Sunday, March 31, 2024

Il miedo del diavolo (1986)

... aka: Dämon in Seide (Demon in Silk)
... aka: Dangerous Obsession
... aka: Devil's Honey, The
... aka: Divine Obsession
... aka: Mrs. Brown
... aka: Plaisirs pervers (Perverse Pleasures)
... aka: Polttava himo (Burning Lust)

Directed by:
Lucio Fulci

In between a three-year run of popular early 80s gore films that he's best known for today and his later return to gore films at the end of the decade after he built a reputation for such films on the home video market, director Fulci was left in no man's land for a little while. Between 1983 and 1986, he attempted to broaden his horizons and made four films that were markedly different than what he was doing in the bookmarking years. While the Italian / Mexican / Spanish co-production CONQUEST (1983) piled on the gore per his usual, it did so within a Conan-inspired fantasy film context and with (literally!) cloudy artistic / visual aspirations. The New Gladiators (1984) was his attempt at a futuristic sci-fi action film in the same vein as Rollerball or The Running Man, while the almost hilariously glossy MURDEROCK (1984) attempted to meld your usual slasher flick with sweaty, Flashdance- style dance numbers and was relatively tame by Fulci's gore-soaked 80s standards. 

Finally, there was this "psycho erotic thriller" that the director claimed in a 1995 interview was never intended to be erotic nor thrilling but instead a dramatic character study about two lost souls. Now that I've actually seen the film, I see just where he's coming from.

Though it may just be a coincidence (unlikely, but we'll be fair here...), it's worth noting that The Devil's Honey went into production just one week after the erotic drama 9½ Weeks debuted in Italy. While Adrian Lyne's influential film flopped here in America during its theatrical run, it did big business in more liberal markets overseas and was a hit in Italy right out of the gate. Shot way back in 1984, the film managed to generate a lot of pre-release press buzz due to its strong sexual content and sadomasochistic themes, the MPAA slapping it with an X rating, the delayed release and offended test audiences (supposedly) leaving the theater in droves. In other words, it already had a reputation before most people even had a chance to see it. Ironically, this film, which appears to have been influenced by Lyne's work in some regards, is actually far more sexually graphic yet generated zero of the same controversy.

Stefano Madia, a baby-faced thirty-something with messy hair and designer stubble who's about the closest approximation to a Dollar Store Mickey Rourke as one could possibly imagine, has the role of Johnny. He also has the perfect occupation for the lead in one of these things: Saxophone player. Being a musician not only makes him popular with the ladies (and gay studio engineer Bernard Seray), but also makes sure a blaring sax is present during most of the sex scenes just like in every other 80s and 90s erotic film. This even takes it an amusing step further by presenting the sax itself as a literal object of arousal, with our protagonist pressing it up against his sort-of girlfriends privates and performing a song to bring her to climax in the film's very first scene.

After Johnny's little romp in the recording studio with his girl Jessica (Blanca Marsillach), we then meet up with surgeon Dr. Wendell Simpson (Brett Halsey). He calls home to inform his maid that he'll be working late and to relay that info back to his wife. Of course, "working late" is code for going to a sleazy pay-by-the-hour hotel with a prostitute. That opens the door for another erotic scene that's perhaps even stranger than the first. When the hired help (Eulàlia Ramon) gets a run in her stocking, she tries to fix it with red nail polish (?), which then prompts Wendell to instruct her to masturbate with the little brush (!) and then paint her crotch red (!!) He gets so excited watching her he finishes prematurely. On her way out of the door, the unsatisfied sex worker chimes in that having sex with him "is worse than fucking a monster" and they then exchange some other kind words ("Dumb hooker!" "Freak!") with one another.

Wendell may be getting his kicks on the side, but his wife Carole (Corinne Cléry) is on to him and starts following him around town. Her attempts to seduce him, or even talk to him, prove unsuccessful, so what's a neglected, middle-aged housewife to do with herself? Not much it turns out. Meanwhile, Johnny and Jessica are having their own issues. Even though she'll let him blow saxophone spit into her passion pit, she has yet to officially consummate things with him and cringes any time he tries to. He, on the other hand, is aggressive and pushy to the point of basically being a rapist whenever he's alone with her. In an attempt to speed her along, he forces her hand down his pants as he erratically drives down a country road on his motorcycle. Unlike Carole's tit-outta-the-slip bedtime routine falling on blind eyes, Johnny's more forceful technique somehow works and Jessica soon finds herself pregnant.

Things take a turn for the worse after Johnny hits his head on a rock after a motorcycle crash, which starts plaguing him with terrible headaches and causes him to lose focus on his recording career. He's soon passing out and in need of an emergency operation. Dr. Simpson is called in. Unfortunately he's called in immediately after having another argument with Carole ("You perform for strangers but never your wife!"), which ended with him tossing her out of his car ("There's a taxi stand. Take a cab and fuck off!") and her threatening divorce. This causes him to zone out during the surgery and Johnny ends up dying. Though it's never established whether he died due to negligence or was going to die from his injuries regardless, Jessica blames him for it all the same.

What follows is your standard psycho-thriller with an increasingly-crazed Jessica plotting to destroy the doctor's life. She starts out with notes ("Why did you let him die?) and threatening phone calls ("Killer!"), then pops up in the back seat of his car one day brandishing a gun. She forces him to drive her to the same seaside country villa she lost her virginity at, then chloroforms him, ties him up, destroys his car with an axe and terrorizes him a variety of ways. She threatens to hang, drown, stab and unleash her angry dog on him, chops him in the face with a hatchet, burns him with hot candle wax, walks him around on a leash and makes him eat dog food. In between that she strips, taunts him by walking around naked all of the time, masturbates, rubs Wendell's bloody face in her crotch and has sex fantasies / flashbacks about her deceased lover forcing her do odd things like making amateur porn tapes and sticking a pistol in her vagina.

While it's extremely common for people who make sleazy movies who don't want to admit they make sleazy to try to justify that by feigning artistic pretentions, I actually agree with Fulci when he said this was wrongly written off as a soft core sex film. Though there's endless nudity (including obviously exploitative close-up shots of female genitalia and crotches being rubbed), sex scenes and make-out sessions, that doesn't necessarily mean it's here for sole purpose of being erotic or stimulating. In fact, the primary characters are all so psychologically screwed up that every one of the encounters is awkward, uncomfortable and / or forced in some way. The movie instead seems to be pretty pointed in its commentary that the wrong kind of sex with the wrong kinds of people can be both unhealthy and destructive.

The frustrating Jessica can never seem to decide whether she enjoys or is repulsed by sex. Flashbacks provide some insight and indicate that any opportunity for a traditional, healthy romantic relationship (where consensual sex is an expression of love) was shattered when she fell for the wrong guy. She's now landed in a black-or-white realm of victim or aggressor, where only extreme dominance or extreme submissiveness exist on her sexuality spectrum. Her chosen path to regain control and banish the ghost of traumatic relationship past is to step into her initial abuser's shoes. (For the record, I'm not trying to imply this is an acceptable path to take - I'd personally recommend therapy over kidnapping and torture - just the one plausibly taken here by Jessica, who's mentally imbalanced after all.)

Having previously starred in the semi-notorious hit The Story of O (1975), which also dealt with sadomasochistic relationships, Cléry is cleverly cast here I suppose, but she's pretty much wasted, isn't given much of interest to do and vanishes by the midway point. However, she does get naked a few times and is involved in a memorably humiliating scene where she tries to reconcile with her husband at his behest only to get rejected yet again after pleading with him to "Treat me like a whore!" Third-billed Marsillach (younger sister of Cristina, from Argento's OPERA), is the film's real star, with Halsey her primary support, and both actors do a pretty good job with their roles.


This was originally released on home video here in the U.S. in 1989 by A. I. P. / Panther Entertainment under the title Dangerous Obsession. Though I've read this version is cut, the video box claims to its unrated and runs 83 minutes, which is the same length of the uncut version later released on DVD by Severin and Blu-ray by both Severin and 88 Films. Both releases come with the same interviews with Halsey, Cléry, producer Vincenzo Salviani and composer Claudio Natili.

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