The Reincarnation of Isabel / Black Magic Rites: Reincarnations / The Ghastly Orgies of Count Dracula / Riti, Magie Nere, e Segrete Orge nel Trecnentro/La Reincarnazione (1974) -**½
It’s been a very long time since I’ve had this experience-- so long, in fact, that I had begun to wonder if its frequent occurrence during my teen years had been solely a function of insufficient acclimation to the Italian way of filmmaking. But this past weekend, I received conclusive proof that there was more at work than that. The Reincarnation of Isabel/Riti, Magie Nere, e Segrete Orge nel Trecentro left me staring, slack-jawed, at the rewind counter on my VCR, asking myself, “What in the holy living fuck did I just see?” just like, say, Revenge of the Dead did more than a decade ago.
Understand right now that the plot synopsis you are about to read is by no means meant to be taken as authoritative. It is merely my best guess as to the general shape of this movie’s so-called story. It appears that, some time during the 14th century, a woman named Isabella (Rita Calderoni, of Nude for Satan and The Lady of Monza) was executed on charges of witchcraft and vampirism. Her lover, a man named Jack (Mickey Hargitay, from The Loves of Hercules and Bloody Pit of Horror) looking both to avenge Isabella’s death and to return Isabella to him, set off to become a master of the black arts, and (I think) became in the process the first vampire, Count Dracula. (Okay, so if Isabella’s lover became the first vampire in his quest for vengeance against the Inquisition, why was Isabella put to death for vampirism?!) 500 years later (which would seem to put the main action of this movie some time in the 19th century, despite the fact that everybody is dressed for the 1970’s-- or maybe the filmmakers just couldn’t count), a man named Jack Nelson (also Hargitay) buys an old castle which (I think) is supposed to be the girls’ school that his stepdaughter, Laureen (Calderoni again), attends. It is also, conveniently, the former base of operations for the local branch of the Papal Inquisition, and the current base of operations for a satanic cult that wants to bring Isabella back to life. And what do you know, a lot of the men there (not just Jack Nelson) bear a suspicious resemblance to people from the scene in which we saw Isabella staked and burned.
So it should come as no surprise that girls start disappearing at about the time that Nelson comes to town to take possession of the castle. And, given that Laureen is played by the same actress as Isabella, it should also come as no surprise that Laureen is among those who vanish. Her fiance Richard (Delirium’s William Darni), the Mustached Man With the Sandy Hair (who looks alarmingly like Scott Thompson from “The Kids in the Hall”), and Gerg the big ugly guy (Marcello Bonini Olas, from So Sweet, So Perverse and The Truth According to Satan) follow Laureen into the castle’s labyrinthine basement (which looks a lot like the labyrinthine castle basement in the much later The Red Monks/I Frati Rossi), and succeed, at the last minute, in rescuing Laureen from becoming the titular reincarnation of Isabella. At the climactic moment, the Mustached Man With the Sandy Hair explains that he and Gerg were turned into vampires along with Jack, and that they have all been reincarnated just in time to witness the rebirth of Isabella. The Mustached Man With the Sandy Hair doesn’t want to be a vampire, and that is why he led Richard to the site of the cult’s operations.
The amazing thing about The Reincarnation of Isabel is that it makes absolutely no sense even though one of the characters takes a good five or ten minutes to explain everything for us! And I don’t believe the sometimes sketchy translations of the subtitles are to blame. (Yeah, you read that right, Redemption Video actually released this stink bomb subtitled and letterboxed!) No, I think the problem is that the explanation itself doesn’t make any sense, either on its own terms or in relation to the events of the movie. It fails to address why vampires, which are after all immortal, would need to be reincarnated. It fails to address why the inquisitor (Gabriele Bentivoglio, from The Perfume of the Lady in Black) was also reincarnated, even though he seems to have no role to play in Isabella’s resurrection beyond helping the people of the local village persecute a couple of girls whom they have decided are witches (on the grounds that they happen to be standing around nearby when the cross marking the site of Isabella’s death bursts into flames), and whom Isabella’s cult wants to sacrifice to their unholy mistress. For that matter, it fails to address why Isabella would even have a cult in the first place.
But that’s not all I can’t figure out about this movie. At no point does anyone offer an explanation for the fact that a medieval castle that the locals consider cursed is (or so it looks to me) being used as a school for girls. And if it is a school for girls, where the hell are the teachers, and why are there at least two male “students?” Then there is the lengthy scene fairly late in the film in which it seems that nearly every male character in the movie is a vampire. How did this happen, and why does the movie seem to forget all about this scene the moment it ends? And another thing-- why the hell do all the girls’ clothes keep disappearing?!
Not that I’m complaining about that last part, mind you. In fact, the gratuitous (and often completely inexplicable) non-stop nudity is probably the principal reason that The Reincarnation of Isabel still manages to be entertaining in spite of the fact that it is utterly impossible to grasp just what is happening at any given moment. The dialogue also helps; it’s hard to be too down on a movie in which people say things like, “a vampire must have blood that has not been contaminated by human sperm.” There are also some fun continuity lapses, like the scene near the end which switches back and forth between day and night with every single change of camera angle. And finally, there is Isabella’s death scene. Remember that I said she was staked and burned? It might seem like overkill, but considering how lively she is squirming around and screaming in terror as the flames draw closer to her feet, even in spite of the stake sticking through her heart, it probably wasn’t such a bad idea.
The last thing I want to draw your attention to about The Reincarnation of Isabel is how closely its premise resembles that of Mario Bava’s excellent Black Sunday/La Maschera del Demonio, made some 14 years earlier. This is primarily interesting to me because of the question that it raises regarding the Italian concept of vampirism. Given that this movie is a transparent rip-off of the older, better film, should the connection between witchcraft and vampirism that features in both be taken as nothing more than another quirk in Bava’s already extremely quirky movie, a quirk which found its way into The Reincarnation of Isabel because of an attitude of, “Hey, if it was good enough for Bava, it’s good enough for us” on the part of the latter film’s creators? Or does it point to an actual connection between the two concepts in Italian folklore, in much the same way that the Greek vrykolakas is both a vampire and a werewolf? Or, for that matter, am I just thinking way too hard about a movie that doesn’t deserve that kind of effort in the first place?