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 – 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.
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, Schulmädchen–Report 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).
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 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’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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.