L’osceno desiderio (Obscene Desire, 1975) – #NineTenthsOfTheLaw

Nine Tenths of the Law #6: L’osceno desiderio (Giulio Petroni, 1978)

Overall: 3 out of 5 stars

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.

Obscene Desire (1975) - Actress Marissa Mel plays an American, Amanda
Actress Marissa Mell plays Amanda, the sexy American wife

Plot

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.

Obscene Desire (1975) - Amanda meets anthropologist Peter Clark in town
Amanda meets anthropologist Peter Clark in town

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.

Obscene Desire (1975) - Andrea attempts to make love to his wife, Amanda, but is unable
Andrea (Chris Avram) attempts to make love to his wife, Amanda, but is unable

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.

Obscene Desire (1975) - Amanda looks on as Fabio and Rachel make love
Amanda looks on as Fabio and Rachel make love

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.

Obscene Desire (1975) - Using a page torn from a giallo, an unidentified murderer stalks the streets for prostitutes
Using a page torn from a giallo, an unidentified murderer stalks the streets for prostitutes

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).

Obscene Desire (1975) - Peter Clark confronts Andrea about the murder of prostitutes
Peter Clark confronts Andrea about the murder of prostitutes

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.”

Obscene Desire (1975) - Amanda's sexually demonic traits exude from her as the exorcism commences
Obscene Desire (1975) – Amanda’s sexually demonic traits exude from her as the exorcism commences

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.”

Obscene Desire (1975) - Peter's obligatory stare in the demonic abyss
Peter’s obligatory stare in the demonic abyss

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.

El juego del diablo (Devil’s Exorcist, 1975) – #NineTenthsOfTheLaw

Overall: 2.5 out of 5 stars

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.

El Juego del Diablo (1975) - Shelia (Imma de Santis) becomes fascinated with a dark wax figure at the museum
Shelia (Imma de Santis) becomes fascinated with a dark wax figure at the museum

Plot

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.

El Juego del Diablo (1975) - Immediately, Shelia begins to see the figure everywhere
Immediately, Shelia begins to see the figure everywhere

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 (1975) - Shelia's behavior continues to unravel and become more unpredictable
Shelia’s behavior continues to unravel and become more unpredictable

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.)

El Juego del Diablo (1975) - Did Jorge Darnell's "Tall Man" inspire another famous horror "Tall Man"?
Did Jorge Darnell’s “Tall Man” inspire another famous horror “Tall Man”?

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.

El Juego del Diablo (1975) - Demonic hands molest Sheila
Demonic hands grope Shelia

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.

El Juego del Diablo (1975) - ‘You will worship the Lord your God and you will worship him alone.’
‘You will worship the Lord your God and you will worship him alone.’

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.

El Juego del Diablo (1975) - Shelia remembers watching a boy die
Shelia remembers watching a boy die

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.

El Fuego del Diablo (1975) - Shelia writhes on the floor in demonic delight
Shelia writhes on the floor in demonic delight

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.

El Juego del Diablo (1975) - Movie Poster

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.

L’ossessa (Enter the Devil / The Eerie Midnight Horror Show / The Devil Obsession / 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.

Magdalena vom Teufel besessen (Magdalena Possessed by the Devil 1974) – #NineTenthsOfTheLaw

Overall: 3 out of 5 stars

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 (1974) - Lobby Cards
Original lobby cards for Magdalena vom Teufel besessen

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.

Critique

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, SchulmädchenReport 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).

Magdalena vom Tuefel besessen (1974) - The opening frames reveal Magdalena's grandfather brutally crucified in the streets
Magdalena’s grandfather hangs brutally crucified in the streets

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 vom Teufel besessen (1974) - Magdalena writhes in demonic ecstasy
Magdalena writhes in demonic ecstasy in a visual that would of The Entity (1982)

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 vom Teufel besessen (1974) - Walter Boos also injects elements of German krimi (crime) films
Magdalena vom Teufel besessen also injects elements of German krimi (crime) films

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.”

Magdalena vom Teufel besessen (1974) - Magdalena receives a brain-scan to figure out what causes her strange behaviors
It seems the gratuitous brains-scan scene made popular by demonic possession films did not escape Walter Boos

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.”

Magdalena vom Teufel besessen - Magdalena once again gets violated by a demon in a way that serves Boos' sexploitation goals as much as any narrative
Magdalena once again gets violated by a demon in a way that serves Boos’ sexploitation goals as much as any narrative

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.

Magdalena vom Teufel besessen (1974) - Some vomit peas soup, Magdalena vomits snakes
Some possessed vomit pea soup, Magdalena vomits snakes

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.”

Magadlena vom Teufel besessen (1974) - Walter Boos also explores the topic of religion versus medicine
Walter Boos also explores the topic of religion versus medicine

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.

Magdalena vom Teufel besessen (1974) - VHS release covers
German VHS release cover (left). Canadian CIC release cover (right)

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.

Un Urlo Dalle Tenebre (The Exorcist III: Cries and Shadows 1975) – #NineTenthsOfTheLaw

Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

This is the first in a series of articles looking at Eurocult films from the 1970s and 1980s that focus on a theme of diabolical/demonic possession. The title of the series derives from the old maxim ‘Possession is Nine Tenths of the Law’.

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).

The Plot

Un Urlo Dalle Tenebre, known under a variety of English-language titles (and referred to throughout much of this article by one of its most frequently used English monikers, Cries and Shadows), was one of the earliest and most obvious Italian imitators of The Exorcist. The film tells the story of Piero (or Peter, in the English version; played by Jean-Claude Vernè), a well-to-do young man who lives with his mother, Barbara (Françoise Prévost) and is preparing for university. Piero has a healthy relationship with his equally privileged girlfriend, Sherry (Sonia Viviani).

However, whilst visiting the Monte Gelato waterfalls with friends, Piero spots a naked woman (Mimma Monticelli) gyrating seductively at the top of the falls. Intrigued, Piero photographs her, but returning home he finds that her image isn’t on any of his negatives. He returns to the site and finds an amulet where the woman was standing; the amulet bears an inscription, ‘TAHAL’. Piero turns this amulet into a medallion, but soon discovers that the amulet has burnt its impression onto his chest.

Un Urlo Dalle Tenebre (1975) - Richard Conte as the exorcist
Richard Conte as the exorcist

Piero begins to act uncharacteristically, maliciously soaking Sherry’s dress with sparkling wine at her 18th birthday party. Following this, the sorceress appears to Piero in his bedroom and attempts to seduce him, or alternately goad him into attacking her. Piero leaps upon her and slits her throat; at a disco, miles away, Sherry collapses and dies from an identical injury. Subsequently, Piero becomes possessed by the sorceress, and at times seems to transform into her. Alternating between the two presences (his own, and that of the sorceress), Piero sexually assaults his mother, leading to her death.

A novice nun who has spent time working in a mental hospital, Piero’s sister, Elena (Patrizia Gori), fears that the family doctor (Guiseppe Tallarico) is pressing to have Piero institutionalised. She discovers that the location is linked to a coven of Satanists from the Eighteenth Century; Rites  of Black Mass, presided over by a rogue priest, Johannes (Franco Garofalo, often credited by the Anglicised name ‘Frank Garfield’ and a familiar face to fans of Italian exploitation films of the 70s and 80s), were held. These rites involved the sorceress, who seduced a young woman, Anna (Elena Svevo).

Anna became pregnant with a child, which was named Tahal and claimed to be the son of Satan. Johannes and Anna were apprehended as heretics and burnt at the stake. Concerned for Piero and seeking a spiritual, rather than medical, end to his troubles, Elena approaches a priest (Filippo Perego) with Piero’s case, and an exorcist (Richard Conte) arrives from the US to expel the sorceress from Piero’s body.

Urn Urlo Dalle Tenebre (1975) - Exploring the streets of Calcata
Exploring the streets of Calcata

Production

The credited director on Cries and Shadows is Elo Pannacciò (the nickname of Angelo Pannacciò), though some sources also attribute the film to Franco Lo Cascio. Apparently, Lo Cascio started the film (under the pseudonym Franck K. Lucas) but left before production was completed, and Pannacciò stepped in to finish the shoot. A former assistant of Fernando di Leo, Lo Cascio would go on to become more well-known under the pseudonym ‘Luca Damiano’, the name he used whilst directing numerous hardcore features from the mid-1980s onwards (including XXX films based on the likes of Hamlet, The Decameron, and Snow White).

Lo Cascio actually appears in the film, in a small role as Piero’s photographer friend, who helps Piero develop the negatives from his expedition to the Monte Gelato waterfalls. Pannacciò, meanwhile, had begun his filmmaking career as a producer, and had quietly stepped into the role of director in 1972 with the western all’italiana Lo ammazzò come un cane… ma lui rideva ancora (Death Played the Flute) and the 1973 horror-sexploitation-giallo picture Il sesso della strega (Sex of the Witch).

Interestingly, the plot of the latter film has some passing similarities with that of Cries and Shadows: Sex of the Witch features a witch, Evelyn (Jessica Dublin), who uses her powers to control (read: possess) her niece, Ingrid (Annamaria Tornello)—who Evelyn transforms into a man (Sergio Ferrero). Both films share the theme of a witch/sorceress who possesses a young person, causing a Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde-type cross-gender transformation of the possessed individual.

Un Urlo Dalle Tenebre (1975) - Italian fotobusta bearing the title L'Esorcista No.2
Italian fotobusta bearing the title L’Esorcista No.2

Rushed into production in the wake of the Italian release of The Exorcist (in September, 1974), Un Urlo Dalle Tenebre began production under the working title of L’esorcista no. 2 …e il mio grido giunga a te (‘The Exorcist 2 … and My Cry Reaches You’): fotobusta exist bearing both this title and the directorial credit for ‘Franck K. Lucas’. The film was shot in Rome and Viterbo during November of 1974, and released in Italy in August of 1975.

When completed Cries and Shadows was retitled Un Urlo Dalle Tenebre (‘A Cry from the Darkness’) for Italian distribution; and in English-speaking territories, the picture was distributed under a confusing plethora of titles. These included, in the UK, Naked Exorcism (for its 1977 cinema release), The Return of the Exorcist (for its pre-cert VHS release from Iver Film Services), and The Exorcist III: Cries and Shadows (for its pre-cert VHS release from HBL Video); and in the US, The Possessor and The Return of the Exorcist.

Critique

In the mid-1970s, Italian horror cinema began to turn away from the Gothic tradition with which it had been associated in the 1960s through the work of filmmakers such as Mario Bava, Riccardo Freda, and Antonio Margheriti. In fact, the diabolical possession films of the 1970s, in particular, are generally regarded as a ‘pollution’ of the Gothic trend in Italian horror cinema specifically: this perception of the diabolical possession film’s position within Italian genre cinema is often embodied in the mangling, by producer Alfredo Leone and via reshoots and edits, of Mario Bava’s high Gothic masterpiece Lisa e diavolo (Lisa and the Devil, 1973) into the widely-mocked possession-themed La casa dell’esorcismo (House of Exorcism, 1974).

Like British horror cinema during the fag end of Hammer’s horror output in the early 1970s, Italian horror films became fixated with the present rather than the past, and often featured mundane and contemporary urban settings as opposed to locations with high Gothic atmosphere. The films increasingly focused on middle-class families that are ripped apart; and in a nod towards anxieties about young people being corrupted by both crime and extreme political ideologies (both on the Left and the Right), tended to feature young people ‘acting out’ under the influence of otherworldly entities.

Un Urlo Dalle Tenebre (1975) - The mass in Saint Peter's Square
The mass an Saint Peter’s Square

Framed in this way, it’s important to remember that these films were made in a decade that was reeling from the actions of both Far Left and Neo-Fascist terrorist groups such as the Brigate Rossi and the Nuclei Armati, and events such as the Circeo Massacre—in which three young men from privileged backgrounds abducted and tortured two young women from working class backgrounds. (The Circeo Massacre was a crime motivated equally by misogyny and classism.)

Though like many Italian horror films of the 1970s, Cries and Shadows does much to exorcise the Gothic stylings of the likes of Bava and Margheriti (in favour of a more contemporary, Americanised influence), notably the film uses some of the same locations as Bava’s highly-regarded mid-60s Gothic horror picture Operazione Paura (Kill, Baby… Kill!, 1966), including the hilltop village of Calcata in the Province of Viterbo.

In a memorable scene, Piero—prior to falling completely under the influence of the sorceress—pursues a mysterious figure through the winding alleyways of Calcata, only to come face to face with something horrible: the sequence functions as a pastiche of Father Karras’ (Jason Miller) dream from The Exorcist, in which he sees his elderly, ailing mother in the streets of New York City; but in its staging it also recalls Bava’s use of Calcata’s ancient streets. (Parallels may also be drawn with Donald Sutherland’s pursuit of his daughter’s ‘ghost’ through the streets of Venice in Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973).)

Un Urlo Dalle Tenebre (1975) - Frank Garofalo as Johannes
Frank Garofalo as Johannes

The majority of European films about diabolical possession featured young women as the targets of possession, though for the most part these young women were significantly older than Regan (Linda Blair) in The Exorcist. This adjustment upwards in the age of the possessed individuals (in comparison with the 12-year-old Regan) enabled the filmmakers to work more exploitative sexual elements into their films: the possessed individuals in these films invariably ‘act out’ by performing explicit sex acts on themselves or other people.

Cries and Shadows deviates from this template somewhat by featuring a young male, Piero, as the target of diabolical possession; though in truth, Piero is possessed by a female witch/sorceress (Mimma Monticelli), who inhabits Piero’s body from time to time and provides the film with the requisite amount of naked female flesh. The film offers a classic Madonna/Whore dichotomy: the naked sorceress appears to Piero at the Monte Gelato waterfalls, gyrating seductively in an attempt to seduce him, and she ensures that Piero’s pure, virginal adolescent girlfriend Sherry is dispatched before she can possess Piero fully.

The sorceress functions essentially as a femme fatale, and once she has possessed Piero she uses his corporeal body to sexually assault both Piero’s mother and sister: the latter act is an assault not just upon the family, but also upon the Catholic faith that Elena, as a novice nun, represents. (‘You love it, you lecherous sow’, Piero/the succubus growls as s/he assaults Barbara; whilst pawing Elena, Piero/the succubus intones, ‘Come, you bitch in heat. Your virginity is mine!’)

The film opens with a public mass held in St Peter’s Square, Rome. The mass is filmed in a cinéma vérité style, the handheld camera weaving through the throng of people gathered in the square, picking out individual faces briefly only to swiftly move on. The sheer scale of the gathering suggests an important papal event. On the soundtrack we hear a priest delivering a speech, telling the gathered crowds to banish the Devil from their hearts: ‘Blinded by pride, some would try to convince us that the Devil ceases to exist’, he tells the gathered crowd.

Shots of the crowd are intercut with brief fragments of a scene showing the possessed Piero tied to his bedposts in preparation for the exorcism that takes place in the film’s climax. He speaks in tongues and growls in a feral manner. ‘I hate you! I hate you!’, he intones—seemingly as much to the film’s audience as to anyone else.

Un Urlo Dalle Tenebre (1975) - Piero and the amulet
Piero finds a strange amulet

The shots of the indubitably possessed Piero act as a validation of what the priest is telling the crowd in St Peter’s Square. In Catholic countries, exploitation films about diabolical possession were only considered acceptable because of the long-term modernisation of the Catholic Church that took place following the opening of the Second Vatican Council in 1962; this sparked a liberalisation of depictions of Catholicism within Italian cinema, in particular, and enabled the exploration in popular cinema of themes of possession, alongside the growth of other exploitative faith-focused genres of the 1970s, such as the nunsploitation film.

Nevertheless, in Italy during the 1970s, films about diabolical possession were still often subjected to cuts for supposed blasphemy. (One of the cuts made to Cries and Shadows before its release to Italian audiences was to the juxtaposition, in one of the Black Mass flashbacks, of the chalice and the naked, writhing body of Mimma Monticelli; this juxtaposition was deemed to be blasphemous, and therefore the scene was abbreviated.)

This is ironic inasmuch as the Italian diabolical possession films of the 1970s, in particular, pretty much act as a validation of the Catholic Church and its teachings: they suggest that diabolical evil does indeed exist, that diabolical possession is associated with a ‘sinful’ life (ie, lustful, lecherous, prideful, and gluttonous behaviour), and must be cast out by an appropriate member of the Church (an ordained exorcist). In effect, these films are to the Catholic Church and priesthood what the Top Gun movies are to Lockheed-Martin and US Navy recruitment.

The gathering in the opening sequence of Cries and Shadows is further contrasted in the editing with the Black Mass presided over by the rogue priest Johannes in the Eighteenth Century; a not-so-subtle equivalence is drawn between the enactment of the Catholic faith taking place in St Peter’s Square in the present, and its inversion in the Satanic gathering that is depicted as taking place in secret during the past.

The Black Mass is staged as a perversion of the Eucharist, rogue priest Johannes addressing the assembled Satanists from behind an altar and whilst holding a chalice. ‘Liberate us’, Johannes pleads to Satan, ‘Make the timid brave. Thou art the liberator of man [….] Fill our hearts with violence and perversion’.

Un Urlo Dalle Tenebre (1975) - The women's mental hospital (flashback)
The women’s mental hospital (flashback)

This slightly confusing overlapping of past and present, without any clear signifiers to differentiate the two, continues throughout the rest of the film, which features a moderately complex non-linear narrative structure. Following the aforementioned opening sequence, the film proper begins in the present, with Elena engaged in conversation with the family doctor. The doctor wishes to have Piero institutionalised, stating that Elena’s brother is suffering from incurable hysteria.

However, Elena believes that something more sinister is at work, and she seeks the help of the priest who eventually puts her in contact with the exorcist: the film builds towards a climax in which the exorcist arrives from the US by boat, and in an extended sequence exorcises Piero—who has been tethered to his bedposts, as in the brief flashes to the possessed Piero that are seen in the opening sequence.

In the midst of this, however, are extended flashbacks to Piero’s encounter with the sorceress at the waterfall, his discovery of the amulet, and the deaths of both Sherry and Barbara. Complicating this further are semi-regular flashbacks to the events that took place in the Eighteenth Century (the Black Mass presided over by Johannes and the sorceress, the sorceress’ seduction of Anna, and the Satanists’ orgy).

The diegetic present (Elena’s search for help for her brother) and the recent past (Piero’s possession by the sorceress) are intermingled with the distant events of the Eighteenth Century—to a degree that is fairly confusing until the timescale of the events is clarified via dialogue later in the narrative.

The intent of this intercutting of past and present is to clearly to shock in terms of the juxtaposition of Christian rites with those of the Satanists: Barbara’s funeral, for example, and the priest’s delivery of rites in Latin, is intercut with the blasphemous Satanists’ orgy from the distant past.

Un Urlo Dalle Tenebre (1975) - Piero Identifies Sherry's Body
Piero Identifies Sherry’s Body

As in the majority of films about diabolical possession, medicine and faith are placed in opposition to one another: a medical diagnosis is proffered, which is rejected in favour of a suggestion that the possessed individual is under diabolical influence. Piero’s family doctor suggests that Piero’s behaviour is ‘a case of hysteria’ and insists that Piero would be best placed in a psychiatric hospital. Elena, on the other hand, believes that something more diabolical is behind Piero’s actions; she has also first-hand experience of a mental hospital, having toiled in one in her role as a novice nun, and tells the doctor ‘They’re like Hell on Earth’.

In validation of Elena’s point-of-view on mental hospitals, the film cuts to documentary-like footage of a women’s asylum: presented as a flashback from Elena’s perspective, this material is clearly identifiable as recycled footage owing to the transition into a different kind of film stock (and the fact that the footage is worn and degraded). The female patients are shown in states of disarray, weaping and tearing at one another.

Though these scenes of the women’s asylum—which are also inserted into later sequences within Cries and Shadows—have the texture of documentary footage (in the vein of Frederick Wiseman’s 1967 documentary Titicut Follies), they are in fact from a narrative feature. The asylum scenes are recycled from La casa delle mele mature (‘The House of Ripe Apples’; Pino Tosini, 1971): a ghost story, produced by Pannacciò, in which an asylum played a key role.

This footage was shot at a genuine mental hospital near Reggio Emilia. (During production of La casa delle mele mature, one of the lead actresses, Marcelle Michelangeli, was reputedly overcome by the levels of hysteria she was asked to perform as part of her role, to the point that she was sedated and taken as a patient in the asylum.)

After Elena seeks the help of the priest, he and the doctor are shown in conversation with one another. The dialogue between them is openly dialectical. The priest suggests that Piero is possessed; the doctor argues that Piero is suffering from hysteria. ‘I’m a scientific man’, the doctor tells the priest, ‘This sounds just like the Middle Ages’. In response, the priest tells the doctor, ‘You scientific men think only of scientific methods’.

As in most, if not all, diabolical possession films, though Cries and Shadows offers a dialogue between science and faith, ultimately the film validates the Church’s position on the existence of evil and draws an equivalence between mental illness and diabolical possession.

Un Urlo Dalle Tenebre (1975) - Richard Conte as the exorcist
Richard Conte as the exorcist

This juxtaposition of medicine and faith is simply one of many narrative and thematic beats that Pannacciò borrows from The Exorcist. Following a narrative pattern established in Friedkin’s film, the possessed individual’s malignancy manifests itself directly during a soirée—Sherry’s 18th birthday party—in which the possessed individual confronts/shatters polite taboos: here, this is when Piero pours sparkling wine over Sherry’s chest. (In the equivalent scene in The Exorcist, of course, Regan pisses on the floor at one of her mother’s gatherings and tells an attendee, an astronaut, that ‘You’re gonna die up there!’)

Also as with The Exorcist, there is a found objet d’art that is associated with diabolical possessions: in The Exorcist, of course, this is the statue of Pazuzu that Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow) encounters during the archaeological dig in Iraq; in Pannacciò’s film, this object is the talisman bearing the inscription ‘TAHAL’ that Piero finds at the waterfall. Following his possession, Piero is—like Regan in The Exorcist—subjected to high-tech medical scans. And like Regan too, Piero is the object of an exorcism that takes place at the film’s climax.

However, in Cries and Shadows the exorcising priest is accompanied solely by Elena—as opposed to the teaming of an experienced (Merrin) and novice (Karras) priest in The Exorcist.

The exorcist in Cries and Shadow remains nameless. Disembarking from a ship at the port of Civitavecchia during dusk, with his priest’s garb topped by a black fedora, his silhouette is intentionally similar to that of Merrin on the iconic poster for Friedkin’s The Exorcist. The film presents us with a montage of shots depicting the exorcist walking through the streets, whilst on the soundtrack he narrates about Holiness, depravity, and Satan; the exorcist’s approach is intercut with shots of the bound Piero, who growls and spits foul epithets in anticipation of the exorcist’s arrival.

‘Foul priest. Go and lick your Master’s feet’, Piero hisses at the exorcist when he arrives: ‘Bastard! Accursed priest!’ As the exorcism commences, Piero’s venomous rants continue: ‘Get away from me: I cannot stand the putrid stench of your garments’, he spits, ‘Go back to the mire you came from, you cheat!’ (This writer’s personal favourite of these verbal assaults on the exorcist is Piero’s declaration, ‘I spit on you, and all your mumbo-jumbo!’)

The role of the exorcist in Cries and Shadows was the last screen performance of Hollywood actor Richard Conte, who in the years prior had appeared in a number of Italian genre films—from poliziesco pictures such as Fernando di Leo’s l poliziotto è marcio (Shoot First, Die Later, 1974) and Marino Girolami’s Roma violenta (Violent Rome, 1975), to thrillers like Malocchio (The Evil Eye; Mario Siciliano, 1975).

Un Urlo Dalle Tenebre (1975) - The possessed Piero
The possessed Piero

Conte plays the exorcist as a somewhat sad character who bears the weight of the world on his shoulders. Whilst it is, in its staging, clearly derivative of the exorcism in Friedkin’s movel, the climactic exorcism in this film is actually quite disturbing in its own right, particularly owing to the sound design.

The bed squeaks and creaks, then floats and rocks, as Piero writhes against the bindings that fasten him to the bedposts. Without moving his lips, he growls and the demon speaks through him in a guttural, croaking groan. (It’s worth noting that this isn’t simply a case of the actor’s lip movements not matching the English dub; it’s equally true of the Italian language versions.)

At the climax of the film, the dialogue from both the exorcist and Elena references Christ’s exorcism of the Gerasene demoniac, in which Christ expelled a multitude of demons (‘Legion’) into a herd of pigs which were then rushed down a steep bank into the sea and drowned. This tale worked its way into William Peter Blatty’s 1983 book Legion, the sequel to his original novel The Exorcist. The idea of casting the possessing entity out of the possessed subject and into another individual, who then commits suicide in order to put an end to the diabolical shenanigans, is pertinent to the majority of films about diabolical possession.

At the end of The Exorcist, of course, Father Karras takes the demon Pazuzu into his body before throwing himself down the flight of steps. Similarly, in Cries and Shadows (and there are huge ‘spoilers’ for the end of the film in the rest of this paragraph) the spirit of the sorceress leaves Piero and enters his sister Elena; in order to expel the demon, she hurls herself from the high walls of Calcata. In the film’s final sequence, a young boy named Paul is shown finding the amulet at the Monte Gelato waterfalls, before his mother (offscreen) tells him it’s time to leave. The implication is that the cycle of possession will begin again.

Un Urlo Dalle Tenebre (1975) - Barbara's Funeral
Barbara’s Funeral

Release and Distribution

In Italy, Un Urlo Dalle Tenebre was released theatrically with cuts to: the writhing of the naked Monticelli during the Black Mass (considered blasphemous in the manner in which it was intercut with shots of the chalice); the moment in which Monticelli appears to Piero in his bedroom and exposes her crotch to him; the scene in which Piero/Monticelli sexually assaults Piero’s mother; the scene in which Piero sexually assaults his sister, Elena; and the flashback to the orgy. (However, inexplicably, the Italian VHS release from Golden Video and Easy Video was uncut.)

The UK cinema release, as Naked Exorcism in 1977, appears to have been uncut (with a running time of 90 mins exactly). Rumours persist of a version of the film that features hardcore inserts, but there is no firm evidence of this (if the reader will pardon the pun).

Un Urlo Dalle Tenebre has a confusing and frustrating history of home video releases. Aside from the sheer variety of titles by which the film is known, numerous edits of the film have been available on home video at one time or another, some omitting up to 10 minutes of footage. For a long time, the best home video release was a videocassette release from Japan, which was uncut and letterboxed—but featured optical censorship (obscuring Monticelli’s pubic hair) and Japanese subtitles.

In 2020, a much more pleasing, letterboxed, and Italian-language version of the film was screened on the Italian television channel Cine24, though this version was subjected to five minutes of cuts that replicated, and extended, the cuts made to the Italian cinema release. (Subjected to particularly heavy trims were the flashbacks to the Black Mass.)

Worth mentioning is the brilliantly atmospheric soundtrack by Giuliano Sorgini, which at times—in its use of female groans and cries embedded into the scoring—recalls Sorgini’s well-regarded score for Jorge Grau’s zombie film Non si deve profanare il sonno dei morti (The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue; 1974).