Nine Tenths of the Law #4: L’ossessa (Mario Gariazzo, 1974)
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.
Art student Danila (Stella Carnacina) comes from a privileged but unstable background. Her impotent father, Mario (Chris Avram), is regularly cuckolded by Danila’s mother, Luisa (Lucretia Love), who openly indulges in in kinky S/M sessions with her lover (Gabriele Tinti) during which he whips her naked body with the thorny stems of roses.
Danila is assisting with the purchase and restoration of a life-sized statue, of a crucified figure, taken from a deconsecrated and derelict church. Working in her studio late one night, the statue comes to life and presents itself as a man (played by Ivan Rassimov); he rapes Danila.
Danila’s behaviour becomes more outrageous (and focused on masturbation). Concerned, Danila’s parents and her boyfriend Carlo (Gianrico Tondinelli) seek the help of a medical doctor, Doctor Harris (Giuseppe Addobbati). He suggests they spend some time in the country, but when Danila stops off at an ancient Etruscan temple that was rumoured to be the site of orgies and sacrificial rites, she experiences a vision in which she witnesses the diabolical entity from the statue presiding over a Satanic ritual—which involves the sacrifice of a naked young woman, and the drinking of her blood from a goblet.
Following further investigations, Doctor Harris is perplexed but suggests to Danila’s parents that they may wish to consult a priest. The priest recommends that Danila be taken to then convent of Our Lady of Sorrow to meet an exorcist, Father Xeno (Luigi Pistilli).
Critique: “It’s only the invention of priests”
Though he’s often dismissed as a filmmaker associated with simple sexploitation films, the director of Enter the Devil, Mario Gariazzo, has a body of work that is remarkably diverse. His first film was the 1962 picture Lasciapassare per il morto (Passport for a Corpse), an inventive and claustrophobic thriller in which a fugitive (played by Alberto Lupo) masquerades as a corpse in order to cross the border into France. Subsequent to this, Gariazzo directed Italo-Westerns (Dio perdoni la mia pistola / God Will Forgive My Pistol, 1969; Acquasanta Joe, 1971), poliziesco pictures (La mano spietata della legge / The Law Enforcers, 1973), lacrima (“tearjerker”) films (Il venditore di palloncini / Last Moments, 1974), and science-fiction pictures (Occhi dalle stella / Eyes Behind the Stars, 1978).
Gariazzo’s broader reputation as a director of sex pictures, however, rests on a relatively small number of films: the SF sex-parody Incontri molto… ravvicinati del quarto tipo (Very Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind / The Coming of Aliens, 1978), the explicit giallo all’italiana (also released with hardcore inserts) Play Motel (1979)… and Enter the Devil.
The statue that Danila is helping to restore is bought from a deconsecrated church, and is intended to represent one of the thieves crucified with Christ. Danila visits the church with her employer; it is derelict, and behind the space where the altar should be are two life-sized statues of crucified figures. Danila is told that the statue of Christ, which should be placed in the centre of these two figures, is missing because it has already been sold. On Danila’s advice, her employer chooses to buy one of these statues: though not mentioned explicitly in the dialogue, it is clear that the statue is a representation of Gestas, the impenitent thief or “bad thief” who was crucified alongside Christ. The other statue, we may assume, is meant to represent Dismas, the penitent thief who was crucified on the other side of Christ.
In the Gospel of Luke, when the crucified Christ is mocked by the priests for claiming to be the Messiah, Dismas seeks penitence for his sins (hence the reference to him as the “penitent thief”) and asks for Jesus’ forgiveness. On the other hand, Gestas—the “impenitent thief”—joins in with the mocking of Jesus. In artistic representations of the event, such as Hans von Tobingen’s 1430 painting “Crucifixion,” Gestas is often depicted alongside a Devil: his lack of penitence associates him with the deviant, criminal, and potentially diabolical.
Of course, taking their cue from William Friedkin’s The Exorcist and its foregrounding of the statue of Pazuzu that Father Merrin finds in Iraq, many Eurocult films about demonic possession feature diabolical objets d’art. Enter the Devil’s focus on religious art also anticipates Pupi Avati’s atmospheric 1976 giallo all’italiana La casa dalle finestre che ridono (The House with Laughing Windows): the narrative of Avati’s picture focuses on a young man, Stefano (Lino Capolicchio), who is sent to a remote village in Northern Italy to restore a fresco that depicts the death of St Sebastian. In both films, the respective depictions of religious agony are referred to as surprisingly lifelike: “A sculpture of marble and wood can have life as much as any human being,” Danila asserts in reference to the verisimilitude of the statue of Gestas, later suggesting that the artist “poured his soul into creating this one.”
All of this, of course, means that the statue of Gestas—which we are told dates from the 15th Century—represents a Bad Dude, one who is unrepentant (impenitent) and allied with dark forces. Inspecting the statues in the church, Danila is told that an elderly lady who viewed them the previous year referred to them as “the work of the Devil.” The church in which the statues were situated was deconsecrated because a century earlier, locals were claimed to have held orgies and practiced dark rites in the building.
The statue thus has an association with “unwholesome” sex: Danila’s friend observes that “It’s hard to tell from his expression whether he’s been organising or refusing to join in the orgies. It’s an incredible combination: power, passion, and misery.” Meanwhile, in her relationship with Carlo, Danila is presented as sexually reserved, if not “frigid”: her issues with sex appear to stem from her parents’ strange relationship. Her father is impotent, and her mother, Luisa, is openly involved in an affair with another man; Danila has witnessed this man whipping her mother’s naked body with the thorny stems of roses, leaving her flesh torn and bleeding.
Rose flagellation may or may not be a part of modern S/M—but it’s worth remembering that within Catholicism, roses are associated with martyrdom and, in particular, the suffering of Christ: the petals of a rose symbolise Christ’s wounds from the Crucifixion, and the colour of the flower’s petals represents Christ’s blood. Thus Luisa and her lover’s sex play links directly to the religious themes explored in the film. The scarring of Luisa’s torso finds its echo later in the film when, after Danila has been possessed by the demonic entity, her parents find her masturbating wildly and scratching at her own abdomen with her fingernails: she has been tainted by the same insatiable sexual desire as her mother.
As Danila’s situation deteriorates, the church tries to intervene after Danila has accidentally witnessed the sexual liaison between Luisa and her lover, in an upstairs room of her parents’ house during one of their seemingly regular soirees, that the statue in Danila’s studio comes to life and rapes her. As Danila is working on restoring a painting, the statue is presented in the foreground—laid on a slab—and slightly out of focus, the plane of focus resting on Danila in the background; a reverse shot inverts this composition, with Danila in the foreground and the statue in the background. Whilst Danila busies herself, the statue comes alive. The effect is not dissimilar to the moment in John Carpenter’s The Thing during which Bennings (Peter Maloney) is clearing out one of the storage rooms in the Antarctic base whilst the seemingly dormant remains of the titular “thing” come to life, slightly out of focus, in the foreground of the composition.
Eventually, the statue rises from the slab on which it has been laid, tears off Danila’s dress and rapes her whilst outside, a violent storm erupts—and the wooden cross catches fire. Afterwards, Danila comes to and discovers herself in front of the painting; the statue is back on the table where it was placed, the cross intact.
Adding to the sense of transgression is the implication that though the scene begins as a sexual assault, at some point Danila begins to experience sexual pleasure from the encounter. Positioned immediately after Danila’s accidental witnessing of her mother’s sex play, the rape of Danila by the living statue seems intended to be read as an outgrowth of the repressed Danila’s knowledge of her mother’s sexual peccadilloes. The scene that follows the assault, in which Danila comes to in the studio—and the statue is once again in its place on the slab—reinforces this through the suggestion that Danila’s experience was nothing more than a daydream—a fantasy of a young woman whose perception of sex has been impacted by her own repression, and by the “deviant” behaviour of her sexually self-indulgent mother.
Subsequently, Danila senses herself to be stalked by the statue. Ascending the winding stairs to her flat, she hears the sighing of the statue and footsteps following her up the stairs. From the shadows, a voice calls her name. However, it’s unclear whether Danila’s experiences have any objective truth to them—or whether she is, once again, simply imagining this scenario. It’s a scene that plays on female paranoia about men, and the association of masculinity with “predatory” behaviour. In her flat, Danila hears strange, occult chanting and screams; then she begins to writhe and groan in sexual ecstasy, masturbating vigorously whilst standing against the door to her flat. Her encounter with the “living” statue of Gestas has pushed Danila, psychically, into a realm of sexual excess.
Along with the tearing out and eating of the victims’ own hair, in Enter the Devil female masturbation seems to be the chief symptom of demonic possession. Shortly after the scene described above, Danila’s parents find her in bed, masturbating so furiously that she leaves scratch marks on her abdomen: as noted above, these marks mimic the scratches on Luisa’s body following her S/M session with her lover. Again, the film reinforces the notion that Danila’s demonic encounter has its roots in her accidental witnessing of her mother’s kinky sex play. (Reinforcing this sense of demonic transgression being linked to the sexual transgressions of Luisa, later in the film Luisa tells her husband that “I need someone that goes beyond the rules that you set out.”)
Following this, Danila attempts to seduce her father. Numerous subsequent Eurocult films about demonic possession confront the incest taboo by featuring young women who, under diabolical influence, attempt to seduce an older male relative. (The most explicit example of this trend is perhaps Andrea Bianchi’s 1979 film Malabimba, which will be discussed in more detail in a later instalment of this series of articles.) “Why don’t you try it too, daddy?” Danila asks her father, “Or are you afraid it’ll all be wrong? There’s no such thing as incest: it’s only the invention of priests.”
For Danila’s father, Danila’s behaviour increasingly shows signs of being modelled on the sexual licentiousness displayed by her mother: he accuses Luisa of knowing that Danila was “born with your foul blood in her veins, so she would turn out like you.” He adds that “I love that girl of mine […] so much that I’d kill her rather than see her become a creature like you.”
When Danila’s parents are finally convinced to consult a priest, they (and the film’s audience) are reminded of the scorn with which the Church was (and is) regarded: “Unfortunately, people doubt anything to do with religion today,” the priest tells them, “They laugh at it, even.” In a line that echoes throughout so many Eurocult films about demonic possession—not to mention other contemporaneous genres in Italian cinema from the Years of Lead, such as the poliziesco films of the mid-1970s—the priest admits that “the young people of today are very much in need of spiritual guidance.”
The climax of Enter the Devil begins with Danila’s family’s movement to the convent of Our Lady of Sorrow, and ends with the exorcism of Danila by Father Xeno. Xeno lives like a hermit, and seems to anticipate the arrival of Danila without being informed of it. At the convent, Danila’s behaviour becomes increasingly violent: she tears her hair from her head and eats it; she destroys furniture and shreds her bedsheets. As Xeno performs the exorcism, Danila experiences a vision of the demon, who tells her “You are my servant [….] I want him [the exorcist]. I want to crush his insufferable pride. When you make him yours, he’ll be mine. I give you back what I had taken away: beauty, now a weapon to be used for Satan.”
With this, Danila’s face—which had been torn by scars and sores—is restored to how it once was. She is beautiful once again, and gazes seductively at Xeno. “I know why you’re looking at me like that,” she intones, “You’re excited, aren’t you? Well, so am I [….] Penetrate me. Penetrate my soul [….] I’ll give you pleasure you’ve never dreamed of.”
With this exorcism sequence, Enter the Devil consolidates its association of female sexuality with the sinister: Danila has been transformed from the repressed and serious young woman of the film’s opening sequences, into a femme fatale—a vamp who uses her sexuality to lure men to their immortal doom. Xeno returns to his room at the convent and rids himself of desire by flagellating himself with a whip of many tails. When the exorcism resumes, the demon tells Danila that his aim is to undermine this “pure” priest by appealing to his animalistic instincts: “We’ll humiliate him,” the demon says, “We’ll grind him and his disgusting arrogance beneath our heels.”
The final act of the exorcism takes place in the convent’s cloister. There, Xeno faces off against the demon that is possessing Danila. Gariazzo shoots this like the climax of a Sergio Leone Italo-Western: all tight close-ups of eyes and mouths. (The director of photography on Enter the Devil, Carlo Carlini, had a long career that included a number of key Spaghetti Westerns, including Sergio Corbucci’s La resa dei conti / The Big Gundown in 1966, and Giulio Petroni’s Da uomo a uomo / Death Rides a Horse in 1967.)
Frustratingly, we see relatively little of Xeno—and he is given even less to say, other than the Latin rites he speaks during the exorcism of Danila. Of course, as with The Exorcist and many of its imitators, Enter the Devil must culminate with the sacrifice of the “pure” priest: in this case, Xeno is whipped with a chain by Danila whilst she is still possessed by the demon, and he dies quietly—his crucifix clutched to his chest—after the demon has been expelled from her. The film ends abruptly on a freeze frame, as Danila gazes at Carlo: her “issues” (demonic, sexual, romantic) having been cured by the exorcist, Danila can now progress into a relationship with her boyfriend that is far less toxic than the relationship between her mother and father.
“THIS FILM IS BASED ON A TRUE STORY,” an onscreen title presented at the front-end of the English-language version of Enter the Devil screams, in full caps. No documentary evidence of which “true story” the film is based on seems to be in the public domain, so it seems safe to assume that this declaration must be taken with a generous pinch of salt. Nevertheless, Enter the Devil contains perhaps the most direct exploration of the themes that are commonly associated with films about diabolical possession—the depiction of young women tainted by their association with toxic, corrupt mothers (a trope that derives from Ellen Burstyn’s neglectful mother in The Exorcist); the equation of the demonic with untethered female sexuality; the necessity for “wayward” young women to be cured by older, authoritarian men.
Release and Distribution
Enter the Devil was released theatrically in Italy, West Germany, the UK, and the US—under a confusing plethora of titles. In the UK, the film was released to cinemas as Sexorcist!, and was released on VHS in the mid-1980s under four different titles (The Devil Obsession, Enter the Devil, Sexorcist, and Obsessed). In the US, the film was also shown at cinemas under the title The Tormented, but is perhaps most commonly known as The Eerie Midnight Horror Show, a title used for home video releases and cable television airings. In the digital home video age, Enter the Devil was released on DVD in several VHS-sourced presentations by companies specialising in (allegedly) “public domain” properties; but more recently the film has been distributed on Blu-ray, by Code Red, in a presentation sourced from a rough-looking 35mm theatrical print.