If you've ever wondered what an R-rated, hallucinatory, deranged live-action episode of Scooby-Doo would look like... well, the first thing you should probably watch is Nobuhiko Obayashi's brilliant, demented House. However, the description also applies to the 1969 giallo thriller The Doll of Satan, a genuinely terrible film that nonetheless proves endlessly watchable due to its combination of directorial incompetence and loony storytelling.
The film was the first (and last) directorial effort of a man named Ferrucio Casapinta, a giallo enthusiast who somehow managed to secure a grant to make a movie. Unfortunately, he didn't really know anything about making movies. Casapinta reportedly gave most of the actual work to his assistant director and cinematographer, which led to what star Erna Schurer referred to as a “troubled shoot.” Her feelings on Casapinta himself were less vague: “[He] was an idiot who couldn't do anything.”
Whoever is responsible for the film, it's certainly, uh, something. Drawing inspiration from the pulpy Italian thrillers of the early 20th century and the trendy influence of genre master Mario Bava, Casapinta and his collaborators managed to throw together a film that often feels like a collection of peculiar fetish imagery wrapped around a cartoon version of an Agatha Christie novel.
The story involves a young woman named Elizabeth (Schurer, billed as “Emma Constantino” for whatever reason) who travels to a mysterious castle for the reading of her late uncle's will. She stayed at the castle many times over the course of her childhood, but this time things are different: the place is being overseen by her uncle's mysterious housekeeper Carol (Lucia Bomez), who clearly resents the notion that Elizabeth will probably be inheriting everything.
It doesn't take long for things to start getting strange: Elizabeth begins having bizarre dreams that feature a combination of violence and eroticism, a strange leather-clad figure is seen lurking throughout the house, a mentally disabled woman occupies one of the guest bedrooms, and the assorted residents of the castle (including Elizabeth's hunky journalist boyfriend, a dull figure who takes on a heroic role in the film's second half) begin trying to figure out what's behind the madness and suss out the real culprit.
For the most part, The Doll of Satan is merely a haphazardly-assembled collection of giallo motifs flung together with dumb, sloppy energy. When he needs to amp up the tension, Casapinta employs the old “Ken Russell on a particularly lazy day” technique of simply having the camera zoom in and out really fast. Wooo! Crazy imagery! In! Out! In! Out! The film is clearly making an attempt to establish some sort of gothic atmosphere, but undercuts its efforts to do so with amateurish “moody lighting” and frantic, desperate pacing. There's a large element of camp built into the film (which occasionally cuts away to a local diner for scenes of Hip '60s Teens dancing), but the scenes of supposedly “nightmarish horror” fall squarely into laughable camp territory, too.
The Doll of Satan
Rating: ★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Release Year: 1969
Running Time: 90 minutes