I am forever trying to play catch up with foreign horror; France and Spain are two particular regions that give me foggy peepers, so I was delighted to come across the co-produced Bell from Hell (1973) - arthouse meets grindhouse in this fascinating pantsing of the bourgeois through the eyes of a madman.
AKA The Bells and La Campana Del Infierno, Bell from Hell opened in early October in Spain, and saw a U.S. TV premiere long after in ’75; while not a film that many saw (or had the opportunity to see) at the time, it’s an intriguing take on revenge that posits a touch of insanity lies in all of us.
We open with a young and handsome man, John (Renaud Verley – Snails in the Head) applying a plaster mold on his own face before being released on probation from an insane asylum. Placed there by his aunt Marta (Viveca Lindfors – Creepshow) and her three scheming daughters (Maribel Martin, Nuria Gimeno, Christina von Blanc) in an effort to wrest away the inheritance from his late mother’s estate, John has already plotted out his revenge within the cold, dank walls of the asylum. When he does arrive back home, he is greeted rather icily by his aunt and cousins even though he doesn’t let on his personal distrust; instead he lures them into a false sense of inclusion, and rather perversely, seduction. (Not with his aunt; with his cousins. Don’t be gross.)
So it is for the remainder of the runtime, as we’re given little pieces of John’s plan until the final act where he puts it all into motion; and while in retrospect it’s impossible for him to set up all the pieces, it sure is fun to watch them fall. Bell from Hell goes from beautiful slow burn to blazing inferno, with a chain of events that seem inevitable yet still come across as shocking.
Perhaps this is because no one comes across as sympathetic in Bell from Hell; certainly not John, who even though betrayed, doth protest too much. (I mean, he could just take them to court.) We’re not even sure why John was sent away, or if he has mental issues; he seems clear eyed in his intentions, if not a little overzealous. Aunt Marta definitely gains no favor as she is quite cold and afraid of what she believes her nephew is capable of doing; John offers to give up everything if she’ll just let him flee the country and live his life – and she declines, knowing full well that he’ll never forgive them. The only certainty she holds onto is that a locked away John is a safe Marta.
What about his cousins, then? Frankly, they’re just as complicit as their mom; cocooned from society in a manor on the moors, bursting forth for shopping trips and little else, they are the epitome of the “haves” that director Claudio Guerin (The House of the Doves) is attempting to take down. And I say attempting; if it weren’t for the fact that John is not at all dissimilar from his family, if he was portrayed as a being worth rooting for, it would have been easier to be on his side. Contrast is essential for lampooning; however, maybe Guerin sees John in the same light as his family? If that’s the case, the grindhouse kicks in for the former (have to have that structure) while the arthouse covers the latter (narrative conflict need not necessarily apply).
Regardless of tone and intent, Guerin’s second and last feature (he perished on the last day of filming, either by falling or jumping off the titular bell) makes a stand aesthetically that is much easier to decipher; exquisitely filmed by Manuel Rojas (The Two Faces of Fear) in a very gothic mood, with swirling fog, torture dungeons, and brick-laden tombs ala Poe, it presents as elegant even as the material moves from incest to rape to cattle slaughter. (Okay, the slaughter is real, and really nasty; no amount of elegance could legitimize the acts portrayed, even if they do point to John’s motives.) So while the ideas lean toward the high minded, the content within lands upon the seedier end of the spectrum; it’s an interesting blend, an ambitious stew filled with ambiguity and base pleasures.
Lindfors is of course a commanding presence; she always exuded a regal quality even in less than hospitable roles. Her Marta offers a quiet cunning that works (for a while, anyway) against John, played with a manic stiffness by Verley, that as it turns out, is more than appropriate come the sly denouement. Speaking of which, if you’re wondering about the bell making an appearance, it plays a very large part in the ending. It turns out it may not be from hell, but it sure does point these folk in that particular direction.
Bell from Hell is available on DVD from Pathfinder Home Entertainment.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: AENIGMA (1987)