Sunday, August 3, 2008

Italian Possession

I’ve seen a few EXORCIST knockoffs in my time, but wouldn’t call myself an expert on the matter, especially when we’re talking about Italian EXORCIST knockoffs. That said, 1975’s THE CURSED MEDALLION (IL MEDAGLIONE INSANGUINATO, released in the US the following year as NIGHT CHILD), a film I had never heard of a few days ago, turned out to be a big surprise. It’s very clearly a film that wouldn’t have been made if THE EXORCIST didn’t exist but like a number of other Italian films from that decade knows how to assemble the expected pieces and maintain its own particular feel in such a way that it becomes effective in its own right for its own reasons.

BBC documentary filmmaker Michael Williams (Richard Johnson—Bulldog Drummond in DEADLIER THAN THE MALE), whose wife was killed in a fire, travels to Spoleto, Italy (leaving behind a home in London with an interior that looks suspiciously like it could be in Georgetown) to film a documentary on occult paintings with his young daughter Emily (Nicoletta Elmi, familiar from Bava’s TWITCH OF THE DEATH NERVE and Argento’s DEEP RED) and Kitty Winn-type nanny Jill (CASE OF THE SCORPION’S TAIL’s Evelyne Stewart). Once there, Michael takes an immediate shine to his American producer Joanna Morgan (Joanna Cassidy-yes, THAT Joanna Cassidy) as well as a particular interest in one painting he finds, while Emily, who has been displaying mental problems already, begins to have strange visions using notable near-subliminal imagery, almost as if she has been to this place before. A local psychic (TORN CURTAIN’s Lila Kedrova) begins to take an interest in the family as a triangle starts to develop between Michael, Jill and Joanna leading one to suspect more than just supernatural causes for Emily’s behavior.

The pieces are all in place for EXORCIST shenanigans but THE CURSED MEDALLION, by Massimo Dellamano, continually arranges them in ways which are slightly unexpected. Part of this is the Italian-ness of the whole thing, with an intoxicating Stelvio Cipriani score and attractive widescreen lensing. The film seems to take more interest in the subtext of the family breakup causing what is happening to the girl in question than I suspect William Friedkin ever did giving the film a surprising amount of depth and sensitivity to it (leaving it up in the air for a while just how much of what is going on can be deemed supernatural), even as Emily begins flailing around on the bed, something which occurs though not as much as you’d think. At its best, THE CURSED MEDALLION is extremely creepy and effective and it’s slightly disappointing when the second half doesn’t live up to the promise of the first. A genuinely surprising plot development occurs near the midway point (I’m being careful with spoilers here, even if it’s not an easy film to seek out) which promises to take the plot in some unexpected directions but the reactions certain characters have diminishes the credibility which has been carefully built up by that point. In addition, some back-and-forth travel late in the film ultimately seems unnecessary and winds up robbing the film of a lot of its tension as we move into the third act. I’m also not 100 percent on what exactly happens at the end, but I’ll avoid discussing that. Bottom line: the drama is surprisingly layered, some of the most potent imagery is actually genuinely scary and we get a mid-70s Joanna Cassidy in a robe pouring a tall glass of J&B while easy listening music by Cipriani plays on a nearby phonograph. I have no strong complaints.

The strength of the actors helps a lot with Johnson lending more depth than his stoic persona would indicate. Stewart, looking like AIRPORT-era Jacqueline Bisset, and the young Cassidy, still years away from playing Zhora let alone Margaret Chenoweth, play off each other in an interesting fashion, able to give their scenes a great deal of tension from their suspicions of each other with very little being said in the dialogue, leading us to continually be one edge what their true motivations are (just to point out, the version I saw was in Italian with English subtitles, so no familiar voices). This is also the largest role I’ve ever seen for Nicoletta Elmi, whose parts in the Argento and Bava films are pretty minor and while at times she seems little more than a child play-acting, this inexperience actually winds up adding to the tension at certain points and her wide-eyed stares of terror are undeniably effective.

Sometimes I see one of these movies and it sets something off in me, thinking, “Oh, THAT’S why I’m into these movies.” It’s the mood, the vibe, the willingness to offer surprises in plot, style and approach. Everything about THE CURSED MEDALLION doesn’t necessarily click together but it still takes what you would figure to be a story with no originality and does something unexpected with it. That works for me.


Unknown said...

I agree that the movie is effective, and though probably not a lost classic of the period, it's still a pretty obscure movie that deserves to be seen by a wider audience. Dallamano's effort as a director here is quite assured.

Italian possession movies are fascinating to me, since so many attempt to replicate not just the plots and special effects of the Friedkin film, but his cinematic tricks as well (muted, documentary looking production values, subliminal editing, unnerving sound design...). Since these films were made before videotape allowed people to examine references so easily, these directors had to rely on memory, or (gasp) invention. BEYOND THE DOOR is a schlockier version of the same formula, but that film goes a long way in its attempts to push viewers in the ways THE EXORCIST did.

Nostalgia Kinky said...

Oh man I want to see this...great report. I really hope I can track this down...

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


That's a very good point about why the movie seems so familiar, yet still has its own distinct feel as well. It really does deserve to be seen by more people.


If I knew a way for you to see it, I'd pass it along. Hopefully there'll be a DVD release at some point in the future. Thanks very much for checking in.