"Rojo Sangre," a 2004 Paul Naschy vehicle that's part "Theatre of Blood," part "Faust" and all new-breed horror style, is way, way, WAY better than it has any right to be. Paul Naschy is absolutely in love with classic horror conventions and I'll admit that I was a little concerned to see how his old-school enthusiasm would translate to a flashy, post-Rob-Zombie-and-Eli-Roth mode of filmmaking. Fifteen minutes into the film, I was thoroughly won over--better-than-average acting, thoughtful filmmaking and a creepy-fun plot combine to make this a fabulous way to spend ninety minutes of movie-time.
Even the credits sequence is beautifully realized--photos of Naschy in his many roles are shown in slide frames that click into place while music plays in the background. It's clear that director Christian Molina is memorializing Paul Naschy's legacy and linking him directly to Pablo Thevenet, the character Naschy will play in the film.
Pablo Thevenet is a down-on-his-luck actor who refuses to believe his career is over in spite of the contempt he is shown by the current crop of filmmakers. In the first frames, Pablo discusses his practice of putting mice in condoms for anal sex play--is he mad, or is he merely trying to elicit a reaction from the man with whom he's conversing? Naschy's deadpan delivery lends the exchange an air of black comedy that sets the tone for everything that will transpire in the plot. The smirk behind the gruesomeness could be aggravating, but it's handled pitch-perfectly throughout and never descends into hipsteresque self-consciousness.
Because any plot needs its motivation, Pablo is rejected--harshly--at his audition in spite of throwing himself into his reading. His disappointment is palpable, and when he returns to his agent's office only to be told that the only opportunity that's come in for him is as a doorman at the Pandora Club (a Gentleman's Establishment IYKWIM) he's crestfallen. When his agent summarily refuses to work with him anymore, the viewer is crestfallen right along with Pablo.
At this point in the film, I've got to note that the performances are excellent. Naschy sinks his teeth into the role and works the hell out of every scene he's in--it's wonderful to watch. There's a real bitterness underlying Naschy's performance, as if this is his statement on the industry and the way it throws away yesterday's stars.
Out of work and beginning to despair, Pablo decides to go to the Pandora Club to learn more about the opportunity. Club manager Dora Grizzel (played by Bibiana Fernández, a transsexual model, actress and singer who has worked with director Pedro Almodóvar) soothes Pablo's wounded ego by making a point of talking about how wonderful his work is. If her exotic appearance and deep speaking voice weren't enough to signal that the Pandora Club is not the ordinary strip joint, the Seven Deadly Sins nudie tableaux acted out every night would seal the deal. The nightclub is a fantasy of red drapes, black-tie clientele and model-beautiful dancers.
"Seriously, it's a sword cane. You can't say no to that."
Dora takes Pablo to meet the club owner who explains the job: every night, Pablo must mime a different villain from the past including such dark luminaries as Gilles de Rais, Ivan the Terrible, and Jack the Ripper. It's certainly beneath Pablo's talents, but when offered a very generous sum of 10,000 Euros a week, he is powerless to say no. Even after the club owner, Mr. Reficul (whose office has Bosch's "Garden of Earthly Delights" prominently displayed) asks him to sign a contract that is partially written in Hebrew. A hint? Perhaps something is amiss? UNPOSSIBLE. Pablo is paid handsomely AND given a sword cane. I don't know about you, but I'd sign on the dotted line without thinking too hard about my boss's last name at that point. "Sure, Dr. Acula--when can I start?" At any rate...
As if spurred by forces beyond his control (hmmmmm...), Pablo begins to act out his rage against the movie-industry figures who have rejected him. In fact, he acts it out violently, bloodily, and sometimes in historical-villain character. One set-piece murder has Pablo wearing his Gilles de Rais costume, clearly meant to evoke the Alaric de Marnac character Naschy played in "Horror Rises from the Tomb" and "Panic Beats." Pablo's victims are the over-publicized and under-moralized young film-world players who are marked more by flash and scandal than by any type of talent. They are shown sleeping around in order to gain power while barely remembering their lines on set. By the time Pablo gives it to 'em, we're rooting for their grisly demise.
The Naschinator hasn't lost his touch with the ladies--he manages to make time with Asiatic beauty and fellow Pandora Club employee Tick-Tock. He might be approaching Septuagenarian Status at the time of filming, but that doesn't mean he's any easier to resist. Granted, the man is a charmer on-screen, making this odd pairing a little easier to digest.
Soon after he begins his murder spree, Pablo is approached by Herr Fuchs, a totally evil businessman who is badass for a number of reasons (his excellent red glass monocle and ownership of his own cemetery being but two of them). Fuchs hires Pablo to direct snuff films for him, channeling his rage into a product Fuchs feels will be a hit on the hardcore pervert market. One of the more disturbing scenes in the film has Pablo directing one of Fuchs' snuff films while the producer and his companions leer in the background.
Apparently the contract he signed with Mr. Reficul has a wicked non-compete clause, because as soon as Pablo starts working with Fuchs, things take a turn for the even-worse. It's only after Tick-Tock slips Pablo Mr. Reficul's laptop password (seriously, it's hard to find good help) that he discovers the evil truth behind the Pandora Club. Trust me, you'll have figured it out, too, but the movie is just such nasty fun that you'll love rather than groan at this bit of hokiness.
Produced after the new-school horror hits "House of 1000 Corpses" and "Cabin Fever," this movie uses similar breakneck editing and clever visual flourishes. "Rojo Sangre" is great to look at. Fantastic scene transitions make ingenious use of computer effects--there are lots of wipes, shots through windows opening into new scenes, and even one montage where overlays of champagne "pour" a new scene onto the screen. Herr Fuchs' red monocle is put to literal use--some shots are filmed through a red gel to simulate his view. Perhaps the most impressive of these bravura sequences has the camera sinking below the ground of a cemetery to peer into the casket of one character. There's a wonderful literality to these moments that should bring a smile to the most jaded genre fan's face.
"Rojo Sangre" recognizes horror's past while employing some of the visual style of the new breed of genre filmmakers. It's a wonderful example of what young filmmakers can do to inject life into the genre and keep making interesting films based on tried-and-true stories.