Black Magic Rites (1973) – By Roger Carpenter

Renato Polselli was a minor director of Eurosleaze with titles such as Delirium, Mania, The Truth About Satan, and Black Magic Rites among others. This latter title is probably better known to many as The Reincarnation of Isabel. It stars Eurosleaze actor Mickey Hargitay (second husband of Jayne Mansfield and father to Law and Order: SVU’s Mariska Hargitay), himself famous for titles such as Bloody Pit of Horror, Lady Frankenstein, and Polselli’s own Delirium. Hargitay’s co-star was the beautiful Rita Calderoni, who specialized in soft-core and cheap horror films and was a favorite of Polselli’s, often co-starring next to Hargitay.

Black Magic Rites is a mishmash of gothic horror, vampirism, psychedelia, and confusion. The plot, such as it is, concerns a young woman named Isabel (Calderoni) who is accused of witchcraft during the inquisition and burnt at the stake. Flash-forward to present-day (i.e. early 1970’s) Italy and a large group of revelers have gathered at an ancient castle to celebrate an engagement party. But it seems that all of the party-goers are reincarnations of the original villagers that took part in the burning with Laureen, the soon-to-be bride (and Calderoni’s other character) being the reincarnation of Isabel herself. As the party continues into the night, mysterious occurrences happen as a band of vampires–descendants of the original coven Isabel presided over–try to resurrect Isabel from the dead by cutting out the hearts of the unsuspecting guests and drinking their blood.

Polselli was infamous for making some of the cheapest and cheesiest product available at the time and the ensuing four decades since the film was released hasn’t helped it any. The plot is threadbare, the acting suspect, the sets and special effects are cheap, and much of the dialogue and set pieces are unintentionally hilarious. Witness the head vampire who is about as scary as a balding, middle-aged man with a sneer and a cape. But that’s because that is exactly what he is. Polselli hasn’t even bothered to create a minimal makeup or to add fangs to his vampires. Capes seem to be good enough for him. The bats are of the rubber variety and are attached to strings and bounced around victims during a vampiric attack. In one excruciatingly painful scene, Isabel is punished for her heresy. The villagers pour forth from around the castle, all supposedly chasing down Isabel and running toward the execution. But Polselli obviously couldn’t afford actual extras, so the village seems to be populated with the most feeble and elderly villagers in existence, none of who can move faster than a slow hobble. In fact, this was the scariest section of the film for me as I worried that someone might trip and fall and break a hip. Once the villagers have hobbled to the execution, it doesn’t seem to be enough that Isabel is being burnt alive at the stake. No, she also has to have a wooden stake pounded into her heart as well. In one of the cheapest effects ever committed to celluloid, we see a tree branch placed between Isabel’s bare breasts and it is pounded into her heart. But the feeble attempt at hammering the stake wouldn’t be enough to pierce flesh, much less bone. And the scene is intercut between seeing the hammer "hit" the stake and then the stake being deeper in Isabel’s chest. Not only is it obvious the stake was continually shortened then placed back on the spot between the breasts, but the stake length changes continually from shot to shot. The entire scene is punctuated by cheap flame effects using forced perspective, and while the scene runs for an interminable amount of time and the flames keep growing, Isabel never seems to be burnt by the flames. This could be chalked up to her supernatural powers, but it’s clear the reason has more to do with a lack of production values.

As if Polselli was concerned that the film would be too horrific (!), he also threw in some badly done comic scenes that are much more horrific than anything else in the film. Stefanie Fassio plays Steffy, one of the revelers, in a very broad, almost slapstick and over-the-top fashion. Meant to be funny, these scenes are only irritating. There is a reason this is listed as Fassio’s third and last credit on IMDb. I’d have given up after this role, too.

But all is not lost with Black Magic Rites. Fans of Eurosleaze know all too well the shortcomings of these kinds of films, but also their charms. Polselli may not have had much money, but he was successful in creating a film with a great deal of atmosphere in some sequences. His use of color rivals Bava and early Argento (think Suspiria). The film is saturated in garish reds, blues, and greens, sometimes going psychedelic and spinning in a literal rainbow of color. Polselli also punctuates the film with several odd but outstanding camera angles. And the real reason the film was made–as a vehicle for Calderoni’s lovely breasts–is quite obvious. Along with Calderoni, many of the nubile young women remove their clothes every chance they get. There isn’t much sex on display, other than a brief but inept scene played for comedic effect, but we do get wall-to-wall breasts, definitely a plus and probably the major draw for many viewers.

While Black Magic Rites may not be the best film, or even the best representation of the genre, there are plenty of fans for this kind of film. Kino-Lorber has teamed with Redemption Films to present Black Magic Rites (which actually contains the original title of Rites, Black Magic and Secret Orgies in the Fourteenth Century) using a very nice print and in its original Italian language with English subtitles. It includes the original theatrical trailer. For more information, see www.kinolorber.com.