La Villa Strangiato… Riccardo Freda’s TRAGIC CEREMONY Reviewed

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DVD. Region 1. Dark Sky. Not rated.

The whole Pasta Paura ball began rolling in 1956 with Freda’s I Vampiri aka The Devil’s Commandment but even at the height of his powers, the capricious Freda would typically lose interest in a project after the first few days’ shooting and delegate its completion to an assistant. This predilection of his proved a felicitous one for the wider world of horror cinema as it gave Mario Bava, the greatest Italian auteur of them all, his directing break polishing off the likes of I Vampiri and Caltiki, The Immortal Monster (1962.) Rather less fortuitously, as the increasingly uninterested Freda’s career petered out it resulted in such bombs as Murder Obsession aka The Wailing / Satan’s Altar (1980.)

History does not record which hack completed Tragic Ceremony At The Alexander Villa (to quote one of its alterative titles, another being Estratto Dagli Archivi Segreti Della Polizia Di Una Capitale Europea / Extracted From The Secret Police Archives Of A European Capital) in 1972, but anyone wishing to make an educated guess might usefully reflect that one of the film’s co-writers, Mario Bianchi, also directed trash epics in various genres (notably the oversexed Exorcist knock-off La Bimba Di Satana / Satan’s Baby Doll, 1982) before settling down to an exclusive output of porn… certainly Freda went out of his way to disown Tragic Ceremony before his death in the eve of the millennium. In all fairness, nobody involved in its making should feel too guilty, the film emerging as an enjoyably goony piece of schlock whose occasional longeurs are easily overcome with judicious use of the fast forward button. C’mon, admit it, you’ve sat square eyed for much worse than this…

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What might indulgently be termed “the plot” revolves around free spirit Jane (Camille Keaton) and her love’n’peacenik pals, sailing, driving around in dune buggies, smoking dope and making out, generally trying to get their hippy asses back to The Garden. Boy, are they in for a rude awakening! Where the fuck are they, anyway? There are allusions to Scotland in the dialogue and at one point, though clearly in the midst of rolling countryside, they seem to be seeking directions to Chelsea (!?!) A menacing gas station attendant (and remember, this is two years before The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) warns them in no uncertain terms to stay away from the Alexander Villa but when their buggy breaks down in the middle of a storm, no prizes for guessing where they wash up, seeking shelter and maybe to scrounge a Scooby snack or two. Their timing is unfortunate, to say the least, as Lady A is about to host the biggest bash in the Satanist calendar… and she would have got away with it too, if it hadn’t have been for those meddling kids! There’s just time for Camille to feature in a gratuitous bath scene (unveiling an impressive rack, bearing favourable comparable to that of Traci Lords) before she and her pals blunder into the festivities, with discouraging results.

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For reasons that are not exactly clear, the orgiasts take this interruption as their cue to start slaughtering each other in gory fashion, courtesy of Carlo Rambaldi’s FX expertise.  Particularly memorable is the splitting asunder of one cultist’s cranium… no really, you’ve got no chance of forgetting this bit, as the ensuing “narrative” repeatedly and arbitrarily flashes back to it. Our hapless hippies make like bananas and split, a devil worshipping dude exiting one of the villa’s windows, in flames, as their dune buggy (now conveniently working again) pulls out of the grounds.  The kids congratulate themselves on having escaped intact from the scene of carnage but there’s plenty more weirdness to come (courtesy of a cursed item of jewellery worn by Jane and the crazed camera work of Francisco Faile, which runs through every visual cliche in the book to convey the dual ambience of spaced-out psychedelia and spooky Satanic shit), culminating in a weedy variation on Ambrose Bierce’s ever popular Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge. If you can stay awake through all of this, it will probably occur to you that the picture’s rural settings are spookily similar to those in which Keaton would suffer all manner of ill treatment and emerge as a triumphant avenger during her most notorious credit, Meir Zarchi’s I Spit On Your Grave, six years later. There’s also a “clever trick of the ear” moment when Stelvio Cipriani’s score mutates into some music that a character is actually playing in the woods, which unexpectedly pre-empts a very similar device in Zarchi’s controversial rape’n’revenge opus.

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Such parallels are certainly not lost on Keaton herself, who makes explicit reference to them in the quarter hour bonus documentary Camille’s European adventures. Nice to see that Buster’s niece is in no way apologetic about her oft-criticised, much reviled career in exploitation movies and expresses herself keen to resume it, should the opportunity ever arise (which, let’s face it, probably ain’t gonna happen). Lest we had forgotten, this featurette reveals the full extent of Camille’s Italian CV… in the same year as Tragic Ceremony she played the title character in Massimo Dallamano’s What Have You Done To Solange? and also appeared in a couple of Pasolini knock offs, Giuliano Biagetti and Pier Giorgio Ferretti’s Decameroticus and Mino Guerrini’s Decameron 2. The following year Keaton braved further occult shenanigans in Angelo Pannaccio’s Il Sesso Della Strega / Sex Of The Witch (“I don’t know if anyone has figured out what that movie was about, even to this day”) and also graced Oscar Brazzo’s Il Gatto Di Brooklyn Aspirante Detective (a vehicle for the broad “comic” talents of Franco Franchi) with her presence. In 1974 she essayed the lead role in Roberto Mauri’s Madeleine, Anatomia Di Un Incubo / Madeleine, Study Of A Nightmare before relocating Stateside and taking on the project that effectively killed her career stone dead. Intriguingly, Keaton also reveals that she failed an audition for Zefferelli and turned down the opportunity to work with Tinto Brass. It would have been interesting to hear her recollections of working with Freda but the little she has to say on this subject reinforces the received wisdom that he wasn’t overly conscientious regarding the direction of this picture. Throughout, Keaton comes across as an agreeably down-to-earth Arkansas gal and, approaching 60 at the time this material was filmed, a dead ringer for Hilary Clinton (who of course married that state’s second most celebrated native.) The other extra on offer here is a well psychedelic trailer boasting an In-A—Gadda-Da-Vida soundalike acid rock accompaniment which does not actually feature in the film and tasteful attempts to connect its action with the Manson murder spree, to which there are actually allusions in Freda’s picture.

The main feature looks surprisingly good in anamorphic 1.85:1 and comes with a mono Italian soundtrack and English subs.

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Satanic dudes come horribly unstuck (above and below) in Riccardo Freda’s Tragic Ceremonytragicc_shot3l.jpg

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