The Red Monks/I Frati Rossi (1988/1989) **
I tell you, I was very surprised when I read the copyright date on this flick. I really thought that these movies went extinct some time around 1986 or ‘87, and that Demons 2 was pretty much the last of the breed. Certainly, the bulk of the Italian horror corpus dates from the 1960’s through the early 1980’s. But no, there’s Lucio Fulci’s name, the first on the screen (though admittedly only with a “presents” credit), on the very cusp of a new decade. Such a pity, then, that The Red Monks/I Frati Rossi just isn’t very good-- or even especially entertaining.
It could have been, and it should have been. We’ve got a moldering old castle and a bewildering array of free-for-all backstabbing, like in The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave. We’ve got a coven of Satanic monks-- who turn out to be a splinter group of the Knights Templar-- as in the backstory from the Spanish “Blind Dead” series. We’ve got that incomparable Italian horror movie music, we’ve got a fair amount of completely gratuitous nudity, and we’ve got easily three movies’ worth of stuff that happens for no remotely understandable reason. But somehow, it fails to add up to anything.
The film opens with Richard Garlini roaming the woods on his new property. Richard, you see, has just inherited the long-disused family estate, including an immense Renaissance-era castle, and he understandably intends to make a home of it again. In the woods, he encounters an old woman, playing a violin that sounds suspiciously like a synthesizer. This character exists for one purpose only: to provide an excuse for some expository dialogue. Without the conversation that develops between Garlini and the old woman, we would have no idea who Garlini is, no idea what he is doing wandering around in the forest, and no idea what the great big stone building is that we repeatedly glimpse through the trees. After performing her sole function, the Violin Woman vanishes from the movie, never to be seen again, and Garlini goes on to have a look at his newly acquired castle.
Inside, Garlini makes a discovery that would make him the envy of all politically irrelevant but fabulously wealthy young noblemen. It turns out that the castle is not entirely unoccupied after all. Rather, it proves to be inhabited by an extremely beautiful naked girl, whom Garlini glimpses out of the corner of his eye, descending into the castle’s vast underground cellar. What a lucky break, huh?-- to inherit a cool old castle and a naked chick! Richard heads off after her, and finally catches up to her deep in the maze-like basement. But it seems the man’s luck wasn’t as good as it had appeared, because when he tries to strike up a conversation, the girl turns around without a word, and beheads Richard with a gigantic broadsword.
And then, without a hint of explanation, the film cuts to “Fifty Years Earlier.” It’s now the late 1930’s (though you’d never guess that from the costumes), and the castle is in full use, belonging to an ancestor of Richard’s by the name of Robbie Garlini (The Bronx Executioner’s Chuck Valenti). This elder Garlini is poking around in the woods, too, when first we see him, but he is looking for his dog, Morgan, who has been barking up a storm for about the last five minutes. When Garlini finds Morgan, he sees why-- the dog has an attractive young woman (Lara Wendel, from Unsane and Ghosthouse) cornered up in a tree. Her name is Ramona, and the reason for her trespass is that she was painting the scenery. As Garlini admits, there are no signs marking his woods as private property, and rather than call the police, he opts to put the moves on Ramona instead. Now here comes one of those things that seem to happen for no reason. Robbie restrains his dog and starts flirting with Ramona, but the camera is far more interested in the hand-sized tarantula that is crawling down a branch toward the girl’s hand. While this is going on, you’re expecting it to bite her, giving Robbie an excuse to take her in at the castle and nurse her back to health (you just know that the movie is going to harbor an exaggerated opinion of tarantula-venom toxicity) so that they can fall in love. But does that happen? Does anything remotely like that happen? You’re goddamned right it doesn’t! In fact, nothing at all happens!!!! Ramona just jumps out of the tree and continues flirting with Garlini! So, then-- back to the movie. It seems that Morgan chewed up Ramona’s skirt a bit, and Garlini insists that she return with him to the castle so that his housekeeper, Priscilla (Melissa Longo, from War Goddess and Passion Plantation), can repair it for her. (Dirty fucker. You know he just wants an excuse to have her running around his house in her underwear.)
The very next scene after the shot of Priscilla giving Ramona back her dress has Robbie and Ramona getting married. I’d like to think that rather more time is supposed to have elapsed between these two scenes than the movie implies (it feels like the marriage happens later that same day), but I wouldn’t count on that-- this is an Italian movie, after all. And as further evidence that the filmmakers wanted to waste no time with the movie (a sense of economy which they unfortunately display only when some sense of the passage of time would be useful), the marriage already begins to go to hell that same night. Not forty seconds after carrying his new bride over the threshold, Garlini learns that he has received several phone calls during the day regarding an “urgent business meeting” which he must attend that night. Ramona is understandably disappointed, but she doesn’t know the half of it. Robbie’s “business meeting” turns out to be an audience with the titular Red Monks, who demand that he provide them with the blood of a virgin-- his wife’s will do nicely-- at the stroke of midnight in four days. As you might imagine, Robbie and Ramona do not consummate their marriage upon his return to the castle. (Now, personally, if some bunch of Satanists demanded that I turn over my wife so that they could sacrifice the blood of a virgin to their Infernal Master, the first thing I would do would be to give her a good, sound fucking, so as to make her useless for the ceremony. Why the hell doesn’t Garlini think of this?!)
It’s very difficult to believe that only four days are supposed to elapse between the first appearance of the Red Monks and the end of the movie. There’s just too much plot for that short a time. First, a French girl named Louise shows up to become Ramona’s personal maid. This is an important development, because Louise is the one who finds the lair of the Red Monks-- it’s actually in the castle’s basement. Then Ramona and Robbie do a lot of fighting. This is due to the fact that Robbie correctly believes that Ramona is exploring the monks’ part of the castle, and he doesn’t want her to find out about them. Then the monks send somebody to decapitate Louise with a sickle, apparently to prevent her from encouraging her mistress to explore the old dungeon any further. Ramona and Robbie have another fight, and have their kiss-and-make-up picnic ruined by the discovery of Louise’s head in their picnic basket!!!! Understandably flustered, Ramona goes into the woods to paint, and another inexplicable event occurs. While Ramona paints, that same fake-ass fucking spider from earlier in the movie starts creeping up on her again, and guess what... it doesn’t do a fucking thing this time either. Instead, the Man With the Wide-Brimmed Hat (Gerardo Amato, who’d had a tiny role in Caligula) shows up, compliments Ramona on her painting, and rapes her. Doggy-style. Now, let’s pretend for a moment that something like this had happened to you or me. Chances are, the first thing we would do would be to call the cops. And unless our husband were a completely retrograde asshole, we’d probably say something about the attack to him, too-- if for no other reason than that he might be interested to know that his property had become a haven for rapists. But you and I are not characters in an Italian horror flick, so we naturally have no way of knowing that this is in fact the wrong answer. Rather, what a person is apparently supposed to do in this situation is to make up a ridiculous story to throw her husband off the scent, and then meet up with her rapist the next day for a crash course in 15th-century Satanism. I’m not kidding, this is actually what happens!
Now, this is where we finally learn what’s going on. It turns out that Robbie’s estate has not always belonged to the Garlini family. The castle was built back in the 1480’s by a Grand Duke Lodorisio, a warrior of great renown, both on the battlefield and in the bed chamber. Lodorisio was a Knight Templar (always bad news), and more importantly, the founder of a splinter group called the Confraternity of the Red Monks. Like their parent organization, the Red Monks were eventually suppressed by the Vatican for alleged heretical and occult practices, but Lodorisio was apparently such a bad-ass that the pope was afraid to make a move until the grand duke was out of the picture. To that end, a lone knight was sent to assassinate him-- Count Bartholomew Garlini. The assassination was a success, and the Garlini family took possession of the grand duke’s lands. The only problem is that the Red Monks apparently fared rather better in the face of papal persecution than the Templars did; instead of dying out, they simply went underground-- literally-- into the catacombs beneath their founder’s former castle, from which position they have henceforth lived parasitically off of the Garlinis, periodically forcing them to perform blood sacrifices to Satan in their name. This was all made possible by the grand duke’s wife, a Gypsy girl who fell in love with him after he raped her one day. (I swear, anyone who thinks American horror films are misogynist needs to watch a couple of these Italian numbers; Joe D’Amato and Ruggero Deodato make Wes Craven and the guy who made Don’t Go In the House look like fucking Susan B. Anthony.) After she married her assaulter, she also converted to his Satanic religion, and she aided the Red Monks in establishing themselves as the Garlini family’s dark secret. How, you ask? Honestly I don’t know-- screenwriter Pino Buricchi never bothered to say.
In any case, we (and Ramona) learn all this from some old historian-type, with whom the Man With the Wide-Brimmed Hat is somehow connected. After Dr. Goatee tells his tale, Ramona and the Man With the Wide-Brimmed Hat rush back to the castle, head down to the basement, and await the arrival of Robbie, who is in town seeing the notary about some dark secrets of Ramona’s own. I should probably point out that this is day number four, and that the monks are expecting their sacrifice in a few hours. When Robbie comes home, he finds Priscilla the housekeeper (with whom he’d been cheating on Ramona, incidentally) beheaded by the monks. (Who knows why?) He then races downstairs, where he finds Ramona, wearing the Gypsy duchess’s old dress, surrounded by armed Red Monks. He tries to get an explanation from Ramona, but she wheels about and beheads him with a gigantic broadsword. Now where have we seen that before?
Now about that dark secret Garlini was looking into with the notary… All this time, Ramona has been less than forthcoming-- and also less than consistent-- about her own origins. All she’d say was that she was an orphan and from out of town. When Garlini went to the notary to pull his wife’s identity papers, he learned that the only woman in the area with Ramona’s name was from the next town over, but that the woman in question died almost 40 years ago, in 1902. Garlini then drove out to see the grave, which to his astonishment bore a cameo of his wife’s face on the headstone. Putting the pieces together now, it becomes clear (or as clear as anything ever gets in this movie) that Ramona is either the ghost or the reincarnation-- or the ghost of the reincarnation-- of Lodorisio’s Gypsy wife. Even without knowing it, her essence was in cahoots with the Red Monks all along, her every move subconsciously calculated to bring about his destruction. As for the Man With the Wide-Brimmed Hat, I don’t know. Maybe he’s the last living member of the Lodorisio family. Maybe he’s the reincarnation of the grand duke himself. Or maybe he’s just the producer’s nephew.
I don’t know... I just can’t tell why The Red Monks doesn’t work. Maybe it’s the pacing, which undeniably leaves much to be desired. Maybe it isn’t violent enough; there are only four murders, and none of them happen onscreen-- a far cry from the scale and intensity of the carnage in most older Italian horror movies. Or maybe it lacks the sleaze for which the Italians are so deservingly famous. I’m not saying there’s nothing sleazy about The Red Monks-- this is a movie which repeatedly suggests that women enjoy being raped-- but, again, it’s a matter of scale and intensity. Or perhaps it’s just that the movie is inept without being entertainingly so, so that it’s as difficult to laugh at as it is to enjoy on its own terms. Maybe Demons 2 was the last of the breed after all.