“The Devil truly exists, and we are all in his power”
Pope Paul VI, November 15th, 1972.
The above quote kicks off Michael Walter’s energetic, entertainingly schlocky German effort Magdalena – Possessed By The Devil (aka The Devil’s Woman) released in 1974, the year when that Pontiff’s point was conclusively proven for him… at least in cinematic terms. For in the wake of the runaway international box office success enjoyed by William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), Old Nick found plenty of work for film-makers with idle imaginations to do. No sooner had the pea-soup hit the priest, Linda Blair’s piss splashed on the floor and that crucifix caressed her crotch than horror hacks the world over began invoking Beelzebub, brushing up on their blasphemy and setting more wobbly furniture in motion than at an MFI clearance sale. In 1974 alone, America offered William Girdler’s Abby (starring Blacula himself, William Marshall, as a black bishop casting demons out of his possessed daughter-in-law, Carol Speed; Brazil begat Black Exoricsm (from nutty ol’ Coffin Joe, aka Jose Mojica Marins); and Spain spawned a tripe-whammy of succubus sagas with Juan Bosch’s Exorcism (starring and co-written by Paul Naschy) and Amando De Ossorio’s Demon Witch Child (those two released within a week of each other), not to mention (no really, please don’t mention it!) Jesus Franco’s The Devil’s Possessed.
Yep, Exorcist imitations were being churned out thick and fast, but nowhere thicker and faster than in J. P. VI’s homeland. Barely had the pea-soup dried on Max Von Sydow’s face than a posse of pesto-spewing poppets and maniacal moppets seemed to be taking over every film studio in Italy, where there was understandably a big market for this kind of stuff. In fact the first Italian Exorcist clone off the block, 1974’s Chi Sei? (“Who’s There?”) proved to be a hit not just with domestic audiences, but also (inexplicably) did significant business (as “Behind / Beyond The Door”) in the U.S., which only encouraged the flow of further Italian imitators. Released on the Videospace label in Britain as The Devil Inside Her (not to be confused with Peter Sasdy’s 1975 effort, also known as I Don’t Want To Be Born) this one had earlier played theatrically with the gimmick of sensurround (a la Earthquake), and opens with an irritating voice-over monologue supposedly delivered by ol’ Scratch himself, backing up His Holiness and assuring us that he (The Devil) does indeed exist: “That stranger sitting in the seat next to you could be me”. Alternatively, the person in the next seat could very well have been be dozing off or scratching their head trying to work out what the Hell was going on. This picture’s total incoherence (catatonic pacing, impenetrable narrative, mannered directorial tricks such as the eccentric, erratic use of freeze fame) could possibly be partially attributed to its dual direction, by Ovidio G. Assonitis (under his never-more-apt “Oliver Hellman” pseud) and his favoured cinematographer, Roberto D’Ettorre Piazzoli (masquerading as “R. Barrett”)… maybe one of them got on with the Exorcist imitating while the other handled the Rosemary’s Baby stuff?
Respected Shakespearean thesp and Zombie Flesh Eaters alumnus Richard Johnson is typecast as oldest-swinger-in-town Dimitri, a Satanist apparently brought back from the verge of death to claim for Satan the baby Jessica (Juliet Mills) is expecting. However badly the new sprog turns out, it can’t be any worse than the two she’s already spawned with record producer husband Gabriele Lavia. Assonitis and / or Piazzoli handle the obligatory “rebellious children” sub-text clumsily, and although the kids’ foul-mouthed, jive-talking antics are obviously intended to be cute and endearing, these are arguably the two most nauseating brats in cinema history. When some malefic influence or other causes the boy to convulse in his bed, suffering night terrors, his sister babbles. “Ken, you gotta stop that – it’s gonna blow my mind! If you don’t stop, you’re gonna have a real bad trip – y’hear?” Elsewhere Ken refers to Lavia as an “asshole”, prompting daddy dearest to ask mom if he “needs to see a shrink” (probably not, but a good slap would undoubtedly work wonders.)
Mills soon develops the mandatory leprous complexion and lapses into the expected cussing, bile-honking, head-twisting, levitating and talking in tongues. “Jessica – what’s gotten into you?” asks her doctor, ironically. As punishment for this corny line, the incubus demands of him: “Come on you filthy pig – lick this vile whore’s vomit!” When he shows understandable reticence to comply, she scoffs a handful of it herself and chucks the rest at him. After much writhing around, she eventually gives birth to a baby with no mouth. While the viewer’s still trying to get his head around this enigmatic development, the film slips into a ludicrous epilogue featuring the kid Ken (David Collin Jr) in that freeze-frame standby of “how the fuck do we finish this one?” cinema , his eyes glowing red via a cheese optical effect.
“That picture made $15 million in America and $25M in the rest of the world… it was then the most successful European film ever in America” remembers Assonitis: “It was so successful, Warner Bros tried to sue us!” Chi Sei’s international success also led to Mario Bava’s masterly 1977 psychological thriller Shock being released States-side as Beyond The Door 2 (though admittedly, Bava had probably made a rod for his own back by casting David Colin Jr as a brat with telekinetic powers and an invisible playmate who just might be real, exactly as in Chi Sei?) This wasn’t even the greatest indignity inflicted on poor old Mario due to exorcism mania: producer Alfredo Leone, who had been keeping Bava’s totally baffling Lisa And The Devil unreleased in a vault since 1972, detected an opportunity to salvage some kind of commercial return on his investment by cutting back on the original footage, splicing in inept restagings of key moments from The Exorcist (“Here’s your fucking daily bread, priest!”, snarls Elke Sommer while slinging vomit at Fr Robert Alda, elsewhere answering his questions about the identity of the demon inhabiting her with a few enquiries of her own, e.g. “Have you any idea how a virgin yearns for a man’s cock?”) and releasing the resultant mess as House Of Exorcism, attributed to one “Mickey Lion”. With a certain devilish irony, exactly the same mutilation was meted out to William Peter Blatty’s over-rated second official sequel, The Exorcist 3 in 1990. Another 1972 picture, Lucio Fulci’s giallo masterpiece Don’t Torture A Duckling, was re-released as Long Night Of Exorcism, and in one of the last blasts of exorcism mania, even Fulci’s 1970 satirical sexy comedy AllL’Onorevole Piacciono Le Donne was put out on the VPD video label as “The Eroticist” during the 1980s.
Getting back to that annus mirabilis of spaghetti exorcism, 1974, veteran journeyman director Alberto De Martino (who would in 1977 clone Richard Donner’s The Omen with Holocaust 2000) clocked in with The Tempter aka The Antichrist (on which a certain Joe D’Amato, no less, served as cinematographer.) Continuing Chi Sei’s trick of picking up on Friedkin’s Freudian sub-text and then battering the viewer over the head with it, The Tempter stars Carla Gravina as Hippolyta, hysterically paralysed as a result of living in a dysfunctional family. While still a child she witnessed her mother dying as a result of her Father(Mel Ferrer)’s reckless driving. Now she resents icy Anita Strindberg’s affair with her dad, whom she’s perhaps a little too close to for comfort (it’s also hinted that she’s having it off with her brother.)
Meanwhile Bishop Arthur Kennedy is celebrating mass when he discovers a severed toad’s head in his tabernacle. This he puts down to a decline in moral values, but it turns out that the Satanic shenanigans surrounding Hippolyta are rooted rather farther back than in those sinful swinging ‘60s: our heroine is hypnotically regressed to the burning of an ancestor (Gravina with a rather less severe hair-do) for witchcraft. “It was scientifically proven that previous psychic facts could be transferred from generation to generation”, opines a psychiatrist, who obviously uses a different text-book from the one favoured by most following his profession: “These phenomena happen very often, and once the trauma suffered by her ancestor has been cleaned up, I’m sure we can cure her.” Guess again, Frood dude…
Hippolyta hallucinates herself floating on her bed through the clouds to attend a witch’s Sabbath in a steamy glade. The Devil himself turns up to shag her, Rosemary’s Baby-style (a moment further recreated in Michele Soavi’s The Church, 1989). While being knobbed by Old Nick, she’s also obliged to chew on another of those toad’s heads and lick a goat’s rectum (do these guys know how to party, or what?) One quick poke by the Prince of Darkness later, her legs appear to be working again, so she nips out to the local catacombs to seduce a young lad and leave him lying with his head twisted round, back to front. At a celebratory banquet thrown by her family, she gorges food and starts spitting it out, along with curses aimed at Anita Strindberg, together with the usual non-sequitur obscenities (“Bishops… holy men of the Inquisition… I’ve fucked them all!”) Lights flicker, furniture flies through the air… you’ve seen it all before. Nurse Alida Valli calls in a cowboy freelance exorcist, but after his miserable failure (Hippolyta forces him to scarf down the now obligatory fistful of vomit) the Bishop himself is called in, resists Hippolyta’s dubious sexual charms and – after all the usual manifestations – blithely announces that ”The Anti-Christ will not be born”.
Up to this point The Tempter had been a lot more coherent than Chi Sei, Martino effectively building a sense of menace with wide-angled compositions. But it’s conclusion is every bit as confusing edited as the “climax’ of Hammer’s To The Devil A Daughter. The Godlike Ennio Morricone contributed the score of this picture, but it’s not one of his finest moments by a long chalk, proving conclusively that The Devil really doesn’t have all the best tunes.
The condemnation of “swinging” lifestyles in Mario Gariazzo’s L’Ossessa (also 1974, and “a true story” to boot… sure thing, you guys) is the baldest statement of this sub-genre’s reactionary rationale. This kinky twist on the Pygmalion story, released on video in the UK on a series of increasingly cheesy labels (and in varying degrees of completeness ) as The Exorcist, The Obsessed, Devil Obsession, Enter The Devil and The Eerie Midnight Horror Show (phew… talk about “my name is legion, for we are many”!) stars Stella Carnacina as Danilla, a sensitive student of art history who’s suffering emotional turmoil on account of her parents’ hell-hole of a marriage. She eavesdrops on her mutton-dressed-as-lamb mother Lucrezia Love being whipped with a rosebush by gigolo Gabriele Tinti. When her cuckolded husband witnesses the wheals on her flesh, he chides: “You bitch, you’ve acted in the most vile and disgusting way possible… subjecting your body to whips and belts and other masochistic tomfoolery.” Should Danilla stay in this heart-wrenching environment or strike out as an independent young woman and go live with her boyfriend? (You get the idea that many of these possession cases could be just as effectively cleared up by sharing a nice cup of tea with some counsellors from Relate as by the usual cross-and-holy-water routine).
Naturally, Danilla’s dilemma causes the evil spirit of a crucified carving (Ivan Rassimov, in what is literally one of his most wooden roles ever) to step down from the cross then rape, crucify and torture her (most of this stuff is naturally cut from the film’s various British video releases.) Predictably, Danilla responds by projectile vomiting, wrecking the furniture, hallucinating a black mass apparently presided over by Dr and The Medics, and masturbating enthusiastically in front of her folks. ”There’s no such thing as incest, daddy – it’s only an invention of priests!” she taunts him, receiving a wack around the head for her trouble. Enough’s enough, so mom and dad patch up their troubles, mom renounces masochistic tomfoolery for good, and they dispatch Danilla to a convent in the country where she’s softened up by nuns singing hymns before master exorcist Father Zeno (Luigi Pistilli) turns up, looking more like a gunslinger than a demon-wrangler. Morricone-esque musical flourishes enhance the impression, together with Leone-esque camera-shots (unfortunately including ultra close-ups of Pistilli’s black teeth.) After an unsuccessful run-in with Danilla’s demon, Zeno triumphs in round 2, at the cost of his life.
Responding to Danilla’s sexual temptation after round 1 (“Penetrate me… take me any way you like!”), Zeno spits:“Abomination!”, and heads off to his monastic cell to stiffen his resolve with a spot of self-flagellation. A more ambitious director would have pursued the parallels between this form of spiritual discipline and Danilla’s momma’s sexual predilections, but Gariazzo is happy to just throw all these balls up in the air and let them fall wherever they may. The end product is, predictably… a load of balls!
Naked For Satan (also 1974) was directed by the ever reliable (i.e. you can rely on him to serve up a tawdry slice of drivel every time out) Luigi Batzella (alias Ivan Katansky, Paolo Solvay, et al), and resolves itself as one of those deceitful “so, it was all a dream!” efforts. The following year’s The Cursed (aka Bloody) Medallion / Night Child / Perche?! (directed by capable journeyman Massimo Dallamano) features Richard Johnson, again (as Art historian and documentary maker Professor Williams) and perpetual ‘70s Italian splatter-brat Nicoletta Elmi (above) falling under the evil influence of the titular trinket.
Needless to say, when Johnson’s Professor Williams decamps with his family to Spoleto to study a spooky old canvas depicting witch hunting, a shedload of domestic problems go with him. His delinquent daughter Emily (Elmi) is traumatised by having seen her mother falling, in flames, from a high window to her death (it’s ultimately revealed that Emily started the fire herself in a fit of pique!) “Evelyne Stewart” (Ida Galli) essays the uncharacteristically frumpy role of Emily’s nanny and suffers the pangs of unrequited love for Williams, before Emily puts her out of her misery by pushing her off a cliff. The kid’s homicidal jealousy is intensified with the arrival of Joanna Morgan (the super luscious Joanna Cassidy) to assist in the making of his latest documentary.
Once again, one begins to suspect that a therapist would be more use to this family than an exorcist before the plot line concerning that cursed medallion and Emily’s visions of herself being lynched by medieval peasants is firmly(ish) resolved on the occult side of the equation. The film’s narrative is, quite frankly, a mess ( “Perche?!” is about right) but I’ll happily watch anything with Joanna Cassidy in it (the Blade Runner scene in which she beats the crap out of Harrison Ford never fails to bring me out in palpitations) and the florid cinematography of Dallamano’s regular collaborator Franco Delli Colli is most impressive. Calum Waddell has made persuasive claims for Night Child, likening it to Mario Bava’s pet project Lisa And The Devil (1974) and arguing that “it is not too much of a stretch to say that these early templates aptly anticipate such widescreen wonders of later years as Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond (1981) and Michele Soavi’s The Church (1989) – both of which showcase nightmarish scenarios with an ominously baroque beauty.” Suffice to say that Fulci’s Manhattan Baby (aka Possessed / Eye Of The Evil Dead, 1982) certainly flatters Night Child in the sincerest way it can.
Although spaghetti exorcism continued to recur in spasms throughout subsequent years (right up to the likes of Marco Bellocchio’s Visions of Sabba, 1987), the sub-genre had really shot its vomitous wad barely a year after the release of William Friedkin’s original. Even so, there were still some pasta puke-a-thons in the pipeline. For instance, former Hollywood heavy Richard Conte, fallen on hard times, found himself rubbing shoulders with Bruno Mattei’s favoured leading man – charisma bypass victim Franco Garofalo – in “Frank C. Lucas” (Elio Pannaccio)’s Naked Exorcism. Made in 1976, this one was released the following year (to cash in on John Boorman’s frankly ludicrous official sequel Exorcist II – The Heretic) as The Exorcist III – Cries And Shadows, which is the guise under which it appeared for its British video release on the obscure HBL label. After repeated perusal of this picture, I’m still unable to make head or tale of it, so let’s see what the liner notes have to say: “Peter, an archaeological research participant shivers finding out a strange medallion in a mysterious cave. It forms into a beautiful girl but an Evil Haggia. He gets hold of Sherry’s body and in a wild and animalistic way starts lovegame with her in a rough manner. Sherry realises it was wonderful as he had never made love to her like that. He starts killing, resulting with the involvement of the police. The Bishop’s help was sought after to perform the right of Exorcism. Haggia, naked on self-shaking bed, laughing horribly, shouting insults and curses, tries to kill the Monk who at last manages to tie up the damned soul. He takes the crucifix, presses and pours into the mouth of the being resulting in the vomiting of a filthy and horrible liquid.” Well there you go – I couldn’t have put it better myself…
Nobody has yet managed to concoct even that good an account of what’s going on in Pier Carpi’s Rings Of Darkness (1978), which stars the recently deceased Frank Finlay and Ian Bannen alongside such spaghetti exploitation stalwarts as Anne Heywood, Marisa Mell, Irene Papas, John Phillip Law and Paola Tedesco. This one focuses on the apparently Satanic exploits of the appallingly smug Lara Wendel, who’s given to repeating “What good is a doll… if it can be bought?”, in enigmatic fashion. She may well have a point there, though frankly I felt that the axe attack this “actress” suffered in Dario Argento’s Tenebrae, five years later, was no more than she deserved.
Ciccio Ingrassia had a solo stab at doing what he had made a career of with erstwhile partner Franco Franchi – i.e. lampooning successful genres – in L’Esorciccio (1975), where poor Old Nick is expected to carry the can for the usual “Carry On”-type sexual buffoonery. Believe me, the title of this one is easily its strongest point, though it’s still preferable to 1990’s Leslie Nielsen piss-take Repossessed (in which Linda Blair perpetrated the biggest blasphemy of them all, sending up the only worthwhile role in her less-than-sparkling career.)
Andrea Bianchi’s Malabimba (1979) stars the unpleasantly androgynous Katell Laennec as Bimba, a troubled young lady who’s possessed by a permanently randy revenant and drives her fellow guests in a Medieval castle to furious sexual indulgence, though most of them seem to need little encouragement on this score. Highlights include Bimba pleasuring herself with a smurf and fellating an old cripple to death before long-suffering Mariangela Giordano – here playing heroic nun Sister Sofia – invites the demon into herself and then – in the time-honoured Father Karras manoeuvre – hurls herself to her death from the battlements. Hard-core inserts were added to later versions of Malabimba, which made it ironic that when its producer, Gabriele Crisanti, decided to remake the picture as a hard-core effort entitled Satan’s Baby Doll (1980), the wretched thing (directed by “Alan W. Cools” alias Mario Bianchi) was only released in 1982 after all the porno footage had been take out.
Damiano Damiani, one of the originators of the political spaghetti western, dumbed himself down for the opportunity of making an American crossover with Amityville 2: The Possession (1982). Old Exorcist-imitating ways dying hard, he threw out the lame-ass “haunted house” formula of the first Amityville Horror and laid on a feast of state-of-the-art bladder-induced shape-shifting effects (below) to compliment his kinky tale of patricide and incest, to highly entertaining if totally brainless effect…
… which was effectively the last gasp of Italo-exorcism as we know it. In no time at all, the influence of Old Nick – though occasionally felt in the likes of Michele Soavi’s The Church (1989) and The Sect (1991) – would be virtually banished from Italian screens, not by the ministrations of any priest, but by the influx of zombies and cannibals advancing to claim the devil’s monstrous mantel for themselves… shortly before the complete and seemingly irreversible collapse of the entire Italian film industry. R.I.P. …