Exorcismo Euro: European Possesion Films of the 70's

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They say that in Italy, they don't ask you what your movie is like, they ask you "what movie is it like?". Say what you will, but the European horror & exploitation market has always been the K-Tel Records of the film industry, serving up old product in crappy new packages. That isn't to say that some great films haven't arisen from this, it simply implies that, with a few notable exeptions, European horror filmmakers are not known for their original storylines. It is much safer (and perhaps smarter) for foreign territories to simply recycle a concept made popular by a successful American film. This monkey-see relationship has nevertheless produced some of the genre's classic works. Of course, we are to blame for some of this; without DAWN OF THE DEAD there would be no ZOMBIE; without POLTERGEIST there would be no HOUSE BY THE CEMETARY; and without THE EXORCIST, there would be none of the films of which I am about to write.

When Freidkin's blockbuster was released in 1973, the race to cash in on it's success was fast & furious. The two forerunners in this heated heat were Juan Bosch's EXORCISMO (released stateside as EXORCISM), and Amando deOssorio's LA ENDEMONIADA (U.S. title DEMON WITCH CHILD). In the midst of all the hysteria, LA ENDEMONIADA beat Bosch's film to the theatres by one week.

While suffering from bad production values (and not helped by terrible dubbing in the U.S.), LA ENDEMONIADA does have a slightly more inventive storyline than many of it's ilk. An old woman accused of kidnapping babies for use in witchcraft possesses the daughter of the policeman who arrested her. Soon, the little girl is (surprise!) levitating, cursing, spitting up foul things, and generally displaying an extremely anti-social attitude. The girl gradually takes on the physical appearance of the old witch, &, after a castration, an attack by fuzzy stuffed animals, & some other assorted merryment, she kidnaps another child for use in a Black Mass. The cops & clergy intervene &, in a somewhat surprising ending, the girl is killed by being impaled on a large iron cross.

EXORCISMO is a more straightforward re-telling of Blatty's tale. So straightforward, in fact, that the only reason to sit through this film if you've seen it's American model is...PAUL NASCHY! Yes, folks, Waldemar himself plays the Exorcist in this one, which raises it high above other efforts just by default. The demonic trappings are minimal in this tale however, the possessor being the crazed, desceased father of the young girl he inhabits. Seems the fellow's wife had an affair with his doctor while he was institutionalized, so just for revenge's sake, he invades the body of his daughter & turns her into a homicidal maniac. Naschy (actually playing a good guy, albeit a rather stoic one) is an expert Demonologist who comes to her rescue in the predictable finale.

One of the more interesting (and remembered) Euro-possession films is Alberto DeMartino's L'ANTICRISTO (THE TEMPTER). Never shown in the U.S. in it's fully uncut version, DeMartino's film is one of the most original Exorcist clones & boasts some fine cinematography (by none other than Joe D'Amato himself, Aristide Massaccesi) & a great score by the legendary Ennio Morricone.

Carla Gravini, a sexually repressed, wheelchair-bound young woman is possessed by the spirit of one of her ancestors; a witch burned at the stake during the middle ages. While sleeping one night, she is transported back to the time of her forebearer's inquisition, where she is force-fed the head of a toad and, in a notorious scene (unhesitantly cut by the U.S. distributor), is made to tongue the anus of a live goat. Naturally, this does little for her already fragile state of mind, so the family calls in the cavalry in the form of exorcist Mel Ferrer.

Ferrer performes a perfunctory exorcism, only to have Carla escape off into the stormy night. He finally corners her and, in a complete reversal of Freidkin's film, the demon is EXPELLED by thrusting a wooden crucifix between her legs!

L'ANTICRISTO is one of the few films of this sub-genre to become somewhat of a cult item. It can still be found, in it's truncated form, in video stores across the U.S. The Euro- possession film that scored highest at the stateside box-office, however, was Sonia Assonitis' comparitavely dull CHI SEI? More familiar to domestic horror fans as BEYOND THE DOOR.

BEYOND THE DOOR opens with a voice-over by old Scratch himself (...please allow me to introduce myself...) warning veiwers of the tale about to unfold onscreen. We are then introduced to Dimitri (Richard Johnson), a man who has sold his sold to the devil for fame & fortune. Neither has come his way. His borrowed time is almost up, so he strikes another deal with the Great Horned One to arrange for his spirit to be reborn into that of a child; the unborn child of actress Juliet Mills.

As one would expect, carrying around a possessed fetus promised to Satan does not do good things for your health. In fact, it makes your head spin 180 degrees, causes levitation, and induces inexplicable bouts of Tourette's syndrome. Finally, as the unholy birth approaches, and as Dimitri pounds on Mill's stomach to speed up the birth, the Devil appears to tell him it was all a joke, his time is up after all. But not before Mills gives birth to a little, mouthless Eraserhead Jr. with translucent skin.

All in all, a pretty sick joke of a film, but it hit theatres at just the right time & recieved a wider release that any of the aforementioned epics. CHI SEI? turned a healthy profit upon it's U.S. release & spawned two completely unrelated sequels (one starring Bo Svenson!). The film does have some creepy scenes, but you've seen 'em all done before, and done considerably better.

In 1986, Lamberto Bava, son of the great Mario, caused waves in the Eurohorror community with this project, co-produced by Dario Argento (and initially marketed under his name power). After breathless raves began appearing in a certain popular genre mag by a certain British correspondent, American horror fans waited with baited breath in anticipation of "one of the best Horror films of the last 10 years". Well, we're still waiting, but nevertheless, lofty expectations aside, DEMONS is a hoot.

In what became his trademark plot device, Bava traps a group of characters in a large building & scares the bejeesus out of the. The building this time being the Metropol, a Berlin cinema showing a new horror film about Demons arising from the tomb of Nostradamus. A girl & her freind are given free passes to the show by a strange man dressed in a silver-cyborg mask. Inside the theatre, another patron cuts herself on a similar display mask in the lobby, & during the mid-point of the film-within-a-film, begins to sprout fangs & claws and develops a desire to rend flesh. She tears a man's throat out in full view of the audience &, since the contagion is spread through the fingernails, soon everybody's scrathcin' at everybody & all hell breaks loose. Literally.

Our heros battle through some truly outrageous setpeices; such as a motorcycle chase down the theatre aisles and an escape from the cinema through a hole in the roof made by a falling helicopter, before escaping to the outside...only to find that the infernal plague is now sweeping the world.

In this, his first major film, Bava employes a combination of the styles of his father Mario Bava & his producer/mentor Dario Argento. The use of vivid color & dreamlike violence harkens back to SUSPIRIA, while the dark atmosphere of the theatre & the pessimistic ending recall some of his father's best works. DEMONS was a worldwide hit & spawned a worthy sequel, DEMONS II: THE NIGHTMARE RETURNS two years later. Bava's subsequent works have not had the same impact on U.S. audiences, but in his native Italy, he lives up to his birthright as a successful film & television director.

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