Sunday, 14 August 2016

As Sete Vampiras

Director: Ivan Cardoso
Writer: RF Luchetti
Producer: Ivan Cardoso
Cast: Andréa Beltrão, Nuno Leal Maia, Ariel Coelho
Country: Brazil
Year of release: 1986
Reviewed from: Portuguese VHS

Back in the 1990s, I was twice invited (with my journalist’s hat on) to attend the Fantasporto Film festival in the delightful Portuguese town of Oporto. And I had a grand old time on both occasions, hanging out with film-makers and journos from around the world.

Among those people who were present on both occasions was a Brazilian fellow named Ivan Cardoso, several of whose films were released in Portugal on VHS by Mario Dorminsky, the driving force behind Fantasporto. I bought three such tapes... and they proceeded to sit on my shelf for many years, gradually becoming less and less likely to be watched as DVD became the defacto format and the number of VHS players in the Simpson household (and indeed, around the world) reduced considerably.

So now it’s 2008 and I’ve got a couple of hours access to the one remaining VHS/DVD combi when it’s not being used by either Mrs S or The Boy, so I thought what the heck, let’s watch a dodgy Brazilian horror movie. Unfortunately the first tape that I tried, O Escorpiao Escarlate, turned out to be knackered so I’ll probably never know what that’s about. However, The Seven Vampires played okay.

Now, there’s very little been written about As Sete Vampiras and most of what has been written is, naturally, in Portuguese. But I can grasp that lingo well enough to understand that this film is intended as a comedy. That’s actually quite important because my experience of popular Latin American cinema (which I will admit, pretty much stops at the Mexican border) is that is it often over-the-top, exaggerated action and that the presence of an obvious comedy character does not in and of itself indicate that the film in toto is a comedy. Actually, that’s not just Latin America; it may be a broad, sweeping generalisation but that seems to be common among indigenous popular cinemas in general once you get away from Europe/Hollywood and their obvious sphere of influence. In other words, indigenous cinemas which were destined to remain indigenous. And obviously I’m talking about all this, for the most part, in the past tense.

So, to get down to brass tacks: is this a clumsily made, naive attempt at a horror movie or is it a pastiche of clumsily made, naive attempts at horror movies? The geographical and temporal distance (As Sete Vampiras was released in 1986 so it was already a decade old when I bought a copy) robs the film of cultural reference points for this reviewer. But the Portuguese blurb includes the word ‘comedia’ so I have to take this as a pastiche. In which case I suppose it’s quite good. (Actually, I should have just checked the sleeve which proclaims, ‘Comédia, terror e... muito sexo!’)

There is also the question of the film’s historical setting. Unless Brazil in the mid-1980s still looked like this - which seems unlikely - then the film appears to be set in the 1940s, yet it gives the impression of having been made in the 1960s (or maybe early ‘70s). It’s all very confusing.

But not as confusing as the plot, which opens with two workmen discussing a very large crate, recently unloaded from a ship. Their boss doesn’t know what’s inside either: “I only know that we have to put meat in that hole every three hours,” is the first of many superb (and I suspect, accurate) subtitles. The crate belongs to Fred Rossi (Ariel Coelho, who was in John Boorman’s The Emerald Forest and is a dead ringer for HP Lovecraft), a botanist who has shipped in a large carnivorous plant.

This rather impressive, Audrey II-style prop has a large central florette with three or four leaves/petals, each equipped with numerous long, sharp teeth, plus a dozen or more snake-like appendages, each ending in a hungry mouth. Fred’s wife Silvia (Nicole Puzzi) obviously isn’t the sharpest chisel in the toolbox because she stares at this wriggling, writhing specimen for quite some time before exclaiming, “That plant just moved!” She is off to a dance class run by her friend Clarisse (Susana Matos) and is concerned about leaving Fred alone. “Don’t worry,” he assures his wife. “The plant won’t eat me.”

But while Silvia and Clarisse change into their leotards (alongside a full-frontal nude extra), Fred gets too close to the plant while he’s feeding it raw meat and it chows down on his head. When Silvia returns home, she finds the plant covered in blood and with an eyeball staring at her from one of its mouths...

Sometime later, the widowed Silvia enters into business with Rogério (Johnny Herbert - no, not the racing driver) who owns a swinging nightclub in need of a star attraction. The current show includes a fake-oriental magician who calls himself Fu Man Chu and a swinging rock’n’roll band - Bob Rider and his Crazy Rhythm. Rider is played by Leo Jaime who was a genuine Brazilian pop star, formerly with João Penca e Seus Miquinhos Amestrados. He also appeared in Cardoso’s O Escorpiao Escarlate and starred in the Brazilian version of The Rocky Horror Show! Under the Fu Man Chu make-up is veteran actor Wilson Grey, whose career from 1948 to 1996 incorporated John Hurt-starring prison drama Kiss of the Spider-Woman, a 1972 version of Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves and several films in the Trapalhões series, notably haunted house comedy Os Fantasmas Trapalhões, Rider Haggard knock-off O Trapalhão nas Minas do Rei Salomão and superhero spoof O Incrível Monstro Trapalhão. But the Wilson Grey picture that I most want to see is the 1977 epic Costinha e o King Mong in which popular comedian Costinha encounters a jungle tribe who worship a giant man-in-a-suit gorilla. Apparently featuring a climax in which the ape climbs the Christ the Redeemer statue, this looks like it could give Queen Kong a serious run for its money...

Anyway, Silvia recommends a dance act called ‘The Seven Vampires’, a septet of attractive young ladies who gyrate to goth-lite music amid much stage smoke. And here’s the film’s biggest disappointment: not only does As Sete Vampiras not have seven vampires in it, it doesn’t even have one vampire (as far as I can tell). It’s just the name of a dance act. What a cheesy swizz!

However, there is the possibility of a real bloodsucker as we are introduced to the long-suffering (but unnamed) Chief of Police (Bene Nunes) and comedy cop Inspector Pacheco (Colé Santana) who is less irritating than one might expect. “Two crimes in two months!” bemoans the Chief, which is either meant to be ironic or hasn’t been translated properly. Both crimes are actually murders where the body has been drained of blood and this leads the ever-alert coppers to suspect that the same person may be responsible. Pacheco is adamant that they are dealing with a vampire but the Chief poopoos this ludicrous idea.

Meanwhile Ivete (Simone Carvalho), one of the ‘vampire’ dancers, is worried for some reason and goes to see private detective ‘Raimundo Marlou’ - I kid you not - (Nuno Leal Maia) who spends his time reading detective comics but is fortunately assisted by competent secretary Maria (former children’s TV star Andréa Beltrão). Ivete is subsequently seduced by Rogério (who is supposed to be an item with Silvia now, I think) but when they return to his swanky house, he is murdered while Ivete is in the bath.

Later, Silvia is chased across a cemetery by a masked, knife-wielding maniac in a long black cloak, after which she too turns to Raimundo Marlou, who is presumably the only private dick in the area. Marlou’s assistant Maria then goes undercover at the club as a hat-check girl, working alongside female comic relief Rina (seventy-year-old Zéze Macedo). A word about Ms Macedo, who is obviously a local legend, having been in films from 1950. Her other credits, offering a tantalising insight into a world of cinefantastique that remains largely untapped even in these globally aware days, include ultra-topical 1959 sci-fi comedy O Homem do Sputnik, family-friendly adventure Robin Hood, o Trapalhão da Floresta and a number of 1970s sex comedy anthologies. Most incredibly, she also played the title role in an unauthorised blockbuster sequel called - are you ready for this? - Etéia, A Extraterrestre em Sua Aventura no Rio! Zéze Macedo made her last film in 1991 and passed away in 1999, aged 86.

Meanwhile, back at the plot, Maria somehow finds herself in a situation to overhear a telephone call which sends her and Raimundo to a particular location. Inspector Pacheco, who is still pursuing his vampire theory (the number of murders having risen to eight now, we’re told) also arrives and the masked maniac, when shot, turns out to be... well, I’m not entirely sure because most of his face is burned, but I’m assuming it’s Fred.

I’m assuming the killer is Fred for two reasons. First, because I can’t see who else it could be, and second, because if that’s not Fred then the entire prologue with the carnivorous plant is pointless. On the other hand, if the masked killer is Fred then the prologue is still largely pointless. We’re never told what happened to the killer plant. It just disappears from the film during the leap forward from Fred’s death to Silvia going into the nightclub business. Extraordinary.

Nor is there any explanation of why Fred was going around killing people or why the bodies were drained of blood. Unless being eaten by a plant not only burns one’s face but also creates haemovorous tendencies. To be fair, the synopsis on the BFI database (pretty much the only description of the film in English until now) says, “a killer vegetable transforms a scientist into a vampire, who brings horror to the chorus girls at a hotel, who are performing ‘The seven female vampires’.” But that’s really not clear from the film.

As Sete Vampiras is an oddball movie by anybody’s standards. It seems to have a fairly decent budget, certainly in terms of costumes, extras, props, sets, locations and vehicles (actually there’s only one car but it’s a nice one). I know all these things are relative but, the Brazilian film industry not being one of the most robust in the world, there are no obvious embarrassments on that score. The movie was released theatrically in Brazil in November 1986.

Several of Cardoso’s feature films and a compilation of his early shorts were released on VHS in the USA by Something Weird and the rights to his most notable pictures are now handled by a company called One Eyed Films, which seems to specialise in Brazilian popular cinema.

The only non-Brazilian festival where As Sete Vampiras definitely played was Sitges in Spain. At the Festival do Cinema Brasileiro de Gramado it won Best Screenplay and Zéze Macedo won a Special Jury Prize for her small but memorable role as comedy hat-check lady Rina. At the Rio-Cine Film Festival the picture won no fewer than four awards: Best Editing - Gilberto Santeiro; Best Art Direction - Oscar Ramos; Best Supporting Actress - Andréa Beltrão; and Best Film. Carlos Egberto also won an award (somewhere) for his cinematography; to be honest the film looks fairly ghastly but I suspect it was shot on 16mm and that this isn’t a great VHS transfer. Leo Jaime’s title song was a big hit on the Brazilian pop charts too, by all accounts.

Many of the cast and crew also worked on O Escorpiao Escarlate although as that was released four years later it’s unlikely the two films were shot back to back. A few also worked on Cardoso’s 1982 feature O Segredo da Mumia. Screenwriter RF Luchetti (credited as ‘RT Luccetti’ on the sleeve of this video) seems to have the Brazilian horror scene pretty much sewn up as he is not only Cardoso’s regular writer, he also penned several scripts for the country’s other notable fright-meister, José Mojica Marins aka Coffin Joe.

As for Ivan Cardoso himself, information about the man in English is in short supply. He started making films in 1969 and has directed more than 70 since then, ranging from documentaries to experimental, abstract pieces to hardcore porn but he is best known for comedy horror features. In fact, his brand of comedy horror became its own subgenre in Brazil where it was dubbed ‘terrir’ - terror that makes you laugh. I’ve got a whole bunch of stills, leaflets, posters and other stuff which he very kindly sent me in 1999 after we met in Oporto but there’s nothing in there that looks actually biographical.

The most complete list of his films is on the CITWF website, which is vastly more comprehensive than the Inaccurate Movie Database. However, it only goes up to 2004 and therefore omits his most recent feature, 2005’s Um Lobisomem na Amazonia which stars Paul Naschy. (Not as Waldemar Daninsky but as a lycanthropic scientist named ‘Dr Moreau’!)

Perhaps the time is right for an Ivan Cardoso revival. The chap’s still out there, still making bonkers films. Say what you like about As Sete Vampiras, it’s not boring - so let’s hope somebody puts it out on DVD soon, along with the rest of Ivan’s back catalogue.

MJS rating: B
Review originally posted 9th November 2008

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