The vast catalog of Spanish horror films undeniably represents a treasure trove, so far ill-represented on DVD in the U.S. With the exception of a few scattered releases from Anchor Bay (THE BLOOD SPATTERED BRIDE, CANNIBAL MAN, WEREWOLF SHADOW, CURSE OF THE DEVIL), a long-awaited upcoming box set of Amando de Ossorio’s “Blind Dead” series from Blue Underground, and several other budget releases of questionable quality, there’s not much to go out and grab. But Pathfinder has now released A BELL FROM HELL (they were most likely able to acquire the rights since it’s actually a Spanish/French production), one of the quintessential works of Spanish horror, directed by Claudio Guerín Hill, who either fell or jumped to his death from the titular bell's tower on the last day of shooting (it was then completed by Juan Antonio Bardem).
French actor Renaud Verley portrays John, a mentally unbalanced man who is released from a clinic on a probation basis. After setting fire to his papers to report back, he works briefly in a slaughterhouse and then motorcycles off to the village where his wheelchair-bound Aunt Marta (the legendary Viveca Lindfors) and her three beautiful daughters (Mirabel Martin, Christine Betzner and Nuria Gimeno) live. Apparently, Aunt Marta has much to do with John being committed, and also wants to manipulate his inheritance (his mother committed suicide). Eccentric John moves into his old family house, adorning it with wild animals and other exotic items, and makes life hell for his three cousins (two of which he has sexual relations with) who are later dangled nude -- slaughterhouse style (an unforgettable scene!), and Aunt Marta, who gets her face smeared with honey and is left outside with a swarm of bees. The tables are turned on John when the bulky new bell for the local church and a shifty family friend named Pedro (Alfredo Mayo, who becomes the sinister villain to Verley’s sinister anti-hero) come into play to decide his fate.
With a screenplay by Santiago Moncada (A HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON, ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK), the character of John is ambiguous, as we never really know much about his past, how insane he really is and how much of what happens on screen is actually in his mind. But what A BELL FROM HELL may lack in logical contrivance is made up for in style and uniqueness. Even though it owes a bit to Hammer Films’ psychological horrors of the 1960s, the surrealist visions of Louis Bunuel, and the macabre writings of Edgar Allan Poe, the film has a number of clever shocks and a perversity about it that makes it fascinating to watch. John’s morbid practical jokes involve everything from pulling his own eyes out, to a peculiar incident in a men’s room, to a fabricated rape of passed-out married woman he once had a thing with, to a mechanical life-size look-alike which is instrumental during the final sequence. The camera is planted in the most unusual places, boasting some very inventive shots, and the film’s persistent ambiance of sexual and murderous tension, performed by a stellar international cast, makes this one of the genre’s finest of the 1970s.
Various sources list an alternative running time of over 100 minutes, but this 92-minute version appears to be complete, including nudity and the genuine (and very unsettling) slaughterhouse footage removed from most prints. In the U.S., the film was edited and sold directly to TV by Avco Embassy, so this DVD release comes as a real treat for those who finally want to see (and own) a definitive edition. Letterboxed at 1.85:1 with anamorphic enhancement, there’s very little to complain about here. The transfer presents the film (with the onscreen title of “The Bells”) compositionally balanced, with crisp detail, vivid colors, and natural-looking fleshtones. There is a mono English track (the audio of choice since the actors are speaking their lines in English, and it’s where you'll hear Lindfors’ real voice), as well as a Spanish and French track. The Spanish version is missing dialog that was apparently never dubbed in the language (further evidence that a longer version doesn’t exist) and therefore subtitled.
Extras include the alternative Spanish beginning and end titles, plus an alternative lovemaking scene obviously lensed for a “clothed” version. These have all been culled from a letterboxed Spanish video tape. There is also an intelligent audio commentary by Chris D., who puts the plot and characters into perspective, as well as a film essay (also by Chris D.), biographies on some of the main participants, and a still gallery which is mostly made up of screen grabs from the movie – though it does include various video covers. Trailers from other Pathfinders DVD releases are also present on the disc, but no actual trailer for A BELL FROM HELL is. (George R. Reis)
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