Italian filmmaker Alberto De Martino was no stranger to making movies meant to cash in on the success of recent hits. In the ’60s, he made Hercules movies, directed a war movie called Dirty Heroes in the wake of The Dirty Dozen, and did post-James Bond spy movies, including Operation Kid Brother, which starred Sean Connery’s brother Neil and multiple actors that had appeared in Bond films. So it’s no surprise that he was also responsible for the one of the many religious horror films to be made after The Exorcist hit in 1973.
Reaching theatres one year after The Exorcist, De Martino’s The Antichrist, also known as The Tempter, centers on a young woman named Ippolita, who has been paralyzed ever since being in a car accident when she was twelve years old, an accident that also killed her mother.
For years, Ippolita and her father have been searching for a cure to her condition. They’ve tried everything they could think of, but doctors don’t know how to help her when the fact is that there is no medical reason for her being unable to walk. It’s all in her mind.
By this point, father and daughter are hoping for a miracle. Ippolita is taken to the site of a religious statue that is believed to have healing properties… but after she falls to the ground in the presence of the statue, her legs as unwilling to work as ever, the crisis of faith she has makes her susceptible to a very dark force.
In addition to that crisis and the force advancing on her, Ippolita also has to deal with the fact that, after years of making her his whole world, her father has now fallen in love with a woman. Ippolita fears that he may get married, and she could be pushed aside. Her life is falling apart.
As her search for a cure continues, Ippolita finds herself in consultation with a psychologist who believes in reincarnation, and that Ippolita’s problems might not just be in this life but in past lives as well. Through some regressive hypnosis, Ippolita gets a glimpse of one of her past lives, four hundred years earlier, a time at which she was also named Ippolita… And the past Ippolita made some very questionable decisions, joining a cult, offering herself up to Satan.
The modern day Ippolita even experiences the same sensations her past self went through during her initiation into the cult, a ritual that involved her lapping up the blood of a decapitated toad… for starters. In one of the most shocking horror movie moments I’ve ever seen, a goat is brought to the altar, and though of course we don’t see what happens, it would be a much different sort of movie if that was shown, what the past Ippolita willingly did can most sensitively be described with the lyrics of a song I’ve heard, “Kiss the goat, seal the pact, show your devotion with a blasphemous act.” With that done, the cult leader then had his way with her.
Eventually, past Ippolita was arrested for her association with the cult and burned at the stake. In her final moments, she repented. The fate of the past Ippolita thwarted Satan’s plans for her, but now that he has the modern Ippolita in his clutches, he sets those plans back in motion. Plans that include possession and the birth of the Antichrist.
The Antichrist fits in all the elements you would expect an Exorcist cash-in to include. Religious icons defiled, a female possessed, heads turned completely around, spewing bile, levitation, and of course an exorcism.
Where the film surprises is the fact that the screenplay, which De Martino co-wrote with Gianfranco Clerici and Vincenzo Mannino, has an admirable focus on its characters and their relationships. Ippolita is a very troubled girl, even if she didn’t get possessed, and the film delves deeply into her situation. Unfortunately, this dedication to character also inflated the running time to a less-than-ideal 112 minutes.
I complain about unwieldy running times more than anything else when it comes to movies, but really, when I’m watching a movie that only exists because The Exorcist did well, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask that it only require 90 minutes of my time.
Still, in the role of Ippolita, Carla Gravina does a great job carrying almost that entire overly long running time entirely on her shoulders, and The Antichrist is a much better film that I expected it to be going into it. I expected something cheap and painful, not something that actually had a story to tell.