“Don’t try to understand it.” This advice arrives late in Black Magic Rites, doubtless far too late for the benefit of most viewers—because, when it comes to virtually every aspect of the moviemaking process, Renato Polselli’s film is utterly incomprehensible. What little story there is turns up in fits and starts, often delivered in a supposedly helpful, but more often befuddling, expository dump. Actors frenziedly over-emote like silent-film comedians. The editing is slapdash and hyperbolically kinetic, seeming at times like a barely competent parody of Nicolas Roeg’s psychedelic crosscutting. The post-synch dubbing occasionally comes close to matching lip movement. On the plus side, those hallucinatory cuts are matched by washes of garishly colored gel lights, lending the film a positively psychotronic aspect that, along with its wall-to-wall nudity, rewards at least a modicum of attentiveness. For all the head-scratching Black Magic Rites‘s questionable competence provokes, it also provides a smattering of striking imagery; in other words, just the sort of thing the epithet “Eurotrash” was coined to denote.
Black Magic Rites opens with a protracted human sacrifice that seems to unfold in real time, as though this blood-soaked chiller were dedicated to some misguided notion of documentary verisimilitude. (Incidentally, this won’t be the last scene to seemingly go on forever.) Purple-robed participants in the ritual slaughter remove a nude girl’s heart, wring its blood into a chalice, and proceed to imbibe. The hierophant splashes some of the scarlet sacrament on Great Mistress Isabella, a gaunt, impassive (not to mention topless) figure chained to a niche in the wall who sports a gaping wound in her chest. Eventually, of course, there will be some smattering of backstory to explain who she is, and how she got that way. Mostly this comes out during an excruciatingly extended flashback to the 14th century that shows Isabella’s torture and execution for supposed witchcraft. The upshot of which is that her lover vows revenge, sells his soul to the devil, and turns out to be Count Dracula. How’s that for contrivance-free screenwriting?
The present tense of the so-called plot involves Jack Nelson (Mickey Hargitay) and his niece, Laureen (Rita Calderoni), who bears an uncanny resemblance to Isabella. In fact, everyone who shows up at Nelson’s newly acquired (and reputedly haunted) castle for Laureen’s engagement party is the spitting image of someone who took part in Isabella’s execution. Laureen’s legion of luscious lady friends provides the requisite eye candy. Also on hand: a scarred major domo, Gerg (Marcello Bonini Olas), and a handlebar-mustachioed occultist (Raul Lovecchio), who for some reason occupies a wing of Nelson’s castle, available for portentous announcements and ominous scowling. Because the Satanists require virgins for their sacrificial offerings, only flighty Steffy (Stefania Fassio) and her pal Viveca, occupied with their ragtime-scored threesome with squinty, twitchy Rochy, escape the eventual massacre. To Polselli’s credit, he begins the “Was it all a dream?” coda with a fine example of mise-en-abyme that captures an awakening Laureen in an infinitude of mirrored reflections, only to conclusively flub it with an act of supremely unfunny slapstick.
Ultimately, what we’re faced with is yet another Italian gothic horror extravaganza about the infringement on the present by the blood-spattered past. In this, as well as in its narrative confusion between witchcraft and vampirism, Polselli’s film hearkens back to Mario Bava’s vastly superior Black Sunday, which singlehandedly established the template for this sort of genre fare. Polselli’s contribution, if indeed it can be called that, consists in his resolutely overblown visual anti-style, trendy early-‘70s trappings, and unhesitating embrace of gratuitously ubiquitous nudity. If this sounds like your sanguineous cup of tea, then, by all means, take the man’s advice: Don’t try to understand it. Just let the spectacle wash over you.
You know you're in for some crazily vivid visuals when a film's credits play over a swirling kaleidoscope of psychedelic colors. Cinematographer Ugo Brunelli wasn't afraid to lay on those gel lights with a trowel, often in stark contrast to the profoundly black backgrounds. The print that Kino and Redemption Films remastered for this Blu-ray release still shows its age with plenty of speckles and splotches, but colors are vibrant, clarity and fine detail are usually strongly rendered, and black levels are strong and true. The lossless Italian track doesn't fare as well: Some strong hiss crops up now and then, sound effects register to varying degrees, and the wildly eclectic soundtrack doesn't always stand out.
There's a theatrical trailer (in Italian without subtitles), as well as trailers for other Redemption titles.
For good or ill, Black Magic Rites just might put a spell on you. Kino's newly minted Blu-ray package presents this cult film mainstay in its best (gel-flooded) light yet.