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  Blancheville Monster, The Better off dead
Year: 1964
Director: Alberto De Martino
Stars: Gérard Tichy, Leo Anchóriz, Ombretta Colli, Helga Liné, Irán Eory, Vanni Materassi, Paco Morán, Emilia Wolkowicz, Harry Winter
Genre: HorrorBuy from Amazon
Rating:  5 (from 1 vote)
Review: At a spooky castle brooding aristocrat Rodéric de Blancheville (Gérard Tichy) welcomes his lovely sister Emilie (Ombretta Colli) when she returns home with her American suitor John Taylor (Vanni Materassi) and the latter's sister Alice (Irán Eory). Since their father perished in a fire along with most of the staff, Rodéric is determined to protect Emilie from what he insists is an ancestral curse. To that end he tries to discourage Emilie's romance with John despite taking a shine to Alice. On a dark and stormy night Alice follows a mysterious wailing sound to a secret room. There she finds the new housekeeper Miss Eleanor (Helga Liné) administering medicine to a hideous monster. The disfigured wretch then escapes into the wild. Confronted by the guests, Rodéric and somber-faced family physician Dr. LaRouche (Leo Anchóriz) reluctantly reveal that the monster is the hitherto presumed-dead Count Blancheville. Driven mad by his disfigurement he intends to end the family bloodline by murdering Emily.

Italian exploitation cinema was in the midst of a Gothic horror boom when Alberto De Martino delivered The Blancheville Monster. Screened in Italy under the generic original title: Horror, the film turned a tidy profit. Yet today few Euro-horror devotees rank it alongside those landmark early works by De Martino's contemporaries: Riccardo Freda, Antonio Margheriti and especially Mario Bava (strangely Lucio Fulci did not get around to the genre until a decade and a half). In fact in later years De Martino himself categorized The Blancheville Monster as "a film of no importance." Which is a bit rich coming from the guy that inflicted The Puma Man (1980) and Miami Golem (1985) upon a defenseless world. De Martino never amassed the kind of cult following that rose around Bava, Freda or Fulci. Some critics put that down to his lack of a distinctive authorial style. Yet unlike those more gifted directors he somehow graduated to productions with bigger budgets and proper Hollywood stars (e.g. Kirk Douglas, John Cassavetes, Martin Balsam, Dorothy Malone). De Martino's horror films are a mixed bag though not without merit: e.g. The Antichrist (1974), Holocaust 2000 (1977) and particularly Blood Link (1982).

Drawing explicitly from the hugely successful cycle of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations produced by American drive-in auteur Roger Corman (as to be fair most Italian horror films did), The Blancheville Monster lifts elements from a handful of Poe's short stories. Specifically 'The Fall of the House of Usher', 'A Tale of the Ragged Mountains' and 'Some Words with a Mummy.' For his part De Martino maintained his chief inspiration was Alfred Hitchcock. Which is evident in the performance of beautiful Euro-horror staple Helga Liné clearly patterned after Judith Anderson's Oscar-nominated turn as Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca (1940). The film mixes Poe's lingering fear of a living death (an unnerving scene sees a key character entombed while pleading via voice-over that they are still alive) with a deeply Italian conceit that a mind deprived of sunshine and glorious scenery will inevitably unravel (a notion Mario Bava often cited as the reason why his films were rejected in Italy). Yet while Bava took his cue from the Brontë sisters in fashioning a landscape to reflect his protagonists' psychological torment, De Martino falls back on fruity dialogue and overstatement.

Co-written by Gianni Grimaldi and future director Bruno Corbucci, the screenplay throws subtlety out the window. It is matched by De Martino's bludgeoning direction. His camera prowls through gloomy, storm-lashed scenery savouring each thunderclap and crash-zoom and pin-pointing cheesy clichés like the voluptuous heroine in a transparent nightgown sneaking around with a candelabra, the brooding male lead venting his madness on a church organ or clawed hands scraping a window. To be honest if you love old school Gothic horror it is glorious fun though one suspects those with more contemporary tastes will find the whole thing unbearably camp. The film lacks a charismatic Vincent Price-like figure to grab its audience and too often unwisely keeps the titular monster with its aptly freaky makeup and creepy voice ("Do not resist, Emily. Abandon yourself to eternal rest") off-screen. Playing with ideas handled better in Hammer Films' Demons of the Mind (1972), the Scooby-Doo like mystery unusually juggles multiple love triangles and has trouble settling on a definitive protagonist. Initially the plot seems centred around Emily and John but it turns out to be Alice that does the detective work whilst wooed by two shifty suitors. Everything ambles along amiably if unspectacularly before bowing out with a fairly suspenseful climax.

Reviewer: Andrew Pragasam

 

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