Riccardo Freda, in common with so many Italian directors of his era, made movies in just about every genre. Including gothic horror. In fact he directed the movie that kicked off the Italian gothic horror cycle of the 60s, I, Vampiri. He also made a couple of notable gothic horror movies starring Barbara Stelle, The Ghost and the excellent The Terror of Dr Hichcock. In 1972 he returned to this genre with Tragic Ceremony (Estratto dagli archivi segreti della polizia di una capitale europea).
Tragic Ceremony tells the story of four hippies, three boys and one girl, who become involved, unwittingly, with black magic. When their dune buggy runs out of petrol during a rainstorm they take shelter in the mansion of Lord and Lady Alexander. What they don’t know is that these two decadent aristocrats are hosting a Black Mass that night. The girl, Jane (Camille Keaton), finds herself the guest of honour, so to speak. She is to be sacrificed to the powers of darkness.
The hippies escape, or at least they think they’ve escaped, but they’ve left a corpse behind them at the Black Mass (although it’s not Jane’s corpse). And when they watch the television news that night, they discover that the Black Mass actually left no less than eight corpses behind.
This movie was clearly to a considerable extent inspired by the Charles Manson killings. The police immediately suspect that the murders were carried out by hippies. In 1972 many people believed that hippies were a sign of the imminent social collapse of the West, and of course they were quite right. Murderous hippies were big news.
And that brings us to one of the chief problems with this movie. We have to care about the fate of four hippies, and it is impossible to do so. They are typical hippies - spoilt, over-indulged, lazy, dirty and with no morals. The worst of all is rich kid Bill, who is at least partly responsible for setting these events in motion when he buys a supposedly cursed string of pearls for his mother.
This movie has some obvious similarities with Mario Bava’s 1972 masterpiece Lisa and the Devil, but Freda’s movie is hopelessly inferior to Bava’s masterwork. Freda was a competent journeyman director while Bava was an erratic and uneven genius.
Freda does pull off some impressive visual effects, including the nightmare-like Black Mass sequence. The scenes of Camille Keaton with the candelabra are also effective.
The acting is a big problem. We’re dealing with four very unsympathetic protagonists and none of the actors is able to make these characters anything more than stereotypical self-indulgent hippie layabouts. Camille Keaton was a truly atrocious actress and her feeble performance dooms this movie.
An even bigger problem is that potentially the most interesting characters are the devil-worshipping Lord and Lady Alexander, especially the latter, but those characters are grievously under-developed and the movie focuses instead on the four hippies, who are both unpleasant and ineffectual as well as uninteresting.
Dark Sky’s DVD release is extremely good and includes a brief documentary on Camille Keaton’s brief film career.
Tragic Ceremony can only be regarded as one of the failures of the Italian gothic horror cycle. Riccardo Freda simply cannot overcome the twin handicaps of uninteresting characters and dull acting. Despite a few good moments I honestly cannot recommend this one.