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L'ANTICRISTO (THE ANTICHRIST) (1974)

[aka The Tempter aka Blasphemy]

"The whore is pregnant, did you know? I impregnated her! I am waiting for my son –
the Antichrist!"





  Director:
 
Alberto De Martino

  Starring: 
Carla Gravina, Arthur Kennedy, Mel Ferrer, George Coulouris, Alida Valli, Remo Girone, Umberto Orsini, Anita Strindberg, Mario Scaccia, Ernesto Colli

  Screenplay: 
Gianfranco Clerici, Alberto De Martino and Vincenzo Mannino

Synopsis:  A young woman, Ippolita Oderisi (Carla Gravina), unable to walk without assistance since being in a car accident as a child, is taken by her father, Prince Massimo Oderisi (Mel Ferrer), to a country church, where a statue of the Virgin Mary is believed to possess healing powers. Emboldened by the apparent cure of another woman, Ippolita hands her walking stick to Massimo and approaches the statute; but before she can take more than a few steps her legs give way, leaving her sprawled helplessly upon the stone floor. Massimo gently helps her up and gives her back her cane. As the two turn to leave, another of the supplicants (Ernesto Colli), a lunatic, breaks from his companions and runs from the church, climbing a high stone ruin nearby and throwing himself to his death.... On the drive home, Ippolita looks at a group of children playing. Observing that she was just their age when she was crippled, Ippolita wonders bitterly what sin she could have committed then to warrant such a punishment. Massimo tells her sadly that she should not blame God for what he did. At their home, Ippolita resumes her customary wheelchair. She is greeted by her nurse, Irene (Alida Valli), her brother, Filippo (Remo Girone), and Greta (Anita Strindberg), a researcher using the Oderisi library, all of whom share her profound disappointment. Ippolita is wheeling herself into her room when suddenly it seems to her that she hears strange, whispering voices. On impulse, she propels herself back into the corridor, where she sees her father and Greta embracing.... In her room, Ippolita tears off her crucifix and casts it away from her. At the same time, she notices within her jewellery box an icon suspended on a length of ribbon – and with an obscene image of Christ. With a cry of horror, Ippolita throws it into the fire. As she does so, a powerful wind sweeps through her bedroom.... Filippo is about to drive out when a sudden impulse sends him to Ippolita’s bedroom. She begs him to get her out of the house. The two visit the palace of their uncle, the Bishop Ascanio Oderisi (Arthur Kennedy). As Filippo waits outside, the Bishop hears Ippolita’s confession, in which she insists that the blasphemous image on her icon was a sign of the devil. The Bishop tells her that she must not lose faith over not being miraculously cured at the church; that things are not so simple. Ippolita retorts angrily that God may not make himself clear, but Satan does.... She adds that while her father’s love had always sustained her, now she knows she is losing him to Greta; she, meanwhile, has no hope of a normal life. The Bishop promises to say a mass for her. He does so, but when he turns to the aumbry to remove the chalice, he finds within, lying amongst the scattered communion wafers, a decapitated toad.... Ascanio summons Massimo, telling him about the toad, and commenting on the worldwide spiritual malaise that has seen a recent rise in devil-worship. However, the bishop’s immediate concern is Ippolita’s state of mind: he suggests psychiatric help, and recommends Dr Marcello Sinibaldi (Umberto Orsini). Startled to discover that Ippolita has some psychic ability, Sinibaldi diagnoses her trouble as psychosomatic paralysis caused by the intrusion in her subconscious of a previous life. He puts her under hypnosis, pushing her back through the car accident that crippled her, and then back further still to a previous life; that of an ancestor accused of witchcraft, and condemned to burn at the stake....

Comments:  The remarkable thing about the rip-offs that followed the release of The Exorcist on Boxing Day, 1973, is not just that there were so many of them, but that so many were made so quickly: no less than seven were released worldwide during 1974. Given both the subject matter of these films, and the national propensity for turning American blockbusters into a local cottage industry, it is not particularly surprising that of those seven films, three were Italian. What is surprising, though, is that those three films were released within sixteen days of each other, in November of 1974. That must have been one hell of a time to be an Italian cinema-goer.

    

I have to admit to being pleasantly surprised by L’Anticristo. I was expecting an irredeemable piece of trash; but although it certainly plunges gleefully into tasteless excess, it also has some unexpected virtues. Ultimately, though, this film makes the same fatal mistake as its American counterpart, Abby. Instead of simply using The Exorcist as a starting point, and then building its own identity on the bare bones of its predecessor’s tropes, L’Anticristo begins to do exactly that and then deliberately throws away everything that it has achieved, everything that makes it interesting, in favour of painfully second-rate reproductions of its model’s set-pieces. In the end, this film put me very much in mind of another rip-off of another American blockbuster, Grizzly, inasmuch as it is when it is closest to its inspiration that it is at its worst and silliest. Fittingly enough for an Italian film, L’Anticristo is finally a mix of the good, the bad, and the very, very ugly.

However, since my overall impression of this film was unexpectedly positive, I think it’s only fair that I start by discussing the good; and topping that list is the contribution of Carla Gravina, who was cast in the lead role of L’Anticristo only after it was – understandably – rejected by a number of other actresses. Playing not only Ippolita, but possessed-Ippolita and lookalike-ancestor-Ippolita as well, Gravina’s total commitment to her role(s), and the extreme physicality of her performance, is truly something to behold. One thing that almost all Exorcist clones have in common (the exception is Seytan) is that their Regan-figure is considerably older, so that their films can be spiced up with sex scenes. This is certainly true of L’Anticristo, where Carla Gravina provides some fairly explicit nudity – but to be frank, those nude scenes are really the least of what was asked of her!

Surrounding Carla Gravina is a remarkably fine supporting cast of Hollywood veterans; “Embarrassed Actors” if you like, but still a real asset, although the film certainly does not make the best use of their abilities. Perversely, it is the film’s exorcist, George Coulouris as Father Mittner, who makes the least impression. This is partly because the exorcism itself is in a sense divided into three parts; the confrontations that confirms Ippolita’s possession are given just as much weight. However, Coulouris also lacks the natural authority of a Max von Sydow (or of a William Marshall, for that matter). Alida Valli is largely wasted as Irene, given little to do beyond stand around looking worried. She does take part in the climactic exorcism, though – and suffers through a certain amount of physical humiliation in the process. Arthur Kennedy and Mel Ferrer do rather better as the senior Oderisis, treating their important supporting roles with a laudable gravity. The two men were only at the beginning of the Euro phase of their careers when they made L’Anticristo, and could as yet have no idea of the true horrors in store for them. Both, sadly, would end up in the Eighth Circle Of Hell that is the films of Rene Cardona Jr.

(I must say, I’m surprised by the number of reviews that accuse Arthur Kennedy of overacting here; I found his performance comparatively restrained. I can only assume that those people are unfamiliar with what Kennedy could do when he really let rip. [Edited to add: or perhaps they’re judging him on the strength of The Tempter? – this film was not just cut, but re-dubbed also, for its initial American release.])

It’s probably more a reflection upon my taste in movies than anything else, but I must admit that until now I had Alberto De Martino catalogued in my mind as a bad director. However, here he shows considerable skill - at least when he isn’t writing cheques that his special effects budget can’t cash: L’Anticristo is full of arresting visuals and imaginative compositions, which are supporting by some first-class editing. As is true of many Italian horror movies, it also looks fabulous. Although it is not revealed until the end credits, the cinematographer on this production was none other than our old friend Aristide Massacessi – aka Joe D’Amato. The film makes excellent use of its Rome locations, while the interiors – the Oderisi villa and the Bishop’s palace – are quite spectacular. There are also a number of amusing shots of the corridor leading to Ippolita’s room, where a row of embrasures on either side is filled with peering busts, some of which are gazing towards the elevator, and some the other way. (The second gentleman on the right, in particular, seems very intent upon figuring out what is happening in Ippolita’s bedroom – justifiably, as it turns out.) The ecclesiastical costuming is a real eyeful as well. Visually, fire is employed throughout as an obvious but nevertheless effective piece of symbolism; while there is also a very thoughtful use of red and blue colour schemes at various points in the film. (The makers of I Know Who Killed Me could learn a lot from L’Anticristo. Seriously.) The score, a collaboration between Ennio Morricone and Bruno Nicolai, is also potent, with the demonic scenes accompanied by discordant violins, and the film’s climax highlighted by a rich organ piece.

L’Anticristo gets off to a strong start, with the procession to the country church and the preparation of the statue of the Virgin, and the shift from religious fervour to outright hysteria amongst those have come hoping for a miracle. However, this sequence also receives an artificial boost from the presentation of the film on DVD. While the bulk of the film is dubbed, the many extras appearing in this opening sequence were left untranslated, which has the effect of making the English-speaking viewer just as unnerved and disoriented as Ippolita herself clearly is, as she stands amongst the other supplicants. Unsettlingly, although a few of those who have come to the church are suffering physical disabilities, like Ippolita, most of them seem emotionally or mentally disturbed; even possessed.... This aspect of L’Anticristo reminds us of The Exorcist, but in a good way: of Father Merrin’s comment that one of the objects of possession is to make us, i.e. humanity, repulsive to ourselves; and certainly one of the fears underlying any possession story is that of the unrecognisable loved one; the loved one who suffers from a physical or mental illness that, in effect, turns them into a stranger.

   

As Ippolita looks on, a frenzied woman is dragged to the altar, struggling and screaming. (The lack of dubbing does hurt here: at one point, one of the woman’s companions puts a hand over her mouth. Given the way that this sequence is reinterpreted at the end of the film, it would be interesting to know what objectionable thing she said.) The woman’s companions force her arm between the bars that form a protective barrier around the Virgin, until she is touching a blue scarf that has been draped about the statue. Instantly, she grows calm and joyful.

As those gathered around proclaim the woman’s cure, weeping and giving thanks, an emboldened Ippolita hands her walking-stick to Massimo and begins to move forward towards the statue. She has taken only a few uncertain steps, however, when her legs give way and leave her sprawling on the stone floor, unable to get up. Massimo and the cured woman hurry forward to lift her up. Ippolita casts a look of burning resentment at the statue, and allows herself to be led away.

However, before Massimo and Ippolita can leave the church, there is a disturbance. A man with an icon on a ribbon about his neck is also forced to the altar, but he spits vilely at the statue and breaks away, laughing insanely as he runs from the church. His companions chase him to no avail: he clambers up a rock slope and from there onto a stone ruin, which sits high above the ground below. As his desperate pursuers close in, the man throws himself to his death....

(The overall effectiveness of this opening sequence comes to an abrupt end here. The man’s suicidal leap is achieved through some sub-par bluescreen work that is, alas, very much a grim portent of things to come.)

 

As Massimo and Ippolita are driven away, Ippolita looks at a group of children playing, and reflects that she was only twelve years old when she was crippled. Understandably, Ippolita is feeling less than grateful to God at the moment, but when she wonders aloud what sin of hers deserved such a harsh punishment, Massimo is swift to take all the blame for her situation – and rightly, as we shall see.

Home once more, Ippolita resumes her customary wheelchair and takes the elevator to her bedroom. The villa’s other occupants, Ippolita’s nurse, Irene, her brother Fillipo, and Greta, a researcher using the Oderisi library, all hurry hopefully into the corridor, but realising in an instant the significance of the wheelchair, can only stand by in mute sympathy. This sequence, shot in near-silence, is effective and rather moving. It also conveys well the real affection that exists between the various members of the household, and particularly between Ippolita and Filippo.

As Ippolita begins to sob, Irene wheels her towards her bedroom. Ippolita has passed the threshold when an odd whispering noise reaches her ears.... On impulse, Ippolita thrusts herself back into the corridor, where Massimo and Greta are embracing. As Ippolita stares in outraged disbelief, the two fall apart guiltily. After a frozen moment, Ippolita continues into her room, where she explodes in anger, accusing Irene of betraying her by knowing about the relationship and keeping it from her - which, as it happens, is true. As Irene tries in vain to soothe her, the furious Ippolita jeers at Greta’s “research”, accusing her of really coming to the villa in search of a man’s bed. Then a worse thought occurs to her: marriage....

(The casting of Anita Strindberg was a thoughtful touch: her Greta is young enough to be a personal affront to Ippolita, while not being so young that the viewer finds anything distasteful about her relationship with Massimo.)

 

Left alone, Ippolita begins to undress, but in the process of untying her scarf, her fingers touch the gold crucifix about her neck. She removes it, casting it roughly into her jewellery box. As she does so, her attention is caught by an icon on a ribbon: the same one, she realises uncomfortably, as was worn by the doomed supplicant at the church. Ippolita gazes at the image of Christ; the image blurs and changes, becoming obscenely sexualised. With a cry of revulsion, Ippolita throws the object into the fire. Instantly, it vanishes; the fire is doused; and a powerful wind blows open the windows of the room....

Ippolia’s experience sends her to her uncle, Bishop Ascanio Oderisi, to whom she confesses blasphemous thoughts, and her conviction that what she saw in the icon was a sign of the devil. The bishop reproves her sharply for this, then counsels her over the challenge to her faith that the failure of her visit to the church represents, trying to convince her that God has not forsaken her, but is merely testing her. Ippolita is in no mood to find this comforting, demanding to know why God can’t make Himself clearly understood; the devil does.... She tells her uncle sadly that until now, she has been sustained in her troubles by her father’s love; but now he is making a new life for herself, and she will be left behind. The bishop does not encourage Ippolita in her self-pity, but promises to say a mass for her. He does so, but the ceremony is horrifying interrupted when, upon opening the aumbry to remove the chalice, he finds that it has been knocked over, and that in its place sits a decapitated toad....

(There are several decapitated toads throughout L’Anticristo. I am reasonably certain that they were faked – their blood looks very much like red paint – but as always, if you know different, please keep it to yourself.)

L’Anticristo takes the first of several interesting story turns here, in that the bishop emerges from his conversation with Ippolita primarily concerned not over her crisis of faith, or her apparent contemplation of a pact with Satan, but her obvious father issues. (It will later be thrown in his face that his failure to take Ippolita’s feelings of being abandoned by God seriously enough left his niece vulnerable to demonic forces.) The bishop has no hesitation in diagnosing these in medical, rather than spiritual, terms: he urges Massimo to get his daughter psychiatric help, recommending one Dr Marcello Sinibaldi, an expert in psychiatry and parapsychology. “He’s a sceptic, an unbeliever, but a fine doctor nevertheless,” the bishop concludes judiciously, in another surprising touch.

 

Ascanio arranges for Sinibaldi to attend an evening party at the Oderisis’, so that he and Ippolita can meet “by chance”; but this scheme is dashed almost instantly, and in a most unexpected way. When Sinibaldi arrives, Ippolita is demonstrating for some friends her psychic abilities, interpreting the secret message on a piece of paper; and she takes no more than a single look at Sinibaldi before she pegs him for what he is. She is, nevertheless, willing enough to hear what he has to say. The two go into an empty room, where Sinibaldi tells Ippolita that he has studied her hospital records, and that there is no physical reason for her inability to walk. Her condition is, in all probability, psychosomatic, and therefore curable.

Now, all this seems very reasonable, not to say self-evident, to the viewer (although the film never does articulate its subtext, namely, that if Ippolita is cured, then she loses her whip-hand over Massimo). However, L’Anticristo then proceeds to put quite a spin upon its tale, by having Sinibaldi conclude calmly that Ippolita’s problem is not just all in her mind – or not just all in her mind – but the result of a past life intruding into the present. A little regressive hypnosis should, however, take care of that.

(While it is impossible not to laugh at L’Anticristo’s blithe assertion of the reality of reincarnation and past lives – “Oh, it was scientifically proven that precise psychic facts could be transferred from generation to generation,” Sinibaldi says, in the most casual way imaginable; while later, when he diagnoses Ippolita’s problem as a “reincarnation phenomenon”, the bishop nods, “That’s the theory of Dr Stevenson of the Virginia School of Medicine!” – it is perhaps worth remembering in context that The Exorcist – the novel, that is, not the film – displays exactly the same matter-of-fact acceptance of telepathy: Father Karras refuses to accept Regan’s sudden ability to speak perfect Latin as proof of her possession, on the grounds that she could have picked it up from him.)

Ippolita is deeply sceptical, but agrees to let Sinibaldi hypnotise her. The first session brings out her memories of the accident that left her crippled – which, we now learn, also killed her mother; and for which her father’s reckless driving was indeed largely responsible, although a dog running across the road was the proximate cause. In the present, Ippolita shrieks, “The flames! The flames! The flames...!”, as the car in her memory catches fire.... Dr Sinibaldi reassures Ippolita, and she becomes calm; but immediately, he forces her further back – “Beyond your childhood; before you were born” – and Ippolita finds herself being condemned by a council of priests as a witch, and sentenced to burn at the stake....

 

Ippolita is screaming abuse at “her” accusers when Sinibaldi brings her back to herself. She remembers nothing, but Sinibaldi, though deeply startled by these revelations, is pleased, certain that they have found the root of Ippolita’s problems.

Sinibaldi and Filippo, who was also present at the hypnosis session, report to Massimo and the bishop. (Another interesting yet unspoken touch here is the absence of Filippo from the family outing that led to the accident. While there are certainly simple explanations – visiting friends, away at school – it does lend a survivor’s-guilt edge to the hovering protectiveness that Filippo displays towards his sister.) Sinibaldi assures them that he can cure Ippolita. However, he also warns them that in subjects like Ippolita, where there are psychic abilities, there is a real danger of possession: that is, of the reincarnated personality becoming present on a conscious, as well as an unconscious level. He asks the bishop for more information about the intrusive ancestor. This, clearly, is the skeleton in the Oderisi closet, as we judge from the uncomfortable exchange of glances that follows. However, Massimo and Ascanio agree that with Ippolita’s welfare at stake, they have no choice: they hand over to Sinibaldi the relevant historical records. We then hear of this ancestor – also called Ippolita – a forced novitiate, who in her desperation ran away from her convent and joined a sect of devil-worshippers: “Anything, anything to obtain freedom; love.”

(I must say, it’s very odd finding the same sort of plot that drove endless anti-Catholic literature during the nineteenth century in an Italian film!)

In her room, Ippolita accidently (?) knocks over her framed photograph of her father, and manages to cut her finger on the broken glass. Meanwhile, Massimo and Greta have left the house and gone to her apartment for a romantic interlude. At the entrance, they are abruptly assailed by a vicious, barking dog – on a leash, fortunately – which bears a distinct resemblance to the one that caused the Oderisis’ car accident. Massimo cannot put the animal out of his mind, even as he takes Greta into his arms and begins to undress her.... At the villa, Ippolita raises a pair of scissors and stabs her father’s photograph, then suddenly kisses it and clutches it to her breast with considerably more than filial feeling. She collapses across her bed, pressing the photograph to her heart – and then sliding it down her body....

 

The staging and content of this sequence contains a suggestion of something far darker even than that which is meeting the eye. Through the flames of the car crash, as Ippolita remembered it, we caught a glimpse of a headless toad - still walking; while now, the cut is from Massimo’s memory of the dog, so like that at the heart of the tragedy, back to an enraged and frustrated Ippolita as she stabs his photograph again and again. The overall sense here is of something not accidental at all, but planned; something many years in the making; and this feeling is further bolstered with the revelation that the monk who oversaw the first Ippolita’s execution bore more than just a passing resemblance to Father Mittner. 

All of a sudden, Ippolita is overwhelmed by the sound of church bells. She writhes, moaning and pressing her hands to her ears – and then, as if compelled, undresses. As she thrashes naked upon the bed, it seems to her all of a sudden that she is another person, in another time, another place....

What follows is L’Anticristo’s most infamous scene, one even more ingenious than it is repulsive – which is saying something. In perhaps the film’s best deployment of special effects, a split-screen is used to show the parallel experiences of the two Ippolitas, one undergoing her initiation into a satanic sect, the other suffering torments of sexual frustration – until suddenly, their experiences merge. Along with the split-screen, there is a great deal of clever intercutting here. We were given a hint of this earlier, with abrupt jumps back and forth between the earlier, condemned Ippolita, and her hypnotised descendent. Now the editing is used explicitly to link the two Oderisi women, who are already joined on the subconscious level; and also to imply (pretty bluntly imply, but imply all the same) something that, were it shown in detail, would have put L’Anticristo beyond the pale.

In the woods, as naked couples copulate all around her, the first Ippolita removes her clothes and lies upon a stone altar. (The orgy here is, I think I may say without fear of contradiction, just a tad more convincing than any of its British horror movie equivalents.) As a bare-chested man in a horned mask approaches, the couples break off their activities to stand and watch. The second Ippolita strokes her own body, as the first is asked whether she is prepared to become a daughter of Satan? Both Ippolitas murmur, “Yes....” The masked man draws near to the first Ippolita, lifting a toad and tearing off its head, which he slips into her mouth; the second Ippolita swallows. The first Ippolita is ordered to lick up the toad’s spilled blood. She turns her head to do so, as the second Ippolita begins licking her lips....

 
 

 

And then----

How exactly does one go about describing this? Carefully, I suppose.

A goat is led to the altar. We are given a good look at its hindquarters; certainly a better one than we want; in fact, probably a better one than anyone not contemplating a career in animal husbandry could want. (I am put rather in mind of that eternal university T-shirt, A vet’s-eye view of life.) The goat is dragged close to the altar, its hindquarters toward the first Ippolita’s face----

----and we cut to the second Ippolita, who licks the empty air enthusiastically for about fifteen seconds.

Oh, but it’s not over yet! On the altar, the first Ippolita willingly lifts and parts her legs, as the masked man positions himself between them; and as the second Ippolita stares down at herself, as her own legs adopt the same posture of their own volition – and as the imprint of two knees appears on the bed between her thighs. Both Ippolitas cry out as they are roughly deflowered – but before long, their cries of pain have become moans of pleasure.... The other world fades away, leaving the second Ippolita to curl up against her pillow, smiling and sated....

I honestly don’t know what to say about all this. Of course, it’s hard to say anything when you’re busy picking your jaw up off the floor. At any rate – and I don’t know if this is a compliment or not – I can’t off-hand think of anything that goes so cleverly about presenting something so reprehensible. (For what it’s worth, in the accompanying DVD feature, Alberto De Martino stands staunchly by this scene. [He does, however, apologise somewhat shamefacedly for the obscene Jesus.])

Sometime later, Filippo again finds himself compelled to run up to Ippolita’s room. She denies him entrance, however, being intent upon the discovery that her legs now work very well indeed....

....so well, that we next see Ippolita striding purposefully along the side of a road. (Or do we? This scene, too, is cleverly edited, leaving us unsure of what is real, what is fantasy, and what is memory.)  Ippolita is passed by a busload of tourists, and makes suggestive eye contact with one of them, a young man. She does so again later, at the Coliseum, where the young man, uncertain, tries to ignore her – until her exploring hand makes it impossible for him to do so. As the other tourists move on, the two stay behind, slipping into the shadows....

 

....and the next thing we know, Ippolita is sprawled beside her car on a grassy verge, unable to move without assistance; a child playing nearby helps to drag her to her car, where her walking-stick seems to taunt her. She drives away, realising with bitter disappointment that her experiences were no more than a dream....

....except that in the shadows of the Coliseum, there lies the dead body of a young man – his head turned completely around....

Finding that Ippolita seems worse (I’ll say!), Massimo summons Sinibaldi, who hypnotises her again. This time we witness the death of the first Ippolita, burned within a hanging cage. We learn too of a highly significant detail: that she recanted before her death, and died praying for forgiveness, and pressing a crucifix to her lips.... This session of hypnosis seems to do the trick: a shaky Ippolita rises from her wheelchair and staggers across the room into Filippo’s joyful embrace.

(And it is, I must say, a measure of how oddly interesting L’Anticristo is up to this point that it was not until my second viewing that I felt an impulse to shout, “Mein Fuhrer - !”)

That night there is a celebratory family dinner at the Oderisis’, which Sinibaldi attends. The excited Ippolita, after hugging this person and then that, declares herself ravenous and piles her plate with food – only to spit it out again. A drink suffers the same fate. Massimo proposes a toast, but instead of responding Ippolita turns upon Greta a look of death, and then begins abusing her in German – a language that Ippolita does not speak....

So it begins.

L’Anticristo has not entirely finished being “interesting” yet, but from here it does go out of its way to spoil much of what has come before. Instead of pursuing its many original aspects – the reincarnation angle, the hysterical paralysis, the devil-worship, the incest, even, yes, the goat! – the film proceeds to jettison most of this, and turns deliberately from a mere Exorcist allusionist to an outright Exorcist clone. And as with most of these films, the focus is upon execution rather than content, giving the viewer far too much opportunity to contemplate just how the various situations are being created – which in the case of L’Anticristo is absolutely fatal.

 

Some of the special effects work during the film’s climactic exorcism is awful, so bad that it turns what has to that point been an effective and quite compelling (if disgusting) story into an unintentional comedy. L’Anticristo’s other irredeemable blunder is that it has the hubris to go head-to-head with its inspiration. With the exception of the death of the young man, which is a clever call-back to The Exorcist rather than just an imitation (and a prime example of how these things should be done), the rest of the film’s set-pieces are a mind-bogglingly misjudged attempt not merely to copy its model, but to outdo it, and on a budget that was self-evidently completely inadequate to the task. The result is just embarrassing.

(....which is not to say it’s unentertaining....)

However, let’s for the present continue to give the devil his due. And speaking of the devil, that, we learn as the Oderisis’ dinner party collapses in chaos, is who has taken control of Ippolita. During the first Ippolita’s initiation, she was chosen to bear the child of Satan – the Antichrist – but her last minute recantation thwarted Satan’s scheme to unleash this evil upon the world. (In this there is a continuation of the film’s uncomfortable incest theme, in that during her initiation, Ippolita was asked if she was prepared to become a daughter of Satan.) However, the regressive hypnosis, operating on someone with psychic abilities who was also undergoing a crisis of faith, opened up a channel between the two woman and allowed Satan to take possession of the second Ippolita, both literally and spiritually, with the result that she is now both possessed by Satan and pregnant with the Antichrist....

Ippolita’s first frank display of possession ends abruptly when church-bells start ringing in the vicinity of the villa, which reduces her to a state of seeming normality, as well as leaving her with no clear memory of what just happened – which, for the record, involved flickering lights, billowing curtains, dancing paintings, telekinetic furniture rearrangement and much foul language. 

 

(Possessed-Ippolita is even more foul-mouthed than possessed-Regan, but emanating from a character a good ten years older, the language, although undeniably vile, loses much of its shock value. On the other hand, while the ol’ pea-soup does, inevitably, show up later, it is here that the film introduces something just as revolting: thick white drool that, apart from never actually breaking contact with Ippolita’s lips, seems designed to resemble quite a different bodily fluid.)

With the devil’s temporary departure, Ippolita also loses her ability to walk. Irene helps the sobbing girl up to her room, while Massimo and Filippo consult with Sinibaldi, who continues to insist that there is a simple, medical explanation for Ippolita’s behaviour. It is Filippo who first dares broach the unthinkable: “diabolic possession”, with Ippolita’s symptoms matching those listed “in every theological study”. (Or at least, in a certain American movie.)

It is also Filippo who is on the receiving end of Ippolita’s next demonic outbreak – although it is not at first, perhaps, recognisable as such. When her brother comes to sit with her, Ippolita mourns the loss of her ability to walk, throwing back her robe with an oh-so-casual gesture and leaving her legs fully exposed, and pressing one of Filippo’s hands to her thigh.... Over the ensuing conversation, the two edge closer and closer together, until Filippo is almost lying next to Ippolita. Their fingers are intertwined, their foreheads just touching, their gazes locked, both smiling....

----and then the film cuts away; and in fact, we never do find out for certain what happens next! This ambiguity sets up what is, I think, my favourite moment in L’Anticristo, as possessed-Ippolita announces her pregnancy to a devastated Massimo, blaming it upon Filippo. As she gloats, laughing wildly, about her child, her brother’s child, Massimo’s grandchild, Filippo himself, who is kneeling next to her wheelchair, can only stare at his father white-faced and slack-jawed, shaking his head dumbly in horrified denial; or, perhaps, just denial.

 

The reason that we do not know what took place in Ippolita’s bedroom is that instead of lingering in the vicinity, we followed in the footsteps of Irene, who did silently intrude upon the two of them for a moment, and saw enough to make up her own mind about Ippolita’s condition. Curiously, with a bishop in the family, Irene turns instead to a local faith healer, who after some monetary persuasion agrees to “treat” Ippolita. Massimo, meanwhile, does take his worries to his brother, who agrees that there is genuine cause for concern, but cautions that before anything like an exorcism can be contemplated, it is imperative that every other possible explanation be eliminated “by scientific means”. Fascinatingly, here it is Massimo who most leans towards a supernatural explanation, and the bishop who favours a psychological one – until Massimo accuses him of being afraid to face the possibility of possession. Ascanio then promises to visit Ippolita himself, and make his own judgement of the situation.

Ippolita’s exorcism is, then, broken into three sections. She is confronted first by the faith healer, who she humiliates and routs without effort; then by the bishop, to whom she gives a full demonstration of her powers (and with whom she completes the incest trifecta, throwing open her legs and announcing, “Here is the devil!” – while attributing Ascanio’s celibacy not to his devotion, but to impotency); and then by Father Mittner, the exorcist, in what is, ironically, the least effective of the three sequences, due to the over-familiarity of the material. It is in these scenes that L’Anticristo sacrifices its interest and originality in favour of dismally inadequate imitations of its model’s effects scenes, albeit ones in which the mayhem is generally escalated. Thus, Ippolita doesn’t just move the furniture, she hits people with it; she doesn’t just barf green, she makes the faith healer lick it up; and she doesn’t just levitate, she flies out the window. 

And no, I’m not kidding. If one single moment sinks L’Anticristo beyond redemption, it is this, with Ippolita rising from her wheelchair into the air, and flying out one window and in another, hanging over the courtyard in between. I’m only surprised she didn’t try a loop-the-loop. And as if the sheer conception wasn’t bad enough, this scene is executed using some of the direst bluescreen work it has ever been my misfortune (or fortune) to gape at disbelievingly. The only moment in the film that comes close to this in sheer idiocy is when Ippolita detaches her own right hand, sending it floating across the room to rough up the faith healer. The effects work here is just as bad, but the sequence is shorter.


(Alberto De Martino is very defensive about the effects work here, arguing that in 1974, “You couldn’t just push a button and make someone fly.” True; but if you can’t do a levitation scene convincingly, maybe you shouldn’t do one at all. Besides, this doesn’t explain why the special effects work was just as incompetent five years later, in The Puma Man. [And yes, these scenes are THAT bad.])

Still, what L’Anticristo lacks in quality at this stage, it makes up for in quantity. The three exorcism sequences together take up a full half-an-hour of the film’s running-time. There are various other Exorcist riffs scattered around. Father Mittner’s arrival at the Oderisi villa has him looming into view from the shadows; and there is a bouncing bed, a stone staircase, white eyeballs, and some crotch-trauma; while the film is also enlivened by a (fake) snake, and a literal appearance by The Devil’s Rain!

It is, ironically, once the exorcism is over that L’Anticristo improves somewhat, since alone amongst its fellow rip-offs, it seems to realise a critical fact about The Exorcist, one that is all too frequently overlooked: the exorcism doesn’t work. Fathers Merrin and Karras do not succeed in driving the inhabiting spirit out of Regan MacNeil; it chooses to leave, albeit to its cost; and although “good” does ultimately triumph, the victory is somewhat hollow, and achieved at a very high price – making for a fittingly sombre conclusion.

It would be fair to say, I think, that L’Anticristo’s final exorcism finishes in an honourable draw: Father Mittner – who favours the simplicity of, “I exorcise you! I exorcise you!” – cannot drive the devil out, but nor can the devil get the better of Father Mittner. Indeed, in a sense he retires from the contest, putting Ippolita up on her feet again and sending her running through the rain-swept streets of Rome with Massimo and Filippo in desperate pursuit, as the girl begins to show every sign of emulating the lunatic from the beginning of the film....

 
 
 

Although L’Anticristo itself finds a measure of redemption with this thoughtful re-working of its own opening sequence, by doing so it also underscores exactly what is so exasperating about it overall: it will not let itself be good. Honestly, I can think of few films that sabotage themselves with such deliberation as this one; with, indeed, almost malice aforethought. Didn’t anyone realise that there was a chance here to make a pretty good film? – one capable of standing on its own two feet, and not just riding on the coattails of its predecessor?

Evidently not; or if they did, they didn’t care; possibly the more likely of the two scenarios. (In this respect, this film is very close in spirit to Abby.) It is conceivable that the same mindset that in the 1950s and 1960s drove Italian horror films to pretend to be anything but Italian, here inspired a concerted effort to be anything but original. The result is a lost opportunity, a halfway decent horror movie that clearly could have been much better, and which in the end is memorable for all the wrong reasons.

Footnote:  Chad Denton of The Good, The Bad, The Ugly informs me that “Dr Stevenson of the Virginia School of Medicine” is actually a garbled reference to Dr Ian Stevenson of the University of Virginia School of Medicine, who did indeed conduct research into paranormal phenomena, and has a series of recorded sessions with patients under hypnosis that he claims to be revelations of their previous lives.

Want a second opinion of L’Anticristo? Visit 1000 Misspent Hours - And Counting.

"Loony Guy, he flies like a moron...."

 
 
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----posted 06/01/2010