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Plot: nobleman is having a mental breakdown, or is he possessed by a demon?

Byleth (Il demone dell'incesto) (or Byleth – The Demon Of Incest, simply Byleth hereafter) is a curio in the pantheon of Italian gothic horror that has remained remarkably minor and elusive despite having all the hallmarks of an Eurocult favourite. Have history and contemporary retrospective reviews in the blogosphere been unfavorable or unkind to Byleth? Who knows, the truth undeniably lies somewhere in the middle. What’s certain is that Byleth has perhaps been somewhat unjustly relegated to nothing but a footnote in the context of Italo gothic horror history. Regardless of its place in history Byleth pushes all the right buttons and is just weird enough to warrant a cursory glance if not a nod of approval.

Leopoldo Savona is more famous for whom he assistant directed under than for most of his own repertoire. Over the decades he assistant directed under Giuseppe De Santis, Luigi Zampa, Riccardo Freda, and Pier Paolo Passolini. He had a respectable career and directed 18 films in the 22 years between 1954 and 1976. He was active as a screenwriter and an actor and in that capacity could be seen in an uncredited role in Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita (1960) as well as in The Giant of Metropolis (1961) and Vulcan, Son Of Jupiter (1962). Savona infamously was fired from Knives Of the Avenger (1966) with Mario Bava being brought in at the last minute to salvage the project. Bava scrapped most of the footage and rewrote/reshot the entire film within the span of just six (!!) days. After the usual amount of peplum and spaghetti westerns he contributed to the giallo explosion with Death Falls Lightly (1972). The most logical thing following that would be to contribute to the gothic horror revival that was going on at the time. At the dawn of the 1970s interest in the occult – and witchcraft was at an all-time high – and who was Savona not to exploit it to the fullest? Thus was born Byleth.

More damningly Byleth is - often rather lazily and quite facilely - described as a companion piece to Luigi Batzella’s unabashedly preposterous The Devil’s Wedding Night (1973). While the comparison is not entirely without merit this nifty little genre exercise places giallo styled killings in a 19th century Italian gothic horror premise. It’s very much like The Strangler Of Blackmoor Castle (1963) in that way. In other words, this is a completely different beast from Batzella’s delirious offering. In truth, this etches closer to The Night Of the Damned (1971) and The Witches Mountain (1972) than anything else. Featuring lush photography from the baronial palace of Castello del Sasso and Piazza Santa Croce in Cerveteri as well as the beautiful Fontanile Testa di Bove near the Bosco di Macchia Grande in Manziana, both in Rome. Which bring us to the million dollar question: who or what is Byleth? In demonology Beleth (or Byleth) is a king of Hell who has eighty-five legions of demons under his command. He’s seen riding a pale horse, and a variety of music announces his arrival. He’s mentioned in Johann Weyer's Pseudomonarchia Daemonum, Jacques Collin de Plancy’s la Dictionnaire Infernal, and the Ars Goetia. For good measure Astaroth, Behemoth, Belphegor, and Lucifer are also mentioned. Here Byleth is the demon of incest because that’s a very Italian thing and very popular in commedia sexy all’Italiana of the day. Apparently this was a German co-production as it features a duo of German warm bodies during the opening – but Byleth is thoroughly Italian otherwise. Also, Savona loves his redheads, auburns and gingers – and by The Sixteenth Six-Tooth Son of Fourteen Four-Regional Dimensions (Still Unnamed) Byleth is chockful of them.

Headlining are American import Mark Damon and Spanish minx Claudia Gravy who are supported by an array of Italian character actors and the odd German or two. Damon had starred in the Roger Corman produced House of Usher (1960) (opposite of Vincent Price). This led to an invitation from director Luchino Visconti after which he relocated to Rome, Italy and starred in around 40 movies including, but not limited to, the romantic comedy God, How Much I Love You! (1966) (with belle du jour and Eurovision Song Contest 1964 winner Gigliola Cinquetti), the Antonio Margheriti giallo Naked You Die (1968), and LWO favourite The Devil’s Wedding Night (1973) (with Rosalba Neri and Brazilian leading lady Esmeralda Barros). In the early 1970s Margaret Markov was one of the many svelte blonde grindhouse/drive-in starlets having starred in the Gene Roddenberry written and Roger Vadim directed Pretty Maids All in a Row (1971), the Filipino women in prison classic Black Mama White Mama (1973) from Eddie Romero, and The Arena (1974). In fact it was on the set of the latter where producer Damon and Markov met and by October 1976 the two were married. Damon retired from acting and turned to producing.

Claudia Gravy was one of the lesser Eurocult queens who, despite amassing a respectable resumé in Euroshlock and remaining a beloved supporting actress, never quite made it to the big time. Gravy was born in 1945 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (then still Belgian Congo) and made her screen debut in 1964. Her first role of note was in the Spanish James Bond imitation Scorpions and Miniskirts (1967) whereafter she fell into the claws of Jesús Franco for the duo of Red Lips (1969) (with Rosanna Yanni) and Marquis de Sade: Justine (1969) (with Romina Power). She then found steady employment in macaroni – and spaghetti westerns but also appeared in diverse offerings as the soccer comedy Las Ibéricas F.C. (1971), the nunsploitationer The Nuns of Saint Archangel (1973), the sex comedy Healthy Married Life (1974) (alongside Teresa Gimpera, Amparo Muñoz, Nadiuska, and Josele Román), the jungle goddess adjacent peplum hybrid Kilma, Queen of the Amazons (1976) as well as the thriller Sweetly You'll Die Through Love (1977). Unbelievable as it may seem, Gravy somehow was able to escape her exploitation past and built a legitimate career in movies and television afterwards.

The young duke Lionello Shadwell (Mark Damon) has returned to the ancestral homestead after a year abroad. More than anything the nobleman longs to see his sister Barbara (Claudia Gravy) again after her year-long stay in England. He’s dismayed to learn that in the twelve months since their last encounter Barbara has married elderly aristocrat Giordano (Aldo Bufi Landi). Lionello has a deep affection for his sister that borders on the morbid and wants nothing more than to have her exclusively to himself. The thought of having to share Barbara with Giordano (even if he’s a distinguished man with all the virtues of culture, intelligence and sophistication that his estate affords him) sickens him. A simple friendly fencing match exposes the duke’s animosity for what it is. In his emotional destitution and desperation he consults the grimoires of his warlock father (Mark Damon) and recites an incantation conjuring the demon Byleth for assistance. The killing of prostitute Dolores (Karin Lorson) coinciding with the arrival of the duke piques the interest of the local judge (Franco Jamonte) and magistrate (Alessandro Perrella).

They dispatch the sergeant (Antonio De Leo, as Tony Denton) to lead the investigation. Devastated Lionelle seeks comfort in the shadows of the stable where he spies on chambermaid Gisella (Caterina Chiani) in a passionate tryst with virile stablehand Dario (Franco Marletta). Once again Lionello experiences an episode and blackout. When he comes to the maid is dead. Having seen the trident-shaped injuries Giordano seeks an audience with Father Clemente (Antonio Anelli) and after consulting his private occult library the two men agree that the murders must be attributed to Byleth, or at the very least that Byleth has taken possession of the duke – with his consent or without. As a welcome breath of fresh air and to ease Lionello’s shattered nerves Giordano graciously invites his pretty cousin Floriana (Silvana Panfili, as Silvana Pompili) to stay at the estate. Does Lionello’s fragile mental state express itself in a pathology of murder, is Byleth a manifestation of his all-consuming jealousy over having to share his sister with another man – and who is that mysterious blackrobed rider (Mark Damon) that seems to guide all these strange going-ons and haunt Lionello’s waking hours?

Besides Damon and Gravy the remainder of the cast is filled with notable character actors Aldo Bufi Landi, Fernando Cerulli, minor starlets Caterina Chiani (not using her Marzia Damon alias) and Silvana Panfili as well as German professional warm bodies Florian Endlicher and Karin Lorson. Landi was in, among others, Dario Argento’s Four Flies On Grey Velvet (1971) and Alfonso Brescia’s wholly inept slapstick martial arts peplum spoof Super Stooges vs the Wonder Women (1974). Cerulli was a Fernando Di Leo regular who could be seen in the giallo The Beast Kills in Cold Blood (1971), the poliziottesco Caliber 9 (1972) and the sex comedy satire To Be Twenty (1978) as well as in the giallo Savona directed the same year Death Falls Lightly (1972) and the similar Watch Me When I Kill (1977). Chiani had a mostly indistinct career that never really went anywhere. She could be seen in Joe D'Amato's More Sexy Canterbury Tales (1972), The Sex Of the Witch (1973), the hilariously titled commedia sexy all’Italiana Excuse Me, Padre, Are You Horny? (1975), as well as the ill-fated Alfredo Rizzo gothic horror The Bloodsucker Leads the Dance (1975). Peroxide blonde Silvana Panfili (who probably should have had a bigger career, especially in commedia sexy all’Italiana – as an alternative to ass queen Gloria Guida) and Bruna Beani from Seven Blood-Stained Orchids (1972), and Enter the Devil (1974). Also present are Germans Florian Endlicher and Karin Lorson. Both specialized in completely different things. Endlicher could be seen in the Alois Brumer Tiroler sex comedy hit Beim Jodeln juckt die Lederhose (1974) as well as Ernst Hofbauer’s colorfully titled Wenn die prallen Möpse hüpfen (1974) (at least you knew where Hofbauer's true passion lie or where his head was). Lorson worked with the likes of Eberhard Schröder and Walter Boos and her career crescendo was probably Hubert Frank's hilarious Tiroler sex comedy masterpiece Oh Schreck mei Hos' is weg (1975). She transitioned into hardcore porn from 1975 onward and has done little of exploitation note since.

If anything, Byleth leans in on its occult elements as far as it possibly can. The credit montage is filled with Gustave Doré engravings, most of which seem to come from the 136 plates of his 1857 illustrations for Dante’s Inferno. This is in itself comparable to the engraving of a witch burning from Jan Luyken and his 1685 Religious Persecutions collection in The Night Of the Damned (1971). The Demon (1963) was almost a decade in the past by this point but its echoes can be felt reverberating through this. Interestingly, Byleth was filmed a year after The Exorcist book (published in 1970) and released a year before the William Friedkin big screen adaptation (which famously stole all its most legendary and memorable scenes from its little known Italian forebear). That exactly the Italians (and Spaniards) would take to imitating The Exorcist (1973) with such religious zeal surely is evidence of unbridled Catholic guilt. If there’s something that really rubbed us the wrong way it was Gravy’s attire. For whatever reason (probably having to do with budget) Claudia’s wardrobe is strangely reminiscent of the spaghetti western she made a living in. None of her supposedly 19th century dresses follow the American, French, or British (they are neither of the Regency nor Victorian era) trends of the time.

Speaking of which, wouldn’t this have been ten times as memorable if this had starred anybody else but Gravy? Claudia acquits herself well enough but imagine what this could have been with Rosanna Yanni, Silvia Tortosa, Nieves Navarro, the Cristinas, Suriani and Galbó, or the always underestimated and greatly underappreciated Spanish redhead par excellence, Betsabé Ruiz? This is something that screams out for Rosalba Neri, Agostina Belli, or Femi Benussi yet here it’s Claudia Gravy. Wasn’t Claudia better off in the considerably lesser The Demon Lover (1972)? Gravy frequently worked in Italy, and there too she played second fiddle to illustrious exploitation pillars as Helga Liné, Dagmar Lassander, Rosalba Neri, and Erica Blanc. Apropos of nothing, Damon’s performance is completely unhinged and terrifying. It’s clear he was ready to go out on a bang before turning to producing exclusively.

Whether Byleth is a gothic horror with giallo stylings or a giallo simply within a gothic horror setting is up for debate, the true question is: is there even a definitive version? According to most sources the original Italian version ran 95 minutes but it ran in German blue cinemas in a trimmed down, sex-heavy version as Byleth - Horrorsex im Geistersschloß or Byleth - Horror Sex in the Haunted Castle and alternatively as Byleth - Der Dämon mit den blutigen Fingern, or Byleth - The Demon with Bloody Fingers. Said truncated cut ran a meager 81 minutes or excising about 14 minutes of dialogues and exposition. As fate would have it the German print appears to be the only surviving (and widely available) version. In a trick that only the Italians would pull director Angelo Pannacciò that try to pass the promotional poster of his The Sex Of the Witch (1973) as his own while the Mario Piavano art was clearly stolen from this. Equally mystifying is that the soundtrack of The Sex Of the Witch (1973) has been released the score to this has remained in limbo. Not that the organ and guitar score from Vasili Kojucharov is anything special. It’s as portent, pompous, and playful as you’d expect. While The Demon Lover (1972) is outright odious and gravely impoverished in just about every aspect Byleth knows where its strenghts lie and at least tries. Byleth is hardly bad just incredibly underwhelming given its ripe concept. Imagine what Luigi Batzella, Renato Polselli, or José Ramón Larraz could have made of this.

Plot: vampire recounts her life, losses and regrets over the centuries.

Have you ever wondered what and how a Jean Rollin vampire film would have looked like on a modest budget (at least in Hollywood terms) of $8 million? Byzantium offers a glimpse into what such possiblity might look like. This was absolutely the last thing you’d expect of Neil Jordan after nearly twenty years of putting distance between himself and the poisoned gift that was Interview with the Vampire: the Vampire Chronicles (1994). Together with Frankenstein Unbound (1990) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) it was some of the best gothic horror that Hollywood had to offer. While it did not usher in a new decade of gothic horror revivalism it was able to stand on its own merits and deserved every accolade/criticism bestowed on it. Byzantium does the exact opposite by examining how vampires would acclimate to the capitalistic pressures of modern urban metropolitan life and the hardships they face as women.

Neil Jordan is a master technician and his features (regardless of subject) are always exquisitely photographed and oozing with style. Jordan, after all, debuted with the fantasy horror The Company of Wolves (1984) or an adaptation of Angela Carter's gothic fairytale deconstruction that used werewolves, Little Red Riding Hood, and psychology as a metaphor for puberty and a young girl’s sexual awakening. It was truly hypnotic and spellbinding and let you know exactly what it was from the very start. After leaving the fantasy and horror genres behind Jordan specialized in biographical – and social dramas, usually concerning the Troubles of Northern Ireland and the exploration of human sexuality – often combining the two in prestige pictures as The Crying Game (1992) and Michael Collins (1996). Ten years after The Company of Wolves (1984) Jordan got his big break in Hollywood with the Anne Rice adaptation Interview with the Vampire: the Vampire Chronicles (1994) or his calling card (and most enduring work) in the eyes of pulp fans the world over and a modern interpretation of the mopey, sadboi vampire ur-character. On television he was behind the historical drama series The Borgias (2011-2013). Byzantium was the first time in nearly twenty years that Jordan returned to his old stomping ground of the vampire. It’s not hard to see why he would be attracted to Moira Buffini’s play A Vampire Story and her screenplay adaptation of it as it elegantly blended various elements of history, folklore, feminist socio-political ideas (the trials, tribulations, and smalll-minded prejudices women of all walks of life face in patriarchal male-led societies; the bourgeoisie using the downtrodden and the disenfranchised for their own material gain) and universal themes as friendship, unity, and overcoming hardship. Headlining are the multiple award-winning duo of Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan with Kate Ashfield from Shaun Of the Dead (2004) in a supporting role.

Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) carries the weight of the world on her shoulders. The only way to tell her story is to write it down and throw the pages to the wind. Old man Robert Fowlds (Barry Cassin) has been collecting the discarded pages and has connected the dots. Meanwhile, Clara (Gemma Arterton) has been working in a stripclub and after a lapdance turns violent a figure from her past materializes. Werner (Thure Lindhardt) chases her across the city. As Clara lures Werner to her apartment and kills him Eleanor has finished exsanguinating old man Robert. Realizing the gravity of their situation Clara and Eleanor set the apartment on fire and flee the city. The daughters of darkness commute to a nearby coastal town. There Ella meets Frank (Caleb Landry Jones) just as Clara meets lovelorn Noel (Daniel Mays). As the two women get comfortable in their new living situation figures from Clara’s past come haunting them. Head of the Brethren Savella (Uri Gavriel) does not suffer anyone crossing the laws he has laid out to ensure their survival. He dispatches Darvell (Sam Riley) and Ruthven (Jonny Lee Miller) to exterminate them for their transgressions…

Interview with the Vampire: the Vampire Chronicles (1994) came with all pomp and excess that harkened back to the best Italian, Spanish, and Filipino vampire films of the most ancient days. If the stark and minimalist look of this British-Irish fantasy thriller (they apparently are still deadly afraid of scaring audiences by calling this a horror) is anything to go by you’d almost believe that Jordan took an interest in French fringe filmmaker Jean Rollin and his late 1960s/early 1970s erotic vampire horror fantastiques and isolated moments from Jess Franco vampire romps. While the atmosphere is meditative, introspective, wistful, and at all times melancholic Byzantium starts off in a seedy stripclub where voluptuous Arterton is giving a client a sultry lapdance. It doesn’t get more Franco than that. There are endless shots of idyllic beaches, there are opposing sects like in Fascination (1979) and at one point Ella is baptized in blood very much in the way of Grapes Of Death (1978). For the Francophiles these vampires don’t sprout fangs and can withstand daylight, during the beach kill Clara does the Jesus Christ pose just like the chicken coop/fence victim in Female Vampire (1973) and Clara too ends up bathing in (a waterfall of) blood like Lina Romay in said movie and Soledad Miranda in Vampyros Lesbos (1970) before her. Like in any good Rollin flick the vampires are a pair of young girls, although this could just as easily could be seen as a genderswapped take on the Lestat-Louis pairing of Interview with the Vampire: the Vampire Chronicles (1994) with Frank in the Claudia role. Here Eleanor is somewhere between Claudia and Lestat in that she’s cultured, articulate, a misanthrope, and a philosopher whereas Clara is Louis-by-way-of-Lestat in that she’s guilt-ridden, sexually aggressive and impulsively self-destructive. She too has a habit of torching her domiciles, there’s piano playing and Jordan continues his Little Red Riding Hood motif with Ronan. Thematically this feels like a fusion of the razorsharp socio-political commentary from Baby Blood (1990) with about half the plot of The Living Dead Girl (1982).

Byzantium too singularly concerns itself with beautiful people living an immortally condemned life of hedonism and debauchery and effortlessly fails to be sexy at any point. Early on Clara is described as, “morbidly sexy” as she suggestively wiggles her bum in a baby doll during a lapdance. Despite said scene being set in a stripclub (and commenting on the plight and exploitation of sexworkers and the inherent perils of prostitution) it’s also repelled by the naked female form. Shortly thereafter Ella is called, “an aberration” for whatever reason. In typical Hollywood fashion Byzantium is deadly afraid of nudity in any form. To its credit director of photography Sean Bobbitt beautifully captures the pastoral British-Irish environs, beaches and lush marshes as well as the filth-ridden, neon-drenched streets of modern metropolitan hubs rife with urban decay – be they societal, systemic, or infrastructural. Just like Interview with the Vampire: the Vampire Chronicles (1994) had faint but pronounced gay undertones Byzantium has a clear and defined undercurrent of feminist/progressive politics and disseminates an aggrieved polemic on generational poverty and disenfranchisement, entrenched gender roles in paternalistic societies, the limited agency and career possibilities of women without degrees or menial labor skills, and how apparently their only option for upward social mobility is preying upon (in this case very literally) desperately lonely (and sexually deprived) men of any age, but preferably their own. The score from Javier Navarrete is a bit stock sounding whenever it gets electronic and will sometimes wander into standard horror territory. Had it only consisted of the serene piano melodies then perhaps it would have been stronger. While Navarrete is far from bad we’d be interested in what Simon Boswell could have done with this.

It largely eludes us as to why Byzantium isn’t as beloved or well remembered as Interview with the Vampire: the Vampire Chronicles (1994). And just like twenty years earlier Jordan was able to secure two of the biggest British/Irish stars of the day, in this case Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan. Arterton and Ronan are versatile actresses and more than worthy every of the many and different awards they have, individually and collectively, collected over the years. Actresses of this caliber don’t agree to banal projects and especially not lowly horror films (still an uncultured, philistine genre in the eyes of many). This is as much a feminist manifesto as it is a socio-political commentary on modern life with the thinnest veneer of horror. Byzantium is not your average vampire film and more of a meditation on the late-stage capitalist corporate dystopian hellscape and all the societal ills that come with it than a thriller in the traditional sense. What must have drawn Arterton and Ronan to this must have been the interpersonal dynamic between the two women as they navigate the dangers - mortal and otherwise - of modern life. That it just so happens to look like fringe Eurocult films from nearly half a century earlier is a neat bonus. If this can serve as a gateway to some into exploring the prime work of Jean Rollin then Byzantium admirably rose to its task. If not, then you just saw a very good movie.