Riccardo Freda isn't a name you'll hear pop-up when horror fans are talking about Italian directors. You'll hear names like Fulci, Argento, D'Amato, and Bava during these, usually highly animated, conversations while Freda's best known contributions The Horrible Dr. Hitchcock and its sequel The Ghost don't get as much acknowledgement. Having not seen any of Freda's movies myself going into Tragic Ceremony I wasn't quite sure of what I was going to get. What I didn't expect was the odd mix of satanic cults and low-scale giallo the movie delivers.
In the opening credits we're told that this story comes "From the secret police files of a European capital" in the filmmakers attempts to blend their story with the real life Manson Family murders of 1969 (these alludements are slim at best and only pop-up again during some television news footage) and we're introduced to a group of twenty-something's who are spending the day on a boating trip belonging to the well-off Bill (Tony Isbert).
After landing on the beach they set up camp and Bill tries to woo Jane (Camille Keaton, I Spit On Your Grave) with some fancy pearls, which he tells her are supposed to be possessed - a sub-plot that's quickly tossed aside. Eventually they all get bored, perhaps of listening to their one companion who's constantly plucking at his guitar and singing, and go for a ride in Bill's dune buggy. Along the way they run out of gas and stop at a garage where the weird attendant argues with them about giving them fuel. There's also a rainstorm going on, which leads them to the foreboding mansion of Lord Alexander (Luigi Pistilli) to wait out the storm.
During the night, Jane decides to take a bath (and a subsequent nude foray holding a candlestick) and starts hearing noises elsewhere in the villa. She heads off to investigate and it's here that Freda stages the most striking shot of the movie, which is replicated on the DVD box, where Jane is walking down a stone staircase in a see-through nightgown holding a candle with the storm blowing the curtains inward and lightning striking in the background. It's quite a visual shift when a lot of the movie suffers from shaky camera disease.
Arriving in the basement, she stumbles upon a Satanic ritual staged by their host that has a creepy organ playing lady, who stares at the camera wildly numerous times, before it ends with a drug induced massacre that gives the film one of the few opportunities for Carlo Rambaldi's effects work. A head is cleaved in half, one person is decapitated, someone is thrown on the fire, and everything is filmed in a hazy, chaotic way. Not long afterwards, Jane and her cohorts find themselves on the run. They hide out in one of Bill's houses, see a report on the news about what happened, and are soon knocked-off one-by-one by an unknown assailant - thus giving Tragic Ceremony its barely there giallo moments.
Filled with slower paced gothic trappings, Tragic Ceremony just doesn't work. When it shifts gears in the final third it uneasily bumps up against the "dark and stormy night" mood of earlier only to limp towards a muddled finish set in an asylum where the screenwriters have a doctor character basically explain the entire plot, and end twist, to everyone. The movie itself is sloppily pieced together and was eventually disowned by Freda (who directed under his "Robert Hampton" pseudonym).
If you're a connoisseur of Italian cinema or lead actress Keaton, Dark Sky has delivered a lesser-known title for you to check out but if you don't qualify as a fan of either of those things there's really not much reason for you to bother. (Chris Hartley, 1/26/09)
Directed By: Robert Hampton (Riccardo Freda).
Written By: Mario Bianchi, Jose G. Maesso, Leonardo Martin.
Starring: Camille Keaton, Luciana Paluzzi, Luigi Pistilli, Giovanni Petrucci.
Dark Sky - January 29, 2008
Picture Ratio: 1.85:1 Widescreen.
Picture Quality: Dark Sky has pulled another obscure movie from the vault and given it a half-decent transfer. It slows its age with a somewhat grainy look but it's mostly clean of print damage (there are a few specks scattered throughout) and it handles the darker scenes rather well.
Extras: The film is presented in Italian with English subtitles but, to me, it almost looks like most of the cast aren't speaking it. We also get a couple of extras to the tune of a trailer and a thirteen-minute interview with star Keaton entitled "Camille's European Adventures" which briefly covers her involvement with this film as well other moments in her acting career.
Visit Dark Sky for more info.