Tragic Ceremony [1972]

I first became aware of Riccardo Freda’s “Tragic Ceremony”* from my pal Art, perhaps the Camille Keaton super-fan, who was brimming with excitement over the then-upcoming DVD release of this rarity featuring the “I Spit on Your Grave” star. I’d seen and enjoyed Freda’s one-two punch of gothic horror, “The Horrible Dr. Hichcock and its semi-sequel “The Ghost,” and had filed this new-to-me movie away in my mental To Watch Pile. In the intervening years, “Tragic Ceremony” slipped to the back of my consciousness until reintroduced to it via The Flying Maciste Brothers during their definitive dummy death presentation last year. Friends, there is a dummy death sequence in this little-seen flick that shames almost all other dummy death sequences in cinema. Knowing this, I wanted to see how the rest of the eighty minutes or so of film time stacked up in comparison.

*Also known under the giallo-esque word salad title “Estratto dagli archivi segreti della polizia di una capitale europea” which translates as “From the Secret Police Files of a European Capital,” even though the European Country in question is clearly identified as England and the Police Force is named as Scotland Yard.

Tragic Ceremony
Four friends–two hippie dudes (Fred and Joe), their pretty hippie gal-pal (Jane, played by Ms. Keaton), and a wealthy young man with counterculture pretensions (Bill)–go off for a weekend of boating on the English seashore. Rich kid Bill, whose relationship with his mother doesn’t so much “border on the Oedipal” as it “shares an apartment with and occasionally drunkenly makes out with the Oedipal,” gives Jane a pearl necklace** that his mother was reluctant to accept, due no doubt to Bill’s recounting of the necklace’s hideous and deadly demonic curse. Tensions are immediately apparent in the group as Joe and Bill compete for Jane’s attention, and by the time their dune buggy runs out of gas during a nocturnal ramble, things have gone full-tilt bozo into passive aggressive territory (these are Brits we’re talking about here). After the meager portion of fuel they’ve accepted from a suspicious gas station attendant runs out, the skies open up, rain pours in, and the group takes shelter in a stately (to make no mention of convenient) mansion.
**NOT LIKE THAT.
Tragic Ceremony
Up to this point, things are merely “uncomfortable and awkward,” with no sense of “tragedy” on the horizon. Once the lady of the house shows up to get her unexpected guests settled, her leering manner towards Jane starts the plot chugging along a distinctly more familiar horror movie path. Separating Jane from her companions and outfitting her in a sheer white gown, it looks as though junk’s going to get all types of lesbonic and perhaps even vampirical. Before I was able to get too excited over the potential for naughty encounters, it turns out that Lady Alexander has ID’ed Jane as potential sacrifice material, and spooks the young lady. Or… we assume Jane is spooked, because Keaton displays an off-putting lack of affect*** throughout her performance.
***Not to be confused with a sexy, Teutonic lack of affect.
Tragic Ceremony
The side-trip into potential lady-love land bears no fruit, and marks the point at which despair set in for me. Bill, Joe and Fred seem equally despondent, choosing to spend their time in light gossip and a round of cards. Meanwhile, Jane wanders the halls of the estate with glazed-over eyes and a candelabra. Now, I love the “wandering by candlelight” thing as much as the next devotee of traditional horror films, but this sequence seems to drag on forever. There’s a glimpse of potential awesomeness to come as meanwhile-meanwhile, elsewhere in the building, a group of creepy be-caped cultists are making with the Satan-worship.
Tragic Ceremony
At this point, I’m 40 minutes into the movie, and trying to figure out what on earth is going to consume the last half of the film. I mean, how much candelabra wandering can a single movie contain? Well, this is where things go all kinds of weird, and where “Tragic Ceremony” could have become a really cool movie. Jane wanders her way into the ritual and is placed on the altar, doubtless looking as delicious to the Dark Forces Present as a Thanksgiving turkey just prior to being carved. Sadly for those Dark Forces, Bill, Joe and Fred burst in and save Jane from her gruesome fate, setting off a scene of madness among the cultists. But what now? We’ve only spent 53 minutes of film, and that sure as hell felt like the climax.
Scarred by this unexpected foray into bloody mayhem, the group heads back to Bill’s familial hunting lodge to collect their thoughts. After seeing news footage of the chaos at the Alexander Estate, the group realizes that they will be blamed for what the authorities believe to be a Manson-style mass murder. Those aforementioned Dark Forces seem to be following them, however, with predictably horrible results that come into play far before the police can track them down. What follows is a stalk-and-slash body-count film tacked onto a gothic occult film, which is a really neat idea in concept that leaves one disappointed in the execution.
Tragic Ceremony
This is an oddly-structured movie, reaching what feels like its climax a little over half of the way through and failing to achieve that level of shock in its final act. Oddly enough, this is one of the key criticisms I have of Ms. Keaton’s significantly more well-known rape-revenge film “I Spit on Your Grave.” At no point does the “revenge” portion of that film match the hideous impact of her violation. Similarly, “Tragic Ceremony” is never more jaw-dropping than during the break-up of the Satanic ritual–unless one counts Jess Franco regular Paul Muller’s abrupt and bizarre explanation of the events of the film that feels tacked on in the last seconds. But that’s the *bad* kind of jaw-dropping.
There’s a lot of potential here, but the lackluster performances and long periods of nothin’-doin’ detract from what could have been a dreamlike fusion of traditional and modern horror tropes. Ms. Keaton sleepwalks her way through the movie, and while her pout is fetching, its appeal grows thin when one wonders if her face has gotten stuck that way. As to the male leads, Tony Isbert is reasonably good as maybe-incestuous, definitely-wimpy Bill, while Maximo Valverde swaggers convincingly as Joe and Giovanni Petrucci’s guitar-strumming Fred comes off a little bit like George Eastman’s smaller, more neurotic sibling. Alas, no player has the kind of screen presence necessary to sustain this kind of film, and while Luciana Paluzzi’s Lady Alexander brought a much-appreciated air of predatory sexuality to the proceedings, her appearances were all too brief. Genre vets Luigi Pistilli and Paul Muller, who have comported themselves in a most pleasingly creepy manner in such films as “Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key” and “Eugenie de Sade,” respectively, are entirely wasted here.
Tragic Ceremony
Stylistically, there are assuredly some high points. I will say without reservation that the dummy death sequence is incredible, and truly does make this movie worth slogging through. The effects during that montage are convincingly squishy and the cartoon violence is a treat for fans of ridiculously explicit films. The Satanic ritual scenes bear all the stamps of early 70s occult filmmaking–fish eye lenses, backlit gowns, and crazyfaces are all in effect. Sadly, all this good stuff accounts for maybe 15 minutes of total screen time in a movie otherwise characterized by uncomfortable verbal exchanges and waiting. Lots and lots of waiting. Aesthetically, the movie hears a resemblance to the horror films of frequent Paul Naschy collaborator Leon Klimovsky, but without the charisma of an actor like Naschy to propel things along, the story is sort of mushy and difficult to care about. For my psychotronic fish eye lens dollar, I’ll take “Vengeance of the Zombies” instead of “Tragic Ceremony.”

Robo Vampire [1988]


I’d say that the films of Godfrey Ho are an acquired taste, but that wouldn’t be true. You may (justifiably!) loathe the bargain-basement, cash-in cynicism of his Far East Frankenfilms, in which case you’re not going to find any value in repeatedly beating your face against this particularly unrelenting wall of troglogytery. Godfrey Ho seems to think his audience is stupid, and doesn’t blush at offending those with more delicate cinematic preferences. Cobbling together the most actioney bits from multiple movies in order to create a teetering clockwork film that is all explosions, all boobs, all monsters, ALL THE TIME. It’s kind of like the mega-Ghoulie at the end of “Ghoulies II” that takes elements of all the Ghoulies and puts them together into one creature that is simultaneously reality-threatening and immensely dumb to look at.

For my money, however, I think Godfrey Ho’s filmography spills over with accidental genius.

Robo Vampire
You’re being lied to right from the title of “Robo Vampire.”* There is no robo vampire, but I guarantee you won’t care. Imagine this: an episode of “Miami Vice” has to use the bathroom. It goes into a stall only to realize that “Mr. Vampire” is already in there but forgot to lock the door. Then “Chinese Ghost Story” drunkenly barges in, trips over “Delta Force,” which pisses all over the floor, and then a fight erupts, causing the whole crew to get ejected from the building by “Robocop.” You’re right to think it’s a lot to digest, and you’re also right to think that there’s not a dull moment to be found as a result of cramming SO MUCH STUFF into a single film.
*Ho is credited with this film on IMDb, although the English-language print I watched was attributed to Thomas Tang. Just let the record show this fact, in case the internet has lied to me regarding this movie’s provenance.
Robo Vampire
Vampires hate it when you cut their blow.
A Joe-Spinell-ish drug lord is tired of being busted by the anti-drug authorities and enlists the aid of a Taoist priest to create an army of vampires to guard his stash. How smuggling bodies will serve as a cover to deflect authorities from the smuggling of drugs is never really explained, but it’s hardly the worst of “Robo Vampire”‘s logical offenses. The Taoist priest creates a Vampire Beast, who can be readily identified by his dimestore rubber gorilla mask, and gets two-two-TWO supernatural aides for the price of one when the ghost girlfriend of the Vampire Beast shows up and vows to stick with him for the rest of her un-life (gorilla mask notwithstanding). The anti-drug agents show up and are promptly mowed down by the Vampire Beast, who can teleport and shoot fireworks out of his sleeves. One of the agents is killed, but is brought back to some form of life as a silver-lame covered robot in one of the greatest science montages OF ALL TIME, which includes the installation of a car battery in a mannequin’s torso with the aid of a sparkler. Meanwhile, another different anti-drug agent is captured by some other character who is working with the Joe-Spinell-ish drug lord and has to be rescued by a team of mercenaries who hadn’t been involved in the plot prior to this point. And so it goes–scene of drug smuggling, scene of hostage interrogation, a robot fight vampires, huts blow up, and glorious stupidity reigns.
Robo Vampire
Ladies and gentlemen: your Vampire Beast.
One of the fun things about Godfrey Ho movies is trying to extricate the two (or more!) movies that have been clumsily sutured to one another. While all the hallmarks of low-budget, non-English-language genre cinema are present, like bad dubbing, wonky effects work, and clumsy plotting, there’s a special magic to Mr. Ho’s films. Tell-tale signs include:
  • Characters who exchange dialogue but never appear on screen together
  • Differing film stock from scene to scene
  • Wildly divergent mood and tone
  • Clumsily obvious exposition
Robo Vampire
The role of the rat will be played by the guinea pig in tonight’s performance, making the guinea pig the armadillo of the Far East.
With a story as nutty as the one in “Robo Vampire,” I thought I had identified three films (a Chinese hopping vampire story, a drug cartel melodrama, and a Filipino hostage rescue yarn), but I was wrong–there were only TWO movies, and the absolutely insane “drug smuggling via vampires” story was filmed as a single piece. This really makes one wonder why the hostage rescue yarn was included at all, unless Ho felt that his audience wouldn’t want to watch a man in a Chinese robe and a gorilla mask shoot bottle rockets out of his sleeves all day.
Robo Vampire
The remote control antenna adds an air of gravitas to the proceedings.
The thing that I like the most about “Robo Vampire” is that it doesn’t stop piling stupidry on top of stupidry, accosting multiple sensory inputs at a time. While you’re watching a topless lady ghost engaged in a martial arts battle, you’re also treated to dubbing that finds it necessary to include every breath and intonation from every character. There’s a chorus of “hum” and “ah” and “oh” that provides a mantra-like backdrop for virtually every single scene. If there are six characters on screen, you’re getting SIX VOICES “hum”-ing and “ah”-ing and “oh”-ing over one another like a flock of pigeons cooing in a city park. We know the characters are there–I CAN SEE THEM, and I don’t need to hear them.
Robo Vampire
Meanwhile, in the OTHER movie…
You might think that all this would make me hate “Robo Vampire” for being so stupid and terrible and aesthetically offensive, but I have to love it for its audacity. There’s an artist I know who insists on booking this particular drag queen for his gallery openings–he thinks she’s the worst drag queen in the world, and yet he finds her sublime in her awfulness. I’ve witnessed her in action and can attest to the fact that she can’t lip-synch worth a damn and her pantyhose drop even as her skirt shimmies its way up around her waist, yet it is in her very dreadfulness that her appeal resides. “Robo Vampire” is like that drag queen, and I will be inviting it to all of MY gallery openings in much the same way.
Robo Vampire
One of the things I love about this movie is that there are SO MANY PUNCHLINES. Do I go for the furry joke? The “love that dare not speak its name” joke? TOO MUCH AWESOME FOR ONE BRAIN.
Caveat Emptor: There is an unpleasant moment featuring a real bull in this movie, so those who (like me!) are especially sensitive to animal violence should look away or avoid this bit. I just don’t want anybody sending me any angry emails over this bit, in case any of you are running off to dig up this little-seen mind-bender of a film!

Rubin and Ed [1991]

Wandering around in the desert–I just got done bagging on that very trope for its dire boringness. I may even have gone so far as to declare a personal ban on watching movies that prominently feature wandering around in the desert.

There’s a commonly-abused phrase in the English language that we’ve all heard: “the exception proves the rule.” As in all things, I like to pick and choose the wisdom nuggets that I like best and warp reality a little bit to suit my own needs. In commonly accepted scientific/statistical parlance, the phrase refers to the exceptions themselves rather than to the proving bit, but that’s fucking boring. I prefer to interpretthat bon mot along the lines of a medieval “proof,” those extreme tests of justice involving danger, torture, or plain old discomfort (the familiar trope of ducking witches in water–that’s a proof). If you follow me along this dubious logical path (and I know you do–we’re a bright bunch), then “the exception proves the rule” means that the existence of an exception to a stodgy, boring, probably-crappy rule tests the legitimacy of that rule. In short, one should always seek exceptions to prove one’s rules.

So yes, back to the desert-wandering thing. My own rule would say that films that focus on desert-wandering are tedious and should be avoided. The 1991 comedy “Rubin and Ed” provided a powerful test to that rule, and now I’m reconsidering my previous desert-wandering movie ban. I grew a little as a person while watching this movie, and as a result, I may have to go back and watch “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Ishtar,” and “Sahara.”*
*OK, maybe just the first one.
I’m embarking on a bit of a mission here, since “Rubin and Ed” may be a bit of a hard sell–it was certainly difficult to convince me that I wanted to see it.** Allow me to hit you with the only two factors about which you absolutely need to know: Crispin Glover and a cat puppet.
**I would be remiss if I didn’t thank Prof. Jack for the recommend on this movie–I know I got around to it a lot later than he’d have liked, but he deserves major kudos for his insistent and enthusiastic prosthelytizing.
If you were me, you’d already have stopped reading right here and would be watching this film.

If it takes more than the Klaus Kinski of our time interacting with a faux feline to break through your leathery exterior to reach your juicy joy-core, I’ll continue. “Rubin and Ed” tells the story of social misfit Rubin Farr (Crispin Glover), his chance encounter with struggling salesman Ed Tuttle (Howard Hesseman of “WKRP In Cincinnati” fame), and their ensuing quest to find a final resting place for Rubin’s beloved cat Simon (a watermelon- and Mahler-loving critter who was Rubin’s only friend). What ensues is some of the strangest, most uncomfortable comedy I’ve seen–and I mean this as the highest possible praise! As a person who’s spent most of her life feeling out-of-place in everyday situations (I go into absolute flop-sweat panic when asked about “favorite movies” in a professional setting), there’s something I can relate to about humor that hinges on people who make other people feel uncomfortable.

Let’s take a minute to talk about the Rubin character. Sketched with twitchy, monosyllabic mannerisms and an alarmingly frank stare by Crispin Glover, the nature of Rubin’s unwellness is front and center even though it’s never explained. His warbling delivery of emphatic non-sequiturs is both off-putting and utterly hilarious. Over two million YouTube viewers have experienced the Rubin character–most of them unknowingly–in this oft-reblogged clip from David Letterman’s late night talk show (circa 1987):
Method acting is *awesome*.
While the movie looks and feels strictly fictional and even fantastical (as was no doubt the goal since even the cat is clearly artificial when it appears on screen), Glover’s portrayal of Rubin is convincingly mad and Hesseman’s exasperation never feels anything less than authentic. The chemistry between the two actors is weirdly compelling and as the characters begin to understand one another and the similarities of their situations, it’s pretty much impossible not to root for them.
I really dislike the word “quirky”–it’s kind of a cheap term that gets tossed around to describe a lot of twee emo-generation*** entertainment that comes in flavors that I find personally displeasing. I go in for “eccentric,” because it has more letters and a better pedigree. “Rubin and Ed” wears its eccentricity on its sleeve, from its unlikely lead characters to its off-beat dream sequence. Director Ted Harris pulls off an amazing feat in this movie when he takes what could be two terrible individuals and, through the alchemy of the cast/director/crew/script relationship, makes them relatable and even lovable.
***I hold the term “emo” responsible for making my first experience in Feeling Old. I had to ask a younger-than-me colleague what the term meant, and when I learned it was short for “emotional punk,” it added “confusion” to the mix. I mean, isn’t punk already inherently emotional? Or is “angry” no longer an emotion? Nobody likes to feel old and confused, and it’s a day-old sushi roll of feelings that I was introduced to thanks to the word “emo.” Fuck you very much, “emo.”
In summary: I love “Rubin and Ed.” I want your gratitude for not quoting every line and thus spoiling the experience for you all. Go forth an enjoy, friends! DVD copies are available from the director’s website at Echochave.net.

Extra bonus niftiness:

Watch for Rubin Farr’s appearance in Crispin Glover’s “Clowny Clown Clown” music video:

Rubin Farr art from “Cien de Cine” (100 memorable characters from 100 memorable films) by artist Puño: