Saturday, June 27, 2015

La cruz del diablo (The Cross of the Devil) (1974)

Alfred Dawson (Ramiro Oliveros) is a writer who is being plagued by nightmares of a young woman (Emma Cohen) beckoning for his help as she is being attacked by a group of Templar knights.  Dawson does not know if the dreams are a premonition or the result of his now regular hashish use.  Maria (Carmen Sevilla) loves Dawson very much but she does not believe that he truly loves her.  Dawson receives a letter from his sister, Justine (Mónica Randall), from Spain, detailing her fear that her husband’s drinking has become violent.  She desperately wants Dawson to visit her.  Unbeknownst to Dawson and to her husband, Enrique (Eduardo Fajardo), Justine has been making the beast with two backs with her husband’s secretary, Cesar (Adolfo Marsillach).  She calls off the affair; and upon arrival in Spain, Dawson learns that Justine has been murdered.  Her corpse was found at an old monastery which houses the Cross of the Devil.  It is a region loathed by all that live near it.  A suspect has been captured and is sitting in jail; but Dawson believes there is more to her murder.  The answer lies in the fearful region in the mountains where on All Saints Day it is rumored the knights Templar rise from the grave.
La cruz del diablo (The Cross of the Devil) (1974) pales in comparison to Amando de Ossorio’s Tombs of the Blind Dead (1972), the quintessential horror film about the Templar knights (also a quintessential European cult horror film).  La cruz is sluggishly paced and extremely talky.  The film only really starts cooking in the final act when Dawson has convinced Cesar and Enrique to accompany him to the old monastery on Hallows’ Eve.  Even during the final act, sequences, like the swordfight confrontation with the Templars, are haphazard and poor.  The director, John Gilling, helmed some interesting flicks prior to La cruz such as Hammer films, The Plague of the Zombies (1966) and The Mummy’s Shroud (1967).  The pacing and atmosphere of La cruz had the potential to be adeptly handled by Gilling.  Here’s an example:  Dawson, Maria, Cesar, and Enrique stop at an inn en route to the monastery.  The inn is run by Ignacio (Fernando Sancho) and young Ines (Silvia Vivó).  Ines gives bedroom eyes to Dawson while serving dinner.  After most have retired to bed, Dawson confronts Ines and asks if she knows anything about the murder of his sister.  As an inducement, Dawson offers her a ruby ring for her information.  She agrees to tell him what she knows in her room later.  Ines attempts to seduce Dawson but he holds steadfast and demands to hear her story.
She says she saw the murder but cannot identify the assassin.  Dawson demands that she accompany him to the monastery that very evening, although it is late.  The couple are halted in their journey when Dawson has a vision of Justine being chased by Templars.  Back at the inn, Ines is murdered in her bed, wearing the ruby ring that Dawson gave her.  Not only does this lengthy, mechanical sequence pad the running time of the film, but it also shows the missed opportunities by the crew of La cruz:  there is nothing sexy about Ines’s seduction scene; Dawson’s vision of Justine is mere seconds and wholly uninteresting on a visual level; and finally, Ines’s murder serves only as a denouement for the final act.  The execution of the murder, like Dawson’s vision of Justine, lacks any pizazz or fervor.  The cardinal sin committed in La cruz is the underutilization of both Sevilla and Cohen, two of the finest actresses working in Spain at the time.  To have cast them and not made them focal was a serious error in judgment.  Sevilla’s character has little dramatic weight, and Cohen, like Sevilla, has precious little screen time.
Successful films have multiple parents, and failures are orphans.  I will conclude this review with three quotes from Paul Naschy, the credited co-screenwriter of La cruz del Diablo with Juan José Porto.  I will list them in order of their brevity as Naschy echoes the same sentiments in all three:

“I had a project some time ago in which I attempted to bring the legends of Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer to the screen, but this project was ruined by both Juan José Porto and an English director, John Gilling, who didn’t know enough about them to be able to rise to the occasion.  They cheated me and took over full control of the script just because I had signed a contract which read as though they had acquired it outright.  They changed everything, and the result was La cruz del Diablo which had little to do with what I originally envisioned.  The film was a complete fiasco, which is a pity because it could have been a great opportunity for doing a genuinely Spanish horror film.”  (Videooze.  Number 6/7.  Fall 1994.  Ed. Bob Sargent.  Alexandria, VA.  p. 17.)
“The marvelous idea occurred to me of bringing the legends of Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer to the screen.  Becquer represented to me the best poet in Spanish history, and furthermore, they were wonderful Spanish tales of terror.  I chose three legends:  ‘La Cruz del Diablo,’ El Monte de las Animas,’ and ‘Maese Pérez, el Organista,’ and I wrote a very complicated script.  The actors I had in mind for the film were Peter Cushing, Samantha Eggar, Barbara Steele and James Franciscus; I had already contacted some of them, and they were willing to do the film.  When Enrique Herreros (an associate of Juan José Porto) came to see me, he told me that in order for him to be able to move ahead with the picture, he needed to have a contract in which I yielded the script to him.  After some doubts, I signed the script over to him, which immediately left me on the outside.  John Gilling then threw me off the film, and so I was left without a script, without a role, and without a film.  I brought a lawsuit against them and won two things: 1) that they would pay me for the script, and 2) that my name would appear in the credits.  The latter I regretted since they destroyed the script.
“The film, unfortunately, is one of my major frustrations.  Even today I would give anything to be able to bring Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer to the screen, and it’s possible that I may attempt to do so.”  (Videooze.  Number 6/7.  Fall 1994.  Ed. Bob Sargent.  Alexandria, VA. pp. 30-31.)
“In 1974 I suffered one of the most traumatic and depressing experiences of my career.  I had always loved writer Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer’s Leyendas and I came up with the idea of making a totally indigenous horror fantasy movie by adapting some of Bécquer’s works for the big screen.  The tales I chose were El miserere, El monte de las ánimas and La cruz del diablo.  I set to work and wrote a script which took me a long time and a lot of effort.  At last I was satisfied and offered it to John Gilling, a workmanlike director who could lay claim to the considerable prestige of having worked for Hammer films.  Gilling, who was then living in Spain, was delighted with it and I started to get in touch with actors of the stature of Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Herbert Lom and James Franciscus and a number of first-rate Spanish actors.

“Everything was coming up roses, and it seemed that this was going to be a major motion picture.  But, alas, I went to my close friend, my brother Juan José Porto and offered to let him have a hand in the project.  He accepted the offer enthusiastically and soon he was telling me about Quique Herreros, Jr., a man with great prestige in the film business.  Without a doubt he was the man who could bring it all together for us by having his company Bulnes Films produce the movie and then making a deal with one of the top distributors.  I knew that Quique was the son of the great artist, painter and talent scout Enrique Herreros. 
“I was in Barcelona and the project was underway when Quique turned up and asked me to sign a contract for the screenplay with Bulnes, as if the company had already bought it and owned the rights.  This was indispensable in order to get things moving since we didn’t have any funding.  I was suspicious, but then the fellow, in an extravagant display of theatricality, went down on his knees—much to the amazement of the customers of the café where our meeting was taking place—and with outstretched arms swore his total allegiance to me.  And I, like a prize idiot, went ahead and signed.
“I finished my work in Barcelona and went off to the Stiges festival feeling quite confident.  One fine day Juan José Porto turned up in the beautiful Catalonian city and told me that John Gilling had broken his ankle and that shooting would be held up.  He also mentioned that the producers had made a few small changes in the cast, but that everything was going ahead.
“Some time later I returned to Madrid.  By pure chance I happened to buy the magazine Triunfo and imagine my surprise on seeing three color pages about the making of La cruz del diablo (The Devil’s Cross, 1974).  My name was nowhere to be seen in the credits and Gilling was now claiming that he didn’t consider me as a star of the genre.
“I managed to get hold of Porto, a smarmy devil who could have sold ice to Eskimos, and he managed to convince me that he too had been an innocent victim of the underhand machinations of the treacherous Quique.  I felt humiliated, cheated and miserably deceived.  I had been stripped of my role, my script and, worst of all, my self esteem.
“I hired a lawyer and got Herreros to pay me 100,000 pesetas and to include my name in the credits—below Porto’s, of course.  I’ll always regret getting a billing on this picture because after seeing the film I came out of the cinema feeling ashamed: They had ruined the script and Gilling’s direction was deplorable.  La cruz del diablo will always hang like a weight around my neck, even though I had nothing to do with the end result.”  (Naschy, Paul.  Memoirs of a Wolfman.   Midnight Marquee Press.  Baltimore Maryland.  2000:  pp.127-128.)

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