Capturing both the spirit and turning point of the Sixties counter-culture movement, Tonino Cervi’s unconventional-yet-mesmerizing Queens of Evil (1970) is also very much a horror film, albeit one with a distinctly different tone. Having already directed the beautifully-stylized spaghetti western, Today It’s Me… Tomorrow It’s You (1968), Cervi’s arthouse inspirations herein complement the slender narrative with several dream-like visual shocks without ever resorting to monotonous pretensions. Nevertheless, Queens of Evil does include plenty of subtext and makes for enigmatic viewing, which is greatly enhanced by Mondo Macabro’s impressive new Blu-ray of this criminally-underseen Eurocult gem.
During a solo road trip on his motorcycle, David’s (Raymond Lovelock) tranquility is shattered when, in the dead of night, he encounters a stranger (Gianni Santuccio) stranded on the side of the road. While changing a flat tire on the stranger’s Rolls Royce, the two men strike up a conversation after David makes a sarcastic comment regarding the man’s fancy car (“I thought these things happened only to ordinary people’s cars!”). Lighting a cigarette, the Rolls’ owner casually remarks, “In fact, rich and poor alike, we’re all riding on the same bus.” But David’s long hair and roughshod appearance (“You look like a tramp!”) quickly becomes a sticking-point with this mysterious stranger who spitefully and sneakily proceeds to stick a nail in a tire of David’s bike while they continue their introspective ruminations about love and life.
After the stranger has driven off, upon realizing his tire has been purposely punctured, David angrily proceeds to give chase, which results in the other man’s accidental death when his Rolls careens off the road into a tree. When passing motorists refuse to stop and help, David, not wanting to have to deal with the police, ventures off the main highway into the all enveloping darkness of the surrounding forest. While en route to the “Lago d’estate”, he makes a pit-stop and falls asleep in a barn, only to be awakened by three strikingly-beautiful women, all of whom live in the house adjacent to it. Liv (Haydée Politoff), Samantha (Silvia Monti, and Bibiana (“Evelyn Stewart”/Ida Galli) invite him into their stunningly decorated home, the Bohemian modernity of whose interior clashes with its more modest outward appearance and the surrounding shadowy, mist-shrouded forest. His three lovely hostesses serve David a lavish morning repast fit for a king (“Are your breakfasts always like this?!”) and invite him, essentially, to ‘shack-up’ with them. But, in spite—more likely because—of their languorous, carefree lifestyle and promiscuous sexual wantonness, David slowly begins to lose his grip on reality…
Much like Lovelock’s anti-authority ‘hippy’ character (who in many ways foreshadows his George Meaning characterization in Jorge Grau’s seminal Euro zombie flick The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue ), Queens of Evil ever teeters on the brink of wallowing in its own self-importance, and despite very much being a product of its time, it offers-up some insightful commentary on such lofty concerns as the eternal class struggle, traditional and non-traditional gender roles, temptation and the corruption of innocence. Believing himself to be a “free man”, David’s core principles—and the entire hippy ‘counterculture’, for that matter—are instantly challenged when his entire generation is dismissed as “impossible” by the stranger he meets at roadside. Presented as a wealthy, well-dressed older gentleman of considerable business acumen and sophisticated taste in automobiles, this stranger opines that the perfume and pleasure of a beautiful woman would forever “change his entire being”, making David forget his “revolutionary ideals” and instead become a slave to sex… and therefore to the Devil. Later, as David is initially seduced by the inexorable forces of avarice with beautiful women and extravagant meals, he succumbs to the ultimate temptation (i.e., the original sin) when he and his three companions come across a lone apple tree in the middle of the forest. “These apples are really delicious! Here, why don’t you taste one,” suggests Samantha seductively. Of course David barely hesitates. While heavy-handed in its messaging, the most interesting aspect of this scene is the filmmakers’ role reversal, symbolically equating David with Eve as he eagerly bites into the apple (= the forbidden fruit). As Kat Ellinger and Samm Deighan point out in their well-thought-out and enjoyable audio commentary, the film doesn’t purport to be “some sort of feminist statement”, but Lovelock’s David is “consistently put into the position of a female character”, an interesting and novel concept given the state of Italy’s gender politics in the early Seventies.
Confronting his own hypocrisies about compromise and his idealistic search for “a world without selfishness, egotism, and violence”, David nevertheless enjoys the ‘fruits’ of his new lifestyle, even as he is slowly consumed by the materialism he so strongly opposes. In this dark fairytale narrative the three seductive enchantresses avoid using traditional spells and potions in their psychological manipulations of David and instead use their magic to conjure up gluttonous feasts and a vast array of increasingly eye-catching outfits and wigs (“You all look so different! Those wigs!”). Even as the trio’s ‘boy-toy’ is slowly ensnared into a state of virtual nonexistence, any supernatural angles to the story are kept strictly to a minimum and are only incorporated in the subtlest of ways. In what might be construed as a possible precursor of what lies ahead, David happens upon Bibiana performing some backyard taxidermy on a squirrel, which he finds curiously—and disgustingly—odd. In direct contrast, she finds her hobby of “stuffing life and stuffing time” a way of preserving “youth, beauty… forever.” The situation becomes progressively stranger as David begins losing his grip on reality to the point where perhaps “nothing is real”, but his attempts to try and leave this so-called paradise become increasingly futile as he is subjected to a series of dream-like otherworldly manifestations which result in some of the film’s most jarring and unforgettable images.
Highly experimental in nature and courageously inventive, virtually every scene unfolds within the matchless interior of the country house, whose décor includes giant pop art-styled self-portraits, patterned wallpaper, bean bag chairs, sunken living rooms, pendant lights, and even a couple of full-sized, genuine trees, further establishing their connection to the countryside these temptresses call home. Beautifully photographed by Sergio D’Offizi [who had shot Cervi’s aforementioned earlier western and also worked on Ruggero Deodato’s harrowing Cannibal Holocaust (1979)], this indeterminate geographic locale is marvelously captured in all its eerie splendour and beauty, which is made all the more eloquent by Angelo Francesco Lavagnino’s tasteful score, Massimo De Rossi’s unforgettable art direction and Mario Morra’s effective cutting, which expertly provides consistent pacing throughout the ‘slow-burn’ narrative. Complete with a number of thought-provoking ambiguities, Queens of Evil plays, for the most part, like a fascinating satire on the complexities of the world, yet despite its mostly cynical viewpoints it also offers up a glimmer of hope by film’s end, further “preserving” the idea of youth and beauty forever.
Featuring a brand new 4K scan taken from the original negative, MM’s new Blu-ray is a significant improvement over an earlier non-English-friendly Italian DVD. Looking brighter, crisper, and featuring a far more balanced colour scheme, the film really ‘pops’ when it needs to while retaining its naturally grainy look. It should be mentioned that some minor sections of the OCN were deemed unusable, so a few brief scenes were upscaled from an SD source and smoothly inserted without much issue whatsoever. Both English and Italian audio tracks are provided (the latter with optional English subtitles) in DTS-HD 2.0 mono, and the sound is clean and distortion-free; about on par what you’d expect from an Italian film of this vintage.
Aside from the much-improved transfer, the disc also comes with several worthwhile special features, beginning with the above-noted audio commentary from Diabolique’s Kat Ellinger and Samm Deighan. Making for a highly-informative and engaging listen, the pair opine that the film—as with all classic fairytales— can be interpreted in “several different ways” and, even though some of its symbology (e.g., the apple tree) does go a tad overboard at times, both women agree that it uses “satire in the most wonderful of ways.” Of course, they also discuss Lovelock’s career at the time, including his numerous counterculture roles and how this film and Sergio Capogna’s Plagio (1969) kick-started his acting career, as well as his brief stint as a musician (Lovelock contributed two original songs for the film including its Bob Dylanesque main title theme “I Love You Underground.”). Other topics discussed include the unique “retro-futurism” art direction; Satanism as a corporate entity; and other similar-themed films, such as Robert Freeman’s The Touchables (1968) and Roddy McDowell’s Tam Lin (1970), plus both Corrado Farina’s fascinating Hanno Cambiato Faccia (1971) and Baba Yaga (1973). In addition you get to find out what “sparagmos” means! Well-prepared and full of intelligent observations, it’s difficult not to appreciate Ellinger’s and Deighan’s work hereon, which comes highly recommended.
Other extras include a re-edited half-hour excerpt taken from an incredibly thorough, career-spanning interview with Ray Lovelock that was conducted in 2012 and which covers his early roles leading up to and including Queens of Evil; his “hippie characters” of the time, which he maintains happened by mere chance during casting; his popularity in Japan (he even has a fan club there!); and several production anecdotes related to the present film. Two alternate sequences taken form the French cut of the film and the film’s colourful Italian theatrical trailer finish off the extras. For those lucky enough to snag the Limited Edition 2-disc release, additional bonuses include a nicely-illustrated 20-page booklet with writing from genre expert Roberto Curti; a set of postcards featuring the Italian fotobustas; and the full 3h20m interview with Lovelock is included in its entirety on a separate DVD.
Frustratingly difficult to see for many years in anything approximating a decent English-friendly version, thanks to the continued efforts of Mondo Macabro (perhaps they made a pact with the Devil themselves!), Queens of Evil finally arrives on Blu-ray in a mighty fine package, indeed.
Mondo Macabro, 2021, Region A
Feature: Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1