SpectreWatch is where writer Justin Drabek discusses SpectreVision’s horror filmography, the impact it has had on him, and the cultural relevance of the company’s commitment to making outsider art for the screen. Each film carries a unique tone, and yet, as SpectreVision continues to produce more films, there seems to be a common thread that carries throughout the work they choose to release.
Since the beginning, this column has discussed the creative work of SpectreVision. As a result, the art they have chosen to produce explores our collective fears, hopes, and dreams. I have taken those elements and applied them to their filmography, hopefully making people feel less alone and, even though it’s clearly outsider cinema, belonging in this world. What I love the most is how SpectreVision isn’t afraid to release films that ask hard questions, demand answers, and look deep into the psyche of what it means to be human, all while entertaining the viewer (which is a vital thing since so many miss the mark when entertainment is not the goal).
Belladonna of Sadness is the only restoration project that the company has worked on so far. At a quick glance, it seems unlikely to fit in with the content of the previous six films. Still, once the film starts rolling, it becomes very clear why the company sought out this film, decided to restore it, and added it to their filmography.
Belladonna of Sadness was originally a 1973 Japanese animated film based on the French novel La Sorciere (AKA Satanism and Witchcraft) by Jules Michelet. The book, published in 1862, is a historical look at the start of witchcraft. It’s been often disregarded in terms of accuracy by many scholars, but it was one of, if not the first, sympathetic and understanding portrayals of witches. Witches have always fascinated me from both a literal and storytelling perspective. So often, they are portrayed as villains in horror. They are often the ones casting spells to ruin the lives of others. While admittedly not an expert on the subject of witchcraft, I am often fascinated by tales where witches are not the antagonists such as Belladonna of Sadness.
Belladonna of Sadness is very much an adult film, leaning more on the pornographic side of the spectrum than other genres, but that’s not to say the film’s not horror, even if it is presented in a kaleidoscope of colors that blend cultures. While it’s very much a Japanese film, the French horror story comes through in many ways, even down to the names of the characters. The protagonist’s name is Jeanne and most of the setting, while animated, feels more like the French countryside rather than Japan. It’s a fascinating way to do this story. I believe this juxtaposition led SpectreVision to help restore and re-release it before putting it into their filmography.
An excerpt from Le Sorciere tells the story of a couple in love who, on their wedding night, are forced to pay taxes to an evil nobleman. Since they cannot accomplish this feat, the king takes the young bride instead of the payment. In the film, this is a harrowing scene made even more horrific by the psychedelic visuals. Later in the film, the young bride makes a Faustian deal with the devil to get her revenge. This in fact turns her into a witch, and the film becomes a revenge film. This is admittedly a very simplistic way to describe a complex and, at times, difficult film to watch.
The film touches upon many themes that are still relevant today as they were in 1973, and even back in 1862. People in power will always want to maintain that power no matter the cost. For them, preserving their illusions of power requires lying, hurting others, and doing disgusting things. This film addresses these issues in many different ways. Often, I reflect on the world we live in and the similarities we still face in the world since then. Things are admittedly better in many ways but how many people are left and discarded by the side if they don’t assimilate and follow along? That is the horror of the story. How many people get used and chewed up? How many people get looked at differently? Yes, this is a film about the first “witch” and, yes, it’s told in a very vibrant and psychedelic way with aplomb, but at its core, the film is about pushing ourselves beyond binary thinking. The story uses an older tale when trying to say something that was relevant then is relevant now. I honestly believe the film is a warning about mankind’s greed and the need to free ourselves from the shackles of comparison to others. Despite the importance of witchcraft in the story, it is interesting that after the bride gains her power, she then has to contend with the devil who gave her that power — a very powerful point and very much a throughline in the film.
I can’t say Belladonna of Sadness is for everyone. But if one can look deeper, one will find a very moving, challenging, and thought-provoking film. 🩸
Justin Drabek is a contributing writer for Manor Vellum. He also writes for Horror Obsessive and formerly for Killer Horror Critic. He loves cats, and dogs seem to like him…he’s not so sure about them. Follow him on Instagram @ justindrabek.
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