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.

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.