Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Jess Franco's La Mansion de los Muertos Viventes (The Mansion of the Living Dead) (1982)

"Damn you and bless you. Bless you and damn you. May your sins never be forgiven."
Jess Franco does not like the films of George Romero, which he finds "primitive," and he finds the idea of the living dead, as reanimated corpses without rational thought, "silly." Franco does like, however, Amando de Ossorio's La noche del terror ciego (Tombs of the Blind Dead) (1971), which he thought was creative and had a great atmosphere, and Franco's 1982 Spanish production, La Mansion de los Muertos Viventes, is certainly inspired by de Ossorio's essential Euro-cult horror film. "The living dead of this film," Franco relates, "are people who were dead, but in some ways, they're still alive." With La Mansion de los Muertos Viventes, Franco prefers a depiction of a literal living dead: people who are existing yet dead inside (soulless) and unable to feel genuine pleasure in life (or life), condemned to commit acts of violence in the service of another. Candy (Lina Romay), Mabel (Mabel Escaño), Lea (Mari Carmen Nieto), and Caty (Elisa Vela) are topless dancers from Munich who come to a resort hotel in Gran Canaria for a vacation. The hotel appears expansive yet deserted. "Maybe they're all at the beach," says one. They encounter the hotel's manager, Carlos (Robert Foster), who gives the four two rooms. The four split into couples; and after Candy makes love to her roommate, Candy goes to sleep. Her roommate decides to take an evening stroll with her camera, and under a sheet of fierce wind, she encounters a quiet convent. The convent's inhabitants are a brotherhood of cursed priests. Save some of the anonymous hooded priests, La Mansion has only seven characters (Albino Graziani and Eva León appear as eccentric and standout characters), and they are the sole people who inhabit La Mansion. It's a lonely and secluded film with a strong presence of atmospheric horror with some intense violence combined with some seriously playful sex and nudity: La Mansion is an odd mix of elements from seemingly two different films; yet this clashing creates a phenomenal disorienting and uniquely Franco effect. The sexual situations are joking, uninhibited, and come from a liberated culture in Spain. "For Spanish cinema it was a boom," says leading woman, Lina Romay. "There had been a complete opening. From not being able to to show even a breast, we had moved to where almost everything was allowed." (A more detailed discussion of sex in Spanish culture and cinema during this time is included in my review of El Sexo here.) Franco paints his four actresses as fun and thrill-seeking topless dancers who not only enjoy taking their clothes off but feel completely comfortable in the nude. Their openness feels celebratory, and the actresses' energy is infectious. Franco takes the opportunity when the four actresses as friends are split into two rooms as couples to reveal each pairing as exactly that--a couple in a romantic relationship, ready to reveal all to whomever is watching. These characters, like the culture, no longer has to hide behind closed doors with their sexuality. The sex scenes are comedic and light and create an overall sense of fun. Not all is light, however, in La Mansion. One of the more provocative relationships within the film is with Foster's Carlos and his prisoner, Eva Leon as Olivia. Olivia is bound in "the best hotel room" to her bed with a chained dog collar. Carlos brings her food but puts her tray just out of reach in order to torture her. Even more bizarre are Olivia's reactions to Carlos's behavior: it's a love/hate relationship with Olivia always attempting to seduce Carlos when he enters, despite his degrading words to her, and then her immediate resentment when he leaves. Leon's Olivia tells Romay's Candy the origins of the relationship, and it's an odd tale. This story is tied into Carlos's character and his relationship with the brotherhood at the convent. The best scenes of La Mansion come with the goings on at the convent. The ritualistic acts of violence by the priests are amazingly effective and well-written. Their prayers are as haunting and disturbing as are their acts of violence. The convent and its inhabitants feel ancient and from another world. Franco, during his interview included on the Severin DVD of La Mansion, speaks of the convent (a genuine location near Las Palmas in Gran Canaria) and tells of its fantastic atmosphere. The strong wind in this location, Franco continues, cuts the island in half and permeates the landscape. Franco notes how the ringing of the convent bell by the wind is pervasive in the area. The lonely convent feels trapped by the wind in its location. Franco is able to channel this unique atmosphere with his photography. He is able to make the convent other-worldly and take the secluded area and create a fantastic atmosphere of dread (and quite successful also at creating an atmosphere of dark seclusion at the resort hotel despite the comedic goings on.)The final act of La Mansion is dark, both literally and thematically. The mystery with Foster's Carlos is revealed as Romay's Candy delves deeper into the area's secrets. The playfulness of the first two acts dissolves and its absence intensifies the third. La Mansion de los Muertos Viventes is a great Franco film: it's another Franco experimental work, seemingly shot spontaneously, yet quite successful in its final result. Robert Foster really stands out and gives one of the best performances that I've seen from him. Franco also deserves a lot of praise for this work here. It was only after the third or fourth time that I had viewed La Mansion that I had realized that Franco had used this location before. Juan Soler Cozar's photography was able to transform the location to fit the atmosphere, and Franco's compositions were fantastic. The film is filled with myriad beautiful wide shots, emphasizing the seclusion, loneliness, and dread of the location. All quotes and remarks from Franco and Romay and objective facts about the production are taken from their interviews included on the Severin DVD release of the film. Buy this essential purchase here.


The Film Connoisseur said...

Sounds like a winner, I will be checking this one out at some point, thanks for the awesome and informative review.

Mr.LargePackage said...

Great review, Hans. Instead of cursed priests, why don't you do a review of sexy nuns in a convent...you already did that. And that is large and in charge.