Tragic Ceremony Review
The FilmIt's always a shame when a leader falls from grace and ends up being a follower. Such seems to have been the case for Riccardo Freda, who, after contributing to the Italian gothic horror movement of the 1960s with some of its most iconic films, among them the Barbara Steele vehicle The Terror of Dr. Hichcock, seemed to fall off the rails during the following decade, producing only two films, the Ireland-based giallo The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire, whose title, to paraphrase Maitland McDonagh, truly is the only interesting thing about it, and Tragic Ceremony, a late contribution to the then largely defunct gothic movement which Troy Howarth accurately describes as being a "low rent" version of Mario Bava's Lisa and the Devil. It is Tragic Ceremony that is the subject of this review - a limp, haphazard and thematically confused offering which its distributors bafflingly appear to have attempted to market as a giallo or a crime thriller, judging by its Italian title, Estratto dagli archivi segreti della polizia di una capitale europea ("Extracts from the secret archives of the police of a European capital").
Three bland playboys with loud shirts and big hair, accompanied by a ceramic-faced damsel, Jane (Camille Keaton), run into a spot of trouble when their dune buggy breaks down in the middle of nowhere during a thunderstorm. Taking refuge in a conveniently located castle, the four hippies are invited to dry off and spend the night by its owners, the Lord and Lady Alexander (Luigi Pistilli and Luciana Paluzzi), who seem particularly interested in Jane. Rather predictably, of course, the Lord and Lady are members of a grim satanic cult, and they plan to make Jane their next sacrifice...
If all of this sounds like a rousing yarn filled with demonic antics, don't be misled by the synopsis. Tragic Ceremony is about as bland and boring a film as anything produced in Italy during this period, and it's hard not to imagine that Freda's heart wasn't in it, if indeed he stayed to complete the project at all. (He had a habit off walking away from shoots mid-production, often leaving his protégés to complete his films, among them Mario Bava.) For the man who gave us some of the most visually sumptuous horror films of the 1960s, this effort is, for the most part, shockingly haphazard, flatly lit and almost incompetently lensed. There are one or two truly striking moments which do give some indication of why Freda's films from the previous decade are so revered for their visuals, the stand-out being a sequence in which a candle-bearing Camille Keaton descends a narrow staircase illuminated by brief flashes of lightning, transparent curtains blowing in the wind making its way in through open windows. These criminally brief moments, however, only serve to make the rest of the cinematography seem all the more insufferably flaccid.
While I doubt that even the most lyrical of screenplays could have saved this shoddily shot production, it's difficult to claim that the writing does it any favours. Mario Bianchi's script is as rote as Freda's direction, moving at a snail's pace and performing so many radical shifts in tone that it's unclear precisely what it wants to be. The best material, unsurprisingly, takes place in the castle at which the ceremony of the film's title is to take place, and yet not only does it take an age for the clueless hippies to get there, once they arrive, they can't wait to leave! The bulk of the running time is spent watching these layabouts lounging around, acting uppity and twiddling their thumbs. I'm a big believer in taking films such as these on their own terms rather than resorting to irritating MST3K-style wise-assery, but on this occasion I can't deny that there's much more fun to be had in cataloguing the laughable attempts to infer that the action takes place somewhere in England (pay attention to mentions of Scotland Yard and a currency referred to as "sterling", as in "You owe me fifty sterling"), when in fact the arid beaches, dry grass and Mediterranean architecture visible in virtually every shot make it clear that the entire production was shot in mainland Europe (probably Spain, given that this was an Italian-Spanish co-production).
The principle interest of the film is the presence in the cast of Camille Keaton, grand-niece of Buster Keaton and an actress who is probably most familiar to those who know of her at all as the heroine of Meir Zarchi's notorious I Spit on Your Grave. Prior to making that infamous rape-revenge slasher, Keaton spent a number of years in Italy and appeared in several genre productions, among them the sequel to Pier Paolo Pasolini's Decameron and, the film in which she made her acting debut, Massimo Dallamano's What Have You Done to Solange?, an excellent giallo in which she makes a strong impression as a traumatised, mute young woman. Keaton has an interesting presence and, in Tragic Ceremony, adopts more or less the same demeanour as in Solange, not so much acting as floating around in a daze, giving the impression that she's not all there. I suspect that this is partly due to neither the script nor Riccardo Freda giving her anything to work with, and it's hard not to suppose that the perpetually bemused frown on her face is the actress' genuine reaction to the inanities taking place around her. The rest of the cast make no real impression at all, which is a shame as, aside from the bland, no-name twentysomethings with whom Keaton spends the bulk of her screen time, there are some real stalwarts of the genre, including Luigi Pistilli of many a giallo and Luciana Paluzzi (Lisa in Massimo Dallamano's A Black Veil for Lisa).
Worth viewing for fans of Camille Keaton and completists of the Italian gothic horror movement only, Tragic Ceremony shows neither in a particularly good light and is likely bore, baffle and irritate anyone else.
This DVD release of Tragic Ceremony, from Dark Sky Films, has been a long time coming. It was originally supposed to be released over a year ago, but was held back due to rights issues. These appear to have been resolved now, but I would urge those who want a copy of this film to get their orders placed sooner rather than later, just in case any more issues turn up.
Presentation-wise, the transfer is really not all that satisfying. It's anamorphic (in an aspect ratio of 1.85:1) and progressively flagged, and looks passable once the overly murky opening credits are over, but lacks detail and has an overly contrasty look, with poor shadow detail and blown-out highlights. I initially assumed that this was simply what the film looked like, but the theatrical trailer included on the disc shows a much better tonal range, not to mention offering more detail (despite being non-anamorphic and not properly flagged for progressive scan).
In addition, I suspect that this is another title which has fallen victim to the overly tight framing that affects several of Dark Sky's releases (thanks to Jeffrey Allen Rydell for first drawing my attention to this with his helpful illustrations). While most of the film is so haphazardly shot that framing tends to be a non-issue anyway, there are a handful of instances where it is clear that there is less head room than there should be. A particularly egregious example can be found in one of the final scenes, where a doctor's forehead and ankles are unceremoniously lopped off by the framing (then again, perhaps Freda simply framed the shot badly). It wouldn't surprise me if the film turned out to have an intended ratio of 1.66:1 and was over-matted to 1.85:1 for this DVD.
On the audio front, the only track provided is an Italian 2.0 mono affair. It's clear, from the actors' lip movements, that the film was shot in English (and post-dubbed, of course). Generally, with Italian films from this period, no "original" audio track exists, so I tend not to be too picky about which language is provided. On this occasion, however, the lack of English dubbing is rather problematic, given that the film is supposed to take place in England, and the star of the show, Camille Keaton, is robbed of her speaking voice. That said, I do understand the reasoning behind it: the Italian cut of the film is dramatically different from the version exhibited in the US, so cobbling together a complete English dub would be impossible. The audio quality is fine, all things considered, although their is a fairly low and constant crackle throughout.
The optional English subtitles are clear and coherent, but rather stilted, with the impression being given that they are very literal translations of the Italian dialogue. (For example, "Even though she has a face like Dracula, the lady of the house is an educated person, generous." Can you imagine anyone actually speaking this line out loud?)
I would be lying if I said I didn't enjoy the extras more than the film itself, specifically the 13-minute featurette entitled Camille's European Adventures, which finally gets the notoriously reclusive Keaton in front of the camera to talk about her experiences making films in Italy in the early 1970s. Keaton turns out to be a charming and thoroughly enthusiastic individual with an excellent memory, both for events and names, running chronologically through her filmography and briefly recounting her memories of each movie. In addition to some amusing factoids (her overriding recollection of What Have You Done to Solange? is Massimo Dallamano shouting at her), she talks at length about how useful these early movie-making experiences were for her as a person, particularly given the confidence they helped her to gain (she was involved in a car accident some years early, leaving a fairly noticeable scar on her face, about which she used to be very self-conscious). The overriding impression Keaton gives is that she genuinely enjoyed making these films and is quite proud of the end results - including I Spit on Your Grave (her good-natured jibe at Joe Bob Briggs and his talk of phallic symbols is priceless, by the way).
Also included is the film's original Italian theatrical trailer, which attempts to present it primarily as a police procedural.
It's difficult to recommend Tragic Ceremony to all but the most dedicated collectors of European cult cinema. While labels such as Dark Sky are to be commended for salvaging so many rare and forgotten titles, this is one case where I'm not convinced that the effort was actually worth it. About the strongest case I can make for this release is that I found the Camille Keaton interview to be a delight which almost made the film itself worth slogging through. Almost.
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