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31 Days of Halloween: The Demon

Published Thursday, October 07, 2021

I'll say upfront that I didn't absolutely love Il demonio (AKA The Demon), but I picked it tonight without knowing anything about it, and it's absolutely the kind of experience I want when I do that. This doesn't happen often.

The Demon is an Italian film from 1963 directed by Brunello Rondi. I'm not familiar with Rondi, but he directed gialli and porn and wrote several of Frederico Fellini's best-known films. It's difficult to imagine anyone in modern Hollywood exhibiting that range without resorting to at least a couple of pseudonyms. The star of the picture is Daliah Lavi, an Israeli singer and actress. I don't know her, either, but apparently she played a James Bond in the 1967 version of Casino Royale which is hard to picture if you've never seen it.

The Demon takes place in a rural mountain village in southern Italy, where Lavi plays a woman named Purificazione (Puri) whose greatest love, Antonio, is about to marry another woman. A candle is lit during the wedding ceremony, and the duration of its burn (according to local custom) will determine the length of the marriage. Puri attempts to cast a spell on Antonio, but it apparently fails; the candle wavers after a promising start, then burns with a strong effulgence.

Puri's infatuation drives her to desperation and amateur witchcraft. She does everything she can to interrupt the wedding, the wedding night, and Antonio's life after the marriage, just to get his attention. At last she convinces him to drink some wine which she has secretly laced with her blood, and the two end up in passionate embrace until he catches himself and flees. In subsequent encounters he forcefully pushes her away, telling Puri to leave him alone.

Watching pieces of these events from afar only reinforces the villagers' suspicions that Puri is a witch. Gossip turns into action, and they take her to a priest for exorcism. He assaults her instead. Later, having decided that Puri is responsible for the failure of their crops, the villagers show up at her door intent on burning her. She escapes and leaves town, making her way to a convent where her reputation precedes her.

It's not gory or otherwise graphic, but The Demon is a difficult film to watch. I approach sci-fi movies with the assumption that they're pushing some kind of agenda, but social commentary in horror tends to blindside me even though it's nothing new and increasingly common. In my defense, sometimes an axe-wielding maniac is just an axe-wielding maniac. The Demon on the other hand, is positively dripping with gender politics and contempt for clergy. Puri's long ordeal is filmed in a stark, realistic style which feels like voyeurism but is mostly devoid of what we call the male gaze (the camera documents the gaze of the male characters but it doesn't objectify Puri). The film also takes place during the week before Easter, so we see a lot of the villagers' confounding holy traditions which are steeped equally in Catholocism and local folklore; I guess folk horror is my inadvertent theme this year.

The narrative doesn't take a side on whether Puri is a witch or posessed by a demon or just at her breaking point after such intense ostracism and harrassment. Judgement is largely left up to the audience, and the waters are muddied by the unprovable suggestion that she may actually be posessed; consider the moment where she shrinks away from a nun's rosary or the spider-walk she does for the priest, almost certainly an inspiration for Regan's similar ceiling-walk in The Exorcist a decade later. Anything supernatural in The Demon could also be a stress reaction on Puri's part. We still get excited over this level of ambiguity in horror films, so it's impressive to see it in a movie from 1963. The Italians were always good at this stuff.

I can't watch movies like this every day in October. This project—especially as we near our third year of pandemic—is about escapism, after all. But I'm keeping The Demon in my back pocket for pretentious conversations about social commentary in horror movies, and I'll be recommending it for a long time.
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