22 May 2005 | BrandtSponseller
An expected mixed bag, but worthwhile for fans of European genre films from the era
There are a lot of misconceptions about this film due to various marketing facts. In a nutshell, Satanik (the title card in the film gives it as "Satanic") is the story of Dr. Marnie Bannister (Magda Konopka), who takes drastic measures to try to get rid of her disfiguring scars. She's pursued as a criminal, and the film is basically an extended cat and mouse game. The cats never get too close until the end, and the film also indulges in various modes that were somewhat stereotypical at the time, including nightclub scenes (some with go-go dancing), playboy/playgirl "romance" subplots (complete with a small amount of gratuitous nudity), and a slight travelogue feel. But at its heart, this is simply a crime/thriller with elements of the police procedural, mystery and sci-fi genres present and a heavy late 1960s/early 1970s vibe. Even though there is a very broad expanse of gray on the border between thrillers and horror films, calling Satanik horror is a stretch that results in breakage.
It's not exactly easy to find the relevant background information, but the story seems to be taken from a couple different, perhaps interconnected, sources. In 1964, Italian comic book author Max Bunker (a pseudonym for Luciano Secchi) began a series that initially was called "Killing", although "Satanik" appears as a subtitle on some, if not all of the books, which eventually ran to at least 300 issues. The series, one of many Italian comics ostensibly influenced by or based on the 1911 French comic, Fantômas, featured a male protagonist who would dress up like a skeleton. Later, there was also a French photography-oriented fictional magazine based on Satanik. In that version, Satanik's lover, Dana, appears to have been more heavily emphasized--probably because it allowed sexy photographs of women.
Italian director Piero Vivarelli, who later wrote a couple of the Emanuelle films, and producer/scriptwriter Eduardo Manzanos Brochero, took extreme liberties with their source material. There is no male protagonist, and no person dressing up like a skeleton to be found in the film. The consensus is that Satanik was made in the wake of Mario Bava's superb early 1968 film Diabolik (aka "Danger: Diabolik") as an attempt to cash in on its success and recapture its swanky vibe. The transformed Konopka bears some resemblance to Diabolik's Eva Kant (Marisa Mell), although unfortunately Satanik can't come near Diabolik in terms of visual excellence or plot momentum and suspense. Vivarelli and Brochero forgo Diabolik's trumping of James Bond for a grittier Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde theme (which again, might make some viewers think along the lines of horror, but that's the wrong genre to file Satanik under).
There are a couple big flaws in Satanik. The first is that we never get to know any of these characters very well, including Dr. Bannister. What kind of doctor is she? What happened to her to disfigure her? There is also a significant lack of character building for the other principal roles--Inspector Trent (Julio Peña) and George Van Donan (Umberto Raho). Van Donan introduces us to a gangster subplot, but this is very inadequately developed. To make things worse, the pacing on a number of scenes is achingly slow--including scenes that we very well know how they'll end, like Dr. Bannister's early encounter with a fellow doctor doing regeneration research.
But there are pluses, too. The overall atmosphere is good if you're into genre films of the era and locale. Konopka can come across as very beautiful. The music is enjoyable, fits the atmosphere well, and even the fact that Brochero didn't spring for a full 90 minutes of score ends up helping, because the final effect suggests various musical leitmotifs that we periodically revisit. Most importantly, the story is often suspenseful, despite the lack of fully fleshed-out exposition, and it is almost always interesting, even when it's a bit slow.
Retromedia's DVD release of Satanik is unfortunately not in the correct aspect ratio, and like many of their releases, the print quality is a bit rough. There are a couple bad splices, and the color is not very vivid. Still, having a film like Satanik available on a less-than-perfect DVD is better than not having it at all. I'm sure it's not easy to track down pristine prints of these kinds of films, if indeed pristine prints exist. Retromedia is laudable for its efforts to re-release these lesser-known titles on modern media.