A Bell From Hell is right. Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger says that this film will resonate with anyone who has slurped down extreme fajitas and mystery meat tacos at 2:00 AM.
Who will escape the terror?
La campana del infierno is otherwise known as A Bell From Hell or, if you believe the opening credits, The Bells. No matter what you call it, whispers and mystery shroud this 1973 arthouse/horror flick like a cloak.
Facts of the Case
John (Renaud Verley, The Dammed) emerges sullen but bright-eyed from an asylum. He was placed there by his Aunt Marta (Viveca Lindfors, Stargate), the executor of the estate he inherited. John and Marta don't precisely see eye to eye, and we are left to ponder whether John is truly insane or just eccentric.
John doesn't help his case when he begins a siege of cruel pranks aimed at his young cousins Maria (Christine Betzner), Teresa (Nuria Gimeno, Lola), and Esther (Maribel Martin, The Blood Spattered Bride). The four have a history of love-hate antics. Is John's malice a tasteless practical joke, or does he have a sinister aim? It may not matter when small-minded local Pedro (Alfredo Mayo, The Hunt) intervenes in their game.
There are two distinct schools of thought regarding A Bell From Hell (the movie itself, not the mystique surrounding it, which we'll get to momentarily). Some find it off-puttingly typical of most Spanish-French '70s horror: nonsensical, concerned with tone over substance, and laced with gothic kitsch. The point is valid. A Bell From Hell is not a coherent work; in terms of pure linear storytelling, it is difficult to follow. The film doesn't have a plot so much as a loose string of moody scenes that periodically resurface to connect to previous scenes. Subplots come and go without warning, dropping maddening hints of a deeper connection. A Bell From Hell quickly deteriorates at the first whisper of logic or scrutiny. Even the most basic premise is shaky: Why is John released from the asylum in the first place?
This disjointed presentation gives linear-minded viewers every excuse to disengage their brains and switch into nitpicking mode. But if you can avoid that temptation and willingly submerse yourself in mood rather than details, you will find A Bell From Hell much more rewarding. The film's loosely affiliated scenes effectively establish nuanced moments, with creepy as the backbone. Creepy-weird opening credits evoke a surrealist vibe of melted faces and strange postures, but the depicted events are thematically tied to the film's closing. The opening scene is creepy-rebellious, as John burns his discharge papers and screams across the countryside on his motorcycle. John's actions swing from creepy-funny to creepy-malicious.
A fine example of the former is when John entertains the slow-witted Pedro in his aunt's drawing room. He spins a spooky tale of dead daughters and sea mist, which sets up a practical joke that sends Pedro fleeing from the room. This scene showcases the film's ability to carry dual themes. The scene works as horror, putting the audience on edge and hitting us with an unbearable burst of tension. But the eventual truth completely alters our earlier conclusions and provides a laugh made deeper by the contrast. A Bell From Hell continually sets up dual interpretations, which makes us constantly struggle with perception and sways our sympathies.
This ebb and flow of our sympathy builds as the film wears on, culminating in the final showdown where we must decide whether John is justified and whether his insanity came before or after his incarceration. A Bell From Hell takes great pains to set up a graphic, shocking finale, but it never materializes. John has set his aunt and three nieces up, and he has complete control of them. Will he kill them? Will he scare them? Run away with one of them? The possibilities are open, but we're sure that blood and gore are coming. The moment that we come to realize this gore is not going to materialize may seam weak, but I think the opposite is true. John's conflict shows us more that anything else the mental burden he's been under the entire time. It is a clever twist on the standard horror formula, one that makes us think about all of the characters and their motivations.
Let's not overlook the other extreme of the creepout spectrum, which is creepy-malicious. John finds work at a slaughterhouse in A Bell From Hell's most notorious subtheme. I don't want to spoil the film for you, so I won't go into how the slaughterhouse scene ratchets the later tension up to a fever pitch. I must comment on the slaughterhouse footage, however. If the cow-slaughter scene in Apocalypse Now is a Twinkie, then A Bell From Hell is a Twinkie thirty-five feet long, weighing approximately six hundred pounds. The film is remarkably chaste, passing up obvious opportunities to exploit nudity and violence. But in this regard the film holds nothing back. We literally see rivers of blood, disembowelings, slit throats, and dismemberment. Not special effects, mind you, but actual death. As the cows writhe in agony on the floor, spewing their internal organs over the concrete, John and his coworkers lop off their hooves while the cows scream in pain. This scene is the only crack in Renaud Verley's bemused facade, the one time he is rattled. The reason is simple: Renaud Verley is an actor, and probably unaccustomed to plunging knife blades deep into living animals. I suspect his horror is unfeigned.
This brings us into the shroud of infamy that surrounds the film. Death and doom follow it. Created during Franco's reign, A Bell From Hell is dangerously free with its critique of European social and political climates. The subtext of the film is the kind of thing that got people thrown into cells to rot. This is Claudio Guerin's only major film, one that shows promise, but he wasn't able to fulfill it. Claudio fell from the bell tower and died on set during the last day of filming. Appropriately given A Bell From Hell's duality, it is unclear whether his death was accidental or intentional.
Guerin's death explains much about the film's editing and structure, and provides an explanation for the triumph of individual scenes amid the failure of the whole. He directly influenced the flow of specific scenes in the dailies, but he was not present for the final cutting. When a vision dies with its visionary, who can pick up the pieces? We will never know what A Bell From Hell could have been, though promise permeates the production to tease us.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The editing of the film has a built-in excuse, but the DVD's technical
handling does not. [Author's Note: Actually, there is a reasonable explanation.
I initially reported that "This 1.85:1 presentation is cropped from the original
2.35:1, and badly at that." Although IMDb lists the aspect ratio as 2.35:1 and
noticable cropping does exist, the film was originally shot in 1.85:1.
Pathfinder was denied access to the original 35mm elements, so the main element
used for the DVD release was a 16:9 anamorphic video master which had been
improperly converted from a 4:3 master. As such, the cropping is less severe, so
I've modified the video and overall scores to reflect this.] It is overmatted on
top and bottom and off-centered to boot. Entire characters and establishing
details are missing in some scenes. Why stop with truncated real
estate—why not trim for content as well? Depending on who you listen to,
there's between two and fourteen minutes of footage missing from this cut of the
film. Otherwise, the visual quality is great, with a clean print, high detail,
stable colors (with a few exceptions of tone fluctuations), and freedom from
digital artifacts. I'd prefer deeper black levels and higher saturation in the
colors, but overall the picture looks impressive.
The audio is not in good shape. The film opens with a loud background hiss that fades to a dull whisper with time. Pops, clicks, and tiny-to-moderate dropouts exist throughout the film. Near the end the mix becomes very hot, distorting at high frequencies and blooming into white noise around the edges. The audio never erupted to the point that it hurt my ears, but I wouldn't call it a soothing audio experience either.
The extras are numerous and bland. The alternate Spanish cut scenes merely remind us that the film was cut. Cast and crew biographies are inconsequential for those with Internet access, and the still gallery could be recreated at whim by using the pause button. The only extras of note are Chris D's commentary and essay. The commentary makes good points about surrealism, political strife, and other deep topics, but Chris passes up too many obvious opportunities to tie themes together. It wouldn't be so frustrating if he filled the time with other comments, but thirty-second-long pauses are commonplace in this track. The essay is better because Chris condenses his ideas into a concise handful of paragraphs, which succinctly explain his enthusiasm for the film.
I haven't said much about "The Bell," a symbol that meanders through the film like a neon light on the blink. This bell ties in with several mystical subthemes and Puritanical small-mindedness that flow through the narrative. The symbol is rather heavy-handed, although it provides an interesting counterpoint to the main action. I also haven't said much about the hot nieces, animally magnetic incest, suppressed sexual drives, and other racy aspects of the film. It is all part of the disjointed kaleidoscope known as A Bell From Hell. If you ease off of logic and tap into the seventies vibe of cerebral euro-horror, A Bell From Hell will distinguish itself from similar works of the genre. The hissy audio and cropped image are major knocks against the DVD, but you still might enjoy watching this storied relic from tough political times.
If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
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Scales of Justice
• Essay by Chris D of American Cinematheque
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