by Allan Fish
(Spain 1944 83m) not on DVD
Aka. La Torre de los Siete Jorobados
Furniture doesn’t talk
p Luis Judez, Germán López Prieto d Edgar Neville w Edgar Neville, José Santugini novel Emilio Carrere ph Henri Barreyre, Andrés Pérez Cubero ed Sara Ontañón m José Ruiz de Azagra art Francisco Escriñá, Pierre Schild, Antonio Simont, Francisco Canet
Antonio Casal (Basilio Beltrán), Isabel de Pomés (Inés), Guillermo Marin (Doctor Sabatino), Félix de Pomés (Professor Robinson de Mantua), Julia Lajos (Madre de la ‘Bella Medusa’), Julia Pachelo (Braulia), Manolita Morán (La Bella Medusa), Antonio Riquelme (Dr Zacharias), José Franco (Napoleon’s ghost),
I don’t remember where I first heard of Edgar Neville’s cult horror item. All I know is that I’d wanted to see it for well over a decade before I finally did. It’s a film that has been described as unclassifiable, and has been seen as an influence on a whole school of Spanish language (covering Spain and Latin America) cheap horror flicks from the Coffin Joe series of José Marica Marins to the sexed-up opuses of Emilio Vieyra to the works of the infamous Jess Franco. That in itself may not seem the greatest heritage, as that lot never made what I could consider a major work between them, but they had individual visions, and so is certainly true of Neville’s film. It’s the earliest Spanish film to make the list (not counting Buñuel’s) and one of the weirdest films you are ever likely to see.
The setting is Madrid around the late 1800s. Basilio Beltrán is a young man who one day, at a casino, sees a spectre of a one-eyed man who points him towards success on the roulette table. Basilio follows the one-eyed man, who no-one else can see, and he finds out that he is Robinson de Mantua and that he is recently deceased. Officially he was recorded as a suicide, but the late gentleman is quick to tell Basilio that he was done in (“it’s an old wound, it caused my death!” he says, pointing to his neck) and enrols Basilio to help him prove it. Basilio quickly finds himself out of his depth, falling love with the deceased’s niece, meeting a strange hunchbacked doctor by the name of Sabatino and trying to enlist the helped of police when said niece, Inés, is hypnotised and kidnapped by Sabatino and taken somewhere. They follow the doctor to what proves to be a derelict ruin of a house, inside which they find, inside a chest, a ladder down into a subterranean series of tunnels, one of which leads down to an underground city, populated by hunchbacks and an old archaeologist, Mantua’s old friend Zacharias and the seemingly contended Inés, who is hypnotised again into trying to kill Basilio.
If it all sounds rather like a cheap Universal piece of the 1940s, you’d be right, expect that visually it bears very different influences. The characters move about as if in a trance, as if moving in and out of different worlds like spectres in one of Jean Cocteau’s Orphic trilogy, while Mantua’s appearance from within a mirror (more Cocteau nods) resembles a mixture of Lon Chaney and the painting by Basil Hallward in The Picture of Dorian Gray after a few too many evil doings. Then there’s the city itself, a deliberately artificial mass of strange passageways and a truly Expressionistic spiral gallery staircase like the ever decreasing circles of Danté’s hell. To this add some truly hammy performances worthy of a Tod Slaughter barnstormer of the 1930s, with a hero who reminds one uncannily of another horror blank, David Gray in Dreyer’s Vampyr, a ghost from Félix de Gomes so stilted you can’t tell whether it’s deliberate or not and even a hilarious cameo by the ghost of Napoleon, finding himself summoned from a séance by people calling up famous personages as a joke. Deep down we know it’s hardly art, but it’s impossible to cast aside. When Basilio is told that he has “an imagination outside the everyday world”, what we’re really being told is that we need to step out of reality ourselves and, so released, one can enjoy it as one might enjoy a Hall of Mirrors in a funhouse, with just a touch of Dali and Buñuel for those with eyes to see.