Conspiracy of Torture (1969) aka Beatrice Cenci aka Perversion Story
Dir. Lucio Fulci
Written by Lucio Fulci, Roberto Gianviti
Starring Tomas Milian, Adrienne Larussa, Georges Wilson, Mavie, Antonio Casagrande
Well, this one was on the same disk as THE WHIP AND THE BODY, and I figured, you know, Fulci, torture, conspiracy, probably someone gets raped, seems pretty straightforward. Meat and potatoes Italian torture porn stuff, the kind of hand-over-the-goods vehicle that used to exist to deliver gore and boobies to troubled teenagers before there was the internet. But I was wrong; instead of the exploitation genre dump I assumed we’d be getting, this turns out to be a surprisingly complex and grim historical drama (based on real events!), not really a horror film at all except in the morbid detail of the torture and murder the film’s title hints at. Not what I would expect from Fulci at all, but he turns out to be surprisingly adept at it.
As is typical of Fulci, it’s mainly an atmosphere-free effort, but a surprisingly strong script featuring a pretty ambitious fractured chronological narrative does a lot to keep you interested. Basically, this is the story of the aftermath to the 14th century murder of aristocratic asshole Francesco Cenci, purportedly by his own children and family. The Vatican honchos investigating the case are certain the whole family was involved, and decide to torture the truth out of them using a variety of colorfully imaginative horrors. They also have a vested interest in the case: if Cenci's heirs are found guilty of his murder, the church stands to gain an enviable chunk of the forfeited inheritance. As each family member is tortured and tells their part of the tale, you learn a little more about what actually went down… unless someone’s not telling the truth. So a little RASHOMON in there, unusual for Fulci if I may be so bold.
|Wheel of morality turn turn turn, tell us the lesson that we should learn|
In some ways this is a simple revenge story; Cenci (George Wilson, DON’T TORTURE A DUCKLING) is a true monster, he almost rivals John Huston’s legendary turn as a rich, despicable father in CHINATOWN. There are innumerable great reasons to kill him, but the movie’s interest is in teasing out exactly who did it and why. Involved in the plot are his daughter Beatrice Cenci (Adrienne Larussa, THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH) and her love-struck servant Olimpo (Tomas Milian, DON’T TORTURE A DUCKLING and... AMISTAD!?), but exactly what they’ve done and why they did it only becomes clear as the flashbacks gradually unfold. It’s a real depressing story of various unspeakable outrages, but by structuring it as a flashback from different unreliable narrators we're allowed to put the pieces together ourselves and figure out how it came to this. It's a pretty rough saga of brutality, cruelty and line-crossing, made all the worse by the complicity of the Catholic Church, who are now engaged in torturing the very people they had previously abandoned to their cruel patriarch.
|'Oh, you got a little smudge on your face, lemme get that for ya.' 'Aw daaaad'|
The story has plenty of interesting little wrinkles in it; there's a really great large-scale foot chase, some seriously fucked up torture, plenty of scenes of memorable depravity by Cenci, conventional asshole stuff at first and then gradually more fucked up. I like that there's a scene where two people resolve to finally kill the old fiend, even hire a guy to do it, and then --faced with the prospect of murdering an old man in his sleep-- can't help but feel bad about it back out, even knowing how richly it's deserved. Apparently The film’s less-than-glowing portrayal of the Catholic Church produced a lot of anger against Fulci (people in theaters shouted death threats, how very Christian of them) but of course, that just makes it more impressive. It'd be easy to make this kind of film today; in Italy 1963, this kind of thing was pretty incendiary, maybe even more so than the explicit sex and violence which would later become Fulci's bread and butter. It helps that it's a true story, I suppose; a little thing like the truth never stood between a religious nutball and his angry opinion before, but it doesn't hurt to be able to say if the Church didn't want to be portrayed as a bunch of cynical sadists who tortured people to get their land... perhaps they shouldn't have acted like a bunch of cynical sadists who tortured people to get their land. Not to put too fine a point on it.
Anyway, surprisingly adept work from a director who I know more for his accidental bizzaro greatness than his actual proficiency as a director. The acting and production here are both of way higher quality than usual, with some genuinely effective bleakness sneaking past the pedestrian lighting and framing. It’s a genuinely gripping, frustrating tale which unfortunately probably falls into the category of being too gory and exploitative for people who might like a gritty historical drama, but also too dramatic and depressing for horror fans who just want a geek show. But I dunno, it’s strong enough that it deserves to find the right audience somewhere.* So even though I'm definitely against torture and highly skeptical of conspiracies to do it, I can wholeheartedly recommend this one as a surprising, unusual tale from a director I may have underestimated. Aw geez, now I guess I have to re-evaluate ZOMBI?
*Up til now, it hasn’t even really had the chance; it never had an official American release til this DVD came out a few years back.