Friday, January 20, 2012

The House of the Seven Graves (1982): or Disco in the Dovecote

I admit I wasn't expecting much from The House of the Seven Graves (La Casa de las Siete Tumbas, dir. Pedro Stocki). And at first, I seemed to be getting what I was expecting. However, as the movie wore on, what started out as a standard flick about possibly supernatural childhood trauma turned into an eerie, dark fairy tale about witches in the woods, haunted wells, and the destructive tensions between lovers and friends. Perhaps that doesn't entirely excuse some of the film's narrative and technical shortcomings, but it did make for an entertaining and somewhat pleasing pelicula from our friends from way way south of the border.

Somewhere in rural Argentina, besties Clara and Cecilia make their way through an idyllic, thoroughly normal childhood. They ride their bikes, braid each others' hair, and play the innocent juvenile games of an age before Internets, XBoxes and lipstick parties. This all changes, however, when down by the train tracks an old hobo entertains them with the legend of a witch who lives nearby, who has a penchant for luring young 'uns to her house, draining their blood, tossing their lower halves down a well and shoving their disembodied heads into a huge, haunted dovecote* on her estate grounds. With nothing better to do, adventurous Cecilia drags timid Clara to the house in question and dares her to go into a workshed, only to abandon her friend once the dusty door clatters shut. If you're thinking this is a recipe for life-long psychosexual trauma, you've clearly been to Argentina before.

*Note to the Vicarage Architetural Corps: we need a haunted dovecote. STAT.


So THAT's what it sounds like! Thanks, your Purpleness!

Jump-cut twenty years into the future: somehow the girls have made it to adulthood, and even more amazingly have remained close friends. Clara is now a reclusive piano teacher whose much-older husband Roberto is always away on business, and Cecilia a hot-to-trot maneater on the verge of settling down with hunky hombre Armando. Shouting over the noise of Clara's time-bending hallucinations and flashback-filled fucktuppery, Cecilia tells her friend she's taking a trip back to their old home town with her fiance, for...some reason or other. Clara wishes her friend well and sees her out the door, anxious to get back to playing plaintive piano pieces and stomping her bare feet to ribbons on her glass-framed wedding portraits. As one does.

Tootsies of the Damned

Meanwhile, out in the big scary world, Cecilia meets up with Armando in Buenas Aires just as he's finishing a tennis match against a much younger, fitter chica. Laughing off his intramural activities, Cecilia hustles him into the car and away they go! Soon they're deep into the Argentinian countryside, where Armando proves bafflingly difficult to keep on task; spying an overgrown gravel path leading away from the main throughway, Armando immediately slams on the brakes and hits the turn signal. Questioned by his lover, he shrugs and says, "I've always liked dirt roads!", as if that explains everything, and thus sets them on a collision course with destiny and a suspiciously massive dovecote.

Yes, of COURSE it's the old witch's house, complete with said dovecote, a wailing well, and six well-tended graves in the front yard. Not put off AT ALL, Armando asks directions from a creepy old groundskeeper bearing a canvas bag full of yowling cats. Unhelpfully, the man asks Armando for the loan of a few cups of petrol, which he then uses to set the bag on fire! (Editor's note: what in the ACTUAL FUCK?) Turns out the lady of the house really hates cats, and it falls to Groundskeeper Willie--er, Ruperto--to get rid of them via fiery CATaclysm.

"Call the ASPCA, NOW!"

Yes, it's CATastrophic. But really the PURRrect way to...oh, shut up.

Still bravely trying to get directions, Armando is interrupted by a horrible scream from one of the upper floors of the house. "Leave! Leave!" shouts the cackling, dare I say witchy voice. "Because here there is no way out!"

"Can we spend the night here?" asks Armando, the Man Without Brains.

Here the movie veers very strongly into horror-laced fairy tale territory. Their hostess the Witch says cryptic things before locking them in the Murder In the Dark suite, where rats the size of guinea pigs watch them make out and Cecilia cries hysterically about someone hiding under the bed. Armando is unsympathetic, alternately slapping the hell out of and trying to get busy with Cecilia. We get lots of eerie shots of dark woods, that huge and increasingly sinister dovecote, and the haunted well, while somewhere in the house the Witch soliloquizes to her ward, a Pig-Slopping Retard girl, about how all men are pigs and cats are all traitors. It doesn't make much sense, but it does manage to create a respectable feeling of oddness and unease.

Sure, Armando could be a little rough, but he was the only one who loved Cecilia enough to cut her back hair for her.

Meanwhile, back in the city, Clara seems psychically linked with the occurrences at the house, calling out to her friend that she will never escape while making confetti out of her own photo albums. (She also takes a bath or two, showing off a surprisingly hot bod for a reclusive looney.) She hears voices, and the hallucinations continue. Director Pedro Stocki again shows a sure hand, with off-kilter angles and sinister lighting that purposefully (and meaningfully) recall Polanski's Repulsion.

As the flick rambled on, I began to get a strange feeling that here was a movie that was actually a lot better than it had at first seemed. Though early on we got some truly bad cinematography and editing, Stocki seems to find his groove, gaining confidence and skill as the movie barrels forward. Strange happenings at the house continue, as Cecilia falls under the witch's man-hating spell and Armando begins to plot his lover's death with Ruperto the Cat Scorcher (for no reason I caught). Skulls show up in the dovceote, creepy dolls float by in the nearby river, shadowy horsemen prevent our lovers from escaping, and creepy noises emanate from the well. All this is interspersed with flashbacks to their childhood, Clara's escalating psychosis back in her apartment, and a disturbing pig-slopping scene in which the retard girl gets intimate with a pile of mud.

Likes it Dirty

Again, it doesn't make much sense, but I found it nearly impossible to look away.

La Casa de Las Siete Tumbas started out inept, but through force of strangeness and eventual skill snuck up on me and pulled me into the bushes of its narrative. By the time we get the explanation for all the weirdness--which might not surprise aficianados of this kind of thing, but nonetheless was well-executed--I had a well-entertained smile on my face. And as you know, parishioners, that's really all I ask for.
2 thumbs.

A few more images from The House of the Seven Graves (1982): 

Toys now, therapy bills later


Room for One More

Sensing Clara's distress, Glycerin Man rushes to her rescue.


"Wanna buy a knife?"

One man's slop is another man's forearm.

"Next time, let's not coordinate our hats, okay guys? It's weird."

"And my heart...will go OOOOOOOON!"


crispy said...

this looks fantastic - any idea where the best place to find a copy online is?

JamiSings said...

You know, in that screen capture, Glycerin Man looks an awful lot like one of those porcelain Elvis busts - the ones with him in one of his flashy 70s suits kind of leaning to the side.

I tried to use Google images to find the one I'm thinking of. A lot of people are obsessed with making ones of Elvis as a skeleton.

Samuel Wilson said...

Happy new year, Vic! I suppose lots of aspiring moviemakers have cool ideas but aren't sure how to set them up, so a slow start is neither very surprising nor much of a mark against a movie as long as you can hold out until it gets entertaining. As always, you make this one sound like fun.

Verification word is "inglis," as if Blogger is trying to tell me something in a stereotyped foreign way....

Dan Cooper said...

Beautifully written review. You really deserve to get paid to do this and I'm not even being sarcastic, believe it or not. I lolled numerous times!

Dan Cooper said...

Beautifully written review.You actually deserve to get paid to do this. I lolled several times.

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