DirectorPedro Olea/Silvio Narizzano/Gonzalo Suárez
Release Date(s)1970/1975/1976 (July 25, 2023)
Studio(s)Various (Vinegar Syndrome)
- Film/Program Grade: See Below
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: A-
While acknowledging the niche market for outré, sometimes genuinely oddball obscurities, films where the fine line between a surrealist forgotten masterpiece and impenetrable cinematic trash is wafer-thin, Vinegar Syndrome’s three-movie set Villages of the Damned: Three Horrors from Spain falls into that murky territory. In their defense, the label is to be applauded for bringing such little-seen works to light, and with stellar video transfers supported by worthwhile extras. But the films themselves are tepid to terrible and, for the most part, difficult to sit through.
Complicating matters is the packaging. The cover art is notably unattractive and the badly designed back-cover text makes for a confusing read, particularly given each film’s multiple alternate titles. What are these strange movies, exactly?
The Forest of the Beast (El bosque del lobo, The Forest of the Wolf, 1970), for instance, isn’t listed under that title on either the IMDb or Wikipedia, but rather as The Ancines Woods. It’s by far the best of the three, though still no lost masterpiece. Directed by Pedro Olea, it’s based on a novel by Carlos Martinez-Barbeito that, in turn, is partially rooted in the life of Manuel Blanco Romasanta, Spain’s first recorded serial killer, who claimed to be a victim of lycanthropy.
An itinerant peddler and guide, Romasanta (1809-1863) killed at least 13 people in Galicia (in northwestern Spain) before he was arrested in 1852. Prosecutors balked at Romasanta’s claims that he murdered his victims only when transformed into a wolf—he may actually have suffered from epilepsy—but later they were forced to drop four of the murder charges when forensic evidence proved those victims died in bona fide wolf attacks. He was sentenced to death but Queen Isabella II, no less, commuted his sentence to life imprisonment. The film is mostly a straightforward account of these events, with actor José Luis López Vázquez, heretofore known for his broad comedies, quite good as Romasanta in a subtle performance. He even closely resembles extant drawings of the alleged wolf man.
Nonetheless, The Forest of the Beast is not very appealing. It’s a werewolf movie without a werewolf, while as a historical drama it’s saddled with the same bland absence of style common to most cheap Spanish horror films, of the point-and-shoot school. The period atmosphere is better, even mildly impressive, and Vázquez is quite good, even genuinely creepy at times, but the film doesn’t offer much insight beyond re-creating the historical setting of Romasanta’s story. He’s just a tortured Larry Talbot of 19th century Spain; Vázquez is, perhaps, a better actor than Paul Naschy, whose werewolf Waldemar Daninsky was the subject of at least a dozen sometimes quite enjoyable Spanish horror films. (Film Rating: C+)
The Sky Is Falling/The Sky Is Falling (Las flores del vicio, 1975)—that’s the onscreen title—stars Dennis Hopper and plays almost like a continuation of his notorious career-killer The Last Movie (1971). Despite the added presence of Carroll Baker, Richard Todd, and a once-promising director, Silvio Narizzano, so obscure is the film that Wikipedia claims it was filmed in 1979, even though the copyright notice on the film lists 1975. The IMDb, meanwhile, lists it under an alternate title, Bloodbath.
Hopper plays “Chicken,” a heroin-addicted (alleged) poet living in a remote coastal village in Spain, also home to other expatriates including “Treasure” (Baker), a washed-up Hollywood star fruitlessly dreaming of a comeback; jaded homosexual Allen (Win Wells, a screenwriter and longtime companion of the director); and pompous retired British Air Corps captain Terence (Richard Todd) and his alcoholic wife, Heather (Faith Brook), who’s bored by his constantly reliving the past.
The village they inhabit has a vague, Wicker Man-like aura of dread and human sacrifice never explained, but equally troubling is the arrival of a group of young foreigners who latch onto the bored expats, mostly in the form of sexual relationships. Reviews describe them as “young hippies” and liken them to followers of Charles Manson, but most are muscular men that more closely resemble vacationing Chippendales dancers, not a surprise given the director’s (and Wells’s) orientation.
Director Narizzano (1927-2011) was, in fact, Canadian, though he spent most of his career in the U.K. He directed the usual British TV shows before helming his first feature, the enjoyable Hammer thriller Fanatic (1965). That was followed by the acclaimed Georgy Girl (1966), but Narizzano’s career went quickly downhill from there.
In The Sky Is Falling/The Sky Is Falling, he and not-untalented Spanish screenwriter Gonzalo Suárez craft a thoroughly unappetizing, unpleasant film obsessed with humiliation, violent death, and animal cruelty. In an early scene, a village woman literally rips the head off of a squawking chicken, and that’s soon followed by an enormous hog being gutted and bled as it squeals in agony. One little boy drowns in a local fountain while another, with obvious learning disabilities, is trampled to death by a crowd of celebratory villagers. (Mild spoilers) In the film’s most outrageous scene, Wells’s flamboyantly gay man is gored in the anus by a bull. (Given the Narizzano-Wells relationship, the film is weirdly homophobic.) A fun night at the movies this ain’t.
More unpleasantness: Hopped-up Hopper, in an early scene, returns home to his African-American girlfriend, Susannah (Alibe Parsons), another expat. He humiliates her with racial epitaphs, crushes raw eggs in her face, and forces her to sing Shortnin’ Bread. In still another scene with a new lover (Ivonne Sentis), he confesses a desire to rape her. Hopper, thankfully, doesn’t “go for it,” as he did in The Last Movie, but this film really does often resemble an extension of the incoherent themes and visual stylings of that misbegotten enterprise. Hopper himself didn’t hang around long enough to loop his dialogue; many of his lines are, obviously, dubbed by someone else. (Film Rating: D-)
Beatriz (1976) is more dignified, less unseemly than The Sky Is Falling/The Sky Is Falling, but equally plodding. The confused storytelling has a young boy, Juan (Oscar Martin), witnessing bandits attacking a seemingly gentle friar (Jorge Rivero, of the John Wayne Rio Lobo) who violently fights back, killing several of the would-be thieves in a bloody scuffle. Juan lives with his adult sister, Beatriz (Sandra Mozarowsky) and their mother, the Countess Dona Carlota (Carmen Sevilla). Their servant, Basilisa (Nadiuska), in wanting to save her ill son, turns, apparently, to Satan for help. Meanwhile, the mysterious friar turns up just as Beatriz becomes possessed by Satan.
Unlike The Sky Is Falling/The Sky Is Falling and similar to The Forest of the Beast, Beatriz is not really a horror film in the usual sense and neither exploitative or even explicit, in contrast to many desperate Euro-horror titles of the early ‘70s, many of which were heavily influenced by the disturbing Witchfinder General (1968). The deliberate, even sluggish pace is offset slightly by, once again, some interesting atmosphere, a feeling of dread and doom that pervades all three pictures. Also like the other two films, the story is slight and not much happens for long stretches, rendering all three dull and impenetrable to various degrees. (Film Rating: C-)
Vinegar Syndrome’s Villages of the Damned offers the three feature films on two Region-Free discs, all “newly scanned & restored in 4K from their original negatives,” according to the label. This seems true enough; while I didn’t care for any of the films, the transfers are all excellent for what they are. The Sky Is Falling/The Sky Is Falling is in 1.85:1 widescreen and presented in English only (appropriate given its cast), with the other two in 1.66:1 format and in Spanish only with English subtitles. All are in perfectly adequate DTS-HD Master Audio (2.0 mono).
The supplements are pretty good, too. They include an interview with The Forest of the Beast director Pedro Olea (38 minutes), along with an 11-minute introduction to that film by film historians Angel Sala, Carlos Benitez, and Xavi-Sanchez-Pons; actor José Lifante of Beatriz is interviewed in a segment running 19 minutes; and actress Ivonne Sentis is interviewed about her work in The Sky Is Falling/The Sky Is Falling, which runs 17 minutes.
Some viewers will find much to like in the Villages of the Damned collection, but I was mostly bored and irritated, particularly the unnecessarily authentic animal cruelty in The Sky Is Falling/The Sky Is Falling. Vinegar Syndrome is to be applauded for making them available, especially in such commendable presentations with good extras, but the films themselves disappoint.
- Stuart Galbraith IV