Thursday, October 31, 2013

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #13: A Candle for the Devil

Welcome to Marta and Veronica’s guest house. It’s a tidy and very proper establishment. Please observe the rules. Kindly return to your room by 11pm. No gentlemen callers. No topless sunbathing. Seriously: heading up to the roofspace and divesting oneself of the bikini top is inadvisable with a capital don’t. 

Unfortunately, carefree English holidaymaker May (Loretta Tovar) decides to top up her tan without covering up her décolletage, whereupon sisters Marta (Aurora Bautista) and Veronica (Esperanza Roy) hustle her out. During the contretemps, May takes a tumble downstairs and goes head first through a stained glass window (they’re very devout, are Marta and Veronica). On account of the piece of glass that kills May featuring a detail of the sword that pierced Christ’s side, Marta takes it as a sign of providence and decides that any young women staying at the guest house who exhibit even the vaguest hint of wanton behaviour deserve to be killed.

The first thing to say about ‘A Candle for the Devil’ is that its title is completely meaningless. True, there’s some sinners-burning-in-hell imagery courtesy of the religious paintings May was studying (it’s hard to square May’s art/theism/social history backstory with the brief kittenish glimpse we get of her), but the specificity of a candle and its requirement on behalf of Ole Scratch suggests a Satanism aspect that’s not present. The film might as well have been called ‘A Spare Window for Christ’, ‘Don’t Go into the Spanish Guest House’, ‘Sisters of Evil’ or ‘All Wanton Harlots Must Die’ (imagine the DVD rental revenue from Hojatoleslam Sedighi and his followers!)

The second thing to say about ‘ACftD’ is that it gives name-above-the-title headliner Judy Geeson bugger all to do, even though her role is freighted with dramatic potential. You, see Geeson plays Laura Barkley – May’s sister. And during her stay at Marta and Veronica’s guest house, she becomes increasingly suspicious. Meanwhile, the twisted sisters commit further acts of homicide, either because they feel a single mother (Blanca Estrada, a.k.a. Eva Miller) isn’t capable to caring for her baby, or because another English tourist, Helen (Lone Fleming), behaves in a sexually predatory manner towards Veronica.

The dynamic should write itself: the bodies pile up, the sisters go to increasingly desperate lengths to cover up their crimes, Laura’s amateur sleuthing brings her ever closer to the truth, things come to a head, tense and violent denouement ensues. Let’s face it, you’d have to be a complete incompetent in both the script and direction department to fuck this up. Ladies and gentlemen, a big Agitation of the Mind welcome to Antonio Fos and Eugenio Martin.

Fos and Martin’s screenplay makes the fundamental mistake of keeping its heroine offscreen for large periods of time. Sure, Marta and Veronica – both of whom vacillate between spinster and cougar – make for a terrific villainous double act; but without an effective protagonist to set them against, their malfeasance soon becomes gratuitous. Moreover, attempts to root their behaviour in a psycho-sexual context makes for some stunningly unsubtle moments, such as Marta watching some boys skinny-dipping and then running through a briar patch in an ad hoc act of flagellation, or Veronica fucking the handyman senseless then running a world class guilt trip afterwards.

In terms of its direction, ‘ACftD’ is utilitarian without being inspired. Key moments, such as the discovery of a piece of evidence and an attack by one of the sisters immediately afterwards, are telegraphed so obviously that tension is depleted. Still, there’s a nice feeling of wonky “foreignness” – the kind of thing that Narciso Ibanez Serrador would conjure so effectively in ‘Who Can Kill a Child?’ a few years later – and Martin avoids the trap of unnecessary padding or misplaced comic relief; where, say, an Italian production would have had a couple of giallo inept coppers on the periphery, here we have a last reel lynch mob of grim-faced villagers. It’s to Martin’s credit that ‘ACftD’ is played absolutely straight … even though I can’t help wondering how marvellously the material would function as a black comedy.  

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