by Jeffrey Greene
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
The way is cleared for her, and she asks the dead man’s grief-stricken wife to tell her his name. Positioning herself over the body so as to receive the best possible illumination from the footlights, she raises her arms over her head and with her eyes closed as if in prayer, impressively lowers them to rest on the dead man’s shoulders and loudly intones, “In the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, I bid thee rise up and live, Jim McCraney!”
The lights flicker, and Sister Angelina again imagines that she hears the distant chuckle of Lucifer, though no one else seems to, and then the dead man slowly rises to a sitting position. A collective gasp of awe is followed by a fearful silence, until Sister Angelina helps the now stiff and sinister-looking Lazarus to his feet and leads him into the arms of his wife. A pandemonium of praise ensues.
The reaction to this feat exceeds all her expectations, but soon enough the doubters and skeptics have their say and, even though her followers are certain of having witnessed a miracle, louder voices call it a tasteless hoax, that Mr. McCraney was not pronounced dead by a physician, but by a former Army medic, and therefore his death, much less his resurrection, was unproven.
Sister Angelina keeps a dignified silence throughout the furious controversy raging in churches, barrooms and newspapers, because she knows that all this publicity is making her famous and that from now on the crowds will grow larger in each city. Her rising star will soon be the brightest in the sky.
As we can see, much ground is covered in this story, perhaps too much for one eighty-eight minute film. Although Masciatti doesn’t resort to anything as crude as flying calendar leaves, he must rely on frequent time-compressing montages, which become wearisome at times and remind us of Ms. Roos’s own comment that the film isn’t quite up to the novel.
But filmmakers can seldom afford to let the vines of detail riot as they so often do in novels, and the severe pruning done in order to bring The Resurrectionist in under ninety minutes is, for the most part, skillfully handled.
Seven years pass, and Sister Angelina, now the titular head of a nationwide radio and television ministry, dwells in a gated mansion on a hill in the Virginia Piedmont. Her second marriage has ended in divorce, and she is now being courted by the handsome young heir to a large textile fortune.
Dark rumors continue to pursue her, the worst being the simple truth that those supposedly fortunate souls resurrected by the saintly White Crusader behave more like zombies than people restored to healthy life. They don’t speak, eat, or sleep; mostly they just sit in dark rooms or wander about at night, exciting dogs to a frenzy and scaring their loved ones, who, far from praising Sister Angelina’s name, have joined the small, growing chorus of those accusing her of being in league with the Devil.
She has tried to be sparing in her resurrections, even to abstain from them altogether, but somehow there is always some well-placed or powerful person, recently bereaved, who is willing to contribute lavishly to her ministry if she will only bring back a dear departed one to even a mute facsimile of life.
At the most inopportune moments — social gatherings, sermons, or alone with her fiancé, Sister Angelina keeps seeing Fisher John standing at windows, or in the shadowy corners of rooms, his face still begrimed with blood, his eyes just as coldly fixed on her as at the moment of his resurrection, but when she forces herself to confront the specter, there is nothing there. She is obsessed by the knowledge, undermining all hope of future happiness, or even a good night’s sleep, that each passing hour brings her closer to the fulfillment of “Lucy’s” side of the bargain. How could she have been so foolish as to have “thrown my soul like a bone to Cerberus” in exchange for a few years of glory? Now in her early thirties, she has taken to drink, and is sometimes too inebriated to appear before her flock.
Nevertheless determined to defy the mathematical certainty of her fate, she pulls herself together and marries the textile baron in a grand wedding, uniting their two empires. Soon enough, there is a son, whom she finds, somewhat to her surprise — and ours — that she adores. As it always does, motherhood changes her. In spite of everything, she has become more hopeful, more determined than at any time in her life to be a better person.
And in the same measure, she more bitterly than ever rues the relentless ambition that brought the Devil to her door in the first place. She tells us in one of her oddly affecting soliloquies to her uncomprehending son that she could have done some good in the world, if she’d actually believed the words of her own sermons. Her one shot at a second chance, she feels, will be this warm creature in her arms, and she prays to a God she has never believed in that he will remain untouched by the poverty, misfortune, and misguided hunger for fame that must finally deliver her into Satan’s hands.
Ms. Roos, who so often threw herself into roles unworthy of her gifts, one-note paeans to cruelty, revenge, unnatural urges, and monstrous appetites, revels here in one of her few opportunities to play a deeply flawed human being racked by contradictions, regrets, and an ultimately thwarted journey to redemption. There is a new tone to Sister Angelina’s sermons these days, an almost desperate sincerity and fervor, and it is only now, near the end of the picture, that we find ourselves, albeit reluctantly, beginning to feel pity for the former Mrs. Rose Mae Krumwalter.
While she waits at home on a moonless night for the arrival of her husband and now three-year-old son returning late from a visit to the boy’s grandparents, their car is run off the mountain road by a drunk driver, and we see the flaming black limousine plummeting end over end down a steep hillside. When they don’t arrive at the appointed time, Sister Angelina senses disaster and takes another car out in search of them.
The wreck is still burning when she arrives, and she runs headlong and stumbling down the hill. Both husband and son are dead and mutilated, their bodies blackened by the fire, although we are spared the sight of the boy’s corpse. We know what she’s going to do before she does it, and we watch helplessly as she sobbingly drags the bodies from the smoldering wreck, lays them side by side, and most unwisely uses her Hell-given power of resurrection.
When she speaks the fatal words, there is a deep-throated, inhumanly amplified chuckle behind her, and the closeup of her fear-stricken face as she turns is all we need to know that her reckoning has come at last. First we see what she sees: the limping figure of “Lucy” emerging from the darkness, wearing the same dress as on her first appearance ten years before, but how she has changed from the slender, sweet-faced young farmer’s wife!
Lucy is now a gigantic, taloned crone with a cruel slash of mouth and glaring wolf’s eyes, smoke rising from her skin and hair. In one clawed hand she holds the contract, and with the other she mockingly beckons to Sister Angelina, who stands shakily, not realizing that her dead loved ones, too, are rising behind her, which Masciatti effectively films from behind the two corpses, letting us imagine rather than see their faces.
Sister Angelina backs instinctively away from the Devil, her hands raised as if to ward off her fate, until two sets of horribly burned hands, one man-sized, the other tiny, seize her arms from behind. She screams and struggles to free herself as the Devil slowly approaches, taking his time. Behind him are arrayed all of those unfortunate souls resurrected during Sister Angelina’s career, including Fisher John, all staring balefully at her, all obviously quite dead and in various stages of decomposition.
Shaking her head in disbelief, she yells out, “You cheated me!”
“Did I?” Lucifer replies in a grinding bass voice. “You asked for the power to raise the dead, not to bring them back to life. How dare you suppose that even I could do that?”
Lucifer closes in as Sister Angelina gives vent to one last, despairing shriek and, as his bristled claw touches her forehead, we see the life go out of her widened eyes, and at the same instant she dies, all the reanimated dead fall to the ground, finally at peace.
Flinging her soul — in a nice touch, it is only slightly less solid in appearance than her body — contemptuously over his shoulder, Lucifer stalks off into the darkness and disappears. The camera pans over the bodies arranged about the fire-lit clearing, and among them is the late Sister Angelina, once known as Rosa Mae Krumwalter. Among all those dead faces, only hers is distorted by fear and torment.
Grim fare, to be sure, even by the shocking — for the time — standards of Italian gothic horror. The Resurrectionist markedly differs from such classics as La Maschera del Demonio (Black Sunday in the English dubbed version) and I Lunghi Capelli della Morte (The Long Hair of Death) both by its contemporary American setting, decisive absence of the usual gothic trappings and, most especially, by the uncompromising darkness of its resolution.
Evil is not destroyed in the final reel as it usually is in even the most sadistically-themed movies of the Italian, English and Spanish horror schools of the period, because it remains forever embedded in the human heart, and not even the selfless love of a mother for her child can triumph over the consequences of blind chance and murderous ambition.
This refusal to pander to the expectations of the movie-going public of the time — or of any time, really — no doubt contributed to the film’s pallid showing at the box office, and soon consigned this black-hearted little jewel to the cult film dustbin. Harold Starling’s twin children, Harold Jr. and Natasha, have told me that their father put some pressure on his old Eton friend Kirk Jeffries to devise a less pitch-black ending, one in which Sister Angelina manages to save her soul by sacrificing her own life to rescue her husband and child from the burning car, but Jeffries stuck to his guns and — rather improbably, considering the exigencies of the film business — got his way.
Having heard a great deal about Mr. Starling’s legendary toughness as a negotiator, and the simple fact that no film producer ever loses an argument with a screenwriter, I found this show-biz anecdote hard to swallow, and said as much to the Starling twins. They admitted that his decision to green-light The Resurrectionist was against his better judgment, and was really a gift to his former lover Vivian Roos, who was very keen on the script as it stood. That the film was a financial failure, if a notable, though flawed, artistic achievement, only confirmed his own commercial instincts, and he never produced another film that lost money.
One is sorely tempted to compare the devil’s bargain theme of The Resurrectionist with the puzzling arc of Vivian Roos’s career, and to explain her extraordinary performance as a cri de cœur over her own decision to make her stand in the horror genre. Or was it just inertia, laziness?
And yes, there are parallels between Sister Angelina and Vivian Roos. She, like her character, came from a troubled home. Her father was a commercial fisherman who, when ashore, was rarely sober and she, too, escaped from a teenage marriage and a provincial life she detested. But to reduce the mystery of greatness to mere biography, replete with cruel privation and psychic wounds, is the deplorable habit of our age.
Were Vivian Roos alive today, I doubt she would be any more willing to satisfy our curiosity or offer candid opinions of her work than she was thirty years ago. I mourn her too-early death and would give much for the chance even to be the straight man in one of her satirical interviews.
But she is gone, having bequeathed us the brooding mansion of her film career. While wandering through those thirty-three rooms, one finds not a single tragic heroine, comic foil, or romantic icon but, instead a menagerie of monsters. Yet it is through their scarred, distorted features that we finally glimpse the protean face of the actor who endowed them with such alarming and vigorous humanity.
Copyright © 2020 by Jeffrey Greene