hiddenThis is the eighth in a series of articles looking at Eurocult films from the 1970s and 1980s that focus on a theme of diabolical/demonic possession. In this instalment, we examine Spanish filmmaker Amando de Ossorio‘s 1975 picture La endemoniada, released in English as Demon Witch Child and The Possessed.
The international popularity of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) provoked a slew of European horror films about diabolical possession; peaking in the mid-1970s, this subgenre slowly petered out at the end of the decade before becoming increasingly hybridised with other ‘lowbrow’ Eurocult subgenres (for example, the ‘nunsploitation’ film). Initially looking towards The Exorcist as their primary model, these films about diabolical possession sometimes also bore the influence of Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971), and, later on, Richard Donner’s The Omen (1976). These are their stories.
Mother Gautère (Tota Alba), an elderly gypsy witch, vandalises a church and steals the sacred chalice. Barnes (Ángel del Pozo), the police commissioner, converses with priest Father Juan (Julián Mateos) about this act of sacrilege. Father Juan presumes that the theft of the chalice may be motivated by people who are invested in participating in a Satanic ritual, whilst Barnes instead believes that the crimes may have been committed simply by a group of bored young people.
Father Juan is proven correct when Gautère abducts a baby boy with the intention of sacrificing the child in a Black Mass, collecting his blood in the chalice for it to be shared amongst the Satanic “congregation” in mockery of the Eucharist. However, before she is able to do this, Gautère is arrested. She promises a curse upon Barnes if he will not set her free; but Barnes orders for Gautère to be injected with sodium pentathol, the “truth serum,” in order for the police to find out where she has hidden the child. In response, before she can betray the other members of her coven, Gautère jumps through a window to her death.
Barnes is a widower, and neglectful of his daughter Susan (Marián Salgado), who spends most of her time with her babysitter, Anne (Lone Fleming). Following Gautère’s death, the witch’s daughter (Kali Hansa) approaches Susan and presents her with a gift, in the form of a small statuette, informing the child that she “can only play with him when you’re alone in your room.” Subsequently, Susan begins to “act out,” engaging in foul-mouthed rants and levitating above her bed.
Their ire stirred by the sacrificial murder of the baby boy, a group of local men exhume Gautère’s body, pour petrol on it, and set it alight. As the corpse is consumed by flames, it opens its eyes and screams horribly. However, this seems to cause the supernatural events in the Barnes home to escalate.
When Anne’s boyfriend, journalist William Grant (Daniel Martín), begins to dig into the case, Susan mimics Anne’s voice on the telephone in order to lure William to the park. There, Susan murders him before using a knife to remove his genitals, which she wraps in a knotted handkerchief and takes with her.
Meanwhile, Father Juan becomes wracked with guilt after discovering Esther (María Kosty), his former lover who he abandoned in order to enter the priesthood, has become a prostitute. When Susan abducts her unbaptised nephew in order to sacrifice him during a Black Sabbath, the police intervene. Father Juan must overcome his crisis of faith in order to perform an exorcism on Susan, with tragic results.
Critique: “She’ll let me die in peace.”
One of Spain’s most recognised horror filmmakers, Amando de Ossorio had his finger firmly on the bloody pulse of Euro-horror trends during the early 1970s. De Ossorio’s career as a director began in the mid-1950s, and between then and the late-60s he directed a small number of fairly innocuous pictures, including a couple of middling Euro-Westerns (La tumba del pistolero [Grave of the Gunfigher] in 1964, and I tre del Colorado [Canadian Wilderness] in 1965), a comedy (La niña del patio [The Girl in the Yard], 1967), and a children’s film (Pasto de fieras [Field of Beasts], 1968).
It’s perhaps worth mentioning here that another Spanish filmmaker who is highly regarded within the Eurocult pantheon, Eloy de la Iglesia (the director of La semana del asesino [Cannibal Man], amongst other films), also made a children’s film (Fantasia… 3) at about this time: it seems that during the mid-1960s, family-oriented productions were well-supported by the Spanish government. Both de Ossorio and de la Iglesia would, in the 1970s, go on to make horror films (and thrillers) that engaged – in some cases obliquely, and in other cases much more directly – with Spain’s fascist past, during the final years of General Franco’s dictatorship.
In 1969, however, de Ossorio found his Eurohorror groove with Malenka, la nipote del vampiro (Malenka, the Vampire’s Niece, or Fangs of the Living Dead), a Spanish horror picture that starred Anita Ekberg, and which took a number of cues from the vampire films made by British studio Hammer. Subsequently, de Ossorio made a number of very memorable horror pictures, including the four Blind Dead films that began with La noche del terror ciego (Tombs of the Blind Dead) in 1971.
Between 1973 and 1975, de Ossorio made no less than six horror pictures, all of which have substantial cult followings: the three Blind Dead sequels (El ataque de los muertos sin ojos [Return of the Evil Dead] in 1973, El buque maldito [The Ghost Galleon] in 1974, and La noche de las gaviotas [Night of the Seagulls] in 1975), Las garras de Lorelei (The Lorelei’s Grasp, 1974), La noche de los brujos (Night of the Sorcerers, 1974), and Demon Witch Child. De Ossorio’s last two films of the 1970s would extend the liberties afforded by the relaxation of domestic film censorship by traversing into the realm of erotic fantasy, exploring filmic territory that had been opened up by the then-new “S” – for “sex” – film classification.
De Ossorio’s horror films undoubtedly took advantage of the slow relaxation in film censorship in Spain, during the waning years of Franco’s dictatorship. Where the films of de Ossorio’s aforementioned contemporary Eloy de la Iglesia became increasingly explicit in their political content as the 1970s progressed, de Ossorio’s horror pictures seem to engage with the legacy of Franco’s regime in a much more oblique and ambiguous manner. Themes of authoritarianism and intolerance bubble up within de Ossorio’s pictures. In particular, de Ossorio’s horror films seem obsessed with depictions of curses and corrupt legacies tied to authoritarian ideologies. (Most obviously, it’s difficult not to see the brutal puritanical Templar cult at the heart of the Blind Dead films as a comment on the repressive nature of the Francoist regime, though some have suggested the film is a celebration of this.)
Released in its domestic territory (Spain) as La endemoniada (simply, “The Demoniac”), Amando de Ossorio’s entry into the post-Exorcist demonic possession cycle was distributed theatrically in the US under the more lurid title Demon Witch Child. (It was also released on home video formats as The Possessed.) The film’s US moniker is particularly apt, as de Ossorio’s picture features a child not possessed by a demonic entity per se, but rather by a vengeful witch. This is anchored by a scene in which, after Mother Gautère’s death, her spirit is seen leaving her corpse and entering the body of Susan. (This is captured using simple camera trickery, via the use of double exposure/superimposition of one image over another.) Shortly afterwards, Susan is shown sleepwalking to a Black Sabbath presided over by Gautère’s daughter, whereupon Susan is depicted as transforming (via some highly effective prosthetic makeup effects) into an amalgamation of Susan and the elderly Gautère. It’s perhaps the image of this visage, marrying young and old, that lingers most vividly in the memory after watching Demon Witch Child.
Throughout the film, the signs of diabolical possession are those commonly found in post-Exorcist pictures about this subject. Susan is shown levitating above her bed, using foul language and talking about sex in a manner that is hugely inappropriate for a child. She speaks in tongues, conversing in Ancient Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit. Like the voice of the possessed Regan in The Exorcist (memorably dubbed in a growling fashion by Mercedes McCambridge), Susan’s intonation oscillates between that of a child and that of the entity by which she is possessed (ie, Mother Gautère). Doors open and close by themselves in the Barnes house, and Anne is confronted by toads which seem to appear from nowhere. Susan hisses and snarls, and slides across the floor on her back. (This resembles the infamous “spider walk” sequence which was removed from the final theatrical cut of The Exorcist but referenced in promotional material.) De Ossorio attempts to up the ante on one of The Exorcist’s most iconic scenes: where in Friedkin’s picture, Regan’s head rotates 360°
, in Demon Witch Child Susan’s entire torso is shown rotating to a similar degree. Susan’s diabolical deeds build up to the sequence in which she masquerades as Anne on the telephone, luring Anne’s boyfriend William to the park – where Susan murders him before removing his genitals with a knife. (“You’re well-hung,” Susan-Gautère snarls, “but what good are they to you now?”)
The film opens with Mother Gautère committing an act of sacrilege in a church before stealing the sacred chalice. Later, the film reveals that Gautère has stolen this chalice in order to use it during the ritual sacrifice of a baby boy that she has abducted. Ultimately, this sacrifice takes place during the Black Mass in which Susan is initiated into the coven, with the possessed Susan wielding the knife that is used to butcher the infant. In its depiction of one of cinema’s great taboos – infanticide – this is a truly disturbing scene, equivalent to the witch’s slaughtering of the baby in Robert Eggers’ much more recent film The VVitch . It is matched, slightly later in the film, by a scene in which a group of children find the infant’s butchered corpse hidden in a cardboard box on a piece of wasteland; this moment is made all the more impactful by the fact that de Ossorio chooses to film it in a documentary style, using voyeuristic long lenses.
Following her arrest by the police, Gautère promises a curse upon Barnes, telling him “terrible things will happen to you. My master will protect me.” When Gautère leaps through the window of the police station to her death, one wonders whether de Ossorio was making conscious reference to the highly-publicised death of the Italian anarchist Giuseppe Pinelli. Pinelli, of course, died in a similar manner, falling from a fourth floor window in Milan’s police station after being detained for his alleged involvement in the 1969 Piazza Fontana bombing. (Pinelli’s death – and the debate as to whether it was an accident, suicide, or murder – formed the basis of Dario Fo’s 1970 play Morte accidentale di un anarchico [Accidental Death of an Anarchist] and was often referenced in politically-minded Eurocult films of the 1970s.)
In Demon Witch Child, de Ossorio engages with Francoist authoritarianism through the characterisation of Susan’s father, a police commissioner who persecutes the witch and is a neglectful father. A widower, Mr Barnes is established early in the film as a rational man who debates Father Juan’s belief in evil – but despite his own legal and political authority, Barnes is helpless in dealing with his possessed daughter. Father Juan’s assertion that evil is a very real phenomenon is a common position taken by men of the cloth in Eurocult films about demonic possession; many of these films seem to take their cue from Pope Paul VI’s 1972 assertion in 1972 that evil and the Devil should be taken as very real, rather than purely symbolic.
Father Juan and Susan’s father are pitted against one another as representatives of different institutions; the former is associated with the Church and the latter is allied with the law and politics (ie, the State). Demon Witch Child works hard to establish a dialectical relationship between the Church and the State. Early in the film, whilst speaking to Mr Barnes, Father Juan asserts the notion of evil as a very real presence on Earth: “Error and perversion do exist,” he tells the Mr Barnes, “We’re surrounded by devilish presences.” Mr Barnes is flabbergasted: “That’s true,” he responds, “but only on a human level. I can’t believe a man like you believing in Black Magic or the cult of the Devil.” For Barnes, the act of “local” sacrilege (performed by Gautère in the opening sequence) seems more likely the product of wayward youth: “Young people nowadays are bored of just sex and drugs,” he informs Father Juan, “They’re liable to turn to any strange rituals.”
Later, like so many other films about demonic possession, Demon Witch Child depicts the equally familiar conflict between the Church and medicine, with priests and doctors arguing about how best to treat Susan. A medical doctor (Fernando Hilbeck) asserts that belief in diabolical possession “belongs to the Dark Ages, the ages of complete fear. Nowadays, science can find an explanation for everything.” (Notably, this is after a scene in which the possessed Susan, speaking with Mother Gautère’s voice, asserts that “Your science is a bunch of bullshit!”) The doctor suggests Susan’s behaviour may be explained through reference to “Epilepsy, drugs, schizophrenia. The use of ancient languages by Susan may be an inherited memory.” “Your bewitched people of two centuries ago could have been cured with a good chemical tranquilizer,” the doctor tells the priest, adding that Susan’s condition is most likely the result of a “psychopathological crisis.” The doctor suggests an electroencephalogram be performed on Susan; this becomes Demon Witch Child’s equivalent of the memorable carotid angiography performed on Regan in The Exorcist.
Demon Witch Child inverts the absent father motif present in Friedkin’s The Exorcist: where Friedkin foregrounds Chris MacNeil’s (Ellen Burstyn) status as a single mother, in de Ossorio’s film the possessed child “acts out” within the context of a family unit that is headed by a single father. Some critics have asserted that The Exorcist is deeply conservative in its depiction of Chris’ relationship with her daughter Regan: Friedkin’s film, these critics have claimed, suggests that Regan’s possession is an outgrowth of being raised by a single mother. Demon Witch Child would seem to flip this on its head, in its examination of a neglectful single father – the film implying that even before her possession by Mother Gautère, Susan is disadvantaged by being raised by her “cold fish” widower father. Like Chris MacNeil, the father in Demon Witch Child is consumed by his work and has a distant relationship with his daughter. (Intriguingly, a number of other Eurocult films about demonic possession feature single father households including, notably, Alberto De Martino’s L’Anticristo/The Antichrist, 1974.)
But what are the aims of the demon-witch in Demon Witch Child? Her motivation in possessing Susan seems to be revenge, and to destabilise the authority of Susan’s father and the institutions he represents. Notably, Susan-Gautère’s violence seems directed entirely towards males – as foregrounded in the castration of William, Anne’s boyfriend. In The Exorcist, Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow) tells Father Karras (Jason Miller) that the demonic entity has chosen to possess a child “to make us despair. To see ourselves as animal and ugly. To make us reject the possibility that God could love us.” In Demon Witch Child, after being possessed by Gautère, Susan is able to verbalise her goals, asserting to the coven that she has “come back to adore our master” and intends to “spread confusion and hate.”
As in so many other Eurocult films about demonic possession, the possession (of Susan) in this film is triggered by the ownership of a statuette – an objet d’art imbued with Satanic power, comparable to the statuette of Pazuzu that Father Merrin finds in William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973). This statuette is given to young Susan by Mother Gautère’s daughter, in a scene that speaks of “stranger danger” and, to use modern parlance, grooming: the younger Gautère woman approaches Susan and presents her with the statuette, telling Susan that she must “only play with him when you’re alone in your room” before reminding her, as she leaves, “And don’t forget… it’s our secret.” The juxtaposition of innocence and corruption is consolidated by the fact that Susan elects to hide the statuette, a symbol of evil, within her cute teddy bear.
Following this, the formerly innocent Susan begins to display the familiar traits of possessed individuals in these films. For starters, Susan engages in dirty-minded insinuations as to the behaviour of those around her: “You’re horrible! Men do dirty things to you!” she chastises her babysitter, Anne; later she tells Anne, “Why don’t you go fuck your boyfriend and leave me alone?” Anne tells Susan’s father that the young girl’s behaviour has become “perverse, and she uses obscene language. None of her friends could have taught her any of these words… and she’s getting very violent.” When Anne and Susan encounter Father Juan in the park, Susan asks Father Juan if priests have sex. “We have to learn to repress our desires,” Father Juan tells the child, to which she responds, “Then you’re either a goddamn queer or impotent.” Eventually, however, Susan progresses from abusive and sexualised language to more overtly supernatural acts (such as levitation) and the abject deterioration of her body.
On the subject of the sexuality of priests, Demon Witch Child incorporates a subplot involving Father Juan and his former lover Esther (María Kosty). We are shown via flashbacks that Father Juan abandoned Esther in order to enter the priesthood, leaving Esther distraught. Juan, it seems, experiences considerable guilt over this abandonment of his lover: the guilt he experiences is Demon Witch Child’s equivalent of the guilt that The Exorcist’s Father Karras experiences over his feeling that he has “abandoned” his elderly mother to the neuro-psychiatric ward at Bellevue Hospital. In both films, Juan/Karras’ respective sense of guilt provides the possessing demon/entity with leverage over the priest during the climactic exorcism.
In the diegetic present, Father Juan encounters Esther, after many years apart, when he is called to the “house of the three sisters.” The house is in fact a brothel, and Esther is working there as a prostitute: she tells Father Juan that she has become “a cheap whore” thanks to the manner in which he “abandoned” her. “You’re safe and sound. Your church protects you,” she says, “Until now… because in the future, you’ll have my life on your conscience […] And that will be my revenge.” Esther begs Juan to “leave the priesthood” so the couple may “run away together. No other woman can love you like I do,” she reminds him. However, Juan resists the temptation presented by Esther, asserting his role as a priest and thus ensuring that, at the film’s climax, he is able to perform the rite of exorcism on Susan.
Esther represents a “normal” life away from the priesthood. (One wonders whether this subplot involving the temptation that Esther offers Juan, of a “normal” life away from the priesthood, was influenced by Nikos Kazantzakis’ 1955 novel The Last Temptation of Christ.) Esther’s attempt to lure Father Juan away from his divine mission finds its payoff in the film’s climax. As Juan performs the exorcism on Susan, the possessed child takes the form of Esther, imploring the priest to “Go away. Leave me alone!” (Again, this mirrors a moment in The Exorcist, in which the demon Pazuzu, possessing the body of Regan, adopts the voice of Karras’ dead mother.) However, Father Juan sees through this disguise, asserting that “You’re not Esther. You’re the spirit of Satan. You’re simply trying to confuse me.” This leads to Juan placing his crucifix on Susan’s forehead. She cries out, the cross burning itself into her flesh before fading away. The demon witch has departed. “She’s left now,” Susan mutters, “I’m free. She’ll let me die in peace.”
At the end of The Exorcist, of course, Father Karras saves both Regan’s life and her immortal soul by taking the demon into his own body and hurling himself down the now-iconic flight of steps outside the MacNeil home. Strikingly, Demon Witch Child ends with an exorcism in which the possessed child dies: her life is sacrificed in the battle against evil. (The actual exorcism is quite rushed, in a similar manner to another key Spanish post-Exorcist film, the Paul Naschy-starring Exorcism [Exorcism], discussed in a previous instalment in this series of articles.) The innocent child expires with her soul tainted by her encounter with the demonic; no priest manages to save her from being consigned to hell. It’s a bleak, bleak denouement – deeply tragic in its implications, that an innocent child has been condemned to an eternity in Hell.
Demon Witch Child experienced theatrical releases in Spain and the US. It was released on VHS in various territories, including Germany, Spain, and the Netherlands. In the US, Demon Witch Child was released on tape as The Possessed (by All Seasons Entertainment) and Demon Witch Child (by Simitar). Various grey market releases ensued, extending into the age of digital home video, with most of these DVD presentations being sourced from one or another of the film’s VHS releases. The film was distributed on DVD by Code Red, on a double-bill with Charles Nizet’s 1976 film Help Me… I’m Possessed, with a transfer derived from a scan of a 35mm print. However, this release had its own incongruity in the form of the accidental repetition of the opening scene. Frustratingly, given the shonky English dubbing on this picture, Demon Witch Child hasn’t had a home video release in Spanish with English subtitles. There are alternate DVD releases from other territories, however, including from Germany (as Der Exorcist und die Kindhexe) – which contains the English dub alongside the film’s German dub – and Italy (as L’Eretica), where the film is dubbed into Italian and reputedly cut.