Tragic Ceremony directed by Riccardo Freda
As I have said elsewhere, my abiding love for Italian actress Luciana Paluzzi has, cinematically, led me to some fairly unusual places. From my initial enthrallment with her Fiona Volpe character in 1965’s Thunderball and on to such disparate fare as the British comedy Carlton-Browne of the F.O. (1959), the Japanese sci-fi shlock classic The Green Slime (1968), the Jess Franco WIP flick 99 Women (1969) and the blaxploitation actioner Black Gunn (1972), I have always found that a little Luciana makes any film go down easier. My most recent confirmation of this: the 1972 Italian supernatural cult item Tragic Ceremony (or, as it was called originally, Estralto Dagli Archivi Secreti Della Polizia Di Una Capitale Europa, or From the Secret Police Files of a European Capital), in which Paluzzi’s role is a small one, but one that adds immeasurably to the creepy proceedings.
In the film, four young adults (though referred to as “hippies” both in the picture itself and in most commentaries on it, in truth they are more like free-loving free spirits), needing shelter after their dune buggy conks out in a teeming thunderstorm, knock on the first door they come across. Unfortunately for them, it is at the mansion owned by Lord Alexander (the great Luigi Pistilli, who, that same year, starred in the wonderfully named and just plain wonderful Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key) and his wife, Lady Alexander (our Luciana), a pair of Satanists, who that very night are preparing to convoke a Black Mass with a group of rather unwholesome guests. And before long, one of the quartet, Jane (played by Camille Keaton, who earlier that year had appeared in her first film, the classic giallo What Have You Done to Solange?, and who six years later would star in the infamous I Spit on Your Grave), perhaps influenced by a pearl necklace with a supernatural history that one of the three guys had recently given to her, is seen somnolently floating toward that Satanic ritual. But the Mass ends in an over-the-top bloodbath, and the four flee for their lives into the night. But sadly enough, their nightmare is only beginning…
Directed with style to spare by Riccardo Freda, whose earlier horror films include Italy’s first of the sound era, I Vampiri (1956), and the Barbara Steele vehicles The Horrible Dr. Hichcock (1962) and The Ghost (1963), Tragic Ceremony was one of this great filmmaker’s final projects. Freda has incorporated modern, Gothic, Satanic and nightmarish elements into the film, in that order. The tragic ceremony of the title, the Black Mass in which all nine celebrants are butchered via beheading, face cleaving, shootings, knifings, and a defenestration, is the literal centerpiece of the film, coming at the exact midpoint and separating the modern and Gothic sections from the nightmarish, supernatural tone of the second half. The Mass really is a bravura sequence. The celebrants truly do look evil; the dreary, dreamy organ music, black candles and pitch-black background create a chilling mood; the weaving, zooming camera creates an air of disorientation; the sight of Jane floating down a corridor, curtains billowing around her while she holds a candelabra aloft, is truly dreamlike; and the great and bloody carnage, accompanied by a lush piano-and-strings score by Stelvio Cipriani and abetted by gross-out touches by FX master Carlo Rimbaldi (of E.T., Alien and Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession fame), is truly shocking.
And Freda maintains the nightmarish, otherworldly feel of his film all the way to the end, as all four of our young protagonists begin to meet horrific ends (the sight of one of the four, his corpse countenance quite literally blue in the face, should linger in the memory for quite a while!). The film employs brief flashbacks and flash-forwards to accentuate the feeling of dislocation, and there is just no way for any viewer to predict what will come next, in this truly bizarre outing. Ultimately, the film just barely hangs together, with the question of that darned necklace still, uh, dangling before us; even a doctor’s “explanation” of the wacky events we’ve seen, as the film closes, barely begins to cover it. I should add here that the thesping turned in by our young quartet is better than good, and needless to say, Pistilli and Paluzzi are just marvelous (sadly, the roles of both these two are decidedly brief). Paluzzi looks absolutely gorgeous, need it even be mentioned; this fact makes Fred’s (one of the guys) statement that she has “a face like Dracula” only add to the film’s strangeness!
Some further good news: The Dark Sky Films DVD on which Tragic Ceremony can now be found is a nice-looking one indeed, with excellent subtitling, a decent image, and one excellent extra: a 13-minute interview with the Camille Keaton of 2007, entitled “Camille’s European Adventures.” Better looking than ever, well spoken and articulate, with a sharp memory and a nicely self-effacing disposition, Arkansas-born Camille comes off as a bright, 60-year-old sweetie here. Certainly NOT like the kind of gal who’d participate in a Black Mass ceremony, that’s for sure!