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Ring of Darkness (1977) - Eurocult starlet Marissa Mell plays the priestess Agatha

Un’ombra nell’ombra (Ring of Darkness, 1977) – #NineTenthsoftheLaw

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This is the seventh in a series of articles looking at Eurocult films from the 1970s and 1980s that focus on a theme of diabolical/demonic possession.

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.

The Ring of Darkness (1977) - The ancient at of coitus Satanicus
The ancient art of coitus Satanicus

Plot

In present day Rome, a coven of witches discovers that they have bitten off more than they can chew in their pact with Lucifer (Ezio Miani). The women, all from comfortable middle-class backgrounds, have been dallying with Lucifer for many years, their regular Black Masses culminating in bouts of sexual congress with the Evil One. These moments of coitus Satanicus have proven fertile, with one of the witches, Carlotta (Anne Heywood), having given birth to Lucifer’s child, Daria (Lara Wendel). Heading into her teenage years, Daria is becoming cognisant of her diabolical heritage, and it seems that her fiendish father has a particularly apocalyptic plan for her.

Demonstrating the cruelty of the demonic, Daria constantly berates her mother and acts spitefully towards her teacher, Elena (Valentina Cortese), another member of the coven. Daria’s diabolical deeds extent to plotting the murder of a disabled classmate, Martin, and using her burgeoning supernatural powers to engineer the death of Carlotta’s estranged husband Peter (West Buchanan), who believes himself to be Daria’s father.

Desperate to save her daughter from Lucifer’s influence, Carlotta seeks the assistance of her friends and fellow coven members, including Elena, coven leader Agatha (Marisa Mell), and Raffaella (Irene Papas) – whose sexual liaisons with Lucifer have left her unable to take pleasure from mortal men, despite Raffaella masquerading as a streetwalker in order to pursue a carnal need for frequent “no-strings” sex.

Carlotta also seeks the advice of several male figures of authority, though these prove themselves to be ineffective. She engages with a lecturer credited only as “The Professor” (Ian Bannen), who proves himself to be little more than a sleazy drunkard; and she also seeks advice from Paul (Frank Finlay), who suggests Carlotta engage the services of a priest (John Philip Law) in order to exorcise Daria of her father’s malevolent influence. However, this exorcism proves to be a damp squib, the priest battling with his own crisis of faith.

As the film ends, Daria advances on the Vatican, a cataclysmic plan seemingly about to be enacted.

Ring of Darkness (1977) - The coven gathers in anticipation of the arrival of their dark lord
The coven gathers in anticipation of the arrival of their dark lord

Critique: “The most active piece on the board is the Queen; the most passive, the King”

Released in English under the titles Ring of Darkness, Circle of Fear (on videocassette in the US), and Satan’s Wife (also on home video in the US), the Italian title of Pier Carpi’s Un’ombra nell’ombra translates as “A Shadow in the Shadow.” Carpi, the film’s writer and director, only directed one other feature film: the strange Povero Cristo – a film probably best described as Fellini-esque – in 1975. Povero Cristo dealt with issues of faith, focusing on an aspiring private eye (played by singer Mino Reitano) who is challenged by a wealthy man (Curd Jurgens) to prove that God exists; Reitano’s character begins to live like modern-day Christ, leading to his persecution, with the film ultimately positing that present day Italy is characterised once again by the mindset of the Romans.

Povero Cristo’s mixture of the fantastical and satirical seems an extension of Carpi’s career as writer of Italian comics and author of books about esoteric subjects. (Some of Carpi’s most famous volumes include a volume about Cagliostro, used as the basis for Daniele Pettinari’s 1975 film Cagliostro, and La profezie di Papa Giovanni [The Prophecies of Pope John XXIII]: a book containing prophecies that the Pope was claimed to have made in 1935, including predictions of the assassination of JFK and the death of Marilyn Monroe.) Some of those touches of surrealism work their way into Ring of Darkness too: most particularly, in a lengthy sequence that presents a series of flashbacks via totally inverted negative image. This sequence, which comes as the film builds towards its climax, stops the narrative dead in its tracks and seems motivated purely by a desire to experiment with the film image rather than extend the plot.

As well as a writer of non-fiction books Carpi was also a fairly prolific novelist, and Carpi’s script for Ring of Darkness was adapted from his own novel (also titled Un’ombra nell’ombra), published in 1974. (When the Italian press suggested that Ring of Darkness was too similar to William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, Carpi argued that he had written this novel at some point in the 1960s, before both Friedkin’s picture and Blatty’s source novel, but that its publication had been delayed for many years.) Carpi had struggled to bring the novel to the screen for a couple of years, with an adaptation proposed a few years prior to the filming of Ring of Darkness. That version was going to be titled La signora delle mosche (The Lady of the Flies), in reference to an aspect of the novel (Carlotta’s symbolic breastfeeding of a “pet” fly) which doesn’t appear in Ring of Darkness.

Ring of Darkness (1977) - Lara Wendel plays the Brattish Daria
Lara Wendel plays the Brattish Daria

Production

The film entered production in January of 1977, but shooting stalled a number of times. The reasons for these breaks in production were both issues with financing and the departure of actress Victoria Zinny from the project, after she refused to deliver a line denouncing abortion as “monstrous” and criticising governments who permit the practice as “composed of criminals.” In 1979, production manager Piero Amati was tasked by the financiers to shoot some new material for inclusion in the finished movie: this included some of the scenes depicting the coven’s rituals and the film’s opening sequence. The footage captured by Amati, much of it involving nudity, appears to have been orchestrated in order to make the film more commercially viable.

The scenes filmed in 1979 and inserted into the picture at the behest of the producers, presumably with the intention of making the picture more commercially viable, jar with the bulk of the material. For example, the film opens with a ludicrous sequence in which the coven dance for Lucifer, in a sequence filmed by Amati. The witches cavort in white robes and then naked, alongside men dressed in red leotards. Resembling a flash mob riffing on some mixture of Black Mass iconography and late-70s disco tunes, it’s an excessively choreographed moment that wouldn’t be out of place in a musical. Filmed to satisfy the producers, the sequence is seemingly intended to be erotic, but has the timbre of a particularly demented performance by Legs & Co. for a late-70s Top of the Pops episode. It sets an odd tone for the picture, but nevertheless establishes the ritualistic activities of the coven and the appearance of Lucifer amongst the women.

The consequences of this troubled production period are visible in the sheer number of sequences within the film – both moments of nudity and expository scenes – that noticeably feature doubles or stand-ins rather than the main actors. (This is obscured slightly by the visual quality of the VHS bootlegs of the film that are currently in circulation.) The completed film was finally released to Italian cinemas in October of 1979. During the marketing of the picture, Piero Carpi claimed that actress Irene Papas had been publicly assaulted by a ghost during production, when the crew were shooting the (anti-)climactic exorcism sequence in the Castle Vignanello.

Ring of Darkness (1977) - Eurocult starlet Marissa Mell plays the priestess Agatha
Eurocult starlet Marissa Mell plays the priestess Agatha

Analysis and Discussion

Carpi’s novel had been set in Milan, but the film relocates the narrative to Rome. In a further marked difference from the source novel, Ring of Darkness also introduces Lucifer as a distinct character within the plot. With his fashionably urban clothing (replete with scarves and trendy jumpers), this film’s Lucifer seems more like a member of the metropolitan bourgeoisie than a traditional horns-and-pitchfork wielding demon. As an aside, the actor playing Lucifer, Ezio Miani, was a fotoromanzi model who appears only to have performed in three feature films: though he acted in Massimo Dallamano’s poliziesco Quelli della calibro 38 (Colt .38 Special Squad, 1976), his most recognisable role amongst Eurocult fans is arguably as the plotting Nazi officer Werner von Uhland in Fabio De Agostini’s Nazisploitation picture Le lunghe notti della Gestapo (Red Nights of the Gestapo, 1977). (Miani left the world of acting behind to become the skipper of a pleasure boat in the San Blas Islands.) In Ring of Darkness, Lucifer is revealed to be the father of Carlotta’s daughter, Daria; though Carlotta’s estranged husband, Peter, seems to be under the impression that Daria is his child.

Ring of Darkness assembles an impressive cast filled with names of performers associated with Eurocult pictures more generally, and actors associated with more mainstream fare too: the cast includes Anne Heywood, Ian Bannen, Frank Finlay, John Philip Law, Marisa Mell (who had starred in another Italo-exorcism film, L’osceno desiderio [Obscene Desire], covered in a previous instalment of #NineTenthsoftheLaw, in 1975), Irene Papas, Paola Tedesco, and Sofia Dionisio. Alongside these main cast members are actresses associated with Italian softcore erotic filmmaking of the period, including Patrizia Webley and Dirce Funari. At the centre of the film, however, is the performance by Lara Wendel as Carlotta’s diabolically precocious daughter, Daria.

Ring of Darkness (1977) - Daria's mother tries to murder her demonic daughter
Daria’s mother tries to murder her demonic daughter

Wendel’s role in this film is, unfortunately, as problematic to modern sensibilities as her performances in several other Eurocult movies of this period. After small parts in pictures such as the giallo all’italiana Il profumo della signora in nero (Perfume of the Woman in Black; Francesco Barilli, 1974) and Silvia Narizzano’s sleazy poliziesco Senza ragione (Redneck, 1973), Wendel achieved some notoriety as the star of Pier Giuseppe Murgia’s infamous Maladolescenza (Playing with Love/Puppy Love, 1977). One of a number of late-1970s Italian films that took an exploitatively “icky” (for want of a better word) look at the theme of adolescent sexuality, Maladolescenza achieved notoriety for featuring the then-preteen Wendel naked for much of its running time.

Probably inspired, at least in part, by the German Schoolgirl Report series and its ilk, Maladolescenza wasn’t alone in tackling this issue in such a disquieting manner: a year later, Mimmo Cattarinich’s Piccole labbra (Little Lips, 1978) explored similar territory, with its female lead, then-11 year old Katya Berger, also naked for much of the film. Subsequently, both Berger and Wendel became cast, at least for the next few years, in roles in which their characters were tagged as – for want of a better term – “jailbait.” A year after Ring of Darkness, Wendel appeared as young teenager Mimmina, who plots to seduce her own father (played by Franco Nero), in Florestano Vancini’s Un dramma borghese (Mimi, 1979). Then Wendel was cast in a similar role, as the rebellious adopted daughter of a bourgeois woman (Stefania Sandrelli), in Gianni Barcelloni’s Desideria: La vita interiore (1980). In 1981, a 15-year old Wendel starred in Il falco e la colomba (The Hawk and the Dove) as an adolescent heroin addict who becomes the object of infatuation for a politician (Fabio Testi).

Dario Argento’s excellent 1982 giallo Tenebre (Tenebrae) foregrounds this association of Wendel with roles that were, given the actress’ age at the time, inappropriately-sexualised. In that picture Wendel’s character, Maria, visits author Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa) to repair his sink; as Maria exits Neal’s hotel room, Neal’s assistant (Daria Nicolodi) enters and comments knowingly to the novelist, “You don’t waste any time, do you?” Neal indicates towards the door through which Maria has exited the room: “That’s jailbait, my dear… Jailbait.” Argento’s casting of Wendel in this role consciously alludes to Wendel’s association with such roles during the late 1970s and early 1980s, suggesting that her screen presence in such parts had been firmly anchored in the collective imagination of the Italian filmgoing public, at least. (Later in the decade, then in her 20s, Wendel would settle into more conventional acting parts in Eurocult productions such as Umberto Lenzi’s La casa 3 [Ghosthouse, 1988] and Claudio Lattanzi’s Killing Birds: Raptors [1988].)

Rings of Darkness (1977) - The witches use symbols in their sacred rites
The witches use symbols in their sacred rites

It’s mentioned above that Ring of Darkness was, owing largely to financial issues, in an extended production period that lasted approximately two years, with the producers eventually crowbarring additional footage into the narrative against the wishes of Piero Carpi. During this extended production period, the ever-busy Carpi found the time to publish two books and developed a side-career as a television presenter. Within the released version of Ring of Darkness, it’s also easy to see the effect of this lengthy production period on Wendel, who was 11 at the time that the film entered production, and 13 when the picture was completed. The scenes of nudity featuring Wendel’s character were, thankfully, predominantly shot using noticeable body doubles, most of them seemingly filmed by Amati in 1979 and presumably added by the producers to “spice up” the finished picture; though there is at least one scene (in which Wendel and Anne Heywood are naked together), more closely anchored within the film’s plot, in which this seems not to be the case and which seems to have been part of the original production period (directed by Carpi).

Even accounting for the use of body doubles during the shoot, the film’s intermittent focus on Daria’s naked body seems uncomfortably prurient: early in the film, Daria is shown naked in the shower, and her nudity is foregrounded prominently during both the exorcism sequence and another scene in which a nude Carlotta and Daria are involved in a rite together. In fact, there’s something quite askance about the film’s use of female nudity: underaged Daria’s nakedness being offset by the nudity of the distinctly middle-aged women who play the parent generation. Anne Heywood was in her late-40s when the picture was made, and another nude scene features the character of Raffaella, played by the 50-something Irene Papas. (The scene of nudity in fact features a body double, but the point still stands.) There is nothing in the middle: unlike the vast majority of Eurocult productions of the 1970s, it seems an intentional part of Ring of Darkness’ design to avoid any conventionally “sexy” nudity from actresses in their 20s or 30s. The scenes of nudity in the picture involve a child (Daria) and women (Carlotta and other members of her coven) who, in conventional filmic terms, would be considered over the proverbial hill for sexpot roles.

Ironically, in the closing months of the year in which Ring of Darkness was released, Carpi reinvented himself as moral puritan, arguing publicly against the use of nudity in popular cinema; in particular, he railed against Italian sex comedies of the kind that starred popular “sex kitten” actresses such as Edwige Fenech. (Fenech, of course, was associated with the brand of “sexy” nudity that Ring of Darkness so steadfastly avoids.) Considered within this context, it doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to suggest that, by making a picture which is noticeably absent of the kind of titillating nudity associated with many of this film’s contemporaries, Carpi was attempting to say something about female nudity in Italian pop cinema of the day. What Carpi’s point is, exactly, is difficult to determine, however.

Ring of Darkness (1977) - Echoing experimental filmmaking techniques, Ring of Darkness presents a flashback via a totally inverted negative image.
experimental filmmaking techniques, Ring of Darkness presents a flashback via a totally inverted negative image.

Ring of Darkness offers a cocktail of equal parts The Exorcist, The Omen, and the more traditional “bad seed” narrative that is often associated with Mervyn Leroy’s The Bad Seed (1956). Daria is, frankly, a bolshy little shit. (In the English dub, her entitled stroppiness is amplified by the cut-glass accent of the performer who dubs the character.) Like those other “bad seed” pictures – and another very contemporaneous Italian exorcism film, Andrea Bianchi’s provocative Malabimba (1979) – Ring of Darkness presents every parent’s nightmare: what if your own child is really a “cuckoo” in your nest? Daria verbally berates her teacher (Carlotta’s friend and another member of the coven) and abuses her mother. She sucks up to her “adopted” father, Peter, but cruelly discards a doll he has bought her, foregrounding her already-established interest in petty theft by complaining, “What’s the use of a doll that’s been bought?” (It seems that the influence of the metropolitan bourgeois Lucifer extends to such mundane crimes as shoplifting and theft, and it’s a slipper slope from these to engineering the apocalypse.)

Daria’s focus on dolls seems symbolic. As a toy favoured by young girls, a doll may be taken as an index of femininity. Women who are either emotionally “fragile” or intellectually “vacuous” have often been described as “doll-like.” However, Daria rejects dolls that are obtained by legitimate means (ie, the doll bought for her by Peter) in favour of dolls that are stolen. The dolls in Ring of Darkness later become imbued with a sinister purpose: at one point, the coven’s high priestess Agatha uses a doll as an effigy into which she sticks pins in order to dispel Daria’s magic; however, Daria turns the tables on Agatha and reveals she has been using a doll in a similar way, to combat the high priestess.

Daria, then, is caught between childhood (represented by the dolls) and her journey to adulthood – much as she is caught between the world of her corporeal mother, and that of her ethereal/supernatural father (Lucifer). Her experience is liminal, defined by this sense of “inbetweenness.” Daria’s tantrums threaten to bring about the apocalypse, we are told; and as it builds towards its climax, Ring of Darkness suggests that the only cure for Daria’s adolescent tantrums is in a climactic “happening.”

The precise nature of this “happening” is difficult to define exactly, because though it parallels the climactic exorcisms that we find in so many of these pictures, it isn’t a true exorcism per se. For one thing, the priest (played by John Philip Law) that is enlisted to participate in it, isn’t made completely aware of what he is taking part in. The coven draw him into the ceremony, exploiting his ignorance, and only revealing why he is there at the moment the rite is about to begin.

Ring of Darkness (1977) - Daria is prepared for the ritual
Daria is prepared for the ritual

Amplifying how ineffective this “exorcist” is, the other male characters in the film are depicted as either utterly passive or, even worse, sleazy alcoholics. Ian Bannen’s character, identified only as The Professor, is introduced as he teaches chess to a group of young people; he talks about the conflict between the white and black chesspieces as analogous to the battle between good and evil (“these two principles at war since time began”) and informs his students that “the most active piece on the board is the Queen; the most passive, the King.” Bannen reminds the aspiring chessmasters that according to the bible, Lucifer used the serpent to tempt Eve “because it is the woman he [Lucifer] turns to for his grand design”: there is an underlying perception that women have less self-control and therefore are easier to tempt towards the “dark side” through the offering of visceral pleasures. Ring of Darkness seems to validate this via its depiction of how the middle-aged, deeply middle-class women who make up the coven have been kept in the thrall of Lucifer owing to the sexual pleasure he provides for them.

Within the Italian exorcism/possession filone, Ring of Darkness is interesting inasmuch as it draws focus on a group of middle-aged women who, though they are from subtly different social backgrounds, managed to connect with one another through their involvement in witchcraft and black magic – and through their shared struggles in relationships with men. It’s certainly not a “feminist” movie in any conventional sense, but Carpi’s approach to the material suggests an intention to focus on a female perspective, and on the solace women find in the company of other women. These women have found a sense of unity in their coven that has helped them to escape the restrictive world of men, but find themselves restrained by and tethered to their pact with Lucifer.

In fact, for much of its running time Ring of Darkness busies itself with the depiction of aspects of these women’s lives; in many ways, a good portion of the film’s narrative resembles that of a traditional “women’s picture” or soap opera. However, this is enlivened by scenes depicting the coven’s rituals and a heavy emphasis on quite gratuitous nudity – many of which, as stated above, were inserted at a late stage in the making of the film, presumably to make the finished picture easier to market.

Ring of Darkness (1977) - John Phillip Law as the doubting priest come exorcist
John Phillip Law as the doubting priest come exorcist

Bubbling away under this is seems to be a theme of repression. The all-female members of the coven each seem to have either non-existent or unfulfilling sex lives, punctuated by the excess of pleasure they find within their sexual liaisons with Lucifer. Carlotta’s relationship with her former husband Peter is fractured; only Raffaella seems to be sexually active, and her relationships with men hinge on a pursuit of easy, casual sex which Raffaella engages by masquerading as a prostitute. However, Raffaella is cursed to be unsatisfied sexually, because her trysts are always interrupted by a vision of Lucifer that leaves her male partners in paroxysms of fear. It seems that having all been “seduced” by Lucifer during their black magic rites, the women of the coven have been “spoiled” by these encounters – as if no man can live up to Lucifer’s lovin’.

Ultimately, for all its focus on the female members of the coven and its emphasis on a mother-daughter relationship, Ring of Darkness presents woman as Other: a mess of contradictions. (The film’s depiction of the world of men is, to be fair, no more sympathetic.) Is Ring of Darkness empowering or sleazy? It could be said to be both. Undoubtedly it articulates a cultural anxiety about young people and their moral difference from the parent generation. One wonders whether Pier Carpi’s version of the picture, had it not been assembled with the material Amati shot to satisfy the producers, would have been any different. Certainly it would have been less focused on nudity. That said, there are flashes of filmmaking chutzpah here, including a strong score by Stelvio Cipriani (performed by none other than Goblin’s Claudio Simonetti).

The territories in which Ring of Darkness was released theatrically seem difficult to determine. Certainly, the film had a cinema release in Italy and a few other territories. Following this, Ring of Darkness was released on VHS in several countries, including the US, Greece, Italy, and Finland.

In the digital age, Ring of Darkness has only been released in English-speaking territories on standard def DVD in a grey market version whose presentation seems to be based on a VHS source and omits a key sequence in which the coven defy Lucifer. (Retitled Satan’s Wife, this release from Mya carried the tagline, “Satan has never been hornier!”) Other, presumably also greymarket, DVDs have appeared in non-English speaking countries, with various running times. Rumours have persisted for years that the film was released to cinemas in version (running around 105 minutes) longer than any of those that have been available, and the “choppiness” of the finished film, with characters weaving in and out of the plot, might lend credence to this.

Un'ombra nell'ombra (Ring of Darkness, 1977) - #NineTenthsoftheLaw - Malevolent Dark
ring of darkness europcult starlet marissa mel plays the priestess agatha

Director: Pier Carpi

Date Created: 1970-01-01 00:32

Editor's Rating:
2

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