Orphaned teenager Christine (Rena Niehaus) and her blind brother Mark (Renato Cestie) are adrift in Venice where the latter has psychic visions of a sinister stranger (Yorgo Voyagis) whom he is convinced is the devil himself. Shortly thereafter, the pair’s aging aristocratic aunt burns to death in a freak fire in church, whereupon the siblings are sent to live with their unfriendly Aunt Magdalena (Olga Karlatos) at a luxurious villa reputed to hold a well with miraculous water able to cure all ills, including blindness. Only now, the well is full of snakes and rats and worms wriggle from the water taps. Mark has no idea his aunt resembles the gondola-riding woman in black glimpsed in another of his visions, but overhears Magdalena and her husband seemingly plotting their doom, while creepy cackling echoes through other empty rooms. However, Magdalena is found dead after Mark has vision of her being stabbed by the stranger. Then her husband hangs himself. Christine inherits the villa and enlists her girlfriends to help transform it into a boarding house. Their first tenant is none other than the suave stranger. After rescuing Mark from a fire, he moves in and begins seducing Christine. Soon she falls pregnant and Mark comes to believe his mission is to prevent the birth of nothing less than the Antichrist.
Italian exploitation cinema often rode the coattails of the latest Hollywood hit and in the Seventies that tail belonged to Beelzebub. While The Exorcist (1973) spawned a slew of demonic possession movies, Damned in Venice went the whole hog and ransacked the entire satanic subgenre, then threw in a certain Daphne du Maurier adaptation for good measure. You’ve got freak deaths from The Omen (1976), a satanic conspiracy and pregnancy from Rosemary’s Baby (1968), and a psychic hero adrift in Venice from Don’t Look Now (1973). Of course originality was never a prerequisite for good trashy fun, but Damned in Venice hobbles itself with incoherent plot twists and uniformly unlikeable characters. Blind hero Mark is shrill and whiny and Christine’s embittered sarcasm leaves her less than sympathetic. Bored viewers could create a memorable drinking game based on how many times Mark squeals: “What’s going on?” or Christina snaps: “I’ve just about had enough of you!”
Whereas Don’t Look Now concerns a loving couple healing themselves in the face of past and encroaching tragedy, here family is a crippling, claustrophobic situation. There is little love lost between brother and sister, but their non-stop sniping is merely one aspect of the film’s remarkably misanthropic worldview wherein characters constantly complain about everything (food, the weather, men, women, life, death, society) all of the time. In Rosemary’s Baby, the satanic conspiracy is endemic of a wider breakdown in society, but here co-writer/director Ugo Liberatore is none too clear about exactly what the Antichrist is up to, let alone what his unholy arrival actually means. Why does Aunt Magdalena miraculously reappear in the guise of a midwife? Why does Mark see a vision of his young friend Vicky (Ely Galleani) being stabbed by the stranger, only for her to turn up alive and well, then reappear later as a worm-ridden corpse! Evidently Satan has a knack for concealing lazy plotting.
Ugo Liberatore was a prolific scriptwriter whose credits include such diverse genre favourites as Mill of the Stone Women (1960) and The 300 Spartans (1962). His few directorial efforts, including the Oxford university drama May Morning (1970), strive to make some seemingly Significant Social Statement, yet are often obtuse. The strong Marxist influence on Italian cinema may account for why stories about doomed aristocrats are so popular. Yet Liberatore makes George (Fabio Gamma), Christine’s left-leaning sculptor boyfriend and our supposed voice of reason, a sexist, misogynist boor who tells her to “leave her hang-ups on the psychiatrist’s couch” because she won’t put out and asks whether her comely friends are whores “from the Playboy club.” The galling thing is, George is proven absolutely right since Christine inexplicably turns her home into a brothel and stages an amusingly blasphemous, all-girl version of the Last Supper to Mark’s evident horror. Which suggests the satanic conspiracy is as much an affront to Italian male pride as a threat to the wider world.
There is some thematic mileage in the idea of Mark rewriting the role of Judas as he tries to foil the Antichrist, climaxing with a show-stopping grand guignol moment liable to sicken those unaccustomed to transgressive trash horror. Fans of Italian exploitation will instantly recognise Olga Karlatos, one year away from receiving that splinter in her eye in Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979), and should keep their eyes peeled for Lorraine De Selle, who later starred in the infamous Cannibal Ferox (1981). Alfio Contini’s gloomy photography imparts an aura of palpable doom over the decaying Venetian scenery and the fadeout is both vexing in its ambiguity and intriguing in its implication that the Antichrist has somehow healed a fractured family. On the other hand, some viewers may not see past the hilarious plot twist that implies oral sex can cause pregnancy.