The chances of anyone topping the artistry of THE EXORCIST are somewhere between slim and none. But that didn't stop many producers of the 1970s from jumping on the bandwagon. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then THE EXORCIST was one of the most praised films of the last thirty years. Everyone tried to mimic THE EXORCIST, even crossing into other genres. Blaxploitation jumped into the game with films like ABBY and even adult filmmakers gave their homage in films like ANGEL ABOVE, DEVIL BELOW. Even today, people still take a cue from THE EXORCIST. You didn't think STIGMATA came from nowhere, did you?
But few were as notable as one of the earliest imitators, Alberto De Martino's THE ANTICHRIST (previously titled THE TEMPTER in the U.S.). The film is clearly an imitator of the William Friedkin classic. It tries to distinguish itself early on only to venture ever closer to the source material as the film wears on.
At first we're unsure of what we are seeing. We see a montage of several foreign-speaking people screaming and weeping. This is intercut with various religious images. Are we seeing some strange cult ritual? No, it's just a supposed faith healing. It is one of many pilgrimages the faithful make to purge themselves of their infirmities and perhaps their guilty consciences as well. These people are not all crazed, they are merely desperate.
Ippolita (Carla Gravina) is one of the desperate, confined to a wheelchair since she was little. She is a single woman in her thirties, still cared for by her father and servants and she is still a virgin. The healing does not work and she leaves feeling as though God has turned His back on her. She looks up helplessly at the religious statue staring down at her, as if to say, "My God, why have you forsaken me?"
Feeling deserted by everyone around her, Ippolita's paralysis is less of a handicap than the huge chip on her shoulder. It is believed that her paralysis has more to do with repressed memories about her mother than any physical condition. She speaks to a psychologist, who is frankly very unorthodox and way too confident. She agrees to undergo hypnotic regression therapy.
She regresses a little too far, long before her birth and recalls her previous life as a heretic. Apparently, in her former incarnation, she took part in satanic orgies and rituals and was later condemned to death. Later, alone in her room, she reaches the very height of sexual repression. Feeling she can't take it anymore, she is shown a vision of her former decadent life and gives herself over to Satan.
The good news is Ippolita can walk again. The bad news is now she's possessed by the devil - always a catch. She begins by venturing out and seducing a young man in a museum, only to kill him later on, by turning his head 180 degrees. His head lies on his bare-naked body, a shocked expression frozen on his face (Of course, I guess I would be shocked too). A nice effect, actually.
From then on, it's the same old, same old. Ippolita becomes ever more grotesque looking, starts cursing like an Andrew Dice Clay album and begins floating things across the room.
That has always gotten me about these films. In the EXORCIST, Pazuzu demonstrated it's power by levitating the bed or opening random drawers, as if to catch the rationally-minded protagonists off guard. These events are typically timed to disarm people when they feel they have got a handle on things. And yes, Pazuzu does attempt to kill pretty much everyone. This has been misread by EXORCIST imitators as cheap parlor tricks. It always seems like the devil is more a clown prince of the outer realms than anything, and thus makes it hard for us to accept the devotion characters show to him. The imitators have got the actions right, but they have the motives all wrong.
Many of THE ANTICHRIST's problems lie within it's final half. In the beginning, Alberto De Martino seems intent on at least trying to distinguish his film from the classic it apes. Being an Italian filmmaker, De Martino makes the very wise decision of using Rome to his advantage. The Mecca of Catholicism, De Martino indulges in showing us the religious iconography of legendary city, and all the theology has a genuine feel to it, given the surroundings.
De Martino's cast is on a quest for God, and he shows what lengths people will go to in order to get closer to Him. It begs the question why people allow themselves to feel so abandoned when God is all around them?
Not surprisingly, De Martino takes a very conventional stance. The source of Ippolita's trauma is sexual and sex is exactly what lures Satan into her body. Ordinarily, this is merely an excuse for producers to show gratuitous nudity. It appears here too, including an orgy sequence that involves some bestiality. But the sex actually seems toned down from other clones who milked the skin angle for all it was worth like MALABIMBA or the similarly titled MAGNELINA, POSSESSED BY THE DEVIL.
Instead, it's just a very conservative viewpoint. It is Ippolita's arrogance and worldly desires that gets her into this mess and only by renouncing them can she free herself. I get very angry by hearing similar explanations for the hidden meaning behind THE EXORCIST, an old standby explanation saying how misogynistic Friedkin and William Peter Blatty must have been. Absolute nonsense, but not far removed from an explanation for THE ANITCHRIST.
It is this conservatism and hasty retreat back to the familiar that ultimately kills THE ANITCHRIST. The film shows some shocking originality in it's first half. The Roman setting is a stroke of genius, as is Ippolita's seduction, which features a brilliant use of split-screen effects. But then, the film becomes too damn familiar. In it's uncut form, it runs about twenty minutes too long. All that is left is to bring back the old tricks that made THE EXORCIST a hit, concluding with an old codger brought in to say a few rosaries and save the day. I have seen Max Von Sydow and you sir, are no Max Von Sydow.
At least some of the other imitators tried to distinguish themselves throughout their whole running time. Paul Naschy's EXORCISM is an excellent example of this, as are the other films mentioned in this review. Are they all good? No, but they tried to be different. THE ANTICHRIST starts out in that direction, loses its nerve, looks around confused, bows it's head and returns from whence it came.