” aspects of the giallo, the film also isn’t full Gothic horror because of the sneakily brilliant way Miraglia throws that wrench of a plot twist in with the flashback to Evelyn’s death. Now all we can think about as people are dying in a manner very much at home in a giallo is, “Wait, is that Evelyn doing the killing? Isn’t she supposed to be dead?” Miraglia now has the viewer in two different mindsets while watching his horror film, and that just isn’t fair; it just adds to the eerie Gothic feel and the sense that we’re not in control – no matter how hard we try to piece together the puzzle – of the information that’s being presented to us.

There are clues throughout (both visual and aural) that I caught on the second viewing. Seemingly throwaway lines and images that hang in the margins of the screen become more important upon subsequent viewings (I already can’t wait to watch this for a third time), and to be honest, that’s more than we can ever ask of a giallo: to just care. To care about dialogue; to care about the images; to care about the placement of those images; and to care enough that the characters say things and do things and the images exist for a reason.  Like all of the best gialli, The Red Queen Kills Seven Times is pretty damn plausible – dare I say it makes honest-to-god sense – by film’s end. The film is only 98 minutes long, and it moves at a brisk clip. There’s a lot going on here, but in a different way than, say, the kind of sensory overload one would expect from a supernatural horror film by Argento or Fulci. The fact that the film doesn’t drag to the point where we get so bored we notice all the plot holes and red herrings…well, that’s one of the best compliments I can think of when I think about complimenting a giallo.

There’s a genuine craft on display here in making sure the story is plausible (it’s almost boring in its plausibility when you compare it to how gonzo Italian horror narratives usually are). That’s the rarest of things when it comes to this particular subgenre of Italian horror, and it’s why the film ranks up there with the very best gialli from Argento (The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, Deep Red), Fulci (Don’t Torture a Duckling, Murder to the Tune of Seven Black Notes), Martino (The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh), and Bava (Kill Baby Kill, Blood and Black Lace). But what really elevates it is what I mentioned earlier: its connection to the Gothic.

The craft doesn’t just lie in the way Miraglia comprised the story. Credit must go to Lorenzo Baraldi (production design, and he does a damn fine job here), cinematographer Alberto Spagnoli (who later went on to shoot Peter Bogdanovich’s Daisy Miller and Mario Bava’s Shock), and the aforementioned Bruno Nicolai. Everyone here contributes in some way to the atmospheric castle setting and tone, which is more eerie than lurid. The tone they help set is actually perfect for neophytes who remain uneasy about venturing into the subgenre due to the wacky reputation it has (rightfully) garnered. This movie is, to put it rather plainly, a pleasure to look at (look at the screencaps at the end of this post), rivaling even something by Bava. In fact, fans of the old master will feel right at home here with the setting of the castle and its torch-lit crypt. Almost every moment of is astoundingly beautiful; the mise-en-scene expertly crafted (the set design is both very ‘70s but also crucial as a visual metaphor for the film) with geometric designs on the walls that are both linear and spiral out of control, bright reds that pop off the screen, perfect wide-open blocking in the castle that is juxtaposed with the tight blocking of the apartments and fashion studio.

The camera moves with confidence through these corridors of the castle and cramped apartment rooms; always perfectly framing the action. Whether its young Kitty playing with her doll in the foreground while the family castle in the background dwarfs her, or whether it’s an upshot of the staircase (more square than spiral, but it has the same effect nonetheless) in an apartment building that is reminiscent of the spiral staircase from Kill Baby Kill (random side note: this is a similar shot Scorsese would use in Shutter Island), Miraglia is always framing these scenes so that we’re simultaneously drinking in the colors but also looking for something that may be a clue to the mystery. This bright, colorful ambiance reminded me of Blood and Black Lace – another giallo that brilliantly used the entire frame to divert our attention from the danger by getting us to focus on the beautiful compositions. It’s a nifty trick that Bava used in his very best films, and Miraglia uses it here to equally great effect.

It is without hyperbole that I compare The Red Queen Kills Seven Times to the films I’ve compared it to above. The aforementioned films are some of my absolute favorite horror movies (those that know me know that I especially love The Perfume of the Lady in Black), but that’s what I want to get across to everyone reading this. You really must see this movie. Overhype be damned, Miraglia’s films deserves viewership. Much like the lesser known heroes of Italian horror – Avati, Barilli, and Aldo Lado to name a few – Emiio Miraglia belongs in that very special group. Here is a film that hasn’t garnered the popularity of a Suspiria or Blood and Black Lace, but it’s just as important to the subgenre; it’s just as important for people to know that Italian horror is so much more than just those great masters. Films like this remind me that no matter how much dreck I sift through (and there’s a lot of it in Italian horror, especially the giallo), how much bad metal music and poorly lit sexploitation and violence I have to endure, there’s always something beautiful and haunting – there’s always some kind of gem – to unearth. When I think I’ve seen it all or heard of them all, I remember that Italian horror is the gift that keeps on giving.  

Yes, I'll say it again: this is comparable to Bava; just look at these screenshots:


  1. I just watched this -- perhaps I'm not quite as enamored with it as you were - the story didn't flow from scene to scene as well as the better giallo of Bava, Argento, Fulci, or Avati, but I'd be comfortable placing it just a slight notch below them.

    In particular, the opening scene and credits montage are spectacular and the dream sequences that Kitty has are great.

    Oh, and I really loved that green horizontally striped room. I'm curious if places actually looked like that in the 70's or if they were designed specifically for giallo films.