Film historians love to define “Golden Ages”, periods in which certain genres, cultures, locales, and/or studios saw a boom in both the creation and the acceptance of their films. These “ages” provide a useful short form for discussion purposes but, not surprisingly, their boundaries are not clearly defined. The 1960s saw the emergence of a Golden Age of Italian Gothic cinema where no industry had existed before. Although 1956’s I Vampiri can be seen as an early step towards the development of Italy’s horror film industry, it was not until the success of Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (La maschera del demonio) in 1960 that Italy’s Gothic film movement really got underway. Heavily influenced by the early Hammer horror films and in particular the success of Hammer’s Dracula (1958), Black Sunday would trigger a wave of Gothic film production in Italy. Black Sunday would also be responsible for making a star of Barbara Steele. A native of England, Steele would fall in love with Italy and live there over the course of six years and nine Gothic films. A raven-haired beauty with large, expressive eyes and an unnerving screen presence, Steele became almost synonymous with Gothic horror and deserves at least some of the credit for the Italian Gothic film boom. It is, therefore, satisfying that Steele’s final Italian Gothic film, An Angel for Satan (Un angelo per Satana) in 1966, can be seen as the end of that “Golden Age”.
An Angel for Satan takes place in a small lakeside village in Italy. Barbara Steele portrays Hilda Montebruno, the heir to the Montebruno estate who has been away at school in England since she was five. As Hilda’s uncle, Count Montebruno (Claudio Gora), prepares to hand control over to Hilda, he also has an old statue recovered from the lake and hires an artist to restore it to its former glory. The timing of these events would seem merely coincidental were it not for two facts. The statue is a nude bearing a remarkable likeness to Hilda and the superstitious villagers fear it due to a legendary curse. Count Montebruno’s habit of reminding everyone of the curse every chance he gets and the drowning of two men on the lake just prior to Hilda’s arrival does not ease the villager’s agitation. Hilda is destined for a difficult time of it even before she arrives.
The artist rehabilitating the statue (which does not seem like it involves more than removing some lake weeds and mud) is Roberto Merigi as portrayed by Anthony Steffen. Merigi is, ostensibly, the hero of the picture but for most of the film is little more than a passive observer. Steffen portrays Merigi as a cultured, composed person who holds himself quite rigidly and shows little emotion even when confronted with bizarre circumstance. Barbara Steele has categorized Steffen as very attractive but too repressed for the role. “I am giving it all I’ve got to this guy but I’m not getting it back.”* Steele believes An Angel for Satan would have benefitted from some energy between the two leads. She is certainly not wrong although perhaps slightly over-critical of Steffen who does his best with the role he was given.
On the night of Hilda’s return to the Montebruno estate, Roberto is disturbed by a woman’s voice calling him in the dark. He stumbles his way to the attic where a discarded oil painting unrolls itself and tells him the story behind the statue’s curse. The painting is a portrait of Hilda’s ancestor Belinda who, to put it kindly, was not comfortable with her looks. Belinda was insanely resentful of her beautiful cousin, Madelina, who is Hilda’s doppelgänger and the subject of the statue. One evening in a jealous delirium, Belinda attempted to topple the statue from its place on a walkway overlooking the lake. Perhaps because the statue tips over far more easily than it should, Belinda loses her balance and falls into the lake with it. She drowns but, fortunately for the plot, had declared a curse on the statue just prior to her fall.
Back to the present and Hilda is behaving oddly. She is sweet and naïve and apparently very fond of Roberto and yet can instantly turn on him and demand that he keep his hands off of her. It would appear she is suffering from a split personality, although that is too crude a description for the subtlety with which her disposition fluctuates back and forth. This aspect of the story can be mildly confusing. Hilda is the mirror image of her ancestor Madelina but it is her other ancestor, Belinda, whose identity looks to be taking over. As the film progresses, Hilda’s personality fades and Belinda is in control more and more frequently. Despite the feared curse, no one acknowledges the possibility that Hilda is the victim of a possession. Even Roberto, who had the entire story laid out for him by the ghost herself, is dumbfounded.
If Hilda is acting strangely towards Roberto, her actions against the villagers are downright monstrous. Taking full advantage of her feminine wiles, she destroys relationships, turns people against each other, and much worse. She never commits any foul acts herself but is capable of manipulating everyone she comes in contact with. The speed and ease with which she bends people to her will is nothing short of paranormal. She takes a particularly perverse pleasure in destroying the hopes and dreams of her maid-in-waiting, Rita (Ursula Davis). Upon learning that Rita shares an earnest and pure love with Dario (Vassili Karis), the handsome, young school teacher, Hilda/Belinda is determined to interfere. For no reason other than malevolence, Belinda seduces them both individually and then forces Rita to coldly break off the relationship without any explanation to Dario.
Her offenses against Rita and Dario are, in fact, one of Belinda’s lesser evils. Her most scandalous sin, although perhaps not the most abhorrent, is her seduction of Vittorio (Aldo Berti), the mute village simpleton. Coming upon him while out horseback riding, she strips naked in front of him to taunt the poor man with her body. When Vittorio cannot help but steal a glance, she punishes him with several whips of her riding crop across the face. Leaving Vittorio confused and sexually frustrated, she then steers him in the direction of the local village girls.
After completing An Angel for Satan, Barbara Steele departed from Gothic horror largely due to her desire to take on more substantial characters. She is now much kinder and grateful towards her Gothic period but, at the time, was very frustrated with her iconic status. She wanted to escape the melodramatic and be able to focus more on the humanity of the characters she portrayed. It was her belief that these roles as someone`s ideal, or ideal nightmare, never provided the opportunity to put her energy and dramatic skills to the test. The irony is that An Angel for Satan is one of Steele`s better roles. She is a much more active participant than in her other Gothic horrors and flourishes in the wickedness of the character. The film does suffer a little from a focus on atmosphere over narrative but that is a common criticism of Italian Gothic and this story is more coherent than most. If you have yet to see An Angel for Satan, and given its obscurity and limited availability that is very likely, I strongly recommend it.
Correlating Barbara Steele`s presence in the industry with the wax and wane of Italy’s Gothic film movement nicely frames the era. But, in actual fact, the movement was beginning to falter prior to the release of An Angel for Satan. With the advent of colour and a transition to the Italian mystery thrillers or ‘giallos’, the popularity of Gothic films was declining. The signs are even present in the script for An Angel for Satan. A fun supernatural tale is, by the end, forced to conform to a rational mystery conclusion and suffers for it. Of course, Italian Gothic cinema never completely died out but it`s time in the sun had passed. But then, the Gothic was always better suited to the shadows.
An Angel for Satan / Un angelo per Satana (1966) Directed by Camillo Mastrocinque; Written by Camillo Mastrocinque & Giuseppe Mangione; Based on a story by Luigi Emmanuele; Starring Barbara Steele, Anthony Steffen, Claudio Gora, Ursula Davis, & Aldo Berti; Available on a newly released Blu-Ray from Severin Films with both Italian and previously-thought-lost English audio tracks.
This is my contribution to The Odd or Even Blogathon. After submitting two potential films for this article, An Angel for Satan and The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism (1967), the flip of a coin decided on the topic for this article. The odd duck to my even keel on this site has also contributed an article for the blogathon here. Please check out some of the other contributors by clicking on the image below. Our thanks to Taking Up Room and RealWeegieMidget Reviews for including us as one of their number.
*This quote along with some historical information in this article was sourced from the commentary of historian David Del Valle and actress Barbara Steele on the Severin Films Blu-Ray release of An Angel for Satan.