Saturday, 4 February 2023

The Antichrist (1974)

Alberto De Martino’s The Antichrist ( AKA The Tempter, original title L’anticristo) is an Italian rip-off of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. Let’s be honest. In the 60s and 70s if there was a bandwagon that could be jumped on then Italian film-makers would jump on it. Of course bandwagon-jumping is something that all film industries do. Including Hollywood. The difference is that the Italians could usually be relied on to do it with style.

I’m personally not the biggest fan of The Exorcist although I do have to admit that it’s a movie I haven’t seen for a very long time. If I ever getting around to rewatching it I might enjoy it more than I did years ago. I do however have a soft spot for outrageous Exorcist rip-offs.

Right from the start this movie establishes a mood of religious fanaticism and hysteria. A crowd of desperate people have gathered at a Catholic shrine, all hoping to be cured of various crippling ailments. The crowd grows more and more frenzied until one worshipper goes totally crazy and throws himself to his death from a high wall.

Among this crowd is Ippolita Oderisi (Carla Gravina). She is there with her father, Massimo Oderisi (Mel Ferrer). Ippolita is a cripple as a result of a car accident. Her father was driving so he blames himself. Maybe Ippolita blames him too. It may have been the start of her daddy issues. She has quite a few of those. Ippolita is well into her thirties and she’s unmarried and she knows that realistically she will almost certainly remain unmarried. There aren’t too many men who would want to marry a woman who is paralysed. Ippolita is of course a virgin. She’s been a good Catholic girl. But she is still a woman. She has normal womanly needs, for both sex and love. And no acceptable way of satisfying those needs.

She has grown very close to her father. That’s not necessarily unhealthy or weird. Given her situation she is naturally emotionally dependent on him. But in Ippolita’s case the attachment does seem a bit too intense. When she discovers that dear old dad has a mistress she becomes very jealous indeed.

Her uncle Bishop Ascanio Oderisi (Arthur Kennedy) is worried that Ippolita will fall into the clutches of devil-worshippers. He’s convinced that there are demonic cults everywhere. He thinks that a psychiatrist might be able to help her and he has one in mind, Dr Marcello Sinibaldi (Umberto Orsini). It turns out that there is nothing physically wrong with Ippolita. Her paralysis is psychosomatic. We can of course speculate (and I think it’s fair to say that we’re intended to speculate) that her paralysis may be connected with a fear of sex or perhaps her fear that she has an incestuous attraction to her father.

Dr Sinibaldi is perhaps just a little flakey but this was the 70s and in the 70s it would have been plausible for a psychiatrist to believe in reincarnation. He believes the answers to her problems may lie in a past life. He intends to unlock the secrets of that past life.

You won’t be surprised to learn that in a past life Ippolita was burned as a witch. She was to enter a nunnery but instead joined a sect of devil-worshippers.

Dr Sinibaldi thought that uncovering some trauma in a past life would allow Ippolita to walk again. He was right about that but he unlocked all sorts of obsessions and now Ippolita seems to be possessed by the Devil. And the Devil has plans for her.

Carla Gravina is very effectively cast. It’s not that she’s an unattractive woman but she’s been given a very unflattering hairstyle and very unflattering makeup, her dress sense early on is a bit dowdy. The intention was obviously to make her appear plain and unsexy, which is necessary for the purposes of the film since it makes her fears that she will remain forever unmarried and a virgin more convincing. She is playing a woman who feels herself to be unlovely and unsexy. She gives a totally unhinged performance which is exactly what was called for.

It’s clear that sexual frustration is a major factor in Ippolita’s problems. Whether you want to see her sexual issues as the key the Devil uses to gain possession of her or whether you see them as causing her insanity it’s clear either way that Ippolita has some serious sexual issues. There’s not just the hint of father-daughter incest but brother-sister incest as well.

Alberto De Martino isn’t one of the more highly regarded Italian genre movie directors but he did direct one of my all-time favourite eurospy thrillers, Special Mission Lady Chaplin (1966). And in 1977 he revisited the satansploitation genre with the outrageous and thoroughly enjoyable Holocaust 2000 (AKA Rain of Fire, 1977). He was a guy who could certainly make entertaining movies.

The special effects are at times decidedly dodgy. I don’t mind that. It’s a 70s movie. And De Martino certainly didn’t have the budget that William Friedkin had. Maybe De Martino gets too ambitious at times, trying for effects which really would have required a very much larger budget. Modern viewers who cannot imagine a movie without CGI will react very badly to this movie but those viewers are not going to watch a 1974 movie anyway.

This is very much one of those movies in which the awakening of female sexuality is seen as terrifying and demonic, linked to demonic possession or witchcraft or vampirism. It’s a major theme in vampire movies. Curiously enough one of the first movies to make this link explicit was a Hammer movie, the very disturbing Dracula Prince of Darkness (1966). The idea goes back a very long way in gothic fiction, at least as far as Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem Christabel and it’s pretty explicit in Sheridan le Fanu’s 1872 novel Carmilla on which The Vampire Lovers (1970) was based. Whether The Antichrist actually wants us to equate female sexuality with the demonic or whether it’s attacking the Church for promoting such a view is something you’ll have to decide for yourself. What matters is that the characters in the movie are very uncomfortable with Ippolita’s sexuality.

This movie throws just about every satansploitation cliché you can think of at the viewer but this is what audiences would have wanted and it’s fun.

In the case of The Exorcist it’s worth remembering that it was based on a novel by William Peter Blatty, a devout Catholic. It’s clearly a very very pro-Catholic novel and this is to a large extent true of Friedkin’s film. We’re meant to believe that Regan is literally possessed by a demon and we’re meant to believe in the literal existence of the Devil. In the case of a movie such as The Antichrist made by a European film-maker in the 70s you can’t be so sure that it isn’t to some extent sceptical of the literal truth of demonic possession. Personally I suspect that we’re meant to see demonic possession as the result of a combination of sexual frustration and religious hysteria.

It’s interesting that Ippolita’s demonic possession seems to begin during a dream sequence, and that dream begins with a sexual fantasy. It’s not entirely clear if the woman in the dream sequence is Ippolita herself or the long-dead witch from her past life. When he can also never be quite sure that that long-dead witch ever existed. She may simply be a product of Ippolita’s fevered imagination and her fevered sexual longings.

It’s worth pointing out that the idea that Ippolita had past lives is an idea that the psychiatrist (a somewhat ambiguous character) put into her head. His suggestion may have triggered an elaborate fantasy on her part. It’s also possible that the whole demonic possession thing has been suggested to her by her uncle the bishop who seems to be obsessed with such ideas.

While the movie seems to be treating the demonic possession as real there is still a slight doubt. This was the 70s when the idea that mental disturbance could cause paranormal phenomena was quite widely held.

There’s also a murder committed by Ippolita which is very ambiguous indeed. It could have been just another of her sexual fantasies.

The dream sequence is superbly shot and is the highlight of the movie. I should mention that Joe D’Amato did the cinematography on this film.

Kino Lorber’s Blu-Ray release offers a very good transfer plus an audio commentary and a featurette.

The Antichrist is an Exorcist rip-off but it’s a very good and very interesting Exorcist rip-off, with a very strong focus on the sexual nature of demonic possession. Highly recommended.

No comments: