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 – 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.
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.
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).
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.
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).
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.
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.”
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.)
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.
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.)
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.”
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.”
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.