The Blood in the Jazz: Emilio Vierya's Placer Sangriento
“When you're all alone, what do you want to do?
Do you want to die or is it the strangeness in me?”
The melancholia of a murderer is a theme that has often been borderline taboo for writers and filmmakers alike to explore. Broad strokes of a cold hearted killer and born sociopath are far easier to exploit and serve to your audience. But is it the smartest way to go? No. Is it the most creatively or psychologically interesting way to go? Absolutely not, which is why the small cachet of films that have dared to incorporate some “sympathy for the devil” should be better revered than their more basic and crude brethren. One of the most underrated and overlooked titles within that realm is a little 1965/1967 Argentinian gem called Placer Sangriento, which translates into Bloody Pleasure.
Placer Sangriento opens up, brilliantly so, with an old modern horror film trope. An attractive young couple is alone on a night side beach, all with the clear intent of doing anything that is the opposite of bible study. Beachside necking is soon interrupted by a sound and a sight to signal that they are no longer alone. Off in the distance, a silver convertible pulls up on the beach. The two stand up and look, only to see a man, dressed in all black and wearing a strange mask. He pulls a limp female form out of his sports car and drops her on the beach. He drives off as the young lovers wait in the darkness. As soon as the coast is clear, they move closer to go check on the girl. Under the bright light of a sole street lamp, they find her lifeless body, as a huge syringe juts out of her partially exposed chest. The spike stands tall like an obscenely sanguine monument to dark, rooted anger and sexual psychosis.
With most horror films, that would be the opportune moment to cue up the theme song and start rolling the intro credits. Not the case with Placer Sangriento, as the scene instead cuts to a lurking black shadow on the pale stone wall of a villa while eerie female vocals “oooh” with beautiful torment. The camera soon reveals the man lurking to be the killer, giving us the first proper close-up of the strange old man mask topped with a shock of black hair that most resembles an early 60's Beatles cut by way of the asylum. The frame freezes on our villain and then the extremely groovy/arty intro credits, courtesy of Gily Bertolini, begin. (Imagine Blue Note Records collaborating with an Italian fumetti.)
After that, we return to the killer's villa. He removes his heavy dark coat and gazes at a young brunette sleeping on a divan near the window. She is lovely as is the night tide that can be seen from the room. Bending down, he embraces her, rousing the girl out of her narcotic revery and fully kissing him back, through the mask. Getting back up, he goes to the organ and begins to play a hauntingly beautiful melody. The camera pans as he plays, revealing the girl, now clothed, to be leaving in a trance like state.
Cut to the town's local swanksville club. The girl from the Killer's pad arrives, going through the motions like a somnambulist’s dream mod girl. The young lovers from the beginning also arrive and seem not terribly rattled despite having just seen a dead body on the beach. Right behind the three of them is Silvio (Ricardo Bauleo). Ridiculously handsome, Bond-suave and with sand all over his black patent shoes, he's late for his shift as the house band's pianist. A seedy man sidles up and tells him, “The Boss told me to keep tails on you.” Meanwhile, the police arrive at the crime scene and take the murdered girl's body. Standing by the crime site alone is the lanky, haunted figure of her fiance, Leo. The police leave him, as his figure lurks partially in the shadows with the black sea crashing behind him. Meanwhile, Beba (Gloria Prat), the girl of the pair that had initially found Leo's fiancee, does a sexy striptease in the club, as organized jazz gets rhythmically interrupted by spastic bongos. One of her friends looks mildly put off but none too shocked, while another, a blonde with a short cut, leers like a barely repressed fox.
The sex and death show continues as we visit the Morgue. The man conducting the autopsy, one Doctor Bermudez (Alberto Candeau), tells the police detective that the victim's bloodstream revealed a strong amount of heroin. However, she did not OD, stating that the heroin was injected in her post-mortem. Curiouser and curiouser. The next day, Inspector Lauria (Mauricio De Ferraris) arrives to help investigate. A murky pool of motives and suspects begin to emerge as the Inspector digs deeper, all the while the list of victims begins to add up, revealing the killer to be of the serial variety.
Adding a new dimension to the “killer on the loose” aspect is the discovery of a 45 record of unknown origin that is found associated with one of the victims. The melody on it is the same haunting music that is heard throughout the film. It turns out that the killer is a pied piper madman, luring the assorted beautiful young women of the village, only to seduce them both sexually and chemically, before inevitably sending them brutally into the great divide. Red herrings abound as multiple men have multiple potentials. Is it handsome tune-smith and potential ties to the underworld, Silvio? Or could it be haunted Leo, whom at one point almost rapes Beba after she tries to toy with him on the beach? How about Dr. Bermudez, whose late wife became an opiate addict and died in a car crash with her equally addicted lover?
The film plays its cards fairly close to its chest, revealing aspects of the killer that brilliantly show some human qualities but without tipping its hat too early regarding his identity. There's no joy in his lust, seduction or even murder. Even playing his organ, his body language coupled with that bizarre old, shriveled man-mask, denotes only sad burden. The only real emotion we see from him is rage and that isn't until we are nearly ¾ into the film when the Inspector has set Beba as potential bait to lure the killer. Which works well except that he manages to evade the Inspector and bring her to his villa, where he starts to rough her up. Beba actually fights back, hitting him over the head with a blunt, crowbar-type object, allowing herself enough of a window to run away. Staggering upright, he slightly tremors and approaches his already cracked mirror. His ghoulish false-face says nothing while his fist, smashing into the reflective glass, says everything. All of this gives the reveal a definite gravitas. By the way, I will not spoil this for you because this film is obscure enough to where if you seek it out, you might have a fighting chance of being genuinely surprised. It can be a rare joy, ladies, and gents, so please do enjoy it when it happens.
Placer Sangriento is a layer cake that borders on the surreal while indulging in a tonal fog of stylish malaise. It is always a fascinating thing to see a horror film, especially one dealing with sexuality and murder, to be less concerned with Grand Guignol luridness or cheap terror tactics, and more with overall ambiance.
One thing to definitely keep in mind is that Placer Sangriento was made in a time of major cultural and political turmoil in Argentina. The 1960's were post-Peron and a hotbed of political coups, including Revolucion Argentina led by General Juan Carlos Ongania in '66, a year after “Placer” was originally made. (If IMDB is to be believed. Naturally, your mileage may vary.) With unrest being thick in the air and the clash between students and a more liberal leaning tide versus the military based and very conservative new government, it explains the devil-may-care, lackadaisical attitude that all of the young adults have in the film. There's a killer on the loose who is offing people they know and have spent time with and yet, the mood is do or die. Hazlo o muere. What's the point of goals when your sense of terra firma is shaken up snow-globe style? Even after the killer is shot to death and revealed, there is not the expected sense of relief that one usually receives at the end of a horror film. In fact, the tone feels more damaged and resigned that even if this killer is gone, the living are walking forever wounded and living feels like a lost act now more than ever. That melancholia is, in many a way, more terrifying than some fragile, hate-filled and emotionally fractured Pied Piper killer.
Lending to this tone is the exquisite black and white photography. Placer Sangriento was lensed by Anibal Gonzalez Paz, who also worked on Vieyra's Blood of the Virgins (1967 and later on released by Pete Tombs' Mondo Macaboro label), as well as 1969's The Curious Dr Humpp (like Placer, released by Something Weird Video). The nighttime scenes are especially beautiful, with the use of shadows, along with the ocean itself, being quite striking. Working with the visuals is the music, courtesy of Victor Buchino. From the haunting and ethereal song of hypnosis to the Latin-Jazz flavored music heard in the club, it heightens both the film's more stylized visual elements, as well as the aforementioned tone. (After all, the best jazz is usually the jazz that is strange, mad and sad.)
Placer Sangriento went on to be released in the United States in 1967 as, inexplicably enough, Feast of Flesh. It came to more prominence when placed on the second bill as part of a well known double feature with Rene Cardona's bonkers Night of the Bloody Apes. How these two films came to be joined together is a bit of a mystery, since the only thing they have in common is their Latin America origin. (Cardona's film was made in Mexico) Oh, and both of them are horror. Night of the Bloody Apes, while a fun film, is the reverse of Vieyra's restrained, dark-art film, sporting bright colors, copious nudity, female luchadors, footage from an actual open heart surgery and a cockamamie plot involving a mad doctor who replaces his sick son's heart with one of an ape. It is this double bill that was featured on Something Weird Video's Image Entertainment DVD release. (The company also has “Placer” available to purchase on its own, under its other alternate title, The Deadly Organ.)
Placer Sangriento is undeservingly obscure. It was perhaps too tame for any cinemagoer that came for the tempura red blood-paint a go-go that is Night of the Bloody Apes. (Note that in all the trailers for this double bill, zero footage from Placer was featured.) Also, add in the fact that South American films generally have a spotty history of doing well in the US, as well as it being above the typical black/white/good vs evil dichotomy that gives many viewers a “safety” zone, and its odds of ever being written about more and watched would have grown exponentially. But then it would have been just another general murder film and it is far too good and conceptually interesting for that. Does it pose the possible question of which death is worse? One in a narcotic haze via the hands of a seductive killer in a mask or the one where you gave up on existence a long time ago? Placer Sangriento knows.