I’ve spoken previously of how my introduction to Franco’s cinema came courtesy of Redemption Films, who released a number of key titles on VHS in the mid-nineties. Sadly, the UK was a very censorious place at the time and a number of them – A Virgin Among the Living Dead (1972) and Female Vampire (1973) among them – suffered cuts at the hands of the BBFC. Worse still, two were banned outright, specifically 1981’s Sadomania and 1974’s Exorcism, or Demoniac, to give it the title by which it was submitted back then.
“I am the sword of the Lord.”
Seemingly triggered by a conversation he overhears at his publisher’s office, disturbed author Mathis Vogel (Franco) attributes the supposed sins of those around him to demonic possession. A man of religious fervour, he takes it upon himself to rectify the situation, stalking the Parisian streets intent on saving the souls of the city’s lost women . . .
Essentially the story of a defrocked priest who mistakes the kinky activities of Parisian swingers for genuine satanic rituals, Exorcisme et Messes Noire is often referred to as a key Franco film, most likely for two reasons. Firstly, the juxtaposition of sex and violence for which the director is known is evident from the outset, indeed it’s as violent a film as any he’d directed to this point. Secondly, he takes the lead in front of the camera this time around, which might cause one to wonder if this was a particularly personal project for him, if perhaps he identified with Mathis Vogel in some way.
I’m not convinced that is the case, and think we should be careful not to confuse the art with the artist in this instance. Franco himself has cited financial reasons for taking the role of the protagonist here, advising – probably tongue in cheek – that he would have cast Vincent Price if he could afford him. Of course, Vogel is something of an analogue for the writer / director in the sense that he makes his living selling scandalous stories to a low-rent Parisian publisher. I think that is where the similarities end though, with Franco seeming to value for personal freedom above all else, while Vogel spends his time – albeit unwittingly – judging and punishing people for exercising theirs.
Going back to the subject of sex and violence – or more accurately, sexual violence – time has done nothing to soften Exorcism’s punch, and it really is no surprise that the UK censors took exception to it back in the nineties. The film bears some resemblance to the Italian gialli that were popular at the time, and more obviously the American slashers that would emerge in the years to follow. Few of either feature such graphic depictions of naked women being menaced though, and the addition of bondage paraphernalia to these scenes only adds fuel to the fire.
Unfortunately, a sceptic might argue that Exorcism is also representative of the director’s oeuvre in the sense that it’s poorly executed in almost every way. Indeed, I remember being struck by how cheap it looked when I first saw it on VHS, and suspect the two things – the technical and budgetary shortcomings – go hand in hand.
The most obvious problem is the cinematography, which was the work of the director himself (assisted by Ramon Ardid) and is a glaring weakness. Many scenes are captured primarily by a single, static camera in the corner of the room, which I suspect is due to limitations of the locations used. Franco has confirmed that much of the film was shot in a hotel outside of Paris – it is very evident that a number of key locations are actually hotel rooms – and space is likely to have been limited as a result. Moving the camera and adjusting the lights also takes time, which might be another reason for the over-reliance on these static, medium shots. Either way, the effect is entirely unsatisfactory and actually calls to mind surveillance footage, although viewers at the time would not have made that association. They would have had no problem spotting the lens hood though, which appears with alarmingly regularity throughout.
Sadly, aesthetics are not the only problem the viewer has to contend with. For instance, the ease with which Vogel gains access to private parties and residencies (or hotel rooms, it’s not always clear) does not sit well with me. Tim Lucas, in the liner notes accompanying the first US dvd release of the film, teases that perhaps he is some sort of avenging angel, but in a film devoid of any obvious fantastical elements it looks like the cutting of corners to me. Worse still is the ending, in which the police happily drive away from a crime scene leaving a traumatised victim to her own devices and a dead or dying man lying on the ground. Really, the mind boggles.
“It’s a story of unhappiness.”
For all that, I can’t describe the film as a dead loss. I think it’s a lesser work – certainly a far cry from some of his earlier work for Lesouer and Eurocine – but not entirely without merit. The opening scene, for instance, is shocking, transgressive and unmistakably Franco. Lina Romay – who plays Anna, assistant to Vogel’s publisher – is naked, bloodied and chained to a post. A second woman (Lynn Monteil) enters the frame – also naked – and proceeds to beat her with a whip, to the apparent delight of a captivated audience. Stepping away momentarily, she beheads a dove (offscreen), drains it of its blood and returns to her victim, forcing her to drink it, smearing her naked body with it.
Ultimately this startling eight-minute sequence – which echoes the similarly memorable opening of Succubus (1968) – is revealed to have been a stage show, a consensual act, but the intensity of the footage is undeniable. It’s a shame that none of the later ceremonies are as carefully executed, and end up looking rather anaemic by comparison.
Another plus is the performance of Franco, who has had better days behind the camera but is on top form in front of it. He has subsequently likened Vogel to a member of the Spanish Inquisition, to one who presumes to judge and takes pleasure in so doing, which is something we see again and again in exploitation films of this period. We sense Vogel’s turmoil here though, as we watch him watching others through widows and from doorways. He appears horrified by what he believes he is seeing but can’t look away.
I should acknowledge in closing that, as a Franco film from the mid-seventies, Exorcism exists in multiple versions and has been released under multiple titles. In broad terms, the version discussed above – which features explicit nudity from start to finish – approximates the version first released to French cinemas. It does feature brief inserts of stabbing – most likely of a pig’s carcass – which were apparently shot and added later. This is the version released in the US as Exorcism, firstly by Synapse and latterly by Redemption.
A number of scenes were shot clothed and unclothed – as was common practice at the time – and the former were used to construct a much shorter variant generally referred to as Demoniac. This becomes confusing though, because most (all?) British home video releases use the Demoniac title, though the various runtimes suggests they feature the more explicit cut.
Finally, a hardcore variant exists under the title ‘Sexorcismes’, featuring footage shot some months later by Franco himself. This version is rarely seen today and I’m not aware of a legitimate, digital release anywhere in the world, though the hardcore footage is available as an extra on the German, three disk set from X-Rated.
I say finally, but actually the story of Exorcism does not end there. Some years later, Franco was approached by a Spanish producer with the suggestion that he repurpose footage from the original film to create something new for the Spanish market, which is how The Sadist of Notre Dame (1979) came into being. That is a story for another day though.
WordPress does not lend itself to formal footnotes.
I liken the Exorcism to the giallo and slasher genres in the above, because it is essentially the story of a deranged maniac on a killing spree. Those genres tend to withhold the identity of the killer though – to retain an element of mystery – which is not the case here.
Franco claims the beheading of the dove – of which we only see the aftermath – was achieved with special effects. I am very sceptical about this and fear the scenes of its blood draining utilised an actual bird.
In terms of resources, the Synapse dvd release from 2001 proved particularly helpful in writing this review, both the liner notes by Tim Lucas and particularly the commentary track featuring Franco and Kevin Collins.