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.
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.
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, 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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.