Nine Tenths of the Law #6: L’osceno desiderio (Giulio Petroni, 1978)
This is the sixth 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.
After marrying Italian playboy Andrea Orsomandi (Chris Avram) following a whirlwind romance, American Amanda (Marisa Mell) returns with her new husband to one of his family villas. The couple discover that one of Andrea’s servants, Michele, has passed away and is lying in his coffin in the villa itself. The other servant, gardener Giovanni (Victor Israel), is an unsettlingly fawning presence.
In town, Andrea meets Peter Clark (Lou Castel), an anthropologist who is researching the folklore of the region. Clark is interested in Andrea’s villa because on the boundary of it sits a deconsecrated church—nicknamed “Malepartus” by the locals—that is claimed to be built on the gravesite of a woman who was executed for witchcraft, and who placed a curse on Andrea’s family. Giovanni warns Andrea not to have any contact with Clark. Meanwhile, someone is murdering prostitutes in the area.
Andrea seems to be either impotent or simply reluctant to engage in coitus with his wife, though he manages to make love to Amanda once; following this, Amanda becomes pregnant. However, during her pregnancy she is visited, and sexually assaulted, by an unseen entity. When Andrea and Amanda’s friends Rachel (Laura Trotter) and Fabio (Javier Escriva) arrive at the villa, and along with Giovanni engage in occult rituals, Clark approaches Andrea and suggests that the pregnant Amanda may be carrying within her something… demonic. Clark, who has revealed that he is in fact a priest, offers to exorcise Amanda and her unborn child.
Critique: “These families are more jealous of their past than they are of their present”
The director of Obscene Desire (L’osceno desiderio), Giulio Petroni, is chiefly remembered by Eurocult fans for the series of five Spaghetti Westerns he directed between 1967 and 1972. This run of Westerns was broken only by Petroni’s work on the sex comedy Non commettere atti impuri (Do Not Commit Adultery in 1975). Obscene Desire was to be Petroni’s penultimate film: his final feature, Il rivale, was produced 10 years later. However, by many accounts it seems Petroni’s final two feature films were considered somewhat distasteful by the director, who endeavoured to have the film he made prior to Obscene Desire, 1975’s Labbra di lurido blu (Lips of Lurid Blue)—a film of which he seems to have been particularly proud—considered as his “true” swansong.
Obscene Desire marries elements of the diabolical possession film, the giallo all’italiana, and Rosemary’s Baby. A subplot ripped straight from the giallo playbook features a mysterious, unseen killer who is fixated on murdering prostitutes. (The moderately graphic scenes featuring the killer picking up—and then murdering—these streetwalkers after forcing them to strip naked, are shot entirely from the murderer’s point-of-view.) Who is this killer, we might wonder: is it Andrea, or perhaps the visiting anthropologist Peter Clark? The murders also have a curious religious aspect to them, the killer using a knife to carve the sign of the cross on the chests of his victims, whilst reciting “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”
Obscene Desire trades largely on the status of its lead, the Austrian actress Marisa Mell, as a “sexpot” actress. Mell stars here as Amanda, an American in Italy who—as the narrative opens—has married a wealthy Italian man, Andrea, following a whirlwind romance.
In the 1960s, Mell had worked as a jobbing actress in European films (including several krimis made in West Germany), but found a breakthrough role as Eva Kant in Mario Bava’s fumetti/comic book adaptation Danger: Diabolik (1968). Settling in Italy, Mell experienced a tumultuous personal life, thanks to her highly public romantic relationship with aristocratic playboy Pier Luigi Torri, a nightclub owner who became an international fugitive owing to connections with the world of illegal narcotics and a $300 million bank fraud operation. Mell’s private life was further complicated by rumours of drug addiction, bad business choices, and a traumatic miscarriage (or, some said, secret abortion) in 1969. (At the time, Mell was involved with Torri, but the tabloids insinuated that she had fallen pregnant to another man—perhaps the actor Gianni Macchia, or the significantly younger musician Maurizio Libardo.)
In the 1970s, Mell continued to be a prolific presence in Italian genre films—from gialli all’italiana to poliziesco pictures. In 1976, in her late 30s, she posed for Italian Playboy. When she starred in Obscene Desire, Mell was almost 40—certainly pushing the upper age limit, in the late 1970s at least, for an actress known predominantly for her “sexpot” roles. As Amanda, she is given a short, pixie-esque hairdo; and in a key scene, the camera’s gaze is directed to Mell as she writhes naked on a bed, masturbating and groaning orgasmically as she is fucked (this writer tried in vain to find a more polite yet equally descriptive verb) by an invisible demonic presence.
This scene, in particular, plays on a fairly common trope in Eurocult films about demonic possession—which invariably feature a moment in which the lead actress is seduced or sexually assaulted by an unseen entity. However, Mell was, notably, significantly older than most of the actresses in these roles. The film’s “use” of Mell in this way is no less exploitative but is somewhat progressive inasmuch as it challenges the notion, held at the time and perhaps even today, that an actress such as Mell’s “sex appeal” bottoms out in her late 20s/early 30s.
The sexual assault on Amanda by the invisible demonic entity is offset by the film’s other major sex scene, which sees Amanda standing in a doorway and watching Andrea’s friends, Rachel and Fabio, as they make love. Again foregrounding female nudity (from Laura Trotter, who plays Rachel), this scene is filmed entirely (and absurdly) in slow-motion, and made even more offkey by the cutaways to Amanda which show that she is watching from a moderately well-lit position in the doorway of the room—and thus should, in theory, be entirely visible to the couple who seem completely unaware of Amanda’s presence. (The cross-cutting from Rachel and Fabio’s lovemaking to the emotionless Amanda is a classic example of the Kuleshov effect.)
There is another extended sequence of nudity, when the serial murderer picks up a prostitute, taking her back to the villa’s grounds, where she strips naked before she is attacked and killed; this scene is shot entirely from the killer’s point-of-view. The approach within Obscene Desire, then, treads into the realm of conventional Eurocult sexploitation—foregrounding female nudity but chaste in its depiction of male involvement in the sex scenes. The emphasis on sex, one might say, is hinted at by the film’s title, which was most certainly intended to draw in a sex film crowd.
Italian sex films of the 1970s were sometimes capable of conjuring up an otherworldly atmosphere: Joe D’Amato’s Le notti erotiche dei morti viventi (Erotic Nights of the Living Dead, 1979) is a particularly good example of this, with its eerie shots of the dead emerging from the sea and its suggestion that the film’s whole narrative is a fabrication in the mind of a masturbating mental hospital patient. Obscene Desire doesn’t quite reach the atmospheric heights of Joe D’Amato’s best pictures, but nevertheless Petroni invests his story with an impressively eerie sense of place. The bulk of the story takes place in Andrea’s villa, populated for the most part by Amanda, Andrea, and Andrea’s creepy gardener, Giovanni. There is also the matter of the corpse—of another Orsomandi family servant, Michele—that is laid out in its coffin when Amanda and Andrea arrive. It seems to be perpetually night, the villa riddled with nooks and crannies; the film’s evocative score, by Carlo Savina, is all piano and strings, and adds to the film’s quietly eerie texture.
On one level, at least in its opening sequences, Obscene Desire replays plot elements from both the folktale of Bluebeard, and Daphne Du Maurier’s 1938 Gothic novel Rebecca. Like the heroines of both of those tales, Amanda finds herself married to a man, Andrea, who has a dark, carefully-concealed secret. However, as the narrative progresses, it is revealed that Amanda has less to fear from Andrea, than from gardener Giovanni and the couple’s friends, Rachel and Fabio.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given its attempt at capturing a High Gothic atmosphere, for the bulk of its running time Obscene Desire consistently maintains a female point-of-view on its narrative. Petroni’s previous film, Lips of Lurid Blue, had also been told largely from a female perspective; and though Petroni’s attempts to get under the skin of his female characters can be criticised, there seems to be a genuine attempt in both of these pictures to tell a story from a woman’s perspective. However, the aforementioned scene in which Amanda has seemingly willing congress with an unseen demon challenges the audience’s identification with her: though she is the character through whom the narrative is focalised, in this scene we see her participating in an unholy ritual, this event causing the viewer to question how reliable Amanda’s perspective on the narrative is. (Later, under the influence of a spell enacted by Giovanni, Rachel, and Fabio, Amanda almost murders Peter Clark—who at that point in the narrative has been revealed to be a priest—with a knife.)
The film opens with narration by Amanda, explaining her recent marriage to Andrea and their decision to stay in one of his family villas. “I feel like a new chapter in my life has begun,” she intones in this voiceover. We see Amanda’s despair when her new husband refuses to sleep with her—using his grief at discovering the death of the family servant, Michele, as a pretext.
Chris Avram, the actor who plays Andrea, was familiar to fans of 1970s Eurocult cinema from roles in a number of mid-70s Spaghetti Westerns (including Edoardo Mulargia’s Viva! Django from 1971, and Michele Lupo’s 1977 film California), poliziesco pictures (Sergio Martino’s Milano trema: la polizia vuole giustizia / The Violent Professionals, 1973; Stelvio Massi’s Il commissario di ferro / The Iron Commissioner, 1978), and gialli all’italiana (Mario Bava’s Reazione a catena / Bay of Blood, 1971; Giuseppe Bennati’s L’assassino ha riservato nove poltrone / The Killer Reserved Nine Seats, 1974).
Here, Avram plays Andrea as a cold fish: he leaves his new bride, Amanda, alone for long periods of time, and refuses to make love to her. (The film suggests this is because he is impotent.) “I love you, I desire you, yet somehow I’m caught in some irrational terror,” Andrea confesses to his wife, “I feel like I’m going to contaminate you with something tainted inside me.” After they make love for the first, and only, time, Amanda falls pregnant; but it seems that Giovanni, Rachel, and Fabio’s malign interventions—not to mention the nocturnal visitations by the invisible entity—are what cause her pregnancy to turn diabolical.
Avram’s uptight performance as Andrea is offset by Lou Castel’s embodiment of the anthropologist Peter Clark as a relaxed and confident presence. First-time viewers might be led to believe that Clark and Amanda will become lovers, though this never happens. (Later in the film, it is revealed that Clark is in fact a priest.) Nevertheless, Giovanni’s “warnings” to Amanda—telling her to stay away from Clark—frame Clark as a possibly suspect in the murders that have been taking place in the area. Certainly, the killer’s intonation of the most well-known Trinitarian prayer (“…in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit”) after carving a crucifix into the chest of the sex worker he kills, seems connected to the later revelation that Clark is in fact a priest. However, this is all simply a form of misdirection, and Andrea is eventually shown to be the murderer.
Aside from his exorcism of Amanda at the film’s climax, Clark’s major role in the film is essentially to articulate to Amanda the folklore surrounding Andrea’s family, and the execution of the witch that took place on the land in the distant past. “These families are more jealous of their past than they are of their present,” Clark philosophically tells Amanda, also informing her (and the audience) that “witches were creatures that, plainly speaking, had made a pact with the Devil.” When asked by Amanda if he believes in evil, Clark responds simply that “The existence of the Devil has recently been confirmed by someone a lot more prestigious than me.” He is referring, of course, to Pope Paul VI’s assertion in 1972 that the Devil should be taken as a very real, rather than purely symbolic, entity. “If we accept the Devil as real,” Clark continues, “we also have to accept his power: nefarious but also limitless.”
Like Alberto De Martino’s earlier The Antichrist (L’anticristo, 1974), Obscene Desire depicts the execution of a witch in the past in order to provide parallels with the present. The witch, Clark informs Amanda, was a girl in the 15th Century with whom Marco, an ancestor of Andrea, had fallen in love. When it was discovered that this girl had made a pact with the Devil, she was tried as a witch and burnt at the stake. However, before she died she unleased a curse on Marco’s descendants: “Every love relationship they’ll embrace will be tainted by the shadow of sin.” Andrea, it seems, is an unknowing victim of the curse; its agents are Giovanni, Rachel, and Fabio, who conduct secret rituals in Giovanni’s quarters.
As the film builds to its climax, Clark and Andrea unearth the tomb of the witch in the grounds of the derelict church. Andrea expresses his desire to prevent the birth of “that monster,” and suggests he would also “rather see her [Amanda] die” in order to ensure “he never sees the light of day.” Here, Andrea’s fervour comes to the foreground, and Clark insinuates that he knows Andrea is the murderer who has been killing prostitutes. Andrea’s response to this leads into a dialectical exchange in which Clark and Andrea discuss the use of violence by the Church. “I wanted to free the world from their [his victims’] sins,” Andrea argues, “They were nothing but soulless animals [….] What about the Church? For centuries, they have eradicated sin and heresy using violence.” “They were only men killing in the name of God,” Clark responds by way of justification, “Anyone can make mistakes. But my faith sustains me. My faith compels me to fight Satan, not to kill.”
His identity as a priest having been revealed, Clark vows to exorcise Amanda. The protracted exorcism sequence replays some of the iconography of similar sequences in other Eurocult films about exorcism and diabolical possession—including a moment in which Amanda, the demon taking full possession of her corporeal body, licks her licks like a serpent. (This action is deeply reminiscent of a similar gesture performed by the possessed Ippolita in De Martino’s The Antichrist.) However, the film ends with Amanda and her newborn baby in an airport, the baby sporting the same triangular birthmark that the identified the witch in the flashbacks. The cultists (Giovanni, Rachel, Fabio) are saying goodbye to Amanda as she and her child head to the US. Before the film cuts to its credits, Rachel can be heard saying, “The USA really needed such a wonderful boy.”
Obscene Desire, then, is a film about repression and a clash of cultures. Like any good boozy cocktail, Petroni’s film consists of three ingredients: if the references to The Exorcist are the base of this Gothic cocktail, the influence of Rosemary’s Baby is the modifier, and the film’s final nod towards Richard Donner’s The Omen (1976) offers the colouring. Obscene Desire may seem somewhat unfocused at times (the detours into the territory of the giallo arguably detract from the main plot, and the protracted sex scenes bring the narrative to a halt), but nevertheless manages to conjure up an effective Gothic atmosphere thanks to some excellent performances, atmospheric location work and set design, and Savina’s eerie score.
Release and Distribution
A Italian-Spanish coproduction, Obscene Desire was released in both countries in December of 1978. VHS releases of the film seem to be few and far between, with copies in circulation being taken from one of the film’s Italian videocassette releases.