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DVD Review: ‘Exorcismo’

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Pretension kills. In the arts, it kills most of all. This is why  when I spotted a DVD of iconic horror film actor/writer Paul  ‘Unpretentious’ Naschy’s 1975 horror film  Exorcismo I couldn’t resist buying it.

When I was a youth, most theaters in New York City stayed open 24 hours to try and squeeze profits. Many older and smaller theaters would run kids’ films and cartoons in the morning, and then, from 11 a.m. to midnight the main features. Overnight would be for European exploitation and/or porno films.

Paul Naschy’s soft-core porno/horror films were perfect fodder for this niche, and often my pals and I would sneak into theaters to watch them. They were often poorly dubbed, woodenly acted, directed with little regard for technical expertise, provoke giggles at the wrong times, and titillate our prepubescent sexual imaginations. In short, they were great at what they did best, and for whom they were targeted.

Along with the films of the Hammer Studios, Roger Corman, Ray Harryhausen’s monster flicks, Godzilla films, and the occasional blaxploitation/martial arts film, these were staples of my childhood. Great memories….of usually mediocre films. Some were of the ‘so bad it’s good’ sort, but most were forgettably mediocre. The one redeeming quality they had, though, was utterly no pretense (word to Messrs. Spielberg and Lucas!).

Watching Naschy’s 1975  film Exorcismo (Exorcism, in English, directed by Juan Bosch) again, I still can see that it’s, if not a technically better film, certainly a far more entertaining and fun film than William Friedkin’s 1973 pretentious yawn-fest, The Exorcist; possibly the dullest ‘horror’ film this side of Rosemary’s Baby. Simply put, no one can say Exorcismo is dull and not entertaining. Yes, some of it is in the ‘so bad it’s good’ fashion, some of it is in the soft-core porno vein, and some of it is in the actually pretty good vein, but regardless of which is which, dull and pretentious it is not.

The plot concerns spiritual incest; it’s not too akin to Friedkin’s film, although it did borrow a few effects and gimmicks. The spirit of a dead father comes back to take over the body of his youngest daughter, kill her boyfriend, torture his wife, ignore his oldest daughter, Deborah, (Maria Kosti), and kill his son. The man tasked with stopping these shenanigans is Naschy’s character, Father Adrian Dunning.

The film opens with the youngest daughter, a spoiled brat named Leila (Grace Mills), getting high at a Satanic ritual with her beau. On the way home she crashes her car off a cliff and then tries to strangle her boyfriend by twisting his head around when he comes to save her. Subtlety, thy name is not Naschy! I

n this vein, it should come as no surprise that Leila is the object of lust for not only her beau, but her lascivious half-brother. John (Jorge Torras), whose desire for her is thinly….ok, not veiled at all, and the clan’s older, balding hulk of a chauffeur, Udo (Louis Induni), who keeps naked photos of her in his safe. Her mother, Patricia (Maria Perschy), is a clueless wonder who seems to undress every older male in the film with her eyes. Quickly, both Leila’s brother and lover are killed, with their heads twisted around. A third victim is the family’s sexy maid, who was boinking Leila’s brother. The murderer seems to be Udo, who confesses to doing it in a hilarious interrogation scene. He then tosses himself out a ridiculously fake window, and is killed.

Leila goes into a spiral that sees her spasm in and out of possession, and at a birthday party she freaks out at her mother, and sister Deborah, and spews venom at them all, calling them asses. Father Adrian then asks to be left alone to deal with her, and this is when it is revealed that Leila’s never seen father is the spirit. Her face is pocked and scarred, so the minister tosses Holy water on her, and they fight and wrestle, tumbling down a staircase, until Leila’s father possesses the family German Shepherd, forcing Father Dunning to kill the animal, after being mauled by it. This seems to free Leila from his spirit, her face restored to its former beauty, and she opens her eyes as the credits roll. Then she shuts them through the credits until, after they end, she opens them again.

Besides Naschy, the acting varies from wooden (see the male characters in the film, save for Louis Induni), to laughable (see Induni), to over the top (see Mills). Naschy, however, does a bit with the little given (by his own pen, as screenwriter, nonetheless), and one wonders what he could have been, acting-wise, had he not been Spain’s answer to Lee, Lugosi, Karloff, and Chaney? Naschy wrote the film before The Exorcist came out, but could not get it greenlighted until the American film’s success. Then he filmed Exorcismo in a month’s time, and it was one of his biggest hits.

The DVD, by BCI Eclipse, is actually quite a good package. The only thing missing, unfortunately, is an audio commentary. A horror film historian would have been the perfect choice, for Naschy is, nowadays, almost a forgotten figure on this side of the Atlantic, but he is as historically important to the horror genre as Christopher Lee, Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, or Lon Chaney. The film comes in subtitled and English-dubbed versions. (Interestingly, some scenes were originally filmed in English, and others in Spanish. But in the dubbed version, even the English voices are dubbed and synch up very well.) The dubbing makes for some amusing moments, such as when Leila freaks out at her party.

Naschy provides an introduction to the film, and also included is a half-hour interview with him, filmed just a couple of years before his 2009 death. The DVD also includes a domestic Spanish ‘clothed’ version of the nude scenes, a stills gallery, liner notes, and the original American theatrical trailer.

The most impressive thing about the DVD package, though, is the digital remastering in high definition. It is, in a word, phenomenal. The film, in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, looks like it could have been made yesterday. If only all DVD releases took the care that BCI did in this, a B-film, then some of the higher prices asked by the DVD companies might have some justification. Alas, even top flight companies like Kino, Masters Of Cinema, and The Criterion Collection, have, in recent years, made digital remastering a minor priority, as well as doing away with dubbed tracks and even film commentaries- things that made the DVD format unique to begin with.

Exorcismo is not a great film. But, it is a better and more enjoyable film (despite some pointless scenes and injection of pornography for mere titillation–hey, what else is porno for?), than the ponderous The Exorcist. I recall seeing Exorcismo first in the theater, then, a year or two later, the television premiere of The Exorcist, being deeply disappointed by how stale and less shocking the Hollywood movie seemed to me.

There are a few obvious added nods to the Friedkin film, but there are far more differences than similarities, mostly the nudity, drug references, incest, and familial themes. Much of the screenplay and dialogue, feel like a 1970s American crime dramas, with so obvious exchanges (see Barnaby Jones or The Rockford Files): someone is hurt, and someone will ask, ‘How did you get hurt?’, or someone will state their intentions (i.e.- plot point), and then we will see that unfold, as if such banalities needed not even foreshadowing, but ‘announcement.’

Naschy might have actually accentuated this more to achieve a funnier Ed Wood effect, as he does in scenes where hands reach in from outside the film frame, only to be revealed as non-threatening. The special effects that make Leila horrific are fairly standard for the era, but she does wear some cool, marble-like contact lenses. The camera work is nondescript, and the musical scoring anomic, but, that’s part of the charm B films possess. Alberto Argudo basically phones in his score, but, in an odd way, it seems almost right, for the film is an odd amalgam of clichés and uniqueness, and, in many ways, acts as a parody of some of the Eurotrash films of Luis Bunuel and Pier Paolo Pasolini, except that, even taken straight, it is better cinema.

Having said that, there is no way one can argue that Exorcismo is a good film, cinematically, much less a great film, but it is a good example of a genre film that succeeds, in its limited way, where its bigger budgeted doppelganger (of sorts) fails. Try watching The Exorcist nowadays and see if you don’t yawn. It was a film wholly dependent upon its era. And while there are markets of the 1970s counterculture in Exorcismo, when watched, they do not date the film negatively, as much as add to the humor (even if unintended) of the film. Give it a shot, and count the number of times you cannot help but smile or giggle. As art, the film is nothing of value. As an artist, Paul Naschy was simply a nice guy. But, as entertainment, both this film and Naschy succeed, and, after all, wasn’t it Hollywood that made the phrase, ‘That’s Entertainment!,’ not ‘That’s Art!,’ its mantra? So don’t blame the Spaniard for beating Hollywood’s version at its own game. Ok?

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