Towards the late nineteenth century, the statue of a beautiful woman is recovered from the lake beside Montebruno Villa in Northern Italy. Handsome artist Roberto Merigi (spaghetti western star Anthony Steffen, though horror fans know him best for the delirious The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave (1971)) is commissioned to restore the artefact which he discovers bears a striking resemblance to newly-arrived heiress, Harriet Montebruno (Barbara Steele). Her uncle, the Count (Claudio Gora) and his housekeeper-cum-mistress Illa (Marina Berti from Quo Vadis) inform them the statue was modelled on her ancestor, a legendary beauty named Madelina who lived two hundred years ago. Unfortunately, the local peasants all believe the statue is cursed. Within minutes of Roberto’s arrival, two ferrymen drown, a woman is found dead under mysterious circumstances and the artist is attacked in a tavern by vengeful strongman Carlo (Mario Brega). One night a mysterious voice lures Roberto into the attic where he confronts the portait of Belinda, Madelina’s ugly sister. It was she who pushed the statue into the lake, being jealous of her fairer sister. Now she warns Roberto that all will perish unless Harriet is destroyed. Almost overnight, Harriet begins behaving like a different person. She sets out to seduce and destroy every man in town.
Un Angelo per Satana or An Angel for Satan was the last Italian horror movie for the genre’s reigning queen, Barbara Steele. Although the star continued to make horror films both in her native Britain throughout the late Sixties and with some notable American auteurs in the Seventies, she remains most fondly remembered for the run of gothic chillers that established her as arguably cinema’s most memorable lady vampire. Not a full-throttle gothic in the Mario Bava mould, An Angel for Satan edges closer to the kind of subtle, psychological terror practiced by The Innocents (1961) or more aptly, The Horrible Dr. Hichcock (1962) which also starred Steele. In these films characters from the present are haunted by ghosts from the past that we can interpret as either figurative or literal, though given the Scooby-Doo plotting of most Italian mysteries it often leans towards the former.
Camillo Mastrocinque was best known for his comedies with European funnymen like Toto and Fernandel, though he had one other horror film under his belt: Crypt of the Vampire (1964) starring Christopher Lee. Supposedly adapting a novel by Luigi Emmanuelle, Mastrocinque and co-scriptwriter Giuseppe Mangione lift several motifs from other Barbara Steele horror movies: dual personalities, sadomasochism, reincarnation, and the problematic view of female sexuality as a frightening, destructive force. Seemingly possessed by the spirit of Belinda, Harriet transforms into a wanton, provocative femme fatale. She strips naked (except for her riding hat!) in front of Vittorio the perverted gardener then whips for sneaking a peak, drives Carlo to burn his own family, lures nice schoolteacher Dario (Aldo Berti) away from his housemaid sweetheart Rita (lovely Ursula Davis) and disrobes in an attempt to seduce her too! However, Harriet remains entirely unaware of what Belinda is doing and Mastrocinque highlights how the hysteria of the ranting local peasantry is just as frightening. Eventually, Roberto pieces the mystery together and uncovers a (slightly) more rational explanation behind these strange events.
The plot has too many holes to make this a neglected masterpiece, but the film pulls off quite an array of emotionally devastating scenes including one where schoolchildren discover a key character has hung himself and the death of a child befriended by Roberto. Francesco De Masi’s stirring score combines with the glossy yet haunting black and white photography by Giuseppe Aquari to create a mood of morbid romanticism to match Steele’s uniquely vampiric beauty. She turns in another commanding performance and is ably supported by a strong cast.