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Plot: who’s the mysterious woman in Anna’s dreams? Is she dead or alive?

As with all things in life, timing is everything. Metempsyco (or Metempsychosis, released in France as Le manoir maudit or The Cursed Mansion, in Germany as Die Bestie von Schloß Monte Christo or The Beast of Monte Cristo Castle, and in the US and on the international market as Tomb Of Torture) is a minor entry in the Italo gothic horror cycle of the sixties and by no means a classic or essential. For its 1964 North American release it was put on a grindhouse/drive-in double-bill with Cave Of the Living Dead (1964). On release it had to contend with far stronger and more compelling domestic genre exercises and it understandably fell through the cracks. Over half a century of critical examination has not revealed any meaningful insights only attesting that this was rightly ignored.

No wonder that in the annals of Italian horror and Eurocult at large Tomb Of Torture is but a forgotten footnote. The sixties were an especially prolific and prosperous time for Italian horror. The decade had opened with Renato Polselli’s The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960), Piero Regnoli’s The Playgirls and the Vampire (1960), and Giorgio Ferroni’s Mill Of the Stone Women (1960). In 1963 it was preceded by Mario Bava’s proto-giallo The Girl That Knew Too Much (1963) (Bava would codify and innovate the giallo subgenre along with Dario Argento, Luciano Ercoli, and Sergio Martino) and a few months after that, The Whip and the Body (1963); Riccardo Freda’s The Ghost (1963), the entertaining The Blancheville Monster (1963), and Antonio Margheriti’s The Virgin Of Nuremberg (1963). A year later there were Camillo Mastrocinque’s Terror in the Crypt (1964) and Polselli’s The Monster of the Opera (1964). In short, in the glory days of gothic horror competition at the domestic box office was stiff and Tomb Of Torture was swamped by better and more memorable examples of the form. While not exactly terrible or lacking Tomb Of Torture simply missed the innate starpower and visual grandeur (a few scattered artsy shots here and there notwithstanding) to become nothing more than a pleasant little genre piece overshadowed by far superior exercises in the genre.

And who produced and directed Tomb Of Torture is equally as mystifying as the movie itself. As near as we can tell this was the first thing Francesco Campitelli ever produced and on the basis of it he carved out a respectable career as a writer and production manager. Campitelli is known around these parts for co-writing the Spanish co-producton Two Males For Alexa (1971) (with Rosalba Neri, Emma Cohen, and Pilar Velázquez). Here he also doubles as director of photography. The director behind Tomb Of Torture was mountaineer, climber, and sometime pulp novelist Antonio Boccacci. Boccacci was a graduate in mathematics, a teacher, and avid alpinist. In fact he’s credited with inventing Val di Mello climbing, he was one of the first to scale the valley walls along the Luna Nascente trail at the Scoglio delle Metamorfosi, and he’s said to be a pioneer in the field of bouldering in Italy. His extensive experience in mountaineering and ski mountaineering led to a steady career in writing specialised guides of all kinds on the subject alongside the occassional fiction novel. For whatever reason somebody apparently thought that this was reason enough for Boccacci to try his hand at screenwriting. In that capacity Boccacci co-wrote the peplum Revolt of the Mercenaries (1960), the adventure film Rampage Of Evil (1961), today’s subject Tomb Of Torture, and the Alfonso Brescia spaghetti western Days Of Violence (1967) (again with LWO favorite Neri, Spanish almost-star Beba Loncar, and Italian professional warm body Bruna Beani). After this Boccacci returned to paperback writing and it’s anybody’s guess how popular (or respected, if he was at all) he was in Italian literary circles.

1910, somewhere in Europe. Schoolgirls Esther (Emy Eco) and Cathy (Terry Thompson) have taken to invading a local grand castle where Countess Irene (Annie Alberti, as Annie Albert) disappeared under mysterious circumstances some twenty years earlier. The countess is presumed dead but her body was never recovered. The two girls are spooked when current inhabitant Countess Elizabeth (Flora Carosello, as Elizabeth Queen) materializes out of the shadows and warns them of the horrors the castle holds. The two girls try to make their escape but they are stalked and murdered by deformed, droopy-eyed hunchback Hugo (Bernard Blay or Fred Pizzot). First on the scene of the crime is inspector Dobson (Bernard Blay or Fred Pizzot) and he’s mystified. For the last several weeks 20-year-old ingénue Anna (Annie Alberti, as Annie Albert) has been haunted by strange dreams of a woman looking just like her dying in a shadowy torture dungeon. Doctor Darnell (Adriano Micantoni, as Thony Maky) believes that bringing Anna to the castle she sees in her nightmares will cure her of her affliction. In the castle Anna becomes transfixed by the portrait of the dead countess. Journalist George (Marco Mariani, as Mark Marian) is visiting the village to report on the disappearance and murder of the two schoolgirls. In complete happenstance he meets Anna when his car overheats and he’s in need of assistance. George not only is instantly smitten with Anna, he’s intrigued by the strange story she tells. Meanwhile, Sikh prince Raman (Antonio Boccacci) of some unspecified Hindu kingdom has returned believing Anna to be a reincarnation of his long lost Irene. Raman was romantically involved with Elisabeth but callously cast her aside once he laid eyes on Irene. As a scorned woman Elisabeth is none too happy with Raman’s return and his inquiring after his former lover. What horrors dwell in Irene’s abode? Does Anna really see ghosts, and who’s the mysterious force encased within that suit of armor? Can old man Darnell, George, and inspector Dobson save Anna from the certain doom that awaits her?

To make matters worse, not only has Tomb Of Torture the most unlikely producer and director duo, it reeks with the vile stench of good old nepotism. Boccacci not only casted his wife Flora Carosello in one of the lead roles but does the same for Emy Eco (or Emilia Eco, the sister of writer and academic Umberto Eco) in what probably could be construed as a favor from one academic to another. The biggest stars here are arguably Marco Mariani, he of The Monster of the Opera (1964) and sometime fumetti novel star Annie Alberti. Some allege that the script was co-written by Giovanni Simonelli, the son of Giorgio Simonelli. Most contemporary sources attribute it to Simonelli the elder. However Giovanni seems the more logical choice given that the Anglicised moniker listed here is Johnny (and not George) Seemonell. There’s a tendency in the blogosphere to lambast the title but Metempsyco (or Metempsychosis, the supposed transmigration of the soul into a new body at the moment of death) perfectly encapsulates what the movie’s about. The exteriors were filmed at Orsini Castle (restored and housing an exclusive hotel) in Nerola with interiors shot at Palazzo Borghese in Artena. Since Italian imports were popular on the North American market everybody hides behind Anglo-Saxon pseudonyms. It was a very common practice in Italian exploitation at the time and one that would persevere over the ensuing decades. Tomb Of Torture is not nearly as good (or as memorable) as the English-language title would have you believe, but it’s not exactly bad either. It’s just very utilitarian. "Sex or terror?", asks the Italian promotional poster. Either seems to be scarce, regardless.

That Tomb Of Torture is a relic of bygone, less enlightened time becomes painfully clear pretty much from the onset. It begins with that old chestnut of two rebellious schoolgirls (they’re more college-age rather than high school) being chased around the bowels of a creepy castle before ending up tortured and finally killed. Then there’s Antonio Boccacci in brownface and turban trying his darndest to pass himself off as a Sikh prince (and failing at it spectacularly) and Flora Carosello as his scorned former lover. Annie Alberti is an attractive enough a lead but she was no Graziella Granata and even second-stringer Hammer ladies were better on average. The first act is actually surprisingly effective and atmospheric with an extended tour through the torture dungeon. Unfortunately that’s for the most part undone by the unintentionally loopy cartoon music that Armando Sciascia insists on during the romantic scenes that could have come from a Laura Efrikian rom com. Francesco Campitelli acquits himself well enough and actually manages to line up a few artsy shots here and there. The special effects make-up is remarkably gory and well-realized (especially the hunchback) for the time and budget this was made in and on. Overall Tomb Of Torture is far from bad but it’s understandable why it was ostensibly ignored when it was originally released.

Plot: some siblings scheme, others kill for their inheritance...

Just like you don’t need to go to Texas for a good chainsaw massacre, likewise you don’t need to go to Argentina or Mexico to have something resembling a 90-minute pilot to a very deranged unproduced telenovella. Blood Mania (released in Belgium as Pornomania for one reason or another) does not concern itself with the horror aspect all that much. In essence it’s a somewhat daft crime noir enlivened by sudden dashes of completely gratuitous nudity. Blood Mania (a title that should be read symbolically rather than literally) was the absolute sole vision of just one man and that should count for something. In other words, Blood Mania is sleaze of the highest order and the sort of drive-in swill that used to be plentiful. It might not have been Die Screaming Marianne (1971) or possess the garish arthouse style of an early giallo, what it was more than anything was an unpleasant reminder of a very polarizing time in recent American history.

At the dawn of the 1970s North American and British was engulfed by a deluge of British terror and suspense films that weren’t mere thrillers yet not fully horror. It was a decade of great social – and political upheaval. The Beatles had broken up, the US made an embarrassing retreat from Vietnam, and disco was on the rise. While it was a decade of unprecedented technological and scientific advances The Great Inflation (that lasted from 1971 to, say, 1983) saw many unemployed or under employed. The abject poverty naturally led to a surge in crime. In many ways the prestige of the United States on the international stage was severely eroding. Dirty Harry (1971) and Death Wish (1974) made the loose cannon vigilante cop the hero of the day. While many marginalized groups (minorities, women, gays, et al) fought for equality the New Right rose in response as a populist pushback in defense of political conservatism and traditional gender roles.

In 1973 the Supreme Court legalized a woman’s right to an abortion nationwide in the case that would be known as Roe v. Wade. It was upheld until June 2022 when it was overturned on constitutional grounds. The political, social, and racial unrest and tension translated into deluge of North American and British terror and suspense films such as, among others, Women and Bloody Terror (1970), Die Screaming Marianne (1971), The Roommates (1973), Wicked, Wicked (1973), House of Whipcord (1974), and Nightmare Honeymoon (1974) that blurred the line between the thriller and full-blown horror. Blood Mania might very well be one of the earlier examples of that nigh decade-long evolution. The cycle culminated and eventually concluded with John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978). The template of that masterclass in suspense was adopted by less discerning directors and producers who gravely misunderstood its many subtleties and nuances. This in turn led to the birthing and codifying of the American slasher that would come to dominate the cineplexes.

The man behind Blood Mania is Peter Carpenter. He forged an alliance with producer Chris Marconi for two drive-in features that he would co-write, star, and produce. Both would be filmed in California and pool talent from his production company Jude Productions. As the first of the two Blood Mania was shot over a brisk 12 days in and around Bela Lugosi’s former lakeshore property in Lake Elsinore. Carpenter and Marconi hired director of photography Robert Maxwell and an unspecified director. At the last minute the director had to be replaced and Robert Vincent O’Neill was brought in. Maxwell had worked with Ted V. Mikels on his Girl in Gold Boots (1968) and The Astro-Zombies (1968) as well as Edward D. Wood, Jr. protégé Stephen C. Apostolof and exploitation grandmaster Lee Frost. O’Neill had worked in the art department on Psych-Out (1968) and The Savage Seven (1968) and as prop master on Dennis Hopper’s biker countercultural juggernaut Easy Rider (1969). He had cut his teeth with exploitation romps Like Mother Like Daughter (1969), and The Psycho Lover (1970). However, for whatever reason Maxwell was let go about midway through production and replaced by the always reliable Gary Graver. He, of course, was the husband of Jullian Kesner from Starhops (1978), Naked Fist (1981), Raw Force (1982), and Evil Town (1985). O’Neill would associate produce Bonnie’s Kids (1972) and direct, among many others, supreme sleaze as Angel (1983), and Avenging Angel (1985). Maxwell would go on to photograph grindhouse bona fides as The Candy Snatchers (1973) and the proto-slasher The Centerfold Girls (1974). The cast were a bunch of regulars orbiting around the Carpenter sphere and a nominal star.

Dr. Craig Cooper (Peter Carpenter) is a private physician who’s both professionally and personally successful. He’s the foremost practitioner at a highly respected California medical practice and has a hot-to-trot redhead girlfriend in Cheryl (Reagan Wilson). Under his care is the senior-aged director of the practice dr. Ridgeley Waterman (Eric Sinclair, as Eric Allison), a cranky and high maintenance malcontent who at home is looked after by nurse Turner (Leslie Simms) and his flirtatious auburn-haired daughter Victoria (Maria De Aragon). Victoria’s mental and emotional condition can charitably be described as unstable. She’s a nymphomaniac and her insatiable hunger for sex and rampant promiscuity lead her to ravage their hapless pool boy (Reid Smith). Victoria has set her designs on Cooper and will stop at nothing to get in his good graces. Cooper has his own problems. He’s being blackmailed for $50K by his former associate Larry Mills (Arell Blanton) who threatens to expose the illegal abortion service Cooper ran while he was in med school. The whole sordid situation stimulates Victoria’s latent wicked and deviant instincts. She lets Craig know that she has worked out the perfect scheme for him to get his money and satisfy the debt. With her ailing father heading towards infirmity and decrepitude the inheritance is hers for the taking.

As the family patriarch Ridgeley has always had an unbecoming interest in his youngest daughter. Things do not bode well for him as one day Victoria – a character of low moral fiber and unburdened by either a conscious or any scruples – flirts with her father and feels impelled to slip him an ampule of amyl nitrite to hasten his passing. The funeral service prompts the return of Victoria’s estranged sister Gail (Vicki Peters) who has been living in New York with middle-aged blonde Kate (Jacqueline Dalya). When after reading the will the family lawyer (Alex Rocco) names Gail as the primary beneficiary of the estate while awarding Victoria only with the ancestral house and a small living allowance. This engenders an adverse reaction in her and she becomes bedridden. Being the equal opportunity philanderer that he is Cooper starts to seduce Gail. Unable to stand the thought of losing both her inheritance and the man she loves to her older sister once recovered Victoria vows to settle the score, once and for all.

Arguably in a cast of nobodies Maria De Aragon, Alex Rocco, and Eric Sinclair are nominally the biggest (or most marketable) names here. Contrary to what her last name might have you believe De Aragon wasn’t Spanish or Latin American but Québecois. She had starred in Love Me Like I Do (1970) (that co-starred Peter Carpenter, Jacqueline Dalya, and Dyanne Thorne). Eric Sinclair had starred in War of the Satellites (1958) whereas De Aragon would later star in The Cremators (1972) (that co-starred Sinclair). Alex Rocco would land the role of Moe Greene in The Godfather (1972) which apparently wasn’t enough to lift him out of exploitation as his later credits include, among others, Bonnie’s Kids (1972), and blaxploitation crime epics Three the Hard Way (1974) and Detroit 9000 (1973). De Aragon would act as a stand-in for C3P0 in George Lucas’ space opera Star Wars: A New Hope (1977) but Lucas offered her the role of Greedo after filming with Paul Blake hadn’t worked out the way he had intended. Surprisingly Star Wars didn’t do much to elevate her career (probably because the Greedo costume concealed her identity) the way it had for others and while Maria kept working she never escaped the morass and muck of exploitation. The cast is fleshed out (quite literally in this case) by Playboy Playmates Reagan Wilson (October 1967) and Vicky Peters (April 1972). Neither had much of a career with Peters’ only role of note in the Joe Don Baker drive-in actioner Mitchell (1975). It’s a question for the ages why somebody as versatile as Maria De Aragon never ended up working with Paul Naschy in Spain and/or Armando Bó in Argentina.

To its credit Blood Mania starts with a Mario Bava giallo inspired opening gambit that, despite its creativity, has no real connection to or bearing on the rest of the feature. This is exactly the sort of suburban sleaze kind you’d expect of Doris Wishman, or Joseph W. Sarno, and it’s just as exploitative. As the man behind it all Carpenter helps himself to a clothing-averse ginger, auburn, and blonde – and ensures that he gets to fondle and prod each of them extensively before the whole spiel is over. Since this obviously was aimed at the drive-in Blood Mania is overflowing with nudity and violence. This is a crime noir that adheres by the conventions of a softcore romp and is structured as one. Let’s not forget that Psycho (1960) was only ten years in the past by that point and its profound influence was still reverberating and it wasn’t about to subside any time soon. Blood Mania might not exactly be the most riveting thing around but it knows what buttons to push and when to indulge in the sleaze. Maria De Aragon is by far the best and Alex Rocco is wasted in a small supportive role. You can sort of see how Andy Sidaris got his idea for Stacey! (1973) and Seven (1979) from something like this and how Disconnected (1984) would do roughly the same thing a decade or so later.