You may have heard this one before:
It should be. Most horror fans will recognize the template right away, as William Friedkin's The Exorcist. While Friedkin's film served as the "inspiration" for hundreds of rip-offs all over the world, few copied their model so slavishly as Andrea Bianchi's Malabimba, the basic plot of which I've summarized above.
Filling in for Linda Blair in Bianchi's film is Katell Leannec as (ostensibly) 16-year-old Bimba Karolyi. The Karolyi family consists of Bimba; Andrea, her widowed father; her father's older brother Adolpho; Adolpho's wife, Naïs; and Bimba's grandmother, the family matriarch (there's another hanger-on named Giorgio, but I have no idea what his relationship to the family really is). The Karolyis live in a decrepit Italian castle which they can scarcely afford to keep up.
As it happens, demonic possession is the least of the Karolyi's problems. Adolpho is a paralyzed invalid, master of the house in name only. He is cared for by a young novice named Sister Sophia. Naïs has turned to Giorgio to, um, fill in for her husband, but she considers this a distasteful temporary solution: she has her eyes on her brother-in-law, who will inherit the castle when Adolpho dies. But Andrea is too preoccupied at first to notice Naïs's advances. He's too busy brooding over the family's imminent bankruptcy, and over the memory of his late wife.
As the movie opens, Andrea is holding a séance to communicate with the ghost of his wife. As Italian horror movie séances go, this one is much better than those in either The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave or City of the Living Dead. As the medium attempts to make contact, windows blow open, and objects fly across the room... and a framed photograph of the late Daniela Karolyi is hurled from the mantelpiece to the flagstones by an invisible hand. Andrea takes this as evidence his wife has returned; the medium, however, senses that the presence is hostile. The medium's suspicions are confirmed when an invisible hand unzips Giorgio's fly, and then pulls Naïs's blouse off.
The medium then begins speaking in a strange voice, which Andrea confirms is not the voice of his wife. The voice calls the assembled Karolyis hypocrites and pigs, as the medium collapses in a writhing heap on the floor. The camera veers up and down the room, lingering now and then on an old painting of a woman... and then goes off through the gloomy hallways until it barges in on Sister Sofia.
The young nun is immediately aware that something is in the room with her. She is a little alarmed at first, but as the invisible presence creeps into her, she begins to caress herself languorously. Suddenly coming to her senses with her hand down her dainties, Sister Sophia screams and makes the sign of the cross with her arms... and the presence flees.
This is starting to sound more than a little silly, so I want to mention at this point, before we meet out heroine, that the opening is quite a bit better than it has any right to be. Part of the reason for this may be the somber music, which adds a lot to the atmosphere of the movie; the camera work isn't bad, either, conveying a sense of confusion without being confusing itself. Even the Sister's ludicrous "get thee behind me, Satan" gesture is played totally straight... and it almost works.
(The brief looks we're given at the painting of a woman are supposed to suggest to us the real identity of the spirit. She is apparently the ghost of a Karolyi ancestor named Lucrezia. Maybe I zoned out at some point during my screening, but I don't remember any details about Lucrezia or her history, other than that she is the perverse ancestress that the family hardly dares mention.)
Things take a slight downturn when we meet our heroine. Ms. Leannec's performance runs between stolid indifference and wild sensual abandon: sometimes she's convincingly intense and more than a little sinister, but much of the time she looks like she's simply going through the motions. Then again, she's supposed to be 16, so maybe she's simply behaving realistically.
The real problem with our heroine is what the screenplay makes her do. Once the malevolent spirit possesses her, she's forced to do things like pretend her stuffed elf is orally gratifying her, using its little pointy hat for extra effect; or fondle her teddy bear, eventually ripping open its crotch in frustration and inserting a candle, to make up for its, er, lack of equipment. Most of these interludes are more embarrassing than erotic.
Things aren't much better for the poor girl when she's out of bed. Poor Bimba, uncertain of what's happening to her, is wandering in the garden when she is surprised by a snake. Her hysterical reaction only gets her in trouble with the adult Karolyis, who point out that there are no snakes in the area, and that no snake can be found where she said she saw one. I'm willing to give Bianchi the benefit of the doubt, and assume that this is some sort of Garden of Eden loss-of-innocence symbolism; at any rate, it does help build our sympathy for Bimba as a put-upon adolescent.
Bimba shows up at the dinner table one night, and suddenly turns into a foul-mouthed little bitch. She seems to know much more about the seedy goings-on in the family than she ought, and certainly she says a lot more than she should.
Things come to a head when the Karolyis host some sort of party. This is purely an excuse for Bianchi and scriptwriter Piero "Nipples" Regnoli to quote The Exorcist, and have the girl do something shocking. But while Friedkin's scene was genuinely disturbing, Bianchi's is predictable: Bimba simply marches to the center of attention and hikes up her night-dress, while vilifying the rest of the family in a faux-Mercedes McCambridge voice. We've already seen quite a bit of Ms. Leannec, so the public revelation of her naked body doesn't really carry the frisson Bianchi no doubt intended.
Again following the lead of The Exorcist, Bimba's father calls in a doctor to find out what's causing his daughter's personality changes. In Friedkin's film (especially the version that was re-released in 2000), this led to a heartbreaking sequence, as the little girl's mother watched her endure test after test, wondering all the time what awful result to expect. In Bianchi's film, all we see is the doctor walking out of the house, muttering his diagnosis as he hops back into his car. Needless to say, the effect is much less dramatically satisfying, though the verdict is the same: there's nothing medically wrong with the girl, though she may be experiencing some hormonal imbalances as a result of puberty.
The doctor's explanation made sense in the context of little Regan, who was just entering puberty; but Bimba's obviously pretty well developed. Anyway, Andrea goes to have a little chat with Bimba, but finds her surprisingly... normal. She seems to have come to terms with her recent mood swings and violent outbursts, and she apologizes sweetly to her father. Andrea is relieved, and is happy to comply when his daughter begs him for a little kiss. You can guess what happens next. Bimba's embrace is anything but chaste, and it takes Andrea just a little too long to break the clinch and get his daughter's tongue out of his mouth1.
In the meantime, Naïs has intensified her efforts to seduce Andrea. When he at first proves unresponsive, she goes back to the jealous Giorgio, who subjects her to some lurid S&M games. Giorgio's a little too quick on the trigger, though, and leaves Naïs panting for more.
Eventually, Naïs does manage to wear down Andrea's defenses with her continual bump and grind. While she's schtupping her brother-in-law, Bimba is peering in on them. Perhaps realizing that she's supposed to be the decadent one in the family, she goes off to visit Adolpho, her cuckolded uncle.
Now, then: while I figure out I'm going to describe this next, pivotal scene tactfully, a word is in order about the explicit content of the movie. The usual practice of the time was to shoot a regular, suggestive-but-not-explicit version of the film, and then add hardcore inserts at some later date. The inserts need not have been shot by the same director; in fact, they might even have been shot decades after the original, for insertion into a film that previously had no sexual content at all. In the case of Malabimba, though, the hardcore footage is integrated surprisingly well with the main part of the film. It may feature different actors, but not enough is shown of the new players to cause continuity problems2. More importantly, the softcore segments are themselves so explicit -- and so downright smarmy -- that the difference between them and the inserts is not really significant.
This becomes most evident in the scene between Bimba and Adolpho. Bimba offers herself to her bed-ridden uncle, who rises unexpectedly to the occasion. This is pretty damned graphic on its own, even if there is a sheet in the way. Bimba then goes to pull down the sheet. The audience prepares for the switch to the inserts, and then... Great Googly-moogly! That's not an insert! That's Leannec herself sharing a scene with, um, Little Adolpho! So it's really not important whether Katell's own lips go into service in the bits that follow, or whether it's a stand-in; the difference is slight.
Bimba's attentions are just too much for Adolpho, who dies of a heart attack while his niece is still at work. I suppose this is supposed to be part of the "horror" aspect of the picture, but in these post-Jerry Springer days, it's difficult to see it as anything more than a tasteless joke. It's sleazy, yes, but hardly horrifying... I mean, if you've gotta go, I suppose there are worse ways.
Adolpho's dying cries are heard by his nurse, Sister Sofia, who comes running in -- only to find Bimba scrambling for her clothes, and her patient sprawled dead before her. Sister Sofia doesn't tell the rest of the family everything she saw: she explains to them that Bimba must have heard her Uncle's cries and come to help him. However, Sister Sofia has had enough of the moral cesspool which is the Karolyi home. She demands to step in and supervise Bimba's care herself.
Though Sofia had been briefly possessed by the malicious spirit herself, she (rather naïvely) doesn't connect Bimba's behavior with her own experience. She doesn't really blame Bimba at all, feeling instead that she's merely reacting to the unwholesome games her family is playing. Little does she realize that Bimba's found a new and unsettling game. Catching sight of her reflection in a full-length bedroom mirror, the girl moves over to it and begins caressing her image. The camera moves in to obscure the edges of the mirror; and thanks in part to the graininess of the transfer, Bianchi here gives the illusion that Bimba is making love to herself. Not only is this a workable metaphor, either for adolescent horniness in general or for the kind of unrestrained hedonism that Bimba/Lucrezia and the whole Karolyi family indulge in... it's also (I think) the film's one totally successful erotic vignette.
Bimba/Lucrezia uses Sister Sofia's innocence to lure her into corruption. When Sofia catches her watching her father and Naïs having a bonk, Bimba forces the novice to watch for a while, too. Sofia protests that she doesn't want to... but she does watch. Then, when a supposedly contrite Bimba begs Sofia to watch over her as she sleeps, Sofia gives in a little too easily to Bimba's suggestions that she lie down in the same bed... perhaps take off her cowl, so Bimba could see her hair at last... maybe even lift her dress a bit, to prove that nuns actually have legs under their all-concealing habits...
And just like Bimba's father, the "innocent" Sister Sofia takes a remarkably long time to react as Bimba oversteps the bounds of propriety.
Horrified more by her enjoyment than by Bimba's actions, Sister Sofia attempts to run away. But Bimba catches up to her, and (in Lucrezia's voice) informs the trebling novice that she's been the intended target all along. Lucrezia's corrupt descendants have been easy prey to her, but to drag a nun down into sensuality and perversion... now that's something for a ghost to be proud of. Bimba/Lucrezia offers Sofia a deal: she'll release the girl if Sofia agrees to be possessed instead. The girl's life, that is, in exchange for Sofia's soul.
The poor Sister has no choice but to agree. Bimba/Lucrezia orders her to remove her clothes... and lie down... and...
Yeah. You know where this is going.
And, thanks to The Exorcist, you also know how it's all going to end. As Bimba, untouched by her recent experiences, walks in the garden with her delighted Father, Sister Sofia wanders in torment along the castle walls. Inside her, Lucrezia's voice crows about the sensual delights that are in store for them, now that Sofia has sampled the joys of the flesh. Much to the ghost's consternation, though, Sofia prefers to leap off the wall to her death. Smoosh. Andrea and Bimba react in horror, and the movie just ends.
Malabimba is a seedy little movie, with little or nothing in the way of genuine horror. Yet it's not a complete failure, and even manages to pull off a few darkly erotic sequences. I'm consigning this otherwise mediocre movie to the depths of the Other Hell for a completely different reason than its own merits as a movie:
The DVD is the single
WORST-produced disc in my collection!
Manufactured by some outfit in Australia called Shoarma Digital, the Malabimba DVD seems to have been mastered from a third or fourth generation VHS tape. Both the picture and sound quality are what you might expect from a tape you picked up for a few bucks at a convention. The trouble is, you have to pay a Criterion Collection price to get the damned disc! True, the film is in Italian with English subtitles, and this gives the film a different atmosphere from typical dubbed exploitation... but remember, many Italian films are shot in English to begin with, and almost all of them are overdubbed after the filming is completed -- so there really is no "original" language track.
The movie is also presented widescreen, but oddly enough, the screen image isn't traditionally "letterboxed". "Letterboxing" is the informal term used to describe the appearance of a widescreen image on your TV: the black bars at the top and bottom of the screen resemble the opening of a letterbox. Shoarma's Malabimba has only one black bar, at the top of the screen, with the bottom edge of the image at the bottom of the screen. It's disconcerting; it looks like a mistake.
Worst of all, the disc caused a whole bunch of really alarming problems with my main DVD player. I had never before got an error message directly from my player. I've had discs that wouldn't play at all, but I've never had one that caused the player's own operating system to throw up. No; this disc did something so... poisonous to it that I thought the machine itself had died. The poor player gave me a series of Warning boxes, eventually telling me that I might have to call the company for service.
I figured out pretty quickly that the problem was not with the player,but rather with the disc itself. On a whim, I tried playing it on my little cheap Region Free player... where it worked. I thought perhaps this supposedly Region 0 disc had some kind of erroneous Region code built into it, but this doesn't seem to be the case. In any event, I don't feel the disc was worth the money or the trouble -- I'm pretty sure I could find an adequate VHS tape of equal or better quality, for less money.
Malabimba was released in 1978, just before George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead replaced The Exorcist as the European film industries' most frequently plagiarized film. Malabimba, for all its excesses, is noticeably restrained by comparison to Bianchi's next film, Notte del Terrore: Burial Ground (1980), which came after both Romero's blockbuster and Fulci's Zombi 2. Dawn completely changed the notion of shocking horror, paving the way for an era of gore movies that would make the sexual content of films like Malabimba seem innocent by comparison.
Bianchi, whose main experience seems to have been with sexploitation films, may have been a little lost confronting the zombie/gore subgenre for the first time; at any rate, Burial Ground is a complete fiasco. Mariangela Giordano, Malabimba's put-upon Sister Sofia, returned for more humiliation in Burial Ground, where her character ended up having a nipple chewed off by her own zombie son. Once again, though, Bianchi cast an older actor in the role of an incestuous, sexually precocious adolescent, though the guy playing the "boy" Michael was far less convincingly young than Ms. Leannec.
Then, at about the same time Andrea Bianchi was making his zombie film, another Bianchi -- Mario, no relation -- did a remake of Malabimba! Unlike its model, Mario Bianchi's
Malabimba has also been released under other titles, including The Malicious Whore and Possession of an Adolescent. I can't help but think the distributors pulled this sleazy little film out of obscurity to cash in on the current vogue for "teen"-related smut. As anyone with an active email account knows, the Internet is flooded with advertisements for "Live Nude Teens", which is spam parlance for "women under the age of 40". I don't quite see the attraction myself: I've rarely found teens of either sex to be particularly pleasant company. Considering the director's evident fixation on older actors pretending to be jail-bait, perhaps the world has finally caught up to Andrea Bianchi.
1. When you consider that Bianchi has used the incest theme in other movies as well (as badly?), and when you add to this the fact that the father's name, like Bianchi's, is Andrea, you really start to wonder about the director's own obsessions.
2. Did I say "not enough"? What was I thinking?
Of course, what I meant was that only the most obsessive of audience members would notice any difference between the actors and the miscellaneous body parts shown in the inserts.