Monday, May 19, 2008
The Virgin of Nuremberg 
The Virgin of Nuremberg is a particularly vexing film, in that it is a Technicolor reminder of the fact that I don't live in a castle with a gruesome past that I get to explore via candlelight, dressed in my finest Hammer Films robe, menaced by mysterious Germans and--
Wait--this review got off on entirely the wrong foot. Allow me to compose myself.
When I was a kid, my favorite dessert was the wizard sundae at Friendly's, composed of a scoop of vanilla ice cream arranged in a dish with candies for eyes and an upended ice cream cone for a hat. The best part of the sundae came at the very end, when the ice cream and cone had been thoroughly enjoyed and there was that delightful little pile of Reese's Pieces floating in a tiny pond of melted sugary deliciousness. I've had better quality treats since then, as well as many more sophisticated desserts, but there's an undeniable pleasure in the simple and familiar delights of that wizard sundae. The Virgin of Nuremberg is the cinematic equivalent of the wizard sundae, with a cone and ice cream scoop composed of Gothic horror cliches and a surprise treat of Nazi mad science standing in for the Reese's Pieces candies.
The film is a veritable checklist of Gothic tropes, opening as it does with a nightrobed beauty roaming the halls of a darkened castle during a thunderstorm. The beauty in question is Mary Hunter (Rossana Podestà), wife of Max Hunter (Georges Rivière), the son of a Nazi general and descendant of the Punisher, a beastly figure who struck terror into the women of the region during the seventeenth century by torturing and killing ladies of loose morals. With a pedigree like that, what woman wouldn't fall under the spell of Max Hunter? In the opening sequence, Mary stumbles upon a fresh body in the Virgin of Nuremberg that sits in the castle's museum, an iron-maiden-like device that kills by thrusting spikes into the eyes of its victims. Mary spends the first half of the film trying to figure out what, exactly, happened that fateful night while her husband and the servants in the castle try to shield her from the gruesome goings-on. It becomes clear that the Punisher has returned after a centuries-long hiatus and, in even if you're not privy to the copious spoiler-age in the promotional materials for this movie, it'll be darn clear to you who's behind the murders even if poor Mary isn't hip to the haps till about five minutes from the end of the film. The plot isn't about creating mystery, it's about how these creakily-obvious things are revealed to the audience. I find it impossible to hate any movie that crams so many elements of the genre into a single movie (including RAT TORTURE!), and then rewards me by adding in a spectacularly preposterous Nazi subplot. That's positively a Valentine in my world.
Director Antonio Margheriti is not a nuanced craftsman nor a brazen auteur--he's a solid horror director given to what I'll politely call Flights Of Fancy regarding the level of his involvement in the Paul Morrissey Dracula and Frankenstein films. Virgin is an excellent example of Margheriti's work--an unsubtle film that demands to be loved for its unsubtelties rather than in spite of them. Riz Ortolani's score is jazzy and overwrought, but is right in time with the pacing of the film. Everything in this movie--everything--is announced with portentous music, either a trumpet blare or a piano trill, to the point where I tuned most of the music out about three-quarters of the way through the movie. It's the cinematic equivalent of typing in capital letters, but this was somehow wonderful within the context of this kind of film. The dialogue is stilted and at times downright silly--no human being in the year nineteen sixty three announced himself by saying "it is I," and when Max introduces Christopher Lee's disfigured butler character Erich as "the very best person in the whole world," I almost did a coffee spittake. However, if the dialogue was handled in a naturalistic manner, it would've spoiled the overall effect of the movie as a joyously absurd and, ultimately, very fun Gothic chiller.
Enjoy a gallery of film stills from The Virgin of Nuremberg on Flickr.