1963 - IL DEMONIO
Italy-France. Literal Title: “The Demon”. Released in France as LE DÉMON DANS LA CHAIR (“The Demon in the Flesh”).
Directed by Brunello Rondi. Written by Rondi, Ugo Guerra, and Luciano Martino.
The Story: After being spurned by her lover, a young woman in a rural Italian town begins to exhibit very strange behavior, leading to the conclusion that she’s been possessed by a demon.
I'm pleased to say that this is a very, very interesting movie, quite engrossing, although definitely not what one initially thinks of as a “demon possession” movie. It’s really more of an art-house pseudo-documentary on the superstitious and religiously-charged beliefs of contemporary rural Italians. In fact, the opening narration states that the film is an “ethnological study” of events in a rural Southern Italian mountain village, and Jonathan Rigby’s “Euro Gothic” states that it was supposedly based on a “true” incident of possession in the very town in which the movie was filmed.
In the previous year’s MONDO CANE, one of the more hard-to-watch segments documented a bizarre Christian (or, I suppose, Catholic) ritual of young men running around an Italian mountain village during a religious festival, cutting themselves repeatedly (and rather seriously) with glass-imbedded bricks. Nothing depicted in IL DEMONIO is that extreme, but we do witness a number of strange rituals involving a wedding (during which the marriage bed is decorated with grapes, salt, and a symbolically protective scythe), a funeral procession that resembles a college fraternity hazing ritual, a weird scene in which the townsfolk gather to shout at the sky in an attempt to change the weather, and a Church-conducted exorcism directed at our protagonist, named Purif and played by Daliah Lavi.
All of this is done in a stark, black & white documentary-like style (and employing what looks to be a lot of ordinary non-actor villagers in various roles), but it’s still obviously a fictional, narrative movie. If you’re familiar with the post-war Italian neo-realist films of Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica, and try to imagine what it would be like if one of them shot a 1950s version of THE EXORCIST, you’d probably conjure up this movie in your mind.
And if I had ever had the unlikely opportunity to ask William Peter Blatty or William Friedkin if they saw IL DEMONIO prior to 1973 and they said “Umm…no”, I wouldn’t have believed them. This movie admittedly has nothing resembling the insanity and terror of THE EXORCIST, but it does have some definite similarities. However, I don’t want to give the impression that this is in any way analogous to the EXORCIST experience. IL DEMONIO doesn’t actually have much in the way of a narrative, and it’s not really ever frightening…just weird and occasionally a little creepy (and it takes place almost entirely in broad daylight and primarily out-of-doors). So, it’s much more reminiscent of MOTHER JOAN OF THE ANGELS than anything you’d see at the drive-in.
OK, so just what is the plot of this non-horror horror film? Well, a beautiful Girl is spurned by her lover, who soon marries another woman. The Girl then… Theory A: Has a mental breakdown, puts a curse on her ex-boyfriend, makes a spectacle of herself in front of the whole town, and gleefully declares that she’s been possessed by a Demon. - OR - Theory B: Is possessed (or was perhaps already possessed) by a real-deal Demon, puts a curse on her ex-boyfriend, makes a spectacle of herself, and resists all attempts to save her soul. In the end, we the Audience don’t know what to think. There seems to be real on-screen evidence of the supernatural, and yet it all also seems like superstition and a collective psychosis. And that, in my mind, is a good thing…I love ambiguity in creepy movies.
The writer-director is Brunello Rondi, who was among the team of co-writers that worked with Federico Fellini on 8 ½, LA DOLCE VITA, and a year or two later JULIET OF THE SPIRITS. Rondi’s screenplay collaborators on this movie, Ugo Guerra and Luciano Martino, teamed with Mario Bava for the same year’s THE WHIP AND THE BODY (also featuring Daliah Lavi).
And let’s not forget to say a few words about Daliah Lavi, an Israeli actress who had a fair amount of success in 1960’s European and U.S. genre films. While she doesn’t quite reach the iconic level of, say, Claudia Cardinale, she was a strikingly beautiful woman, and I’d bet a much better actress than she’s generally given credit for, judging by this movie. We saw her earlier in THE RETURN OF DR. MABUSE and we’ll soon see her again in the already-mentioned WHIP AND THE BODY. She plays the lead in IL DEMONIO, as a simple girl named Purif, and she’s pretty impressive in the role. When actresses are described as giving a “fearless performance”, that seems to generally mean a highly emotional performance and/or one in which the actress eschews glamour and dignity…and Lavi deserves accolades for succeeding in both. She manages to be either alternately or simultaneously sympathetic, manipulative, pathetic, selfish, seductive, grovelling, insane, or genuinely Possessed by Evil.
A sad note about her co-star here, Frank Wolff, in the role of Antonio, who rejects Purif but is obviously still attracted to her (one has to wonder…did his rejection of Purif cause her “possession” or did her “possession” frighten him away?). Wolff, an American, started out in a couple of Roger Corman movies like THE BEAST FROM HAUNTED CAVE and Elia Kazan’s AMERICA, AMERICA, but found some success after moving to Italy in genre films, especially westerns. For some unknown reason, he committed suicide in Rome at age 43 in 1971. Most of the rest of the cast are probably just folks who lived in the area…and as in Fellini’s movies, there are some great human faces caught on film in this movie.
I enjoyed IL DEMONIO quite a bit, but - as we’ve encountered in many of the movies along this journey - it’s not really what one generally expects of a “horror” film. Think more along the lines of an art-house, neo-realist Italian thriller with supernatural elements, and your expectations will line up with the movie just fine. And if you’re a big fan of THE EXORCIST, it’s definitely worthy of investigation.
I recently acquired this through a Sinister Cinema DVD-R - a good widescreen print in Italian with English subtitles. I had earlier found it (I thought) on YouTube but without subtitles - can’t find it there now, so I may have been mistaken or it may have been removed.