A CANDLE FOR THE DEVIL 1973 aka UNA VELA PARA EL DIABLO aka IT HAPPENED AT NIGHTMARE INN
Judy Geeson (Laura Barkley), Aurora Bautista (Marta), Esperanza Roy (Veronica), Vic Winner (Eduardo), Lone Fleming (Helen Miller), Loretta Tovar (May), Charley Pineiro (Luis), Blanche Estrada (Norma)
Directed by Eugene Martin (Eugenio Martin)
***WARNING! This review contains images of nudity***
"My conscience was never more clear. Keep calm, Veronica... your sister has always known what is best for you... always... if it was an act of evil, they'll find out... if it was an act of God's justice, we'll never be discovered."--zealotry as justice seen through the eyes of a vengeful woman scorned essayed by actress Aurora Bautista.
The Short Version: One of Euro horrors most accomplished terror tales is this subversively titled psycho-sexual character study about two societally and socially malnourished sisters who run a lodge for locals and tourists. One of the sisters is so devoted to her faith, she has no compunction about killing for Christ when it comes to modern day sinners. Spanish director Martin (HORROR EXPRESS) has fashioned a provocative, and highly recommended tale of sex, death, desire, penance and perversion of Catholicism centered around a comely Dead and Breakfast. There's not a great deal of gore, but the sleazy mix of sex and religion may be too offensive for some as presented in this strikingly symbolic Spanish horror obscurity.
Marta and Veronica are two god-fearing sisters who run a popular guesthouse frequented by many of the locals and foreign tourists in a small, mountainside hamlet. Laura Barkely arrives at this Inn to meet her sister, but is told by the two restauranteurs that she has already vacated the house. Finding it hard to believe her sister would leave abruptly, and with no police within reach, Laura investigates her sisters disappearance and soon notices that others staying at this lodge begin to vanish without a trace.
The title for this exemplar Spanish morality tale might sound like a movie about demonism and devil worship, but it's actually a tempestuous tale of revenge, the perversion of religion, and the clash of outmoded oldeworld beliefs versus the free-spirited, sexually liberated modern society. This portrait of the crumbling ethics of Roman Catholicism is strikingly relevant today, and not just confined to Western European religious beliefs. It is arguably among the best, and most cinematically significant Euro horror pictures to emerge from the 1970s.
Aside from the the depiction of religion in an ever changing social climate as seen through the eyes of the old and the young, this movie also presents some controversial issues regarding men and women. The men rarely figure into the plot other than to be seen as slobbering oglers viewing women as little more than objects of desire. Of course, the women -- particularly those who are beautiful and prone to reveling in the magnificence of their bodies -- are demonized and ridiculed as setting the libidinous, corruptible nature of man into motion.
In the eyes of these two sisters, men are viewed as less emotional beings, unable, or incapable of identifying with morality and are not susceptible to the same rules as the women. This goes back to the age old question of 'why is it normal for men to sleep with multiple women, but women who sleep with multiple partners are whores?' You could say the women "hold the keys to the kingdom" so to speak. They can control, manipulate, and destroy men with their luscious bodies. They can also destroy women of less appeal with their most powerful weapon -- their sexuality. And in the eyes of Marta, this must be suppressed. In Marta's view, men are animals and do what they do because it's in their nature; which explains why she blames younger, more attractive women born out of jealousy and hatred more than any attachment to religious faith.
However, there is one male character who is not a playboy and is genuine in his feelings for a woman -- that woman being the more passive sister, Veronica, who hides her secret sex life with Luis (20 years her junior) from her religiously dogmatic sister. Despite proclaiming his feelings for her, Veronica never seems to listen, thinking this young man is only enjoying the frequent dalliances; too young to conceive the feeling of love. She brings him money -- seemingly for the sex -- although he repeatedly states he doesn't want the money.
This is yet another arc the script (by Martin and Tony Fos) explores in enough detail to add immeasurably to the exposition of the characters, particularly between the two sisters; something not always associated with European horror pictures, and not always to this degree.
It's difficult to say which of the two siblings are the most intriguing. Both are emotionally damaged -- Marta by a man who left her for one of those swingin' young harlots, and Veronica by her sister's oppressive personality. Fiercely religious, Marta despises the wiles of the modern woman and isn't above murder to justify her feelings in the eyes of God. Her more passive sister Veronica, dotingly goes along with her sisters gruesome proclivity, and, while essentially an accomplice, is more of a victim of circumstance.
Furthermore, both sisters have hidden sexual desires. Veronica acts out her fantasies with the younger Luis, but keeps this from her sister. On the flip side, Marta is clearly repressed, and secretly pines for the touch of a man. This is revealed during a sequence where Marta spies a group of young men (including Luis) swimming in a river. They are naked (and the camera uncomfortably focuses on the much younger males genitalia) and she is noticeably aroused. When she walks away, she pays penance for this sin by casually strolling through a lengthy stretch of thorn bushes, flagellating herself in the process.
Her brief flirtation with sexual exploration continues upon her return to the Inn where she puts her old wedding dress on. This is where we learn what has led Marta to this unstable point in her life. It's also a moment where the script alerts us that Marta's murderous tendencies aren't wholly attributed to her religious convictions, but out of a need for revenge against all beautiful women and the "enchantments" they place on the "weaker" of the two sexes, the male.
Considering the bulk of the film revolves around the two repressed sisters, the lead billing of Judy Geeson is seriously compromised by the performances of both Bautista and Roy. Those two actresses consume so much of the film. It doesn't undermine Geeson's performance, but there are times you forget she is in the picture. The character of Laura is very likable, and the two sisters like her solely for the fact that she dresses conservatively and doesn't flaunt her sexuality in the presence of men. Again, this goes back to the strong beliefs of the two middle aged women.
Religious iconography also plays a major role in this picture (from paintings, to architecture and to faith, as distorted as it may be from the perspective of the sisters). This speaks volumes on the subject of Christianity through the ages and its decline with each passing decade.
There's a message here, and it's up to the viewers interpretation as to how they read it. The mayor even makes the remark that the two elder siblings "belong to another generation". This becomes clear when both sisters discuss the first murder at the opening of the movie. Marta justifies her actions by stating, "Years ago that shameless girl would have been burned alive in the public square." Her mindset is that of centuries before when frightened, superstitious villagers burned (and worse) innocent and pretty girls at the stake for allegedly being witches and practicing devil worship. Religion can be a dangerous practice for those who distort it from a message of love to one of hate; which brings us to another of this films fascinating angles -- the correlation between religion and death.
After murdering, then dismembering Laura's sister's body (offscreen), Marta is covered in crimson. Later, after her self-flagellation via the rows of thorn bushes, she is likewise covered in bloody lashes, only this time, the blood is her own. She exorcises her participation in this crime as being the will of God, but at the same time, her lustful respite watching naked young men play in a pool of water is, to her, also a punishable offense. The "justified" killings continue till things spiral out of control after a piece of gossip leads to a young girls death who was not the tramp she was believed to be. It's here where the things fall apart quickly for the murderous zealot and her complying sister.
Bolstered by strong performances from the two leads, British actress Judy Geeson is a worthy co-star. The film is further supported by a fiery, lascivious portrayal from perennial Euro horror scream queen, Lone Fleming. Any fan of Spanish horror will recognize this lovely actress from such titles as TOMBS OF THE BLIND DEAD (1971) and DEMON WITCH CHILD (1975) to name two.
The music of Antonio Perez Olea perfectly captures the darker side of the religious faithful with ominous organ backed cues. The gore is kept to a minimum, outweighed by frequent nudity and scantily clad cast members.
A CANDLE FOR THE DEVIL was released here in a severely edited version as IT HAPPENED AT NIGHTMARE INN, and this cut version is also available as a stateside release. It's a little rough around the edges at times, but this low budget psychological horror programmer is a real treat for foreign horror lovers seeking a thought provoking thriller masquerading under the guise of European sleaze.
This review is representative of the Odeon Entertainment PAL R0 DVD.