Italy - Spain | 1972
Directed by Riccardo Freda
Camille Keaton
Luciana Paluzzi
Luigi Pistilli
| 87 Minutes | Not Rated
Format: DVD (R1 - NTSC)
Dark Sky Films
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Guest Review by Troy Howarth
A group of hippies find themselves stranded in a mysterious villa, and what they experience there affects the rest of their lives...
Basically a low rent variation on Mario Bava's ethereal masterpiece Lisa and the Devil (1972), Tragic Ceremony (or, as it is known in Italy: From the Secret Police Files of a European Capital) still has its share of charm for forgiving Euro-Cult enthusiasts. The film was directed (and subsequently disowned) by Riccardo Freda, one of the prime architects of Italian horror cinema despite his basic disinterest in the genre. Nevertheless, in the Barbara Steele vehicles The Terror of Dr. Hichcock (1962) and The Ghost (1963), he displayed a flair for atmosphere almost equal to his protégé, Bava, and made his mark as one of the country's finest directors of genre films. His real specialty, however, always remained historical epics they may be somewhat forgotten today, but pictures like The White Warrior (1959) or The Sins of Rome (1953) are marked by the director's fascination with older civilizations, and his flair for staging robust action set-pieces on a low budget helped to make them look much more expensive and grand than they really were. By the time of Tragic Ceremony, however, Freda's career was on the downslide. It would be one of only two films he would complete in the 1970s the other being the equally awkward Iguana with the Tongue of Fire (1971) before he finished his directorial career for good with 1980's regrettable Murder Obsession.
    Much of the film is staged with little care, and the director's curious propensity for staging scenes in long masters punctuated with none-too-subtle zooms will draw unfavorable comparisons to Jess Franco. It is unclear, really, whether Freda actually directed the entire film or simply started it and walked out before completion, as he was wont to do on earlier pictures. Certainly, the fact that Freda later disowned the picture is evidence enough that he wasn't happy with the final assembly, so it seems fair to assume that even if he stayed for the entire shooting, he didn't participate in the final editing. In any event, traces of Freda's visual flair surface sporadically throughout: a trippy Satanic orgy that erupts into almost comically overstated mayhem, for example, is sufficiently arresting to warrant an almost-entire reprise towards the end of the picture.
    Freda receives little assistance from his cast... or should that be the other way around? While the cast includes such fine character actors as Luigi Pistilli (Your Vice is a Locked Room & Only I Have the Key), Luciana Paluzzi (Thunderball), Pepe Calvo (Fistful of Dollars) and Paul Müller (Eugenie de Sade), they are all terribly underused. The film is basically carried by its younger, more inexperienced performers, most notably Camille Keaton (I Spit on Your Grave) and Tony Isbert. Keaton is a photogenic actress, but she doesn't do much with her admittedly half-baked characterization. She spends much of the film wandering about looking perplexed, which is perhaps an accurate portrait of her reaction to the material. Isbert is a bland actor obviously hired for his 'pretty boy' good looks, and he also fails to energize the proceedings. With such inadequate performers at the core of the film, it's not surprising that it falls considerably short of Freda's finer efforts.
    Technical credits are variable. Stelvio Cipriani contributes a fine score that ranges from good old-fashioned melodramatic barnstorming to more genteel romantic themes; the catchy main title song apparently features lyrics co-authored by Freda himself, but without the benefit of a translator, I can't testify to their poetry. The special makeup effects by Carlo Rambaldi (Alien) are surprisingly gruesome, and some of the more elaborate get-ups are very well done: a shot of a character's head being bisected by a sword is every bit as 'wet' as a similar gag Rambaldi orchestrated for Bava's Twitch of the Death Nerve, though its repetition towards the end of the film becomes unintentionally funny. The cinematography by Francisco Fraile is all over the map; some of the setups and movements evoke the classical romanticism of Freda's more deeply felt films, but some of the material looks overlit and downright ugly, again lending some credence to the theory that the director may well have bolted before the film was finished.

Dark Sky's release of Tragic Ceremony is most welcome, though it has to be noted how frustrating it is that while Freda's wide body of work (which includes some truly fine films) is so poorly represented on DVD, a lesser offering like this finally gets a satisfactory release. The film has been circulating on the gray market for years in its Spanish language variant edit, and the differences between the two cuts should be enough for fans to disregard Dark Sky's advice on the back of the box ("Throw away those fuzzy bootlegs!") and hold on to the Spanish cut for the sake of comparison.
The Spanish version was supervised by Jose G. Masseo, and the editing of the two versions is sufficiently different to reconsider Masseo as the true auteur of the Spanish cut. In addition to differences in editing, the Spanish version is also a 'clothed' variant, so Keaton fans will rejoice at the brief flashes of skin on display in the Italian version released by Dark Sky. The 1.85/16x9 transfer looks very good, though the image does seem somewhat dark. Colors are accurately rendered, but don't expect one of Freda's candy-colored gothic extravaganzas. Detail is reasonably sharp, and the framing looks correct. The Italian mono soundtrack is surprisingly punchy: Cipriani's music booms with a life of its own, and dialogue is always clear in the mix.
Extras include the Italian trailer (in rougher shape than the feature, but looking a bit better where the dark levels are concerned) and a 13-minute interview with Keaton entitled Camille's European Adventures. Keaton comes across as a down-to-earth and likable lady, and she recalls her European films somewhat sketchily, but with great fondness. Her memories of Freda are actually positive, which contrasts with many actors' testimonials of how beastly he could be on set. 2/12/08