From the early fifties to the late sixties, Emilio Miraglia was a script supervisor, unit director and assistant director for a pretty varied series of Italian genre films, from sword-and-sandal epics and sex comedies to political thrillers. His first directorial efforts were two Henry Silva vehicles, Assassination and The Falling Man. (Frequently cast as a classic villain in Hollywood, Actor’s Studio-alumnus Silva made a number of westerns and poliziotteschis in Italy throughout the seventies, cast, refreshingly, as a more heroic protagonist.) A tepidly-received international caper film, The Vatican Affair (1968), then led to the two giallos for which he is most famous: The Night Evelyn Came Out Of The Grave and The Red Queen Kills Seven Times. Neither film is any kind of masterpiece, but Miraglia’s insistent visual sense and muscular storytelling panache make both films far more compelling than they perhaps deserve to be.
In The Night Evelyn Came Out Of The Grave (La Notte Che Evelyn Uscì Dalla Tomba) (Italy, 1971), we meet Lord Alan Cunningham (Anthony Steffen), a ridiculously wealthy country gent whose marriage to the late redheaded Evelyn ended tragically – he schemed to punish her for infidelities, but not before she bore him a child. Alas, both she and the baby died in the childbirth, and Alan took leave of his senses almost altogether. When the film starts, Alan is convalescing in the asylum run by his longtime friend Dr. Richard Timberlane (Giacomo Rossi Stuart). His treatment supposedly completed, Lord Alan maintains a few faulty circuits nonetheless – he likes to pick up available local redheads, bring them back to his crumbling estate, act out on his S & M revenge fantasies concerning his dear departed Evelyn, and then murder them. The ever-helpful Dr. Timberlane suggests that maybe he needs to get over these unfortunate proclivities by getting married again! Nonetheless, Alan actually has very supportive family and friends whom are unaware of his more extreme indulgences: the wheelchair-bound Aunt Agatha (Joan C. Davies), who runs the household and supervises the domestics; the family’s estate manager, Farley (Umberto Raho); Evelyn’s sullen younger brother Albert (Roberto Maldera) (whom Aunt Agatha has kept on for groundskeeping and discreet hanky-panky), and Alan’s boisterous cousin George (Enzo Tarascio). Alan, in fact, recruits man-about-town George to help him shop around for potential wives (doctor’s orders!). George’s first recommendation is Susan (giallo trouper Erika Blanc), a redheaded stripper who emerges from a coffin as part of her dance routine. It doesn’t seem like George’s efforts constitute much of an upgrade, especially when Alan lures Susan back home, brings her into the dungeon, and commences his usual lethal whips-and-bondage routine. Susan isn’t buying into this, though, and she manages to flee outside, intrusively stumbling into Evelyn’s mausoleum and traumatizing Alan, causing him to collapse. When he awakens, still in the crypt, Susan is long gone.
Weeks later, George is having a party at his estate where Alan meets the gorgeous (and blonde, not redhead!) Gladys (Marina Malfatti). Alan is smitten, and with none of those urges in sight, proposes to her that very night. What a relief to put all of that other stuff behind him! Gladys will save him! Aunt Agatha even hires a new quintet of housemaids, all in blonde wigs, to help Alan divest himself of his redheaded specter. Of course, now that everything is seemingly resolving, other mysterious omens appear. Gladys tells of happening across a friendly and helpful redheaded maid in the kitchen whom Aunt Agatha insists she never hired. Convinced that Evelyn may not be dead, Gladys takes her own tour of the Cunningham mausoleums. The groundskeeper Albert meets a mysterious grisly death, followed by the even ghastlier murder of Aunt Agatha. It seems now that while Alan is no longer haunted by Evelyn, Gladys now is; she convinces Alan to let her destroy Evelyn’s painted portrait, but freaks out when Evelyn appears hovering outside the bedroom window one fateful stormy night. Clearly someone is conspiring to screw up Lord Alan’s self-rehab efforts, terrorizing Gladys while murdering anyone who might be lending them support. But the likely suspects are dwindling fast.
The film contains a number of plot holes and continuity problems that a more highly-budgeted or more tightly-produced effort wouldn’t suffer from. But Miraglia is so structurally insistent on telling the story in a visually compelling way that we just let them float past; he and cinematographer Gastone Di Giovanni manage a nice Hammer/gothic vibe – the castle, the tombs, rainstorms, the hunting milieu, all rendered with cool blue shadows and crisp widescreen compositions. And the acting is committed and energetic, even if the script doesn’t always earn that. Most of the film concerns itself with Lord Alan’s long haul to redemption, and the unfairness of attempts to perhaps gaslight him out of his rightful control of the estate. But it’s pretty tough to manufacture goodwill towards a guy who, in the first 10 minutes, whipped and murdered probably the nicest and most beautiful woman in the entire film (Maria Teresa Tofano as Polly). Some half-hearted attempts are made to place the story in England, but traffic on the wrong side of the road blows that idea pretty early on. Lord Alan’s purchase of a pen full of foxes to raise for hunting can only be a device for creating a nasty death scene later on, and, sadly, it’s the film’s least convincing atrocity. At one point Aunt Agatha rises from her wheelchair and walks a few steps. Why? Dunno… There’s a lot of unexplained, downright sloppy, stuff, and sympathetic characters become scarcer as the narrative proceeds, but the weird and nasty plot twists of the last ten minutes come pretty close to making up for it.
Many hundreds of years ago, there were two rich sisters living in a giant castle, one good, cheerful and friendly, one bad, spiteful and selfish. The selfish one constantly tormented the good one until one day the good one, at her wits’ end, murdered the bad one (just before her wedding day) with seven lethal stab wounds. Not only was the good girl (the black queen) riddled with guilt over her crime, but the bad girl (the red queen) came back from the dead a week later, killing the sister and six others. Legend has it that she returns every 100 years to take the lives of seven different people as eternal retribution for her sister’s killing her.
The late-twentieth-century version of the legend is related in The Red Queen Kills Seven Times (La Dama Rossa Uccide Sette Volte) (Italy, 1972). Kitty Wildenbruck (Barbara Bouchet) is the tormented blond sister of the darker Evelyn, who, like her predecessors, has been killed by Kitty. When a beloved Wildenbruck grandfather dies, and his will is read, there’s a necessity for all of the heirs to assemble – that’ll be a neat trick for Evelyn, whose death has understandably been covered up by Kitty and her other married sister Franziska (Marina Malfatti). But there’s also some evidence that grandpa met his fate not by natural causes, but at the hands of …the Red Queen!
Kitty is a fashion photographer for a large fashion brand called Springe (the fashion industry is textbook surroundings for many giallos, and serves admirably here as well.) The director at Springe, Hans Meyer (Bruno Bertocci) has a few special extracurricular tastes that make him easy pickings for Red Queen murder #2. His handsome successor, Martin Hoffman (Ugo Pagliai), must now contend with a workload that’s sure to interfere with his wooing of Kitty, as well as the parade of other in-house employees who can’t wait to hop onto his casting couch – Rosemary (Pia Giancaro), the executive secretary, p.a. Lenore (Dolores Calò) and model Lulu (young exploitation veteran Sybil Danning). Meanwhile, a local junkie, Peter (Fabrizio Moresco), doesn’t believe the story that his old flame Evelyn is languishing in the U.S., but is in fact the victim of foul play – he terrorizes and blackmails Kitty, but inevitably meets the Red Queen as well. So if Evelyn hasn’t returned from the dead as the psychotic white-faced, red-caped and cackling Red Queen, who could it possibly be? And who are her other victims before she finishes up with Kitty?
Even with a new cinematographer (Alberto Spagnoli), Miraglia keeps a firm and lush Hammer-tribute hand on the visuals. He gives a far more modern feel to the proceedings here (assisted by the same apartment that Mrs. Julie Wardh inhabited), but Castle Wildenbruck still provides an effective dose of Bava-like gothic thrills. There’s even a flooding room to be escaped from! The Night Evelyn Came Out Of The Grave (and, by the way, there’s no connection between Evelyns in these films) is a little less consistent, a little more dynamic – the deaths are nastier, there’s more nudity, and the characters overall are far less sympathetic. The Red Queen Kills Seven Times gives us a couple of genuinely sympathetic protagonists to follow, backs off on the levels of skin and violence (though there are still a few shocks, and some pretty inventive death scenes, as well as the usual tasteful eveningwear of the ladies…) and is far easier to follow narratively, even with the usual quota of jawdropping twists (of varying believability) in the last ten minutes.
As stated before, there’s something admirable about Emilio Miraglia’s strong and straightforward storytelling style – it renders mistakes and tastelessness irrelevant, and sticks to the business of keeping us interested in watching what’ll happen next. These two will certainly be near the top of the Project-concluding list, but we’re barely into the seventies – there’s oh-so-much more to come!