Tuesday, 24 November 2009

A Candle for the Devil (1973)

A Candle for the Devil (Una vela para el diablo, also released in the US under the deplorable title It Happened at Nightmare Inn) is one of those horror movies that turns out to be not quite what one expected. In this case that’s rather a good thing.

Spanish writer-director Eugenio Martín had made the excellent Horror Express the year before, in 1972. He really is an underrated horror movie-maker. A Candle for the Devil is about two middle-aged women, Veronica and Marta, who run a hotel in a quiet Spanish village. They’re being driven slowly mad by sexual frustration and by their own religious bigotry. Veronica has found an outlet for her sexual cravings, taking a man 20 years her junior to her bed. But she doesn’t like getting completely undressed, because as she tells him, even married people don’t do that. Marta has no such outlet. In one memorable scene she watches the young men from the village bathing naked in the river and then runs through a field of thorn bushes, becoming more and more excited as the thorns lacerate her flesh. It’s a wonderfully effective scene.

What really upsets the two sisters is the behaviour of the young female tourists from abroad who stay at their hotel. They’re shameless hussies, parading about in their mini-skirts and hot-pants (it was 1973). They even catch one sunbathing topless on the roof of the hotel. As Marta tells her sister, only a whore would do such a thing. Marta confronts and then pursues the young Englishwoman who slips and falls through a glass window. She is dead. To Marta this is clearly a sign. The Lord is telling her to rid the world of these whores.

A difficulty arises when the dead girl’s sister Laura (played by Judy Geeson) arrives. She had arranged to meet her sister there. While the sister’s suspicions are slowly being aroused Marta and Veronica have killed again. There is one tourist they’re quite fond of though, a young woman with a baby, although they’re puzzled as to why she would be traveling alone without her husband. Then the woman makes a chance remark in a local shop, a remark that is passed on to the two sisters. It seems she doesn’t have a husband after all. Marta and Veronica are very upset, and they’re even more distressed by the idea that the child is going to be raised by a woman who is really no better than a common harlot. They really should do something to save that child.

The idea of religious intolerance and sexual repression leading to murder is hardly new, but good horror isn’t about the newness of the ideas, it’s about the execution of the ideas. In that area A Candle for the Devil rates very highly. The atmosphere of overheated frustrated sexuality is built up very economically. Eugenio Martín resists the temptation to overdo things, and Aurora Bautista as Marta and Esperanza Roy as Veronica show a similar restraint. The two sisters aren’t portrayed as monsters, and we feel a considerable amount of compassion for them. They’re not female versions of Norman Bates, and that makes them more terrifying.

Judy Geeson gives a solid performance as usual, but although she receives top billing the focus is very much on Marta and Veronica, and it’s Bautista and Roy who must carry this film. And they are equal to the task.

This is subtle psychological horror, and superbly done. There’s nothing flashy here, very little gore and only very moderate amounts of sex and nudity. The movie was given an 18 rating by the British censors, which is incomprehensible unless the DVD I saw had been savagely cut, or the British censors were being even sillier than usual when they rated this movie. Or possibly, like a lot of Spanish horror movies of that era, it was made in both a clothed and an unclothed version?

The Odeon DVD is pretty awful, with no language option other than an English dub and fairly poor picture quality. Which is a shame, since it’s an exceptionally good little horror movie that deserves better treatment.

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