16 More Days ’til Halloween, 2016: A WHITE DRESS FOR MARIALÉ aka SPIRITS OF DEATH aka TRAGIC EXORCISM (1972)

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This movie is among the most visually sumptuous and psychologically delirious “straight horror” films I will be posting this year. As a fan of Italian horror and artistically daring films in general, I am shocked that I had not come across A WHITE DRESS FOR MARIALÉ much earlier in my explorations of the weirder regions of horror cinema. I can only assume that it is a relatively delayed DVD rerelease from American distributors that has prevented it from having a larger impact on the American cult horror audience. With its visual compositions alone it competes with the best of Dario Argento and certainly surpasses films like THE PERFUME OF THE LADY IN BLACK and many other pseudo-Giallos that have received praise for their aesthetic sophistication. Oh, the music by Bruno Nicolai and Fiorenzo Carpiis is also amazing: as good as Ennio Morricone. In short, I consider THE WHITE DRESS FOR MARIALÉ a masterpiece of Italian horror. It should be honored and studied like Argento’s SUSPIRIA. It should be the focus of academic papers. It should be loved by all.

Well…perhaps not all. Within its traditional Agatha Christie inspired Giallo framework it manages to indulge in the seediest aspects of the genre. One particularly bizarre “orgy” scene features a black woman in a phallo-spiked thong beating her racist boyfriend with a bullwhip while he cowers in women’s clothing. These things are not to everyone’s taste. What’s interesting about this scene in particular, and it is typical of A WHITE DRESS FOR MARIALÉ’s complex psychological subtext, is that this excessive orgiastic scenario is depicted as a kind of failure of imagination on the part of the characters. In spite of its exploitative nature, it feels like the participants in the orgy, as well as the director, are holding back. It is meant to show the characters’ limitations, not their transgression. In this way it is very similar to a famous aborted “orgy” scene from the critically acclaimed RED DESERT by Michelangelo Antonioni. If only Criterion would release a remastered version of A WHITE DRESS FOR MARIALÉ! While maintaining the trappings of the sleaziest Italian Giallo and sexploitation films, A WHITE DRESS FOR MARIALÉ manages to find nuanced meanings within them and raises itself into the category of “art film” without sacrificing its most basic entertainment value.

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot. I can tell you the basics because they are presented rather early on in the narrative. Marialé, at a young age, witnesses her father catch her mother in the act of cheating on him. Her father shoots both Marialé’s mother and lover before turning the gun on himself. It’s a not uncommon backstory for a Giallo film… Fastforward, Marialé is now a grown woman living in a secluded mansion with a husband who wants to keep her isolated from society for reasons left unexplained. She has secretly invited their former friends – friends they haven’t seen for years – to visit for the weekend. Her husband is distressed by Marialé’s deception but gives in. The friends are horrible people and it is hinted that Marialé has some specific purpose for inviting them beyond protesting her husband’s dominance. From this point on things begin to get weird. The film’s many eccentric, emotionally volatile, almost narratively independent mise-en-scénes are presented as metaphorical depictions of the character’s hidden psychological relations, repressed desires, and unrecognized fears. The film unfolds like a ritual with the logic of a nightmare. I was more than once reminded of Ken Russel’s film GOTHIC. The overriding mystery lies in who, exactly, is controlling this nightmare. Who will exploit the situation for their gain? Who is the dreamer? Who is the murderer?

As in all the best Giallos, very similar to THE EYE IN THE LABYRINTH (the first movie I posted this year), the ending of A WHITE DRESS FOR MARIALÉ is deceptively conclusive. Its ambiguity, both literal and psychological, is subtle. You might decide, based on the information given, that you know who the murderer is. You might be wrong. I love it when the literal, narrative ambiguities in a film perfectly reflect the psychological ambiguities presented as subtext. It’s a difficult symmetry to maintain in a movie without disappointing an audience’s thirst for clear resolutions. When it is done well, both those who want mindless entertainment and those who are looking for deep meaning are satisfied. I think A WHITE DRESS FOR MARIALÉ should cover the bases for most viewers.

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