mandag 14. desember 2009

Cries and Shadows/Un urlo nelle tenebre

Italy, 1975

Directed by Franco Lo Cascio

Jean Claude Vernè, Patrizia Gori, Mimma Monticelli, Françoise Prévost, Richard Conte, Sonia Viviani, Filippo Perego, Franco Garofalo, Elena Svevo, Giuseppe Tallarico, Giangiacomo Elia

Not surprisingly, the enormous worldwide success of William Friedkin’s landmark horror film The Exorcist (1973) led to a slew of rip-offs that tried to cash in on Friedkin’s film. Italian producers, in particular, churned out several knock-offs that include The Antichrist, Beyond the Door and The Eerie Midnight Horror Show (all 1974). But the Italians also gave us another Exorcist clone named Cries and Shadows, which continues to remain far more obscure than the other Italian exorcist films. The English language title seems to play off on Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers (1972) but don’t let that worry you. The reason for this film’s obscurity isn't because it's too artsy, but rather because it’s a super-cheap rip-off of the most blatant sort imaginable. Well, they do say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery but somehow I doubt that William Friedkin was particularly flattered by this film, which not only shamelessly rips off his film but also adds a large chunk of filth and sleaze to the proceedings. But that’s not to say that it doesn’t have its charms. Far from it actually.

The plot deals with a goofy-looking teenage boy named Peter (Jean Claude Vernè), who has a colossal mullet.

Our boy Peter

One day, Peter is going for a walk in the woods with his friends when he suddenly spots a buff naked redhaired woman by a waterfall. Stunned by the sight, Peter quickly whips out his camera and snaps some pictures of the naked lady. When his friends catch up with him, Peter eagerly tells them about his lucky sighting but they all laugh him off and dismiss his story as fantasy.

The lady by the waterfalls

Later, Peter gets the photos from the waterfall developed and is puzzled when the naked woman isn’t visible in any of them. He decides to go back to the waterfall – presumably hoping that the woman will still be there, which of course she isn’t. Peter does, however, find a strange-looking amulet in the water. Even though the amulet is depicting an inverted cross, Peter proclaims it as "my special lucky charm" and hangs it around his neck.

Peter's "special lucky charm"

It turns out that using the amulet as a lucky charm is a pretty bad idea, though, as it doesn’t take long before Peter’s behavior starts to get strange and erratic. This is demonstrated to us in a hilarious scene depicting the 18th birthday party of Peter’s annoying girlfriend Sherry (Sonia Viviani), where Peter pops open a champagne bottle and then proceeds to squirt the champagne over Sherry. This deeply shocks all of the guests – especially Sherry, who reacts by screaming hysterically and running away from the party.

Champagne shocker

Anyway, things really escalate one night when Sherry goes to a disco with some of her friends while Peter sits at home sulking in his room. None too pleased with his newfound "good luck charm", he tosses the amulet on the floor in anger. But no sooner has he thrown away the amulet before the naked, redhaired woman from the waterfall appears on his bed – only now she has a dress on. The sexy lady puts on a real temptress routine by licking her lips seductively and pulling her dress up.

The redhaired tease

What follows is without doubt the coolest moment in the film, as Peter reacts by jumping her and slashing her throat with a knife (as you do), and at the very same time, Sherry’s throat is inexplicably slashed open while she’s dancing in the disco!!! She slumps bloodied and dead to the floor while the rest of the disco patrons look on in horror.

Sherry really turns some heads on the dance floor

From hereon, Peter starts to really act weird. It seems that the sexy redhead is really some sort of demon and Peter gets possessed by her. But he’s not just possessed – every now and then he even morphs into the naked lady demon, and then proceeds to attack and sexually assault his own mother (Françoise Prévost)! With things spiraling out of control, Peter’s sister Elena (Patrizia Gori), a missionary nun living in Africa, returns home to help her poor brother. Doctors diagnose Peter’s problems as "hysteria" and recommend putting him in an asylum but Sister Elena, of course, has a different idea. According to her, Peter is possessed and a good old-fashioned exorcism is what’s needed to fix the problem...

Although direction of the film is credited to Angelo Pannacciò, the man behind the wonderful Sex of the Witch (1973), the real director was actually Franco Lo Cascio, who had served as an assistant director on a number of Fernando Di Leo films and who in the 1980s would end up as a prolific director of hardcore porn. As expected, Lo Cascio’s foray into... erm... "serious" filmmaking doesn’t exactly amount to a particularly good film in the traditional sense of the term. There’s not much originality on display here, with the climatic exorcism ripping off The Exorcist down to the smallest detail. Throughout the film we are also served the expected obscenity-spouting, vomiting and flying furniture.

Flying furniture, hysterical nuns and a cursing mullet teen make for a fun Euro-schlock

Lo Cascio’s additions to the familiar storyline come mostly in the form of added sleaze and nudity; throwing in a black sabbath that ends in a big orgy and plenty of action involving the naked lady demon. The most over-the-top stuff are of course the scenes where Peter transforms into the female demon and sexually assaults his mother and sister – thereby managing to give us incest, lesbianism and nunsploitation (in the case of the sister) all at the same time. It’s so mind-boggingly tasteless and filthy that only the Italians could have come up with it, and I have to admit that it really is quite delightful to just sit back and watch something that is so unpolitically correct. The attack on the nun-sister is particularly off the wall, with the demon telling the poor nun that: “You’re a bitch in heat! Your genitalia is mine!”

Fun at the sabbath

Nuns need luvin' too

While all the sleazy moments are highly enjoyable, the film actually has a few genuinely well-made sequences too, with Sherry’s gory demise on the disco floor being the most memorable. But a hallucination scene where Peter follows the demon through a seemingly abandoned village is quite eerie, too. In fact, all the locations used in the film are effective and, together with a nice musical score, they lend some atmosphere to the proceedings. Trivia buffs may take note of the fact that the location where Peter first spots the naked demon lady is the famous Monte Gelato waterfalls, which has been featured in countless Italian films, including They Call Me Trinity (1970), Torso (1973), The Inglorious Bastards (1977), Ator the Fighting Eagle (1982) and many others.

Peter at the Monte Gelato waterfalls

Also worth mentioning is the weird scene where Sister Elena refuses to let Peter’s doctor admit him to an asylum because she herself has had some horrifying experiences in an asylum. We’re then shown some bizarre, grainy clips of people having a miserable time in an asylum. The whole thing feels completely out of place but it certainly manages to grab one’s attention.

Weird asylum scenes

But while the above sequences work well, the rest of the film contains a lot of clumsy passages that frequently lapse into unintentional hilarity. The scene where Peter squirts champagne on Sherry at her birthday party is the most obvious example. I realize that the filmmakers wanted some kind of social setting to demonstrate that Peter’s behavior is starting to become creepy. In The Exorcist, we got a scene where the possessed girl pees on the carpet in front of her mother’s dinner guests, which really does give you the feeling that something is not quite right with her. But, needless to say, squirting some champagne on your girlfriend isn’t quite in the same league! It just seems so harmless, and this – coupled with Sherry’s overly hysterical reaction – makes the scene very absurd. It’s hard to not laugh out loud at the whole thing.

The film’s narrative, too, is constructed in a rather laughable way. It actually begins with a possessed Peter lying tied to his bed, and then the back story of how he became possessed is told in flashbacks as Sister Elena describes the events to a priest. None of this makes much sense considering the fact that Elena wasn’t actually present to witness any of the events she is describing. The scene where she talks about "that terrible day" when Sherry was killed at the disco doesn’t make any sense at all since there’s no possible way she could know that Sherry’s death was brought on by Peter’s slashing of the female demon’s throat.

Oh, and let’s not forget the acting! The film’s top-billed star is Richard Conte, an American actor of Italian heritage who had a long and successful Hollywood career. After appearing in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972), Conte spent the remainder of his career in Italian films – mainly in crime or cop flicks – before dying of a heart attack in 1975. Conte’s performance here as the exorcist was actually his second-to-last film role and he died a few months before the film hit theatres. In spite of his top-billing, Conte’s role is rather brief and he doesn’t get to do much expect hold up a crucifix while quoting some bible passages – all the while looking suitably embarrassed. It’s quite surprising to see Conte reduced to appearing in such low-grade trash just three years after The Godfather, and definitely a sad end to the career of such a solid actor.

Richard Conte puts an embarrassing end to his long acting career

Also wasted is the attractive French actress Françoise Prévost as Peter’s mother. Prévost is an accomplished and versatile performer who switched between working in more serious films and in various genre efforts like The Murder Clinic (1966) and The Sinful Nuns of St. Valentine (1974), but she gets very little to do here except in the scenes where the female demon attacks her and rips open her nightgown. Hardly a career highlight for her.

Of course, the real "star" of the film is Jean Claude Vernè, the (presumably French) actor who plays Peter. He only appeared in a handful of films and while he doesn’t seem to grasp the concept of acting at all, his grossly exaggerated facial expressions and amazing hairdo makes him a lot of fun to watch as he switches between freaking out, getting naked, shouting obscenities or squirting champagne.

The only performance that can actually be said to be any good is that given by the director’s wife at the time, the lovely and underappreciated Patrizia Gori as Peter’s sister. Gori has a pretty expressive face and is very good at instilling sympathy for the characters she plays, as evidenced by her strong performance in Joe D’Amato’s excellent Emanuelle’s Revenge (1975). I also like how she looks very different in nearly all of her films – having started out as a platinum blonde, then switching to brunette, and for her role in this film she actually shaved herself bald.

Patrizia Gori delivers the goods as always

While the rest of the actors don’t exactly shine, there are some welcome familiar faces in place here, including Bruno Mattei favorite Franco Garofalo from Hell of the Living Dead (1980) and The Other Hell (1981) as the guy conducting the black sabbath at the start of the film, a very young Sonia Viviani as Peter’s idiot girlfriend, and even dear, old primitive-looking Salvatore Baccaro of The Beast in Heat (1977) infamy puts in an uncredited appearance as a briefly seen participant at the black sabbath. Oh, and Mimma Monticelli may not be a very well-known actress but believe me when I say that her appearance as the naked demon will keep your eyes constantly glued to the screen.

In short, Cries and Shadows isn’t exactly a good film but its daftness nevertheless adds greatly to the overall package, and it succeeds in creating a near perfect balance between unintentionally funny rubbish, jaw-dropping tastelessness and occasional moments of surprising effectiveness. If you’re in search of a trashy Italian flick to keep you entertained then look no further!

© 2009 Johan Melle

The cast:

Jean Claude Vernè as Peter

Patrizia Gori as Sister Elena

Mimma Monticelli as The Demon

Françoise Prévost as Barbara, Peter's mother

Richard Conte as The Exorcist

Sonia Viviani as Sherry

Filippo Perego as The Priest

Franco Garofalo as The Black Sabbath Leader

Elena Svevo (a.k.a. Elisabeth Tulin) as Anna

Giuseppe Tallarico as The Doctor

Giangiacomo Elia (a.k.a. John Ely) as The Police Inspector

Salvatore Baccaro as A Black Sabbath Participant

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