The Cursed Medallion Review
Throughout the 1970s, Exorcist clones were two a penny, and the Italians arguably created more rip-offs of William Friedkin's landmark horror film than any other branch of the industry. Plenty of them were absolute dreck, it must be said, but in 1975, Massimo Dallamano, director of the seminal giallo What Have You Done to Solange?, bucked the trend by creating a film that not only tried to be something more than a bland knock-off but actually succeeded in being a tense, atmospheric supernatural chiller: The Cursed Medallion (Il Medaglione Insanguinato).
The hero of the piece is Michael Williams (Richard Johnson), a writer and presenter of documentaries for the BBC. His wife was recently killed in a fire, an event which has left his young daughter, Emily (Nicoletta Elmi), with deep emotional scars, and so, when he jets off to Italy to film a documentary on occult paintings, he decides to take Emily and her nanny, Jill (Ida Galli, as Evelyn Stewart), with him. Of particular interest to Richard is a piece painted by an unknown artist, depicting a young girl who looks very much like Emily. As he continues to investigate the painting, it becomes clear that Emily is possessed by a supernatural force which causes her to hallucinate, suffer violent mood swings and succumb to involuntary fits. Could it have anything to do with the strange medallion given to her by Richard, which had previously been a gift to his dead wife? And how do Joanna Morgan (Joanna Cassidy), Richard's executive producer, and the psychic Countess Cappelli (Lila Kedrova), the elderly woman who first drew the painting to his attention, fit into the grand scheme of things?
With a filmography that includes titles such as The End of Innocence and Innocence and Desire, as well as the two gialli popularly referred to as his "Schoolgirls in Peril" films (What Have You Done to Solange? and What Have They Done to Your Daughters?), it seems clear that there is a common theme running throughout much of Dallamano's output. The Cursed Medallion is no exception, and like The Exorcist, Emily's apparent possession, mood swings and vindictive actions can easily be read as metaphors for adolescence. Indeed, the beauty of the central mystery - whether or not Emily is really the reincarnation of Emilia, the girl depicted in the painting, who died 200 years ago under mysterious circumstances - is that either outcome - is she possessed by the Devil or do her actions stem from the depths of human depravity? - is equally unpleasant. Dallamano manages to achieve something that most Exorcist clones could only dream of: his film is actually scary. It never quite manages to reach a level of complete heart-stopping terror, but the atmosphere is foreboding throughout, and certain moments, especially Emily's hallucinations, in which paintings and statues seem to come to life, come across as truly unsettling.
Taken at face value, The Cursed Medallion's plot does little to distinguish itself from the hordes of other Exorcist imitators. Like so many of the genre films Italy produced in the 1970s, the story is interchangeable with any number of others based on similar themes, but originality is rarely an end in itself. What is interesting about the film is its execution, particularly the way in which Dallamano and his co-writers, Franco Marotta and Laura Toscano, uses Freudian psychology as a loose springboard for the events which unfold. For a large part of the film, it is unclear whether or not Emily's emotional problems are genuinely the result of possession or simply those of an extremely possessive daughter who can't stand the prospect of having to share her father with another woman.
It is clear, then, that there is a lot more going on beneath the surface than your average possession flick. Central to this is the love triangle between Michael, Joanna and Jill, which adds a nice element of humanity to a film that places so much emphasis on the supernatural. The characterisation is unusually sophisticated for an Italian horror movie (which typically have an unsavoury reputation for having one-dimensional cardboard cut-outs rather than fully fleshed out characters), with Jill's unrequited love for Michael giving her a real sense of tragedy. In comparison with the "Schoolgirls in Peril" films, his treatment of this aspect of the plot is remarkably devoid of sleaze: there are a couple of lovemaking scenes, but they are romantic rather than exploitative, and it is a testament to the range of Dallamano's abilities that the same filmmaker responsible for the Peeping Tom shower scenes in What Have You Done to Solange? could also paint such a comparatively nuanced and sensitive portrait of love.
|The following text contains spoilers. Click and drag over this box to view.|
|As Countess Cappelli says to Michael, "you are loved by three women". The fourth party in this convoluted relationship is, of course, Emily, and it is here that the Freudian psychology I referenced earlier comes into play. It doesn't require too much in the way of abstract interpretation to realise that Emily's platonic love for her father plays as large a role in her malicious actions as any supernatural possession. The climactic scene, in which, having fatally wounded both herself and him, she tells him that "this is the only way we can be together", is a culmination of what has been building throughout the entire film.|
The strength of the performances of the four central cast members is the glue that holds everything together. In the role of Michael Williams, distinguished British actor Richard Johnson undoubtedly imbues the character with more nuance than would have been present in the script, while Joanna Cassidy and Ida Galli provide plenty in the way of eye candy while at the same time giving solid performances - in fact, this film showcases what is probably the best acting in Galli's career. All eyes, however, should be on young Nicoletti Elmi, who appeared in small parts in numerous Italian genre films throughout the 1970s and here gets the chance to play a much more significant role than usual. She's no Linda Blair, it must be said, but not for lack of effort. She throws herself into the role of the disturbed Emily, and it's a pleasure to see such a familiar bit player getting something more substantial to work with.
The film also happens to be beautifully shot. The artistic skill of Dallamano, who began his career as a cinematographer (and shot the first two installments of Sergio Leone's "Dollars" trilogy), has never been in any doubt, but The Cursed Medallion contains some of his absolute best work. The richly saturated colours are positively jaw-dropping, and the way in which he and director of photography Franco Delli Colli (What Have They Done to Your Daughters?) lens the scenery is almost reminiscent of a tourist video. Particularly during the night scenes, he plays heavily with light and shadow in a way that makes the "Schoolgirls in Peril" films look almost flat by comparison. A couple of laughably bad superimposed shots aside, the film consistently looks effortlessly classy, with an ornate visual style that - dare I say it? - actually outdoes that of The Exorcist. The film is also graced by a wonderful Stelvio Cipriani score, which is mournful, romantic and beautiful, and, as for so many of this film's contributors, a career-defining moment.
Alas, however, it's not all plain sailing. While the film is certainly atmospheric and at times rather tense, it never manages to become truly exciting, leisurely heading towards a conclusion that fails to provide the climax that such a slow burner requires. Furthermore, certain aspects of the plot don't quite gel, with a brief attempt to bring a murder mystery element in at around the half-way mark feeling rather unneccessary, while the surviving characters' apparent indifference to the victim's death is a momentary lapse in logic in an otherwise well-characterised script. The true pedant in me might also point out that Michael seems to make rather a lot of money for a documentarian - he is shown to employ at least two servants - but when compared to some of the sheer nonsense that other such films force us to swallow, this is a minor point. Finally, the effectiveness of the film's downbeat ending is annoyingly undercut by the pasted-in quotation from Pope Paul VI, who informs us that "the Devil exists". Cheers for the advice, Paul. I'll look out for him.
Massimo Dallamano only made two more films after The Cursed Medallion. He was hard at work preparing the final part in the "Schoolgirls in Peril" trilogy when he was tragically killed in a car crash on November 4th 1976, and although the film was finally completed in 1978, helmed by Alberto Negrin as Enigma Rosso (Red Rings of Fear for English-speaking viewers), its reputation suggests that it suffered considerably from Dallamano's absence. A great, underrated director and a true artist among a cavalcade of hacks, his contribution to 70s Italian horror may not match that of Fulci or Argento, but his films are some of the very best produced in that period. The Cursed Medallion is a testament to his skill as a filmmaker and a storyteller.
01 Distribution have given The Cursed Medallion a really nice transfer, more or less on par with their work on their other Dallamano release, What Have You Done to Solange?. The colours are rich and seemingly accurate, while the print is in good condition (barring some occasional water-spotting) and shows a nice amount of natural grain. Detail, too, is rarely less than spot on, with the close-ups being sharp enough for the actors' individual facial pores to be visible, while edge enhancement is not an issue. 01's work on this and What Have You Done to Solange? eclipse every other Italian genre movie released on DVD in the last couple of years as far as image quality goes - here's hoping they get their hands on some more of these films soon.
(By the way, IMDB lists the film's original aspect ratio as 2.35:1, which I am almost certain is erroneous. In any event, the DVD is transferred at 1.85:1, without any framing problems.)
Less impressive is the audio, which is available in Italian Dolby Digtal 2.0 mono only. Judging by the lip movements of the actors, the film was shot with English as its primary language (although undoubtedly post-dubbed), and in any event most of the main characters should be native English speakers, so the lack of an English audio track is most disappointing. There are also some noticeable synchronisation problems, and signs of general wear and tear, during the opening one-third of the film, although for the most part they clear up beyond the first 30 minutes.
Optional English and Italian subtitles are provided. The English text, written by Benedict Green, seems to be accurate for the most part, although there are a smattering of grammatical errors and a couple of lines that go untranslated.
Like 01's What Have You Done to Solange? DVD, there is a distinct lack of bonus features. Barring a handful of perfunctory filmographies, galleries and a biography for bit-player Riccardo Garrone, the most substantial (if you care to use such a word) extra is a selection of trailers for other releases from 01. A trailer for The Cursed Medallion itself is conspicuously absent. Given the stellar work done on the transfer, it's a shame more effort wasn't put into this aspect of the release.
An obscure and rarely-seen film, 01 Distribution have added another excellent title to their catalogue with The Cursed Medallion. While the DVD features an excellent transfer, the lack of an English audio track or anything in the way of meaningfuly bonus features is disappointing. Still, if you want to see an example of a possession film that does more than simply reproduce the plot of The Exorcist with less skill, then you should definitely seek out this release.