L’ossessa (Enter the Devil / The Eerie Midnight Horror Show / The Devil Obsession / The Tormented / Obsessed / Sexorcist!, 1974) – #NineTenthsOfTheLaw

Overall: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Nine Tenths of the Law #4: L’ossessa (Mario Gariazzo, 1974)

This is the fourth 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.

L'ossessa (1974) - A statue of a crucified man is rescued from a derelict church
A statue of a crucified man is rescued from an abandoned church

Plot

Art student Danila (Stella Carnacina) comes from a privileged but unstable background. Her impotent father, Mario (Chris Avram), is regularly cuckolded by Danila’s mother, Luisa (Lucretia Love), who openly indulges in in kinky S/M sessions with her lover (Gabriele Tinti) during which he whips her naked body with the thorny stems of roses.

Danila is assisting with the purchase and restoration of a life-sized statue, of a crucified figure, taken from a deconsecrated and derelict church. Working in her studio late one night, the statue comes to life and presents itself as a man (played by Ivan Rassimov); he rapes Danila.

L'ossessa (1974) - Danila assists in the restoration of the statue
Danial helps procure and restore the statue of the crucified man

Danila’s behaviour becomes more outrageous (and focused on masturbation). Concerned, Danila’s parents and her boyfriend Carlo (Gianrico Tondinelli) seek the help of a medical doctor, Doctor Harris (Giuseppe Addobbati). He suggests they spend some time in the country, but when Danila stops off at an ancient Etruscan temple that was rumoured to be the site of orgies and sacrificial rites, she experiences a vision in which she witnesses the diabolical entity from the statue presiding over a Satanic ritual—which involves the sacrifice of a naked young woman, and the drinking of her blood from a goblet.

Following further investigations, Doctor Harris is perplexed but suggests to Danila’s parents that they may wish to consult a priest. The priest recommends that Danila be taken to then convent of Our Lady of Sorrow to meet an exorcist, Father Xeno (Luigi Pistilli).

L'ossessa (1974) - The statue holds a spell over Danila
The statue is a vessel of evil ready to impose its will on Danila

Critique: “It’s only the invention of priests”

Though he’s often dismissed as a filmmaker associated with simple sexploitation films, the director of Enter the Devil, Mario Gariazzo, has a body of work that is remarkably diverse. His first film was the 1962 picture Lasciapassare per il morto (Passport for a Corpse), an inventive and claustrophobic thriller in which a fugitive (played by Alberto Lupo) masquerades as a corpse in order to cross the border into France. Subsequent to this, Gariazzo directed Italo-Westerns (Dio perdoni la mia pistola / God Will Forgive My Pistol, 1969; Acquasanta Joe, 1971), poliziesco pictures (La mano spietata della legge / The Law Enforcers, 1973), lacrima (“tearjerker”) films (Il venditore di palloncini / Last Moments, 1974), and science-fiction pictures (Occhi dalle stella / Eyes Behind the Stars, 1978).

Gariazzo’s broader reputation as a director of sex pictures, however, rests on a relatively small number of films: the SF sex-parody Incontri molto… ravvicinati del quarto tipo (Very Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind / The Coming of Aliens, 1978), the explicit giallo all’italiana (also released with hardcore inserts) Play Motel (1979)… and Enter the Devil.

L'ossessa (1974) - The statue rises in the form of a demon personified
The statue rises as a demon ready to take Danila into its arms

The statue that Danila is helping to restore is bought from a deconsecrated church, and is intended to represent one of the thieves crucified with Christ. Danila visits the church with her employer; it is derelict, and behind the space where the altar should be are two life-sized statues of crucified figures. Danila is told that the statue of Christ, which should be placed in the centre of these two figures, is missing because it has already been sold. On Danila’s advice, her employer chooses to buy one of these statues: though not mentioned explicitly in the dialogue, it is clear that the statue is a representation of Gestas, the impenitent thief or “bad thief” who was crucified alongside Christ. The other statue, we may assume, is meant to represent Dismas, the penitent thief who was crucified on the other side of Christ.

In the Gospel of Luke, when the crucified Christ is mocked by the priests for claiming to be the Messiah, Dismas seeks penitence for his sins (hence the reference to him as the “penitent thief”) and asks for Jesus’ forgiveness. On the other hand, Gestas—the “impenitent thief”—joins in with the mocking of Jesus. In artistic representations of the event, such as Hans von Tobingen’s 1430 painting “Crucifixion,” Gestas is often depicted alongside a Devil: his lack of penitence associates him with the deviant, criminal, and potentially diabolical.

L'ossessa (1974) - Frequent horror icon Ivan Rassimov plays the living statue and possessor
Ivan Rassimov, frequent horror icon, takes Danila and plants his seed of evil

Of course, taking their cue from William Friedkin’s The Exorcist and its foregrounding of the statue of Pazuzu that Father Merrin finds in Iraq, many Eurocult films about demonic possession feature diabolical objets d’art. Enter the Devil’s focus on religious art also anticipates Pupi Avati’s atmospheric 1976 giallo all’italiana La casa dalle finestre che ridono (The House with Laughing Windows): the narrative of Avati’s picture focuses on a young man, Stefano (Lino Capolicchio), who is sent to a remote village in Northern Italy to restore a fresco that depicts the death of St Sebastian. In both films, the respective depictions of religious agony are referred to as surprisingly lifelike: “A sculpture of marble and wood can have life as much as any human being,” Danila asserts in reference to the verisimilitude of the statue of Gestas, later suggesting that the artist “poured his soul into creating this one.”

All of this, of course, means that the statue of Gestas—which we are told dates from the 15th Century—represents a Bad Dude, one who is unrepentant (impenitent) and allied with dark forces. Inspecting the statues in the church, Danila is told that an elderly lady who viewed them the previous year referred to them as “the work of the Devil.” The church in which the statues were situated was deconsecrated because a century earlier, locals were claimed to have held orgies and practiced dark rites in the building.

L'ossessa (1974) - A woman presides over the Satanic sacrifice of young woman
A woman presides over the sacrifice of a young woman

The statue thus has an association with “unwholesome” sex: Danila’s friend observes that “It’s hard to tell from his expression whether he’s been organising or refusing to join in the orgies. It’s an incredible combination: power, passion, and misery.” Meanwhile, in her relationship with Carlo, Danila is presented as sexually reserved, if not “frigid”: her issues with sex appear to stem from her parents’ strange relationship. Her father is impotent, and her mother, Luisa, is openly involved in an affair with another man; Danila has witnessed this man whipping her mother’s naked body with the thorny stems of roses, leaving her flesh torn and bleeding.

Rose flagellation may or may not be a part of modern S/M—but it’s worth remembering that within Catholicism, roses are associated with martyrdom and, in particular, the suffering of Christ: the petals of a rose symbolise Christ’s wounds from the Crucifixion, and the colour of the flower’s petals represents Christ’s blood. Thus Luisa and her lover’s sex play links directly to the religious themes explored in the film. The scarring of Luisa’s torso finds its echo later in the film when, after Danila has been possessed by the demonic entity, her parents find her masturbating wildly and scratching at her own abdomen with her fingernails: she has been tainted by the same insatiable sexual desire as her mother.

L'ossessa (1974) - An ancient Satanic coven holds a demonic ceremony
An ancient Satanic coven holds a demonic ceremony for Ivan Rassimov’s character

As Danila’s situation deteriorates, the church tries to intervene after Danila has accidentally witnessed the sexual liaison between Luisa and her lover, in an upstairs room of her parents’ house during one of their seemingly regular soirees, that the statue in Danila’s studio comes to life and rapes her. As Danila is working on restoring a painting, the statue is presented in the foreground—laid on a slab—and slightly out of focus, the plane of focus resting on Danila in the background; a reverse shot inverts this composition, with Danila in the foreground and the statue in the background. Whilst Danila busies herself, the statue comes alive. The effect is not dissimilar to the moment in John Carpenter’s The Thing during which Bennings (Peter Maloney) is clearing out one of the storage rooms in the Antarctic base whilst the seemingly dormant remains of the titular “thing” come to life, slightly out of focus, in the foreground of the composition.

Eventually, the statue rises from the slab on which it has been laid, tears off Danila’s dress and rapes her whilst outside, a violent storm erupts—and the wooden cross catches fire. Afterwards, Danila comes to and discovers herself in front of the painting; the statue is back on the table where it was placed, the cross intact.

L'ossessa (1974) - Father Xeno must confront both his faith and his carnal desire for Danila
Father Xeno must confront both his faith and his carnal desire for Danila

Adding to the sense of transgression is the implication that though the scene begins as a sexual assault, at some point Danila begins to experience sexual pleasure from the encounter. Positioned immediately after Danila’s accidental witnessing of her mother’s sex play, the rape of Danila by the living statue seems intended to be read as an outgrowth of the repressed Danila’s knowledge of her mother’s sexual peccadilloes. The scene that follows the assault, in which Danila comes to in the studio—and the statue is once again in its place on the slab—reinforces this through the suggestion that Danila’s experience was nothing more than a daydream—a fantasy of a young woman whose perception of sex has been impacted by her own repression, and by the “deviant” behaviour of her sexually self-indulgent mother.

Subsequently, Danila senses herself to be stalked by the statue. Ascending the winding stairs to her flat, she hears the sighing of the statue and footsteps following her up the stairs. From the shadows, a voice calls her name. However, it’s unclear whether Danila’s experiences have any objective truth to them—or whether she is, once again, simply imagining this scenario. It’s a scene that plays on female paranoia about men, and the association of masculinity with “predatory” behaviour. In her flat, Danila hears strange, occult chanting and screams; then she begins to writhe and groan in sexual ecstasy, masturbating vigorously whilst standing against the door to her flat. Her encounter with the “living” statue of Gestas has pushed Danila, psychically, into a realm of sexual excess.

L'ossessa (1974) - Danila becomes increasingly unhinged
Danila becomes increasingly unhinged

Along with the tearing out and eating of the victims’ own hair, in Enter the Devil female masturbation seems to be the chief symptom of demonic possession. Shortly after the scene described above, Danila’s parents find her in bed, masturbating so furiously that she leaves scratch marks on her abdomen: as noted above, these marks mimic the scratches on Luisa’s body following her S/M session with her lover. Again, the film reinforces the notion that Danila’s demonic encounter has its roots in her accidental witnessing of her mother’s kinky sex play. (Reinforcing this sense of demonic transgression being linked to the sexual transgressions of Luisa, later in the film Luisa tells her husband that “I need someone that goes beyond the rules that you set out.”)

Following this, Danila attempts to seduce her father. Numerous subsequent Eurocult films about demonic possession confront the incest taboo by featuring young women who, under diabolical influence, attempt to seduce an older male relative. (The most explicit example of this trend is perhaps Andrea Bianchi’s 1979 film Malabimba, which will be discussed in more detail in a later instalment of this series of articles.) “Why don’t you try it too, daddy?” Danila asks her father, “Or are you afraid it’ll all be wrong? There’s no such thing as incest: it’s only the invention of priests.”

For Danila’s father, Danila’s behaviour increasingly shows signs of being modelled on the sexual licentiousness displayed by her mother: he accuses Luisa of knowing that Danila was “born with your foul blood in her veins, so she would turn out like you.” He adds that “I love that girl of mine […] so much that I’d kill her rather than see her become a creature like you.”

L'ossessa (1974) - Danila goes full demon in the final conflict
Danila goes full demon in the final conflict

When Danila’s parents are finally convinced to consult a priest, they (and the film’s audience) are reminded of the scorn with which the Church was (and is) regarded: “Unfortunately, people doubt anything to do with religion today,” the priest tells them, “They laugh at it, even.” In a line that echoes throughout so many Eurocult films about demonic possession—not to mention other contemporaneous genres in Italian cinema from the Years of Lead, such as the poliziesco films of the mid-1970s—the priest admits that “the young people of today are very much in need of spiritual guidance.”

The climax of Enter the Devil begins with Danila’s family’s movement to the convent of Our Lady of Sorrow, and ends with the exorcism of Danila by Father Xeno. Xeno lives like a hermit, and seems to anticipate the arrival of Danila without being informed of it. At the convent, Danila’s behaviour becomes increasingly violent: she tears her hair from her head and eats it; she destroys furniture and shreds her bedsheets. As Xeno performs the exorcism, Danila experiences a vision of the demon, who tells her “You are my servant [….] I want him [the exorcist]. I want to crush his insufferable pride. When you make him yours, he’ll be mine. I give you back what I had taken away: beauty, now a weapon to be used for Satan.”

L'ossessa (1974) - Father Xeno gathers his strength for the final attack on evil
Father Xeno gathers his strength for the final attack on evil

With this, Danila’s face—which had been torn by scars and sores—is restored to how it once was. She is beautiful once again, and gazes seductively at Xeno. “I know why you’re looking at me like that,” she intones, “You’re excited, aren’t you? Well, so am I [….] Penetrate me. Penetrate my soul [….] I’ll give you pleasure you’ve never dreamed of.”

With this exorcism sequence, Enter the Devil consolidates its association of female sexuality with the sinister: Danila has been transformed from the repressed and serious young woman of the film’s opening sequences, into a femme fatale—a vamp who uses her sexuality to lure men to their immortal doom. Xeno returns to his room at the convent and rids himself of desire by flagellating himself with a whip of many tails. When the exorcism resumes, the demon tells Danila that his aim is to undermine this “pure” priest by appealing to his animalistic instincts: “We’ll humiliate him,” the demon says, “We’ll grind him and his disgusting arrogance beneath our heels.”

The final act of the exorcism takes place in the convent’s cloister. There, Xeno faces off against the demon that is possessing Danila. Gariazzo shoots this like the climax of a Sergio Leone Italo-Western: all tight close-ups of eyes and mouths. (The director of photography on Enter the Devil, Carlo Carlini, had a long career that included a number of key Spaghetti Westerns, including Sergio Corbucci’s La resa dei conti / The Big Gundown in 1966, and Giulio Petroni’s Da uomo a uomo / Death Rides a Horse in 1967.)

L'ossesso (1974) - To exorcise the demon, one must be sacrificed
To exorcise the demon, one must be sacrificed

Frustratingly, we see relatively little of Xeno—and he is given even less to say, other than the Latin rites he speaks during the exorcism of Danila. Of course, as with The Exorcist and many of its imitators, Enter the Devil must culminate with the sacrifice of the “pure” priest: in this case, Xeno is whipped with a chain by Danila whilst she is still possessed by the demon, and he dies quietly—his crucifix clutched to his chest—after the demon has been expelled from her. The film ends abruptly on a freeze frame, as Danila gazes at Carlo: her “issues” (demonic, sexual, romantic) having been cured by the exorcist, Danila can now progress into a relationship with her boyfriend that is far less toxic than the relationship between her mother and father.

“THIS FILM IS BASED ON A TRUE STORY,” an onscreen title presented at the front-end of the English-language version of Enter the Devil screams, in full caps. No documentary evidence of which “true story” the film is based on seems to be in the public domain, so it seems safe to assume that this declaration must be taken with a generous pinch of salt. Nevertheless, Enter the Devil contains perhaps the most direct exploration of the themes that are commonly associated with films about diabolical possession—the depiction of young women tainted by their association with toxic, corrupt mothers (a trope that derives from Ellen Burstyn’s neglectful mother in The Exorcist); the equation of the demonic with untethered female sexuality; the necessity for “wayward” young women to be cured by older, authoritarian men.

 

L'ossessa (1974) - Various VHS covers and marketing materials
L’ossessa (1974) Various VHS covers and marketing posters

Release and Distribution

Enter the Devil was released theatrically in Italy, West Germany, the UK, and the US—under a confusing plethora of titles. In the UK, the film was released to cinemas as Sexorcist!, and was released on VHS in the mid-1980s under four different titles (The Devil Obsession, Enter the Devil, Sexorcist, and Obsessed). In the US, the film was also shown at cinemas under the title The Tormented, but is perhaps most commonly known as The Eerie Midnight Horror Show, a title used for home video releases and cable television airings. In the digital home video age, Enter the Devil was released on DVD in several VHS-sourced presentations by companies specialising in (allegedly) “public domain” properties; but more recently the film has been distributed on Blu-ray, by Code Red, in a presentation sourced from a rough-looking 35mm theatrical print.

Exorcismo (Exorcism, 1975) – #NineTenthsOfTheLaw

Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

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 (1975) - Vicar Adrian Dunning (Paul Naschy) and the gardener just before his murder(
Vicar Adrian Dunning (Paul Naschy) and the gardener just before his murder

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.

Exorcismo (1975) Walking among Satan's playthings
Richard walking among Satan’s playthings

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.

Exorcismo (1975) - The first signs of possession in full gothic view
The first signs of possession in full gothic view

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).

Exorcismo (1975) - The rampant sexualism of the occult
“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.”

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.

Exorcismo (1975) - Juan Bosch uses sexualism as a metaphor opposing Franco Fascist conservatism
Juan Bosch uses sexualism as a metaphor opposing Franco Fascist conservatism

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).

Exorcismo (1975) - The obligatory brain-scan of the possessed
Not to be outdone, Exorcismo offers its own version of the obligatory brain-scan

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.

 

Exorcismo (1975) -True evil confronts the protestant church
Exorcismo (1975) -True evil confronts the protestant church

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.”

Exorcismo (1975) - A truly horrible view of the possessed, stigmata, sores and cataracts and all
A truly horrible view of the possessed, stigmata, sores and cataracts and all

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.)

Exorcismo (1975) - Leila stalks the room like a devilish predator
Leila stalks the room like a devilish predator

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.

Exorcismo (1975) - The vicar returns to do battle with eternal evil
The vicar (Paul Naschy) returns to do battle with eternal evil

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.)

Exorcismo (1975) - The hundred yard stare of god's salvation
The hundred yard stare of god’s mercy and salvation

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.”

Exorcismo (1975) - Juan Bosch seems to rush his climatic finale as if it were a chore
Juan Bosch seems to rush his climatic finale as if it were a chore

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.”

Exorcismo (1975) - VPD VHS Box
Exorcismo Canon VHS box

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.

[i] See the article this writer wrote about Grau’s film for Horrified Magazine.