Halloween 2 (2009 ): The Directors Cut – Halloween Fans LOVE to HATE

Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

There may be no horror franchise remake more maligned than Rob Zombies reimagining of the classic slasher film, Halloween (1978). In fact, this series is so maligned that the great John Carpenter himself thought enough about it to kick dirt on it after its release. It’s a natural fan reaction to hate on new things. Rob Zombie literally had zero chance to make everyone happy with his film. Fans would either chastise him for bringing nothing new to the franchise or crucify him for bringing something new to the franchise.

Fortunately for world of horror fans, Rob Zombie decided creative crucifixion the better path.

In this article, I am not only going to argue that Rob Zombie’s Halloween 2 is a great film. I will argue that it is actually the best of the sordid Halloween franchise outside of the 1978 original. Most importantly, I will argue that the most quoted atrocities committed by this film are actually its strongest features.

A Quick Aside on Halloween (2007)

To be completely transparent, I personally felt that Halloween (2007) left a lot on the table. However, one thing Zombie crushed was the opening. Giving Michael Myers a legitimate backstory that the horror world could sink its teeth into proved to be brilliant. For better or worse, people were talking about Rob Zombies remake, even if they hated its guts and hoped that it would die. To me it was fascinating to see this young kid, not completely devoid of cause, turn into a brutish masked behemoth before our eyes. The brooding husk hiding behind paper mache was both intriguing and menacing.

Unfortunately, Rob’s fantastic open fizzled with a fan-service retread on the back half of the film. Still, the die was cast and the next Michael Myers had been born once again into an unloving world.

Halloween 2 (2009) - Laurie Strode, played by Scout Taylor-Compton, teeters on the edge of sanity
Laurie Strode, played by Scout Taylor-Compton, teeters on the edge of sanity

Halloween 2 (2009)

Having not been blown away by the original, I somewhat rolled my eyes when I heard about the sequel. Accordingly, I let it languish until the DVD release. That turned out to be a brilliant move as I received the Theatrical Release at the very same time that I received the Directors Cut. Those that know agree that a single review could not cover them both. Not only does the directors cut provide 14 minutes of additional content, this content and the editing leads the film to completely new and interesting places. Most interesting, the Directors Cut provides an even more compelling finale to Zombies Halloween run.

This review only covers the Directors Cut, which stands superior to the original Theatrical Cut.

Fan Service in the Front

After a brief introduction depicting an institutionalized Michael with his mother, again played by Sheri Moon Zombie, the film picks back up where it left off. Sheriff Bracket (Brad Dourif) finds Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor-Compton) wandering the streets, broken and bloody from her confrontation with Michael Myers. Dr. Samuel Loomis (Malcom McDowell) and Annie Bracket (Danielle Harris) are also rescued and taken away by ambulance. Once she arrives at the hospital, Laurie replays of the horrors of the 1981 original in her dreams.

The is about as good a place as any to mention that this film employs the great Caroline Williams in a hospital cameo role.

This time Zombie pulls a reverse and makes his callback to the original up front. The hospital dream sequence quite frankly blows just about every previous Michael Myers pursuit scene out of the water. Zombie’s hospital sequence has everything from frantic urgency, edge of the seat suspense and bone shattering brutality. Sure, it goes over the top when Laurie stumbles into a literal pit of human carcasses, but it’s all just a perfect metaphor for the rage machine that Michael Myers has become and the damage that inflicted on Laurie’s psyche.

Confident that his debt to the fanbase has been paid, Rob Zombie reserves the rest of the film for his own sick creativity.

Halloween 2 (2009) - Danielle Harris plays Annie Bracket, the one girl that can relate to Laurie
Danielle Harris plays Annie Bracket, the one girl that can relate to Laurie

Downward Spiral of Laurie Strode

One the most outstanding aspects of the Director’s Cut is the treatment of Laurie Strode. She may have survived the initial attack by Michael Myers, but nothing remain but a scarred body and a shattered soul. Laurie struggles even to maintain a healthy relationship with her best friend, despite the fact the Annie might be the only person in the world that can relate to her struggle. Laurie’s shrink (Margot Kidder) struggles keep Laurie’s mental state stitched together as she regresses back to her pills again and again.

It is about time we come to terms with something serious. Jamie Lee Curtis’ version of Laurie Strode isn’t this interesting on her very best day. I said it, and I mean it. It took Jamie Lee Curtis 20 years to finally bend her story arc to nothing more than boresome Ellen Ripley cliché. It then took another 20 years to evolve it to McCauley Caulkin, Home Alone… Zzzzzzzz. Apart from those silly topes, Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode provided us little more than a standard scream queen, albeit a really good one.

My point is not to dump on Jamie Lee Curtis. I love her. You love her. She is great and she is an inextricable part of the Halloween ethos.

However, I will defend the point that a spiritually broken and emotionally complicated Laurie Strode might be the most interesting addition to grace this franchise since “The night he came home”. Scout Taylor-Compton plays a three dimensional character that erupts with uncertainty. All the way to the final frames, the audience knows not if Laurie will melt into a puddle of herself or if she will unlock some internal furnace of rage to save herself. Then we finally learn that the real answer, it lies somewhere in the nebulous chasm between the two extremes.

Rob Zombie exacerbates her unraveling though bizarre visualizations of her mental state. These sequences are as horrifying as any other part of the movie. She oscillates through disorienting visions of her real mother, Deborah Myers, her own rage and visions of murdering her best friend. These visualizations unfortunately circle very close to the reality that Post Traumatic Stress victims feel after surviving heinous crimes. The pain and anguish that Scout Taylor-Compton evokes transcends anything that the original Laurie Strode (1978) ever conveyed on screen.

Halloween 2 (2009) - Rob Zombie isn ot afraid to show Michael's face
Rob Zombie does not shy away from showing Michael’s face

Exploring Michael Meyers

For better or for worse, Rob Zombie created a version of Michael Meyers that has depth. Rob Zombies Michael Meyers has motive. To this day, this fact seems to be the tipping point as to whether someone loves or hates Rob’s remakes. Back in 1978, when John Carpenter created Michael Myers, he intended to create a one-dimensional killing machine. In an interview with Nobuhiro Hosoki, Carpenter’s words describe,

Michael Myers was a force of evil. He was less a human being than an element. It was this lack of characterization that made him scary.

With this, Carpenter stakes a legitimate claim on nature of Michael’s aura. Michael’s mystery does make him scary.

The problem comes in when we start discussing a franchise that spans four decades. Carpenter’s version of Michael Myers was barely sustainable through his sequel (as a writer) as evidenced by Carpenter’s need to go into the “long lost sister” trope and introducing the supernatural reference to “Samhain”. Had Carpenter been one-and-done with Michael, it would have worked perfectly. If they were to make more films, it would require a more complex Michael Myers.

Rob Zombie recognized this up-front and built a character that had more depth. Love it or hate it, Rob Zombie can now weave a larger story, and that is fantastic for the franchise.

The White Horse

In Halloween 2, Rob Zombie loses the natural ability to tell his deeper narrative about Michael Myers via Dr. Loomis and his experiences in the mental institution. To compensate, he introduces the narrative through dream sequences that include young Michael, old Michael, Laurie (Angel Myers) and his mother. In a reoccurring images, a white horse accompanies Michael’s mother. He uses the following quote to begin the film:

WHITE HORSE – linked to instinct, purity and the drive of the physical body

to release powerful emotional forces, like rage with ensuing chaos and destruction

— excerpt from The Subconscious Psychosis of Dream

Through this story-telling device Rob clearly articulates that Michael Myers wants nothing but a return to his mother and his family. He doubles down on the Michael / Laurie sibling relationship trope that so many hated. While this is often referred to as Carpenter’s worst decision ever made in the franchise. Rob zombie does tweaks the formula. This time, Michael’s goal is not to terminate his bloodline, but rather to reunite his family. Unfortunately, his mother,  Deborah Myers, is already dead. Do the math.

The juxtaposition of the clean elegant lines of the dream sequences collide harshly against the dark visuals of the film. To an extent, it makes sense that these scenes abrade normal horror sensibilities. However, without these interpolations, Rob Zombie could only rehash the mindless killer on a rampage storyline. His decision to weave a greater tale was daring and creative. It’s this dynamic that makes Halloween 2 a superior sequel to almost any other.

Halloween 2 (200() - Michael Myers, the man
Michael Myers is nothing more than a man, a massive murdering machine of a man

Michael Myers the Man

Returning to Michael Myers, all of this leads to one cataclysmic franchise revelation. Michael Myers is nothing more than a man. He comes complete with complexities, emotions, rage and mortality. Michael Myers is not a black abyssal of unrelenting evil. He believes himself to a man wronged by life, his family and the only man he had left in the world  to trust, Dr. Samuel Loomis.

Again, many point to this as an egregious sin franchise. It’s argued that if Michael Myers is anything more than an inexplicable golem of bottomless evil, he is no longer scary. I could not disagree more.

what’s more scary than something real? What’s more scary than something that society could literally be forging as I type these words? Society creates psychotic killers everyday. Michael Myers shoots up schools. Michael Myers hides in dark alleys and murders prostitutes. I highly doubt that Rob Zombie intended to make a political statement with his film, but I wholly believe that he did mean to say that bleak and unforgiving societies give birth to Michael Myers everyday.

Causality does not demand sympathy.

The Mask, The Face and The Voice

Throughout the course of the Halloween franchise, Michael’s mask continually draws attention. The lifeless stare of Michael’s dark eyes through the pale white visage defines his character. Unfortunately, many representations of this mask have ranked from bad to laughable. This time, Michaels mask might rank among the very best of the series. This time, the mask carries the cuts, burns and slashes from his many violent encounters. During his rampage at the strip-club, a large portion of the mask is torn away, revealing his scarred visage.

This would not be the only bit of Michael’s face that we see.

Further exemplifying his humanity, Michael Myers spends a large portion of this film completely unmasked. Here Rob Zombie takes another huge risk. Fans of the franchise have scene fleeting glimpses of Michael’s face, but never before has the camera dwelled so long on the human face of Michael Myers.

In his final shot across the bow of die-hard Halloween fans, Rob Zombie gives Michael Myers a voice. Again, franchise fans point to Myers’ voice as a major trigger for Zombie Halloween haters. Again, I feel that this is a brilliant touch that Zombie suggests for the entirety of his run. In every other Halloween film, Michael dispatches his victims with deafening silence. From Zombies early hospital scene, Michael Myers heaves and grunts as he goes to work. This not only tips the audience off to the brutality of his attack, but again it hints at the Michael’s humanity.

By the end of the film, there should be no surprise when Michael shows that he can speak. Many scoff at the single utterance of the word “DIE!”, but really, what else would he have to say for Dr. Loomis? Michael is a man and I wholly admire Rob Zombie’s audacity.

Halloween 2 (2009) - Halloween 2 incorporates several dream sequences to advance the Michael Myers narrative
Halloween 2 uses several dream sequences to advance the Michael Myers narrative

The Life and Death of Annie Bracket

Cameos in remakes are a welcome banality in horror remakes. Usually, these present themselves in the form of throwaway roles that only a keen eye could identify. Rarely do directors commit to former franchise actors for pivotal roles in their remake. Anyone who grew up with the Halloween franchise instantly recognizes Danielle Harris as Jamie Lloyd from the middle tier of franchise films. Rob Zombie boldly casts Danielle in his remake as Sheriff Bracket’s daughter, Annie Bracket.

Annie acts as Laurie Strode’s best friend. Through the course of Zombie’s two films, she proves as crucial to the story as Laurie does. In Halloween 2, Annie Bracket provides a necessary anchor to Laurie’s unhinged character. She is the only person in the entire world that can relate to the horrors that Laurie witnessed. Despite that fact that Laurie’s mania causes her to resent her best friend, Annie perseveres through the struggle. Sheriff Bracket’s love for both girls makes Annie’s character all the more endearing.

Considering the brutality that Annie Bracket faces, her final moments prove to be some of the most respectably done in the entire film. As her moment approaches, a thick malaise hangs in the air. When Michael appears at her bathroom door, the look on Annie’s face immediately communicates her implicit doom of her situation. She knows instantaneously that her only hope is escape, but as she tries to flee, Rob Zombie painfully slows the camera while making her escape in the most excruciating slow motion sequence in cinema.

When Michael finally catches her, he unleashes the most brutal attack of the Zombie era and possibly the entire series.

It all comes to an emotionally crushing moment when Sheriff Bracket receives the notification that a 911 call came from his house. As he arrives, he know what he will find, but he still rushes to the scene as if there were anything that he could do. As he finds his baby slumped on the floor in a pool of blood, the film cuts to scenes of Annie’s childhood. She plays with a puppy and opens birthday presents. It’s this appeal to a father’s love that makes Annie’s demise all the more painful.

Halloween 2 (2009) - Brad Dourif plays Sheriff Bracket, whodoes his best to defend Haddonfield
Brad Dourif plays Sheriff Bracket. He does his best to protect Haddonfield

Dr. Samuel Loomis, Scum Bag Extraordinaire

Malcom McDowell really crushes the role of Dr. Sam Loomis. Certainly his performance will never eclipse that of the great Donald Pleasance, but Zombie’s version of Loomis differs so significantly from the original that it should be considered awesome in its own right. This Loomis tries to take full advantage of his 15 minutes of fame, but society still harbors hard feelings and many think that Loomis carries the blame for Michael’s rampage.

The genius of McDowell’s performance comes from his awkwardness. He ever so slightly misses his punchlines and feels awkward in his presentation. In turn, his crowds react awkwardly. He’s an accomplished man that lacks self-confidence. This becomes so apparent when his administrative assistant suggests that his Michael Myers campaign crosses the line. He responds, “When I want your opinion, I’ll beat it out of you”. Loomis’ acclaim among society can be seen by the push and the pull of the people around him. His biggest fan is a guy that love serial killers. His worst enemy (besides Michael) tries to kill him because he blames Loomis for his daughters death at the hands of Myers.

In the end this chicken comes home to roost as Myers bellows, “DIE!” before burying a Bowie knife into Loomis’ ribcage.

Halloween 2 (2009) - Maybe not everyone's cup of tea, but a respectable film on all counts
Rob Zombie’s Halloween 2 may not be everyone’s cups of tea, but its a good movie on most fronts

But Really, Why All of the Hate?

Lest we forget that prior to Rob’s reboot, this franchise invited Buster Rhymes and LL Cool J to invigorate the franchise. Does anyone remember The Curse of Michael Myers? Don’t talk to me about the Directors Cut, it’s garbage too. The series had literally died a slow painful death before Rob Zombie came along to resurrect it. Far worse Halloween movies had been made prior to Rob Zombie’s stewardship, and less interesting ones have been made since. It seems that this film gets more shade than it probably deserves. Rob Zombie just has that effect on people.

However, it’s never wrong to dislike a movie. The style of Zombie’s reboots are different, and that may not work for every one. There are worse sins. Those sins include never taking any chances and recycling the same tired story. Disliking a movie is one thing, but discerning horror fans much challenge lazy narratives. Concerns concerns the extreme violence and torture porn are laughable. At the time of its release, real torture porn was being released at an epic pace. Halloween 2 represented the few films that dared to be different.

Fans that only want to see a modern CGI version of the movie that they grew up with will likely hate these reboots. Other fans pine for originality that invigorates a tired and mundane franchise. Halloween 2’s greatness comes from everything that everyone claims to hate. Deeper characters, motives and backstory take Halloween 2 into a whole different plane of horror movie existence. Delving into Michael Myers humanity, while controversial, creates a much more effective plot device than wacky Celtic death cults.

I don’t think that any Halloween film can top the 1978 original. Without John Carpenter’s vision neither Rob Zombie nor I would have a Halloween franchise to talk about. However, outside of the original, Rob Zombie’s Halloween 2 is not only the BEST Halloween sequel, it’s one of the BEST horror sequels of all time.

Cats and dogs can live together and John Carpenter and Rob Zombie can co-exist peacefully.

El juego del diablo (Devil’s Exorcist, 1975) – #NineTenthsOfTheLaw

Overall: 2.5 out of 5 stars

Nine Tenths of the Law #5: El juego del diablo (Jorge M. Darnell, 1975)

This is the fifth in a series of articles looking at Eurocult films from the 1970s and 1980s that focus on a theme of diabolical/demonic possession.

The international popularity of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) provoked a slew of European horror films about diabolical possession; peaking in the mid-1970s, this subgenre slowly petered out at the end of the decade before becoming increasingly hybridised with other ‘lowbrow’ Eurocult subgenres (for example, the ‘nunsploitation’ film). Initially looking towards The Exorcist as their primary model, these films about diabolical possession sometimes also bore the influence of Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971), and, later on, Richard Donner’s The Omen (1976). These are their stories.

El Juego del Diablo (1975) - Shelia (Imma de Santis) becomes fascinated with a dark wax figure at the museum
Shelia (Imma de Santis) becomes fascinated with a dark wax figure at the museum

Plot

During a trip to a wax museum, Catholic schoolgirl Sheila (Imma de Santis) becomes fascinated with one of the exhibits: an effigy of a tall man in a dark suit. Subsequently, she begins to experience strange phenomena, seeing this man (José Lifante) following her. Her behaviour becomes increasingly combative, and her father (Luis Prendes) seeks the help of a psychologist, Dr Liza Greene (Maria del Puy). The stresses of working with Sheila cause fractures in Greene’s romantic relationship with her borderline abusive lover (and colleague), Dr Jack Morris (Jack Taylor).

One day, at the hospital, the clearly possessed Sheila is left unsupervised. She steals into a room in which a young boy has been placed in an oxygen tent, and intentionally turns off the oxygen supply to the tent—murdering the young boy inside it. Not long after this, Sheila murders her own mother (Alicia Altabella) by pushing her over an internal balcony; then she kills the beloved dalmatian dog of the family’s servant, Benjamin (José Orjas). The discovery of his dog’s hanged corpse causes Benjamin to suffer a cardiovascular event, leading to his death too.

Following Sheila’s mother’s funeral, Dr Greene volunteers to take care of Sheila. She takes Sheila to her cottage on the coast. However, Greene finds that this does not remedy whatever is afflicting Sheila, but in fact makes it worse.

El Juego del Diablo (1975) - Immediately, Shelia begins to see the figure everywhere
Immediately, Shelia begins to see the figure everywhere

Critique: “There’s a moment in which all logic collapses”

Director Jorge Darnell had made several films before El juego del diablo (Devil’s Exorcist), though only one of these—the crime-drama One Way in 1973, an Italian coproduction starring Mimsy Farmer and Fernando Rey—had received any kind of international distribution. Darnell’s next film after Devil’s Exorcist, 1976’s quirky horror-comedy Tiempos duros para Drácula (“Hard Times for Dracula”), would be his last for twenty years—until he revived his career with his final picture, the courtroom drama Veredicto final (“Final Verdict”), in 1996. One Way, Devil’s Exorcist, and Tiempos duros para Drácula were apparently the only three of Darnell’s seven films on which he claimed a writing credit.

William Friedkin’s The Exorcist hadn’t been released in Spain until September of 1975. Juan Bosch’s film Exorcismo (Exorcism), released in March of the same year, was claimed by its writer and star Paul Naschy (Jacinto Molina) to have been written prior to the production of The Exorcist, though displays clear evidence of having been revised to capitalise on the international popularity of the Friedkin film. (See this writer’s article about Exorcismo for this website.)

El Juego del Diablo (1975) - Shelia's behavior continues to unravel and become more unpredictable
Shelia’s behavior continues to unravel and become more unpredictable

El juego del diablo, released in 1975 (though the exact month of the film’s domestic theatrical release is unclear—so whether its release was before or after Exorcismo is impossible to determine), seems even more overtly modelled on The Exorcist. However, there is one key difference: though retitled Devil’s Exorcist outside Spain, El juego del diablo features neither an exorcist nor an exorcism. In fact, though Sheila is clearly suffering from demonic possession, the notion of possession is not mentioned at all—and unlike many Eurocult films about diabolical possession, features no role for a priest. (Generally, these films feature a Catholic priest and a scientist in dialogue about the causes of the possessed individual’s strange behaviour; but there is no such plot contrivance in Devil’s Exorcist.)

Produced in Spain during the fag end of the censorious Francoist regime, Devil’s Exorcist also seems strikingly “tame” in comparison with some of its Italian-made contemporaries, in particular (for example, L’ossessa/Enter the Devil, covered in the fourth instalment of this series of articles—here). It goes without saying that many Spanish genre filmmakers, such as Jose Ramon Larraz, decided to make films elsewhere, in more liberal countries such as Britain, in order to escape the repressive machinations of the Spanish censors. Devil’s Exorcist’s reticence to feature an exorcism, or to include a Catholic priest amongst its principle characters, may in fact be something that was dictated by the Spanish censors. (Notably, Bosch’s Exorcism—set in England—features not a Catholic priest but an Anglican vicar, played by Paul Naschy, as the individual who performs the climactic exorcism.)

El Juego del Diablo (1975) - Did Jorge Darnell's "Tall Man" inspire another famous horror "Tall Man"?
Did Jorge Darnell’s “Tall Man” inspire another famous horror “Tall Man”?

Nevertheless, Darnell’s picture hits most of the narrative beats of its oh-so-obvious American model. Sheila is possessed; taking to writhing and groaning in her bed, she becomes disruptive and antagonistic towards her parents; and she undergoes a medical investigation by Dr Greene. Finally, at the end of the film, the entity that possesses Sheila passes on to the professional (Greene) who has tried to help her throughout the narrative—much as in the final scene of The Exorcist, the demon Pazuzu transfers from Regan (Linda Blair) into the body of Father Karras (Jason Miller).

Sheila is from a privileged background, though her parents are distant. Her mother accuses Sheila’s father of abandoning his family in favour of his work, and she also accuses him of being too heavy-handed in his approach to disciplining Sheila. The only other romantic relationship in the film—between Dr Greene and Dr Morris—is equally dysfunctional. Morris aggressively chastises Greene for her attempts to help Sheila, and he also accuses Greene of being frigid: Morris refers to Sheila as “that little maniac,” and complains that having sex with Greene is like “making love to an iceberg, and not my lover.” In fact, the only positive relationship seems to be between Sheila’s family’s servant (the elderly Benjamin) and his deceased wife—whose grave he is shown tending, in an early scene in the film.

El Juego del Diablo (1975) - Demonic hands molest Sheila
Demonic hands grope Shelia

Like so many other European early imitators of The Exorcist, Devil’s Exorcist opens with a title card bearing a quotation relating to the Church. The title that opens Devil’s Exorcist declares: “Tentado por el diablo, dijo entonces Jesús: ‘Al señor tu dios adorares y a el solo daras culto.’” (“Tempted by the devil, Jesus then said: ‘You will worship the Lord your God and you will worship him alone.’”) Notably, even in the English-dubbed version of the film released on Greek VHS, this opening title remains in Spanish. The relevance of this quotation for the film’s narrative is unclear, as there is no explanation given for the entity that “possesses” Sheila—and no confrontation between this entity and a priest: as mentioned above, Darnell’s film doesn’t contain a climactic exorcism sequence, around which these films generally feature dialogue that offers possible reasons for the incidence of diabolical possession that has taken place.

The mysterious figure that haunts Sheila is played by José Lifante. Lifante cuts a striking presence: tall, gaunt, and dark, he is shown in Sheila’s visions walking towards the camera in slow-motion, surrounded by swirling mist. As unlikely as it may seem, given Devil’s Exorcist’s virtually non-existent distribution outside Spain, one wonders whether Don Coscarelli saw Darnell’s film before making the original Phantasm in 1979: the scenes in which Angus Scrimm’s mysterious Tall Man appear have a curiously similar texture to Lifante’s appearances in Devil’s Exorcist.

Lifante’s physical traits led to him being cast as Dracula in Darnell’s subsequent film; for international horror film fans, Lifante had already been a striking presence in Jorge Grau’s No profanar el sueño de los muertos (The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue/Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, 1974), as the photographer Martin West—who is memorably “zombified” whilst artily photographing flowers by a waterfall, and thereafter becomes a similarly threatening background presence throughout the rest of Grau’s film.

El Juego del Diablo (1975) - ‘You will worship the Lord your God and you will worship him alone.’
‘You will worship the Lord your God and you will worship him alone.’

Echoing the confusion of mannequins and “real” people in Mario Bava’s Lisa e il diavolo (Lisa and the Devil, 1973), Sheila encounters Lifante’s mysterious figure for the first time when she sees him as a wax effigy in a museum to which she has been taken on a school trip. (The nature of this museum seems unclear: the teacher escorting the students through it simply jokes about how many of the wax figures represent miscreants—but it seems unlikely that a Catholic girl’s school would take students on a trip to a museum of crime and death. Or would they?) Entering one of the rooms, Sheila sees Lifante—and walks back and forth in front of him, struck by how his eyes seem to follow her about the room.

Shortly afterwards, Sheila is shown swimming in her family’s swimming pool (another index of how privileged this young woman is). As she climbs out of the pool, she has something that resembles a panic attack: she is tormented by a shrill sound, and we see an out-of-focus Lifante standing behind her. Following this, Sheila experiences her first vision of Lifante walking towards her in slow-motion, and sees dozens of disembodied hands reaching out of the water of the pool.

Sheila’s ongoing hallucinations/visions, which involve Lifante pursuing her, seem to be motivated by a panic around sexuality and a fear of men (androphobia). (Those who praised Alex Garland’s recent film Men (2022) for its supposedly novel examination of this theme, have surely not encountered a great many examples of 1970s horror cinema.) For Sheila, these visions are accompanied by auditory disturbances, communicated to the audience by both Sheila’s gesture of putting her hands to her ears, and via the soundtrack: the disruptive effect of these sound effects is not dissimilar to the sound of the experimental agricultural machine in The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue. The other “symptoms” of Sheila’s possession are predominantly limited to writhing and groaning on her bed in a manner that vaguely suggests masturbation, and occasionally frothing at the mouth.

El Juego del Diablo (1975) - Shelia remembers watching a boy die
Shelia remembers watching a boy die

Notably, the imagery of the disembodied hands recurs throughout the film: at the climax, Sheila sees numerous hands reaching out of the walls of her bedroom. This imagery clearly draws on similar scenes in Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965)—a film that is also about sexual panic and androphobia. Like Polanski’s film, Devil’s Exorcist ultimately seems to suggest that Sheila’s “problem” is that she is repressed. In the final scene, in which whatever has been “possessing” Sheila transfers to Dr Green—much as in The Exorcist, Father Karras goads the demon that has possessed Regan into transferring to Karras’ own body—Darnell both implies that female deviance/hysteria is contagious, and that Sheila and Green (who has several times been accused by her boyfriend, Dr Morris, of being frigid) are connected by repressed sexuality. As in so many other European imitators of The Exorcist, the possession of Sheila manifests itself in moments in which she writhes on her bed, or in one instance on a hardwood floor surrounded by candles, in a way that suggests spontaneous orgasm.

The film’s regressive view of womanhood is perhaps best encapsulated in a scene that takes place immediately after Sheila has murdered the young boy in the oxygen tent. Greene searches for Sheila and finds her cradling an infant, a nurse looking on approvingly. “You can rest assured, you know, that in a few years, this young girl will make a marvellous mother,” the nurse tells Greene.

El Fuego del Diablo (1975) - Shelia writhes on the floor in demonic delight
Shelia writhes on the floor in demonic delight

Notably, Greene herself is childless, having devoted herself to her career, and takes Sheila on as a surrogate daughter. Greene is unable to maintain her relationship with Morris, which seems to be based exclusively on the sexual liaisons which Morris finds so displeasing. The film’s examination of Greene’s professional background is unfocused: though she appears to be a child psychologist, Greene is introduced performing experiments with electric eels—and then with other animals. Late in the narrative, Greene expresses doubts about science, telling a colleague that she feels Sheila’s problem is “beyond the realms of psychiatry” (the film seems to confuse psychology with psychiatry a number of times), and that Sheila has been touched by “something inhuman.”

“There’s a moment in which all logic collapses,” Greene acknowledges, “and we’re faced with things we can’t figure out.” As in Cries and Shadows (see the first article in this series), Devil’s Exorcist’s late sequences foreground a pursuit (by Greene, of Sheila) through the narrow, winding streets of (what appears to be) a medieval coastal town; the maze-like nature of the streets is dreamlike, and the pursuit itself could be interpreted as a symbol of Greene’s attempts to “cure” Sheila through the application of psychology.

The electric eels we see Greene experimenting with introduce what seems to be a core visual motif in the film, which returns time and time again to images of fish. In Sheila’s bedroom are two rather intimidating stuffed and mounted piranhas, which Dr Greene orders Benjamin to burn. Benjamin says he is relieved to get rid of these strange tokens, and muses that they were presumably left in the room by the previous owners of the house. (Why someone would wish to keep them is anyone’s guess.) As he throws them in the hearth, the film presents us with a closeup of the lifeless eye of one of these piranhas as the fish is consumed with flames.

El Juego del Diablo (1975) - Movie Poster

When Greene takes Sheila to the coastal town, they visit a fish market where Sheila gazes at an eel that is gasping for breath, and a brief flashback connects this image to that of the boy in the oxygen tent—as he suffocated when Sheila turned off his oxygen supply. In the film’s final sequence, hearing Sheila in distress, Greene rushes upstairs into Sheila’s room—and finds Sheila dead. Darnell cuts to one of the stuffed, mounted piranhas—which despite being burnt to ashes by Benjamin earlier in the film, seem to have returned to their spot on Sheila’s dressing table. Sheila’s father ascends the stairs after Greene, discovering Greene standing over his dead daughter: Greene is frothing at the mouth, a mad look in her eyes, and clasping a large pair of scissors with which she presumably intends to kill Sheila’s father—though the film ends before Greene does this.

Devil’s Exorcist foregrounds these images of fish, seemingly using them symbolically and connecting them, somehow, to the theme of diabolical possession—though to what ends, precisely, remains unclear. (Answers on a postcard, please.) The viewer is left with the sense that Greene has been contaminated by whatever has been ailing Sheila (a deeply murderous female hysteria, seemingly), and that the diabolical possession of both is somehow linked not just to Lifante’s mysterious presence, but also to the stuffed and mounted fish in Sheila’s bedroom.

Devil’s Exorcist was barely released outside Spain. Most (if not all) of the English-language (dubbed) versions of the film that are in circulation are ripped from the film’s Greek VHS release, which has burnt-in Greek subtitles. The film was also released released on VHS, presumably in Spanish, in Spain and Argentina.

The Conjuring (2013) – James Wan, Reconfirming Our Love Of Ghosts

Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

Over decades, the film industry has both embraced and abused the haunted house cliché. It would be all to easy to consider this trope to be overused and played-out, yet, there is something that keeps brining it back to the forefront. This is why an established horror director like James Wan pounced on the opportunity to direct The Conjuring (2013). There is something that keeps pulling us back to this simple horror premise. Haunted houses and demonic possessions exist in the deepest darkest corners of the human psyche.

In good ghost stories, something visceral and unrelenting hides directly in the fabric of our safest place. It threatens children in their beds when we they are most vulnerable. Evil spirits destroy the lives of their subjects, tearing apart relationships and often possessing family members. Most importantly this evils seeps from every crack and crevice of the very same place that the family goes for protection. This omnipresence burrows deep in our fabric and culture and to this day it remains inextricable from our storytelling.

Around the 2000s, the haunted house theme began to suffer a bit of a malaise as the horror-remake-engine began to crank at full force. The full weight of remakes, CGI and the rise of jump-scares threatened to sully the proud history of the haunted horror film. I am looking at you House on Haunted Hill (1999), 13 Ghosts (2001) and Amityville Horror (2005). When James Wan directed the 2013 release, The Conjuring, audiences held some skepticism. Fortunately the trailers had me enthused enough to take the chance. Minimally, The Conjuring screenplay, written by Chad Hayes and Carey W. Hayes, offers fresh content rather than another Hollywood retread.

The Conjuring (2013) - The introduction of Annabelle
Annabelle scans the room as she quickly becomes the centerpiece of a franchise, and it isn’t even her movie

The Conjuring

The film beings with a sub-plot. Ed and Lorraine Warren, well known Paranormal Investigators, relay the story of a possessed doll named Annabelle to a University class. Annabelle houses an ancient demonic force. Having investigated the case, the Warren’s ultimately take possession of the doll for their occult museum. Even a marginally acute horror radar indicates that we will be seeing more of Annabelle. Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga play the roles of Ed and Lorraine.

The main plot begins in 1971 when the Perron family moves to greener pastures after procuring a remote farmhouse in a bank auction. The house needs some work, but this young family proves ready to take on the challenge. Ron Livingston of Officespace fame plays the role of Roger. Lili Taylor, who would later play Verna Sawyer in Leatherface (2017), portrays Carolyn. Immediately upon moving in, the family begins to encounter strange occurrences. The clocks stop at 3:07 AM every morning and birds kamikaze against the exterior walls of the home. Almost immediately, the family dog inexplicably dies.

3:07 AM? Has anyone ever wondered what ghosts do during daylight savings time?

Quickly, the events escalate in severity. Children are pulled form beds. Pictures fly from the walls. Carolyn beings to see visions and unexplained bruises appear on her arms and body. Fearing for their safety, the Perron’s make a plea to the Warrens to investigate their home. The Warren’s find horrifying answers that ultimately lead the Perron’s into a head-on conflict with demons to survive.

The Conjuring (2013) - Lili Taylor as the haunting victim Carolyn Perron
Lily Taylor is fantastic in her roll as haunting victim Carolyn Perron

The Art of the Haunted House

The Conjuring summary clearly shows that great haunted house films care little about plot. In fact, by simply switching out the names we could be talking The Amityville Horror (1979) or The Haunting in Connecticut (2009). What really drives a good haunted house story is the art of the scare. If the director can artfully suspend the audience by threads of dread and apprehension, they can punctuate those with an terrifying release. Done properly, these ebbs and throes enthrall an audience. This all sounds so simple,  but unfortunately it’s exactly why so many directors fail miserably.

James Wan demonstrates deep understanding of how to combine these techniques. Understanding the push and pull of building and releasing tension makes Wan better than most at his craft. In fact, when he does this properly he creates nearly as much fear simply by building tension and feigning a release . The nuance is subtle, but it is something Andrew Douglas missed in his 2005 remake of The Amityville Horror. Whereas Douglas asked “how MANY jump scares make a haunted house?”, James Wan asked “what about jump scares make a haunted house?”

Without revealing too much, James Wan really goes after the finale by cranking the tension into a crescendo that pits the bowels of hell against a man’s love for his wife and his own desire to protect his children. The climax is genuinely terrifying and Lily Taylor once again stuns with her versatility as both an protective mother and the definition of pure evil. It’s a tale about demonic possession that rivals all but the The Exorcist (1973) and so much more than James Brolin running back to 112 Ocean Avenue to save Harry.

The Conjuring (2013) - Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga as Ed and Lorraine Warren
Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga as Ed and Lorraine Warren

Conjuring Success

Brilliantly, this film seems to have been built with the franchise in mind from the outset. First, New Line Cinema introduces the real-life ghostbusting duo of Ed and Lorraine Warren. In doing so they, New Line established a lineage of supernatural artifacts to explore in the same way that James Wan’s Saw (2004) introduced a never-ending supply of gory murder puzzles for unwitting victims. Anyone with business aptitude knew implicitly that an Annabelle sequel would quickly follow. Congratulations to New Line Cinema for their solid horror franchise architecture. They have a solid business model if you ask me.

Claims that The Conjuring treads old ground do ring true. James Wan did not reinvent the haunted house or the techniques that drive them. In the same way that a master chef doesn’t invent his ingredients, James Wan simply assembled the proper quantities and let is simmers into a wonderful stew of horror. With The Conjuring, James Wan also proves to the world that his skills transcend the narrow bands of torture porn. Although, his first Saw movie really didn’t qualify as torture porn in my book.

Haunted House stories permeate our culture and our folklore. If we are to live with this perpetual drive to not only create, but also consume these stories, we need to them to be good. For I while I genuinely thought that good haunted house stories were slowly dying from poor direction, CGI overload and lazy jump scares. James Wan reinvigorated the haunted house story and demonstrated the art of the scare. I can only hope that his contemporaries take note.

Night of the Creeps (1986) – Primo 80’s Sci-Fi Horror

Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

There are few horror movies that so succinctly say 80’s horror as well as Fred Dekker’s Night of the Creeps (1986). For the record this is a ridiculously silly film, but it happens to wrap enough purpose around a bundle of absurdity to elevate it into 80’s horror greatness. Night of the Creeps presents a case-study in exactly how to create a comedy-horror film… very carefully. Given great care, the results can be both entertaining and clever.

Night of the Creeps (1986) - Greetings from the Crab Nebula
Who’s responsible for this madness… these pink rubbery guys!

The Setup

The setup for Night of the Creeps is one for the ages. It consists of two blot-on plot devices in the early frames. Ultimately, these bolt-ons constitute a huge part of the films charm and longevity. Some might consider these plot points to be unnecessary, but Dekkar is way too crafty for that type of waste. Instead, instead he let’s the audience in on the joke before they even tell it.

They story begins with some rubber alien looking things (not like Stormtroopers) running around a spaceship randomly firing lasers and hitting nothing (also like Stormtroopers). What’s the emergency? An experiment has gotten out of control and they need to jettison the monsters before the situation gets worse. They let it rip as they pass an innocuous blue planet.

Flash cut to sorority row at Cornish University in the 1950’s. The guys like to take their ladies to “The Point” for some harmless necking. However on this particular night, a mad killer escapes the asylum and is on the loose. At the same time, a meteor or rather a flying sphere full of the space experiment lands just outside view from the point. The young man investigates the crater while his lady gets slaughtered vis an axe by the madman.

Fred Dekker’s just getting started.

Night of the Creeps (1986) - Tom Atkins player character that is like a really awesome version of Tom Atkins... "Thrill Me!"
Tom Atkins player character that is like a really awesome version of Tom Atkins… “Thrill Me!”

Back in the Good ‘Ole 80’s

Flash forward again to the 1980’s. It’s the same school. but with different students. Decades later, the events of the past come back to haunt the student body. In a brilliant casting decision, Dekker employs the services of Jason Lively as the lead character Chris Romero. For those that don’t remember Jason, he played Rusty in National Lampoon’s European Vacation. Make no mistake, this kid can act. His career never got the respect that it deserved. Go get ’em Rusty.

In another fantastic casting decision, Night of the Creeps features horror veteran Tom Atkins as the hard-knocks detective Ray Cameron. Ray gets the distinguished honor over of unraveling this whole mess. Atkin’s chraacter carries a sordid history and a penchant for violence. His standard greeting is the testosterone fueled phrase, “Thrill Me”.

Apart from that, the Dekkar and his casting office bring gaggles of fraternity boys and sorority girls to the party showing respect to the tried and trues horror formula.

Finally, for those that know what I mean, this film also has a Dick Miler sighting. Not enough? How about Robert Kerman of Mondo Cannibal fame!

Night of the Creeps (1986) - The Axman Cometh
The axman cometh with the help of brain controlling space slugs

What Are We Talking About Here?

So the aliens dropped off a care package filled with weaponized slugs that can infect the brains of both the living and the dead. In the case of the dead, the slugs can re-animate the body of the deceased. Once the slugs are done with their host, they erupt through the skull and hunt for their next victim. One night Chris and his best friend try to steal a frozen cadaver from the University lab as a fraternity prank. Unwittingly they boys release the plague on the school. The only hope for salvation is Detective Ray Cameron and his unlikely partner, “Spanky”.

This Is Not An Unintentional Comedy

Make no mistake, this not the type of film that is so bad that it is comical. Fred Dekker and the writers knew exactly what they were doing. The formulated a solid comedic plan and then went for it jugular. Provided the viewer has a remotely activated sense of humor, and 90 minutes to spare, this film should brings its share of laugh-out-loud moments. The best part is that the laughs, while intentional, do not feel contrived or forced. We are not telling jokes here. The comedy comes through wacky situations and absurd circumstances.

Stryper Rules!

— Some Dude in the Bathroom Stall

Night of the Creeps (1986) - Jason Lively doing work with a flamethrower
Just after returning from his European Vacation, Jason Lively does work with a flamethrower to save the day

Production and Special Effects

The production values for Night of the Creeps are sufficiently good for their time. Fred Dekker does a decent job pulling off the black and white 50’s vibe as well as the 80’s modern feel. We are unsure of the budget for the film, but the production and cinematography feels polished and competent.

As far as the practical effects are concerned, they oscillate between comically lame to fantastically brilliant. As we have already conceded, the aliens at the beginning look silly even by Ice Pirates (1984) standards. The slugs also look slightly ridiculous as they writhe across the floor. In several places they launch themselves like nerf darts into the mouths of their victims. It’s a great example of the tried and true technique of filming the sequence backwards as they yank the slugs from the victims mouth.

Apart from the silliness, Night of the Creeps also offers a heaping helping of truly awesome effects. There are multiple scenes involving dead bodies, zombies and walking autopsies. Some of the more awesome scenes show the slugs erupting from the skulls of victims in explosive fashion. Our favorite is when the slugs split the dome of Beta Epsilon captain, “The Bradster” (Allan Kayser).

Night of the Creeps (1986) - Hey dudes, it's the Bradster!
Hey dudes, it’s the Bradster!

An Outstanding Trip Down Memory Lane

Night of the Creeps is exactly the type of movie that could easily get left on the shelf of the local Blockbuster video. Fortunately, it made it into my regular rotation. This movie has been in the upper echelon of the Malevolent Dark collection for decades. It’s exactly the type of film that reminds us why we started watching horror in the first place… It’s fun! Night of the Creeps is as close to an 80’s classic as we can think of. We highly recommend it.

L’ossessa (Enter the Devil / The Eerie Midnight Horror Show / The Devil Obsession / Sexorcist!, 1974) – #NineTenthsOfTheLaw

Overall: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Nine Tenths of the Law #4: L’ossessa (Mario Gariazzo, 1974)

This is the fourth in a series of articles looking at Eurocult films from the 1970s and 1980s that focus on a theme of diabolical/demonic possession.

The international popularity of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) provoked a slew of European horror films about diabolical possession; peaking in the mid-1970s, this subgenre slowly petered out at the end of the decade before becoming increasingly hybridised with other ‘lowbrow’ Eurocult subgenres (for example, the ‘nunsploitation’ film). Initially looking towards The Exorcist as their primary model, these films about diabolical possession sometimes also bore the influence of Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971), and, later on, Richard Donner’s The Omen (1976). These are their stories.

L'ossessa (1974) - A statue of a crucified man is rescued from a derelict church
A statue of a crucified man is rescued from an abandoned church

Plot

Art student Danila (Stella Carnacina) comes from a privileged but unstable background. Her impotent father, Mario (Chris Avram), is regularly cuckolded by Danila’s mother, Luisa (Lucretia Love), who openly indulges in in kinky S/M sessions with her lover (Gabriele Tinti) during which he whips her naked body with the thorny stems of roses.

Danila is assisting with the purchase and restoration of a life-sized statue, of a crucified figure, taken from a deconsecrated and derelict church. Working in her studio late one night, the statue comes to life and presents itself as a man (played by Ivan Rassimov); he rapes Danila.

L'ossessa (1974) - Danila assists in the restoration of the statue
Danial helps procure and restore the statue of the crucified man

Danila’s behaviour becomes more outrageous (and focused on masturbation). Concerned, Danila’s parents and her boyfriend Carlo (Gianrico Tondinelli) seek the help of a medical doctor, Doctor Harris (Giuseppe Addobbati). He suggests they spend some time in the country, but when Danila stops off at an ancient Etruscan temple that was rumoured to be the site of orgies and sacrificial rites, she experiences a vision in which she witnesses the diabolical entity from the statue presiding over a Satanic ritual—which involves the sacrifice of a naked young woman, and the drinking of her blood from a goblet.

Following further investigations, Doctor Harris is perplexed but suggests to Danila’s parents that they may wish to consult a priest. The priest recommends that Danila be taken to then convent of Our Lady of Sorrow to meet an exorcist, Father Xeno (Luigi Pistilli).

L'ossessa (1974) - The statue holds a spell over Danila
The statue is a vessel of evil ready to impose its will on Danila

Critique: “It’s only the invention of priests”

Though he’s often dismissed as a filmmaker associated with simple sexploitation films, the director of Enter the Devil, Mario Gariazzo, has a body of work that is remarkably diverse. His first film was the 1962 picture Lasciapassare per il morto (Passport for a Corpse), an inventive and claustrophobic thriller in which a fugitive (played by Alberto Lupo) masquerades as a corpse in order to cross the border into France. Subsequent to this, Gariazzo directed Italo-Westerns (Dio perdoni la mia pistola / God Will Forgive My Pistol, 1969; Acquasanta Joe, 1971), poliziesco pictures (La mano spietata della legge / The Law Enforcers, 1973), lacrima (“tearjerker”) films (Il venditore di palloncini / Last Moments, 1974), and science-fiction pictures (Occhi dalle stella / Eyes Behind the Stars, 1978).

Gariazzo’s broader reputation as a director of sex pictures, however, rests on a relatively small number of films: the SF sex-parody Incontri molto… ravvicinati del quarto tipo (Very Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind / The Coming of Aliens, 1978), the explicit giallo all’italiana (also released with hardcore inserts) Play Motel (1979)… and Enter the Devil.

L'ossessa (1974) - The statue rises in the form of a demon personified
The statue rises as a demon ready to take Danila into its arms

The statue that Danila is helping to restore is bought from a deconsecrated church, and is intended to represent one of the thieves crucified with Christ. Danila visits the church with her employer; it is derelict, and behind the space where the altar should be are two life-sized statues of crucified figures. Danila is told that the statue of Christ, which should be placed in the centre of these two figures, is missing because it has already been sold. On Danila’s advice, her employer chooses to buy one of these statues: though not mentioned explicitly in the dialogue, it is clear that the statue is a representation of Gestas, the impenitent thief or “bad thief” who was crucified alongside Christ. The other statue, we may assume, is meant to represent Dismas, the penitent thief who was crucified on the other side of Christ.

In the Gospel of Luke, when the crucified Christ is mocked by the priests for claiming to be the Messiah, Dismas seeks penitence for his sins (hence the reference to him as the “penitent thief”) and asks for Jesus’ forgiveness. On the other hand, Gestas—the “impenitent thief”—joins in with the mocking of Jesus. In artistic representations of the event, such as Hans von Tobingen’s 1430 painting “Crucifixion,” Gestas is often depicted alongside a Devil: his lack of penitence associates him with the deviant, criminal, and potentially diabolical.

L'ossessa (1974) - Frequent horror icon Ivan Rassimov plays the living statue and possessor
Ivan Rassimov, frequent horror icon, takes Danila and plants his seed of evil

Of course, taking their cue from William Friedkin’s The Exorcist and its foregrounding of the statue of Pazuzu that Father Merrin finds in Iraq, many Eurocult films about demonic possession feature diabolical objets d’art. Enter the Devil’s focus on religious art also anticipates Pupi Avati’s atmospheric 1976 giallo all’italiana La casa dalle finestre che ridono (The House with Laughing Windows): the narrative of Avati’s picture focuses on a young man, Stefano (Lino Capolicchio), who is sent to a remote village in Northern Italy to restore a fresco that depicts the death of St Sebastian. In both films, the respective depictions of religious agony are referred to as surprisingly lifelike: “A sculpture of marble and wood can have life as much as any human being,” Danila asserts in reference to the verisimilitude of the statue of Gestas, later suggesting that the artist “poured his soul into creating this one.”

All of this, of course, means that the statue of Gestas—which we are told dates from the 15th Century—represents a Bad Dude, one who is unrepentant (impenitent) and allied with dark forces. Inspecting the statues in the church, Danila is told that an elderly lady who viewed them the previous year referred to them as “the work of the Devil.” The church in which the statues were situated was deconsecrated because a century earlier, locals were claimed to have held orgies and practiced dark rites in the building.

L'ossessa (1974) - A woman presides over the Satanic sacrifice of young woman
A woman presides over the sacrifice of a young woman

The statue thus has an association with “unwholesome” sex: Danila’s friend observes that “It’s hard to tell from his expression whether he’s been organising or refusing to join in the orgies. It’s an incredible combination: power, passion, and misery.” Meanwhile, in her relationship with Carlo, Danila is presented as sexually reserved, if not “frigid”: her issues with sex appear to stem from her parents’ strange relationship. Her father is impotent, and her mother, Luisa, is openly involved in an affair with another man; Danila has witnessed this man whipping her mother’s naked body with the thorny stems of roses, leaving her flesh torn and bleeding.

Rose flagellation may or may not be a part of modern S/M—but it’s worth remembering that within Catholicism, roses are associated with martyrdom and, in particular, the suffering of Christ: the petals of a rose symbolise Christ’s wounds from the Crucifixion, and the colour of the flower’s petals represents Christ’s blood. Thus Luisa and her lover’s sex play links directly to the religious themes explored in the film. The scarring of Luisa’s torso finds its echo later in the film when, after Danila has been possessed by the demonic entity, her parents find her masturbating wildly and scratching at her own abdomen with her fingernails: she has been tainted by the same insatiable sexual desire as her mother.

L'ossessa (1974) - An ancient Satanic coven holds a demonic ceremony
An ancient Satanic coven holds a demonic ceremony for Ivan Rassimov’s character

As Danila’s situation deteriorates, the church tries to intervene after Danila has accidentally witnessed the sexual liaison between Luisa and her lover, in an upstairs room of her parents’ house during one of their seemingly regular soirees, that the statue in Danila’s studio comes to life and rapes her. As Danila is working on restoring a painting, the statue is presented in the foreground—laid on a slab—and slightly out of focus, the plane of focus resting on Danila in the background; a reverse shot inverts this composition, with Danila in the foreground and the statue in the background. Whilst Danila busies herself, the statue comes alive. The effect is not dissimilar to the moment in John Carpenter’s The Thing during which Bennings (Peter Maloney) is clearing out one of the storage rooms in the Antarctic base whilst the seemingly dormant remains of the titular “thing” come to life, slightly out of focus, in the foreground of the composition.

Eventually, the statue rises from the slab on which it has been laid, tears off Danila’s dress and rapes her whilst outside, a violent storm erupts—and the wooden cross catches fire. Afterwards, Danila comes to and discovers herself in front of the painting; the statue is back on the table where it was placed, the cross intact.

L'ossessa (1974) - Father Xeno must confront both his faith and his carnal desire for Danila
Father Xeno must confront both his faith and his carnal desire for Danila

Adding to the sense of transgression is the implication that though the scene begins as a sexual assault, at some point Danila begins to experience sexual pleasure from the encounter. Positioned immediately after Danila’s accidental witnessing of her mother’s sex play, the rape of Danila by the living statue seems intended to be read as an outgrowth of the repressed Danila’s knowledge of her mother’s sexual peccadilloes. The scene that follows the assault, in which Danila comes to in the studio—and the statue is once again in its place on the slab—reinforces this through the suggestion that Danila’s experience was nothing more than a daydream—a fantasy of a young woman whose perception of sex has been impacted by her own repression, and by the “deviant” behaviour of her sexually self-indulgent mother.

Subsequently, Danila senses herself to be stalked by the statue. Ascending the winding stairs to her flat, she hears the sighing of the statue and footsteps following her up the stairs. From the shadows, a voice calls her name. However, it’s unclear whether Danila’s experiences have any objective truth to them—or whether she is, once again, simply imagining this scenario. It’s a scene that plays on female paranoia about men, and the association of masculinity with “predatory” behaviour. In her flat, Danila hears strange, occult chanting and screams; then she begins to writhe and groan in sexual ecstasy, masturbating vigorously whilst standing against the door to her flat. Her encounter with the “living” statue of Gestas has pushed Danila, psychically, into a realm of sexual excess.

L'ossessa (1974) - Danila becomes increasingly unhinged
Danila becomes increasingly unhinged

Along with the tearing out and eating of the victims’ own hair, in Enter the Devil female masturbation seems to be the chief symptom of demonic possession. Shortly after the scene described above, Danila’s parents find her in bed, masturbating so furiously that she leaves scratch marks on her abdomen: as noted above, these marks mimic the scratches on Luisa’s body following her S/M session with her lover. Again, the film reinforces the notion that Danila’s demonic encounter has its roots in her accidental witnessing of her mother’s kinky sex play. (Reinforcing this sense of demonic transgression being linked to the sexual transgressions of Luisa, later in the film Luisa tells her husband that “I need someone that goes beyond the rules that you set out.”)

Following this, Danila attempts to seduce her father. Numerous subsequent Eurocult films about demonic possession confront the incest taboo by featuring young women who, under diabolical influence, attempt to seduce an older male relative. (The most explicit example of this trend is perhaps Andrea Bianchi’s 1979 film Malabimba, which will be discussed in more detail in a later instalment of this series of articles.) “Why don’t you try it too, daddy?” Danila asks her father, “Or are you afraid it’ll all be wrong? There’s no such thing as incest: it’s only the invention of priests.”

For Danila’s father, Danila’s behaviour increasingly shows signs of being modelled on the sexual licentiousness displayed by her mother: he accuses Luisa of knowing that Danila was “born with your foul blood in her veins, so she would turn out like you.” He adds that “I love that girl of mine […] so much that I’d kill her rather than see her become a creature like you.”

L'ossessa (1974) - Danila goes full demon in the final conflict
Danila goes full demon in the final conflict

When Danila’s parents are finally convinced to consult a priest, they (and the film’s audience) are reminded of the scorn with which the Church was (and is) regarded: “Unfortunately, people doubt anything to do with religion today,” the priest tells them, “They laugh at it, even.” In a line that echoes throughout so many Eurocult films about demonic possession—not to mention other contemporaneous genres in Italian cinema from the Years of Lead, such as the poliziesco films of the mid-1970s—the priest admits that “the young people of today are very much in need of spiritual guidance.”

The climax of Enter the Devil begins with Danila’s family’s movement to the convent of Our Lady of Sorrow, and ends with the exorcism of Danila by Father Xeno. Xeno lives like a hermit, and seems to anticipate the arrival of Danila without being informed of it. At the convent, Danila’s behaviour becomes increasingly violent: she tears her hair from her head and eats it; she destroys furniture and shreds her bedsheets. As Xeno performs the exorcism, Danila experiences a vision of the demon, who tells her “You are my servant [….] I want him [the exorcist]. I want to crush his insufferable pride. When you make him yours, he’ll be mine. I give you back what I had taken away: beauty, now a weapon to be used for Satan.”

L'ossessa (1974) - Father Xeno gathers his strength for the final attack on evil
Father Xeno gathers his strength for the final attack on evil

With this, Danila’s face—which had been torn by scars and sores—is restored to how it once was. She is beautiful once again, and gazes seductively at Xeno. “I know why you’re looking at me like that,” she intones, “You’re excited, aren’t you? Well, so am I [….] Penetrate me. Penetrate my soul [….] I’ll give you pleasure you’ve never dreamed of.”

With this exorcism sequence, Enter the Devil consolidates its association of female sexuality with the sinister: Danila has been transformed from the repressed and serious young woman of the film’s opening sequences, into a femme fatale—a vamp who uses her sexuality to lure men to their immortal doom. Xeno returns to his room at the convent and rids himself of desire by flagellating himself with a whip of many tails. When the exorcism resumes, the demon tells Danila that his aim is to undermine this “pure” priest by appealing to his animalistic instincts: “We’ll humiliate him,” the demon says, “We’ll grind him and his disgusting arrogance beneath our heels.”

The final act of the exorcism takes place in the convent’s cloister. There, Xeno faces off against the demon that is possessing Danila. Gariazzo shoots this like the climax of a Sergio Leone Italo-Western: all tight close-ups of eyes and mouths. (The director of photography on Enter the Devil, Carlo Carlini, had a long career that included a number of key Spaghetti Westerns, including Sergio Corbucci’s La resa dei conti / The Big Gundown in 1966, and Giulio Petroni’s Da uomo a uomo / Death Rides a Horse in 1967.)

L'ossesso (1974) - To exorcise the demon, one must be sacrificed
To exorcise the demon, one must be sacrificed

Frustratingly, we see relatively little of Xeno—and he is given even less to say, other than the Latin rites he speaks during the exorcism of Danila. Of course, as with The Exorcist and many of its imitators, Enter the Devil must culminate with the sacrifice of the “pure” priest: in this case, Xeno is whipped with a chain by Danila whilst she is still possessed by the demon, and he dies quietly—his crucifix clutched to his chest—after the demon has been expelled from her. The film ends abruptly on a freeze frame, as Danila gazes at Carlo: her “issues” (demonic, sexual, romantic) having been cured by the exorcist, Danila can now progress into a relationship with her boyfriend that is far less toxic than the relationship between her mother and father.

“THIS FILM IS BASED ON A TRUE STORY,” an onscreen title presented at the front-end of the English-language version of Enter the Devil screams, in full caps. No documentary evidence of which “true story” the film is based on seems to be in the public domain, so it seems safe to assume that this declaration must be taken with a generous pinch of salt. Nevertheless, Enter the Devil contains perhaps the most direct exploration of the themes that are commonly associated with films about diabolical possession—the depiction of young women tainted by their association with toxic, corrupt mothers (a trope that derives from Ellen Burstyn’s neglectful mother in The Exorcist); the equation of the demonic with untethered female sexuality; the necessity for “wayward” young women to be cured by older, authoritarian men.

 

L'ossessa (1974) - Various VHS covers and marketing materials
L’ossessa (1974) Various VHS covers and marketing posters

Release and Distribution

Enter the Devil was released theatrically in Italy, West Germany, the UK, and the US—under a confusing plethora of titles. In the UK, the film was released to cinemas as Sexorcist!, and was released on VHS in the mid-1980s under four different titles (The Devil Obsession, Enter the Devil, Sexorcist, and Obsessed). In the US, the film was also shown at cinemas under the title The Tormented, but is perhaps most commonly known as The Eerie Midnight Horror Show, a title used for home video releases and cable television airings. In the digital home video age, Enter the Devil was released on DVD in several VHS-sourced presentations by companies specialising in (allegedly) “public domain” properties; but more recently the film has been distributed on Blu-ray, by Code Red, in a presentation sourced from a rough-looking 35mm theatrical print.

The Black Phone (2022) – Well Made Mediocrity

Overall: 2.5 out of 5 stars

Directed by Scott Derricksen and and written by C. Robert Cargill, The Black Phone reunites a power packed duo that took on Hollywood blockbusters including Sinister (2012) and Doctor Strange (2016). Additionally, Derrickson lays claim to Hellraiser: Inferno as well as a couple of forays into the world of demonic possession. Both Derrickson and Cargill also reunite with actor Ethan Hawke to reinvigorate a short-story, also titled “The Black Phone”, originally penned by Joe Hill, the son of Stephen King. Jason Blum also contributes to the production team. It’s really too much to bear as we simply can not stop namedropping.

Produced by Blumhouse Productions, The Black Phone released in the United States to significant acclaim in June of 2022.

The Black Phone (2022) - Mason Thames providing fantastic acting as the lead victim, Finney
Mason Thames provides incredible depth as lead victim, Finney

Come Aboard the Wayback Machine

The Black Phone begins in 1978. A young man named Finney, brilliantly played by Mason Thames, lives life in a small suburb of Denver, Colorado. Finney is a capable of kid dealing with sub-optimal circumstances. His father drinks too much and often boils over with piss and vinegar. He tends to erupt in violence over the smallest things. While not necessarily cowardly, Finney avoids contact and often gets rescued by either his friend Robin, or his sister Gwen. In fact, Gwen protects Finney in more ways than one. She receives visions in her dreams, and often those dreams turn out to be true.

However, apart the normal bumps and bruises that plague adolescents, something more sinister lurks in the shadows. Children begin to disappear, never to return. Even Finney’s friend Robin (Miguel Cazarez Mora) turns up on a milk carton. Named, “The Grabber”, the perpetrator leaves very few clues apart from random black balloons. The police see the balloons at the crime scene; Gwen sees them in her dreams. One day, on his return home, Finney’s good nature brings him within The Grabber’s reach and now Finney must fight for his life to avoid the tragedy that befell the The Grabber’s other victims.

Finney’s path to redemption is wrought with peril, and you can bet your last dollar that it involves a black phone.

The Good Stuff

Scott Derricksen assembles a fantastic cast of your people for his film. As a child looking in the face of certain doom, Mason Thames brilliantly portrays a sympathetic character. However, he provides much more. In addition to his fragile demeanor, he also portrays a razor sharp wit and flickering flame that never extinguishes despite his repeated failures to escape. Both he Gwen show through their performances the razor sharp edge that their hard-knock life honed.

The other children come to life as caricatures of 70’s youth culture with their afros, head bands and jean jackets. Derricksen’s depictions of adolescence posses an authenticity as each portrays complicated youth possessing both a good side, and reckless abandon.

Pulling from dusty crates at the back of the record store, the soundtrack also has some gems. The movie kick off with “Slow Ride” from the Edgar Winter’s group. While not a favorite on my playlist, the track easily transports the viewer to the days of classic rock. “Fox on the run” from Sweet pulls double duty between this film and the Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol 2. Again, not a favorite but pretty well a mainstay on 70’s pop radio.

Most brilliantly, Derricksen plays Pink Floyd’s “On the Run” in the background while Finney’s anxiously awaits the return of The Grabber from the hardware. He left to procure quicklime and plastic to finish the job on Finney. The music perfectly matches the escalating tension and one can never really get enough Pink Floyd.

The underlying story concerns a disconnected black phone that mysteriously rings. At first Finney believes that he is hallucinating, but it turns out that past victims have found a channel to speak to the living. The black phone as a plot device works pretty well at first, but eventually the gimmick becomes a bit too predictable and ultimately runs long in the tooth.

The Black Phone (2022) - Ethane Hawke as The Grabber
Ethan Hawke plays the villain, The Grabber

Yeah Man, the 70’s and 80’s Were Cool But…

Blaming the Duffer Brothers and Stranger Things, it seems that nostalgic horror risks teetering into the abyss of cliché. To be clear, I love the 70’s and the 80’s and quite frankly some of my best years were spent there. I couldn’t love the horror cinema from that era more. Yet, I would be remiss not to call out the trend of cinematic appropriation that dominates the scene. In this particular film, Derricksen really leans into the model set forth by the Duffer brothers.

In one stand-out scene, a long haired kid goes bananas after having his pinball game ruined, and he brutally beats the kid responsible. Throughout the scene, pictures of Billy Hargrove from Harkins Indiana hopelessly reverberate in the head.

We had The Void (2017) bringing back the practical effects of the 80’s that we were all waiting for. X (2022) takes us back to old farmhouses with serial killers. Stranger Things recycled just about every Steven Spielberg gimmick from a period of 2 decades. The Black Phone goes further by revitalizing images of Victor Pascow and Pet Semetary. “Sometimes… Dead is Better!” Enough! Just about every film from those era still exists and as has a high-quality transfer to Blu-Ray or 4K. None of us have seen them all, so there is still plenty of content. Can we move on?

Probably the place that I disconnect most with the population of fans that love this film concerns the portrayal of The Grabber. Ethan Hawke hopelessly wanders in his role as the killer and comes off as neither believable or menacing. Attempts at black humor fall flat and at no point does the killer exhibit personality traits that make him unique. For the duration of the film, Ethan Hawke wears an evolving mask that I can only describe as comical.

The mask appears to be modular design that can have certain pieces present or not. The first iteration that the audiences sees comes literally from the stage of a Ghost B.C. concert (tell me I’m wrong). All other iterations look like comedy/tragedy masks.

The final knock against The Black Phone comes from the movies horror composition. Derricksen spends the first 30 minutes putting a 70’s patina. This includes a long winded exposition of characters back stories. Not a scare in sight. When the scares do finally start to trickle in, they are all naked jump scares. These are not particularly good jump scares either. Derricksen lays down a stack of ho-hum parlor tricks to periodically get a rise out of the audience. More horror provoking would be the the futility of Finney’s situation, but the audience never doubts for a moment that he will eventually escape.

Derricksen wraps it up with a “who cares?” plot twist to put the finishing touches on his new-old horror movie.

Hanging Up

This review may seem to indicate that The Black Phone sucksé, but that truth proves more complicated that that. The Black Phone is a well made movie that carries a lot of boring baggage and overdone clichés. In the end, The Black Phone simply fails break any new ground. Nor, does it make a statement other than to provide a gentle reminder not to let your kids hang out with creepsters holding black balloons. Decent, but forgettable might describe The Black Phone best. The deep chasm that separates Malevolent Dark from popular opinion on this one might be more interesting than the film itself.

Exorcismo (Exorcism, 1975) – #NineTenthsOfTheLaw

Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

Nine Tenths of the Law #2: Exorcism (Juan Bosch, 1975)

This is the third in a series of articles looking at Eurocult films from the 1970s and 1980s that focus on a theme of diabolical/demonic possession.

The international popularity of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) provoked a slew of European horror films about diabolical possession; peaking in the mid-1970s, this subgenre slowly petered out at the end of the decade before becoming increasingly hybridised with other ‘lowbrow’ Eurocult subgenres (for example, the ‘nunsploitation’ film). Initially looking towards The Exorcist as their primary model, these films about diabolical possession sometimes also bore the influence of Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971), and, later on, Richard Donner’s The Omen (1976). These are their stories.

Exorcismo (1975) - Vicar Adrian Dunning (Paul Naschy) and the gardener just before his murder(
Vicar Adrian Dunning (Paul Naschy) and the gardener just before his murder

Exorcismo – Plot

Driving back from a beachside Satanic ritual, archaeology student Richard Harrington (Roger Leveder) and his girlfriend Leila Gibson (“Grace Mills,” the Anglicised pseudonym of Spanish actress Mercedes Molina) are involved in a car accident. Leila is hospitalised. Her family—mother Patricia (Maria Perschy), half-sister Deborah (Maria Kosti), and half-brother John (Juan Llaneras)—await her recuperation and discharge. As they do so, John berates Richard for leading Leila astray: Richard has recently returned from a research trip to Africa, and has brought with him a fascination with “exotic” rites and practices that he has shared amongst his fellow students.

Patricia had her husband, Lawrence, incarcerated in a mental hospital after a diagnosis by Dr Lewton Buchanan (Jorge Torras). John and Deborah are still aggrieved by this: Patricia is their stepmother (and Leila’s biological mother), and it seems that Patricia had Lawrence committed in order to pursue an affair with Buchanan—and to claim her rights to Lawrence’s estate, which she has woefully mismanaged in the years since his death.

Exorcismo (1975) Walking among Satan's playthings
Richard walking among Satan’s playthings

Keen gardener John is found murdered in his beloved greenhouse, his head twisted 180 degrees. Shortly afterwards, Richard is also found dead in his flat, his head also rotated 180 degrees. A detective inspector (Juan Velilla) suggests to local vicar Adrian Dunning (Paul Naschy) that the murders may have a ritualistic element: according to legend, the devil would apparently twist the necks of witches who had betrayed him.

Meanwhile, Leila’s behaviour becomes increasingly bizarre, strange voices speaking German are heard in her bedroom—which also begins to stink of rotting meat—and Deborah suggests to Adrian that she believes her half-sister may be possessed. Adrian, who has experience of exorcism during time he spent in Brazil, believes that a rational explanation of these events is possible. However, his resistance to suggestions that something supernatural—nay, diabolical—is afoot is eventually worn down by Buchanan, who has tried—and failed—to find a scientific explanation for the changes in Leila’s behaviour.

Finally, Adrian is forced to perform an exorcism on the young Gibson woman.

Exorcismo (1975) - The first signs of possession in full gothic view
The first signs of possession in full gothic view

Critique: “Sometimes the soul gets sick”

Paul Naschy (Jacinto Molina) was a powerhouse of European genre cinema, his presence anchoring so many memorable Spanish horror films made between the mid-1960s and 1980s. Though to Anglophonic fans of Eurocult cinema, Naschy is chiefly known for the series of werewolf pictures in which he played the cursed Waldemar Daninsky (beginning with La marca del Hombre Lobo/Mark of the Wolfman, directed by Enrique L Eguiluz in 1968), the actor appeared in numerous films that capitalised on global trends in horror cinema. In the mid-70s, these ranged from Carlos Aured’s mummy picture La venganza de la momia (The Mummy’s Revenge, 1975) to the post-apocalyptic Último deseo (The People Who Own the Dark; León Klimovsky, 1976). Amidst these films is Juan Bosch’s Exorcismo (Exorcism, 1975).

Though his pictures were often directed by various filmmakers (Juan Bosch, the director of Exorcism, is primarily remembered for a number of fairly bland Euro-Westerns he made in the early 1970s), Naschy’s films were clearly authored—for the most part—by the star himself. Naschy would often write the films in which he starred, and had a strong element of creative control over them—though, interestingly, he wouldn’t direct a feature until 1976’s Inquisición (Inquisition).

Exorcismo (1975) - The rampant sexualism of the occult
“There are Black Masses, covens, and whatnot. Obviously, this is an excuse to take drugs and give themselves over to sexual excesses. It’s just a racket organised by a few who get rich off it.”

Naschy claimed to have devised the basic premise for Exorcismo a number of years prior to the release of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), and in Spain Exorcismo was released to cinemas before Friedkin’s film—whose release was delayed in Spain until September of 1975. (By contrast, Exorcism was released in Spain in March of 1975.) Nevertheless, Bosch’s picture demonstrates some overt similarities with The Exorcist—enough to suggest that the apparently pre-existing script by Naschy was rewritten in order to emphasise its similarities with the Friedkin picture. In particular, Exorcism’s story follows a number of the key narrative beats of The Exorcist, including its interactions between Naschy’s character (an English vicar named Adrian Dunning) and a detective inspector (Juan Velilla) investigating the suspicious deaths at the Gibson house—which have some parallels with Friedkin’s film’s obsession with the relationship between Father Karras (Jason Miller) and Detective Lieutenant Kinderman (Lee J Cobb).

Rather than being a straight-up imitator of The Exorcist, then, Exorcism bears the hallmarks of another story hastily revised in order to incorporate elements recognisable from that oh-so iconic American horror picture. In particular, the film’s climactic exorcism of Leila, by the solo Adrian, is hurried and feels like a sequence Bosch and Naschy were obliged to incorporate rather than something that is integral to the film’s plot. Nevertheless, there is some particularly striking makeup in this sequence, with Leila’s face covered in sores, her hands and feet marred with stigmata, and her eyes covered with cataracts.

Exorcismo (1975) - Juan Bosch uses sexualism as a metaphor opposing Franco Fascist conservatism
Juan Bosch uses sexualism as a metaphor opposing Franco Fascist conservatism

Notably, however, where The Exorcist and many of its imitators are overtly Catholic, Exorcism features a Protestant vicar and even references (albeit briefly) the English Reformation in its dialogue. Many of Naschy’s films—along with a notable number of Spanish horror films—were set either completely or partially in England. Setting, and partially filming, these pictures in England reputedly helped Spanish horror filmmakers to circumvent the notoriously oppressive film censorship regime in Francoist Spain. However, these films almost invariably demonstrated a curiously alien sense of both the local culture and geography. Memorably, for example, another Naschy film from this era, La maldición de la bestia (The Werewolf and the Yeti/Night of the Howling Beast, 1975), opens with shots of London over which an incongruous bagpipe rendition of “Scotland the Brave” can be heard. (Filmed closely to Exorcism, The Werewolf and the Yeti features a number of the same cast as Exorcism and some of the same props too–including the statue that is at the centre of the Satanists’ rituals.)

Exorcism is no different: the story takes place in the English countryside, outside Bristol (in the south of England), but at one point Leila is revealed to be participating in Satanic rituals in the ruins of a castle near the town of Annecy (which is in France). Adrian and Deborah travel to the castle, and delving into its depths witness a group of middle-class students with countercultural aspirations, performing vaguely Satanic rituals involving bloodletting, a fugly Pazuzu-like statue, copious amounts of nudity, and sexual couplings galore. The borders between England and continental Europe are collapsed in a way that would make a Brexiteer’s heart explode with rage: Adrian and Deborah’s rapid journey from Bristol to Annecy takes place in a matter of hours, or less, and when the police storm the (French) site of the Satanic orgy, they are clearly English bobbies (complete with “tit-head” helmets).

Exorcismo (1975) - The obligatory brain-scan of the possessed
Not to be outdone, Exorcismo offers its own version of the obligatory brain-scan

Regardless of the illogicalities that surface within the internal geography of the film, in Exorcism the landscape of England looks—as in many of Naschy’s films with Anglo settings—for the most part like rural Spain. Nevertheless, Naschy and Bosch insert some English colour into the proceedings: is there anything more determinedly “English” than the manner in which stoic vicar Adrian is introduced, dead-heading a rose bush in a quaint rural churchyard? Additionally, in Adrian’s office at the church is a very prominent monochromatic photograph of Queen Elizabeth II, which is frequently framed over and behind Naschy’s shoulder.

Wherever they were set or partially filmed, Spanish horror films of the period almost invariably focused on issues of authority and control, channelling the repressive Francoist dictatorship. In Exorcism, this is confronted in the relationship between the three figures of authority within the narrative: the psychiatrist Dr Lewton Buchanan (Jordi Torras), revealed to be corrupt through his sexual relationship with his former patient’s wife, Patricia (Maria Perschy)—the widow of Lawrence, who died in an asylum after Buchanan had him committed; the reactionary detective inspector, who asserts that the Satanists are simply poseurs—deeply bourgeois students seeking exotic thrills, and using Satanism as a pretext to practice promiscuity and drug-taking; and Adrian Dunning, a more balanced and contemplative authority figure, who conducts research prior to taking action, and is meditative in his approach to drawing conclusions about the events he witnesses.

 

Exorcismo (1975) -True evil confronts the protestant church
Exorcismo (1975) -True evil confronts the protestant church

The first two authority figures—Buchanan and the detective inspector—are either corrupt (in the case of the psychiatrist) or simply deeply judgemental and authoritarian (the detective inspector). Adrian represents an alternative type of authority—a “third way” that is more contemplative, fair, tolerant, and liberal. The film posits an almost didactic approach to these three pillars of authority: representatives of Medicine, the Law, and the Church. If Buchanan and the detective inspector represent the negative traits of the Francoist regime (corruption, bigotry, and authoritarianism), the liberal—but no less authoritative—Adrian is clearly presented as an alternative to these: a type of authority that is necessary, but embodies a sense of responsibility and humanity that the others lack. Nevertheless, as the film builds to its conclusion (the exorcism of Leila), Adrian is essentially railroaded by the narrative into espousing a more conservative set of values: Leila is, after all, possessed, and Adrian is ultimately required to perform a ritualistic exorcism on her.

Furthermore, in many ways, the detective inspector’s repressive views—dismissive of youth, and of any countercultural ideals—are validated by the plot: the young people clearly are participating in sexual orgies, and seemingly have been “corrupted” by rites and practices that are exotic to the English setting, brought from Africa by Richard. (Compare this with the unashamedly critical representation of the similarly bigoted and dictatorial values espoused by the detective sergeant played by Arthur Kennedy, in Jorge Grau’s 1974 Spanish zombie film No profanar el sueño de los muertos/The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue.[i]) “In this materialistic and consumeristic era, there are people who get together and invoke Satan,” the detective inspector tells Adrian, “There are Black Masses, covens, and whatnot. Obviously, this is an excuse to take drugs and give themselves over to sexual excesses. It’s just a racket organised by a few who get rich off it.”

Exorcismo (1975) - A truly horrible view of the possessed, stigmata, sores and cataracts and all
A truly horrible view of the possessed, stigmata, sores and cataracts and all

Spanish horror films of the early/mid 1970s—such as Amando de Ossorio’s Blind Dead pictures—particularly La noche de las gaviotas (The Night of the Seagulls), released the same year as Exorcism—seem preoccupied with the idea of occult rituals practised on beaches. Exorcism’s opening sequence depicts a Satanic ritual that takes place on a beach, presumably near the castle at Annecy that is mentioned later in the narrative. The participants are clearly young, countercultural types—not “serious” Satanists but thrill-seeking hippie students, as befitting the prejudices of the detective inspector. An equivalence is swiftly drawn in these opening moments between Black Magic and countercultural youth, predicting and quietly validating the detective inspector’s later assertions.

Following the car accident, Leila’s brother, John, accuses Richard of leading Leila into a life of drugs and parties. Archaeology student Richard, whose interest in history was fostered in his youth by Adrian, has recently returned from a research trip to Africa; the film suggests that his fascination with occultism, and his initiation of the Satanic gatherings amongst other likeminded students, originated in Africa. (During the Satanic mass held in the ruins of the Annecy church, the film anchors this suggestion with cutaways to a black man playing the drums.) There is an explicit association that the film draws between the idea of diabolical possession and wayward youth being led astray by “exotic” and countercultural ideas. (This association of demonic possession and youth countercultures, or at the very least the notion of youthful rebellion, bubbles away behind almost all of the Eurocult films about possession.)

Exorcismo (1975) - Leila stalks the room like a devilish predator
Leila stalks the room like a devilish predator

Of course, also bubbling away beneath this all is the implication that privileged young people from upper middle-class backgrounds (such as Leila and Richard) are more open to these negative cultural influences. Nevertheless, the liberal Adrian is tolerant of youthful experimentation, asserting early in the film that “Leila was always difficult, and you know how kids are today. We don’t always like their concept of freedom, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t sometimes justified.” Interestingly, the film’s subtle focus on class and privilege is undercut by the sexual relationship that exists between the clearly bisexual John (his room is bedecked in both beefcake and cheesecake photographs) and the family’s maid, Sandra (Martha Avile). Following John’s murder, Sandra conducts her own investigations, leading to her death—and the discovery of her body in that most proletarian of places, concealed beneath a mound of coal in the basement of the house.

Also present in Exorcism is an exploration of familial tensions, and an engagement with the nature/nurture debate (in the form of the suggestion—albeit one which is quickly dismissed by the plot—that rather than being possessed, Leila may have inherited her father’s mental illness). Patricia is the stepmother of John and Deborah, but the mother of Leila; and both John and Deborah suggest Patricia had their father incarcerated in a mental institution in order to pursue an affair with the psychiatrist who committed him. They also believe that Patricia treats Leila favourably, and see Patricia as procuring their father’s estate—which she has mismanaged to the point that, in dire financial straits, the Gibson family may need to sell their luxurious home.

Exorcismo (1975) - The vicar returns to do battle with eternal evil
The vicar (Paul Naschy) returns to do battle with eternal evil

Where John sees Leila’s boyfriend, Richard, as “depraved, a junkie,” Leila accuses John of wearing a “puritan mask.” Leila’s own “puritan mask” slips away during her period of possession. She accuses her mother of killing Lawrence so she can sleep with Buchanan, and she tries to seduce Adrian—who stoically rejects her. “I’m an evil girl, and I’m going to prove it,” Leila promises at one point, adding that “These flowers seem to shudder when I touch them.” At her birthday party, she lashes out verbally, calling the gathered guests “Pigs! Garbage!” and telling them, “You make me sick, all of you!”

As in so many films about demonic possession, medical intervention is suggested for Leila’s strange behaviour, and we see her being given an EEG (the film’s equivalent of the angiogram administered to Regan in The Exorcist). Adrian, however, believes that something more sinister may be afoot: “Sometimes the soul gets sick,” he suggests. As Leila’s behaviour becomes increasingly strange, it seems that she may be possessed by the spirit of her dead father, seeking revenge against the wife, Patricia, who betrayed him. At one point, Lawrence seems to use Leila as a vessel through which he berates his widow: “You locked me up in that asylum and left me there to rot, while you went to bed with that disgusting doctor,” Leila tells her mother, speaking with a male voice. Or alternatively, the spirit that possesses Leila may be something more diabolical, and may simply be masquerading as Lawrence. (The film never addresses this issue directly, leaving it ambiguous.)

Exorcismo (1975) - The hundred yard stare of god's salvation
The hundred yard stare of god’s mercy and salvation

The film lightly sketches a backstory for Adrian that may have been shaped by that of Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow) in The Exorcist. In Friedkin’s film, the possession of Regan by Pazuzu refers back to Merrin’s encounter with the statue of the same demon during an archaeological dig in Iraq (depicted in the film’s opening sequence). In Exorcism, Adrian tells Buchanan of an exorcism he assisted in a number of years earlier, during some time he spent in Brazil: “The case had all the characteristics of possessed people,” Adrian says, “The girl spoke and wrote in languages completely foreign to her.” The priest Adrian was assisting performed an exorcism on the subject, though Adrian “thought it was all in her mind due to hypnosis or drugs.” When Adrian finally confronts the entity that possesses Leila, in the exorcism that takes place at the film’s climax, the demon speaks through Leila, telling Adrian that they “meet again”—a veiled reference to Adrian’s experiences in South America.

Adrian expresses doubt about the concept of demonic possession, but Buchanan—who has already exhausted his medical options in investigating Leila’s strange behaviour—seems more willing to believe in a supernatural cause. After listening to Adrian’s story, Buchanan suggests that there were periods in history during which diabolical possession was widely held to be true. “Do you mean the medieval witches?” Adrian asks, “They were almost always poor hysterical women, victims of their own ignorance and the ignorance of others.”

Exorcismo (1975) - Juan Bosch seems to rush his climatic finale as if it were a chore
Juan Bosch seems to rush his climatic finale as if it were a chore

Ultimately, though, Adrian’s sense of rationalism in this debate, and his doubts about the legitimacy of the idea of demonic possession—and the practice of exorcism—are put aside in the film’s final 15 minutes. The physical manifestations of Leila’s possession (sores on her lips and face, stigmata on her hands and feet, cataracts on her eyes) provoke him into performing an exorcism.

Just prior to this, however, Adrian suggests that the entity—whatever it may be—that is possessing Leila is purely focused on creating disharmony and discontent. Again, the film returns subtly to the theme of wayward youth being led astray by radical, exotic, and countercultural ideas. “Perhaps Leila is not what he wants, but us,” Adrian suggests, “He wants to create hatred, cause confusion—to make us look filthy and damaged.” (During the exorcism, Adrian tells the demon that its intention is to “wipe out the good, and love, and justice.”) Against this, Adrian enters into the exorcism with an absolute sense of self-assurance: “I’ll win,” he asserts without a shred of doubt, “I’m a man of faith.”

Exorcismo (1975) - VPD VHS Box
Exorcismo Canon VHS box

Release and Distribution

Exorcism was released in Spain a few months prior to William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. Elsewhere, it seems to have been distributed very poorly—though it was released on VHS in the UK (by Canon) and in the US (by All Seasons Entertainment). It has fared much better in the digital home video era, being released on DVD by BCI and, later, on Blu-ray by Shout! Factory.

[i] See the article this writer wrote about Grau’s film for Horrified Magazine.

X (2022) – Brilliant Film, Exquisite Acting, Not Quite A Classic

Overall: 3.5 out of 5 stars

For horror fans, and movie fans in general, we have suffered a great injustice in the form of a 2 year pandemic drought in that kept us out of theaters for far too long. That being said, when A24 studios announced that they planned a release of a next generation slasher film, people got excited. X (2022) takes two taboo ingredients, the adult film industry and horror, and combines them under high-pressure cooker to create something that feels very inspired and fresh. Director and writer Ti West pulls together a stellar cast to create not only a fantastic film, but a homage to horror from the past.

X (2022) - Mia Goth captivates in her role as a young adult films star
Mia Goth captivates with her role as Maxine, a young adult film star

Behind the Green Door

Those familiar with the adult industry often joke about the lack of plot. For example, if the plotlines of adult films were fathomable, there would be a lot more people signing up to deliver pizza and climb under the sink to fix the plumbing. Fortunately, this film take its story much more seriously. In fact, they goad the audience with a simpleton plotline as they build towards something much larger in scope. The movie begins with a cringey, but likeable sleaze merchant named Wayne Gilroy (Martin Henderson) pulling his favorite lady, Maxine (Mia Goth) from the Bayou Burlesque gentleman’s club.

It’s 1979, and Wayne intends take advantage of the exploding adult film industry.

Coming along for the ride, Lorraine, the seemingly virtuous, but sexy curious boom operator. Her boy friend, R.J. suffers from delusions of grandeur as he attempts to use his camera to create the next Citizen Kane (1941). Bobby Lynn, the old pro in the adult industry, works across from Jackson Hole, a consummate professional and heavy pipe layer. The group pile in a van with the words “Plowing Service” plastered on the side and head for rural Texas to film “The Farmer’s Daughters”. Jackson Hole, you got to love it.

 

X (2022) - Another Texas Chainsaw homage by director Ti West
Another Texas Chainsaw homage

The troupe pulls into a centuries old farm house owned an elderly and decrepit couple named Howard. He lives with his invalid wife named Pearl, unbelievably played by the same Mia goth. During their stay, the group offends some of the locals, triggering a cascade of horrific violence that threatens everyone’s survival.

However, underlying this thin frame of a narrative lies a deeper story. This story delves into the duality of humanity and how beauty and life change through time. We are all peacocks in the sun until dusk. Then, as life hurls us over our peak towards our end, it turns us into monsters yearning for youth and groping for the past. West also explores the aversion that the young have for the old, even though the old were once like them.

X (2022) - Director Ti West give another nod to Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Ti West gives another nod to Tobe Hooper and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

Aesthetics

While we can’t say that X (2022) completely immerses the audience into a deep 70’s funk, it does create more than a few cool clichés. It begins by superimposing the year “1979” in huge Red White and Blue letters that would make Evel Knievel go green with jealousy. While Ti West presents most of the film in a fairly modern, and high-fidelity way. Periodically he switches to the muted colors and grainy feel of 16mm film when showing scenes from his film within the film. In other instances, trippy overhead scenes and LSD-like strobing effects straight out of Easy rider (1969) pull the audience back to the 70’s.

More than once, Ti West intentionally tips his hat to 70’s classic horror. As the van approaches the house it harkens back to the that moment in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) when they pull up to the Hardesty house. Additionally, the entry way of the home looks identical to that the long hallway where Leatherface runs down Pam before skewering her on a meat-hook. When you see Wayne’s silhouette in the screen door against the backdrop of a blue Texas sky, you realize that these similarities can only be intentional. Fortunately, West knows the line between an homage and shameless fan service.

X (2022) - Also Mia Goth, Pearl
Amazingly, Mia Goth also plays the role of the old and decrepit Pearl

The Casting Couch

if X (2022) claims victory in any single area of filmmaking, West’s deft casting takes that award. From the opening frames, Goth captivates with her simple small town girl looks, big dreams, and an avalanche size rail of fine Columbian cocaine. Simultaneously she pulls off simple, sexy and street-smart with effortless ease. Depending on the scene, Goth plays both cunning and fragile. The fact that she does all of this while also carrying another lead role, Pearl. Much like Maxine, Pearl appears weak and fragile, but she’s also dangerous and cunning.

Jenna Ortega’s story arc as Lorainne take from a simple girl that comes along only to manage the microphones to something more seductive and certainly more provocative. Her story also drives her boyfriend, RJ through an arc of delusional optimism, to free-love and deep and painful regret. By pushing him over the edge, Lorraine unintentionally kicks off a chain of horrific events.

Scott Mescudi, otherwise known as Kid Cudi, plays porn veteran Jackson Hole. With his big afro and progressive lifestyle, he couldn’t be more 1979 if his name were Billy D. Williams. Together, he and his partner Bobby-Lynne create real chemistry. Horror films so often find pretty faces with no substance to fill a kill card. Rarely do those characters have the panache and attraction of these two.

X (2022) - Beautiful horror imagery and style by Ti West
Beautiful horror imagery and style by Ti West

But We Came Here For The Kills

West’s film does not disappoint in the kills department. West does a great job of distributing his kills across a variety of styles and methods. The kills transcend the the tools. When we talk about variety, we are talking about fundamentally different kills with different set-ups, circumstances and style.

In one scene, West dwells on a slow methodical kill where the knife thrusts cause us to wince in pain as the seemingly never stop. Blood spurts in giant arcs reminiscent of Argento.

In another scene, one of the victims finds himself in a standard 80’s slasher setting, an old barn. Much like in a Friday the 13th film, West murders him the most 80s-esq way, via a farm implement. The kills sets up as predictably as any slasher ever made, and finishes with a giant exclamation point that feels both familiar and fresh at the same time. It’s boilerplate, but wow does it feel inspired.

West also finds time for a bit of black comedy as other kills explode in both horror and laughter. These shocks end as bombastically as Wendy Banjo getting dealt by a Mack truck in The Devil’s Rejects (2005).

X (2022) - More Mia Goth, just because
More Mia Goth as Maxine, just because

A Breath of Fresh Air, But Not Quite A Classic

Make no mistake, X provides an extremely entertaining ride. It quickly finds itself in the company other great modern horror movies like Cabin in the Woods (2012) and Ready or Not (2019)It brings a fantastic mix of old tropes, tongue-in-cheek humor and a touch of ingenuity. However, West also writes some checks that it never fully cashes. It never really offers a concise reason why the killers want to kill the young filmmakers. This leaves its ambitious subplots of lost beauty and resentment of the youth somewhat unresolved.

Furthermore, West squeezes in another plot device in the waning moments of the film as if to take one last shot at being profound. When compared to another modern classic like Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses (2003) or an old one like Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) it leaves something yet be desired.

Still, X (2022) provides a wildly entertaining romp in an old Texas farmhouse and should provide a lot of fun for anyone looking a modern spin on the slasher formula.

Magdalena vom Teufel besessen (Magdalena Possessed by the Devil 1974) – #NineTenthsOfTheLaw

Overall: 3 out of 5 stars

This is the second in a series of articles looking at Eurocult films from the 1970s and 1980s that focus on a theme of diabolical/demonic possession.

The international popularity of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) provoked a slew of European horror films about diabolical possession; peaking in the mid-1970s, this subgenre slowly petered out at the end of the decade before becoming increasingly hybridised with other ‘lowbrow’ Eurocult subgenres (for example, the ‘nunsploitation’ film). Initially looking towards The Exorcist as their primary model, these films about diabolical possession sometimes also bore the influence of Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971), and, later on, Richard Donner’s The Omen (1976). These are their stories.

Magdalena vom Teufel besessen (1974) - Lobby Cards
Original lobby cards for Magdalena vom Teufel besessen

Magdalena vom Teufel besessen – Plot

After her grandfather is found murdered, crucified in an apparently ritualistic slaying, schoolgirl Magdalena (Dagmar Hedrich) experiences a change in temperament. The previously repressed teenager, a student at a boarding school, begins to display alarming behaviour. The school directress (Elisabeth Volkmann) and her assistant, Helen Price (Eva Kinsky), seek the assistance of Dr Werner (Peter Martin Urtel) and Father Conrad (Rudolf Schündler).

As Magdalena’s behaviour becomes increasingly vulgar, she is taken to the country house of Professor Falk (Werner Bruhns) for rest and relaxation—and for further investigation of what ails her. Falk is assisted by Dr Stone (Michael Hinz); thrown together, Magdalena and Stone begin to fall in love. Following an interlude in which the possessed Magdalena uses her sexuality to entice two men into committing murder over her, and after which Magdalena vows to claim that Stone has raped her, the demon possessing Magdalena is finally vanquished via the power of Christian prayer.

Critique

Released a mere six months after The Exorcist (Friedkin, 1973), Walter Boos’ Magdalena vom Teufel besessen (released in English-speaking territories as, variously, Magdalena Possessed by the Devil, The Devil’s Female, and Beyond the Darkness—the latter not to be confused with Joe D’Amato’s grisly 1979 Italo-horror film Buio Omega, also released in English as Beyond the Darkness) was one of the first wave of European imitators of William Friedkin’s iconic US horror picture.

The director of Magdalena was Walter Boos. Boos had begun his career as a film editor and assistant director before turning to directing features in the early 1970s. His directorial debut was the third Schoolgirl Report film, SchulmädchenReport 3. Teil: Was Eltern nicht mal ahnen (Schoolgirl Report 3: What Parents Find Unthinkable/Schoolgirls Growing Up, 1972), on which he shared the directorial credit with Ernst Hofbauer.

In the same year, Boos was responsible for no less than three similar sexploitation films: Die jungen Ausreißerinnen: Sex-Abenteuer deutscher Mädchen in aller Welt (Innocent Girls Abroad); Mädchen, die nach München kommen (Sex at the Olympics/The Swinging Coeds); and Krankenschwestern-Report (Nurses on the Job/Nurse’s Report/Nurse on Call).

Magdalena vom Tuefel besessen (1974) - The opening frames reveal Magdalena's grandfather brutally crucified in the streets
Magdalena’s grandfather hangs brutally crucified in the streets

The bulk of Boos’ body of work as a director of features (which was relatively short-lived, from those first pictures in 1972 to his final feature, Drei Schwedinnen auf der Reeperbahn—released on UK VHS as Nympho Girls—in 1980) consists of sexploitation films in a similar vein to the Schoolgirl Report films. Ostensibly a horror film, Magdalena, Possessed by the Devil is, at least superficially, the clear outlier in Boos’ filmography.

Magdalena’s script was by August Rieger, who only a few years previously had written the screenplay for Freddie Francis’ German-made horror-comedy Gebissen wird nur nachts: das Happening der Vampire (The Vampire Happening). Having written his first feature in 1951, Rieger was an experienced writer of features but was as equal a ‘noob’ to the horror genre as Boos: the bulk of the scripts Rieger had previously written were for comedies, thrillers, and adventure films—predominantly for West German films with limited to no international appeal or distribution, but occasionally for European co-productions (such as Mario Siciliano’s Sette baschi rossi, aka Congo Hell/The Red Berets/The Seven Red Berets, in 1968). Essentially, Rieger’s work as a scriptwriter followed whichever trends were popular in West German cinema at the time.

With such a pedigree, it’s unsurprising that Magdalena positions itself almost as much as a sexploitation picture as a horror film, with its themes intersecting as much with the Schoolgirl Report films (and their ilk) as with The Exorcist. The narrative quickly establishes its setting in a Catholic girls’ school (a familiar setting for West German sexploitation films of the early ‘70s) and seizes every available opportunity to present its lead actress, Dagmar Hedrich, in the nude. (Surprisingly, given the chutzpah she demonstrates in Magdalena, Hedrich apparently only appeared in two films—this, and as a German tourist in the obscure Brazilian film Férias No Sul, directed by Reynaldo Paes de Barros in 1967.)

In particular, there are two rather vivid scenes in which Magdalena is raped by an unseen force (which the viewer is led to believe is the demon that possesses her) that, in their staging, pre-empt Sidney J Furie’s much later horror film The Entity (1983). One of these is even filmed almost entirely from the point-of-view of the demon itself. In Furie’s film, of course, Barbara Hershey plays a woman who finds herself victimised sexually by an malevolent invisible entity. (Similar scenes also appear in Alberto De Martino’s Italian demonic possession film L’anticristo/The Antichrist, also released in 1974.)

Magdalena vom Teufel besessen (1974) - Magdalena writhes in demonic ecstasy
Magdalena writhes in demonic ecstasy in a visual that would of The Entity (1982)

Magdalena opens with the discovery, by a streetwalker, of the crucified corpse of Magdalena’s grandfather, Joseph Winter, whose death has occurred under seemingly ritualistic circumstances on Ash Wednesday: the victim’s larynx has been crushed, and a strange burn mark is found on his forehead. (Though not mentioned in the dialogue, this narrative event seems cognisant of the fact that Ash Wednesday is claimed to be the day on which pagan Druids would perform human sacrifice in order to ensure good crop yields.)

Following this, the film’s titles play out with an onscreen quotation from Pope Paul VI’s speech from the 15th of November, 1972, in which the Pope explored the nature of evil: “Wir alle stehen unter einer finsteren Herrschaft, der des Teufels, des Fursten dieser Welt, des Feindes Nummer eins. Deises dunkle und beunruhigenden Wesen gibt es wirk lich.” (“We are all under a dark rule, that of the devil, the prince of this world, enemy number one. These dark and disturbing beings are real.”)

With its subsequent scenes, Magdalena spends some time mulling about in the territory of the krimi (West German crime films), focusing on the investigation into Winter’s murder as the police interview various people who knew the victim—including his landlady, Mrs Baumer.

It’s Baumer who directs the police towards Winter’s granddaughter, Magdalena. An orphan whose parents were killed in an accident, Magdalena is shown performing the typical activities of a (screen) teenager: shopping for records, working part-time at a clothes shop, and dancing at a party. She is well-balanced and happy… except for the fact that she is regarded as frigid by her friends, who refer to her as the “vestral virgin.”

Magdalena’s classmates don’t share her reticence towards sex. “The poor thing’s so uptight she lives just like a nun,” one of Magdalena’s classmates observes; “That could never happen to us,” another girl responds, slipping her hand into the first girl’s knickers. This is simply the first of many scenes in Magdalena that wouldn’t be out of place in a contemporaneous entry into the Schoolgirl Report series—which throughout the rest of this article, is a phrase that will be used to encapsulate the general trends in various West German sexploitation pictures, which largely followed the lead set by the Schoolgirl Report series.

Magdalena vom Teufel besessen (1974) - Walter Boos also injects elements of German krimi (crime) films
Magdalena vom Teufel besessen also injects elements of German krimi (crime) films

Magdalena’s relationship with sex soon changes when she becomes the victim of demonic possession. The possession itself begins with the sound of buzzing flies, and strange growling sounds that Magdalena hears in her room at the school. Soon, she is wrestling on the floor with something invisible, and plotting to kill the cute terrier (named Alfie) who belongs to the school’s directress. (“That dog must die,” the possessed Magdalena mutters in reference to the cute pup.) The process of possession culminates in a scene in which Magdalena strips off her nightdress, writhing orgasmically on her bed as she is fucked by the invisible demon.

Later, in another sequence that wouldn’t be out of place as a vignette in a Schoolgirl Report film—aside from the manner in which the sequence concludes itself, that is—Magdalena runs away from the school. She hitches a ride in a vehicle driven by a young man. She falls asleep, and he sexually assaults her… but Magdalena is overcome by the demonic entity that possesses her, and she responds by attacking the young man, fracturing his arm and shoulder.

Once the possession of Magdalena manifests itself, the film returns to a familiar paradigm from European imitators of The Exorcist: scenes in which a representative of medicine (Dr Werner) and a man of the cloth (Father Conrad) debate the existence of evil. A medical investigation is performed (Magdalena is subjected to an electroencephalogram, this film’s equivalent of the angiography Regan undergoes in The Exorcist). Father Conrad has concluded that Magdalena is possessed. Meanwhile, Professor Falk believes Magdalena’s symptoms to veer between those associated with “hysteria to manic-depressive psychosis, or split personality, to signs of epilepsy, etcetera etcetera.” He denounces Conrad’s suggestion: “the Devil is not our domain,” Falk insists, adding that “I’m a doctor and a materialist.”

Magdalena vom Teufel besessen (1974) - Magdalena receives a brain-scan to figure out what causes her strange behaviors
It seems the gratuitous brains-scan scene made popular by demonic possession films did not escape Walter Boos

Later, Falk tells Conrad, “I can see you and I are diametrically opposed in the case. Medical science doesn’t accept that supernatural creatures can possess the soul.” The incoherence of this statement (that Falk, a man of science, talks about the soul, whilst denying that a supernatural entity can possess it) seems utterly unintentional—a case of unscientific science that wouldn’t be out of place in current times.

Notably, in the role of Father Conrad, Magdalena features the actor Rudolf Schündler. Schündler had played Karl Engstrom, the caretaker of the building in which Chris and Regan MacNeil live, in The Exorcist, and he would on to feature in a key Eurohorror film of the late-1970s, as Professor Milius in Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977).

The school itself, presided over by the directress and her assistant, Helen Price (named Hilde Price in the German-language version), is bedecked in primary colours and photographed using wide-angle lenses. At the heart of it is a spiral staircase where Magdalena’s strange behaviour is first noticed by her peers. In fact, the visual design of the school—not to mention the staging of the supernatural events of mysterious origin that take place within its walls—bears some presumably incidental similarities with the ballet school (the Tanz Dance Akademie) in the later Suspiria.

As in so many of these films, Magdalena’s possession manifests itself in vulgar language and increasingly sexualised behaviour. “I wanna fuck,” Magdalena tells Dr Werner when he arrives to inspect her, “Come on, put it in! Put it in!” To Father Conrad, she memorably rants: “I want to take communion, but not in my mouth—down here in my pussy, you dirty nunfucker.” If nothing else, these films can be counted on to offer some wonderfully quotable dialogue.

Like many of its contemporaries within the subgroup of European demonic possession films, Magdalena connects sex with the diabolical, with Dr Werner observing that Magdalena has been overcome with “a compulsion to use very offensive language, a compulsion to shout obscenities at the top of her lungs, an obsessive compulsion to make lascivious gestures.”

Magdalena vom Teufel besessen - Magdalena once again gets violated by a demon in a way that serves Boos' sexploitation goals as much as any narrative
Magdalena once again gets violated by a demon in a way that serves Boos’ sexploitation goals as much as any narrative

Like the Schoolgirl Report films, which were assembled from a series of vignettes, Magdalena is a film that features a number of interconnecting elements that don’t quite gel together in a completely convincing manner. Firstly, there is the influence of the krimi subgenre in the investigation into the murder of Magdalena’s grandfather. Then there is the suggestive Schoolgirl Report-style shenanigans that take place in the boarding school, culminating in the demonic rape and possession of Magdalena. This is followed by the dialectical conversations between Father Conrad and Professor Falk, and the medical investigation of Magdalena, which bears the film’s closest resemblance to The Exorcist. Finally, there is the movement to Professor Falk’s country retreat, with the romance between Magdalena and Dr Stone, and her murder of lusty local drunks.

Significantly, the film avoids the climactic exorcism that is the lynchpin of so many Euro imitators of The Exorcist. However, instead it turns Magdalena into a femme fatale who uses the lust of men to drive them to commit murder. Whilst staying at Falk’s country retreat, Magdalena sneaks out of the cottage at night and visits a local pub. There, she gives the “come hither” to a drunken patron, Robby, allowing him to touch her up before luring him to a deserted bowling alley. Then she returns to the pub, doing the same with Robby’s friend, George. (“Come on, stick it in me!” she tells George, “Fuck me.”) Inevitably, the two men confront one another, Magdalena goading them: “Let’s see which one is stronger. The winner gets me. I’m worth it too.” The outcome of this competition is that George kills Robby; Magdalena cackles like a witch and vanishes.

Again, this idea of a woman using her sexuality to drive an “innocent” man to kill his friend out of competitive lust, is a theme very much in line with the Schoolgirl Report films and other West German sex films of the 1970s. Men, these films often posit, cannot control themselves when there is a pretty girl around, reverting to crude animalistic behaviours. Elsewhere, Magdalena falls back on that old chestnut of shit-stirring femmes fatales of 1970s sex pictures—the false claim of sexual assault—when she tells Dr Stone, after he has helped her following a fall from her bicycle, “I think I’ll tell the professor that you were trying to rape me.” Not long afterwards, she follows through on this promise, engaging Stone in a kiss and canoodle session whilst she is naked, before strangling him with his necktie and screaming as if she is being assaulted.

Magdalena vom Teufel besessen (1974) - Some vomit peas soup, Magdalena vomits snakes
Some possessed vomit pea soup, Magdalena vomits snakes

In this context, it’s easy to see Magdalena vom Teufel besessen through 21st Century eyes and dismiss its caveman sexual politics as pretty definitively retrograde: men are, at their core, brutes who are unable to control their instincts; and women love to use their sexuality in order to lure men into a spirit of murderous competition. But in truth, such sexual politics seemed equally retrograde in the 1970s, during the era of the Women’s Lib movement.

Even the sequence in which Professor Falk hypnotises Magdalena is expressed in terms that are overtly Freudian. As Magdalena falls under the spell of Falk’s medical hypnosis, she goads him, “You just want me to pass out so you can fuck me, don’t you?” Hypnotised, she speaks in strange voices and other languages. Afterwards, Falk tells Conrad that Magdalena “acted exactly the way you described: gibberish, obscenities, bestial sounds; suddenly very feverish. But it was an unusual kind of excitation.”

As if to hammer home the Freudian subtext of this discussion of hypnosis—and equivalence that is drawn between the medical/religious investigation of a woman and sexual domination of her body and will—Falk concludes by stating that “I must one way another get to penetrate her subconscious.” “That’s what I want too,” Father Conrad tells him—but he aims to do this through prayer rather than the appliance of science.

When, shortly afterwards, Falk and Stone witness a naked Magdalena being sexually assaulted by the invisible demon (in a scene shot almost entirely from the demon’s point-of-view, and designed to titillate as much as horrify), Stone observes that “It looked as if some invisible creature was raping her.” In response, Falk suggests that Magdalena was “wrestling with her subconscious.”

Magadlena vom Teufel besessen (1974) - Walter Boos also explores the topic of religion versus medicine
Walter Boos also explores the topic of religion versus medicine

One of the key recurring themes of the Schoolgirl Report films was that of adolescent schoolgirls pursuing sexual relationships with male authority figures, and/or being sexually assaulted by older men. It’s perhaps fair to say that the 1970s have, particularly since the revelations regarding Jimmy Savile and other celebrities, come to be seen as a decade tainted by an emphasis on some privileged middle-aged men’s prurient interests in too-young girls. The Schoolgirl Report films pursued this cultural trend in the open and with gusto, albeit in scenarios that were absurd and with actresses who—as with US high school films of the 1980s and 1990s—were at least a decade older than the “schoolgirls” they were playing.

Nevertheless, the third film in the series—Boos’ directorial debut—was in the ‘00s condemned by the German censors and caused significant consternation when it was released on DVD by US label Impulse Pictures for its focus on rape and the sex lives of underaged folks. The cinematic pleasures of one era don’t always translate comfortably, or conveniently, to another.

All this is worth mentioning because a significant proportion of the scenes in the second half of Magdalena focus on a relationship that seems to be lifted straight out of the Schoolgirl Report playbook. Where her counterparts in the Schoolgirl Report films frequently became Hot for Teacher (Van Halen reference intended), after Magdalena has been taken to the cottage for treatment by Professor Falk and Dr Stone, she quickly becomes Hot for Doctor.

It isn’t long before Magdalena and Dr Stone develop a sexual relationship, which seems completely accepted by the other characters—regardless of the fact that Magdalena is both a schoolgirl and Stone’s patient. In fact, the film’s final moments see the “cured” Magdalena and Dr Stone walk off together, their relationship met with approval by Professor Falk and the others.

Magdalena vom Teufel besessen (1974) - VHS release covers
German VHS release cover (left). Canadian CIC release cover (right)

In this film, perhaps more than in some of the other European films about demonic possession, there is a clear association that is drawn between the articulation of female sexuality and the diabolical. The film suggests that women use their sexual power over men to lure them into committing acts of violence against others or against themselves. The medical investigation of “deviant” women requires dominating their body and will by “penetrating” their psyche.

Finally, in the film’s final moments, the demon is expelled from Magdalena’s body when Stone encourages her to recite a Christian prayer. A serpent—a creature that is both phallic and filled with religious connotations—writhes out of Magdalena’s mouth (in a truly disturbing moment), and Stone stamps on it. The serpent disappears, and Falk observes simply that “There are things between heaven and hell.”

What, precisely, those things are is never articulated directly.

What lingers in the mind about Magdalena vom Teufel besessen, aside from its emphasis on sex, are the lowkey effects used to suggest the demonic possession of the film’s titular character: a buzzing of flies on the soundtrack, an electronic hum, and makeup that—in comparison with the caked-on “demonic” makeup of many of its contemporaries—consists of little more than moisture on the face of Hedrich, to suggest a sweaty, glistening tone to her skin.

Release and Distribution

Outside West Germany, Magdalena had a theatrical release in a few countries, including the US, Japan, and France. The US cinema release was apparently cut, though the Canadian VHS release from CIC (as The Devil’s Female) was uncut. German videocassette releases were also uncut. In 2021, Magdalena vom Teufel besessen was released on Blu-ray by US label Dark Force Entertainment, in a presentation sourced from the film’s US internegative—but with the material trimmed from the US release patched in from a lesser-quality source.

Discourse Over Charred Remains – Faces of Death (1978)

In an attempt to test out a new format, we at Malevolent Dark are going to do a little back and forth on the topic of 1978’s forbidden fruit, Face of Death. Purported to jam packed with authentic scenes of real death and morbidity, this film beckoned those that frequent video store horror aisles. This film carries a gargantuan legacy, despite the fact that history has proven conclusively that large portions of the film were staged. Still, anyone growing up in the 80’s remembers this films infamy. In this article, fellow contributor, Zack Puckett and I will discuss this film and it merits… or lack thereof.

Faces of Death, the 1978 Original

Malevolent Dave

I’m a bit afraid to tell this story as it will likely reveal how old I really am. Faces of Death could only be found in one video store in the mid-size Illinois town that I grew up in. That one store willingly stocked the likes of Make Them Die Slowly and an assortment of Herschel Gordon Lewis goodies. I became very acquainted with Gorgon Video here. My friend and I must have asked at least 20 times to rent this film for our sleepovers. We received a resounding no. Then, inexplicably, we were able to break my friends mother down and finally, “uhhhh, fine. Grab it… Weirdos”.

We were finally going to see the ultimate taboo.

As we dove right in, the experience was nothing short of fascinating. Narrated by the ridiculous Francis B. Gross, this film seemed to be a news reel of death and macabre. At the time I was somewhere around the ages of 10-12. As far as we could tell, most of the footage looked real. However, ever for a young lad, other scenes strained credulity.

Faces of Death (1978) - Dr. Francis B. Gross
The monotone narrator, Dr. Francis B. Gross

Zack Puckett

It seems that our stories are similar at least in the fact that the video store is the first place to spot these elusive films in the wild. I remember going with my Dad to the lone Hollywood Video for our weekly horror movie rental. I was familiar with the 80s titles and most of the 90s due to having watched them over and over. These were in no way boring but I was then coming into an age of curiosity and exploration when it came to cinema.

We grabbed our movies and headed to the front after I had picked my Dad’s brain about every title I could possibly find. Then I looked to the bottom shelf behind a glass case and there was that infamous picture of the Grim Reaper staring back at me. This wasn’t the day I would set my hands on this film to take home but it sparked a fire of wonder.

I honestly don’t think I got to finally delve into these films until I was around nineteen or twenty. After finishing it, I did as much research on it and discovered the truth of the authenticity of most of the clips. Though partially real and mostly staged it still leaves a certain sinking feeling in your gut.

Malevolent Dave

So this raises an interesting point about research. When I first saw this film, 1985-1986, the ability to research was limited to old issues of “Famous Monsters” or “Fangoria”. I did have access to a modem and bulletin boards. Rumors of its authenticity, or lack thereof, were out there, but nobody could prove anything. Still, even as a kid I had my suspicions. Really, if you had a Satanic blood cult that centered its practices on the evisceration of a human subject, would let someone come and film… and then just leave?

Also, even as a youth, my fascination with Biology lead me to the conclusion that those weren’t real monkey brains.

Still, many of the scenes had been gleaned from local news reels. When coupled with the monotone narration of Dr. Francis B. Gross, it seemed that films purported mission had merit. I quite preferred this approach to that of some later ‘Death Clones’ like Traces of Death (1993). These films seemed to revel in the destruction whereas Faces of Death held a modicum of respect for the content they offered.

Faces of Death (1978) - One of the more disturbing scenes invloves the staged murder of a monkey
One of the more disturbing options involves the staged murder of a monkey

Zack Puckett

I do agree the infamous Satanic cult scene was one of the main giveaways to me that this film was a mixture of fake and authentic scenes. I also thought to myself how would he get away and why weren’t the police questioning him for their location. Anyways, yes it was very easy to research this after my first viewing. With smartphones available and the internet anywhere and everywhere it only took me a few minutes to reveal the truth.

I will also agree that the Traces of death definitely mocks death whereas Faces of Death doesn’t poke but is just informative. Other than tone, I do prefer the Traces films due to their authenticity and it has almost no re-used footage from other Shockumentaries released prior.

Malevolent Dark

Knowing how you look at movies, I am not surprised to hear you say that. You are a stickler for the extreme and authentic. I on the other hand much prefer the approach of Faces of Death. First and foremost, I have a hard time separating the movie from the state of my young mind when I first saw it. To the young mind, this was the craziest thing that I had ever seen, and I really thought I was partaking in a true underground experience. To contrast, I just recently witnessed the Traces of Death films. It seems that my tolerance for real death and suffering has gone down considerably, LOL.

For better or worse, it seems like these types of films have lost their relevance. For the most part, the Internet offers all too many places to find this type of material. And content gets created everyday. It’s all too interesting to think how far things have progressed. By that I mean that as a society we have moved from an obscure box on a video store shelf to live streaming of real death and destruction into our homes on demand. I wonder if we should be proud of that, but now I am starting to sound like Dr. Francis B. Gross.

Any last thoughts or standout moments in Faces of Death before we wrap this?

Faces of Death (1978) - The infamous execution scene
The infamous execution scene

 

Zack Puckett

Wow, I literally heard his voice when I read those words! I can understand where you are coming from. There are many films that have a nostalgic place in my mind as well. I myself found these films around the same time but these weren’t the first death scenes I had seen. Earlier you mentioned the internet making things more readily available to find. In my case, there were a few websites as a teen that did exactly that. They kind of prepared me for these types of film.

The standout scene for me, that I now know is fake, was the electric chair scene. I’m not gonna lie. That clip stayed burned into my mind  for a good while. It took me finding that it had been staged in a loft to get it out of my head.

I will give it to the Faces of Death Series that even though a lot was not all real. They still pack a punch and leave you feeling some type of way about death.

While I prefer some of the more authentic clones of Faces of Death I still hold this in high-esteem. 3.5 out of 5 stars

Malevolent Dave

Zack, I love the way you said, “They still pack a punch and leave you feeling some type of way about death”. I think that perfectly summarizes Face of Death. I think the scene that really sticks with me is still the monkey brains scene. First of all, I like monkeys, so I was all “WTF”. Second I could barely believe that someone would eat fresh monkey brains. Seems like a good way to get a tummy ache. As it turns out, my instincts were solid and the scene turned out to be fake. I’ll admit that I was tickled to see that very same scene replayed in Indian Jones and The Temple of Doom.

The truth of the matter is that Faces of Death represents a type of exploitative cinema that could only have been created in the time period in which it was. I suspect that it will feel very dated by modern audiences and likely will only appeal to those that want to delve into its dark world through as a study of the evolution of horror themed reality content. In that, it also acts as a time capsule. I fear all too much that through this exercise, I have revealed my age.

On pure nostalgia alone, I’ll give Face of Death a score of 3 out of 5 stars