The Exorcist debuted on December 26th, 1973 amid an intense media frenzy and the remnants of shattered box office records. As is invariably the case with any particularly successful genre effort, an onslaught of copycats were churned out as quickly and cheaply as possible to ride on its coattails. A complete list would be prohibitively large for the purposes of this review, but among the titles produced, retooled, and re-released in the wake of The Exorcist's theatrical reign are Abby, Chi Sei? (Beyond The Door), Cries And Shadows, The Devil's Rain, Double Possession, La Endemoniada (The Possessed), Exorcism At Midnight, Exorcismo, The House Of Exorcism, Il Medaglione Insanguinato (The Cursed Medallion), Las Melancólicas (Exorcism's Daughter), Possess My Soul, and Hammer's To The Devil A Daughter. Anchor Bay, in their neverending quest to unearth long-forgotten Eurohorror, has given one of the more blatant knock-offs, L'Anticristo, its first proper release on these shores.
Principal photography on L'Anticristo began in June 1974, just under six months after The Exorcist roared into theaters. The Italian-lensed film was slated for a theatrical release in its home country that December, even borrowing a similar release date from its American counterpart. However, it was trumped by the strikingly similar Chi Sei?, which was released a mere matter of weeks earlier, stealing both its thunder and potential box office. While Chi Sei? was being heavily reworked for an American audience, L'Anticristo languished in the once-capable hands of producer Joseph E. Levine (the 'Embassy' in 'Avco-Embassy'). Chi Sei? grossed $22 million as Beyond The Door for Film Ventures International, making it the highest grossing Italian film stateside until Miramax imported Life Is Beautiful nearly a quarter-century later. Meanwhile, L'Anticristo was being gutted, with the opening sequence all but removed and several other scenes carelessly tossed around in what remained of the truncated film. By the time this severely compromised version was released as The Tempter in 1978, America was too busy being bombarded with rip-offs of Jaws to give this flash-in-the-pan subgenre more than a passing thought.
Make no mistake that L'Anticristo -- which I suppose I might as well start referring to as The Antichrist, as that's how this disc is labeled -- is a shameless ripoff of The Exorcist. Anchor Bay proudly says as much on the packaging for its DVD release, if that's any indication. The similarities are unmistakable. Both films feature young women under the care of a single parent. Medical professionals are brought in to determine the source of their plight, which eventually culminates in the spitting of green fluids, levitation, uncharacteristically profane speech, disturbing sexual imagery, facial lesions, a sinister overdubbed voice, a head turned 180 degrees, and, of course, an exorcism scene.
Carla Gravina stars as Ippolita, a young woman literally crippled by the memories of a childhood trauma. Ippolita is brimming with resentment at seemingly everyone and everything, from her father, who's carrying on a secret romance, to God himself for rejecting her pleas for help. Regressive hypnosis is used to dispel Ippolita's psychosomatic symptoms, dredging up memories of a past life as a Satan worshipper. Before you can say "invisible sex with the Dark Lord", Ippolita is spewing green bile, floating around, and generally doing anything and everything Regan MacNeil did in The Exorcist.
I am not particularly religious, nor was I raised in a religious household. As a result, it's exceedingly rare for these sorts of movies to have any effect on me whatsoever. Though The Antichrist lifted quite a bit from The Exorcist, it would take more to duplicate its success than a scratchy voice and loose plot outline. I actually found The Antichrist to be rather dull, the worst crime a film can commit as far as I'm concerned.
The Exorcist took its time to develop its cast of characters. If the audience cares about a sweet, normal girl like Regan, then her transformation is all the more unsettling. Ippolita, on the other hand, is presented as thoroughly unpleasant and unlikeable from the very beginning. She harps about not ever having known the touch of a man, but she's blissfully unaware that their avoidance has more to do with her disposition than her disability. Toss in the fact that she's a dead ringer for Lady Elaine Fairchild, and you're left with little in the way of appeal.
The Antichrist is an attractively shot film, taking full advantage of its Italian locations and the talents of director Alberto DeMartino and cinematographer Aristide Massaccesi (better known in many circles as Joe D'Amato). A couple of scenes are fairly effective, particularly the atmospheric ritual in which Pre-Ippolita consummated her relationship with Satan. These moments are unfortunately scarce. Dialogue is delivered in a forced, stilted manner, exacerbated by the fact that it never matches the movements of the actors' lips. The special effects are often laughable, even as soon as the opening sequence in which a madman unconvincingly leaps from a well-placed cliff towards the camera.
Watching The Antichrist is like listening to a shoddy garage cover band. Try as they might to hit all the right notes, their attempts at duplicating someone else's art comes through as nothing more than a pale imitation of something great.
The great majority of the background information on the barrage of second-rate Exorcist knock-offs and L'Anticristo specifically was culled from an excellent article by Christopher Koetting titled "Speak of the Devil", originally published in Fangoria #197. I'd very highly recommend it to anyone with even a casual interest in this period of Satanic films, and a back issue is available through Fangoria's website for $10.
Video: The striking visuals differentiate The Antichrist from the rest of the lot, and they are presented beautifully on this 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen DVD. Portions are somewhat grainy, mirroring every home video release of The Exorcist to date. The photography at times is soft as well, though this appears to be more of an aesthetic choice than any sort of flaw with the transfer. Director Alberto DeMartino speaks about the presence of deep reds and blues in an interview conducted for this disc, and those colors are amazingly rich and bold. Though the sporadic softness and occasional presence of film grain may be offputting to some, there's little doubt in my mind that this is by a country mile the most attractive and accurate presentation of the film to date.
Audio: The Antichrist includes an unremarkable English Dolby Digital mono soundtrack. My only qualm is that there's precious little consistency in the volume of the dialogue, and I found myself constantly fiddling with the remote to my receiver to discern the quieter lines while trying to steer clear of louder moments that threatened to shatter my eardrums. These greatly varying levels come as somewhat of a surprise since every line of dialogue appears to have been looped in a studio. I guess an underpaid Italian engineer fell asleep at the wheel.
Supplements: The featured extra on this DVD is the newly-produced "Raising Hell", an interview with director Alberto DeMartino and legendary composer Ennio Morricone. The feature is in Italian with English subtitles and, as is invariably the case with Blue Underground's productions, is presented in anamorphic widescreen. Morricone's appearance is brief and limited to a couple of half-remembered notes. DeMartino is the focus, chatting about the film's visual style, the rudimentary special effects available at the time, Carla Gravina, and some of The Antichrist's more controversial and blasphemous moments. The interview, which includes a number of clips from the film to accentuate DeMartino's comments, runs just under ten minutes.
A TV spot for The Tempter is built around a single still photo that doesn't appear to have anything to do with the film itself. Owners of 16x9-capable televisions will notice that the square-ish image is windowboxed in a 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen frame. Rounding out the extras are 32 images of production stills and promotional artwork made available to Anchor Bay courtesy of the folks at DeVilDead.
Conclusion: The Exorcist aside, the demon possession subgenre has never held any particular interest to me. The Antichrist is an unremarkable knockoff, and though Anchor Bay has done their usual stellar job with its release on DVD, I wouldn't recommend this disc as anything more than a rental.