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Lorna, the Exorcist

Lorna, the Exorcist(1974)

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Even given its syllabus of outrages (which range from mere murder to incest, pedophilia, possession and the indelible image of midget crabs crawling out of a woman's vagina), Jess Franco's Lorna... the Exorcist (1973) remains one of his most accessible films - no, really! Shot in the south of France on the dime of producer Robert de Nesle, Les possédées du diable (as the film was exhibited abroad, the title translating as "possessions of the devil") begins in the manner of a mid-Sixties Hollywood comedy of manners, with affluent businessman Patrick Mariel (Guy Delorme) dragging his wife Marianne (Jacqueline Laurent) and teenage daughter Linda (Lina Romay) to the Camargue rather than their desired St. Tropez... but instead of scrambling to keep the impressionable, 19 year-old Linda out of the hands of swarthy local lotharios or lusty American tourists à la James Cagney in One, Two, Three (1961) or Bob Hope in I'll Take Sweden (1965), Patrick must protect Linda against Lorna (Pamela Stanford), a predatory witch who once helped the family attain wealth and status and now demands Lorna's soul as her payment. It's English language title woefully misleading in its bid to claim a connection with and siphon profits from The Exorcist (1973), Les possédées du diable does share with William Friedkin's international cash cow a central narrative concern with the problematic relationship of contemporary fathers and daughters. As the void created by her affluent but absentee dad urged Reagan McNeill to open herself to outside influences, so does Patrick Mariel's spotty presence in Linda's life weaken the paternal bond, leaving the girl vulnerable, ripe for the picking. (Franco's title sequence runs over footage of the fruit of lemon trees, hanging heavy and ready to drop.) After a protracted opening sex scene, in which the as-yet unidentified Linda and Lorna make love (representing a possible karmic looping of the film's denouement or perhaps, on the part of the sexually awakening Linda, a prescient consummation devoutly to be wished), the film begins properly with Patrick's return home from a business trip. Franco's handling of the affection of the Mariels is surprisingly nuanced for a filmmaker who has never shied away from shock and awfulness; Patrick's delight in his wife and daughter are palpable, as is his fear for Linda's innocence.

Franco stages most of Les possédées du diable in and around the swank, modernist hotels and casinos of the Mediterranean commune of La Grande-Motte, designed by Jean Balladur and completed only in 1974. The resort community's exotic, Aztec-inspired architecture (a portion of it uncompleted at the time of principal photography) gives the proceedings a dream-like quality that mitigates against the mounting sense of dread and horror in favor of an oddly appropriate fairy tale ambiance. End to end, the film seems to manifest a wealth of influences, from Alain Renais' Last Year at Marienbad (1961) and Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville (1965) to such storybook perennials as Sleeping Beauty and Rumplestiltskin and even Bram Stoker's Dracula, with a sidebar about a young woman who pines orgiastically for Lorna from her sanitarium bed in the manner of Stoker's institutionalized prophet Renfield. In eye makeup that won't soon forgotten, Stanford's otherworldly Lorna recalls Baby Jane Hudson and various performers from Andy Warhol's Factory or the stable of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. The scene in which Lorna deflowers Linda by first having the nearly adult girl suck from her breast and then by shattering her maidenhead with a particularly cruel-looking dildo (from which she then licks the hymen blood), is about as disturbing as transgressive cinema gets. Franco tops even this jaw-dropping moment with a final freeze frame that caps one of the most gutwrenching descents into madness ever captured to film.

In the years following its initial release, Les possédées du diable was recut by producer Robert de Nesle to allow the insertion of hardcore pornographic scenes. The film existed for years on the gray market in various incomplete incarnations, prompting the cine-archeologists at Mondo Macabre to set themselves to the task of piecing together the most complete version possible. Their all-region Lorna... the Exorcist DVD boasts a fully uncut and uncensored version of the film, cobbled together from various sources. The source materials are variable but never as bad as multi-generation video tape (which is how many of the film's fans saw it for the first time). The widescreen (1.66:1), anamorphic transfer culled from three different 35mm prints ranges in quality from very good to fair and represents, all things considered, a very satisfying viewing experience. Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack options (derived from no less than four separate sources) run from a French language version (with optional English subtitles) to an English language variant. Supplements include the ever-reliable Pete Tombs' notes on the making of the film, thumbnail biographies for the principal players (whose number includes Franco regular Howard Vernon, as Lorna's henchman, who wields a conch shell like a pair of brass knuckles) and composer Andre Benichou (whose haunting music plays over the DVD's menu screens), deleted and extended scenes, and interviews with British critic Stephen Thrower and editor Gerard Kikoine.

by Richard Harland Smith