Thursday, 6 October 2016

Halloween 31 For 31: The Demon (1963)

Director: Brunello Rondi
Screenplay: Ugo Guerra, Luciano Martino and Brunello Rondi
Cast: Daliah Lavi (as Purif); Frank Wolff (as Antonio); Anna María Aveta (as Sister Angela); Dario Dolci (as Don Tommaso); Franca Mazzoni (as The Mother Superior)
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies) #31

Sometimes one is lucky enough to encounter a film completely anonymous to you - no previous knowledge of its existence let alone anything about the movie, no idea what the plot's going to be about, almost nothing barring checking IMDB to be able to write down what year it was released in and who directed it for this review - and find something that goes beyond your expectations completely. Discovering afterwards that director Brunello Rondi was more well known for screenwriting, including a large portion of Federico Fellini's films, gave a clue of why The Demon was as good as it was.

Very much an unknown entry to me in dealing with women who are in the position of witchcraft or demonic possession - evoking films like Mother Joan of Angels (1961) to Belladonna of Sadness (1973) - this follows a young woman called Purif (Daliah Lavi) who is in a cusp between mental illness and actual possession from a devil. The film is split between a rational grounded reality and the supernatural to the point neither side can be separated, Purif clearly troubled between being cast aside by local lothario Antonio (Frank Wolff), who's decided to marry another, and community that views her as a witch. You feel utter sympathy, especially from Lavi's incredible performance, in spite of her trying to hex Antonio or much later trying to throttle a nun in a fit of possible demonic control. She's an outcast, raven haired with deep eyes, a figure who feels more comfortable in nature than with society, the local community deeply superstitious and only held back from burning her because, set closer in the modern day, there's a thin uncomfortable border between modern Christian and pagan belief at hand keeping some sanity to the environment.

The most pronounced touch is The Demon's numerous depictions of ritual and folk custom so idiosyncratic that they have to be real or are so detailed they could be passed off as real history custom, the former likelier as the opening credits explicitly state expert assistance on Italian folk customs. The marriage bed of a newly betrothed couple has to be painstakingly made, a scythe placed under the bed frame and dry grapes on the sheets above to ward away evil that that would ruin the first consummated sex act. A large portion of the rituals seen, Christian and folklore so melded together it feels closer to medieval and further back to pagan culture than Christianity of the present day, is the attempts for Purtif to be cleansed of the devils in her, from carrying a heavy rock a great distance to a village square so she can confess her sins and channel them into the stone, to the conventional exorcism seen in cinema which includes a spider walk that predates The Exorcism (1973).

What possesses Purif is exceptionally vague, a person deeply troubled in mind but there's clear moments of the supernatural, such as the presence of a young boy by a lake, which force you to continually question what is taking place in her mind. Naturally the film comes off as very progressive for its time even if there's implication she may have cursed Antonio finally in the last part of the film; not only is subconscious hallucination an answer for what takes place but, barring malice to him, even Purif's blasphemies are clearly afflictions of a person in the worse community possible to be in within her position, people who believe they can move a black cloud off a field through joining in a mass chant, who immediately chase her after as a witch believing she's responsible for it being there. Even religion itself cannot be trusted as there's even an implication of possible rape having taken place and nuns in a convent Purif finds herself looking at her as inherently evil without any sympathy. And as a horror film still, there's plenty that raises the hairs on the back of your neck. An attack on Purif as she sleeps, whether it's real or in her mind, is worse from her spasms and screams. The aforementioned spider walk, which is a prolonged piece of athleticism by Lavi, just enforces how a simple change in the symmetry of the human body by gymnastics is absolutely unsettling.

The Demon is a beautiful film to look at, less a horror film than a drama with sociological content that delves into the supernatural and occult in theme. The rural community evoked in its monochrome depiction reminded me of an Italian director whose work is also exceptionally difficult to find Vittorio De Seta, an acclaimed documentary maker who also did fictional dramas, the rocky hills around the community town emphasising its isolation from everywhere else, where the act of banishing Purif would have real effect and that such a community would be stewed in its own paranoid. It also evokes the community of Michelangelo Frammartino's wonderful La Quattro Volte (2010), especially as The Demon briefly has a herd of goats in it, but whilst that later film celebrated small town folklore customs as part of a cycle of life, in The Demon it's a toxic mix of Christianity and pagan fears that leads to mostly elderly or middle aged people to fear someone as clearly off in her own world as Purif. Even when she throws a dead cat at someone to hex Antonio's future first child, the emotional felt by the viewer is sadness for her stuck in herself rather than the usually conservative attitude of these sort of films to vanquish the evil witch.


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