Thursday, September 14, 2023

Il medaglione insanguinato (1975)

... aka: Bloody Medallion, The
... aka: Cursed Medallion, The
... aka: Émilie, l'enfant des ténèbres (Emily, the Child of Darkness)
... aka: Night Child, The
... aka: Perché?! (Why?!)
... aka: Possédée (Possessed)
... aka: Together Forever

Directed by:
Max (Massimo) Dallamano

Innocent little girl possessed by an unseen, evil force? I bet we've all seen that a time or two or twenty already, but that's the price we all must pay when a film becomes as big of a cultural phenomenon as The Exorcist was in the 1970s. Afterward, the gates were open for tons of imitators to start flooding the market. While some of these copied Friedkin's film pretty blatantly, others (like this one) actually had next to nothing to do with the film and simply played up the child possession angle for marketing purposes. Most were cheap, low grade, instantly forgettable exploitation films made by minimally-talented directors. The fact this one wasn't and has plenty of talented people, in front of and behind the camera, involved made me set my hopes a little bit higher than usual for this one.

Director Dallamano was a very good cinematographer who'd previously shot the classic Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and A Few Dollars More (1965) starring Clint Eastwood. He'd also directed the campy but surprisingly progressive and entertaining Oscar Wilde adaptation DORIAN GRAY (1970) as well as WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO SOLANGE? (1972), one of the better Italian giallos from that time. In addition to that, this is headlined by a much better cast than usual.

BBC filmmaker / host Michael Williams (Richard Johnson) is busy working on a project called "Diabolical Art," a documentary about sinister old paintings. After tragically losing his wife, Lisa (Dana Ghia), in a fire, he's been left to care for their young daughter, Emily (Nicoletta Elmi). He's hired young and pretty, but depressive governess Jill Perkins ("Evelyn Stuart" / Ida Galli) to help and she's grown attached to both Michael (who she's secretly fallen in love with) and Emily. Despite the fact the mother died awhile back, as of yet Emily has been unable to get over it and is plagued by horrifying nightmares of her untimely demise. Michael takes her to a psychiatrist (Edmund Purdom), who notes that she has an unhealthy attachment to him (not surprising since mom is no longer in the picture), and recommends he allow her to stay by his side as much as possible until she starts improving. That means Michael will need three plane tickets instead of one since he's set to travel to Spoleto, Italy to research his project.

Upon arrival in Italy, Michael meets up with his production manager Joanna Morgan and is instantly smitten with the American beauty, which is understandable since she's played by a young and vibrant Joanna Cassidy. Naturally, that doesn't sit too well with Little Miss Electra Complex, who wants ALL of daddy's attention and obnoxiously interrupts their flirty conversations whenever possible.

Michael goes to visit occult expert and psychic Contessa Cappelli (Lila Kedrova), who's been advising him on his project and sending him information about some of the artwork he's planning on featuring. Well, aside from one enigmatic piece. There is no documentation for its origins or who the artist was who created it. Rumor has it that 200 years ago the painting miraculously appeared one day after a little girl vanished, never to be seen again. The Contessa pleads with Michael not to use the painting in his program, but he insists upon it. The fact it depicts a burning woman, and his wife also met a fiery end, may have something to with that. The first attempt to film the painting is ruined by some kind of green shadowy figure that shows up on the negative, which the developer says is not a smudge nor a defect in the film.

Michael and Joanna go back to the abandoned home where the painting is housed, only to be almost crushed when a statue falls over. At the same time the statue busts on the floor, Emily wakes up screaming. Jill attempts to comfort her, but Emily bites her, spits in her face, throws vases at her and tries to jump out of several windows until she's finally restrained. The incident is blamed on a bad nightmare. Several things are found to have been hidden inside the statue, perhaps dating back hundreds of years, including an old piece of cloth, a double-bladed sword and a silver medallion, which looks identical to one Michael's late wife used to own that he's since given to Emily. Several deaths follow as the mystery behind the painting, the medallion and Emily's strange, erratic behavior are uncovered.

Unlike most of the other films this is usually categorized with, Il medaglione insanguinato ("The Bloody Medallion") is professionally made and performed, and clearly put together with more skill and care than is the norm. This is not an exploitation horror film, but instead an attempt at a mature adult ghost / possession story. It's measured, atmospheric and elegant in its approach, sometimes quite haunting yet also very slow-moving and downgraded by its thin, vague and often uninvolving plot. 

Thanks to the picturesque locations, Franco Delli Colli's photography and all of the production design people, everything looks really fantastic here, though. There's plenty of beautiful outdoor scenery in nice autumn colors and crumbling old villas with lush overgrown gardens, which somehow look even more beautiful on the inside. The director obviously knows how great everything looks because he spends a lot of time lingering on it all. Perhaps a little too much time actually. There's also a lovely, albeit repetitive, score from Stelvio Cipriani.

By this point, child actress Elmi already had a filmography that actors fifty years her senior would be envious of, having worked with Mario Bava (twice), Dario Argento, Luchino Visconti and other prominent Italian filmmakers before she even hit puberty. She's been given her best role ever here and puts on a pretty good show scowling, screaming, crying and getting to go bonkers in several scenes. The rest of the actors are likewise fine and it's especially nice that Kedrova has been given a prominent role. Usually veteran actors are brought on board to exploit their name and are then wasted in a couple of scenes, but Kedrova is given a lot to do here in an important supporting role that's not some glorified cameo. The cast also includes roles for Riccardo Garrone and an uncredited Tom Felleghy who, like Purdom, are both in just one scene.

Released theatrically to little fanfare in the U.S. in 1976 under the title Night Child, this came and went and was forgotten for decades. Despite possession movies being popular and the presence of several notable stars (Cassidy even appears topless in two scenes), which you'd think would have at least ensured some interest on rental store shelves, this somehow managed to bypass a VHS release altogether here in the United States. It was however given an English-language video release in Canada on the Cocktail Video label. Some of those tapes probably ended up in U.S. video stores.

In 2008, Sinister Cinema offered a two disc release that featured both a raggedy English-dubbed print (from the theatrical release) as well as a restored, widescreen Italian version with English subtitles. Two years later, a better quality dubbed version was released by Code Red, which came with an interview with Johnson carted over from their release of BEYOND THE DOOR (1974), an actual Exorcist rip-off, unlike this one. That was followed by a 2015 Blu-ray release from the same company, which has a brief interview with Cassidy. Arrow Video handled the UK Blu-ray release. Extras on all of these releases have been pretty disappointing.

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