After his moderately engaging but -- ultimately -- rather derivative occult-thriller, "Second Name", the young Spanish director, Paco Plaza, strikes back with his second feature: an intelligent, macabre and beautifully realised take on the werewolf genre. "Romasanta" utilises the enigmatic historical details of a true story and weaves them into the fabric of a thoughtful Gothic tale of murder and revenge set in the rugged landscape of mid-19th Century Galicia. Based on a novel ("Romasanta: Unreliable Memoirs Of A Werewolf") by Alfredo Conde, which made use of archival documents from the actual trial, the film tells the story of an itinerant vendor called Manuel Blanco Romasanta (Julian Sands) who travelled the Spanish countryside in the 1850s selling trinkets to its poorest peasants. In real life he was also a serial killer who savagely murdered at least fifteen people and used their body fat to make the soap which he sold on his stall! When captured and brought to trial, Romasanta claimed as part of his defense, that the murders had been committed with an accomplice called Antonio (whose existence was never confirmed) while both men were in the form of wolves! He was eventually judged to be suffering from the mental condition of Lycanthropy (a dilution which causes the victim to feel that they sometimes become a wolf) and had his original death sentence revoked by Queen Isabel II. Romasanta eventually died in prison under mysterious circumstances.
The real-life Romasanta lived in a time where prevailing superstitions -- which had served to explain abhorrent human behaviour for people throughout the ages -- were beginning to give way to newly developing scientific paradigms which were themselves (judged by today's hindsight), often far more informed by the prejudices and received wisdom of their elite practitioners than clear-sighted objectivity. Paco Plaza's beautifully-shot film cleverly mirrors the tensions between the two modes of understanding through its cinematography with its simultaneous invocation of the romantic, magic-realism of the Gothic horror of period Hammer films -- where the existence of such beasts as werewolves is a given fact only denied by sceptics hidebound by rigid scientific orthodoxy -- and a gritty, realist photographic style that depicts the harshness of living conditions for the poor populace of the forest region in such a manner as to suggest a psychological explanation for their readiness to attribute fantastical origins to the wolves that are killing women and children in the area as the film opens.
Alongside Javier Salmones' award winning photography -- with its complementary blending of genre aesthetics -- Elena Serra and Alberto Marini's screenplay explores the opposing world views without blatantly coming down on one side or the other of the divide; thus, a general tone of ambiguity is maintained throughout the proceedings. The perspective from which the viewer understands unfolding events is continually switched from character to character and encourages us to consider how subjective bias' affect our interpretation and parsing of information. If all this sounds a little dry and un-involving when written down, it actually makes for a very evocative mystery which really gets under the skin of the main characters. The core of the film is really an examination of motive and identity (a "whydunit" rather than a "whodunit") and the ambiguity is maintained right to the end -- leaving it to the viewers' imaginations to decide if they agree with the differing conclusions of the film's characters.
Julian Sands is an actor who tends to evoke derision and even anger among horror fans! His performance in Dario Argento's adaptation of "The Phantom Of The Opera" lead to a great deal of abuse being heaped at his door; but (and I almost hesitate to say it out loud!) I've always felt that he wasn't half as bad in the film as people made out. It's just as well because, minus the dodgy blonde wig he was lumbered with in Phantom, he's playing a very similar character here: a seductive but (it turns out) dangerous man who manipulates everyone he comes into contact with. Sands has the difficult task of portraying a character whom we are never really meant to completely know or fully understand: sometimes we see things from his own self-justifying perspective, overtimes from that of his pursuers or victims; he can appear both calculating and murderous, or romantic and misunderstood; although there is no question that he is something of a ladies’ man who commits many murders, it's up to us to decide whether he is a cold-blooded killer, a real-life werewolf, or whether his violent outbursts are just the result of a mental illness that he is powerless to control. Sands gives a nicely understated performance throughout, and manages to convey the many ambiguities and contradictions of his character with aplomb. His gradual transformation from attractive, almost mythical hero-figure, to a menacing and extremely callous sociopath in the eyes of his one-time lover Barbara (Elsa Pataky) is played with great finesse.
One of the more interesting supporting characters to grace the film is that of Professor Philips -- played beautifully by David Gant. Philips is a kind of medical Sherlock Holmes who becomes involved in Romasanta's case after being engaged by Attorney Luciano de la Bastida (Gary Piquer) to examine the frozen corpses of several supposed werewolf victims who Bastida has kept in storage! Philips -- using his newly developed forensic techniques -- determines that the corpses have indeed been attacked by a wild animal, probably a wolf, but that they also display human-made surgical incisions and their body fat has been carefully removed. Attorney Bastida becomes convinced that the police are dealing with a ruthless serial killer who is using the locals' werewolf superstitions to cover his tracks! Philips takes a much more psychological approach though, and decides the killer is probably suffering from the condition of Lycanthropy.
Gant plays Professor Philips as an incredibly flamboyant and authoritative character -- very reminiscent of the kind Peter Cushing often played in many British Gothic horror movies. His ideas and theories are an exotic mishmash which incorporate both outdated (by today's standards) pseudo-science with some very prescient nods toward modern-day understanding in psychiatry and genetics. The writers have cleverly blended the outlandish with the plausible in order to add to the ambiguity over how seriously we should take Philips' explanations -- in-keeping with the theme of the film. His forensic approach seems very modern and rational; even the condition of Lycanthropy is accepted as a reality by modern psychiatry (although it is thought of more as part of a symptom cluster for illnesses such as schizophrenia than an actual diagnosis). On the other hand, there is a scene where Philips determines the criminal nature of a prisoner by the size of his head (the discredited practice of Craniology -- used to establish the inferiority of anyone who wasn't white and European in the early days of anthropology) which seems quite ridiculous to us today! This is coupled with a rather a-historical mention of genetic inheritance (the film is set at least a decade before Gregor Mendal's work on the subject was even published); but rather than cast doubt on accepted modern disciplines by mentioning them in the same breath as today's obvious nonsense, it seems more likely that the writers are just drawing attention to the fact that science is always provisional and, in the process, reminding us that theories accepted today could easily go the way of Craniology in the future! The exotic Professor is also shown demonstrating his powers of hypnotism in one sequence in order to show how people are not always in control of their own minds, and so may not always be judged responsible for their actions. Although they are working together to catch the killer, Philips' and Bastida's different approaches lead to an intellectual clash between the two which brings the concept of "free will" into the fray -- something of a sub-textual theme of the film.
Perhaps the most important character, besides Romasanta himself, is the female lead Barbara, played by Elsa Pataky. Pataky appeared in another Fantastic Factory produced film, "Beyond Re-animator", but "Romasanta" furnishes her with a much more substantial role. In fact, her character is probably the touchstone for the audience's sympathy throughout the movie's torturous changes in narrative focus; at the start of the film she is the potential mistress ... lusting after the seductive Romasanta who is, at this stage, the lover of her elder sister, Maria (Maru Valdivielso). When Maria and her daughter Teresa (Luna McGill) are brutally murdered, Barbara and Romasanta are drawn together, but their passionate love affair soon gives way, first, to horror and suspicion -- as Barbara begins to suspect her lover has a darker side -- and then, to an all-consuming desire for revenge when she realises that he was, in fact, the killer of her sister and niece! Barbara goes on, perhaps, the most transformative journey of any character in the film and provides the story with its emotional core. Also, it has to be said ... the young actress scrubs up rather well as well!
Paco Plaza has produced a wonderfully original film -- very different from anything else to emerge thus far from Brian Yuzna's Fantastic Factory production house, but it certainly isn't a straight werewolf movie; this may account for some of the mixed notices I've read. The film is undoubtedly slow moving at points, and concentrates more on ideas, character development, and dark Gothic atmosphere than hairy wolf-man "action". Also, although there is a superficial resemblance to "Brotherhood Of The Wolf" because of the period setting, it is a much quieter film and doesn't come loaded with entertaining comic-strip martial arts sequences and the overwhelming visual splendour of Christophe Gans' epic film! There is though, an evocative wolf-into-man transformation scene which eschews CGI work for more visceral visual effects. Shot in a highly stylised Gothic fashion, this scene represents the eyewitness report of Romasanta's accomplice, Antonio (John Sharian). Because the character is possibly insane, the transformation scene may be judged to be a representation of a delusion; but Plaza takes an interesting approach in depicting it as a sort of birthing scene -- where the wolf form dissolves into a kind of womb from which the human form emerges! It's a highly unusual, metaphorical way of representing the wolf/human divide of Romasanta's character.
The UK DVD from Mosiac Movies offers a fairly good 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer and a 2.0 Dolby Stereo English audio track. The film is voiced in English like most Fantastic Factory productions, so does not suffer from bad English dubbing. The extras are quite Spartan: consisting of a trailer and a "making of" featurette which is only five minutes long! Some of the raw footage for the interviews used in the "making of" featurette is also included separately and is a bit more substantial ... but not much!
While probably not to everyone's taste, "Romasanta" is certainly worth at least a rental. Thought-provoking, stylish and sometimes disturbing -- the film shows director, Paco Plaza to have developed his sophisticated style considerably since his debut feature, "Second Name" -- and Fantastic Factory are continuing to produce interesting fantasy/horror movies. Recommended.