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.