Cleansing the lens of cinematic perception until the screen is infinite... or larger

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Creature Double Feature Bonus!: BEYOND THE DOOR, VAMPYRES (+LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM!)


It's Halloween! We made it, and for the millions or one of you who've been following this strange double feature nightly Prime journey, or even just picking and choosing and chuckling, now we've come to the end. All that's left are the dregs! Feel free to scroll back and marvel at all the free time I must have on my hands. Hey, if October is your favorite month you know the reason why. Here's a list of ten super trashy films, some old gems and newly discovered monstrosities amidst Prime's countless dumpster fires. Once the mayhem is done and the buzz is laid down, come here.... come... here.

 BEYOND THE DOOR
(1974) Dir. O.G. Assonitis; R. Barrett
*/*** / Amazon Image - C-

Even a lot of fans of crappy Italian horror are dismissive of this obvious Exorcist's Baby cash-in, but maybe that's why I have a spot in my heart for it. I'll grant you: it is terrible--rushed by the horns of its pants through production and into theaters the same year (1974) as The Exorcist, imitating all its talked-about moments (the green slime vomit, the levitation, the 180 degree head turn,,,) and making a bad precedent-setting mess of a fortune in the process. I'll grant you too that the Prime print is only so-so--kind of murky albeit still very (or barely) watchable SD. And I'll grant you too that the dubbing of some of the actors is strictly the 'phoned in, maybe literally' variety... BUT Franco Micalizz's score (his ninth in 1974 alone!) has lots of soul singing, death rattles, billowing noises, quiet storm flutes, groovy bass and Satanic sighs, and there's a killer theme song--"Bargain with the Devil"--is by the great Warren Wilson. We see the musicians laying it all down in the studio during the opening credits, lorded over by the soon-to-be-pregnant-and-possessed woman's anemic music producer husband Robert (Gabriele Lavia, the boozy, gay friend of David Hemmings in Deep Red).  You know he's a great music producer from the he keeps yelling at everyone to "do it better" but with no specifics beyond that. AND the San Francisco backdrop is as vivid and strange as only a European director can make it (there's even a scene where the hero is walking through the Tenderloin and being semi-exorcised, shunned and serenaded by a gang of steel drummers!). Add all the B-roll travelogue of driving through SF, and seeing strange people reflected in glass windows, and you have a very strange piece of junk worth a visit when your standards have dropped well past the red line.


British Italian film expat Richard The Haunting Johnson co-stars as Dimitri, an enigmatic Satan-worshipping aesthete, saved in a freeze frame by the devil after his car plunges off scenic Highway 101 (we know it's the devil by his eeeevil laugh!) and given a second chance if he will facilitate the birth of the devil's most unholy firstborn child---currently gestating in the womb of his ex-wife Jessica (Juliet Mills, looking a lot like Kirsten Dunst). Currently she's married to Robert, but they do go way back, and frankly, Dimitri is way cooler. Still, his approach to Robert is to just shadow him through endless walks around SF, until Robert notices and is weirded out. How does one tell one's ex-wife's new husband she has the devil's baby inside her and offer to help deliver it from goodness? Even after the green vomit, psychokinesis, and levitation starts in earnest, Robert's doctor friend warns him not to accept Dimitri's offer, even while offering absolutely no solutions or alternatives! The couple's other two kids, meanwhile, are regularly left alone with their demon mom since dad is too busy wandering the San Francisco streets looking stricken and indecisive to be much of a parent. The children barricade themselves in their room as best they can while mom floats around trashing everything. "Please don't leave us alone with mommy again," becomes a chilling, flatly intoned request to daddy. Any kid could relate to that horror, that sense of neglect and inescapable horror. But daddy still has lots of B-roll streets left to muse through, and that comes first.

Thanks to inept editing (censor-demanded cuts?), scenes that might have been really scary are then just cut away from halfway through, so instead of the children's screams and panic after they come tentatively to mom's bed for solace after their room is smashed by poltergeists, and mom just gives them a 360-head spin and super creepy smile (very terrifying to any child), we cut a long pointless scene of Robert's headlights driving through town. When he finally gets home, everything is normal again. We get we're supposed to be worried and a bit angry and Robert's shitty sense of priorities, but then... is that really why we never cut back to that chilling moment? Even with all the creepy doll close-ups, a lot of it doesn't make sense. 

BUT- that's part of what makes Italian exploitation so indelible. Reaction shots, linear logic, easy resolutions, clarifying establishing shots, all must die. We don't really know where we stand in a film like Beyond the Door, and that can be terrifying in a backhand kind of way. It's a blatant Exorcist rip-off, but it moves fast, keeps you off-center, and has a finger on a pulse deeper than most Americans can find even with a finger deep in the wrist. Full of great anti-Christian beats, such as the elevated position from which Jessica finally gives birth, her Satanic voice commanding Dimitri reach up into her vagina and pull the baby down and out (below); and it was released widely on big screens here in the US, with a marketing campaign burned into my young child brain.

Maybe the reason I'm partial to all this is that I remember being freaked out by the TV commercial, which was on regularly, for quite a few weeks, as a kid. I remembered there was a door cracked open, billowing curtains, whooshing winds, and the implication that something evil was waiting.... beyond the door. 


That's all we kids needed back then. A door half-opened, surrounded by inky darkness...So Lewtonian, that less-is-more shadowiness. They knew what they were doing... I still shudder when I see the posters. As for you, proceed at your own risk and throw expectation to the breeze. Followed by several name-only sequels, including Mario Bava's last film/son Lamberto's first, Shock! Also on Prime and recommended, maybe even worse/better than this!! 

2. VAMPYRES
(1974) Dir. José Ramón Larraz
*** / Amazon Image - A

As with Larraz's other British filmed work, Symptoms (starring that alien-eyed elf being, Angela Pleasance) the two things going on here are 1: Gorgeous cinematography capturing a magnificently fecund English countryside, and 2: Lesbianism as the ultimate swinger waterloo. Here we have Anulka Dziubinska and Marianne Morris as a pair of lovers who--just like so many innocent sapphic pairs before and after them--are massacred in bed by some unseen misogynist and then proceed to wage a blood-drinking nightly vampire massacre on swingers ala 1968's Kuroneko. A run-down English castle estate (with one or two vary cozy firelit rooms and a magnificent wine cellar) provides a nice squat in which to bring back louche male swingers for a rollicking good three or foursome. In the morning, if the men are still alive, they're more than usually 'drained.'  In fact, they can barely find their way back to their cars. If they're bad at directions, they won't even find it, and will be trapped on the grounds when the sun falls yet again. If they're really crazy, they won't want to leave even knowing the riskks. This being England the men are all the kid of leisure suit and side-burned pale, bloated types who seem horribly drained and hungover even before their night at the castle begins. One such blighter (Murray Brown) is determined to get to the bottom of it all, as is the nosy girlfriend Harriet (Rose Faulkner) of traveling artist John (Brian Deacon); the couple have been caravanning around the countryside to take in the foliage. She can't let go of her curiosity about the two mysterious women, glimpsed briefly hitchhiking as they drove past, or the man who came running past their caravan in the dead of night, yelling for help, but wasn't there once she woke John to do something about it. Dam, Harriet, John says, let it go! But she won't, and that will mean... 

It all sounds a tad sordid and it's at least nudity and blood-drenched and has some pretty richly erotic moments, especially from the interesting team of Dziubinska, the quieter, blood-drunk blonde, and Morris, the more verbose and ferocious of the pair. If Harriet thinks she's in their league, she needs to think twice. But hey, it's Larraz country, where women always get the last stab, and the fall has never looked more autumnal, making it the ideal Halloween late night treat after the kids have trundled off to their stomach-ache induced nightmares. (Recommended also Daughters of Darkness).

BONUS Third Feature: 

3. LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM 
(1985) Dir. Ken Russell
*** / Amazon Image - A

Though it's cheap and cheeky (Ken Russell on a bunbury after completing the exhausting Crimes of Passion), laden with endless puns and campy jokes and constant symbolic references, Lair of the White Worm is still a grand lark, laden with drolleries and--in its way--maybe his most consistent and cohesively satisfying film. The small cast is sublime: Amanda Donohoe is the ageless evil druid priestess of the serpent cult, never camping or vamping but nailing, in every possible permutation that verb can be permuted, the most intoxicating upper crust broad since Stanwyck as The Lady Eve. Her snake goddess is what Auntie Mame always aspired to be but could never shake her ostentatious American petit-bourgeois baggahge. She can go from sneering at the appalling smells of her latest worm food boy scout, to championing Dionin with her champagne flute and cigarette holders raised in stiff salute, to merely remarking "oh damn," when interrupted by her neighbor at the door bell, inquiring as to her safety. The good guys are Peter Capaldi as a summering archeologist who unearths a dragon skull (the German word for dragon being wurm) near some old Roman ruins in the front yard of a local country inn, and Hugh Grant, in his film debut, is great as the local lord-inherit who inherits too the burden of slaying the giant white worm. 

The two local blonde sisters at the inn (Catherine Oxenberg and Sammi Davis) are fetching, smart, and crafty and we get a real sense of what it's like to party with them (Oxenberg and Grant don't even drive up to the inn until well after dawn but they don't act all Yank-style obnoxious about it); the quarter's soujurns to the surreal hill slope cave (in search of clues to the sisters' missing--and presumed digested--parents) have a you-are-there vividness (we can practically smell the welcome thermos of hot coffee), and it's clear the actors and crew are all really up in this eerie mountain sloping cavern [Thor's Cave, in ducky old Staffordshire!] to get these amazing shots. Even the obligatory Russell-ian psychedelic-obscenity-religious allegory hallucination has a disturbing coherence and potency that makes it one of his most successful ("she had a bad trip" -- notes Grant, after one of the sisters accidentally touches some of hallucinatory snake venom and sees a white snake attacking Jesus on the cross while Roman soldiers rape and murder nuns). Hell yeah its more succinctly psychedelic than anything in Altered States.

In other words, it's a great film to drink to or come down from a bad mushroom experience. No one ever says no to a drink anywhere in the film and Hugh Grant goes to sleep with two bottles of Bolinger chilling at his bedside. What a way to mix a late night snack with breakfast! Between this and his Chopin opposite Judy Davis in Impromptu, Grant was catapulting himself into the A-list and winning over even jaundiced straight male hearts like mine. There's also the hottest/weirdest older woman-on-paralyzed younger boy seduction in film since Creedence Leonore Gielgud's corn cob visitation in Troll 2. And best of all --no priests. So forgive the occasional overflow of cheekiness--such as the absurd fangs and charmed-snake wiggle dancing of Paul Brooke and the relentlessly on-the-nose 'white snake' imagery and you may be charmed, yourself. Cheers!


For more Ken Russell weirdness on Prime: check out the start of this series, GOTHIC. How fitting this is where it ends since he made that film right after this one (time does not exist!) Alpha and omega, Ken! Even my daughter --even that-- for you.

1 comment:

  1. All those times watching Beyond the Door and I never realized how much Mills looked like Dunst. She looks exactly like her in that second pic. I love that movie. Good trash.

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