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Plot: religious hysteria leads to the persecution of a libertine herbalist.

Spoken about in hushed tones of reverence by those in the know Il Demonio (or The Demon, internationally) is another example of just how revolutionary Italian cinema was during its Golden Age. Written and directed by Federico Fellini protegé Brunello Rondi Il Demonio (The Demon hereafter) is a socio-realist examination of religious mania and the oppression of patriarchal institutions in rural communities. Of how small-town superstition and religious hysteria lead to the persecution and lynching of an innocent outcast in a sleepy village in the south of Italy. There’s a distinct feminist undertone to The Demon. At every turn Purificazione is beset and besieged by men in positions in power, be they clergymen, police, or landowners. And with every fiber of her being she fights back. No wonder The Demon was deemed controversial upon release and condemned by the powers that be. What To Be Twenty (1979) was to the seventies, The Demon was to the sixties.

Brunello Rondi was an intellectual that wrote about 30 screenplays and directed 10 films himself. Gian Luigi Rondi, his brother, was a well-known and respected film critic at the time. Rondi was prone to imbue his screenplays with scathing social commentary and was critical of the church just as much as he was of the state. Rondi was the man behind Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960), Boccaccio 70 (1962), (1963), Juliet Of the Spirits (1965), and Fellini Satyricon (1969). Besides Fellini, Rondi also was frequently employed in providing screenplays for Roberto Rossellini. While his directorial career was off to a flying start with the iconoclastic The Demon he quickly fell into the trap of exploitation and puerile comedy. The lowest he would sink was Black Velvet (1976), one of the many lesser derivates following the box office success of Joe D’Amato’s softcore classic Black Emanuelle (1975) with the Javanese queen of fondling, Laura Gemser. In July 1965 Rondi was interviewed in the Paese Sera newspaper by a young columnist, and film critic for various magazines, who moonlighted as a screenwriter. The young man was working with Bernardo Bertolucci on a screenplay for the Sergio Leone spaghetti western Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). That man was Dario Argento.

Just like The Witch (1966) three years later The Demon is a highly atmospheric slowburn of a movie that even several decades later still manages to shock. Wonderfully minimalist and with mesmerizing black and white photography it’s an indictment of religion (Christianity, in particular) and the kind of small-town superstition and callous prejudice that it breeds. The Demon was filmed during the Second Vatican Council and released mere months after the passing of Pope John XIII. No wonder then that it was condemned by the Vatican, and panned by god-fearing critics on grounds of alleged “anti-Catholic” sentiments. While thankfully reappraised in more recent times the influence of The Demon is felt to this day.

Without The Demon there wouldn’t have been Witchfinder General (1968) (and the entire Inquisition fad that followed), it was a key inspiration behind Lucio Fulci's Don't Torture a Duckling (1972) (and thus was a direct influence on the nascent giallo murder mystery branch). Interestingly, future giallo specialist Luciano Martino is one of the producers and he recruited his brother Sergio as second assistant director. Finally, and perhaps more imporantly, the most memorable scenes that made William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) (based on the 1971 William Peter Blatty novel of the same name) a fright classic for the ages premiered here first. What that means is that The Demon shaped the American property that would spawn an entire cotton industry (the demonic possession subgenre) back home in Italy. The Demon has influenced so many horror subgenres in such profound ways that it’s criminal how few have actually seen it.

In a mountain village somewhere in the south of Italy lives the sexually liberated herbalist Purificazione (Daliah Lavi). Purif is madly in love with farmer Antonio (Frank Wolff) but he spurns her advances as he’s promised to another (Rossana Rovere). Desperate to be loved Purificazione reverts to elemental witchcraft to win the heart of her object of affection. Living on the outskirts of town and perrenially clad in black Puri is the talk of the town and an outcast in her own community. Antonio is married to his promised woman and Purificazione is summarily rebuffed when she tries to barge in on the wedding ceremony. Purif is a woman in love. Madly. Deeply so. She casts the evil eye upon Antonio’s matrimony in hopes that he would return to her. When a mountainside ritual to win his affections doesn’t bring the desired result she resorts to stalking his home and spooking sentries and onlookers with the cadavers of recently deceased small animals. The village sees Purif’s increasingly unhinged behavior as a threat to the communal peace. The women consider her a harlot and some of the men think she’s possessed by a demon. The town has its own spiritual traditions and customs and Purificazione sinks deeper into madness. When chants and tokens no longer keep Purif at bay, the villagers agree that drastic measures need to be taken…

On one of her amourous escapades Purificazione is raped by a shepherd and violently “exorcised” by faith healer Zio Giuseppe (Nicola Tagliacozzo). Just for the crime of being a woman in love. Tired of all the abuse Purif is taken in by a group of nuns. For a while things seem to be looking up for Purificazione, but when she inquires after the history of a tree from which a man hung himself the relationship with her hosts turns sour. The nuns line the tree with barb wire and images of the Madonna, Purificazione reacts aversely to the sight of rosary beads and is banished from the convent. In the cathedral Padre Tomasso (Giovanni Cristofanelli) compels the demon to leave her body. Instead Purif speaks in tongues, spits the priest in the face, and spiderwalks her way across the floor as increasingly frightened parishioners look on. As the superstitious villagers pray for fortunate weather and crops, Purificazione hangs out in a tree eating an apple. Then Antonio shows up that night and the two succumb to the throes of passion. At long last her wish has to come true… Now that Purificazione has the man of her dreams, the only question is: at what cost will these affections come?

And what can you really say about Daliah Lavi? She was one of the great leading ladies of the Golden Age of Italian cinema along with Rosanna Schiaffino, Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida, and Claudia Cardinale. She was as patrician as Barbara Steele, Helga Liné, Graziella Granata, and Amalia Fuentes – and she has done just about everything. Daliah was multi-lingual (she was fluent in Hebrew, English, German, French, Italian and Spanish) and at various points in her life Lavi was a ballet student, an Israeli soldier, and part of the international jetset as a moviestar. She received a Golden Globe for most promising newcomer for Two Weeks In Another Town (1962) and starred in the Mario Bava giallo The Whip and the Body (1963). She was in the Karl May adaptation Old Shatterhand (1964) (from Hugo Fregonese) and in the spoof Casino Royale (1967) as well as the Bulldog Drummond spycaper Some Girls Do (1969) with Richard Johnson. Lavi acted in serious productions as well as a fair amount of pulp, and when her acting career winded down she reinvented herself as a pop singer. With help from Jimmy Bowien, the man at Polydor, Lavi enjoyed success in Germany – and the man who had discovered The Beatles and produced The Monks, Olivia Newton-John and Georges Moustaki had provided her with the platform that she could do more than just act.

Not to belabor the point any more than necessary but Hollywood always was, is, and continues to be, behind on European cinema. This especially rang true in the sixties and seventies when countries like Germany, France, and East-Europe (especially Russia and Czechslovakia) were responsible for some of the most revolutionary works in cinema. William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) will forever remain, and be remembered as, an undiluted classic of American horror cinema, but there’s no denying that it loses some of its luster with the knowledge that some of its more memorable scenes were seen here first. If you know where to look shades of both The Demon and The Witch (1966) can be seen in Anna Biller’s retro nouveau masterpiece The Love Witch (2016) and Samantha Robinson is at least as beguiling as Daliah Lavi and/or Rosanna Schiaffino. Anybody with even the slightest and passing historical interest in continental European horror cinema has no excuse not to seek out The Demon. Since this came from a different time the horror is frequently more implied than shown. The Demon was a tipping point in Italian horror cinema and pivotal in the development of the genre. I Vampiri (1957) was the first Italian horror film of the sound era, and during the gothic horror craze of the sixties The Demon offered a more measured and realistic alternative.

Plot: rogue gods plan to overthrow Mount Olympus, lone muscleman intervenes

The first wave of Italian peplum lasted from 1958 to 1965 as Meditterranean directors and producers made use of the lavish sets left behind by American productions and smaller-scale sword-and-sandals adventures replaced the more serious Biblical and Greco-Roman epics of the forties and fifties. Pietro Francisci’s The Labors Of Hercules (1958) and Hercules Unchained (1959), both with Steve Reeves as the titular demigod, ushered in the arrival of a more pulpy, kitschy peplum. By 1962 the first Italian peplum wave was cresting and outliers started to appear. One such example was Emimmo Salvi’s fantasy mash-up Vulcan, Son Of Jupiter (1962) with Iranian strongman Iloosh Khoshabe, Cuban import Bella Cortez and Gordon Mitchell. Cortez and Mitchell had figured into the entertainingly delirious The Giant Of Metropolis (1961), duly pilfered by Alfonso Brescia for his The Conqueror Of Atlantis (1965), which Salvi wrote and produced. That Pietro Francisci would direct Hercules, Samson and Ulysses (1963), widely considered the last great Italian sword-and-sandal epic, is more than fitting.

Vulcan, Son Of Jupiter was the first Italian sword-and-sandal production to be filmed on location in Iran with a mostly Italian cast and crew. The feature was produced by Spartaco Antonucci and Manouchehr Zamani. Zamani cast Iloosh Khoshabe, a star of movies from Shapur Yasami and Esmail Kushan and who Zamani himself had directed once or twice – for release in the domestic market. That Zamani would cast Khoshabe, who sports a Steve Reeves beard and a Kirk Morris glistening chest, in the first English-language peplum production in Iran is only logical. Emimmo Salvi first worked as a production assistant from 1953 to 1958. From there he was promoted to screenwriter and later ascended to the director’s chair with this production. In an interesting twist he contributed to the screenplay for Umberto Scarpelli’s The Giant Of Metropolis (1961), before helming a duo of Arabian Nights adventure yarns with The Seven Tasks of Ali Baba (1962) and Ali Baba and the Seven Saracens (1964) as well as the Wagnerian epic The Stone Forest (1965). Salvi’s features often starred Gordon Mitchell and Bella Cortez. When the peplum dried up Salvi took to directing a few spaghetti westerns and an Eurospy romp before retiring. Bella Cortez was a skinny, long blackhaired, hourglass figured belle from Oriente, Cuba who briefly acted from 1961 to 1966 and starred in about a dozen, mostly peplum, productions. Cortez graced magazine covers from Italy to Yugoslavia and Switzerland and was romantically involved with director Emimmo Salvi. If Vulcan, Son Of Jupiter is retroactively famous for one thing, it’s that Luigi Cozzi lifted the plot wholesale for his equally entertaining The Adventures Of Hercules (1985) with Lou Ferrigno, Sonia Viviani and Milly Carlucci.

On Mount Olympus king of the gods Jupiter (Furio Meniconi) intervenes in a tryst of Venus (Annie Gorassini) with the mortal Adonis by throwing a lightning bolt at him. In his court Jupiter announces that Venus is to be wedded to either Mars (Roger Browne) or Vulcan (Iloosh Khoshabe, as Rod Flash Ilush), the latter who has been working in the Olympian forgery on a sword for Achilles. Angered by Jupiter’s decision Venus forms an alliance with Mars and Pluto (Gordon Mitchell, as Mitchell Gordon) to overthrow Jupiter and Olympus. When Venus partly disrobes and throws herself at Vulcan, this draws the ire of her beau Mars resulting in the inevitable fight in the smithy. Pending his decision Jupiter casts both men to Earth. Not helping matters either is Erida (Edda Ferronao) sowing discord among the Olympian gods. Vulcan awakens drowsily on the shores of Sicily where he is promptly rescued by the scandily-clad Aetna (Bella Cortez), who wears what amounts to a very skimpy cheerleader outfit, and her nubile nymphs.

Meanwhile Mars and Venus convince Thracian warlord Milos (Ugo Sabetta) to erect a tower reaching Olympus. No sooner has Vulcan been rescued by the Sicilian nymphs they are attacked by a tribe of scaly, fanged Lizard Men and summarily imprisoned. Vulcan is tortured by the Lizard Men until they are freed by Geo (Salvatore Furnari). Geo proves to be strategically important as he can summon a Triton to bring them to the realm of Neptune (Omero Gargano), who vows to help Vulcan. Before setting out on his quest Vulcan is treated to a tantalizing dance of veils from Aetna. Cortez’ little routine obviously took some inspiration from Anita Ekberg’s dance from the Terence Young directed Arabian Nights adventure Zarak (1956). After the dance Mercurius (Isarco Ravaioli) briefly engages himself toying with the gemstone jewel in Aetna’s navel. In the grand finale the forces of Neptune and Thrace come to a clash, Vulcan challenges Mars in man-to-man combat and Aetna and Venus all duke it out. It’s a battle so ineptly staged that Jupiter calls from the heavens above for all to lay down their weapons.

For a production with no budget to speak of Vulcan, Son Of Jupiter was able to assemble quite a cast. It was the first English-language production for Iloosh Khoshabe, and Bella Cortez was well on her way in becoming a peplum fixture thanks to her radiant looks, dancing skills, and with titles as The Tartars (1961), the science-fiction mash-up The Giant Of Metropolis (1962), and the Arabian Nights double whammy The Seven Tasks of Ali Baba (1962) and Ali Baba and the Seven Saracens (1964). Roger Browne in a few years hence would figure into the fumetti Argoman (1967), Samoa, Queen of the Jungle (1968), and The War Of the Robots (1978). Edda Ferronao would star in The Slaughter Of the Vampires (1964) two years later. Isarco Ravaioli was a beloved character actor with titles as diverse as The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960), the fumetti Diabolik (1968) and Satanik (1968), the Eurowar romp Heroes Without Glory (1971) and the barbarian movie The Throne Of Fire (1983). Annie Gorassini was a comedic actress that worked with everybody from Federico Fellini, Pietro Francisci to Lucio Fulci, Bruno Corbucci and Emimmo Salvi. Famous in their own way were Salvatore Furnari and Franco Doria, probably the most recognizable dwarfen actors of the day.

Granted it never quite reaches the same level of kitsch as The Giant Of Metropolis (1961) and it isn’t as out-there as The Conqueror Of Atlantis (1965) later in the decade. Furio Meniconi wears a really bad wig, Omero Gargano’s Neptune looks sort of drowsy and the rubber suits from the Lizard Men are even worse than that of Amando de Ossorio’s The Loreleys Grasp (1973) about ten years later. Jupiter’s bold of lightning was crudely scratched onto the film to reach the desired effect. Primitive does not quite convey just how crude these special effects are. The action choreography and the fights are as lamentable, clunky and stilted as they come. Italy after all is, was and never would be Hong Kong or Japan and nobody in the cast had any formal combat training. Khoshabe, Browne and Mitchell acquit themselves admirably enough, and the catfight between Cortez and Gorassini is a lot better than it has any right to be. Which doesn’t mean any of the fights are good or at least believably staged. The Lizard Men were an interesting addition but they are discarded almost as soon as they are introduced and their subplot goes nowhere virtually immediately. Likewise does the Thracian tower subplot never amount to anything, even though the characters make it out to be important for a good while. Venus ensnares gods and mortals by wielding her most common superpower. In Vulcan, Son Of Jupiter the gods and goddesses of the Greek pantheon aren’t all that different from the mortals they apparently so despise.

With a showing this abysmal, no wonder special effects man Roberto Parapetti would never be heard of again. Iloosh Khoshabe, Roger Browne and Gordon Mitchell are sufficiently oiled and practically bare-chested the entire time. Bella Cortez, Annie Gorassini, and Edda Ferronao unfortunately are not but they wear the skimpiest of tunics – and it’s puzzling that Cortez never became a bigger star than she ended up being. Certainly her appearance and bellydance routine in The Seven Revenges (1961) should have landed her bigger opportunities than the ones she ended up getting. Gorassini obviously has a lot of fun in the role of duplicitious Venus, who is prone to disrobing to have men doing her bidding, and her experience as a comedic actress evidently helps tremendously. The throne room on Mount Olympus seems perpetually enshrouded in smoke and dry ice and it’s not quite as lush and opulent as it probably should have been. The production values are nothing to write home about and match the early Alfonso Brescia catalog. Evidently the first wave of peplum was cresting and the lack of resources available to the production makes that painfully clear. The battles lack in scope and scale and the gods act far too much like the petty and vindictive mortals they use as peons.

There isn’t a whole lot to recommend if you are looking for a quality peplum, but as these things go, you could do far worse than Vulcan, Son Of Jupiter. It’s thoroughly entertaining for the rank pulp that it is. Vulcan, Son Of Jupiter is the sort of historical curiosity that - while available in the public domain and from companies as Mill Creek Entertainment, often in prints of dubious quality and origin - should be given a proper restoration and remastering. It certainly no classic peplum and whatever merits can be bestowed upon it is that it features an ensemble cast of sorts. The first cycle of peplum was winding down and productions as Vulcan, Son Of Jupiter would never have been greenlit if it weren’t for companies completely milking a concept until audiences no longer showed up in cineplexes. The peplum would experience a resurgence (as would gothic horror) in the next decade, but they’d never command the resources they once had in the fifties and early sixties. Vulcan, Son Of Jupiter borders on the satirical but it never transcends into the realm of send-up or spoof. Perhaps it would have worked far better acting as such. It’s not exactly tedious, but it isn’t spectacular in its wretchedness enough either. It’s still sufficiently awful by any reasonable standard, and the terrible dubbing is always a hoot with this sort of productions. At least there’s Bella Cortez.