B&W, 1966, 92 mins. 20 secs.
Directed by Camillo Mastrocinque
Starring Barbara Steele, Anthony Steffen, Claudio Gora, Mario Brega, Marina Berti, Ursula Davis
Severin Films (Blu-ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC), Cecchi Gori (DVD) (Italy R2 PAL) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
Easily the most obscure of the Italian Gothics showcasing the magnetic Barbara Steele, An Angel for Satan was the last of a run of films that began in 1960 with Black Sunday and continued through the likes of Castle of Blood, The Horrible Dr. Hichcock, The Ghost, Nightmare Castle, The Long Hair of Death, and Terror-Creatures from the Grave. By this point the market for black-and-white programmers was shrinking rapidly, leaving this one barely shown outside Italy and becoming more familiar through its provocative promotional stills particularly one of a topless Steele wielding a riding crop. It also didn't help that this is the one film out of the batch that falls furthest outside the horror genre; the plot flirts with ideas involving a cursed statue, a long-dead reputed witch, and possible possession, but mostly it's a dark, somewhat sado-erotic melodrama closer to something like Mademoiselle. Beautifully shot and featuring a haunting soundtrack by the great Francesco De Masi, it's a fascinating film that's tricky to classify but certainly worthy of wider recognition than it's received so far.
When artist and restoration expert Robert (The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave's Steffen) arrives in a small seaside town to work on a legendary statue just pulled from the water, he encounters numerous local superstitions about the discovery involving a supposed witch named Belinda and her beautiful but cursed sister, Maddalena. Meanwhile his employer, the wealthy Count Montebruno (Gora), welcomes the arrival of his orphaned niece and soon-to-be heiress, Harriet (Steele), who embarks on a lightning-paced romance with Robert. However, things go awry quickly when Harriet starts behaving very strangely and cruelly manipulates everyone in sight, playing nasty mind games and seemingly seducing men and women alike including her housemaid, Rita (Davis). Robert figures the presence of the statue might be connected when Harriet, who's serving as a model for the statue restoration due to her striking resemblance to it, starts snapping things like "Nobody can touch Belinda. Belinda is pure. She is above all humans. Only the lake can have her." When townspeople start to turn up dead from accidents or suicide, it's clear that something nasty is afoot -- but is it truly supernatural in nature, and if so, can it be stopped?
For much of the running time, An Angel for Satan is a slippery film with a strong performance from Steele whose mercurial mood shifts allow her to really run the acting gamut here. The much-noted duality of her screen presence is really used to the hilt here, along with familiar tropes from her other films like an insidious malediction from the past and a dark secret pulled from a lake (a la The She Beast). It's also the most erotically charged of her Italian genre films with numerous implied nude scenes and a couple of startling transgressive moments, notably that aforementioned whipping scene in which Steele taunts and then lays into the village idiot. The violence level is quite low for most of the running time with two pivotal deaths only shown in aftermath, but it does take a very nasty turn in the climax with a fire that gets much nastier than you'd probably expect. All of it really hinges on a double twist ending that casts a new light on everything we've seen, with one of the surprises working better than the other. (To say more would spoil things, obviously.) The direction by Camillo Mastrocinque (far better known for his many Totò comedies, though he also directed Terror in the Crypt) does a fine job of creating atmosphere throughout with some nice lightning accents and billowing curtains galore; particularly interesting is the way he handles an exposition-heavy flashback involving a painting, which is also one of the bigger open questions left hanging at the end of the film.
For ages you had to work really hard to see this film at all, with some gray market VHS companies in the '90s circulating Italian-language copies with no subtitles from what appeared to be a fuzzy TV broadcast. A legitimate DVD did finally turn up in Italy from Cecchi Gori, albeit looking so-so and without any English-friendly options. An unauthorized DVD also popped up in the U.S. paired up with The Long Hair of Death from Johnny Legend's very short-lived label Midnight Choir; the presentations of both films were unimpressive to put it mildly, but at the time there were few other workable options (and at least Angel was subtitled). In 2021, Severin Films finally gave the film its legit English-friendly debut in any format, on Blu-ray and DVD, with a major surprise: an English-language track prepared for the film that evidently never saw any kind of commercial release. It's a real treat to hear this one in English with some familiar voices from the era, most notably with the always recognizable Carolyn De Fonseca (who also voiced Daria Nicolodi in Deep Red among many, many other films) doing a great job for Steele. The usual Italian audio is here as well (both DTS-HD MA 2.0 mono), with optional English translated or English SDH (for the dub) provided. That's especially useful here as the Italian and English dialogue differ dramatically at times; many character names vary (Robert is Roberto, for example, and some supporting characters have entirely different first names), and virtually every interaction between the Harriet and Rita characters diverges with varying degrees of lesbian implications and info about Rita's schoolteacher boyfriend. The English track also features one of the most extreme examples of that weird quirk of Italian dubbing, using an obviously adult woman to voice a young child (in this case a little girl, very unconvincingly). Incidentally, both tracks are dubbed and only rarely match the lip movements of the actors either way (since it was shot without sound), so try both and see which you prefer. The transfer looks superb throughout, transferred from the original negative with English-language credits (complete with a couple of amusing typos); at last we can appreciate how truly gorgeous this film is right from the opening lake-crossing scene, which is now filled with eerie poetry.
The film also comes with a pair of new audio commentaries, the first featuring Steel with David Del Valle and an uncredited David Gregory from Severin. Surprisingly, neither Steele nor Del Valle had ever seen the film before until shortly before recording, but they soldier through it as she recalls a few details about Steffen (though there's a factual snafu that will make Evelyn lovers wince) and particularly her director as well as one particularly cold night shoot. Mostly it focuses on her time in the Italian film industry, which is actually the more interesting aspect here anyway including recollections about Fellini and the initial five-hour rough cut of 8 1/2. In the second commentary, Kat Ellinger gives an academic reading of the film from the standpoint of Gothic horror and familiar tropes like the innocent arriving stranger and the monstrous woman, placing it in the context of '60s Italian genre cinema as well as larger literary and cinematic traditions. In "The Devil Statue" (18m25s), actor Vassili Karis and film historian Fabio Melelli go into more background about Mastrocinque and the ins and outs of the Italian film industry at the time, as well as Karis' aversion to horror (which obviously relented later since he went on to do Giallo in Venice and The Beast in Space). Another fascinating extra here is 1967's "Barbara & Her Furs" (9m47s), a short film "reverie" inspired by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's legendary S&M novel and narrated by Ado Kyrou. Featuring Steele's real voice (a rarity at the time) and with a partial commentary by the actress herself chatting about her time living in Paris, it's a jazzy, experimental oddity that serves as a showcase for its star in a wild parade of outfits. Also included are the Italian trailer (in HD with English subtitles) as well as an uncovered extended trailer, which tacks on an extra 30 seconds (with no audio) at the beginning.
Reviewed on October 27, 2021