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The Possession of Virginia

(AKA Le Diable est parmi nous, Satan's Sabbath) 1972, Starring Louise Marleau, Daniel Pilon, Danielle Ouimet, Rose-Rey Duzil. Directed by Jean Beaudin.

While horror films were a staple of the 1970s Anglophone film industry in Canada, the genre never really took off in Quebec. One notable exception was Cinepix's The Possession of Virginia, a supernatural detective story directed by Jean Beaudin that ranks among the first handful of pre-Cronenberg horror films Canada had to offer. Later, Beaudin achieved moderate fame with the more orthodox Canadian drama J.A. Martine, Photographe, while this genre entry was quickly forgotten.

Watching The Possession of Virginia immediately brings to mind Harvey Hart's The Pyx, another Canadian horror film made two years later in which Karen Black is abducted into a satanic cult. The Pyx is intended for an Anglophone audience, though, while The Possession of Virginia only made it's way to English-Canada via a badly dubbed TV print. Despite this, both films were shot in Montreal, share similarities in plot and tone, and oddly enough, each film stars a Pilon brother.

Well, maybe it's not that strange, since Daniel and Donald Pilon were the quintessential leading men of 1970s Quebec film. Both brothers debuted in Gille Carles' Le Viol d'une jeune fille douce, the last time they would work together, but each went on to successful acting careers in their own right. Daniel Pilon, the star of Virginia, has appeared in the full gamut of Canadian film offerings from maple syrup porn like Apres-Ski to science fiction trash under Ed Hunt in the late 70s to American TV appearances. Most recently Daniel appeared in Cloud Ten picture's Christian apocalypse epic Left Behind. Donald has not been in quite as many films as his brother, but still went on to appear in a similar variety of Canadian productions and co-productions. Despite achieving stardom in their native Quebec, when it came to the Anglophone film industry, they were usually relegated to supporting roles. This may explain that while Daniel starred as a journalist trying to expose Satanists in Virginia, Donald would only play a second-banana police detective to Christopher Plummer in The Pyx.

The Possession of Virginia begins with sirens and the discovery of Jacques, a local pawn shop owner, who jumped from a window down into the street. Journalist Paul Dwyer (Pilon) investigates the mysterious death while his partner takes some crime scene photos. Virginia, a friend of Paul's, works in Jacques' store, so Paul visits her to try to get some information. Virginia tells him very little, but she does reveal that he had no family and oddly enough left her all his earthly possessions. Paul goes back to the newspaper office to see what else he can discover about the death. Examining some of the photographs, Paul notices a strange symbol which has been drawn on the sidewalk from Jacques' blood. He also makes note of a strange old woman, who appears in every single photo, and starts to wonder if in fact this isn't a suicide after all, but a murder.

His investigative work done for the day, Paul goes home to his hideously decorated apartment. In his kitchen, decked out in orange striped wallpaper, he feeds his cat some milk only to return a few minutes later to find it dead. Thinking the milk must have gone bad, Paul immediately calls the SPCA. Before long, a man in a white lab coat rings his bell, and takes the body and the bottle of milk away for examination.

The next day, Paul invites Virginia over for a glass of wine in an effort to get more information about Jacques. But when talk turns to the mysterious death of Paul's cat, Virginia starts violently shaking as though having an epileptic fit. Paul takes her into the bathroom where she starts spitting in the toilet. After calming down, Paul takes Virginia to his bed and offers to call a doctor, but she refuses any help, telling the journalist that she will explain everything to him later, if only he will let her stay for a little while to rest. Paul leaves Virginia alone in his apartment, and decides to go to the SPCA to see if the results from the tests are in. To his shock, the SPCA apologizes that they haven't been by, and promise to investigate as soon as possible. Confused, Paul calls up one of his co-workers at the paper, and together they go cruising the Montreal night life at a darkly-lit night club. Virginia's troubles don't seem to be weighing too heavily on his mind, as he quickly picks up a girl at the bar, leading her to a room in the back of the bar with a mattress in the corner for a more familiar Cinepix scene.

When Paul gets back home in the middle of the night, Virginia is missing. He reads over a black message card left on his bed and jets over to a nearby church where Virginia is climbing the bell tower. He runs up the stairs, but when he gets to the top, he finds Virginia swinging limply from a noose. Paul grabs the first cop he sees, but when he returns to the bell tower, he finds nothing but a frayed rope end hanging from the rafters, and the same blood symbol he saw in the crime scene photographs.

As this mystery becomes more and more baffling to both Paul and the audience, he begins seeing the old woman from the photos following him around. Paul eventually makes the connection that there is some sort of conspiracy, a Satanic cult that has been brainwashing people into committing suicide. He knows that his only chance is to find and infiltrate that cult in order to truly put all of the pieces together.

There are more plot twists in this one, which helps to lift The Possession of Virginia past The Pyx. Unfortunately, that's a tough call to make, since the only English video release of this film has been badly edited. Not only is a sex scene missing out of the middle, but the orgy that concludes the black mass at the end of the film has been completely excised, rending the finale barely comprehensible. This is a shame, because The Possession of Virginia boasts some impressive aspects, including one of the best soundtracks of the period for a Canadian filma rhythmic 70s score punctuated with eerie funk guitar. I can't help but feel that with the conclusion in tact, the film would have been better received, and better remembered today.

Since the b-film industry in Quebec is usually predisposed to urban crime thrillers than horror, it is not surprising that the danger in The Possession of Virginia turns out not to be a real supernatural threat, but those that believe in supernatural forces. Quebeckers would no doubt find the evil of a religious cult much scarier than a horrific creature, and both The Possession of Virginia and The Pyx exploit this fear well. With Catholicism as such an important force in Quebec culture, it's notable that even Anglophone horror films set in Quebec still use the church as a major character, either exposing an evil against the church, or just as often, from within.

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