Scorpion Releasing fills the inexcusable void of Spanish horror films available in HD in the U.S. by delivering Eugenio Martín’s essential psycho thriller A CANDLE FOR THE DEVIL on Blu-ray, as well as a same-master DVD distributed by Kino Lorber.
In a tourist-heavy Spanish village, two middle-aged spinster sisters — Marta (Aurora Bautista, TWENTY THOUSANDS DOLLARS FOR SEVEN) and the younger Veronica (Esperanza Roy, RETURN OF THE EVIL DEAD) — run an old fashioned hostel which apparently attracts young female travelers, as well as a group of locals who frequent the place for a hardy lunch. One such tourist, an English girl named May (Loretta Tova, NIGHT OF THE SORCERERS), is indulging in some rather innocent backside topless sunbathing on the terrace as a bunch of fellows loudly gawk at her from across the way. When self-righteous Marta catches wind of the girl’s indecency, her aggressive disapproval ends up in May getting pushed down a spiral staircase and into a stained glass window, with the sharp broken glass piercing her to death. Immediately after the incident, May’s sister Laura (Judy Geeson, FEAR IN THE NIGHT) shows up expecting to meet up with her equally-blonde sibling, causing Marta and Veronica to create a story about her leaving and then get rid of the body. Laura rents a room there, and asks all around town if anybody’s seen her sister.
Wearing the shortest shorts possible, another young border flaunting her body, Helen (Lone Fleming, star of the first two “Blind Dead” movies), arrives to flirt with the local men and taunt Marta about her repressed sexuality, only to get stabbed to death with Veronica joining in as an accomplice to the late-night impromptu murder. Another girl named Norma (Blanca Estrada, HORROR OF THE ZOMBIES) shows up to rent a room with her baby boy in tow. Laura befriends the girl, totally freaked out about her missing sister as well as the sudden, unexplained disappearance of Helen, and since the sisters don’t care for Norma’s mothering methods and are convinced her baby is illegitimate, that can only lead to no good. Totally convinced that the two weird sisters are responsible for all these missing lasses, Laura confides in a friendly playboy type (frequent Paul Naschy co-star Vic Winner, HORROR RISES FROM THE TOMB) to pretend to be the husband so he can snoop around the hostel, where he makes some gruesome discoveries, and after reports of a rash of food poisoning, the authorities stumble upon some very incriminating evidence.
The prolific Eugenio Martín only dabbled in the horror genre, for at the time he was better known for his westerns. Previous to this film, Martín helmed the popular crackerjack monster flick HORROR EXPRESS, which is considered to be one of the finest cinematic pairings of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Unlike HORROR EXPRESS, A CANDLE FOR THE DEVIL doesn’t contain any supernatural elements but it embraces the "Grande Dame Guignol" or “Hag Horror” sub-genre of psychological horror plotted around older women as antagonists. As far as the plot goes, the film doesn’t break any new ground but the execution (boasting more than a few exceptionally shocking scenes, which may not be overly disturbing but will certainly linger in the mind after a viewing) is undeniably meaty with Martín’s suspenseful direction and tight pacing (a quick series of macabre incidents which could only occur in cinematic time), and the kind of atmosphere expected in economical but well-crafted European horror films from the early 1970s. Martín also co-wrote the script, and though the film is never overly gruesome, it has the right amount of knife and hatchet attacks and that aura of decay (the camera lingering on bloodied butcher meat which the sisters so casually chop at, as well as a corpse submerged in a basement wine vat) which places it in a category with another Spanish thriller from the same period, Eloy de la Iglesia’s unforgettable CANNIBAL MAN.
Even if A CANDLE FOR THE DEVIL can be described as the Spanish equivalent of an American "Grande Dame Guignol", the budget didn’t allow for veteran Hollywood divas as the two sisters, but that’s fine since the casting of Bautista and Roy as the pair is ideal and works perfect for the film. Introduced looking very conservative and expectedly wearing their hair up, Bautista plays the older, fanatically psychotic sibling while Roy is the meek one (and easily the milfier of the two, accounting for much of the film’s female nudity during her lovemaking scenes with the younger man she’s having a secret affair with) who after some conscientious hesitation, easily follows her elder sister’s murderous lead. Their performances are quite chilling, with each given some decent characterization while the religious symbolism is ever prevalent (the first murdered girl is pierced with a piece of stained glass displaying God’s blade, after zealot Marta ogles some skinny-dipping boys she is cut up by thorns from the surrounding bushes, etc.). Already an international star and appearing in quite a few thrillers made in her homeland, British actress Geeson is well cast as the pretty girl who looks sweet and innocent enough not to fall into the sisters’ clutches, at least not right away. With some terrific interior shots (some which display the sisters as if they were a pair of demonic twins), scenic usage of the Spanish locations as well as obvious locals as extras (everybody from cab and bus drivers to museum guards and toothless onlookers), the film is filled with familiar actors from Amando de Ossorio’s “Blind Dead” series as well as Martín’s own HORROR EXPRESS, so fans of these types of films will have fun spotting them (Fernando Hilbeck, who played the first zombie in Jorge Grau’s THE LIVING DEAD AT THE MANCHESTER MORGUE, can also be seen). The erratic score is provided by Antonio Pérez Olea (THE BLOOD SPATTERED BRIDE) which is properly eerie while incorporating church organ sounds and rock guitar pieces, all depending on the scene.
Better known as IT HAPPENED AT NIGHTMARE INN in the U.S., CANDLE FOR THE DEVIL was also shown on television as NIGHTMARE HOTEL in a heavily truncated cut of the film which appears to be the source of a number of bootleg DVDs. Scorpion’s new Blu-ray of the film is fully uncut, utilizing a new HD master for the transfer. Presented in 1080p HD in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio, the picture is gorgeously presented, with colors looking vibrant and true. No DNR or other tampering was done, so any grain looks pleasingly organic while detail is crisp throughout, and any blemishes found on the source elements are miniscule. Darker scenes which were hard to decipher in previous presentations are now as clear as can be, and although the film’s low budget origins are still evident, the transfer is terrific. The DTS-HD mono track is perfectly fine, with clear English dialog (post synced, with most of the Spanish actors speaking their lines in English and Geeson dubbing her own voice) and the music sounding well-balanced throughout the presentation.
The main extras here is a new video interview with actress Judy Geeson (18:45) who discusses going to Spain to make A CANDLE FOR THE DEVIL not knowing much about the talent involved in the film, feeling like a fish out of water on the set and that she was given an English language version of the script. She describes working with the two leads, saying that Roy refused to speak her lines in English while describing Bautista as a real team player, and that she absolutely loved being in Spain. Geeson admits to recently seeing the film for the first time, but that she saw a lot of good qualities in it and thinks it’s wonderful that these types of films are now getting a new life. Geeson also shares anecdotes on a number of films she did, including BERSERK (and working with Joan Crawford), HERE WE GO ROUND THE MULBERRY BUSH, HAMMERHEAD (and its jinxed production), PRUDENCE AND THE PILL, TWO GENTLEMEN SHARING, THREE INTO TWO WON’T GO, THE EXECUTIONER, GOODBYE GEMINI, 10 RILLINGTON PLACE, FEAR IN THE NIGHT, IT’S NOT THE SIZE THAT COUNTS, ADVENTURES OF A TAXI DRIVER, THE EAGLE HAS LANDED, DOMINIQUE and INSEMINOID. An original English-language international trailer is included, and you can play the film in “Nightmare Theater” mode with wraparound segments hosted by Katarina Leigh Waters.
Scorpion Releasing’s Blu-ray of A CANDLE FOR THE DEVIL is available exclusively through Screen Archives Entertainment. (George R. Reis)
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