Psychotronic Ketchup: Once This Bell Tolled, I Found My Purpose Again...

A couple of weekends ago, I developed a true annoyance at the rote giallo entry from Maestro Bava's son Lamberto, Blade in the Dark, which left me practically banging my head against the wall in ennui. I also spent much of its length yelling at its incompetence in the dubbing department, which instead of at least illuminating me to some of the more obscure story elements, left me seething with rage over what could only be described as a hack job for a hack job. Saturday afternoon, the next day, I watched the third Spider-Man film and also watched my enthusiasm for the franchise wane to levels I never expected it to dip, even if I ended up enjoying the film overall.

Not that this would be enough to make even a cinema nut with the weakest of constitutions swear off films for a while, but it could have at least been enough to move my cynicism-meter up a notch or two. (Some who have known me for eons would call this an impossible feat.) However, my frustration after the junior Bava effort did leave me a tad punch-drunk, and it made me fear changing my player to the next disc in line, another foreign thingy of dubious heritage, which I was sure would find me registering for a weapon (completely out of my character, mind you) with which to Elvis-blast my television. My surprise then that I not only found myself intrigued enough at its conclusion to immediately submit to a repeat viewing, but that upon waking in the morning, I dove in once more for a trip through the film-fanatic's commentary that came attached to the Spanish horror thingy from the early 70's. Three straight times with a five-hour nap?

Why? What is so remarkable about A Bell From Hell, a film that I had barely heard of before I clicked to add it to my rental queue a month ago? Everything, that's what. Only you don't realize this going in. From the DVD cover photo, one should feel right in expecting a film where a series of women are tortured in a creepy and overly gratuitous fashion. It seems like this film is nothing more than an early-day version of the currently popular "torture porn" genre. And this would be a seriously incorrect assumption. What is unique about the film is how it gets to the point in the film that appears on that misleading cover, and where it goes after that illuminating point. Chiefly, the film does nothing or goes nowhere that you expect it to in the course of its 100 minutes – not even end the way you expect. And it doesn't go down easily when it does end. It's like the film itself is expending anxiety over the way things occur, and refuses to accept its own conclusion.

Waltzing into A Bell from Hell, unaware of the ragged rocks ahead as I was munching on a Trader Joe's pizza, and truly believing that I was in for more of the same as in the previous film, a trail of tiny weirdnesses caught my eye: little creeping things which served to mount up in my brain as the film took its casual stroll across my screen. I wanted to believe I was watching just another revenge epic, but there was something different about it. The fellow doing the rather stiff commentary points out again and again the director (who died at the end of filming, either jumping or falling from the film's tower which holds the titular bell) uses the film to make political jabs at the petit-bourgeoisie (a phrase he slathers far too generously onto nearly every other comment, like Tom Sawyer finding a twentieth kid to whitewash Aunt Polly's fence) and certainly I picked up on this as I was watching it, but not to the extent that he swears it does.

There is undoubtedly class jealousy and hatred at play here, both between the protagonist and the townspeople, and between the protagonist and his aunt and cousins, who consider themselves above him (even though all three of his gorgeous cousins are either in love or lust with him to some extent). His aunt, played to shockingly chilly effect by Viveca Lindfors, controls his estate, and the fact that she has helped spur on his removal from society and his rightful inheritance to an asylum in order to rein him in, in no small way inspires him to not only exact some sort of penance from the woman, but also to punish all who conspired with her, including his cousins.

There is a frankly shocking scene where he gets a job at a slaughterhouse -– be warned: the scenes of cattle slaughter, even those involving the main actor, are not staged; they are real and, if you are an off-again and on again vegetarian such as myself, painful to watch –- and the scene, apart from acting as a foreshadowing of the impending violence (we believe), serves as solid punctuation to the fact that there is no limit to what this individual will do to inflict the pain he seeks to cause. He will also use the affections of his cousins against themselves and each other; he will not hesitate to make himself seem foolish (especially in a strange public bathroom sequence) if it will make his enemies uncomfortable; and he will employ a wide variety theatrical devices, technological props, and a surprising cast of operatives to exact his revenge. If this sounds like the hero/villain, for he actually seems at times as both, is along the lines of The Abominable Dr. Phibes, don't be fooled. This is an earthier, more painful form of vengeance; unlike Robert Fuest's classic, outrageous Avengers-style camp affair, A Bell from Hell is a dark-toned mood piece, with incest and rape and murder and revenge, both personal and political on its mind.

And yes, for those of you who, like the fellow on the commentary track, can't get enough of the fact that the film sports a reminder of the uneasiness between the classes in Spain in the early 70's, I will say this: I wish that they had hired Chevy Chase to do the commentary. He would not only prove to be a far livelier host, but he could also nudge the viewer with an old-school Saturday Night Live fact from just a couple years after this movie was released: the fact that Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead.

La Campana del Infierno (A Bell from Hell)
Dir: Claudio Guerín [& Juan Antonio Bardem, uncredited, post-production] // Spanish, 1973
Cinema 4 Rating: 7


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