31 Days of Horror 2022: “Black Magic Rites (1973)”

With wild color schemes that would make Dario Argento’s eyes cross and surreal sequences where reality blurs with fantasy and flashbacks, the 1973 movie Black Magic Rites is always intriguing to look at. Just don’t listen to it.

Logical plotting and understandable storytelling are elements often missing from Italian horror movies of the 1970s and 1980s, but very few are as nonsensical as Black Magic Rites. The movie’s refusal to adhere to standards of rationality does not make it a bad film. One of the benefits modern-day viewers of Black Magic Rites have over those who saw it in the cinema is that we can watch the film on mute and not miss any salient plot points.

Warning: the following trailer is not safe for work, church, or public transport. Follow the link if you’re old enough, curious enough, and alone.

Also known as The Reincarnation of Isabel or its onscreen title, Rites, Black Magic and Secret Orgies in the 14th Century, Black Magic Rites involves an elaborate ritual designed to bring a five-hundred-year-old vampire, the Queen Mistress Isabel, back to life. One of the film’s characters known as the Occultist explains it thusly: “A deceased lover can only be brought back to life if she is given the hearts and eyes of young virgins until the day the Prince of Darkness plants in her womb the seed of his immortality.”

Okay. The dialogue is a little clunky. That’s fine. There’s very little story to push forward.

A group of people gathers at a creepy castle for an engagement party. Unbeknownst to them, the corpse of Isabel is chained to a wall in the dungeon. It’s nearly time for the blood ritual to begin and bring Isabel back to the land of the living. All the participants in the party were present when Isabel was executed five centuries ago. That’s right. They have all been reincarnated. Also, if I am interpreting things correctly, all of the women present at the party are virgins.

That is an incredibly specific guest list, which may stretch the ability of the audience to suspend its disbelief.

There is no doubt that the plot of Black Magic Rites is sparse and silly, and that’s why I encourage viewers to turn down the sound and rely strictly on the subtitles. Or don’t. Silence is the perfect medium for Black Magic Rites.

Without the distractions of the poorly-synced dubbing and the wildly inappropriate soundtrack (including a rape scene set uncomfortably to the tune of rollicking Old West saloon piano music), one is free to enjoy Black Magic Rites as a pure visual extravaganza.

Director Renato Polselli and cinematographer Ugo Brunelli present multiple stark, almost Nordic, closeups of characters with their stern faces set against grey skies. That bleakness is juxtaposed with scenes of wild stroboscopic color. When the Occultist speaks of arcane things, he is lit by a color wheel. Red, green, and yellow illuminate his face as he speaks, creating a sense of hypnotic madness. There are sequences where people are seen through jars of water, in which their image is inverted, while the camera moves up to show us the person in their correct position.

These are little things, I know, and all so-called camera tricks, but the lighting and visual chicanery make Black Magic Rites a fascinating film to look at. Let it wash over you like a bizarre flood. You don’t have to understand it to enjoy it.

If you have an appreciation for ridiculously theatrical makeup, naked women, and the Spanish Inquisition, there’s a lot to enjoy in Black Magic Rites. Just crank it down and rip the knob off.

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