Tragic Ceremony (1972)

SEPTEMBER 27, 2008


Both Rue Morgue and Screem magazine carried reviews of Tragic Ceremony (aka Estratto Dagli Archivi Segreti Della Polizia Di Una Capitale Europea*) in their most recent-ish issues, and thus I queued it up so I wouldn’t feel left out. I had never heard of it, but I was surprised to discover a couple of things in it that pre-date the films I always thought originated certain horror movie clichés.

For example, there is a gas station attendant who leads our heroes to their doom. I thought this was an invention of Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but nope, it was the trinity of screenwriters Mario Bianchi, José Gutiérrez Maesso, and Leonardo Martín, a year or so earlier. I also thought that the rapid fire edited montage of previous footage to help explain a twist in the finale was a relatively new technique, but Tragic Ceremony, from 1972, has one (and it’s even more impressive when you consider that they didn’t have an Avid with copy/paste shortcuts back then). Rock on you crazy Italians!

Alas, it is not the first or the last film to be a bit unclear as to what exactly is going on during key points of the film. It’s kind of a slow burn, with a strange structure to boot (the “breakdown” segment is only the first half of the film, the 2nd half takes place in one of our heroes’ own home), so it’s not like its wall to wall death and dismemberment without any time to stop for plot. Quite the contrary, there is relatively little violence (a lot of the deaths are offscreen) and 90% of it is limited to a single sequence. So you’re left with a lot of talk, but for some reason, they never find the time to talk about WHY any of this stuff is happening. Like Psycho, there is a shrink at the end to explain things, but how exactly he knows any of this stuff (involving family curses, ghosts, possession, etc) is beyond me. Also, the gas station attendant seems to be a ghost himself, but again, this isn’t really explained.

Damned if it’s not entertaining though. Even when there’s no real horror stuff going on, I was being delighted left and right. There’s an ancient organist who keeps looking directly into the camera, a guy who seems to be trying to nail his mom, and one of the finest news reports I have ever seen in a film. The newscaster first guesses that the massacre was the result of either “a monster or a steamroller” (hell of a range there), and then he points out that a guitar found at the scene of the crime could be explained by the presence of hippies.

And the horror stuff is great too. Carlo Rambaldi (ET!) did the makeup effects, and they are pretty impressive, particularly a 99% accurate dummy head being split in half. There is also a pretty great mangled jaw during the finale to enjoy. Like I said, the gore is pretty limited (then again, this predates the sort of late 70s early 80s “splatter craze”, so I wasn’t expecting much), but then it’s onscreen, it delivers.

Another thing I dug is how much they milk the breakdown angle. The car runs out of gas, so they push it to the gas station. He gives them like half a gallon of gas to get them to the next town, but it doesn’t get them there. So they push it again and find a house (the house with the villains, obviously), and look for gas in the numerous cars that are there. When the lady of the house finds these four strangers in her home, looking to steal their gas, she doesn’t seem to mind much. If anything, she acts like its pretty common that folks are breaking down. For an early breakdown film, it definitely sets the bar pretty high in terms of setting up just how incapacitated the car is.

I also learned that the Italian for Bill is “Bill”. Actually, for an Italian movie, they all have pretty generic, more American-y names: Bill, Jane, Tom... not a single Romeo or Antonio in the bunch.

The DVD only has one extra, an interview with the female star, one Camille Keaton, who is more infamous for her turn in I Spit On Your Grave. She just sort of rambles about her career, and doesn’t spend too much time discussing the film at all, really. Still, a nice little piece, and since these obscure 70s Italian flicks often have nothing of note, it’s nice to have.

What say you?

*Which translates to Taken From The Secret Police Files Of A European Capital, which manages to be the longest and yet least informative title of all time.


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