Thursday, November 29, 2018

A Sweet and Vicious Beauty – review

Director: Eric Thornett

Release date: 2012

Contain spoilers

If there was ever an example of a film that was overly long this would be it, but before we look into it let us address the vampirism within the film. This film features a form of energy vampirism – it has a lore where the corpse of a deceased person contains the last breath – take that last breath and it can extend life and heal disease. The fresher the corpse, the bigger the impact – therefore a freshly murdered corpse will yield better results. It might not be standard vampirism, but with the breath being a simile for energy, vampiric it is.

However, this interesting premise, and some brave period work for a budget film, cannot hide the fact that from an editing sense this is a dog’s dinner. It weighs in at 131 minutes and I’d say an hour could have been shaved of the entire thing. Let’s look at it…

Narcissa dying
We are in the town of Harbour Bridge and we are told there is a graveyard overlooking the river and run off from the graveyard has imbued the waters with the essence of the deceased. Nearby there is a manor house where the last member of the Sentinel family resides, Narcissa (Bette Cassatt). She was dying and left the house for the first time in years. A large murder of crows waited in the trees for her and she collapsed, in the river. The essence of the dead revived her and gave her an idea on how she might continue to live.

Brenden McDougal as Ethan
In the town the local doctor, Moreland ( Bill Taylor), has hired a new young doctor, Ethan (Brenden McDougal), and no sooner as he arrived than the town elders send him to visit Narcissa (Moreland refuses to go up to the house anymore). They send him to local tailor Felix (Omar Ott) first and he suggests that rather than hire a horse (Ethan is no equestrian) Ethan goes to his friend Ingrid (Sara Cole, Faces of Schlock) who will drive him up in a trap. He meets the toy-boy who does take him, as far as she can as the horse will go no further and he must walk the last part of the journey. She gives him a red flower as the red will ward spirits said to haunt the woods.

costume party
Now we (and Ethan) do see strangeness in the wood. A spectral hand reaching from the river and branches reaching for him (in an unconvincing manner it has to be said). This all led to nothing. He gets to the dilapidated house and is met by Narcissa – pale and bloodless, one might say, but now ambulatory without a cane and better than described. He examines her (she has a slight fever, but apparently that is normal) and she insists he stays the night – she will throw a party in his honour. As he is coming down to the soirée the butler gives him a mask – it is a costume party and she will insist he wear the mask. He doesn’t wear it, she doesn’t insist, but they do dance. When he retires to bed the maid Sophia (Katherine DuBois) warns him not to open his door due to the ghosts that haunt the house. If he does, he’ll let them in.

with her parents' heads
He awakens to scratching, opens the door and then a ghost gets into the room – it is an effective little scene all told but absolutely not part of the plot and all talk of ghosts is lost thereafter. However, it does make him leave his room where he sees Narcissa take possession of a sack (her men have been digging). He follows her to an attic room and sees her remove the mummified heads of (we later learn) her parents. She kisses them (to his point of view, whilst we know she is drawing the breath from them). He makes haste to his room but Narcissa follows and explains what she was doing. She needs fresher though and asks him to get the heads of vagrants and homeless from the town’s morgue. The fact he does this is a bit of a stretch, even though she appeals to his scientific curiosity. Moreland allows this, but forces Ethan to decapitate the corpses himself.

sucking the breath
When a hospital administrator confronts Narcissa with a view to blackmail, she grabs an axe and takes his head. From here the film morphs from a period Gothic with necrophilic overtones (and a ghost story lurking somewhere but unused) into a slasher – Narcissa exchanges black attire for a white ballgown and mask and starts axe murdering her way through the town (with an uncanny knack of not getting blood on the dress). Of course, she is still stealing the breath. Ethan vanishes for a large portion of the film and Ingrid takes centre-stage as she tries to defend the town from the mysterious killer. Eventually the film will twist again as the headless zombies of Narcissa's victims return to put an end to her madness.

As well as making her less ill and extending her life, the last breaths do seem to make the woman stronger, faster and a fearsome expert with the axe, able to out-do any martial artist (one would guess). She actually says she is “becoming more than I was”. Somehow, however, the film should be a lot less than it is. It overstays its welcome by at least an hour and that causes the pacing to be awful. I’d remove the ghost aspects – they go nowhere – and then look for huge swathes to hit the cutting room floor. Bette Cassatt is clearly having a blast as the mad axe-woman but some of the performances are best described as wooden.

headless zombies
The costuming is, for a budget film, excellent and one does not get a sense of attire out of place and, indeed, the sets are suitable for the period portrayed. The entire thing about the crows (which want to take her overdue spirit to the land of the dead) was under-used and one might have suggested they would have been a better karmic provider than the headless zombies. On the other hand it is unlikely that any scene involving a murder of crows could have been rendered in any way without it moving to an unfortunate level of campness. But the zombies just looked odd (and we won’t ask how they knew Ingrid pointed at Narcissa to turn their attention that way).

Bette Cassatt as Narcissa
There is a good budget film wanting to crawl out of the grave of this film’s unwieldly length. It can’t however. I commend it for the sets and costuming, for the good performances (but not the wooden ones) and the absolute bravery of trying to do an unusual period film on a budget. That length, however, is unforgivable. 4 out of 10 is reflective of all the good bits I saw in it.

The imdb page is here.

On Demand @ Amazon US

On Demand @ Amazon UK

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