This is the first in a series of articles looking at Eurocult films from the 1970s and 1980s that focus on a theme of diabolical/demonic possession. The title of the series derives from the old maxim ‘Possession is Nine Tenths of the Law’.
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).
Un Urlo Dalle Tenebre, known under a variety of English-language titles (and referred to throughout much of this article by one of its most frequently used English monikers, Cries and Shadows), was one of the earliest and most obvious Italian imitators of The Exorcist. The film tells the story of Piero (or Peter, in the English version; played by Jean-Claude Vernè), a well-to-do young man who lives with his mother, Barbara (Françoise Prévost) and is preparing for university. Piero has a healthy relationship with his equally privileged girlfriend, Sherry (Sonia Viviani).
However, whilst visiting the Monte Gelato waterfalls with friends, Piero spots a naked woman (Mimma Monticelli) gyrating seductively at the top of the falls. Intrigued, Piero photographs her, but returning home he finds that her image isn’t on any of his negatives. He returns to the site and finds an amulet where the woman was standing; the amulet bears an inscription, ‘TAHAL’. Piero turns this amulet into a medallion, but soon discovers that the amulet has burnt its impression onto his chest.
Piero begins to act uncharacteristically, maliciously soaking Sherry’s dress with sparkling wine at her 18th birthday party. Following this, the sorceress appears to Piero in his bedroom and attempts to seduce him, or alternately goad him into attacking her. Piero leaps upon her and slits her throat; at a disco, miles away, Sherry collapses and dies from an identical injury. Subsequently, Piero becomes possessed by the sorceress, and at times seems to transform into her. Alternating between the two presences (his own, and that of the sorceress), Piero sexually assaults his mother, leading to her death.
A novice nun who has spent time working in a mental hospital, Piero’s sister, Elena (Patrizia Gori), fears that the family doctor (Guiseppe Tallarico) is pressing to have Piero institutionalised. She discovers that the location is linked to a coven of Satanists from the Eighteenth Century; Rites of Black Mass, presided over by a rogue priest, Johannes (Franco Garofalo, often credited by the Anglicised name ‘Frank Garfield’ and a familiar face to fans of Italian exploitation films of the 70s and 80s), were held. These rites involved the sorceress, who seduced a young woman, Anna (Elena Svevo).
Anna became pregnant with a child, which was named Tahal and claimed to be the son of Satan. Johannes and Anna were apprehended as heretics and burnt at the stake. Concerned for Piero and seeking a spiritual, rather than medical, end to his troubles, Elena approaches a priest (Filippo Perego) with Piero’s case, and an exorcist (Richard Conte) arrives from the US to expel the sorceress from Piero’s body.
The credited director on Cries and Shadows is Elo Pannacciò (the nickname of Angelo Pannacciò), though some sources also attribute the film to Franco Lo Cascio. Apparently, Lo Cascio started the film (under the pseudonym Franck K. Lucas) but left before production was completed, and Pannacciò stepped in to finish the shoot. A former assistant of Fernando di Leo, Lo Cascio would go on to become more well-known under the pseudonym ‘Luca Damiano’, the name he used whilst directing numerous hardcore features from the mid-1980s onwards (including XXX films based on the likes of Hamlet, The Decameron, and Snow White).
Lo Cascio actually appears in the film, in a small role as Piero’s photographer friend, who helps Piero develop the negatives from his expedition to the Monte Gelato waterfalls. Pannacciò, meanwhile, had begun his filmmaking career as a producer, and had quietly stepped into the role of director in 1972 with the western all’italiana Lo ammazzò come un cane… ma lui rideva ancora (Death Played the Flute) and the 1973 horror-sexploitation-giallo picture Il sesso della strega (Sex of the Witch).
Interestingly, the plot of the latter film has some passing similarities with that of Cries and Shadows: Sex of the Witch features a witch, Evelyn (Jessica Dublin), who uses her powers to control (read: possess) her niece, Ingrid (Annamaria Tornello)—who Evelyn transforms into a man (Sergio Ferrero). Both films share the theme of a witch/sorceress who possesses a young person, causing a Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde-type cross-gender transformation of the possessed individual.
Rushed into production in the wake of the Italian release of The Exorcist (in September, 1974), Un Urlo Dalle Tenebre began production under the working title of L’esorcista no. 2 …e il mio grido giunga a te (‘The Exorcist 2 … and My Cry Reaches You’): fotobusta exist bearing both this title and the directorial credit for ‘Franck K. Lucas’. The film was shot in Rome and Viterbo during November of 1974, and released in Italy in August of 1975.
When completed Cries and Shadows was retitled Un Urlo Dalle Tenebre (‘A Cry from the Darkness’) for Italian distribution; and in English-speaking territories, the picture was distributed under a confusing plethora of titles. These included, in the UK, Naked Exorcism (for its 1977 cinema release), The Return of the Exorcist (for its pre-cert VHS release from Iver Film Services), and The Exorcist III: Cries and Shadows (for its pre-cert VHS release from HBL Video); and in the US, The Possessor and The Return of the Exorcist.
In the mid-1970s, Italian horror cinema began to turn away from the Gothic tradition with which it had been associated in the 1960s through the work of filmmakers such as Mario Bava, Riccardo Freda, and Antonio Margheriti. In fact, the diabolical possession films of the 1970s, in particular, are generally regarded as a ‘pollution’ of the Gothic trend in Italian horror cinema specifically: this perception of the diabolical possession film’s position within Italian genre cinema is often embodied in the mangling, by producer Alfredo Leone and via reshoots and edits, of Mario Bava’s high Gothic masterpiece Lisa e diavolo (Lisa and the Devil, 1973) into the widely-mocked possession-themed La casa dell’esorcismo (House of Exorcism, 1974).
Like British horror cinema during the fag end of Hammer’s horror output in the early 1970s, Italian horror films became fixated with the present rather than the past, and often featured mundane and contemporary urban settings as opposed to locations with high Gothic atmosphere. The films increasingly focused on middle-class families that are ripped apart; and in a nod towards anxieties about young people being corrupted by both crime and extreme political ideologies (both on the Left and the Right), tended to feature young people ‘acting out’ under the influence of otherworldly entities.
Framed in this way, it’s important to remember that these films were made in a decade that was reeling from the actions of both Far Left and Neo-Fascist terrorist groups such as the Brigate Rossi and the Nuclei Armati, and events such as the Circeo Massacre—in which three young men from privileged backgrounds abducted and tortured two young women from working class backgrounds. (The Circeo Massacre was a crime motivated equally by misogyny and classism.)
Though like many Italian horror films of the 1970s, Cries and Shadows does much to exorcise the Gothic stylings of the likes of Bava and Margheriti (in favour of a more contemporary, Americanised influence), notably the film uses some of the same locations as Bava’s highly-regarded mid-60s Gothic horror picture Operazione Paura (Kill, Baby… Kill!, 1966), including the hilltop village of Calcata in the Province of Viterbo.
In a memorable scene, Piero—prior to falling completely under the influence of the sorceress—pursues a mysterious figure through the winding alleyways of Calcata, only to come face to face with something horrible: the sequence functions as a pastiche of Father Karras’ (Jason Miller) dream from The Exorcist, in which he sees his elderly, ailing mother in the streets of New York City; but in its staging it also recalls Bava’s use of Calcata’s ancient streets. (Parallels may also be drawn with Donald Sutherland’s pursuit of his daughter’s ‘ghost’ through the streets of Venice in Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973).)
The majority of European films about diabolical possession featured young women as the targets of possession, though for the most part these young women were significantly older than Regan (Linda Blair) in The Exorcist. This adjustment upwards in the age of the possessed individuals (in comparison with the 12-year-old Regan) enabled the filmmakers to work more exploitative sexual elements into their films: the possessed individuals in these films invariably ‘act out’ by performing explicit sex acts on themselves or other people.
Cries and Shadows deviates from this template somewhat by featuring a young male, Piero, as the target of diabolical possession; though in truth, Piero is possessed by a female witch/sorceress (Mimma Monticelli), who inhabits Piero’s body from time to time and provides the film with the requisite amount of naked female flesh. The film offers a classic Madonna/Whore dichotomy: the naked sorceress appears to Piero at the Monte Gelato waterfalls, gyrating seductively in an attempt to seduce him, and she ensures that Piero’s pure, virginal adolescent girlfriend Sherry is dispatched before she can possess Piero fully.
The sorceress functions essentially as a femme fatale, and once she has possessed Piero she uses his corporeal body to sexually assault both Piero’s mother and sister: the latter act is an assault not just upon the family, but also upon the Catholic faith that Elena, as a novice nun, represents. (‘You love it, you lecherous sow’, Piero/the succubus growls as s/he assaults Barbara; whilst pawing Elena, Piero/the succubus intones, ‘Come, you bitch in heat. Your virginity is mine!’)
The film opens with a public mass held in St Peter’s Square, Rome. The mass is filmed in a cinéma vérité style, the handheld camera weaving through the throng of people gathered in the square, picking out individual faces briefly only to swiftly move on. The sheer scale of the gathering suggests an important papal event. On the soundtrack we hear a priest delivering a speech, telling the gathered crowds to banish the Devil from their hearts: ‘Blinded by pride, some would try to convince us that the Devil ceases to exist’, he tells the gathered crowd.
Shots of the crowd are intercut with brief fragments of a scene showing the possessed Piero tied to his bedposts in preparation for the exorcism that takes place in the film’s climax. He speaks in tongues and growls in a feral manner. ‘I hate you! I hate you!’, he intones—seemingly as much to the film’s audience as to anyone else.
The shots of the indubitably possessed Piero act as a validation of what the priest is telling the crowd in St Peter’s Square. In Catholic countries, exploitation films about diabolical possession were only considered acceptable because of the long-term modernisation of the Catholic Church that took place following the opening of the Second Vatican Council in 1962; this sparked a liberalisation of depictions of Catholicism within Italian cinema, in particular, and enabled the exploration in popular cinema of themes of possession, alongside the growth of other exploitative faith-focused genres of the 1970s, such as the nunsploitation film.
Nevertheless, in Italy during the 1970s, films about diabolical possession were still often subjected to cuts for supposed blasphemy. (One of the cuts made to Cries and Shadows before its release to Italian audiences was to the juxtaposition, in one of the Black Mass flashbacks, of the chalice and the naked, writhing body of Mimma Monticelli; this juxtaposition was deemed to be blasphemous, and therefore the scene was abbreviated.)
This is ironic inasmuch as the Italian diabolical possession films of the 1970s, in particular, pretty much act as a validation of the Catholic Church and its teachings: they suggest that diabolical evil does indeed exist, that diabolical possession is associated with a ‘sinful’ life (ie, lustful, lecherous, prideful, and gluttonous behaviour), and must be cast out by an appropriate member of the Church (an ordained exorcist). In effect, these films are to the Catholic Church and priesthood what the Top Gun movies are to Lockheed-Martin and US Navy recruitment.
The gathering in the opening sequence of Cries and Shadows is further contrasted in the editing with the Black Mass presided over by the rogue priest Johannes in the Eighteenth Century; a not-so-subtle equivalence is drawn between the enactment of the Catholic faith taking place in St Peter’s Square in the present, and its inversion in the Satanic gathering that is depicted as taking place in secret during the past.
The Black Mass is staged as a perversion of the Eucharist, rogue priest Johannes addressing the assembled Satanists from behind an altar and whilst holding a chalice. ‘Liberate us’, Johannes pleads to Satan, ‘Make the timid brave. Thou art the liberator of man [….] Fill our hearts with violence and perversion’.
This slightly confusing overlapping of past and present, without any clear signifiers to differentiate the two, continues throughout the rest of the film, which features a moderately complex non-linear narrative structure. Following the aforementioned opening sequence, the film proper begins in the present, with Elena engaged in conversation with the family doctor. The doctor wishes to have Piero institutionalised, stating that Elena’s brother is suffering from incurable hysteria.
However, Elena believes that something more sinister is at work, and she seeks the help of the priest who eventually puts her in contact with the exorcist: the film builds towards a climax in which the exorcist arrives from the US by boat, and in an extended sequence exorcises Piero—who has been tethered to his bedposts, as in the brief flashes to the possessed Piero that are seen in the opening sequence.
In the midst of this, however, are extended flashbacks to Piero’s encounter with the sorceress at the waterfall, his discovery of the amulet, and the deaths of both Sherry and Barbara. Complicating this further are semi-regular flashbacks to the events that took place in the Eighteenth Century (the Black Mass presided over by Johannes and the sorceress, the sorceress’ seduction of Anna, and the Satanists’ orgy).
The diegetic present (Elena’s search for help for her brother) and the recent past (Piero’s possession by the sorceress) are intermingled with the distant events of the Eighteenth Century—to a degree that is fairly confusing until the timescale of the events is clarified via dialogue later in the narrative.
The intent of this intercutting of past and present is to clearly to shock in terms of the juxtaposition of Christian rites with those of the Satanists: Barbara’s funeral, for example, and the priest’s delivery of rites in Latin, is intercut with the blasphemous Satanists’ orgy from the distant past.
As in the majority of films about diabolical possession, medicine and faith are placed in opposition to one another: a medical diagnosis is proffered, which is rejected in favour of a suggestion that the possessed individual is under diabolical influence. Piero’s family doctor suggests that Piero’s behaviour is ‘a case of hysteria’ and insists that Piero would be best placed in a psychiatric hospital. Elena, on the other hand, believes that something more diabolical is behind Piero’s actions; she has also first-hand experience of a mental hospital, having toiled in one in her role as a novice nun, and tells the doctor ‘They’re like Hell on Earth’.
In validation of Elena’s point-of-view on mental hospitals, the film cuts to documentary-like footage of a women’s asylum: presented as a flashback from Elena’s perspective, this material is clearly identifiable as recycled footage owing to the transition into a different kind of film stock (and the fact that the footage is worn and degraded). The female patients are shown in states of disarray, weaping and tearing at one another.
Though these scenes of the women’s asylum—which are also inserted into later sequences within Cries and Shadows—have the texture of documentary footage (in the vein of Frederick Wiseman’s 1967 documentary Titicut Follies), they are in fact from a narrative feature. The asylum scenes are recycled from La casa delle mele mature (‘The House of Ripe Apples’; Pino Tosini, 1971): a ghost story, produced by Pannacciò, in which an asylum played a key role.
This footage was shot at a genuine mental hospital near Reggio Emilia. (During production of La casa delle mele mature, one of the lead actresses, Marcelle Michelangeli, was reputedly overcome by the levels of hysteria she was asked to perform as part of her role, to the point that she was sedated and taken as a patient in the asylum.)
After Elena seeks the help of the priest, he and the doctor are shown in conversation with one another. The dialogue between them is openly dialectical. The priest suggests that Piero is possessed; the doctor argues that Piero is suffering from hysteria. ‘I’m a scientific man’, the doctor tells the priest, ‘This sounds just like the Middle Ages’. In response, the priest tells the doctor, ‘You scientific men think only of scientific methods’.
As in most, if not all, diabolical possession films, though Cries and Shadows offers a dialogue between science and faith, ultimately the film validates the Church’s position on the existence of evil and draws an equivalence between mental illness and diabolical possession.
This juxtaposition of medicine and faith is simply one of many narrative and thematic beats that Pannacciò borrows from The Exorcist. Following a narrative pattern established in Friedkin’s film, the possessed individual’s malignancy manifests itself directly during a soirée—Sherry’s 18th birthday party—in which the possessed individual confronts/shatters polite taboos: here, this is when Piero pours sparkling wine over Sherry’s chest. (In the equivalent scene in The Exorcist, of course, Regan pisses on the floor at one of her mother’s gatherings and tells an attendee, an astronaut, that ‘You’re gonna die up there!’)
Also as with The Exorcist, there is a found objet d’art that is associated with diabolical possessions: in The Exorcist, of course, this is the statue of Pazuzu that Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow) encounters during the archaeological dig in Iraq; in Pannacciò’s film, this object is the talisman bearing the inscription ‘TAHAL’ that Piero finds at the waterfall. Following his possession, Piero is—like Regan in The Exorcist—subjected to high-tech medical scans. And like Regan too, Piero is the object of an exorcism that takes place at the film’s climax.
However, in Cries and Shadows the exorcising priest is accompanied solely by Elena—as opposed to the teaming of an experienced (Merrin) and novice (Karras) priest in The Exorcist.
The exorcist in Cries and Shadow remains nameless. Disembarking from a ship at the port of Civitavecchia during dusk, with his priest’s garb topped by a black fedora, his silhouette is intentionally similar to that of Merrin on the iconic poster for Friedkin’s The Exorcist. The film presents us with a montage of shots depicting the exorcist walking through the streets, whilst on the soundtrack he narrates about Holiness, depravity, and Satan; the exorcist’s approach is intercut with shots of the bound Piero, who growls and spits foul epithets in anticipation of the exorcist’s arrival.
‘Foul priest. Go and lick your Master’s feet’, Piero hisses at the exorcist when he arrives: ‘Bastard! Accursed priest!’ As the exorcism commences, Piero’s venomous rants continue: ‘Get away from me: I cannot stand the putrid stench of your garments’, he spits, ‘Go back to the mire you came from, you cheat!’ (This writer’s personal favourite of these verbal assaults on the exorcist is Piero’s declaration, ‘I spit on you, and all your mumbo-jumbo!’)
The role of the exorcist in Cries and Shadows was the last screen performance of Hollywood actor Richard Conte, who in the years prior had appeared in a number of Italian genre films—from poliziesco pictures such as Fernando di Leo’s l poliziotto è marcio (Shoot First, Die Later, 1974) and Marino Girolami’s Roma violenta (Violent Rome, 1975), to thrillers like Malocchio (The Evil Eye; Mario Siciliano, 1975).
Conte plays the exorcist as a somewhat sad character who bears the weight of the world on his shoulders. Whilst it is, in its staging, clearly derivative of the exorcism in Friedkin’s movel, the climactic exorcism in this film is actually quite disturbing in its own right, particularly owing to the sound design.
The bed squeaks and creaks, then floats and rocks, as Piero writhes against the bindings that fasten him to the bedposts. Without moving his lips, he growls and the demon speaks through him in a guttural, croaking groan. (It’s worth noting that this isn’t simply a case of the actor’s lip movements not matching the English dub; it’s equally true of the Italian language versions.)
At the climax of the film, the dialogue from both the exorcist and Elena references Christ’s exorcism of the Gerasene demoniac, in which Christ expelled a multitude of demons (‘Legion’) into a herd of pigs which were then rushed down a steep bank into the sea and drowned. This tale worked its way into William Peter Blatty’s 1983 book Legion, the sequel to his original novel The Exorcist. The idea of casting the possessing entity out of the possessed subject and into another individual, who then commits suicide in order to put an end to the diabolical shenanigans, is pertinent to the majority of films about diabolical possession.
At the end of The Exorcist, of course, Father Karras takes the demon Pazuzu into his body before throwing himself down the flight of steps. Similarly, in Cries and Shadows (and there are huge ‘spoilers’ for the end of the film in the rest of this paragraph) the spirit of the sorceress leaves Piero and enters his sister Elena; in order to expel the demon, she hurls herself from the high walls of Calcata. In the film’s final sequence, a young boy named Paul is shown finding the amulet at the Monte Gelato waterfalls, before his mother (offscreen) tells him it’s time to leave. The implication is that the cycle of possession will begin again.
Release and Distribution
In Italy, Un Urlo Dalle Tenebre was released theatrically with cuts to: the writhing of the naked Monticelli during the Black Mass (considered blasphemous in the manner in which it was intercut with shots of the chalice); the moment in which Monticelli appears to Piero in his bedroom and exposes her crotch to him; the scene in which Piero/Monticelli sexually assaults Piero’s mother; the scene in which Piero sexually assaults his sister, Elena; and the flashback to the orgy. (However, inexplicably, the Italian VHS release from Golden Video and Easy Video was uncut.)
The UK cinema release, as Naked Exorcism in 1977, appears to have been uncut (with a running time of 90 mins exactly). Rumours persist of a version of the film that features hardcore inserts, but there is no firm evidence of this (if the reader will pardon the pun).
Un Urlo Dalle Tenebre has a confusing and frustrating history of home video releases. Aside from the sheer variety of titles by which the film is known, numerous edits of the film have been available on home video at one time or another, some omitting up to 10 minutes of footage. For a long time, the best home video release was a videocassette release from Japan, which was uncut and letterboxed—but featured optical censorship (obscuring Monticelli’s pubic hair) and Japanese subtitles.
In 2020, a much more pleasing, letterboxed, and Italian-language version of the film was screened on the Italian television channel Cine24, though this version was subjected to five minutes of cuts that replicated, and extended, the cuts made to the Italian cinema release. (Subjected to particularly heavy trims were the flashbacks to the Black Mass.)
Worth mentioning is the brilliantly atmospheric soundtrack by Giuliano Sorgini, which at times—in its use of female groans and cries embedded into the scoring—recalls Sorgini’s well-regarded score for Jorge Grau’s zombie film Non si deve profanare il sonno dei morti (The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue; 1974).