Latarnia presents CASTILIAN CRIMSON
The Spanish Horror Film





Director: Claudio Guerin Hill (film finished by Sinesio Isla)
Screenplay: Santiago Moncada
Music: Adolfo Waitzman
Cast: Renaud Verley, Viveca Lindfors, Alfredo Mayo, Maribel Martin, Nuria Gimeno, Christine Betzner
Running time: 92/106 minutes
Eastmancolor ~ Panoramico



Phil Hardy's "Encyclopedia of the Horror Film" lists a 106 minute running time for this quintessential Spanish horror film, a version one would like to see if it indeed exists. I first became aware of BELL (THE BELL OF HELL; A BELL FROM HELL) through the storied CONTINENTAL FILM REVIEW. I was a student at Syracuse University in 1973 and still remember standing in the bookstore one day gaping at the lurid black and white stills of nude women hung from pulleys like cattle awaiting the slaughter. Then there was the text which explained the director had died in a fall from the church tower which housed the titular bell. I wondered if it was an accident, suicide, or was he pushed? Of course, General Franco was in power and my overactive imagination projected a Fascist plot against the perpetrator of this obviously blasphemous cinematic outrage. I HAD to see this film!

Ten years later I finally saw the film on US cable and was thoroughly baffled. Much of the promised nudity was gone. I later acquired a Spanish language version on VHS which was still missing those remembered Continental screen shots. But this is not a sleaze film in tone or intent. Rather, key Spanish fanta-horror scenarist Santiago Moncada seemed to want to produce a local version of PSYCHO. He had already succeeded with Mario Bava's A HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON and J.A. Bardem's THE CORRUPTION OF CHRIS MILLER, both of which contained direct elements from the Hitchcock classic. Maybe it was the fact that it fell into Hill's hands which made the difference. There's a sense of moral decay, of rural folklore lurking within the swirling mists. It's probably the most "Spanish" of Spanish horror films. Bunuel was an obvious visual influence. It evokes memories of the 1933 horror-documentary, LAS HURDES (LAND WITHOUT BREAD) where the bizarre and the surreal rule the humdrum grind of sickness , poverty, geographic isolation, neglect and inbreeding. Disease is omnipresent in Hill's film also. It begins in a mental hospital/prison where our anti-hero, Juan (Renaud Verley), is seen from above as he sits waiting for his plaster mold to dry on his face. You see, he's going to create a double. In the next shots a clay bust obscures our view of him. Establishing visual replacement, substituting a mask for a face, metaphor for story, as the film's methodology, numerous opportunities arise for surrealist juxtapositions.

The plot is lurid: our psycho rides into town on his motorcycle to avenge his humilation at the hands of Aunt (Viveca Lindfors) and his taunting, young female cousins. Alfredo Mayo lurks about as a corrupt local who is in league with Juan's tormentors.

Juan is a trickster who pretends to gouge out his eyes and plays rape games with a matron who annoys him. Turning his attention to Auntie and her girls he literally reduces them into animal reticulations, feeding Aunt to the bees while the girls get introduced to his own private slaughterhouse. So, in the end I got to see my scene from CONTINENTAL. It was more bitter, less erotic and more ironic than I had bargained for.

And what about that Bell? During the opening credits it briefly replaces Juan in the montage as the central image onscreen. Ironically, again, we don't see it again after it is hoisted to the tower. At the end it will be Juan's undoing as he is trapped and hanged due to Mayo's sinister intervention. The bell will be rung by the altar boys. It will do its job.

We experience this film overwhelmed with Catholic imagery. This is only natural and appropriate in a Catholic country with a Catholic culture. Bunuel picked on that in VIRIDIANA, creating another metaphor for government by religion. The children's song heard at the end reflects back on the home movies of the children running and playing intercut with Juan setting up his newest, and most complex, crime.

Juan is a criminal who gets his due. Nonetheless, without mentioning General Franco or fascism or dictatorship the film nudges us to put Juan's crimes in some kind of context. First, it makes itself comfortable in a thriller format, then an allegorical one, finally it becomes a dark comedy of manners. The face of the replicant is smiling up at the viewer when Mayo knocks it over as it plays that demonic tune. I realize now that I was the butt of that joke that Hill set up before he died. He filmed it, I took it as a sexually obsessive reprise. As a graduate of Catholic grammar school, expelled from Catholic High School and finally returning for my very last year of college to a Jesuit institution, I was ready to be in on the ancient ironies of Spanish horror.

So, for this fan of Spanish cinefantastique, LA CAMPANA DEL INFIERNO will hold a special place in my personal mythology; it's the best of its era and the rest are the rest. It's where I started with Spanish horror and where I always end up. It literally defines what Spanish horror was and could be in all perspectives. In other words, if you haven't been there, you need to go there ASAP.

In terms of performance you won't find a better cast. Verley is cold and reptilian as the tragic avenger who smiles at death, while the late Lindfors seems to embody an entire class of decay and hypocrisy. Mirabel Martin, Christine Betzner and Nuria Gimeno will have any red blooded male, Spanish or otherwise, reeling after the first reel.

Having just completed a career spanning filmography of Santiago Moncada I remain in a state of awe at the scope and tenacity of his vision. Working in virtually every genre for four decades-jungle, horror, adventure, western, crime, you name it-with directors such as Mario Bava, J.R. Marchent, J.A. Bardem, Jose Larraz and Jess Franco he made himself into one of the most important elements in Spanish fantastic cinema history, the circuit which all generators must plug into. Only Paul Naschy equals his output and position as a Spanish creator of horror tales for the popular cinema. It's still an open question if LA CAMPANA DEL INFIERNO is Moncada's film or Hill's; it's more likely a happy accident where the right director managed to stage the right script at the right time with the right cast. It's the kind of film that could never be remade or even imitated. So, let's take a trip back to rural Spain circa 1973....

Reviewed by Robert Monell, 2002

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