Monday, 31 October 2011

VHS Quest #13. Halloween Special: The Tempter (L'anticristo) (Alberto De Martino, 1974)

Ippolita (Carla Gravina) is bewitched by dark forces in The Tempter (L'anticristo)...

In the 1970's/80's horror, before a staple of the studio production line, evolved into the genre of the auteur, birthing everything from the grotesque Dalí-like abstractions of Argento's Suspiria (1977) to the cold spectral surfaces of Kubrick's The Shining (1980). During this time horror validated itself as an individual artform, capable of instilling beauty into the macabre (I recall the entire disco sequence from Carrie, De Palma, 1976). But many of the decade's biggest hits spawned a legion of less impressive copycats, and none more so than William Friedkin's The Exorcist (1973), a spew-laden drama about demonic possession, haunted by Mike Oldfield's classic Tubular Bells. But of all the Exorcist copycats I've seen none have quite the high-strung infernal power of L'anticristo, a possession horror hailing from Italy - the capital of genre sleaze. Indeed, everything that Friedkin's film restrains De Martino's takes to an extreme and vomits it in the face of the viewer. Dim your pumpkins horror hounds...

Ippolita (Carla Gravina), a young woman haunted by the death of her mother, is tormented by satanic visions while undergoing a crisis of faith. She's paralyzed, anxious, repressed and frustrated. Nobody seems to understand her, despite the best efforts of her comforting brother (perhaps a little too comforting) and strict father. When she seemingly loses mental control to dark forces a psychiatrist is hired to hypnotize the young woman, in the hope that some past trauma may be revealed. Ippolita travels back to a previous spirit; a life in which she was condemned for witchcraft and burnt at the stake. Doctors fail to cure her and eventually Father Mittner (George Coulouris) is called to perform a full exorcism. Will he be able to save the girl, or has she been forever lost to the devil?

Although lacking the intellectual rigor of The Exorcist, adapted by William Peter Blatty from his original source novel, L'anticristo does ramp up the intensity of the possession, working valiantly to gross us out every ten minutes. Character is much less of a concern here than set-pieces, but De Martino does provide his audience with a logical sequence of events which lead to Ippolita's demonic overtaking, as opposed to Friedkin's more ambiguous approach - Regan (Linda Blair) is just an ordinary girl, happy until she starts chucking up green sludge and breaking out in scars. L'anticristo's centerpiece is Ippolita's feverish nightmare recalling her past life as a witch, focusing on a surreal ceremony in which she licks a goats anus and makes love with (possibly) Satan himself, masked in theatrical animal getup. The young girl writhes on her bed as the colour and soundscapes shift in tone and intensity; the walls of her room seemingly give way to a different environment, and the effect is disorienting. De Martino frames the ceremony like a fairytale inauguration gone straight to hell; all spindly trees, cold marble and freakish orgiastic bodies rattling in the mist. He takes a distance from the action but allows for enough emphasis so that it feels explicit - indeed, the devilish induction will leave a disturbing mark on your mind.

Much of the atmosphere in this sequence (and the full-pelt exorcism which ends the film) is mustered though Ennio Morricone's incredible score, co-written with Bruno Nicolai (best known for his work on Caligula, Brass, 1979). A mixture of ghostly pipe organs and jolting strings, their accompaniment is as beautiful as it is terrifying, and will make subsequent visits to church uncomfortable for quite some time. The track which ends the film, 'The Light', is a masterpiece of crescendoing intensity, ranking among the composer's best work. De Martino is a competent director though, and not incapable of building atmosphere. His camerawork is often dynamic and exciting, especially in the sequences where Ippolita wreaks havoc in her bedroom, throwing paintings, drawers and wardrobes around with her mind. It's just that Morricone and Nicolai's score is so overwhelming that it hits every primary nerve the director also strives for.

Gravina is exceptional as Ippolita, throwing herself full-on into the film's most difficult sequences. The makeup does a lot of the work for her (pale, powdery complexion, dark rings around the eyes, foaming at the mouth) but the actress still dedicates herself to the idea of possession, moving specifically to the limitations of her character (she's in a wheelchair). The dubbing on this VHS is terrible but her physicality informs us of every demonic pang and thrust; every resentment bubbling under the surface of her now hell-wracked face. Some may find her over the top, but I think that's rather the point. Every other performance is somewhat underwhelming, although in fairness to the actors they're not really given much more than exposition to work with. Overall L'anticristo is a roaring success, and one of the most underrated horror films of the 1970's. "Your mother sucks cocks in hell"? Bah! This makes Friedkin's film look like a trip to Disneyland...

This review is part of VHS Quest.
P.S. I now learn that The Tempter is available on DVD under the title The Antichrist. It has so many monikers that I struggled to find it initially. I'll still include this review in VHS Quest however, because it counts as a Halloween Special.

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