Wednesday, May 8, 2024

Shadow of Illusion / Ombre roventi (1970)

“I understand those who want to live against this century, but I fear those who believe they can live outside of it.”Emmanuelle ArsanMon Emmanuelle, leur pape et mon Eros  

Cults erect out of myth. Myth gives rise to cults. Their members become so enamored in myth that they become grossly detached from reality. Yet, they’ll maintain a strong conviction and belief that they are the ones who are really in tune with reality, above all others. And when this happens, people get hurt.

For fans of ‘60s/70s Italian thrillers, it’s the prospect of a deadly hippie cult that gives a film like Shadow of Illusion its primary appeal to genre explorers, and while that promising aspect might bring us here, we end up finding even more to like about it. One of the film’s strong points is that it does integrate Egyptian mythology, particularly The Osiris Myth, into its plot rather nicely, even to the point of provoking further viewer interest.  

Shadow of Illusion is directed by Mario Caiano (Nightmare Castle (1965) and Eye in the Labyrinth (1972)) and is quite the excavation for the Eurocult archeologist. It is indeed an enjoyable but unusual watch that kind of feels at home alongside other paranoid Italian occult thrillers like All the Colors of the Dark (1972), The Cat in Heat (1972), or even The Perfume of the Lady in Black (1974).


It is a delight to follow Daniela Giordano, dubbed by the great and familiar voice of Carolyn De Fonseca, on her vacation/business-trip to Egypt that does take romantic and dark turns. Giordano plays fashion model Gail Bland, who’s been summoned to Cairo to model, in an all-expenses paid trip by an enigmatic and unreachable company called Isis Cosmetics, on account of her apparent resemblance to the Egyptian Goddess Isis. Her colleague mentions it was her fiery red hair that seduced the designer, who she’s never even met. 

Gail’s plane ride to Egypt makes up the bulk of the intro credits. It’s set to a grooving theme by Carlo Savina that is appropriate for the era but sounds more like the film is setting up a witty ‘60s Eurospy travelogue rather than a dark descent into a cult of Egyptian god worshipers. I’m not complaining, though, because these kind of dated ‘70s flavored plane rides are fun and addicting and remind me a little of Emmanuelle.


When Gail arrives at the airport in Cairo, Isis Cosmetics continues to elude her. Her taxi takes her on a strange route through the hustle and bustle of the cultural focal point of the bazaar. Shit gets rowdy, in the middle of the crowded streets, when a merchant cart gets knocked over, and during the ensuing chaos, folks, including joyful looking hippies, break out into a vibrant and possessed kind of dancing (it’s interesting to see that the youth hippie counterculture was very strong in this part of Cairo). Gail is accosted by pushy merchants and mysterious individuals through the open window in the back of her taxi, including (a first look at) the sorceress Naomi (Carol Lobravico) and a stranger who insists she takes a holder of cigarettes, which she confusedly accepts. This is one of two visits to the bazaar where shit always seems to go down.


Later that night, at her hotel, Gail wastes no time in hitting the obligatory nightclub scene where the lead doesn’t disappoint by ordering a scotch and lighting a cigarette before her ring (her inherited ring of Isis) manages to attract her mysterious love interest Caleb (William Berger). Caleb claims to be a man whose primary interest in life is pleasure, although I get more mysticism vibes from him than libertinism. He’s kindly on hand to accompany Gail around the more mysterious and dangerous parts of the town as they try to get to the bottom of Isis Cosmetics. Even though Caleb smoothly lights her cigarette for her like a gentleman, he still passively reprimands her for smoking, by stating, “I don’t need those things to help me spread my wings.” To this, Gail proudly declares, “excuse me, I want to dance,” as she takes herself and her cigarette to the dance floor while Caleb sits this one out, eventually disappearing on her, as he tends to do.


Daniela Giordano fortunately can be counted on to get down like the best of them during the movie’s dance floor scene, where she meets the strange siblings and their entourage for the first time (even though they’ve been watching her). The outwardly friendly but enigmatic, and probably bad news, brother and sister, who just so happen to go by Seth (the late Antonio Cantafora) and Sekhmet (Krista Nell), know who Gail is, but she has no idea who they are. Their friendliness is suitably uncomfortable. At least for me. I'm not sure if Gail quite senses it yet.


Maybe it was one of those sketchy cigarettes, but a fanciful trip filled with ‘70s arthouse visions awaits her, in what is likely the most memorable sequence of the film. Gail has a delirious dream that seems to have evolved from the influence of the nightclub from earlier that night. The dream includes many menacing and strange disembodied faces (sometimes involving a trippy scanning freeze frame effect) from a few characters that have intrigued her up to this point. She also dreams of an erotic encounter with the one who calls herself Sekhmet (Krista Nell). In the dream, Sekhmet gives an all-welcoming seductive expression towards Gail, whose face flits from blank confusion to repulsion (or is it lust?) at Sekhmet’s embrace. Does Gail usually desire other women, or is this the first time she’s dreamed of being with another woman? It isn’t made clear, but I like to think she’s drawn to the allure of the cult and the kind of hypnotic hold they are starting to hold over her. Even in shoddy pan and scan, this part is still intriguing and beautiful and probably the best-looking part of the film.


The next day, after failing to learn more about Isis Cosmetics, Caleb convinces Gail to enjoy the rest of her time in Egypt, a great opportunity for him to show her around and impress her. The two obviously seem to have an awkward chemistry, but that works to the movie’s advantage here since he is supposed to be a strange enigma who may or may not be an incarnation of Osiris, drawn to Gail’s ring and red hair, causing him to recall the “mistress of his soul.” (Why is it that the lord of the underworld during this era of gothic fiction seems to be such an intriguing and harrowing love interest to the heroine?) He has a protective warmness towards her, but of course he is also suspicious and tends to disappear when the movie wants him to so that Gail can have moments where she is temporarily alone and vulnerable. He also has the tendency to show up at the right time to give Gail a sense of relief, as Caleb seems to be the only one that she can trust, but even this is uncertain.


Their love story is accompanied by a nice legend, based on The Osiris Myth, giving it a bit more meaning and context. He beguiles her with the legend of Osiris and Isis in a museum among Egyptian artifacts, reminding her of her resemblance to Isis. If they really are incarnations of Osiris and Isis, then I’m guessing any future child they have will also be a kind of incarnation of Horus. 

After having her arm twisted by a rando on the street, Gail manages to find herself back at the bazaar, where the hippie cult again eventually causes trouble and chaos to break out, a likely excuse for Seth and Sekhmet to “rescue” her and tell her about their cult of worship, at the temple of Osiris.


They convince her to come to their altar of worship, despite all that’s been happening, by sending her a gift of assorted chocolates, a pleasurable solution to all hazardous prospects it seems. It’s not like they’ll try to sacrifice her to their ancient god or anything like that. 

The set for the temple of Osiris is the grand spectacle for most of the climactic action, not to mention depictions of drug use and veil belly dancing. It really captures the spirit of the era and melds it with Egyptian motifs. It’s actually pretty awesome. To prove to Gail that Osiris sits under the temple, Seth throws a boulder onto the ground that results in flames bursting forth from the impact.


The cult is kind of all over the place, coming off as peace-loving one moment and dangerous the next. They’ll go from a tender moment of music, singing, peace, pleasure, and love, before they go on to torture and rape a couple of individuals who they catch spying on them. 

I would’ve liked to know more about the strange sorceress Naomi (played by Carol Lobravico), but perhaps the mystery behind her is what makes her so memorable. I found her quite an intriguing addition to the cast of characters, but I was saddened to learn of the actress’s tragic death shortly after being in this film.


Shadow of Illusion builds to a rather expected culmination with no shocks or twists, but I did like the idea of fooling the cult at the climax of their psychosis. A good mystery movie doesn’t always have to have a big twist. Some of it is kept ambiguous like the images of Caleb disappearing and later reappearing in the vacation photos of him and Gail by the Sphinx. Despite being a kind of ethereal figure himself, I did like the way Caleb would dispel myth at times for Gail through rational explanation, such as explaining that the natural pockets of gas beneath the temple cause the flames to burst forth and not the actual presence of an ancient god.


Shadow of Illusion’s Egyptian setting is put to good use and in a sense becomes a novelty to kind of distract from the fact that we’ve sort of seen a lot of this before, especially if you’ve seen enough of these films. 

Despite the beauty of the setting, the ordeal is especially nightmarish for the lead. A couple slightly extended scenes of Gail in a panicked flight (running through the woods or through the city) hold a certain aesthetic appeal. 

If you can’t seem to get enough endless takes on gothic Italian and occult horror, this one should easily please. There’s a couple of harsh ritual sacrifice scenes, but the film has a fairly low body-count: Caleb's butler Sade and possibly one of the followers in a ritual sacrifice (I guess we are supposed to assume that the child played by Debra Berger succumbed to her sacrifice ritual involving a voodoo doll. If so, then it represents one of the truly supernatural scenes in the film that can't be explained). The coordinated dance number that precedes the final sacrifice involving Gail is a hoot.

It's interesting to note that the opening credits attribute makeup to Italian makeup legend Giannetto De Rossi (with hair-stylist Mirella Sforza). Assuming he was responsible for her makeup, I really loved the eye shadow glitter and sparkles on Sekhmet’s brow. Kudos to Naomi’s strange and bewitching sorceress look as well.

So, despite the rough look and familiar plot devices, Shadow of Illusion has some staying power as far as I’m concerned. The whole thing is rather strangely compelling.

Hopefully, there’s a print laying around somewhere and someone is interested in restoring it. I would jump at a Blu-ray pre-order. I have a feeling that this one has the potential to look incredible.

© At the Mansion of Madness


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