After a French aristocrat dies mysteriously his creepy old castle is inherited by his niece Elizabeth (Erna Schurer). Her arrival alongside fiancé Jack (Roland Carey) and bickering couple Gérard and Blanche draws a frosty reception from Carol (Lucia Bomez) the deceptively prim housekeeper who secretly consorts with an anonymous lover. As Elizabeth explores the castle she is dismayed to find that her uncle's secretary and lover Jeanette is now disfigured, confined to a wheelchair and unable to speak. At night she hears someone wailing her name outside in the dark. And why is sexy artist Claudine (Aurora Bautista) snooping around the castle grounds? When Elizabeth considers selling the castle to Paul Reynaud (Ettore Ribotta), affable owner of the neighbouring estate, the family urges her to reconsider. That night the black-gloved stranger murders the old man in his bed. Then things get really weird for Elizabeth, not to mention kind of kinky.
While undoubtedly a minor film, La Bambola di Satana or Satan's Doll is somewhat interesting as a transitional work in the Euro-horror genre. The film infuses the traditional Gothic style characters trapped in a spooky castle story with trappings of the more modern giallo that came to dominate Italian exploitation in the ensuing decade. Indeed at one point a character snarkily remarks that the cobwebbed castle interiors would make the ideal location for a giallo. It is hard to discern whether director and co-screenwriter Ferruccio Casapinta had his tongue planted firmly in his cheek given he mounts the film with relative seriousness albeit cheesiness. In his only directing credit Casapinta meanders through a tedious soap opera set-up then fumbles his way through silly scenes of cut-rate surrealistic pulp horror.
Gore fans may well bemoan the lack of bloodshed. Yet the film is less taken with violence than fumetti-like erotic sequences where sexy Euro-horror regular Erna Schurer writhes sensually in bed or is bound to a torture track to be whipped by hooded cultists. To its mild credit the film avoids sexualized violence as we never see the whip make contact with Elizabeth's naked body. Another dream sequence with the heroine ravished by a saturnine Jack comes across like a far less unsettling rip-off of Mia Farrow's nightmare in Rosemary's Baby (1968). Remarkably in spite of these Jess Franco-like sado-erotic flourishes La Bimbala di Satana lacks the overt misogyny that mars so many Italian genre films. Even though its view of female sexuality as something troubled, sinister and dark that needs to be tamed remains problematic. One interesting twist is the addition of a cool undercover policewoman. Unfortunately the third act sidelines her as a red-herring allowing pipe-puffing dimwit male lead Roland Carey to turn into Mr. Macho for a two-fisted climax.
The plot is pure Scooby-Doo style hokum. It helps if you have a taste for this sort of colourful nonsense, as some of us do. However Casapinta gives the game away far too early which sorely lessens the fun. His leading lady had few kind words for the director. In interviews Schurer described Casapinta as "an idiot who couldn't do anything" and claimed the troubled shoot was salvaged by the assistant director. A capable actress, Schurer - who went through a slightly more accomplished variation on this plot the following year in the Spanish-Italian made Scream of the Demon Lover (1970) - delivers her moody monologues commendably. Yet the characters are mere movable props padding out attempts to build a spooky atmosphere with prowling camera, billowing curtains and strange shrieks in the dark. The hackneyed story-line needs a stylist like Mario Bava or even Antonio Margheriti to transcend its limitations. See Bava's Baron Blood (1972) for a textbook example of how to weave a perfunctory plot into delirious nightmare cinema.