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Cult Classics Revisited, Special "Demonic Daddy Issues" Edition: THE ANTICHRIST (1974) and bonus film THE NIGHT CHILD (1975)

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THE ANTICHRIST 
aka THE TEMPTER
(Italy - 1974; US release 1978)

Directed by Alberto De Martino. Written by Gianfranco Clerici, Vincenzo Mannino, and Alberto De Martino. Cast: Carla Gravina, Mel Ferrer, Arthur Kennedy, George Coulouris, Alida Valli, Umberto Orsini, Mario Scaccia, Anita Strindberg, Remo Girone, Ernesto Colli, Lea Lander. (Unrated, 112 mins; R-rated US theatrical cut, 96 mins)


When THE EXORCIST opened in December 1973 and became a worldwide phenomenon well into the next year, it gave birth to a seemingly endless parade of imitations and blatant ripoffs, some from the US, but mostly from Europe, and Italy in particular.  As they would later demonstrate with zombies, CONAN, and RAMBO ripoffs, the Italians latched on to the EXORCIST formula and beat it to death with films like 1974's BEYOND THE DOOR, 1974's THE TORMENTED (also released as THE SEXORCIST but best known under its 1978 ROCKY HORROR-inspired US release title THE EERIE MIDNIGHT HORROR SHOW), and the subgenre's absolute nadir, 1975's pathetic NAKED EXORCISM, aka THE RETURN OF THE EXORCIST (it was later shamelessly retitled THE EXORCIST III: CRIES AND SHADOWS for its UK video release), which showcased a possessed teenage boy howling "I've had it up to here with your mumbo-jumbo!" to an exorcist played by visibly embarrassed GODFATHER co-star Richard Conte, looking very frail in his final screen appearance (he was dead for two years when the film was released in the US in 1977 as THE POSSESSOR).  Even the legendary Mario Bava's then-shelved 1973 pet project LISA AND THE DEVIL was infamously retooled with new footage featuring Robert Alda as an exorcist for its 1976 release as THE HOUSE OF EXORCISM. BEYOND THE DOOR was a surprise box office hit when it was released in the US in 1975, and even prompted an unsuccessful lawsuit from Warner Bros., though they did manage to get AIP's 1974 blaxorcist take ABBY (with BLACULA's great William Marshall as the exorcist) yanked from screens.  The ripoffs weren't limited to Italy:  Spain got into the game with the Paul Naschy-starring EXORCISM (1975) and BLIND DEAD mastermind Amando de Ossorio's DEMON WITCH CHILD (1975), released in the US in 1976 as THE POSSESSED.  And Walter Boos took a break from SCHOOLGIRL REPORT installments to direct the West German MAGDALENA: POSSESSED BY THE DEVIL (1974), released in the US in 1976 as BEYOND THE DARKNESS and featuring THE EXORCIST's Rudolf Schundler (who played the servant Karl) as--go figure--the exorcist.




By the time many of these post-EXORCIST copycats made it to the US, the craze had passed.  Along with BEYOND THE DOOR, Alberto De Martino's THE ANTICHRIST was among the first Italian EXORCIST ripoffs produced (they opened in Italy within days of one another), though it was one of the last to hit the US when it arrived in American grindhouses and drive-ins courtesy of Avco Embassy in the fall of 1978 as THE TEMPTER, shorn of 16 minutes of mostly exposition but of some other salacious material that almost certainly would've earned it an X rating. As these films went on, they seemed to be attempting to outdo one another with the sleaze and shock value, but none of Italy's EXORCIST knockoffs were quite as unabashedly blasphemous as THE ANTICHRIST.  If you can get by the frequently rudimentary visual effects, there's actually a legitimate, beautifully-shot, and provocative film lurking within the THE ANTICHRIST's stunning and gleefully exploitative displays of sexual frustration, inventive profanity ("You stinking pots of shiiiiiit!"), slut-shaming ("You had so many cocks you can't remember, and you liked it!"), orgies, incest, headless toads, an image of a grinning Jesus sporting a raging erection, and the possession victim ranting as gobs of demon semen hang from her chin.  All of that is just a warm-up for the film's most infamous sequence, an act of bestiality as the possessed woman performs something that could best be described as "goatilingus" (© Stacie Ponder).  Not everything in THE ANTICHRIST works, but time and again in its bold and often obscene depiction of demonic possession, De Martino is willing to take it places that even something as groundbreaking as THE EXORCIST didn't dare tread.  The film is loaded with many "Did that shit just happen?!" moments and, in its uncensored European form, goes about as far as a demonic possession film can go.


Where THE EXORCIST dealt with evil reaffirming the faith of troubled Father Damien Karras, THE ANTICHRIST is much more fervently Catholic in its presentation and its faith never in doubt, which makes its many transgressions all the more shocking. Wheelchair-bound Ippolita Oderisi (Carla Gravina) has been unable to walk since a childhood car accident that claimed the life of her mother.  Around 30 years of age, Ippolita still lives in the family home with her father, Prince Massimo (Mel Ferrer), and seems well on her way to spinsterdom, telling her high-ranking Bishop uncle Ascanio (Arthur Kennedy) that no man has ever taken an interest in her and that a part of her would sell her soul to the devil just for the experience of intimacy.  She's furiously possessive of her father and insanely jealous over his relationship with his secretary Gretel (Anita Strindberg).  Offering to say a mass for her, Bishop Ascanio tells Ippolita that her jealousy is "absurd" and that she needs to realize that her widower father needs to move on with his life as well.  He also hyperbolically expresses his concern to his brother Massimo that Ippolita may have fallen in with a sect of devil worshippers. Oh, it's way worse than that: thanks to some hypnosis sessions with parapsychologist Dr. Sinibaldi (Umberto Orsini), who believes her disability to be psychosomatic, horny Ippolita has been possessed by a spirit that has been lying dormant in her subconscious, an Inquisition-era Oderisi ancestor, also named Ippolita, who ran off with a Satanic cult the night before she was to be sent to a convent.  She was branded a witch and burned, though she renounced Satan and pledged herself to God at the last moment.  The demon that possessed the past Ippolita has taken over the present-day Ippolita, taking advantage of her secret feelings for her father (she writhes around on her bed, rubbing a photo of her father over her crotch) and her intense sexual frustration.  Ippolita has an out-of-body experience where she goes through the same ritual as her ancestor, which involves a black mass/orgy where, among countless copulating Satanists, she eats the severed head of a toad, drinks toad's blood, and performs analingus on a goat before being sexually violated by the devil himself.



Things go from bad to worse as the demonic Ippolita now takes over as De Martino (HOLOCAUST 2000, THE PUMAMAN) and the screenwriters bring things more in line with the usual EXORCIST shenanigans:  there's the requisite projectile green vomit, both in the face of family caregiver Irene (Alida Valli) and a handful that she force-feeds a bogus faith healer (Mario Scaccia). Ippolita goes an astonishingly profane tirade at dinner, seduces her playboy brother Filippo (Remo Girone), and tries to strangle her father.  She taunts Ascanio, croaking "She's a big whore, your Ippolita...she'd lay you as well!  She'd pluck gladly from under your tunic that innocent little nestling that never has flown," before exposing herself and bellowing "Dip your limp bird in holy water and bless me!" After all that, authorization is finally given for a formal exorcism, and, arriving out of the shadows Father Merrin-style is Austrian monk Father Mittner (George Coulouris), who has popped up on the fringes throughout, usually shaking a can for change, and is also seen in the Inquisition flashbacks and may be the reincarnation of the priest who saved the older Ippolita's soul.

THE ANTICHRIST is much more devout in its religious aspects than THE EXORCIST.  There's much debate over theology vs. science, and though he considers Sinibaldi a fine doctor, Ascanio dismisses him as a "skeptic and a non-believer."  Eventually, Prince Massimo relieves Sinibaldi of his duties, more or less admitting that only the power of Christ can compel Ippolita.  The bluntly religious messages throughout are a bizarre mix with some of the blasphemous imagery and graphic sexuality, not to mention the unexplored plot point that Ippolita and Filippo clearly did some messing around together when they were teenagers (Ippolita: "Remember when we were children...how you made me feel special?").  The possessed Ippolita spills the beans to Massimo ("My brother and I fucked!") and Irene has witnessed it (she also deliberately doesn't tell Ippolita about Massimo and Gretel, so she's good at keeping secrets), but it's never again addressed, unless Massimo gives them a "devil made them do it" pass.  And what about Ippolita's obvious designs on her father? Here lies the difference in the culture that produced THE EXORCIST and the one to which THE ANTICHRIST was born:  the Oderisi family is one that's been waiting to have its ass handed to it by a scandalous past long buried.  The past Ippolita has come to collect payment for generations of Oderisi hypocrisy and bourgeois decadence, not to mention weakness, represented by Ascanio' procrastination and cowardice in addressing his niece's ordeal. But it sort-of lets them all off the hook by the end--all sins forgiven--and emerging through the plethora of perversion on display throughout THE ANTICHRIST is a film that's perhaps too rooted in centuries-old reverence and tradition when it comes to its kid-gloves treatment of both the Catholic church and Italian nobility. Improbably enough, De Martino made a film that includes a scene of a goat having its ass eaten out, yet somehow still finds a way to pull its punches.


The production design in THE ANTICHRIST is spectacular and the ornate interiors (Bishop Ascanio's office is a sight to behold) beautifully shot by Aristide Massaccesi/Joe D'Amato.  The score by Ennio Morricone and Bruno Nicolai is a piercing cacophony of screeching violins and organ music, augmented by eerie hisses, whispers, and deep gasps.  It's a cut above the usual slapdash, exploitative EXORCIST ripoff, with a committed, vanity-free performance by Gravina, whose intensity comes through even though she's dubbed even prior to the possession scenes (SPEED RACER completists will be interested to know that the English dub was supervised by Peter Fernandez, who also voiced the possessed Ippolita; Ferrer, Kennedy, and Coulouris dub themselves) and would likely be taken a lot more seriously if the special effects weren't so terrible.  The levitation scenes and the visual effects involving the moving furniture and Ippolita's disembodied hand strangling the faith healer are some of the most bush-league traveling mattes ever committed to celluloid.  As an aside, I wonder if some of the more tawdry elements of THE ANTICHRIST were kept from the old pros in the cast (it's doubtful Ferrer and Kennedy ever envisioned reuniting on this after Fritz Lang's 1952 classic RANCHO NOTORIOUS).  I can't imagine George Coulouris--the same year he co-starred in MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS--getting the script for this and thinking "OK, possession, levitation, green vomit, and uh, what?  Rimjob on a goat? Well, I was in CITIZEN KANE...why not?"




THE NIGHT CHILD
(Italy - 1975; US release 1976)

Directed by Max Dallamano (Massimo Dallamano). Written by Max Dallamano (Massimo Dallamano) and Jan Hartman. Cast: Richard Johnson, Joanna Cassidy, Lila Kedrova, Evelyn Stuart (Ida Galli), Edmund Purdom, Nicole Elmi (Nicoletta Elmi), Richard Garrone, Dana Ghia, Tom Felleghy. (R, 89 mins)

WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO SOLANGE? director Massimo Dallamano's THE NIGHT CHILD is often lumped in with the string of Italian EXORCIST knockoffs, but it's more like a DON'T LOOK NOW ripoff with subtle EXORCIST elements.  That didn't stop Edward L. Montoro and Film Ventures International from selling it as such for its 1976 US release, where they really played up the success of BEYOND THE DOOR ("Beyond the door of madness..."), emphasizing the presence of that film's star Richard Johnson and even using very similar font in the one-sheet design.  In fact, THE NIGHT CHILD is rather low-key and surprisingly restrained as far as these things go--it's almost more of an art film than an outright horror film--and with no child turning monstrous and no levitation or any of the standard possession histrionics on display, it had to thoroughly bore grindhouse audiences expecting another barf-happy, "Let Jesus fuck you!" EXORCIST clone.  Widower BBC documentary filmmaker Michael Williams (Richard Johnson) gets into all sorts of devilish trouble when he decides to take his daughter Emily (FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN and DEEP RED's Nicoletta Elmi, the marvelously expressive, red-haired child actress who had the Creepy Kid market cornered in '70s Italian horror) and her nanny Jill (Ida Galli) to Italy with him for his latest project, a documentary entitled "Diabolical Art." His focus is a mysterious painting depicting a young girl who died 200 years earlier, and it has a profound effect on Emily, who also wears an allegedly cursed medallion that once belonged to her late mother.  A local psychic (ZORBA THE GREEK Oscar-winner Lila Kedrova), senses that Emily is the reincarnation of Emilia, the girl's whose death is depicted in the painting, and that Michael's wife was killed by a hateful supernatural force with a connection to the medallion.



Also complicating matters is Michael's romance with his production manager Joanna, played by Joanna Cassidy, pulling some surprise Eurotrash duty, taking this gig after she was fired from THE STEPFORD WIVES and replaced by Paula Prentiss.  Like Ippolita's fixation on Massimo, Emily is overly possessive of her father, in ways that a doctor (Edmund Purdom, with about a minute and a half of screen time) says "has all the elements of a neurosis." Like Ippolita's rage at Gretel, Emily wants nothing to do with Joanna, but THE NIGHT CHILD adds some unrequited love with the unspoken feelings Jill has for Michael.  While Johnson's O-face as Cassidy disappears out of frame to go down on him is arguably as disturbing as anything in THE ANTICHRIST, you can see some similar themes developing between it and THE NIGHT CHILD: widower father, jealous daughter, reawakening of a vengeful spirit from centuries past, and useless doctors unable to do anything helpful.  Both films take place in lush palazzos (though THE NIGHT CHILD makes greater use of some natural lighting in Franco Delli Colli's cinematography), both films feature characters dying in falls against amateurishly-integrated rearscreen matte work, and both films climax with the possessed females being chased out of their residence and through the streets by their desperate fathers.  It's interesting that THE ANTICHRIST ends on an uplifting note thanks to divine intervention, the acceptance of God, and letting the pillars of society off the hook while things take a more agnostic turn in THE NIGHT CHILD, which doesn't feature an exorcism or even a priest, and its conclusion is downbeat, depressing, and godless.  You can fuck your brother, try to kill your father, regurgitate some devil-cum, and enthusiastically toss a goat's salad in THE ANTICHRIST, but all is forgiven if you just believe and accept. There is no such salvation for the doomed protagonists of THE NIGHT CHILD.




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