Director: Riccardo Freda (Robert Hampton)
Dark Sky Films/MPI

Director Riccardo Freda is credited with helming I, VAMPIRI (1956), often cited as the film inaugurating Italian gothic horror cinema. Ironically, the film was completed by cameraman Mario Bava. While Bava went on to become an icon of the genre, Freda’s reputation as such is of a much lesser extent, beeing best known for the Barbara Steele gothics THE TERROR OF DR. HICHCOCK and THE GHOST. During the 1960s and 1970s, Freda would find commercial success with a number of spy thrillers, muscleman epics, murder mysteries, and even a western, but every so often he would revisit horror with films like TRAGIC CEREMONY, made during the latter part of his career.

After a peaceful sailboat ride, four young people, including rich kid Bill (Tony Isbert), Joe (Maximo Valverde), Fred (Giovanni Petrucci) and Jane (Camille Keaton), knock on the door of a secluded villa after their dune buggy runs out of gas. Earlier in the day, Bill had given the lovely Jane a pearl necklace with a supposedly paranormal history, and this later opens up a can of worms. They are invited to spend the night at the mansion, owned by Lord Alexander (Luigi Pistilli) and Lady Alexander (Luciana Paluzzi), who happen to be hosting a strange ceremony that night attended by a group of eccentrics in black robes. During the evening, Jane exits her sleep chamber, seemingly in some kind of trance, and is lured to a sacrificial alter where the robed houseguests are hovering over her. As a knife is about to be plunged into the young lady, her three friends come to the rescue, but they are also witness to a chaotic mass murder catastrophe in which they flee with feelings of guilt and uncertainty.

A co-production between Italy and Spain, TRAGIC CEREMONY is a very unusual and uneven film that still has plenty to offer, especially since it’s been largely unseen by horror fans. With its eerie, surreal occurrences and ghost-like characters set amongst an early 1970s backdrop, the film is somewhat reminiscent but not nearly as masterful or lyrical as Bava’s LISA AND THE DEVIL (made the same year), but it’s far more entertaining than the Satan-worshipping shenanigans of Jose Larraz’s BLACK CANDLES, which it also feels similar to. Despite frequent reliance on the zoom lens and an all-around impression of a rushed shoot, Freda is able to convey his usual air of stormy night spookiness, fashioned around the dark corridors of an antiquated, trinket-filled manor. Typifying this is when Camille Keaton is shown strutting endlessly, holding a candelabra, as the Prince of Darkness is being summoned in another room.

The “tragic ceremony” is the highlight of the film, not only for its unexpected outrageousness, but for the incredible gore effects of Carlo Rambaldi. Here, we witness a cranium split in half by a sword, a gushing bullet shot to the forehead, an old hag falling face-first into a fire, and a decapitation which looks very similar to the one Rambaldi did for FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN. Although Rambaldi become best known for designing E.T. and ALIEN, he created some of the most distinct, graphic, blood-soaked imagery of 1970s Italian horror cinema, and since his retirement, his work is sorely missed.

As the four lead characters are longhaired and often seen loafing or strumming a guitar, there’s a direct reference to the Manson murders, making the film somewhat topical for 1972, but more so, typically exploitive of newspaper headlines. When they watch the news report at the scene of the massacre on television, an announcer states how the murders are “strangely reminiscent of Sharon Tate’s.” American born Camille Keaton (grand-niece of Buster Keaton) had already made an impression in WHAT HAVE THEY DONE TO SOLANGE?, and it’s easy to see why she got her career off the ground in Italy; the camera absolutely loves her and she’s not a bad actress. Blond-haired pretty boy Tony Isbert was a fixture in 1970s Spanish horror, appearing in Leon Klimovsky’s SAGA OF THE DRACULAS and Paul Naschy’s INQUISITION. The late Luigi Pistilli (TWITCH OF THE DEATH NERVE) and the always ravishing Luciana Paluzzi (THE GREEN SLIME), both very big stars in Italy, seem to have filmed their scenes in one day, as they have very little screen time, but are always a welcomed presence. Seen briefly are Milo Queseda (THE BLOODY JUDGE) as a policeman and Jess Franco regular Paul Muller as a white-coated doctor who tries to explain everything in the end.

With more than enough to recommend it, TRAGIC CEREMONY has been a much bootlegged title now getting its first official U.S. home video release from Dark Sky Films. The film is here presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement and looks quite good. Though the opening credits look a bit grainy, the rest of the film is consistent with nice colors and a decent level of detail. The image is mostly very smooth with only some grain and speckling in parts. The audio comes in a mono Italian track with optional English subtitles. There is some scratchiness that can be detected from time to time, but otherwise the track sounds fine. Stelvio Cipriani (TENTACLES) provides a pleasing, if sometimes over-the-top music score.

The featurette “Camille's European Adventures” runs about 13 minutes and is a rare interview with actress Camille Keaton. Here, Keaton talks about her early films in Italy (WHAT HAVE THEY DONE TO SOLANGE?, DECAMERON 2, etc.) and her experiences on TRAGIC CEREMONY, including that she had a crush on Tony Isbert and that she supplied her own wardrobe. She also sees similarities between the film and the notorious one she’s best known for; I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE. An Italian trailer for the film under the Italian title which translates to “From The Secret Police Files Of A European Capital” proves that they tried to sell it in Europe as a giallo, though it’s far from it. (George R. Reis)