Warning: this review contains spoilers for both films. This is unavoidable, as their endings are of significant interest as to warrant discussion. If you have not yet seen them, I suggest skipping down to the technical section.
With the major films of the most famous giallo directors, such as Dario Argento, Mario Bava, Lucio Fulci and Sergio Martino, now either available on DVD or tied up in complicated rights issues, it is not surprising that distributors have now turned to the road less travelled and taken to releasing some of the efforts of less bankable names. March 2006 saw Blue Underground releasing work by relative unknowns such as Luigi Bazzoni and Flavio Mogherini, and back in February NoShame Films released two little-known efforts by producer turned director Luciano Ercoli in The Luciano Ercoli Death Box Set. April sees NoShame repeating the pattern with a box set dedicated to another unknown, former assistant director Emilio P. Miraglia.
Even less is known about Miraglia than Ercoli, and the fact that the DVD set dedicated to him features a bonus featurette entitled "If I Met Emilio Miraglia Today...", showcasing various collaborators speculating about what they would say to him if they ran into him in the street, suggests that he has more or less vanished off the face of the earth. Despite the fact that he is far from a household name, however, his first film, The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave, enjoyed surprising success on the grindhouse circuit in the 1970s and has become something of a cult classic, thanks in part to its obscurity and its reputation for being one of the most outlandish horror films ever to come out of the capital of outlandish horror films, Italy. Years of being restricted to grubby grey market videos and DVDs have given this film the somewhat undeserved reputation of a cult classic, but while neither it not its stablemate, The Red Queen Kills 7 Times, can boast particularly coherent or imaginative plots, they are both the work of a filmmaker with an eye for arresting visuals and a taste for the bizarre.
The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave
(La Notte Che Evelyn Uscì Dalla Tomba, 1971)
The plot of The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave is a completely nutty affair, and indeed one of the strangest scenarios ever attached to a giallo. It features more twists and turns than the streets of Venice, and as such a blow-by-blow account of what goes on would be difficult. Essentially, Lord Alan Cunningham (Antonio De Teffè, going, as usual, by the name of Anthony Steffen) is haunted by the memory of his late wife Evelyn, who died during childbirth. His mental turmoil manifests itself in a desire to seduce, torture and murder leggy redheads who resemble Evelyn, during which occasions he frequently suffers from hallucinatory visions of his wife. (Actually, it's not entirely clear that he is the one doing the murdering, and this is one of many loose threads that is never tied up.) Following the recommendation of his physician, Dr. Timberlane (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart), that he find a nice wife and settle down with her, Alan hooks up with the sultry Gladys (Marina Malfatti), has a brief session of rough-and-tumble with her, then marries her and takes her back to the family home. Gladys, however, quickly discovers that certain members of Alan's extended family resent her presence, but events take an even darker turn when she spots a red-haired woman on the premises and, shortly afterwards, Alan's various relatives begin to meet with gruesome fates. Is this nothing more than a case of everyday giallo murder mayhem, or could Evelyn have risen from the grave?
Most of that probably made absolutely no sense, and as the film progresses the plot holes become more and more obvious as it becomes increasingly reliant on this precarious premise. The nature of Alan's personality, and his culpability in the initial killings, is never adequately resolved, which is frustrating as the film wants to be a whodunit, but the fact that we have seen him whipping prostitutes, threatening them with knifes and pursuing them shortly before their deaths constantly overshadows any attempt by Miraglia to make the audience invest in the mystery. Alan is clearly nuttier than a fruitcake, so why should we seriously entertain, even for a moment, the possibility that Evelyn has returned from the dead? The final revelation of an intricate double conspiracy concocted by Alan's brother George, which involves both the seemingly innocuous Gladys and the apparently dead exotic dancer Susie (Erika Blanc), is so implausible that even the most seasoned giallo veterans will have great difficulty in suspending their disbelief.
A decent cast could have helped salvage this dodgy material - after all, how many ridiculous Ernesto Gastaldi concoctions are saved simply by having the suave George Hilton strut his stuff? - but unfortunately performers with real presence are in short supply here. Anthony Steffen's character is supposed to alternate between being a potentially murderous bastard and a smooth seducer, but he doesn't seem able to pull off either of them. Meanwhile, Marina Malfatti, who also featured in The Lady in Red Kills Seven Times but didn't really get any other leading roles, is far too glacial in both her appearance and demeanour to be sympathetic. She tended to be more successful in supporting roles which could exploit her slightly menacing frostiness (All the Colours of the Dark is probably the best example of this), but here we are all too often expected to see events from her point of view and it doesn't work. All manner of one-note personalities make up the secondary cast here, but only one of them makes any real impression: Erika Blanc. In a film where the other performers possess little if any true charisma, her insertion into the mix proves to be explosive, making a definite mark despite chalking up comparatively little screen time. Her introductory scene, in which she performs a buttock-waggling striptease from inside a coffin, is understandably the most distinguished moment in the entire affair, with many fans of cult horror who have never seen the film having heard of it. It's so bizarre, and Blanc's presence so captivating, that it has to be seen to be believed.
With (excluding Ms. Blanc) sedentary performances and a bamboozling script, what saves the film from being a disaster and indeed makes it genuinely interesting is Miraglia's direction. His compositions are artful and he puts the delapidated setting of the ornate but crumbling Cunningham manor to great effect, far more successfully than the other "gothic giallo" recently given a DVD release, Seven Deaths in the Cat's Eye. The building, the mausoleum housing Evelyn's corpse and the surrounding land become definite characters in their own right, and they are lensed with a crispness and solid use of light and shadow that belies the film's undoubtedly low budget. Miraglia manages to achieve an atmosphere unlike any other entry in the genre, combining gothic decay with a modern (1970s) aesthetic of debauchery. He would go on to achieve a similar effect in The Red Queen Kills 7 Times, but the result is more concentrated here.
The Red Queen Kills 7 Times
(La Dama Rossa Uccide Sette Volte, 1972)
Two young siblings, Kitty and Evelyn, learn from their elderly grandfather, Tobias Wildenbrück (Rudolph Schündler), of the curse affecting their family: as the legend goes, every hundred years, their ancestor the Red Queen rises from the grave and kills seven times. Several years later, Tobias suffers a fatal heart attack, but his granddaughter Franziska (Malfatti again) believes she saw a red-cloaked woman on the premises at the time of his death. A summons is sent out to his other granddaughters, but while Kitty (Barbara Bouchet) shows up, Evelyn, supposedly staying in America, is nowhere to be seen. The shifty glances and whispered conversations between Kitty and Franziska, however, suggest that Evelyn's non-appearance has a more sinister explanation, and, as the body count rises, the two women begin to wonder if the legend is indeed true and the Red Queen has embarked on yet another killing spree.
The Red Queen Kills 7 Times's storyline is considerably more complex than that of its predecessor, and it is a failing on the part of Miraglia and co-writer Fabio Pittorru that the narrative tends to get rather rather confusing. Some of this is admittedly due to the less than perfect English translation, but even in Italian it becomes a bit convoluted. A lot of the problems rest on the identities of the Wildenbrück offspring and how many of them there actually are: Marina Malfatti's character, for instance, is not featured in the opening prologue, and when she first appears it is in the capacity of what appears to be a nurse to Tobias Wildenbrück. It is not until the reading of his will, some time later, that it is revealed that she is another of his granddaughters (and, it would seem, a cousin to Kitty and Evelyn, although this is never made clear). The fact that the film's major plot twist centres around a case of mistaken identity only serves to complicate this matter further. I hate to imagine how audiences who saw the initial US theatrical release, which shaved off the entire opening prologue explaining the legend of the Red Queen, managed to cope.
That said, The Red Queen Kills 7 Times is the better of the two films. Although many have pointed out that it lifts its fashion house setting from Mario Bava's seminal Blood and Black Lace, the comparison is fairly facile as the two films are executed in completely different ways. Whereas, in Bava's film, all the murders centred around the fashion house, Miraglia is far more interested in exploring the crumbling architecture of the German city of Neustein, in which much of the film is situated. Just as in The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave, there is an uneasy marriage between old-world gothic castles and contemporary chic fashion - a little too chic, perhaps, as Ugo Pagliai's character has a penchant for dressing in the most outrageous chequered suits.
While this film has no scene-stealing equivalent to its predecessor's Erika Blanc and her coffin striptease, it does benefit from having Barbara Bouchet in the lead role. While far from the world's greatest actor, this star of numerous gialli, including Lucio Fulci's Don't Torture a Duckling, is always a likeable screen presence, and she does well to inject a little genuine emotion into a fairly thinly-written role. She can't escape the obvious failings of the script, however, which, among other gaffes, has her raped by a blackmailer, Peter (Fabrizio Moresco), only for her to behave in subsequent scenes as if the attack never took place. Miraglia clearly doesn't consider rape to be a laugh a minute - the scene immediately following the attack, which shows a battered Bouchet shivering in a corner and hugging her knees, is proof enough of this - but this just makes it all the more baffling that he would then abandon this plot strand without a second thought.
For all its failings, though, The Red Queen Kills 7 Times is a fine, enjoyable giallo. Unlike some examples of the genre that I could name, it is never boring for even a minute, and its constant plot twists and shifts in tone are considerably better executed than in The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave. It also features a brilliantly-executed climax involving a crowd of rats and a sealed room slowly filling with water, which more than makes up for the nonsensical narrative's failure to successfully tie up the various disparate plot strands. On a side note, the amount of product placement for J&B Whisky (a staple in 70s European cinema) is absolutely jaw-dropping, and could probably be turned into a fun drinking game (with the participants downing shots of J&B, naturally).
Emilio P. Miraglia may not be one of the genre's best-known names, and while neither of his films can be considered masterpieces, he, like Luciano Ercoli, clearly understood the meaning of fun and certainly manages to deliver as far as entertainment is concerned. Those demanding substance should probably look elsewhere, but both of the titles in this set feature an abundance of the extravagant style that can make even the most weakly-plotted giallo extremely enjoyable.
Those who have read my reviews of NoShame's previous US releases will probably know what to expect by now. Both films are presented anamorphically in their original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, but are not as good as their Italian counterparts, suffering from some softening and a slight "stair-stepping" effect on diagonal lines which gives them a jagged appearance. To NoShame's credit, these artefacts are slightly less apparent than they were in their previous releases, but they are still present to some degree.
You can view an image comparison between the US and Italian releases of The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave here, and one for The Red Queen Kills 7 Times here.
Audio, again, is as to be expected, with English and Italian dubs being present and correct, along with English subtitles corresponding to the Italian dialogue. The quality is fine, for the most part, although as usual constrained by the age and budgetary origins of the films in question. The poorest-sounding of the available mixes is the Italian option on The Red Queen Kills 7 Times, which sounds very thin and strained, with some noticeable distortion in the higher frequencies.
The Emilio Miraglia Killer Queen Box Set is NoShame's most feature-packed production to date, with both discs coming chock-full of bonus materials. The big draw of this release, however, is sure to be the Red Queen figurine that is included in the first production run of the set. Limited to 7,000, the figurine stands at approximately 12 cm tall, meaning that it is not quite as large as the promotional imagery, which gives the impression that it is the height of a full DVD case. Despite its diminuitive size, however, it is still a very nice piece of craftsmanship and one that any giallo fanatic should want to own.
Moving on to the discs themselves, The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave begins with a brief Introduction by Erika Blanc, which runs before the film itself starts.
Blanc shows up again in the 21-minute The Whip and the Body, where she reminisces with great enthusiasm about the various horror films and Spaghetti Westerns she made in the late 60s and early 70s, joking about Anthony Steffen's vanity, praising the skill of the craftsmen she worked with ("they had a child-like creativity") while lamenting the "horrible flat style of cinematography" in modern movies and mentioning. "Today there's a complete lack of professionalism," she rails. "A guy wakes up one morning and decides he's a photographer! I'm glad I rarely work in the movies now." In an amusingly crabby moment, she also expresses how disappointed she was that Quentin Tarantino invited Barbara Bouchet to the recent Venice Film Festival and not her.
The red-haired actress shows up one final time in an easter egg which can be found on the Extras menu by selecting "Original English Theatrical Trailer" and pressing "Left" twice. This should highlight a skull graphic at the top of the screen, and pressing "Enter" will lead to a 47-second clip in which Blanc extols the virtues of smoking a pipe. I won't spoil it by providing any details, but suffice to say the image of Blanc with a pipe hanging out of her mouth is most amusing.
In the 23-minute Still Rising From the Grave, production and costume designer Lorenzo Baraldi discusses his career in the film industry, before going on to concentrate specifically on his work on The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave. The interview is interesting enough, but, devoid of Erika Blanc's engaging screen presence, Baraldi very much draws the short straw and provides a somewhat dry and perfunctory commentary of a somewhat under-appreciated side of filmmaking.
The Italian and English theatrical trailers (the only difference between them being the language of the on-screen text and dialogue) and a rather brief and low quality oster and still gallery are also included.
Baraldi returns to provide an introduction to The Red Queen Kills 7 Times, and again in a 14-minute interview entitled Dead à Porter, where he covers much of the same ground as in his interview on the previous disc, this time with specific reference to Miraglia's second giallo and the additional finances he had at his disposal following the success of The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave.
Actor Marino Masé, who played the role of the police inspector in the film, chats for 18 minutes in Round up the Usual Suspects, which covers his history with Miraglia and his experience shooting in Germany. He also discusses his subsequent career choices, including his work in the US.
If I Met Emilio Miraglia Today... is a four-minute piece in which, as if to confirm the director's disappearance, Erika Blanc, Lorenzo Baraldi and Marino Masé all discuss, with affection, their experiences with Miraglia and their appreciation for the opportunities he gave them.
My Favourite... Films is a one-minute excerpt from an interview with Barbara Bouchet in which she names her favourite films that she appeared in (Don't Torture a Duckling, The Red Queen Kills 7 Times and The Black Belly of the Tarantula, in case you're wondering). This piece includes clips from The Red Queen Kills 7 Times, including footage from the film's theatrical trailer, which is mysteriously absent here, despite its inclusion on the Italian DVD (and of some value, for it includes footage that was trimmed from the rape scene in the final cut of the film).
Bouchet shows up again, briefly, in an easter egg which can be found on the Extras menu by highlighting the Main Menu option and pressing "Up" to select the outline of the Red Queen's face. Pressing "Enter" plays a 2:21 montage of her swanning around the Venice Film Festival with Quentin Tarantino.
Also included is a one-minute alternate opening, which replaced the opening prologue in the international version of the film with a countdown to the arrival of the Red Queen on April 6 1972. The clip plays without any sound.
Finally, the (as usual) brief and low resolution poster and still gallery is included.
A large cardboard box houses both the Red Queen figurine and a dual amaray case containing the two DVDs. Two rather blurry postcards for The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave are included inside the case, along with a 20-page booklet containing liner notes and biographies written by Chris D. and Richard Harland Smith.
The Emilio Miraglia Killer Queen Box Set is NoShame Films' most ambitious undertaking to date, and the end result should please all fans of European cult cinema. While the transfers are still not of the same quality as their Italian counterparts, the gap between the two versions is considerably smaller than with previous releases from the studio, and the abundance of bonus materials, not to mention the extremely nifty Red Queen figurine, should make this an essential purchase for anyone who enjoys the jauntier, campier side of the giallo genre.