The Murder Mansion/La mansión de la niebla/Maniac Mansion (1972)

‘But there’s one good thing; we’re near a cemetery.’

A motorcyclist picks up a young woman hitchhiking, but they lose their way in the fog on the road to Milan. They run into a woman in an expensive car, who is also lost, and all three take refuge in an old, dark house by a churchyard. There they find other travellers in a similar situation, and the woman who owns the house reveals that local legend has it that vampires and phantoms stalk the area…

A rather intriguing mixture of traditional horror and the Giallo, ill-served by a weak script and loose handling by director Francisco Lara Polop. The cast is headed up by some familiar faces from Italian genre cinema of the time, although, judging by the talent behind the camera, this international co-production had a heavy Spanish bias.

Handsome young biker Fred (Andrés Resino) thinks his luck’s in when he spots pretty young Laura (Lisa Leonardi) by the side of the road. Unfortunately, she opts for the more respectable ride of dark-suited businessman, Mr Porter (Franco Fantasia). It’s not long before she’s switching rides, though, inspired by Fantasia’s wandering hands. Fred promises to get her to Milan before sundown, but a wrong turn and a low-lying fog see them come off the bike on a lonely back road.

It’s then that they run into the wealthy Elsa (Analía Gadé), who should be on her way to meet her lawyer, Tremont (Eduardo Fajardo) and his wife, played by Yelena Samarina. She’s hoping to finalise an important business deal but needs the signature of her wastrel husband, Ernest (Alberto Dalbés), who’s busy making deals of a more physical kind with gold digger Ellen (Ingrid Garbo). By the time Resino and Leonardi roll up, Gadé’s already been frightened out of her wits by a couple of strange figures emerging from a nearby graveyard, but they seem to have vanished as mysteriously as they appeared. Resino suggests taking shelter in an isolated mansion close by, and there they find Fantasia and Fajardo and Samarina, everyone having lost their way in the extreme weather conditions.

The owner of the house is happy to let them stay the night. Martha Clinton (Evelyn Stewart) doesn’t usually occupy the premises, but she’s the last in line of the aristocratic family that previously lived there for generations. She tells them that the nearby village was abandoned many years before due to a wave of sudden deaths that the locals put down to the work of a vampire. Stewart also claims her aunt was a witch, and the story of her death seems to tie in with the apparitions that frightened Gadé in the graveyard. And, of course, she bares an uncanny resemblance to her aunt, as evidenced by the inevitable portrait above the fireplace.

The notion of pairing the Giallo, essentially a mystery thriller with a horror edge, with the more traditional frights more familiar to the silver screen during the 1930s is an interesting one, but it’s a tricky juggling act. On the one hand, you need to set up the basic premise of the former, here the kind of ‘closed circle’ affair much beloved by Agatha Christie fans, and yet emphasise the latter in an attempt to convince the audience that the supernatural elements are real. Unfortunately, the script by Luis G de Blain isn’t all that smart, and director Polop doesn’t have the sure touch to put the hackneyed business across, resulting in a film where the threat might be tangible but the mechanics of the plot and its upcoming twists are all too clear to see.

It’s difficult for the audience to invest in the dreary proceedings because most of the cast struggle to haul any of their underwritten characters off the printed page and into life. Stewart is semi-successful, giving her aristocrat an appropriately cold and regal air, but it’s still little more than a thumbnail sketch. However, there are some acting honours, and they belong without question to Gadé. She gives a wonderfully intense and committed performance, grabbing the lacklustre material by the throat and transforming it into something almost worthwhile, apparently by the sheer force of her will alone.

No doubt it helped that the script gives Elsa a little backstory, something notably absent for all the other characters. It’s pretty thin stuff, really, but a lengthy flashback features her wayward father, played by George Rigaud. His death sends her into a mental tailspin, probably because his massive heart attack was triggered by the extracurricular activity he was carrying out with her best friend from college at the time. So, Elsa is damaged, and her relationships with men are complicated, giving the actress some context for building a performance. Credit to Gadé for giving it her all, of course, but it’s a shame that such talent and energy is channelled into a project with so little merit.

Technically, the film is competently made, although even the atmosphere of the fog-shrouded graveyard is somewhat diluted by the gothic overkill of Marcello Giombini’s overbearing, strident score. Horror fans expecting creative or graphic kills will also be disappointed by the presentation of the murders, as much as mystery fans are likely to be underwhelmed by the story’s predictable payoff. In fact, the last act gets progressively sillier and sillier until it approaches parody, which was unlikely to have been the filmmaker’s intention. And spare a thought for Samarina. The convolutions of the ridiculous plot dictate that her character sleeps through most of the action! Although perhaps that wasn’t such a bad thing.

Gadé was born in Argentina in 1931 and ran away from a religious school to enter a beauty contest at age 15. She won, and it provided a springboard for her acting ambitions, first on the stage and then on the screen. By 1956 when she decamped for Madrid with her actor-husband, the much-married Juan Carlos Thorry, she had already appeared in more than a dozen films and was playing leading roles. She worked steadily throughout the following years, although her work was little seen outside continental Europe. She did have a minor role in the Sophia Loren vehicle ‘Madame’ (1961) and a much more prominent part opposite ex-Hollywood royalty Gene Tierney in mystery-horror ‘Four Nights of the Full Moon’ (1963). Unfortunately, that production ran out of money mid-shoot, and although a truncated version was apparently released, the film is now considered lost. Gadé won plaudits for her performance in the horror film ‘Exorcism’s Daughter/Las melancólicas’ (1971), where she starred with her husband, Espartaco Santoni. However, the experience was soured when she discovered he was having an affair with another actress on the picture. This may explain why Samarina spends much of this movie on the sidelines. Yes, she was the third corner of the love triangle, which couldn’t have made for an easy atmosphere on set.

This was Polop’s first feature as a director, although he had been working in the industry as a Production Manager for about a decade and had chalked up a single writing credit courtesy of the musical comedy ‘Megaton Ye-Ye’ (1965). He had worked in the former capacity on a couple of Giallo pictures, Umberto Lenzi’s ‘A Quiet Place to Kill/Paranoia’ (1970) and ‘The Glass Ceiling/El techo de cristal’ (1971). It would be tempting to put down this film’s shortcomings to his lack of experience, and that may have played a part, but his subsequent directorial output is not well-regarded. His final film was a version of Matthew Lewis’ church-baiting gothic novel ‘The Monk’, later filmed to far greater notice with Vincent Cassel and Geraldine Chaplin in 2004. Polop’s take was released in 1990 and starred the eighth Doctor Who, Paul McGann, Sophie Ward and Isla Blair, one of the very few occasions Polop got to work with cast members known outside continental Europe.

A disappointing scribble of a film poorly thought out and indifferently executed.

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