Unheralded even by ardent fans of Italian gothic horror, the obscure but intriguing Byleth is set in one of those typically nebulous European locales somewhere near the mid-Nineteenth century. Duke Lionello Shandwell (Mark Damon) rides home to his ancestral castle at the same time as a prostitute is found stabbed to death with a three-point blade in the nearby village. Having long harboured incestuous feelings for his sister, Barbara (Claudia Gravy), Lionello is dismayed to discover she has married a man named Giordano (Aldo Bufi Landi). Tormented by visions of a mysterious man in black riding a white horse, Lionello is further enraged when he spies the sexy housemaid (Caterina Chiani) making love with the stable boy. This same girl is also murdered by the mystery maniac. Suspicion falls on Lionello, especially after Giordano’s visiting cousin, Floriana (Silvana Pompili), is found dead in similar circumstances. Discussing the case with the local priest, the town judge learns of the legend of Byleth, a demon capable of driving men to incestuous acts or else murder.
The horror genre, as manifest in the western world, originated within the gothic literary tradition wherein a seemingly supernatural ambience routinely reflected the psychological torment of its leading protagonists. When horror reached the cinema, this tradition largely took a back seat to more tangible monsters sired by the likes of Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker (both influenced by the gothic tradition, but not necessarily part of it), periodically re-emerging to general critical acclaim with films like The Innocents (1961). By the early Seventies, period horror films were more or less on their way out in Italian exploitation, leading stalwarts like Mario Bava and Riccardo Freda to bring their stylistic flourishes to the giallo trend. Viewed in that context, Byleth - Il demone dell’Incesto seems like a last ditch attempt to try something different and twist the gothic tradition into the realms of psychological terror, much like Hammer Films tried to do with the underrated Demons of the Mind (1972).
While not especially successful, the film remains interesting as another warped variation on the oft-repeated Italian horror theme that sexual frustration will invariably drive men to murder. The film draws, inevitably, on Edgar Allan Poe but equally Luchino Visconti in its portrayal of a cloistered aristocracy wracked by pschological torment and sexual deviancy. As some contemporary theologians suggest, demons can be read as the personification of psychological ills, conjured by the Catholic church for the benefit of a largely illiterate peasantry. Although the whole demonic angle rather muddles an otherwise psychologically solid allegory, with Byleth memorably described as having “the face of an angel and the dark eyes of unholy dancers” (?), the film opts wisely for ambiguity.
This was the sole horror film made by Leopoldo Savono, a director supposedly more comfortable with historical adventures, war films and spaghetti westerns such as Killer Kid (1967) and A Man Called Apocalypse Joe (1970) with Anthony Steffen, and Thunder from the West (1969) with Gianni Garko, which despite its title was actually a spy movie set during the Second World War. Regardless, Savono conjures a suitable air of morbid romance with an array of stylish visuals, even though the murder scenes aren’t up to scratch. Striking chiaroscuro photography by Giovanni Crisci layers the candlelit interiors, while Vasil Kojukaroff contributes the score with some fuzz guitar riffs that belong in a spaghetti western and organ flourishes in the style of a silent melodrama. The sumptuous castle and its opulent gardens add a touch of class and atmosphere, but this remains a gloomy melodrama with a mad killer subplot and some surprisingly explicit nudity. Among the array of undraped beauties, Caterina Chiani a.k.a. Marzia Damon went on to regularly feature in saucy medieval romps like More Sexy Canterbury Tales (1972) by that titan of trash, Joe D'Amato.
Star Mark Damon had already secured his place in horror immortality, having appeared in the trend-setting The Fall of the House of Usher (1960) for Roger Corman and the “Wurdulak” episode of Black Sabbath (1964). He was among the many imported American stars who turned down the lead in A Fistful of Dollars (1964), but remained in Italy and continued to make westerns, swashbucklers and the occasional horror film like Naked You Die (1968) and The Devil’s Wedding Night (1973). Beginning with The Arena (1974), co-produced by Roger Corman and where Damon met his wife, B-movie goddess Margaret Markov, he segued into producing prestigious movies like Das Boot (1981) and Monster (2003) the Aileen Wournos biopic that won Charlize Theron the Academy Award, as well as less prestigious stinkers like 9 1/2 Weeks (1986) and Wild Orchid (1989). Well, nobody’s perfect. Here in Byleth, Damon broods impressively through his ambiguous role while the Italian supporting cast approach their roles with welcome sincerity.