Whenever I hear about a movie born out of the creative, multi-film rip-off period of the ‘70s and ‘80s, my mind goes to two places. One is the studios of Roger Corman, who made a cottage industry of weird Star Wars, Alien, and Jaws knock-offs. The other is Italy, which created entire sub-genres inspired by Mad Max, Dawn of the Dead, and other tangentially related blockbusters. But every once in a while I come across an oddball, like the British made The Devil Within Her. It’s a mash up of Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, with a pinch of It’s Alive. With its decent production values and stellar cast, it could almost be mistaken for a high-profile release, but anyone watching the first few minutes will recognize this is a cult movie through and through, thanks to the sleazy, post-Swinging London vibe, and the supernatural plot, which is ludicrous out of the gate and becomes progressively more batshit insane until the end.
The movie starts off with a bang, the camera pulling out from Joan Collins’ screaming mouth. After a particularly difficult delivery, Collins’ character, Lucy, is concerned that something is not quite right with her hearty, 12lbs baby boy, Nicholas. Her doctor, husband, and best friend think it is all in the first-time mother’s head, but Lucy fears the baby’s bad disposition might be from her slimeball ex-lover’s wonky chromosomes. Or perhaps it comes from that one time when she was cursed by a pervy dwarf. In any event, people getting too close to the little rug-rat are dropping like flies. Can Lucy’s Italian nun sister-in-law dispel the evil before everyone falls victim to the devil (that was once) within her?
The Devil Within Her is one of those movies that sounds great on paper. Specifically, a half-page treatment that is vague on the details and fails to point out that your lead villain’s acting range will consist of looking cute, crying—but not stopping—on command, and crapping themselves. So it is impressive that director Peter Sasdy, who was mostly known for Hammer Horror and the paranormal science tinged TV movie, The Stone Tape, decided to brave the technical limitations and deeply absurd premise to bring us this movie. Sure, he could have played it safe by ageing the kid up and attributing all the deaths to unseen forces, like another little Antichrist movie that would come out the following year. The Omen may have fared better at the box office, with critics, and in every other conceivable fashion, but did it have a scene where Joan Collins is terrorized by the vision of an angry dwarf stuffed into a bassinette? Clearly, Sasdy made the right decision.
As far as obscure, British, Satanic possession movies go, the cast for The Devil Within Her is a banger. Quintessential drama queen, Collins, was at the peak of her beauty. The same could be said for Caroline Munro, fresh off Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. Munro plays Mandy Gregory, Lucy’s best friend from her stripper days. Prolific TV actor Ralph Bates plays Lucy’s doting husband, Gino Carlesi, and the ubiquitous Eileen Atkins is Gino’s sister, Sister Albana. Those two are endlessly entertaining due to their competing “Issa me, Mario!” level Italian accents. Sister Albana comes out on top because she gets to talk about “the Day-vil”. Former Oompa Loompa, George Claydon, gives a notable performance as a handsy dwarf named Hercules (the ‘70s was a thoughtful and sensitive time). Best of all, horror luminary Donald Pleasence plays a small, but pivotal role. Any amount of Pleasence enhances a movie, whether it be Sinister Pleasence, Obsessive Pleasence, or, more rarely, Happy-Go-Lucky Pleasence. Here he is in Concerned Pleasence mode as Dr. Finch, who begins to suspect Lucy’s troubles maybe more than postpartum blues after a string of drowned nannies and infant related maulings.
Sasdy seemed to know exactly what kind of film he is making, as his direction shows an absolute disdain for subtlety. Satanic movies from the ‘70s often involved a gradually rising dread before things go off the rails. The Exorcist took half the film’s runtime before showing Regan in all her pea soup glory. This movie has the demonic tyke drawing blood minutes after delivery. Rosemary’s Baby is so restrained we don’t even get to see Rosemary’s actual baby. Lucy’s baby literally punches a guy in the face. The thing that keeps the lunacy from tipping over into complete farce is that all the actors play it straight. No one asks the sensible question of how the fuck did a six-month-old just break my nose? They just act like the kid is being precocious.
Aside from her interactions with her devil spawn, Joan Collins seems to be in an entirely different movie. Playing off her strengths, the second act is mostly a slice of trashy melodrama. Lucy goes to a strip club to confront her slimy ex-lover. She frets with Caroline Munro about hidden family genetic issues. She and her husband have a luxurious weekend away while leaving little Nicky to bump off the babysitter (again, literally, he shoves her into the river from his pram). Luckily, we never have to slog through the sleazy(er) version of Dynasty for too long before getting another good jolt of Baby Satan mayhem.
Adding to the brilliantly weird tone was the decision to make Nicholas look like a normal, innocent infant. He is allegedly large for his age, but I’m hard pressed to tell the difference between him and any other movie baby. He certainly isn’t a deformed little monster like the It’s Alive baby. Therefore, in order to accept that this immobile lump—cute as he is—can do things like lick his mother’s blood from his tiny nails or slice a woman’s cheek open with a diaper pin, we have to suspend our disbelief from the get-go. For the filmmakers, this means a no holds barred approach. Incidentally, I wouldn’t have been surprised if Little Nicky had taken someone down with a wrestling move. Anything is fair game.
The consequence of having this much creative freedom is the movie barely attempts to explain what the hell is happening. The closest it gets is the curse evoked by Hercules. A co-worker from back in her strip club days—in a strictly non-stripping capacity—Hercules was angry at Lucy for rejecting his groping pass (which she was also kind of turned on by, because, you know, it’s the ‘70s). The specifics of the curse are that she will have a child “as big as I am small” and also possessed by the devil. Now, in a normal demonic possession movie, Hercules would be a nefarious character. He would have a pentagram pendant or page through a dusty grimoire while stroking his goatee. Lucy would later beg him to lift the curse, only to have him rub his hands together and laugh wickedly.
None of those things happen here. No rationale is given or even implied as to why Hercules has cursing privileges. He is not portrayed as diabolical. In fact, he’s pretty cheerful every other time we see him, and he seems rather popular among the women at the strip club (presumably those he hasn’t sexually harassed). He also never mentions the curse again. It seems like an off-handed, impulsive action that he never expected to work, like when you curse a car that has a bad starter. To make things more confusing, at moments Nicholas does appear to be a full sized Hercules wearing a baby bonnet. I don’t think he is physically transforming to adult dwarf size, unless his clothes are incredibly elastic. Lucy is the only one who sees him as Hercules, so perhaps she is only seeing a vision of the evil dwarf inside him.
The real reason for these Nicholas/Hercules shots, of course, is that the movie’s antagonist is a literal baby. Most of Nicholas’ actions are performed just out of frame, but they had to include some sign the child was physically present now and then. They didn’t have the budget for realistic fake arms, and if they didn’t want to stage “Toonces the Driving Cat” level of effects using plastic doll parts, they had to use a more capable stand-in actor. Hercules was the best way to explain why the baby occasionally has huge, hairy knuckles when he’s brandishing a knife.
Muddying the waters even more is Sister Albana’s theory. She speculates that whatever evil force inside Nicholas’ body is lashing out in anger because it did not want to be born. One would think a demonic force would be more than happy to cause death and torment while looking like an adorable little cherub. I suppose I could see it if the Devil himself was suddenly trapped in the body of a baby due to an unforeseen Dwarf Curse contractual obligation. Let’s face it, babies are dumb, and no one is going to sell their soul to someone who is not even old enough to ride without a car seat. It’s a bad deal for the Devil. I would act out, too.