Dead Ringer… THE BELL FROM HELL, Reviewed

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“La Campana Del Inferno”. DVD. Pathfinder. Region 1. Unrated.

When I asked Paul Naschy about the difficulties of making genre films under the Franco dictatorship, he told me that he had encountered far more problems since the democratisation of Spain. I guess that his simple-minded paeans to the glory days of Universal horror were never going to trouble El Caudillo unduly. Other, more subversive Spanish film makers, had to consider their options. Jesus Franco left his mother country for quite a while and those who remained had to find ways to couch their social protests in somewhat oblique terms…

a-bell-from-hell1.jpgIn Claudio Guerin Hill’s “La Campana Del Infierno” (1973) we are introduced to John / Juan (Reynaud Verley), a virile, brooding youth, who’s just been released from the booby hatch his family have banged him up in after his casual attitude towards sex was taken as conclusive evidence of his “mental instability”. He seeks gainful employment in an abattoir and after a few days of slaughtering animals (cue the expected grisly killing floor footage, recalling Eloy De La Iglesias’ official “video nasty” La Semana Del Asesino (“The Killer’s Week”) aka Cannibal Man (1972), quitting with the ominous words: “I’ve learned enough”. Heading back to his home village, where he is due to appear in court on account of some minor peccadillo, John moves into his dead mother’s house and starts visiting her wheelchair-bound sister Marta (Viveca Lindefors) who is responsible for his incarceration, and her three sexually attractive daughters (Esther, the youngest of them, is played by Maribel Martin, whom Spanish horror buffs will find a familiar, pretty face from the likes of Ibanez Serrador’s La Residencia / The House That Screamed (1969) and Vincente Arranda’s The Blood Spattered Bride (La Novia Ensangrentada, 1972).

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From this promising set-up, director Guerin Hill embroiders a growing sense of unease with the slow accumulation of off-kilter detail. John reveals a penchant for inventive and cruel practical jokes, first by pretending to gouge out his own eyes (he’s something of a budding Savini) then, more subtly,  by convincing leading citizen Don Pedro (Alfredo Mayo), when he visits the Aunt’s house, that her daughters are the ghosts of three drowned girls. Their startling slow-motion, mist-enshrouded return constitutes a cinematic shock worthy of Mario Bava (TBFH writer Santiago Moncada also scripted Bava’s Hatchet For A Honeymoon, 1969). In fact the girls are very much alive and their varying degrees of sexual engagement with John add  further kinky twists to an already unhealthy situation.

One night John is riding around on his motorbike in the woods (as you do) when he happens upon Don Pedro and other purported community pillars, who’ve taken time out from their hunting trip to hassle the local hermit’s mute daughter. He arrives just in time to break up what’s threatening to become an I Spit On Your Grave type situation. From here on, anxious about John blowing the whistle on their nocturnal activities, these guys start pussy footing around him. True to form, he takes this as his opportunity to play a particularly elaborate and humiliating practical joke on Pedro. Watching John’s macabre antics, the viewer grows increasingly anxious about just how far he is prepared to go.

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Things take a turn for the decidedly nasty when he sprays bee-stimulating chemicals all over his Aunt, while she snoozes in the garden, then releases the contents of an agitated apiary in her direction. For his next trick he contrives, with varying degrees of flirtation and physical force, to tie up his comely cousins. The girls are then suspended from a mechanical rail in the home abattoir he has constructed in his mother’s basement (every home should have one!, washed down and consigned to a dissection bench. Intending to bury their remains on the cliff from which his socially ostracised mother fell to her death, John  delivers a beautiful but spooky soliloquy about their flesh becoming grass (well, sap actually) but ultimately he is unable to go through with exacting his intended vengeance via vivisection.

The girls escape and John is overpowered by outraged locals, who subject him to another perverse variation on crucifixion. A noose round his neck, John is bricked up alive in the walls of the local cathedral. He’s to be used as a counterweight for the new bell, which we saw arriving in town on the same day as him, symbolising the traditional, hypocritical  values that have dogged him, and to which he will ultimately be sacrificed. “Was I really insane?” he muses, as he waits to be tolled off… well yeah, but society’s vengeance is scarcely more balanced.

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John‘s no ding-a-ling though, having ensured that he’ll get the last laugh from beyond the grave. In a tour de force, phantasmagorical finale, Don Pedro goes over to John’s family home after seeing lights being turned on and off. He is first alarmed by the life-size mannequin of John that we saw being made in the film’s surreal opening shots, then drowned in a fish tank… at John’s ghostly hands?  The final laugh is really on the viewer…

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The joke turns very black indeed when you learn that Guerin Hill (a sort of Iberian Michael Reeves figure, who only completed one other feature, La Casa de Las Palomas / The House of the Doves in 1972), plunged to his death from the cathedral’s bell tower (above) on the final day of shooting, obliging Juan Antonio Bardem to complete the picture. Like the character of John’s mother in the film, nobody is sure if the director was pushed, fell or jumped. If he was pushed, somebody obviously took particular exception to his scathingly satirical vision of Spanish society. If he jumped, Bell Of Hell begins to look like a bleak cinematic suicide note. If he fell… well, carelessness and bad luck deprived us of a major talent.

Pathfinder have done a good (if not great… some of the darker scenes are distinctly grainy) job of bringing The Bell From Hell to disc, in a nicely framed anamorphic print. This is a particularly welcome release when you consider that TBFH hasn’t been available in the UK since the long-gone Duplivision video release, which I previously believed to be cut but is, one of our reliable sources now tells me, more complete than the disc under consideration here, despite the latter being hyped as the full enchilada.

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Extras include an OK commentary track by critic Chris Desjardins and a trailer gallery for other Pathfinder releases, including their Master Of The Flying Guillotine “ultimate edition”.. Check out the eponymous decapitator in old dude make up… Jimmy Wang Yu as the one-armed boxer… and that fakir guy with the long wobbly arms. Hm, I can feel a review of that demented chop socky masterpiece coming on…

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