Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Renato Polselli's The Reincarnation of Isabel (1973)

The narrative of The Reincarnation of Isabel (1973) is either incidental, non-existent, or totally supplanted by Renato Polselli's rendition of images. Its acting is non-naturalistic and theatrical to accompany its lighting, special effects, and compositions. As to whom this film is designed to appeal is unknown; but it is a certainty that its result is not for mass consumption. It's an arthouse film in feel, not appealing to the intellectual set, like a grindhouse exploitation flick wrapped in gold paper, served on silver sterling, and fed to few.
Isabel (Rita Calderoni) was branded a vampire and a witch by the townspeople hundreds of years ago. As she was tied to the stake and before she was set aflame, a townsperson with a mallet and sharp wooden stake impaled her heart. Her lover (Mickey Hargitay) watches as the townsfolk cheer during the lynching. After she dies, the heartbroken lover pulls her body from the stake with the help of a local (Raul Lovecchio). Cut to modern times at an ancient castle where the same three actors appear in different roles: Calderoni is Laureen, who is marrying Richard (William Darni); Hargitay is her stepfather and he has purchased the castle; and the local from history is a resident of the castle and an occultist. Isabel's corpse was never destroyed and it needs the eyes and hearts of young virgins, so the Devil can plant his seed of immortality within her and bring Isabel back to life...again.
The narrative of The Reincarnation of Isabel possibly does not start until about halfway through the film; and that's okay: the viewers still watching at that point are more than likely not to notice or are not interested in traditional narratives. Polselli, in addition to directing, wrote and edited Reincarnation, is not interested in a rendering a traditional narrative, either. From its kaleidoscopic, psychedelic opening title sequence to its modern score, it is obvious that despite its ancient castle location and backstory set in history, Polselli's Reincarnation is not a traditional Gothic horror film from its inception.
As Isabel needs the "eyes and hearts of young virgins," her corpse also needs some servants to acquire and feed these to her. Some young virgins are also required. Reincarnation has plenty of unrealistic (yet bloody) gore, as wildly-dressed, theatrical Satanists perform rituals in Isabel's name. Polselli shoots his Satanic ritual sequences in pure, unfiltered, and solid-colored light: the colors blue, green, and red flash like a marquee sign on the ritual's participants who are dressed more like superheroes than Satanists. At another point in the film these same Satanists take to the young virgins of whom there are quite a few around the castle and reveal themselves also as vampires, dressed in solid black with Dracula's capes (the legendary Count also appears in Reincarnation, adding another level to this production). When two characters have a normal, rational conversation within Reincarnation, this is the scene that stands out as odd.
Calderoni's Laureen intuitively should be focal in Reincarnation. She's a dead ringer for the dead witch and seemingly her body is going to be the modern home for Isabel. Not quite. During Laureen's engagement party, Polselli takes an innocuous sequence which would have traditionally been used by film makers to introduce characters and backstory and reveal character conflicts and uses the party as an opportunity to confuse the viewer by blending backstory and characters and character conflicts with flashbacks, subjective shots, close-ups on actors' faces (revealing each either has some link to the past, is becoming possessed by something from without, or is just plain sinister-looking and hiding a dark secret). Laureen's party becomes a psychedelic experience without a pill in sight. Muscleman Hargitay as the modern Jack Nelson begins crying at the party. Is he remembering the emotions of long ago when his lover was being killed? Does he remember the ancient incident or just feeling overwhelming emotion? Cute Steffy (Stefania Fassio, whose character is both the catalyst and the vehicle for the film's slapstick humor) sees something unusual at the party, also. She falls down quite a bit of stairs and Polselli reveals her character at the bottom as not genuinely injured with no one really caring.
Beautiful Christa (Christa Barrymore) is the focal character within Reincarnation. Polselli's camera eyes have the strongest affection for her as she becomes both the victim and the killer. Every initial shot of the actress lingers upon her, and as Reincarnation progresses, the camera becomes more intense upon her. For example, when she receives the vampire's kiss, Polselli could care less to reveal that her attacker is a vampire or to show her attacker's face at all: what is essential to Polselli is focusing on the ecstasy in Christa's face and delivering one of Reincarnation's most audacious compositions: a subjective, P.O.V. shot from the attacker at her neck. While presumably his fangs are sunk in her neck through his eyes, Polselli looks down upon Christa's chest whose blouse is now open and the attacker's hand is roaming freely. When Christa takes on her second life as a killer herself, Polselli is all the more excited, as he is able to indulge his desires further. Christa becomes a seductress upon a willing young female; and Polselli is able to render this seduction with as much flesh and theatrics and odd compositions as he can imagine.
The ending of The Reincarnation of Isabel wraps the narrative in a neat, tidy package, so neat and tidy that it would seem Polselli had no problem wrangling it. Wrangling the narrative of Reincarnation for anyone else, however, would be an exercise in futility.


Aaron said...

Hans, how you been, my man? Haven't heard from you in a while. This movie sounds interesting... vampires, Satanic rituals, and nice screen shots... I'll keep this in mind when I actually have money and can get a Netflix account again (if it's even on there). Anyway, been enjoying the reviews as awlays... I appreciate you bringing a lot of these movies to everyone's attention including mine. Hope all is well with ya.

Alex Bakshaev said...

What an insightful review of a film few have genuine affection for.

I, for one, prefer, "Isabel.." to Polselli's more accessible "Delirio Caldo".
It's indeed the oddedst blend of both trash and arthouse aesthetics.
Throughout his career Polselli seemed to commit one kamikaze act after another, making the hardest-to release films in his field and as a result confining himelf to obscurity. He's Godard of Italian trash to me.

Neil Fulwood said...

Another terrific review, Hans. I love the way you so often focus on the "feel" or the atmosphere of a film, evoking it rather than just presenting a straightforward review. This one certainly sounds like it's dripping with atmosphere. And if the screen shots are anything to go by, no shortage of eye candy! I'll definitely have to track this down.

Hans A. said...

Thnx gents for taking the time to visit and comment. It's always appreciated.

Aaron--all's well, my man. This one should be on Netflix. I hope you check it out.

Alex--I love Polselli, too. The "Godard of Italian trash," indeed. Thnx.

Neil--thnx man for your kind words. Often, I don't know how to approach a review, so I just go with the flow, so to speak. Normally, I'm not one for narratives in film. I often prefer atmosphere, imagery, and emotions.

Thnx again, fellas, for sharing your thoughts.

Ben said...

Well this one sounds like a fine evening's entertainment.

I'm not familiar with Polselli's work, but this review plus the "Godard of Italian trash" tag have me hooked - off to seek some out!