Sunday, August 19, 2018

Sex of the Devil / Il sesso del diavolo - Trittico (1971)

How could any Eurocult horror fan resist being attracted to a movie with a poster like this and a title like Sex of the Devil? Whether or not the movie delivers what it promises on the cover is another matter, but when beholding such an epic, suggestively satanic, occult, and erotic poster like this one (centering on what I thought looked a little like a possessed Mia farrow), a spectacular fantasy of a movie is birthed in the mind of the observer, one that is often very different from the movie in reality, for better or worse. I admit to initially being attracted and baited in to this film based solely on this poster. Sex of the Devil not surprisingly turned out to be something other than I had imagined, and if it weren’t for that advertisement I may have never found it. So basically, the movie poster did its job, and I slowly fell in love with another movie.

Despite not being what I expected and bearing the usual pacing and plot resolution issues, Sex of the Devil still delivered the goods, and, in the end, it ended up delivering what it promised on the poster as well.

It was directed by Oscar Brazzi, the younger brother of internationally famed actor Rossano Brazzi, who plays Andrea the surgeon in Sex of the Devil. Oscar produced the superb Italian/Argentinian thriller Psychout for Murder (1969), which brother Rossano starred in, directed, and co-wrote with Renato Polselli.

The filmmakers really embraced the location, nicely integrating Turkish culture into Sex of the Devil. The foreign cast and crew spent four weeks in Istanbul, Turkey to make the film. When the film was in production, it was referred to by the working title of “Istanbul Adventure” by the Turkish press.

Filming on the Bosporus at a waterfront house, in the Kanlica neighborhood I believe, really sets it apart. It’s one of the more underused locations, making for a more unique haunted house experience that does provide a pretty unique flavor to most of the ‘70s European horror mainstays fans keep coming back for. I personally enjoyed the idyllic waterfront house setting that the movie benefits from at times. It matches a kind of dreamhouse idea of mine by having an up-close view of the sea directly from the living room, with boats passing by.

I ended up liking all of the characters for various reasons, but, unfortunately, this one is pretty flawed when it comes to the delivery of its story, consisting of a convoluted mystery plot that seems underdeveloped and a little confusing. It teases and fiddles with a number of horror-ish plot threads and seems to provide little in the way of resolution. It unloads a lot of ideas that don’t really come together that well, even though the movie does try.

Story problems aside there are some terrific moments and segments that make Sex of the Devil a great experience, and for something that seems to have little story, the film is layered with a lot of themes exploring impotence, alcoholism, infidelity, art, esotericism, culture, (day)dreams, possession, death-and-rebirth, astrology, and more. A lot of cool, strange stuff happens, but a lot of questions are left unanswered, as storyline payoff in the end is either absent here or hard to notice.

Sex of the Devil can be cherished to an extent on its soundtrack alone, which is comprised of a lot of great themes by Stelvio Cipriani.

Immediately we hear what sounds like Cipriani’s modification of Iron Butterfly’s In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, but Cipriani has really spruced it up with an extra musical layer and a melodic variation that gives it a Cipriani signature and a whole new identity of its own, so much so that I hesitate to call it a shameless rip-off.

The whole ordeal is pretty much a leisurely vacation, for both the characters and the viewers. A surgeon, Andrea, and his wife, Barbara (Maitena Galli (her debut role)), are on holiday with Andrea’s assistant, Sylvia (Sylva Koscina), and a friend Omar (Fikret Hakan) at a lovely house on the Bosporus. Andrea is not able to function anymore, professionally with his job as a surgeon and intimately with his wife. 

Adding the possibility that they may be there by design rather than coincidence, one of them, Omar, is surprised to vaguely remember being there fifteen years prior, after seeing the artwork of a previous occupant, an enigmatic French artist named Claudine (Paola Natale). He knew Claudine, whose arcane, sensual artwork still haunts the place. Claudine hung herself at the same house. The dutiful maid, Fatima (Güzin Özipek), who seems to come with the house, knows magic and has some kind of possibly maleficent but vague agenda that is conveniently put forward with esoteric zodiac symbolism and ritual (as I said in a previous review ambiguity is a strength and a weakness).

On the mansion grounds, there’s a sculpture with three faces, the title triptych that the movie tries to vaguely tie the events to. One of the faces I believe is Claudine, the other two her past lovers. The face on the left becomes disfigured by an unknown assailant. Andrea wants to stay at the house to figure out who the identity of the third face was, despite warnings from Omar who is smart enough to leave.

When Fatima hypnotizes her, Sylvia starts to wear Claudine’s old pink ceremonial robe (a real lovely kaftan) and begins to seemingly take on the identity of the former owner of the house, who like Sylvia was also a Scorpio. Fatima is seemingly hexing people with tea and the power of her zodiac tea cup tray. Someone, a pretty flimsy assassin (Brizio Montinaro), tries to murder Andrea multiple times. I don’t believe we ever know for certain what for (perhaps Fatima needs a sacrifice). Before he leaves the film, Omar explains that there is a terrible secret in the villa, a secret that is connected to the triptych.

I did like the way Claudine’s presence is still felt through her art, which gives her a kind of astral connection to the house even after death. A little girl, Emine (who always seems blissfully spaced out, smiling and staring out into space) comes by often at night to visit the marble lady sculpture (a self-statue of Claudine) outside of the mansion, who she refers to as “the lady who isn’t there anymore.” The statue seems to emit an energy that the girl is drawn to. The girl’s attraction to the statue of a dead woman is strange since Claudine died fifteen years ago, which suggests a spiritual/ghostly connection rather than one made between them when Claudine was alive, seeing as Emine wouldn’t have been born yet.

The art collector, Mr. Oblomoff (Aydin Tezel), is a kind of wild card. He reminds me so much of Eduardo Fajardo’s character from Lisa and the Devil (1973). Oblomoff is frequently seen following Barbara and Sylvia around the city. Since he’s in plain sight and they never see him, he comes off more like a ghost who’s haunting them. These moments are quite peculiar.

Oblomoff is pretty yearnful over Claudine, hoarding her artwork in his own waterside house, brooding over her. It’s hard to believe he hasn’t moved-on after fifteen years, but that might have something to do with the magic he and Claudine shared. With regards to the evil, magical triptych sculpture with the three faces, I think it becomes obvious that one of the faces is supposed to be Oblomoff with the other two being the faces of Claudine and Fatima in what was likely a three-way love triangle that probably didn’t end well.

Brazzi seems to enjoy filming Sylvia and Barbara tour and explore the city, with Sylvia being inspired to photograph Barbara modeling around historic looking architectures, while the viewers lounge to Cipriani’s score as creepy Oblomoff follows them around, maintaining a feeling of leisure and mystery. 

There’s a lot of smooth subtleties to notice on a re-watch for the more attentive and invested viewers. On a repeat view, I noticed at the beginning that the movie subtly reveals to us that Andrea has trouble having sex with his wife, by having her approach him in bed, dropping her clothes, and revealing her nude silhouette. We believe they are about to make love, but then she descends into bed, and the camera lowers revealing that they are in separate beds. Nice touch, movie.

When he does try to have sex with her, it is usually on his terms. During these moments, he seems to be ready, but once she starts to reciprocate and show interest towards his advances, he suddenly loses his libido, and her response is to pitifully laugh at him. It doesn’t help that he also seems to have an attraction to Sylvia. His impotence may be related to potential insecurities about his age and his younger wife talking to other younger men (it could also be all that smoking and drinking he does). He doesn’t seem to jive with her generation’s sense of fashion. It also seems to bother him deep down that his wife does nude modelling.

Late in the movie, after pulling an all-nighter in a nightclub, Andrea has an abrupt hallucinatory dream-like episode during the day that was more of a personal payoff for me. It’s that kind of moment when the movie starts to seem like it’s falling off its rocker and starts to disorient and weird us out, which usually has people wondering what they are watching all of a sudden, but I personally love these kind of left field surprises. It’s mostly about his attraction to Sylvia and a soft-focus fantasy love scene on the beach. Sylvia is a muse-like focus to his hallucinations, an angel-like apparition (Koscina is phenomenal during these moments). He’s drawn to her (could she really be Claudine’s spirit?). In his fantasy, she beckons rather than rebuffs, leaving him with a lot of running to do to catch up with her. The idealized dream sex does not last, as she abruptly begins to hauntingly laugh at him (like his wife does), reminding him of his impotence. I’m not going to try and guess what point the filmmakers are trying to make here, but it is still such a fantastically shot highlight of the film.

Another one of my favorite parts is when Andrea is playing chess with Fatima. It has to be one of the most rock ‘n’ roll chess games I’ve ever seen. The camera floats around the players along to the hard rock Cipriani track that just makes this scene badass. I loved seeing Andrea getting pummeled by the (secret occultist) maid every time. She can navigate the stars from her tea tray, so it makes sense she would have the kind of needed foresight to win at chess every time.

Sex of the Devil is a flawed movie that despite its problems I got pretty attached to. It’s convoluted but also so deeply layered, making for a rich re-watch experience, something I enjoyed studying and taking in. It all sort of comes together, just not satisfactorily, as ambiguity and confusion seem to be the final word, but maybe we are not supposed to know all of the answers. It does still deliver the macabre and occult goods up until the end. 

I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it, but I couldn’t resist the urge to write about it, which might say something about the film’s ability to stick with you and become an unusual obsession. 

© At the Mansion of Madness

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