You don’t hear a lot about guinea pigs these days. In the pantheon of house pets, they just don’t rank all that high, which is kind of a shame, because I think they’re pretty nifty. They’re easy to take care of, they’re cute as buttons, and they’re fairly even-tempered. My family had one back when I was young. Her name was Petunia (get it?), and I used to push her around on my cheap, plastic skateboard (back when the activity was still called “sidewalk surfing”). If I remember correctly, she only nibbled on my fingers a few times, but I didn’t mind. People love their bunnies, their dogs and cats, even their regular pigs, but the guinea pig is all but forgotten these days. Maybe they got a bad reputation for their ability to be mistaken for rats, as they do in Antonio Boccaci’s Metempsyco (aka Tomb of Torture). That said, they just don’t bring the chills like you might think they would.
Anna Darnell (Annie Alberti) is dragged to her physician father’s village in order to keep her from going insane (this makes sense to someone somewhere). The village’s dilapidated castle plays home to cranky dowager Countess Elizabeth (Flora Carosello) and the horridly disfigured Hugo, who enjoys torturing and murdering nubile young women in the dungeon/tomb that comes standard in places like this. Anna just so happens to be the spitting image of Elizabeth’s sister, the missing Countess Irene (also Alberti), which deeply interests (kind of) Raman (Adriano Micantoni), the Countess’ former fiancé. And things go from there.
The title Metempsyco is a shortening of “metempsychosis,” which is a fancy word for reincarnation, and for once in an Italian genre film of the time, it actually corresponds to the context of the narrative. There’s the obvious mentioning of the resemblance between Irene and Anna by every character, but Boccaci also handles the duality of the character in a strong visual manner. Irene appears as a mute specter frequently in mirrors that Anna peers into. The countess is a presence looming over Anna, possessing her body, as well as an ominous harbinger of the physical danger Anna is in and a representation of the possible madness that imperils her mind. Irene even appears a few times outside of reflective surfaces, so she becomes more physical than just a rumination on what’s inside Anna. There’s even a dream sequence that’s both eerie in its disjointedness and telling as a flashback to Irene’s fate, and it directly draws a line between the two women, linking them on a spiritual level as something shared from life to life.
As all cinematic ghosts are, Irene is the past sin on which the film’s plot turns. We find out rather quickly exactly what happened to her (it’s pretty inventive), leaving only the mystery of who was involved in it (which is no real mystery at all) and how the film’s characters must deal with this. Obviously, Irene can’t or won’t go away until her life and death have reached full closure. Likewise, the deformed Hugo is the ugly, corporeal secret of this past that continues to harm the people of the village. The past is, in fact, more important than anything happening in the present, because it informs every motivation of every character in the film (one could argue that this applies to all fiction, but I feel that it’s more pointedly true in Metempsyco and films like it). Until this is dealt with, no one can move on.
Similarly, the castle and its inhabitants, in fact the whole village, simultaneously embody opulence and rot. We’re shown this from the film’s start. It opens with an establishing shot of the castle exterior, looking the worse for wear. We then get a POV shot (heavy breathing included) of the castle’s interior, the finely woodworked doors, the various large busts, the bookcases, etcetera. This cuts to a skull hanging in blackness, and the camera tracks in on a human eyeball in its socket. It then switches back to the POV shot, and we now get a “rat” (one of the aforementioned guinea pigs) crawling on the fireplace’s mantle. This bastion of finery is decayed, just as Irene’s corpse is. It is beauty and ugliness combined. In this same manner, you have the beast Hugo who captures, strips, tortures, and kills a couple of snooping girls (in a Psycho-esque prologue of some length). In this village, beauty is threatened and must be destroyed. Elizabeth, not an ugly woman, per se, is given a stern iciness which drains what comely attributes she may have once had, and her all-black ensemble only adds to her forbidding mien. She may be wealthy, but she’s practically dead inside. Anna’s arrival is a threat to the fetidness of the locale as well as being the reincarnation of Irene’s allure, so she is in turn threatened. The castle is old affluence consumed by its greed and turned monstrous.
Lust and madness are also intertwined in the film. Elizabeth’s lust turned to envy of Irene, driving her to madness and murder. Anna struggles against some vague genetic insanity, but she beds down with gormless reporter George (Marco Mariani). This does nothing to stave off her mental instability and seems to exacerbate it. Raman lusts for Anna the same as he did Irene, driving him to act the stalker throughout the film. And then there’s Hugo who is clearly psychopathic and indulges his cravings for female flesh in erotic murderous fantasies.
There are some surprises to be had in Metempsyco, primarily stemming from the lurid quality that informs its plot. Death is brutally delivered by more than one character with shocking starkness. There’s no actual skin on display, but both consensual sex and rape are presented as a matter of course. Oddities are left unexplained or only partially explained, augmenting the nightmarish ambiance of the film. Yes, the plot is as well-trodden as the cobbled streets of Pamplona and as enigmatic as a stapler, but it all works because of its macabre disarray. This is pure pulp served up with a heightened gloom that makes it all the more nasty. It’s a shame Boccaci didn’t direct another film (and only wrote a total of four), because he clearly had the sensibilities to be one of the more inventive and intriguing filmmakers of Italian genre cinema. Plus, he was unafraid to try passing off guinea pigs as rats, and you have to admire that kind of moxie.
MVT: The atmosphere of the film is infused with elderly gothic trappings and modern pulp perversity, blurring the two together admirably.
Make or Break: The prologue showcases everything there is to love about the film.