THE REINCARNATION OF ISABEL (RENATO POLSELLI, 1973)
The title of Renato Polselli's 1972 giallo hybrid, in English, is Delirium. That title is a very appropriate one, and basically sums up the entirety of Polselli's filmography. All of his film feature intense delirium; chaos ensues, and one of the most bizarre and unique tones in Italian genre cinema is consistent. Polselli made his name out of mixing sex and horror while portraying an eccentric taste for bizarre and absurd situations.
Polselli's 1973 film, The Reincarnation of Isabel (or, as the literal translation would go Rites, Black Magic and Secret Orgies in the Fourteenth Century [which is from the Italian title, Riti, magie nere e segrete orge nel trecento]) is no different. The film is a psychidelic trip through paranoia and satanic rites, with an underlying theme of vampirism.
To describe the plot is a somewhat difficult task, but it essentially boils down to this: in the Fourteenth century a man's lover is burnt at the stake after being accused of being a witch. The man (played with utter seriousness by the crimson executioner himself, Mickey Hargitay) vows that he will reincarnate his lover, the titular Isabella. Some five-hundred odd years later, Laureen's step-father buys half of an old castle. Laureen's step-father is Jack Nelson (whose name is always said in full for some bizarre reason), who bares a more-than-striking resemblance to the man who watched his lover burn to death at the stake. After the family moves in, an engagement party is thrown for Laureen and her fiancé Richard. A very bizarre cast of characters populate the party; Laureen's mother, who looks about twenty years older than her husband, a doctor who makes ambiguously threatening comments, a man who randomly cannot stop blinking and twitching his eyes, Laureen and Richard, and about ten beautiful girls, presumably the friends of Laureen.
Shortly after (or during, it’s never clear, as every event depicted in the film appears to be happening simultaneously with everything else) the party, bizarre things start happening, and it isn't long before girls start either disappearing or dying. Who are the bizarrely dressed Satanists and what is the ritual they're attempting to perform? Will they accomplish their goals? Will the girls ever stop dying?
While the above plot may sound fairly straight-forward, the actual film is anything but. Any sense of time is completely abandoned, with flashbacks from the 14th century popping up in bizarre places in order to reveal more details of the sordid affair. Also, the entire film seems to take place within 24 hours, despite the fact it is nighttime and daytime sporadically, changing even within the same scenes (the most bizarre and disorienting example of this would be a scene in which two girls are possibly bitten by vampires and end up outside the castle, naked, where while it's light out behind them, they stare at a cross that's on fire in the dark; as the girls run the outside light changes from night to day and back again).
Somewhat surprisingly, the ending of the film fits the films internal sense of logic and fails to disappoint, which is a rarity in the case of films that offer such confusion. The ending does not neatly tie up every bizarre question that arises, but it does offer a suitable conclusion. As for the actors, Rita Calderoni plays the roles of both Laureen and Isabella with a detached sense of effort, spending half the film vacantly staring into the abyss (which is not-suprisingly very appropriate for the film). In fact, most of the characters maintain an utterly bizarre (yet coherent) tone that it just adds to the disconnected nature of the film. All of the men in the film seem slightly menacing and frightening, while all the woman are constantly detached and frightened.
Because the fact that the film is so disconnected with emotions, there are several scenes that stand out solely for their emotional content. The most notable one comes early on in the film, where Jack Nelson vacantly stares at his step-daughter while he appears to be having a flashback to the execution of his past-selfs lover. The camera closes in on his face as he sheds a few tears. His step-daughter is also moved by the combination of such a visual example of her step-fathers feelings and the beautiful music that is being played on the piano, and she sheds a few tears herself.
The acting is part of the reason why the film actually works as a whole. Despite being an utter mess in terms of continuity and plotting, tone and editing save the film. As mentioned before, the delerious tone of the film is kept up throughout, and tension arises from wondering what will happen next (as what will happen next is utterly impossible to guess). Polselli's editing also stands out, as he draws the most bizarre parallels with his use of cross-cutting; his rapid fire editing reminiscent of Carmelo Benes in the sense that often what's cut to may not be directly relevant, but helps to expand upon the mood of whatever is "currently" happening on screen. Another high point of the film is the amazing soundtrack (done by Romolo Forlai and Gianfranco Reverberi), which goes from prog-rock to emotional synthesizer ballads, to satanic experimentation, to psychedelia. The variety of the music helps to reinforce the chaos occurring on screen, and is a great accompaniment.
The only thing that does not work very well in the film is the completely out-of-place slapstick humor that occasionally permeates the film. The worst example is a de-virginizing farce that is cross cut into the films climax. It really adds nothing to the film and is not all that amusing in itself. Polselli seems to have just stuck it in as an excuse to have even more nudity.
Despite some short-comings, the film is a stellar example of the more experimental/psychedelic method of film-making that's relevant to the sex and blood genre. While he may not have been the best at scripting films, Polselli's understanding of editing makes The Reincarnation of Isabel a joy to watch, and it never becomes boring despite being incomprehensible, which is something that's a rare achievement.