If Mario Bava was the father of the modern Italian horror film, excelling in both the supernatural gothic and giallo forms, than Riccardo Freda was the Grandfather of this often maligned, underappreciated genre of sensationalism and dark beauty. While Bava's craftsmanship is now almost universally acknowledged, his mentor's ingenuity and skill is often overlooked. Yet the fact remains that Freda was really the first important Italian director to merge the conventions of the supernatural gothic and the psychologically damaged mind, marrying them with lyrical sensibility in paranoid and nihilistic visions of fem fatales and vampires, mad science and twisted souls. Mining the dark byways of the human psyche, Freda brought a penetrating sense of mixed realism and gothic imagery to modern suspense, treating unnerving sexuality and taboo topics with unprecedented mood. Dark Sky Films a champion of European rarities, helps rectify this by releasing Tragic Ceremony, a flawed yet atmospherically enticing hybrid of supernaturalism, Satanism, and the splatter film.
A story unfolding in the sporadic, jagged knife-thrusts of a fever dream, Tragic Ceremony is something of a thematic compilation of Freda's earlier efforts. Four swinging, free spirited (and horny) kids embark on a weekend of sailing, camping and gambling, going from sailing to dune buggy action. When Joe, the alienated 'rich boy,' gives attractive Jane a pearl necklace, he neglects to tell her that it once belonged to a woman thought to have been possessed by a demon. Amidst cuckolding, gambling, and suspicious asides, the foursome hit bad weather and find themselves stranded on a deserted road out of gas. Given just enough gas to reach an isolated Villa by a man who may already be dead, the teens soon find the frail skin of reality peeled away and forced to confront the worms beneath. Offered shelter by a strange couple in classic gothic fashion, the boys and girl are soon separated. A descent into nightmare ensues. The boys barely save Jane from a Satanic ceremony and flee the villa while the possessed participants slaughter one another. On the run from the police, they discover that the occult evil unleashed at the villa is stalking them, and what began as a day of enjoyment becomes a night of terror.
Merging supernatural atmosphere, gothic sensibilities, and psychological dementia with more than a creative nod to the Giallo, Tragic Ceremony is an uneven if superbly unsettling descent into surrealistic nightmare. Tragic Ceremony is not as innovative in theme or approach as Freda's best work -- which would have to include I Vampiri, The Horrible Dr. Hitchcock, and The Ghost. The movie lacks the tight narrative plotting and sheer dark beauty of these genre forming classics. Still, this psychological ghost story evokes empathy and fear through the phantasmagoria of its excess as well as the confusing orgy of its enigmatic elements. A symbiosis of personal psychosis, emotional isolation, and the occult, Freda redefines and highlights terrors of the self by mirroring them in threats from without. The story unfolds in a purposely fragmented manner, with plot points and character revelations striking at blind spots in our perception. Sense and logic are sacrificed for emotional effect and funeral opulent set-pieces, and while this typical lack of story continuity can't help but frustrate, it also, oddly enough, lends further tension to the inexplicable events. Freda displays a penchant for inventive camera movements and a sound understanding of human character. A devious harmony is achieved between explosive moments of shocking violence and introspective atmosphere, making it something of a bridge between the gothic splendours of the past and the 'splatter' films that were already overshadowing the genre.
Tragic Ceremony is treated with respect from Dark Sky, featured in an 1.85.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. Although there are moments of grain (and some print damage) near the beginning, these soon sort themselves out. Minor problems included, this is as good a print currently on DVD. The colors are bold and vibrant, painting a surreal story with supporting dream-like hues. Audio is featured in Italian language Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono with optional English subs. The subs are well written (save for an error or three), and the sound quality is consistent, lacking background interference.
Extras are informative and enthusiastic if lacking in quantity. The highlight is a featurette entitled Camille's European Adventures. Produced by Red Shirt Pictures, this set-down with Keaton is intimate and instructive, covering everything from her start in the business to her opinion of Freda. Interviewed by Art Ettinger (Ultra Violent Magazine), Keaton is lively and honest, and the topics shedding some well deserved light on her career. The only other extra is the lengthy, atmosphere drenched Trailer.
Review by William Simmons
|Released by Dark Sky Films|
|Region 1 - NTSC|
|see main review|