William Friedkin’s film THE EXORCIST is a phenomenon. When it burst into movie theatres in 1973, this story of demonic possession caused a sensation and was a massive box-office hit. It was by no means the first mainstream film on the topic. For example, Ken Russell’s 1971 film THE DEVILS played with the theme, and one year before THE EXORCIST, the supernatural horror film THE POSSESSION OF JOEL DELANEY had been a minor hit - featuring Shirley Maclaine, whom author William Peter Blatty based the character of Chris Macneil on. But this big budget feature carried such an impact that it became what these days is called a 'game changer' - it set the template for virtually every film on the subject for the next three decades, in the same way that George A Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) left its mark on virtually every subsequent zombie movie.
Over time, audiences would be treated to several additions to the EXORCIST saga, in the form of two sequels - EXORCIST II - THE HERETIC (1977) and THE EXORCIST III (1990, written and directed by Blatty); two versions of a prequel - EXORCIST - THE BEGINNING (2004) and DOMINION - PREQUEL TO 'THE EXORCIST' (2005), both featuring Stellan Skarsgard in the role of Lankaster Merrin, Max Von Sydow's role in the original film, and a spin-off, THE NINTH CONFIGURATION (1977), featuring a minor character from THE EXORCIST, astronaut Billy Cutshaw, as a main character, and written and directed by Blatty from two novels he authored telling the same story. However, apart from the official sequels, prequels and spin-offs THE EXORCIST spawned a legacy of features which were inspired by the success of the original film, which eventually became the first ever horror film to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. THE EXORCIST’s influence extends its demonic hand until the present day, especially early on amongst exploitation film-makers, who soon responded in kind.
(1) BLAXPLOITATION, BRITAIN AND ITALY
Quick off the mark was ABBY (1974), a low budget movie which straddled two genres – horror and blaxploitation, the latter genre being profitable in cinemas around that time. It featured black actress Carol Speed as a marriage counsellor who becomes possessed by the African demon Eshu, inadvertently released into the world by her father-in-law. This was a clumsy accident, particularly for poor Abby; however on the plus side, said father-in-law was also an exorcist, able to to tackle Eshu’s possession of Abby head on. Similar to Friedkin’s film, this leads to a profanity-laced confrontation between him and Eshu, spouting its venom through Abby. Amongst the cast was William Marshall, a distinguished African-American stage actor who also appeared in various exploitation films during the seventies, most notably in the title role of BLACULA (1972) and its sequel SCREAM, BLACULA, SCREAM (1973).
The director of ABBY was William Girdler, a horror specialist who made a number of exploitation films in the seventies, including the minor hit GRIZZLY (1976) (think JAWS with a bear). ABBY was produced for only $400,000 dollars and, riding the coat-tails of its illustrious inspiration, ended up earning millions. Unfortunately, Girdler didn’t see a dime, because the similarities between the two prompted Warner Bros to sue for breach of copyright. The case was eventually settled in 1978, which was the year of Girdler’s untimely death in a helicopter accident.
A brief aside: Girdler’s final film, THE MANITOU (1978), was also a possession film of sorts, based on Graham Masterton’s novel. In this cheap but enjoyable potboiler, a woman discovers a lump on her back. No ordinary lump, this - it grows rapidly and 'gives birth' into a Manitou – a native American spirit with great powers. (Tony Curtis and Susan Strasberg starred in this one.)
Although ABBY can be considered to be the first major imitation of THE EXORCIST, the Italian film CHI SEI? (literally 'Who Is...?'), was released the following year, also 'steals' a lot. This picture was originally released in the United States as THE DEVIL WITHIN HER (and later re-released as BEYOND THE DOOR). It was part of a seventies Italian trend for imitating Hollywood hits (see below for more on this topic). CHI SEI? actually manages to copy two noted Hollywood horror films at once - THE EXORCIST and ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968). Of course, there are differences; this film takes place in San Francisco instead of Washington DC (although much of it was shot at Incir De Paolis Studios in Rome). Instead of an adolescent, the central character this time is a pregnant woman (played by Juliet Mills, shaking off her 'family' image) who may, in fact, be carrying the Devil’s child – hence the ROSEMARY’S BABY connection. However, in this film, the malign influence of the unborn child possesses the mother-to-be... and this is where the EXORCIST similarities come in, as she lies on her bed, face scarred, vomiting green soup and uttering ripe dialogue: “Come on, you filthy pig - lick the vile whore's vomit!”. This eventually leads to a exorcism-style confrontation with Dimitri (Richard Johnson, not actually playing a priest) and a surprising downbeat ending.
Incidentally, Richard Johnson, one of the stars of CHI SEI?, stayed in Italy to
make a second possession movie, IL MEDAGLIONE INSANGUINATO - PERCHE? (1975),
released in the USA as both THE CURSED MEDALLION (a rough translation) and THE
NIGHT CHILD. The film is actually set in Italy (Spoleto, to be precise) and has
Johnson as a Brit abroad, travelling with his young daughter Emily (Nicoletta
Elmi, star of several Italian horrors, including BARON BLOOD, 1972 and PROFONDO
ROSSO, 1975). A haunted painting and a medallion feature, and strange things
start to happen as Emily becomes possessed by the malign spirit of a vengeful
girl. This is a much subtler film than THE DEVIL WITHIN HER - no green puke -
and many critics have noted its atmosphere and elegance. It is also full of
beautiful imagery and scenery; it comes as no surprise that director Massimo
Dallamano was previously a cinematographer, having lensed, amongst many others,
the first two Sergio Leone DOLLARS movies (1964/ 65).
An aside: the director of CHI SEI? was actually Greek - Ovidio G Assonitis, who has had a long career in popular cinema, working mainly in Italy. He also directed TENTACLES (1977), a JAWS rip-off featuring a giant squid, and later produced and directed most of PIRANHA II: THE SPAWNING (1981), replacing the original director, who happened to be a certain James Cameron. Interestingly, there is another film with the American title of THE DEVIL WITHIN HER which is worth mentioning in passing. This is a British film produced under the title I DON’T WANT TO BE BORN (1975). This again owes more to ROSEMARY’S BABY than THE EXORCIST, and is more in line with 'demon child' films like ITS ALIVE (1974) and the later THE OMEN (1976). In it, pregnant Joan Collins is cursed by a dwarf and gives birth to a baby that, although outwardly normal, turns out to be a homicidal maniac: in a series of unlikely scenes, baby first bumps off dad Ralph Bates and then comes after Mum... Supporting player Donald Pleasance helpfully suggests an exorcism, and nun-in-the-family Eileen Atkins steps up to cross swords with the demon baby.
THE DEVIL WITHIN HER was just the first of a series of Italian variants on the theme of possession and exorcism. To place that film and others like it in context, it should be noted that Italian popular cinema flourished from the late 1950s to the early 1980s, producing hundreds of films, initially hitting gold with 'peplum - heroic Roman and Greek epics, followed in the 1960s by 'spaghetti westerns' (of which over five hundred were made in a little over fourteen years) and also by 'gialli' - gruesome, hard-hitting suspense thrillers. The 1970s (and early 1980s) became what could be termed Italy’s 'golden age of imitation, where popular American films were immediately copied by Italian studios, often with British or American leads. One of the most notorious of these was L’ULTIMO SQUALO (THE LAST SHARK, 1982) which copied JAWS so closely that it was banned in the US after Universal Pictures successfully took action against it.
Horror was one of the many mainstays of Italian cinema in this period, and, with Italy being a Roman Catholic country, it’s no surprise that religious horror like THE EXORCIST proved a key influence for several of these films.
After the success of THE DEVIL WITHIN HER, Italy gave us a second EXORCIST imitation the same year (1974), L’OSSESSA. This film, directed by Mario Gariazzo, nowadays goes under various titles including THE SEXORCIST, ENTER THE DEVIL and THE EERIE MIDNIGHT HORROR SHOW. In it, Stella Carnacina plays a teenager who comes into possession (pun intended ?) of a statue depicting a crucifixion; through this statue, the Devil (played here by all-purpose Italian actor Ivan Rassimov) is able to appear and take control of her. The film climaxes with the expected exorcism, carried out by Father Xeno (Luigi Pistilli) and, of course, by the traditional green vomit.
A further Italian film of note from the same year was Albert de Martino’s L’ANTICRISTO, also known as THE TEMPTER. The paralysed Ippolita (Carla Gravina) suffers various issues stemming from the death of her mother. A psychiatrist tries to help her but only succeeds in regressing her to a past life, where she was a witch executed by the Inquisition, She subsequently becomes possessed and starts seducing and killing local men. She also begins to talk with a guttural croak and soon starts puking green slime, continuing to be a solid staple of the sub-genre.
Wait - Italy’s contribution does not end there. In 1976, UN URLO NELLE TENEBRE ('A Scream in the Darkness') appeared. This was directed by Franco Lo Cascio and Angelo Pannacciò, and starred American actor Richard Conte, in his final film. Conte plays 'The Exorcist', an unnamed Vatican priest called in to perform the rite on a young man (rather than the usual young woman). When released in the United States and other English speaking territories, the film was retitled more than once, each time to suggest a link with the Friedkin film: it was first released under the title THE RETURN OF THE EXORCIST and later as NAKED EXORCIST. Subsequently, it would be renamed again, as EXORCIST III: CRIES AND SHADOWS (no relation to William Peter Blatty’s own sequel!)
On at least one occasion, an existing Italian film was 'repurposed' to cash in on the craze. The great Mario Bava made the stylish horror film LISA AND THE DEVIL in 1973, prior to Friedkin’s film. It starred Elke Sommer and Telly Savalas, and was the atmospheric tale of a tourist in Toledo, Spain, who is sucked under the influence of a blind contessa (Alida Valli), her son Maximilian (Alessio Orano) and their sinister butler (Savalas). Maximilian becomes convinced that Lisa is the reincarnation of his lost lover, and begins to extend his malign influence over her. As such, this was in essence a ghost story, and a tale of obsession rather than possession
The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival before the THE EXORCIST had been released. Despite acclaim, it had difficulty in finding a distributor, and in this original version, LISA AND THE DEVIL vanished fairly quickly.
However, this wasn’t the end of the story. Following THE EXORCIST’S success, Alfredo Leone, LISA’s producer, brought back Elke Sommer to shoot some extra footage featuring her in a hospital bed spouting profanities and spitting out toads; she ends up being exorcised by a priest (Robert Alda, who did not even appear in the original film). The new, heavily re-edited version was given an American release under the come-on title HOUSE OF EXORCISM. This was done without Bava’s approval; although he initially helped with some of the set-ups on the reshoots, he soon quit, leaving Leone to finish off. Thus, HOUSE OF EXORCISM is credited to 'Mickey Lion'. The original (and superior) LISA AND THE DEVIL would not emerge again until two years after Bava’s death, when it was screened on US television, and has since recovered its reputation. (Both versions are available on DVD.)
Italy was still not finished making EXORCIST clones, and they were getting trashier. For example, in 1979, the film MALABIMBA was released. This was a strange horror/pornography crossover featuring the young Bimba (Katell Laennec, in her only film role) under the influence of the spirit of one of her ancestors, with lustful (and fatal) consequences. This takes the bare bones of the EXORCIST template and reshapes it into an erotic fantasy with touches of horror. Director Andrea Bianchi would later make the perverse zombie movie LE NOTTI DEL TERRORE (aka BURIAL GROUND) (1981).
Now read parts 2 and 3!
A reappraisal of EXORCIST II by John and Paul Rowlands.
John C. Kerr started life as a graphic designer before mutating into a film archivist. He has had a passion for cinema ever since seeing Disney and 007 as a child. John has a Diploma in Film Studies, and although originally from Manchester, is now based in London.