BluRay/DVD Reviews

THE BUTTERFLY ROOM

By • Mar 15th, 2013 •

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There is really only one reason to put yourself through the experience of watching THE BUTTERFLY ROOM and that, dear reader, can only be to witness the tour-de-force performance given by the incomparable Barbara Steele, an actress who long ago assumed iconic status for her work in very particular Italian films that were then transformed by her presence into dark landscapes photographed on the backlots of Cinecitta under the watchful gaze of Federico Fellini as well as Mario Bava, the then-reigning frightmeister of Italy. Barbara has always enjoyed a loyal following that surrounds her to this day; these devotees respect her for the intelligence and beauty that she invests in such titles as transgressive as CASTLE OF BLOOD, TERROR CREATURES FROM THE GRAVE as well as the film that started it all, the iconic LA MASCHERA DEL DEMONIO, which established at once her reputation within the horror genre. Much like the elephant this genre never allows an actor to forget roles like the one Mario Bava bestowed upon a 19-year-old English beauty fresh from the Rank charm school of dramatic art. It is precisely for this reason that decades after the fact a young Italian filmmaker Jonathan Zarantonello a life long horror buff with a fetish for chainsaws decides to fly over to Hollywood and persuade Barbara Steele to return to the screen as the centerpiece in his fever-dream of mother-love gone very homicidal—perhaps his only recourse in dealing with his own issues of maternal confusion, which in this film goes way beyond the wire hangers of MOMMIE DEAREST, another possible work of fiction.

Now, the concept of THE BUTTERFLY ROOM appears to be to place in one film a number of actresses who achieved at some point a degree of recognition among horror fans, then crown the film with Barbara Steele. While this in itself is commercial to a point with the die-hard fans, the result is less than stellar in execution. The director has no sense of pacing more than likely because of his lack of experience, which in turn creates no suspense or dread of any kind within the framework of yet another film which presents an unbalanced, homicidal woman hell bent on finding love in yet again all the wrong places.

There are absolutely no characters in this film with which we, as an audience, can feel any sense of real connection. The girls are serviceable and Ray Wise and James Karen know how to hold their own when onscreen with Barbara; unfortunately these two are on camera for what amounts to extended cameo’s Heather Langencamp of NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET fame, is sadly miscast as Steele’s overwrought daughter who is directed in a way as to shout her dialogue rather than be allowed to give a more controlled performance. These situations create in the viewer a desire to see an alternate cut of this film where none exits.

This entire production team of THE BUTTERFLY ROOM consists of a largely American crew led by a transplanted first time director from Rome with the sole intention of perhaps creating a gialli-like thriller along the lines of Argento, or more likely Wes Craven. The casting of Barbara Steele was proof yet again of Steele’s reputation as Italy’s only “horror queen,” which allows her to stand proudly alongside such icons as Christopher Lee or even masters like Boris Karloff and Vincent Price, Barbara has worked with all of the aforementioned gentlemen at one time or another. One only has to glance back to the beginning of their film history to see that the Italians have always recognized in film the opportunity to frame divas with loads of visual imagery like tigers, stone idols and, in her case, castles located near a family crypt.

THE BUTTERFLY ROOM is aware of Barbara’s film legacy but chooses not to honor it by giving her a script that will not frame her bravura acting, nor will it allow her to reach the heights that she is now more than capable of reaching. There are moments in this film where Barbara’s acting reminds me of Bette Davis in THE NANNY or Tallulah Bankhead in DIE, DIE MY DARLING in the intense way Steele invests her moments wisely with detailed shadings of character it takes a lifetime to possess. What a shame this is not a more exciting film for her to appear in at this stage of her career. Hopefully THE BUTTERFLY ROOM will at least open the door to another project.

On the subject of future roles I think it is important to point out here that from the first close-up of Barbara which fills the screen she is photographed in the harshest of lights. This was done in the same way Gloria Stuart was aged and photographed in TITANIC. In real life Barbara does not look like she does in this part of the film. She was badly lit for the role so the flashbacks would be more dramatic, so please don’t judge her appearance on these early moments in THE BUTTERFLY ROOM as representative of the Barbara Steele who still is a strikingly handsome woman.

The soundtrack itself is also problematic as it never allows Barbara nor anyone else in the film to establish a mood. The score is filled with sounds that take away from the action; in fact at one point Barbara is singing a strange tune to herself in her room and we as an audience are not allowed to hear it for the soundtrack interrupts what might otherwise have been a sinister mood piece in order to listen to this faux jazz score with sound effects in place of music.

I decided at the beginning of this review to spare the reader spoilers since one of the only reason’s to see it, as I have already explained, is to witness a cult actress at the height of her powers and for once in her career onscreen for the entire duration of the film. One of her earlier films prior to this was a modest thriller entitled SILENT SCREAM, where once again she was brought in to bring some star wattage to a lackluster production. In that film Barbara was also cast as a damaged woman with severe homicidal inclinations hidden in a attic room picking off young students in a gothic mansion turned boarding house. I will say that since this is Zarantonello’s first foray into the genre he does display a certain style and with a better script he might well rise to the ranks of the directors and films he admires so much. One thing is certain he could not have asked for a better cast than the one he had at his disposal for The Butterfly Room.

All you really need to know to enjoy this film is this: Barbara Steele is in a new film and she dominates every scene she is in regardless of the content or situation. In a career that has included some of the landmark films of European cinema as well as the grindhouse beginnings of such master directors as David Cronenberg and Jonathan Demme, Barbara Steele has remained an exotic film star whose unique beauty and intelligence have marked her as an original in a profession of lookalikes. She stands alone as an icon of the Horror genre. While THE BUTTERFLY ROOM will remain a well made curiosity in her filmography her performance in it will always entertain her fans and I am sure even Vincent Price would have been amused to see just how well she handles a jackhammer or how relentlessly she throws a hooker down an elevator shaft. I can hear him laughing already…

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One Response »

  1. Beautifully written David. You made our Barbara proud with your prose on her career and her acting ability. I applaud you for this review. Bravo!

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