Color, 1970, 88 mins. 4 secs.
Directed by Tonino Cervi
Starring Haydée Politoff, Silvia Monti, Evelyn Stewart, Ray Lovelock, Gianni Santuccio
Mondo Macabro (Blu-ray) (US RA HD), Cinekult (DVD) (Italy R2 PAL) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
The hangover from the implosion of the late '60s hangs heavily over Queens of Evil, a dreamy pastoral horror film that made the rounds in Europe and Japan under a variety of titles but still hasn't gotten much attention in the U.S. for some reason. Boasting a cast of Eurocult stalwarts and solid direction from second-time director Tonino Cervi (just after the enjoyable Today We Kill, Tomorrow We Die!), it's a haunting meditation on the hippie ideals of love and freedom that had rapidly curdled in the public consciousness after a wave of violence and unrest. Here it gets a supernatural spin, resulting in a film that subtly gets under your skin.
While motorcycling through the countryside at night, young David (The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue and An Ideal Place to Kill's Lovelock) has a strange chance encounter on the road with a nameless older man (Santuccio) who grills him about his dedication to a new society based on absolute personal liberty. In the process the stranger drives a nail into one of David's tire, which results in a dangerous pursuit and the anonymous provocateur seemingly killed after smashing into a tree. David ends up staying the night at a guest house on the sprawling property of three women -- Liv (The Slave and Count Dracula's Great Love's Politoff), Samantha (The Fifth Cord and A Lizard in a Woman's Skin's Monti), and Bibiana (The Psychic and Knife of Ice's Stewart) -- whose house is a pop art marvel including wall-sized portraits of them adorning the living room. Over the following days he enjoys their company in terms of both leisure and (discreetly handled) sexual activity, but in case the title didn't tip you off, something sinister's afoot involving their nocturnal rituals out in the woods. Unable to flee no matter how hard he tries, David finds himself succumbing more and more to their charms as the horrible truth about them slowly comes to light.
Perhaps because of its refusal to go sleazy at any point with only a very minimal amount of nudity and the bloodshed erupting only in the final few minutes (albeit with a vengeance), Queens of Evil is a fascinating addition to the lineage of films about men held captive by women, a device that had already become familiar in grindhouse roughies (a la She Mob) but would go more mainstream in films like The Beguiled, Death Game, and Misery. Here it's mingled with the idea of free will, which is introduced in the opening scene and treated with a sense of very wry irony as it becomes even more important while the stripped-down storyline progresses. It doesn't hurt that the cast is more than up to the task, with relative newcomer Lovelock (who went straight from this to Fiddler on the Roof!) not only giving a fine performance but crooning two songs on the soundtrack as well (including the weirdly catchy "We Love You Underground"). The score from the prolific composer Angelo Francesco Lavagnino (with a nice, brief audio cameo from Stelvio Cipriani's The Frightened Woman) is also quite effective and even managed to earn an official soundtrack release not too long ago. The three leading actresses are all solid as well, though the script mostly requires them to just look cheerful or stoic until the last ten minutes. From a visual standpoint they're quite unforgettable though, including a great psychedelic dream sequence that provided the film with most of its eye-catching key art.
A frequent presence on the video gray market for decades, Queens of Evil has only earned one official DVD release, a 2010 Italian edition from Cinekult (under the title Il delitto del diavolo) with no English-friendly options. In early 2021, Mondo Macabro finally brought the film to Blu-ray first as a limited 1200-unit, two-disc edition (which sold out very quickly) and then as a single-disc retail version. The Blu-ray features a new 4K scan of the negative, with upscaled standard definition inserts used for some short bits that were unusable. Past transfers of this one have looked very dark and veering to the green side, so even though the elements haven't exactly been given the greatest care over the years, it's a major improvement here with a nice preservation of the original moderately grainy look and warm, earthy colors throughout (with some shocking bursts of vivid red when necessary). This element also features the amusing title card, Le Regine - Favola Thrilling. The SD material isn't substantial and mostly fits in well enough, with a chunk of the opening conversation between Lovelock and Santuccio being the most obvious substitution. Both the English and Italian tracks are presented in DTS-HD MA mono and sound fine considering the fairly thin nature of the original mixes; either way it's dubbed and the actors are speaking a mishmash of the two languages (Lovelack and Stewart were clearly voicing their lines in English while others, particularly Santuccio, were in Italian), so try both and see which one you prefer. The optional English subtitles are translated from the Italian and not dubtitles, though the two tracks are extremely similar in meaning throughout.
A new audio commentary with the reliable team of Samm Deighan and Kat Ellinger is joyously gung ho as they profess their love for this film, all things Lovelock, the satirical elements in the script, the dynamic visual approach that ties it to other Italian films around the same time, and thematic similarities to a variety of other titles, all relayed with great literacy and enthusiasm. An archival interview with Ray Lovelock (26m57s) features the now late actor in fine form chain smoking and chatting in subtitled Italian in his kitchen about how he got into acting (and singing) and the cult success he enjoyed in Japan thanks to early films like this. Along the way you get some fun surprises like his early Vespa TV commercial and memories of costars like Tomas Milian. An SD Italian trailer (which misspells one of its leads' names as "Ewelyn Stewart," as does the feature itself) is also included along with two SD alternate scenes, "Forest Chase" (3m58s) and "Empty House" (3m38s), from the French release version, plus the usual Mondo Macabro promo reel which promises the still MIA Snake Sisters. The limited edition also comes with a bonus DVD featuring the entire Lovelock interview, running a whopping 3h20m42s and covering his entire career in great detail with lots of stories about doing fight scenes, working with Umberto Lenzi, wrangling with Italian censors, and lots more. It also comes with exclusive packaging featuring reversible cover art, a slipcover, six double-sided lobby card reproductions, and an insert booklet featuring a new essay by Roberto Curti, "Three Queens for the Devil," focusing on Cervi and going into great detail about the film's production process and some little differences compared to the original written treatment.
Reviewed on January 26, 2021.