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Cult Classics Revisited: THE EERIE MIDNIGHT HORROR SHOW (1974)


(Italy - 1974; US releases 1977 and 1981)

Directed by Mario Gariazzo. Written by Ambrogio Molteni and Ted Rusoff. Cast: Stella Carnacina, Chris Avram, Lucretia Love, Ivan Rassimov, Gabriele Tinti, Luigi Pistilli, Umberto Raho, Gianrico Tondinelli, Piero Gerlini, Giuseppe Addobatti, Edoardo Toniolo, Gianni de Benedetto. (R, 85 mins)

After the phenomenal success of THE EXORCIST (1973), the imitation game was on, and nobody made more entertaining--often for all the wrong reasons--EXORCIST ripoffs than the Italians. Italy started cranking them out in 1974, though it sometimes took them a while to turn up in the US (THE ANTICHRIST, released in Italy in 1974, was retitled THE TEMPTER when it was finally shown in America in 1978). Few of the post-EXORCIST knockoffs had as many titles as L'OSSESSA, which translates to "The Obsessed." Beating Alberto De Martino's THE ANTICHRIST and Ovidio G. Assonitis' BEYOND THE DOOR to Italian theaters by two weeks in November 1974, L'OSSESSA holds the distinction of being the first Italian EXORCIST ripoff. Known in various parts of the world under the far more lurid moniker of THE SEXORCIST (it's listed on IMDb as ENTER THE DEVIL, which seems to be confused with a 1972 American horror film with the same title), the film would be acquired by the exploitation outfit 21st Century, who released in the US throughout 1977 and into 1978 as THE TORMENTED. It was successful enough, at least in my hometown of Toledo, OH, to play for four (!) weeks at the two-screen theater in the tiny Greenwood Mall in April 1977. Someone at the Greenwood Cine thought so highly of THE TORMENTED that they brought it back for a week in July of that year! I don't think anything illustrates how times have changed quite like the idea of a tawdry, softcore Italian EXORCIST ripoff playing for a month straight at a shopping mall.

It wouldn't be until 1981 that L'OSSESSA (or whatever you want to call it) would settle on a definitive title by which everyone would refer to it from that point forward. 21st Century decided to relaunch the film for the burgeoning home video and cable markets, only this time, they ditched the rather bland THE TORMENTED and rechristened it THE EERIE MIDNIGHT HORROR SHOW, complete with a set of ROCKY HORROR lips adorning the newly-commissioned artwork. It was attention-getting, to say the least, and the film found a cult following both in video stores and through late-night airings on Showtime, where its mix of gory horror and softcore sex made it ideal for their "After Hours" programming. The plot concerns virginal art history grad student Danila (Stella Carnacina) and a large wood carving of one of the two men crucified with Christ, recovered from a deconsecrated church. The wooden man comes to life in the form of Eurotrash regular Ivan Rassimov and quickly reveals himself to be Satan, ravaging Danila in a sexual frenzy. As expected, her behavior becomes increasingly bizarre and inappropriate, whether she's masturbating in front of her parents Mario (Chris Avram) and Luisa (Lucretia Love), trying to seduce her father, or beating her head against the wall and escaping a sanitarium with the entire town in pursuit. Like a certain blockbuster from 1973, psychiatrists are consulted but with no success and ultimately, the local clergy recommends an exorcism despite concern that almost no priests are trained in the ritual. Fortunately, the hermit-like Father Xeno (Luigi Pistilli) is an experienced exorcist and happens to live high in the hills of a neighboring town because of course he does.

Like THE ANTICHRIST, there's a strong sexual element to THE EERIE MIDNIGHT HORROR SHOW but where the former was focused more on blasphemy and other unmentionables (like the infamous rimjob-on-a-goat scene), the latter has a kinky, S&M quality to it. It's personified mainly by Danila's mother, who's having a torrid, FIFTY SHADES fling with a sadistic playboy (Gabriele Tinti), who regularly whips her with roses, leaving cuts and lashes all over her body. Luisa's cuckolding of Mario is a main reason why Danila has so many hang-ups about sex and is keeping her boyfriend Carlo (Gianrico Tondinelli) waiting. But that's not really explored and Tinti serves little narrative purpose in the film, other than upping the softcore sleaze factor. Luisa's masochistic sexual tendencies do provide an interesting but underdeveloped parallel with Father Xeno, who almost succumbs to the temptation of a Satanic knobshine from the possessed Danila and responds by shouting "Abomination!" and apologizing to God for his weakness and making amends by engaging in some self-flagellation. As the sexual escapades of THE EERIE MIDNIGHT HORROR SHOW and THE ANTICHRIST demonstrate, Italians tended to get away with a lot more if they made the possession victim a young woman (or a young man in the case of 1975's unwatchable NAKED EXORCISM, aka THE POSSESSOR) instead of a teenage girl. One thing that differentiates THE EERIE MIDNIGHT HORROR SHOW from THE EXORCIST and its clones is that Danila doesn't hurl obscenities in a deep, demonic voice. She mainly just cries and screams (or moans, depending on where her fingers are). She doesn't even spew green vomit until the exorcism, and that's only after she eats clumps of her own hair, essentially barfing the devil out of her.

Finally looking good on home video (the occasional scratches and print damage only enhance the experience) with Code Red's recently-released Blu-ray (!), THE EERIE MIDNIGHT HORROR SHOW was directed by Mario Gariazzo (1930-2002), a perennial D-lister in the world of Eurocult journeymen, always sure to pop up with an obscure contribution to a then in-vogue genre, whether it's the 1969 spaghetti western GOD WILL FORGIVE MY PISTOL with Wayde Preston or the 1973 polizia THE BLOODY HANDS OF THE LAW with Philippe Leroy and Klaus Kinski. The same year as THE EERIE MIDNIGHT HORROR SHOW, he directed the G-rated tearjerker THE LAST CIRCUS SHOW, where he somehow managed to get James Whitmore, Lee J. Cobb, and Cyril Cusack onboard. Often working under the pseudonym "Roy Garret," Gariazzo dabbled in a little of everything, whether it was 1978's unbelievably boring post-CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND alien-invasion conspiracy thriller EYES BEHIND THE STARS, featuring Academy Award winner Martin Balsam absurdly dubbed by a British voice actor, or 1985's post-CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST jungle cannibal thriller AMAZONIA. Gariazzo rarely distinguished himself and THE EERIE MIDNIGHT HORROR SHOW is probably his best-known film by default, though the some admire his 1979 giallo/porno-crossover PLAY MOTEL. L'OSSESSA's script was written by Ambrogio Molteni, another gun-for-hire who penned several insignificant spaghetti westerns before hopping on the BLACK EMANUELLE bandwagon in the mid '70s, and later, Bruno Mattei's skeezy 1982 women-in-prison classic VIOLENCE IN A WOMEN'S PRISON, released in the US in 1984 as CAGED WOMEN.

Dubbing maestro Ted Rusoff (1939-2013)
 posing with the 2010 issue of Video
with him as the cover story.
Molteni no doubt supplied L'OSSESSA with its more pervy elements, but a good chunk of its American EERIE MIDNIGHT HORROR SHOW grindhouse/drive-in charm came from Ted Rusoff. The smooth tones of Canadian expat Rusoff can be heard in countless Eurocult films from the 1960s through the early 2000s. Rusoff spent his career in Italy and supervised the English dubbing of L'OSSESSA (with 21st Century even giving him a writing credit) while also providing the voice for Tondinelli's character. If you've seen enough of these things, you start recognizing the voices, and Rusoff brought the whole gang along for this one: his wife Carolynn De Fonseca dubbed Love, the gruff Ed Mannix dubbed one of the psychiatrists, Michael Forest supplied the voice of Rassimov's Satan, and the mellifluous Tony La Penna handled the actor playing Danila's professor. Rusoff must've had them in the recording studio after a long day and a lot of wine with dinner, because it's one of the most gloriously sloppy dub jobs this side of a vintage GODZILLA movie. In their scripting of English translations, guys like Rusoff would at least try to utilize words and phrasings that would closely match the lip movements while retaining the ideas and the intentions of the original Italian script. No such effort is put forth here. The English words rarely match the what the actors are saying in Italian, and the dialogue is often riotous, especially when Carlo yells at Luisa about her affair and "the whips and belts and other masochistic tomfoolery," pausing briefly before capping it off with a blunt, barked "Whore!" But Avram's back is turned when the dubbed voice spits "Whore!" and the over-the-top way that it's said is more comedic than anything. In other words, the voice actor dubbing Avram didn't have to say it, but it's almost like they knew it would get a big laugh, or maybe they were just amusing themselves. This is not Rusoff and his voice posse's finest hour in terms of quality control, but it's obvious they had a great time working on it...or at least a great time before working on it. Rusoff died in 2013 in the midst of a renewed interest in the world of dubbing, thanks in part to an extensive interview he did with John Charles in a 2010 issue of Video Watchdog. I corresponded with Rusoff on Facebook on several occasions and he had fascinating and often unfiltered stories to share about working with everybody in the business as well as a very self-deprecating attitude about his career, once replying with "I'm sorry you've seen so much of my work."

Stella Carnacina was 19 when she starred in THE EERIE MIDNIGHT HORROR SHOW. It was her first significant role and it led to a brief period where she was a frequently nude starlet in Italian sex comedies (the same year, she co-starred with Italian comedian Lando Buzzanca in THE HANDSOME DEVIL). Carnacina also graced the cover of the Italian edition of Playboy in May 1975, and embarked on a singing career that eventually took precedence over acting. She's been offscreen since 1982 and her musical output seems to have ceased in 1985 as the now-60-year-old Carnacina appears to be long retired from public life. The rest of the film's main cast is filled out by several familiar Eurotrash faces, most notably Rassimov, best known for his sinister performance in Sergio Martino's THE STRANGE VICE OF MRS. WARDH (1971) and as the Jim Jones-like cult leader Jonas in Umberto Lenzi's EATEN ALIVE (1980) and Tinti, who appeared in occasional Hollywood movies like THE FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX (1965) and THE LEGEND OF LYLAH CLARE (1968), but was better known for co-starring in several EMANUELLE films with wife Laura Gemser.

Luigi Pistilli's naturally glum, sad face suits the morose Father Xeno. A respected Italian stage figure, Pistilli became a busy big-screen character actor and was a veteran of numerous westerns and gialli, even headlining Sergio Martino's YOUR VICE IS A LOCKED ROOM AND ONLY I HAVE THE KEY (1972) and co-starring with Avram in Mario Bava's BAY OF BLOOD (1971). Pistilli's place in film history is cemented by his brief role as Father Ramirez, the angry and heartbroken brother of Tuco (Eli Wallach) in Sergio Leone's THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY (1966). Wallach does some of his career-best acting in his scene with Pistilli, who's dubbed but the performance shines through just with the look in his eyes. Pistilli spent most of the 1980s and into the 1990s concentrating on stage work. His life came to a tragic end on April 21, 1996 when he killed himself just before he was to take the stage for the final performance of the Terence Rattigan play Tosca, which had been shredded by critics and audiences. The 66-year-old Pistilli was believed to be depressed about the negative response to the play and was also angry and remorseful over the recent end of a relationship with Italian singer Milva, leaving a suicide note that included an apology for making several disparaging remarks about her to the press following their breakup.

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