Tuesday, November 29, 2011

WINTER OF DISCONTENT: Seven Women for Satan

A hunting dog stares moodily into the middle distance. A man on horseback thunders across a misty field. A naked woman runs like hell. From these elements, director Michel Lemoine fashions a not particularly suspenseful three and a half minute opening sequence. Then pulls the rug. It’s a daydream, which our protagonist Count Boris Zaroff (Lemoine, starring as well as directing) snaps out of as his secretary asks him to sign some papers. The day’s business done, Zaroff drives home to his newly acquired castle, picking up attractive hitchhiker Stephanie (Maria Mancini) en route. She rather naively tells him that she’s left home for no particular destination and that no-one’s expecting her. Hands up anyone who rates Stephanie’s chances of making to the end credits alive. Anyone? Anyone?

Advertised upon its release as “the French film banned in France” (it wasn’t), ‘Seven Women for Satan’ is the English-language market retitling of ‘Les week-ends maléfiques du Comte Zaroff’. The original title makes it sound like a slab of gothic; the English moniker like a giallo. Both assumptions are way off base. With its largely plotless noodlings, the architecture porn of its soft-focus castle setting, and its dichotomous aesthetic of nudity aplenty but little actual sex, the closest point of comparison is the work of Jean Rollin.

And there are moments where Lemoine very nearly captures that Rollin feeling: a woman disappearing into a lake as billows of mist drift across the screen; a woman enraptured by her reflection, turning away from a wall of mirrors and drawing back the gauze around a four poster bed only to be confronted with herself lying there supine and seductive; a couple waltzing through a deserted stables, a small drop of blood appearing on the back of the woman’s dress, the wound soaking through the material more and more each time her partner whirls her back into frame.

There are, unfortunately, just as many moments where the hand of Jess Franco or Joe D’Amato could easily have been the guiding force. Moments of utter crassness (the African statue that comes to life – racial stereotypes ahoy!) and/or complete ineptitude (a supposedly tense moment where someone is mauled by a dog, only it’s pitifully evident that the dog is actually nuzzling them in the friendliest manner imaginable). There’s an extended scene where a victim-in-waiting tries to persuade their partner that they’ve witnessed a murder only for the evidence to disappear; it plays out like an Abbott and Costello sketch but without the comedic talent. There are also two scenes where the victims are so complicit it’s impossible to root for them, including that most frustrating of cinematic lapses of logic: a character on foot, being chased by someone in a car, who runs desperately alongside a glade of trees without it ever apparently crossing their mind that simply veering into the trees would prevent their antagonist from running them over.

The narrative suffers, too, from a wooden protagonist in the form of Lemoine’s Zaroff, a man who looks like Cliff Richard’s evil twin …

… and is imbued with all the emotional complexity of a particularly short plank. A man whose idea of a chat-up line is “Would you like some champagne to help you dream pleasantly? Or would you rather that I pour it over your body and sip it slowly as if your substance were of crystal?” (The following scene, where he wastes a perfectly good bottle of champers and doesn’t sip it so much as slurp noisily whilst contorting himself into uncomfortable looking positions, is utterly unerotic. If you’re after a sex/alcohol combo, the J&B/Silvia Dionisio’s navel set-piece from ‘Waves of Lust’ is where it’s at.)

Then we have Zaroff’s Machiavellian manservant Karl, played by the eternally creepy Howard Vernon, a man blessed with the singular ability to deliver an over-the-top performance without actually doing anything. Whether it be staring bug-eyed off camera or walking in crab-like manner from point A to point B, there was always something forced, something unnatural about Vernon. Here, he plays a character who is trying to assuage the guilt of his father for the sins he committed as Zaroff’s father’s partner-in-crime by driving Zaroff Jnr to similar psychotic excesses. The logic behind this fails me, but as the film progresses Karl discovers that Zaroff’s obsession with his dead wife Ann (Joelle Coeur) is a more destructive force than any of his machinations.

This, more than anything, is where ‘Seven Women for Satan’ goes off the rails. If it had just been about Zaroff’s grief-stricken crack-up, it could have been a minor T&A classic. The nonsensical Karl-related subplot, which resolves in a groaningly hackneyed last-minute “twist”, is as perfunctory as it is unnecessary. Oh, and as far as the title goes, I make it six women and not a single reference to Satan.

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