It’s telling that the first feature-length film to come out of Italy was Dante’s Inferno (1911). Because of course, what else would it be? A silent, 68-minute adaptation of the classic poem that, quite memorably, features Satan munching on the souls of the damned. I suppose you could consider this film a tone-setter for the sort of genre films that would come out in Italy over the next hundred-plus years. The film is violent, demonic, and packed with full-frontal nudity. But most importantly, it was all about Hell.

Now, I know it should go without saying, but Italy is pretty big on that whole Catholicism deal. According to a survey conducted in 2005–2006, 87.8% of Italian citizens considered themselves to be Catholic. It should be no surprise, then, that while religious horror is prevalent in the United States, nobody can quite deliver a satanic panic like the Italians. And in the sophomore entry of the Crypt of Curiosities, we’ll be honoring just that, with a look at some of the most wicked slices of satanic scares to come out of Italy.

Our first stop on this demonic trip through cinematic history is Black Sunday (1960), the first true classic by the maestro of Italian horror, Mario Bava. While this black-and-white gothic may be Bava’s first film and lack his signature mastery of color seen in later pictures like Black Sabbath (1963) and Blood and Black Lace (1964), it’s still very clearly the work of a brilliant craftsman, packed with truly haunting visuals that are made even better by the stunning use of light and shadow, along with some downright jaw-dropping cinematography.

Unlike many films about Satanism, the actual satanic plot elements of Black Sunday take a backseat to a more traditional vampire narrative set in a standard spooky countryside castle, only this one happens to feature a devil-worshipping witch. However, that doesn’t mean that the religious elements of the plot are left by the wayside. In fact, Bava does quite the opposite by upping the religious themes of vampire fiction to new heights by making the bloodsuckers explicitly minions of Satan, the Prince of Darkness himself. Not only do they suck blood, but they aim to please their dark overlord, who they claim to be in contact with.

While the villains may worship Satan, it’s worth taking note of Black Sunday’s extremely gory opening set in the 15th century, which features religious inquisitors violently maiming a woman accused of witchcraft. In fact, one of the most disturbing acts of violence in the film actually happens at their hands, when the brother of the accused orders her to be branded by a Satanic ‘S’ before a strange, iron maiden-esque spiked mask is thrust toward the camera and onto her face, biting into her skin. If that isn’t enough, it’s immediately followed up by the coup-de-grace when a hooded man swings a massive mallet, hammering the barbaric device into her skull, killing her instantly.

While this act of savage violence carried out by holy men may suggest a dim view of the church, Black Sunday softens this position as the film progresses. Bava (a Roman Catholic himself) uses the classic vampire standby of the crucifix as the ultimate tool against vampires, with the mere sight of one being enough to deter any evil spirit or bloodthirsty undead. It’s also no coincidence that Bava, an undisputed master of lighting and shadow, chooses to have the holy symbols glimmer and glow when fending off unholy beasts, making the crucifix both a metaphorical and literal light in the dark, the last defense against the unholy hordes.

However, like with any Italian success of the ’60s or ’70s, it didn’t take long for the success of Bava (and to an extent, Hammer’s horror films) to spur on a new wave of Italian Gothic films. In the years that would follow, we’d see the release of films such as The Horrible Dr. Hichcock (1962), Tomb of Torture (1963), Castle of Blood (1964), and Bloody Pit of Horror (1965). Unfortunately, it would take until 1971 for Italian Gothic filmmaking to return to its Satanic roots, with the totally bizarre sleaze-fest Devil’s Nightmare.

The first of two films by Belgian director Jean Brismée, Devil’s Nightmare is a co-production between Italy and Belgium, with predictably insane results. The concept is simple enough on paper—the von Rhoneberg family is cursed after an ancient deal with the devil, ensuring that every female offspring in the family will be a succubus. At the same time, a group of lost tourists find themselves staying the night in the castle, where the ancient Baron von Rhoneberg lives out his life in solitude. Naturally, it doesn’t end well for anyone involved.

While Devil’s Nightmare is predictably nowhere near as good as Black Sunday, the film certainly has its charms. Baron von Rhoneberg’s castle is a beautiful locale, packed with odd trinkets and dusty furniture, and in a Gothic film, it’s always important to have a setting worth remembering. On top of that, the death sequences are impeccably put together, and one bit focusing on a gluttonous man eating and drinking himself to death is shockingly well-directed, with a somewhat Hitchcockian take on suspense. You know the succubus is going to poison one of his foodstuffs, but you don’t know which one exactly, making the entire sequence an excruciating scene of waiting for the death to come.

Unfortunately, save one sequence in a torture chamber packed with wheels, racks, and an iron maiden, the rest of Devil’s Nightmare isn’t quite up to snuff. Still, it’s filled with charming oddities of all sorts, such as an out-of-nowhere gratuitous lesbian sex scene, bizarre dialogue exchanges (“sometimes pigeons fall down the castle chimney, it’s nothing unusual”), and the occasional appearance of a mysterious stranger who looks like a bizarre cross between The Seventh Seal’s Death and Steve Jobs. Still, it’s hard not to find Devil’s Nightmare at least a little charming, and any film that features an offbeat alchemy sub-plot and an almost cruel ending is certainly worth a watch.

Devil’s Nightmare wasn’t exactly what you’d call a “smash hit” by any stretch of the imagination, but it re-introduced overt Satanism to the genre, and many horror films that followed capitalized on this dark mythology. 1972 saw director Sergio Martino (who you may remember as the director of Island of the Fishmen aka Screamers in our first Crypt of Curiosities) release All the Colors of the Dark, a grisly giallo focusing on the horrors of the black mass. The year after, Mario Bava would touch on Satanism once more with Lisa and the Devil, an Alice in Wonderland-esque descent into madness featuring an appearance by a man who may be the devil himself (played by Telly Savalas).

But the trajectory of satanic films was forever changed in 1973, when a little movie called The Exorcist would change horror forever. Out went the creaky castles and old-fashioned black mass and in came demonic possession, with all the creepy ghosts and stalwart priests you’d come to expect from the genre. 1975 alone saw the release of The Night Child, Beyond the Door, and The Return of the Exorcist, all hoping to bank off the success of the American box-office buster. Even Lisa and the Devil wasn’t safe from the trend, with the film being heavily re-edited and re-shot to fit an exorcist mold, before being released stateside as The House of Exorcism.

It wouldn’t be until 1989 when Italian Satanism was brought back to its roots with my favorite of the bunch, The Church, Michele Soavi’s quintessentially ’80s update on the Gothic films of old. Clearly based on John Carpenter’s brilliant satanic sci-fi shocker Prince of Darkness (1987), The Church focuses on a librarian uncovering the dark, demonic secrets of his new place of work—a Gothic cathedral built by the Teutonic Knights over a mass grave of accused witches. As you’d expect, it’s only a matter of time before the sins of the church come back to haunt the staff, with ghastly images of the knights and vivid hallucinations serving as precursors to grisly demonic possessions—possessions that cause people to rape, murder, and in one particularly memorable scene, even throw themselves on jackhammers.

Much like Black Sunday, the film’s origins come directly from the horrors of Christian violence, particularly against women alleged to be witches. While Black Sunday’s violent opening may be grisly, it has nothing on the utterly chilling intro of The Church, an impeccably shot, incredibly atmospheric sequence in which the knights massacre an entire village of suspected witches. Heads roll, bodies accumulate, and Goblin’s predictably phenomenal score plays on as the carnage unfolds and the viewers are treated to claustrophobic POV shots from behind the knights’ cross-shaped visors.

While Soavi may not exactly have the same eye for stunning images as Bava, he’s not far behind when it comes to composing a damn pretty shot, and, unlike Bava, he isn’t afraid to pack it with as much insanity as possible. Sure, the first two acts may be a bit slow, but when The Church finally lets loose with its full potential a little over an hour in, the frames become packed with delights so wild and imaginative that I don’t dare go in depth, but to give you a taste, there are crazy creatures, towers of contorted bodies, a grisly method of ringing a church bell, and even a handful of grotesque traps straight out of the world’s goriest Indiana Jones film. Hell, if that’s not enough, The Church even goes above and beyond by featuring a clear stand-in for Baphomet himself, the infamous goat-headed demon that caused the downfall of the Knights Templar.

This third act is exactly what The Church needs to stick its landing—an incredibly bombastic, apocalyptic payoff to the hour of slow-paced investigation and world building that preceded it. While The Church may not exactly be the best-acted horror film you’ll ever see, its brilliant direction, soundtrack, and imagery are more than enough to make it a must-see. Besides, any film that features a satanic komodo dragon (!) bursting out of a basin of holy water is a film that shouldn’t be missed.

The Church would hardly be Soavi’s last encounter with religious horror, as his next horror title, The Sect (1991), would be a “birth-to-the-Antichrist” story much like Rosemary’s Baby. Of course, he’d also wind up directing Cemetery Man (1995), a zombie romp about one man’s battle—and romance—with the dead crawling out of their graves. This being a cemetery, it’s only natural that the film is filled with religious imagery and themes, including a visit from the Grim Reaper, Death himself.

However, much like the ’50s sci-fi that would give birth to Gillsploitation, Italian Satanism would have quite a few offshoots and sub-genres. Besides the aforementioned exorcism films of the ’70s, there’s the infamous nunsploitation genre seen in many Spanish and Italian films, where the most holy and pure of Catholic images are perverted into victims of, or vessels for, evil. However, this offshoot is large enough to warrant a crypt entry of its own—another article for another day. But for now, let’s be thankful that these devilish little films could grace the silver screen.

Next: Crypt of Curiosities: The Mummies of Hammer Horror