The Tempter / The Antichrist / L’Anticristo (1974/1978) -***½
Originally, my plan was to review Violent Shit 2 at this point, but then I realized what a special occasion it was. I was about to write review number 666, and it would have been absolutely criminal to waste it on a movie that didn’t even have a cameo from the Prince of Darkness! And since the rest of what I have planned for this update amounts in aggregate to a program fully deserving of the title “Vistas of Suck,” it seemed only natural to fulfill my Satanic obligations by reviewing an Italian Exorcist clone. Nor is this just any Italian Exorcist copy, either. Although it took four years to reach the US, if Mike Weldon is to be believed, The Tempter was in fact the very first of its kind! But even if it isn’t quite the first, The Tempter is certainly the most ambitious of the Spaghetti Exorcists, representing a deliberate effort on its creators’ parts to one-up not just the competition in its home country, but its inspiration as well— this despite a budget which, though obviously quite lavish compared to what went into, say, Beyond the Door, was still pretty stingy by Hollywood standards. It’s that overreach more than anything else that lifts The Tempter up from the bottomless wannabe mire, and sets it in the firmament of glorious cinematic mishaps alongside Exorcist II: The Heretic.
I’ll give The Tempter this, though: its creators made a legitimate, good-faith effort to give it a personality of its own even as they went out of their way to incorporate every notable element of The Exorcist, from the pea-green vomit to the fall down a long, stone staircase. And if it’s true that The Tempter was the first blatant Exorcist knockoff, then writer/director Alberto De Martino also gets the credit for beginning the ever-increasing sexualization of the familiar formula. This, of course, means that The Tempter’s Regan MacNeil surrogate has to be much older than Linda Blair, and indeed, Ippolita Oderisi (Carla Gravina, from The Fantasies of a Sensuous Woman and The Lady of Monza) still lives with her father, Prince Massimo (Mel Ferrer, from The Great Alligator and City of the Walking Dead), not because she is young, but because she is crippled. When she was twelve years old, Massimo’s recklessness caused a car crash that killed her mother and left Ippolita paralyzed from the waist down. Ten years later, just about every doctor in Italy has had a look at her, and though none of them have been able to find anything physically wrong with her spine, she is still able to do no more than lift herself out of her wheelchair and stand with the aid of a cane. In sheer desperation, Massimo has brought his daughter to a church in the countryside, where a surprisingly aggressive-looking statue of the Virgin Mary is reputed to have miraculous healing powers. Evidently God is out of the office this morning, however, for when Ippolita tries to walk after praying before the statue, all she does is fall on her face.
As you might imagine, having her prayers come back marked “return to sender” after she’s spent ten years confined to a wheelchair through no fault of her own has not exactly done wonders for Ippolita’s religious faith. We may thus exhibit little surprise when Ippolita confesses to her uncle the bishop (Arthur Kennedy, of Let Sleeping Corpses Lie and The Sentinel) that she has been thinking blasphemous thoughts, and what surprise we may register at the diabolical hallucinations that begin on the afternoon following her unsuccessful pilgrimage will have less to do with the fact that she’s having them than it will with their specific content. After all, it isn’t often that even an Italian exploitation movie will go so far out on the limb of bad taste as to display a painted icon of a leering Jesus with a bright red, 14-inch erection! God isn’t the only father-figure Ippolita has been resenting lately, either. Her dad has taken up with a much younger woman named Greta (Anita Strindberg, from Lizard in a Woman’s Skin and Women in Cell Block 7), and Ippolita is almost literally insane with jealousy at what she perceives as this dilution of her father’s affection toward her.
Before long, all of Ippolitia’s relatives— father, uncle, brother Felippo (Remo Girone), maid/nanny Irene (Alida Vanni, of Eyes Without a Face and Killer Nun)— have noticed that she’s behaving strangely, and come to the conclusion that something must be done soon. Her uncle, as it happens, knows a good psychiatrist, and he arranges for Dr. Marcello Sinibaldi (Umberto Orsini, from Emmanuelle: The Joys of a Woman and Diary of a Cloistered Nun) to attend a party at the Oderisi villa. The idea here is for Sinibaldi and Ippolita to meet without her knowing what’s up, but neither the bishop nor his brother has figured on the girl’s psychic powers— which is understandable, really, because her mind-reading act at the party itself is the first we’ve heard of them too. Regardless, Ippolita sees right through the ruse, but she is nevertheless intrigued by Sinibaldi’s claim that her paralysis is really psychosomatic, and that he can cure her of both it and her new authority issues by means of hypnotic regression. Seemingly the next day, Ippolita is in the doctor’s office, getting herself hypnotically regressed into a past incarnation, which turns out to be an ancestor of hers who was burned at the stake for witchcraft some 500 years ago. Gee, that sure does bode well for Ippolita, huh?
As if you couldn’t have guessed, that trip to the shrink signals the real onset of Ippolita’s demonic possession. She starts small, talking in a deep, masculine voice in languages she’s never studied, then moves on to bigger things like displays of psychokinesis. And of perhaps the greatest importance, when the Devil is active within her, she is able to walk perfectly normally— well enough, in fact, for her to sneak out of the villa to seduce and murder young German tourists without being caught. Marcello tries his best to find a scientific answer, but to no avail. Irene secretly calls in a practitioner of folk magic (Mario Scaccia, from Deep Red and The Mighty Ursus), but because (as any good Catholic theologian could have told her) Satan is really the ultimate source of a wizard’s power, his charms and incantations are useless against Ippolita’s demonic tenant. Finally, the bishop steps in and calls upon a monk named Father Mittner (George Coulouris, of The Woman Eater and The Skull) to perform a proper Catholic exorcism. And while we all know right from the beginning that this is the strategy that’s finally going to work, some viewers may not be prepared for just how long and how hard a fight Ippolita’s devil puts up.
Truth be told, there’s quite a bit about The Tempter that’s surprising. The most interesting thing about it to me is that, virtually alone in its subgenre, it behaves as if its creators knew everyone in the audience had already seen The Exorcist. Whereas movies like Abby or The Eerie Midnight Horror Show have the nerve to ask us to act surprised when they run through the same old routine, serving up the reheated leftovers of William Friedkin’s most attention-getting shocks, The Tempter essentially says, “Yeah, we know— they did that in The Exorcist. But they didn’t do it like this!” For one thing, The Tempter spikes the brew by tossing in elements of the other big-name devil movie in then-recent memory, Rosemary’s Baby, eventually revealing that the real purpose behind Ippolita’s possession is to hijack her uterus for the incubation of the Antichrist. For another, each conspicuous crib from The Exorcist is staged in such a way as to take things one step further. There are more and hypothetically grander special effects. The staircase Felippo falls down is longer. When Ippolita launches heavy pieces of furniture through the air by telekinesis, she hits her targets. The body of the man whom the possessed heroine kills is shown instead of merely being described by a detective. The demon inside Ippolita has an even fouler mouth than Regan MacNeil’s Pazuzu. When she vomits green sludge at the rustic magician, she then forces him to lick it up. But most importantly, The Tempter goes all-out with the sleazy sex. Unlike its model, it has fairly extensive nudity (and I imagine the Italian prints had even more— there are several points in Avco-Embassy’s US version at which something was obviously cut out). There is a recurring incest theme, which begins with Ippolita’s jealousy of her father’s new girlfriend and progresses through a thinly veiled attempt at seducing Felippo to her shamelessly exposing herself to her uncle while he tries to determine whether an exorcism is called for. But the real show-stopper is the scene in which Ippolita has what you might call a parallel time experience (she seems to be inhabiting both her own body and that of her heretical ancestor) hinging on a Satanic orgy and initiation ceremony. After picking her way across a landscape littered with rutting couples, Ippolita stretches out nude upon an altar, where she is screwed by the head of the coven after being made to drink blood, eat a toad’s head, and (brace yourself, folks) give a rim-job to a goat!!!! “Let Jesus fuck you” is looking positively quaint all of a sudden, isn’t it?
What really sells me on The Tempter, though, is what happens when this headlong drive to get the last word on The Exorcist smashes at top speed into the limitations of the movie’s resources, both material and artistic. Most cheap Italian rip-offs of expensive American blockbusters have the good sense to scale down the aspects of the production that cost money— the name actors, the sets, the special effects. Not this one. The Tempter has two Hollywood has-beens, rather than the standard one, and both of them went all-out to provide the kind of crazed performance that one expects from a washed-up star in a European exploitation flick. Meanwhile, the overacting of Kennedy and Ferrer is matched by the absurdity of The Tempter’s big visual set-pieces. Its answer to Linda Blair’s famous levitation scene has Carla Gravina not merely rising up out of her wheelchair, but floating out the window and doing a little aerobatic routine via the miracle of substandard bluescreen technology. There’s also a shot (and this one is really incredible) in which Ippolita teleports her right hand across the room to strangle the outmatched magician. The one instance in which the rather desperate special effects come close to working comes in the long shots for the parallel time sequence, where a very inventive use of split screen allows us to see the Medieval Ippolita and her modern counterpart undergoing the same travails in unison. It works because the idea driving it is good enough to compensate for a few visible seams— unlike the teleporting hand, which is as ridiculous in concept as it is in execution. Ridiculous conceptions are perhaps to be expected, though, considering that Alberto De Martino is also the director responsible for Holocaust 2000 and the infamous Pumaman. To be fair, De Martino does his damnedest to make The Tempter look like a real movie, but he just can’t overcome the essential silliness of the material which he and his two fellow screenwriters have come up with. I also get a vague, untraceable sense while watching The Tempter that something was consistently going wrong somewhere between De Martino’s direction and what finally ended up on film, and indeed the credits give good reason to suspect that this was so. Behold— “Director of Photography: Aristide Massaccesi.” Massaccesi was a great collector of pseudonyms, but the one he used most often has been dropped around here on many a previous occasion— does the name Joe D’Amato ring any bells? Given his track record on the films he helmed himself, we probably ought to be shocked that The Tempter came out looking as good as it did.
Finally, permit me to leave you with something to think about which is only tangentially related to the movie proper. The edition of The Tempter which I saw was the old Avco-Embassy VHS tape from 1985, and printed in the upper right corner of said tape’s front cover is far and away the most frightening thing about this rather tawdry film: “Suggested retail price— $59.95!” Can you imagine paying almost 60 dollars for an Italian Exorcist knockoff? Times certainly have changed…