The Reincarnation of Isabel aka Black Magic Rites, Riti, magie nere e segrete orge nel trecento, doesn’t really follow a stringent narrative, the director instead opting for a bit of a free flow that appears to be guided by sumptuous and provocative imagery rather than anything else. But loosely we follow the case of Isabel- a woman executed for witchcraft in a particularly nasty and graphic death that appears in period themed flashbacks. These show all the details of her apparent public staking and burning at the hands of her accusers. Lover Jack Nelson looks on, screaming from the crowd, and calling for vengeance, but is unable to stop her barbaric death. Fast forward to what can be presumed to be the 1970’s- given the flamboyant dress code- where locals whisper of a witch’s curse surrounding the magnificent castle that looms over ancient ruins, blaming this for the fact that young girls have been mysteriously disappearing. What the locals don’t know is a group of Satanic vampires inhabit the castle and have been luring young virgin women in an attempt to take their hearts and eyes in order to restore their much missed Isabel to life. When a bunch of newcomers, a modern day Jack Nelson and step-daughter Laureen buy part of the castle, strange forces erupt at the house warming reception; awakening the souls of Isabel, Jack Nelson, and all the others associated with the execution, inside of the bodies of their modern day counterparts.
Director Renato Polselli was a fascinating director. Even when he first started out in his early features, The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960) is a perfect example, the filmmaker was altering the margins of standard genre tropes to produce his own brand of memorable and offbeat gothic horror. Ballerina, although a piece governed by the constraints of its time, was something of an oddity- demonstrated in a highly provocative ballet jazz dance scene (if you haven’t checked this out, it comes highly recommended). By the time Polselli arrived in the seventies a lot of the strict censorship walls were starting to break down. Now free to go all out the director made two stand out features, this and his bonkers giallo the aptly named Delirium aka Delirio Caldo (1973). I always seem to be throwing the word ‘underrated’ around to support some of the films I choose to review, and without wanting to take any power away from the word through overuse here is another perfect case. Despite demonstrating a strong flair for his subject matter- not to mention an eye to die for behind the lens when it came to establishing mood in his work- Polselli is a director that hardly ever gets brought up in common discussion surrounding top Euro horror.
Polselli assembles a familiar team, for his cast we have Mickey “I am the Crimson Executioner” Hargitay (Bloody Pit of Horror 1965), who also appeared in Polselli’s equally warped and wonderful Delirium. Hargitay takes on a strong lead role, stoical and righteous at times, he turns out the OTT dramatics for his period scenes which are fun to watch on that basis. Rita Calderoni as Isabel/Laureen is another actress that had previously worked with the director on Delirium as well as appearing in Luigi Batzella’s gothic flavoured sleaze-fest Nude for Satan (1974). Calderoni makes an able lead, wide-eyed enough to convey a number of fear faces convincingly and not shy around the camera either for her naked ‘dead witch on the altar scenes’ and lengthy staking/burning scenes. Slightly too passive as she has a sharp stick hammered repeatedly into her breast bone and taking quite a long time to expire, Calderoni’s performance is interesting, to say the least. There is quite a large cast involved, everyone playing into their parts adequately, the nefarious are nefarious, the innocent just that, the sexually liberated ladies ready to do their bit, but special mention has to go to Stefania Fassio as Steffy; in a role that appears to be from an entirely different film (a sex comedy). Fassio provides some strange slapstick comedy flair in her performance of a neurotic overwrought young virgin. The scene in which Steffy pops her cherry in a mismatched threesome, including her female friend Vivica and the gimpy facial tic guy from down the hall, are completely out of place; yet somehow they seem to belong there all the same. The fact that the entire scene plays out to rag-time piano music just makes it even better.
In mixing a number of themes- including vampirism, satanism and witchcraft- Poselli is able to mine both a classical gothic vain while instilling his piece with a strong seventies Euro-trash vibe. The production is slick, especially in the artful composition and innovative use of editing and mood lighting. The result of which is a technically brilliant piece that transcends its position as a lesser known Italian B-flick.
Now I am of the persuasion if you are going to go down the Satan route, then at least invest in some good old T&A in with the blasphemy- there is no need to go tip-toeing around the subject matter. I know in the case of classic films this wasn’t an option, but by the time this juicy little number was made sex and violence had become an almost compulsory necessity for horror, in Europe especially- which in my opinion was all of the greater good. Polselli, thankfully, never fails to deliver on that score with this film. Although the underpinning story is a little out there, what he misses in tight narrative he more than makes up for in mind-blowing visual quality. But it isn’t just this that makes it special, The Reincarnation of Isabel is a film that carries a strong pulsating energy, beating rhythmically at its core a heartbeat that taps out its own tune and one that proves to be strangely hypnotic from its very first note. The film might not make complete sense, but it doesn’t seem to matter when you are left gaped mouthed at what is unfolding on the screen. Garish mood lighting- greens, reds, fuchsia- tinted fogs, luxurious settings, jaw dropping mountain scenery and one of the most spectacular castle locations to ever appear in a Euro-horror, make something of a lurid oil painting come to life on screen. Otherworldly, delirious, fascinating and alluring, The Reincarnation of Isabel is pretty impressive to say the least.
When you put this strong visual quality together with the accompanying soundscape (Gianfranco Reverberi and Romolo Forlai), you have something of a symphony in derangement- the sex and violence accompanied by a strong pulsating score that encompasses aspects like Gregorian chanting played backwards on a loop, the tribal beating of drums, and psychedelic prog rock infused tunes embossed with samples of the wails of a woman caught in the throes of sexual ecstasy. All this adds to make something that feels like a sexed up Satanic fever dream packed full of flesh and erotic symbolism. Furious jump cut editing (Polselli acted as editor on the piece) that works in unison with the soundtrack and the flicking through different close-ups to join past and present that occur on the beat, also add to assert the beguiling hallucinatory aspect of this magnificent film.
Because the film is so heavily artistic somehow the silly little details just aid to make the piece, further fuelling the weirdness that makes it so enjoyable. While the over the top performances carry a certain camp charm that all adds to that feeling you have something larger than life, and the odd comedy moments enhance the eccentric edge. As a result Polselli crafts something incomparable in terms of oddness and turns out a damn fine piece of LSD flavoured Satanic Panic/ Vampire /Witch horror in the process.
Sexy and delirious The Reincarnation of Isabel is a visually stunning piece of Satanic Horror that will appeal to all lovers of the kind of Euro-cult film that mixes a heavy dose of psychedelic weirdness in with its sex and violence.