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.