Thursday, October 31, 2019


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. 

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

Even the best-laid fans of the crappiest 70s Italian horror knock-offs tend to be dismissive of this obvious Exorcist's Baby cash-in, but maybe that's why it occupies a soft, rotting spot in my warped floorboard heart for it. Probably, it's because as a kid I was traumatized by the TV spots. All it showed was a dark room, a curtain and an opening door with a light behind it... nothing else, just the drifting curtain. Man it was spooky. What, the ad goaded us to ask, lurked BEYOND...  THE ... DoOR.

Being just seven years-old, I was pretty sure I didn't want to know. But now, I'm not afraid!

Terrible it is--rushed by the horns of its pants through production and into theaters the same year (1974) as The Exorcist--imitating the green slime vomit, the levitation, the 180 degree head turn as if checking off a charades checklist--Beyond the Door made itself a tidy fortune. Made by Italians but filmed in San Francisco, the dubbing of some of the actors is strictly the 'phoned in' (maybe literally) variety, but--as so often redeems such lazy looping--the score is sublime. Conjured in great swirling arm waves by Franco Micalizzi (his ninth film in 1974 alone!), Beyond's score has the finesse of a shaking junkie running through an unstaffed, unlocked pharmacy. There' soul singers, death rattles, billowing noises, quiet storm flutes, groovy bass and Satanic sighs, it's all here--even a killer theme song--"Bargain with the Devil"--by the wondrous Warren Wilson. We even see Micalizzi's (?) sesh musicians laying it all down in the studio during the opening credits. Robert (Gabriele Lavia, the boozy, gay friend of David Hemmings in Deep Red) is producing. We know he's got cred because of his specific instruction to the musicians ("do it better!") Outside the studio, the San Francisco backdrop is as vivid and strange as only an Italian tourist can film it. We see Robert walking through the Tenderloin while being serenaded by a gang of steel drummers. We see the mysterious agent of Satan, Robert's wife's ex-husband Dimitri (Richard Johnson) reflected in the glass windows of famous edifices. Wait, what?

Yes, this is a movie where we hear the devil talk. Robert has been rescued from a fatal accident by Satan under the condition he orchestrates the birth of his child, now living in the womb of his ex-wife, who once joined him in an ancient cult practices. Hmmm. Robert has to get in there, in the apartment of Robert and his wife Jessica (Juliet Mills) as only he can deliver this very special baby. Meanwhile the two normal kids grow progressively terrified of their devil-possessed mother. Wouldn't you if you went to see her in the middle of the night after being scared by a noise, and she woke and turned around like this?

The husband Robert, meanwhile, is no help. Dimitri decides to shadow him through endless walks around SF, which Robert likes to make (as well as long pointless B-roll drives). Dimitri should stop wasting time doing the stalking, but hey, how does one tell one's ex-cult member's new husband she has the devil's baby inside her, and that he needs to help deliver it? Even after the green vomit, psychokinesis, and levitation starts in earnest, it's a big ask. Robert's doctor friend warns him not to accept Dimitri's help but can offer absolutely no solutions or alternatives in the bargain. The couple's other two kids, meanwhile, are regularly left alone with their demon mom since dad is too busy wandering the B-roll scenery 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. But daddy still has lots of B-roll streets left to muse through, and that comes first. When it comes right down to it, if there is any devil more terrifying than an evil parent, it might be the other parent's neglect.

Alas, thanks to inept editing (?), scenes that might have been really scary are cut away from too quickly. In one of the scariest moments, the children screams and panic one night after their room is smashed by poltergeists; they come tentatively to mom's bed for solace after she just gives them a 360-head spin and super creepy smile. But we don't even get the kids' reaction! Right after the smile is a smash cut to a long pointless scene of Robert's headlights driving through town. When he finally gets home, everything is normal again. Even with all the creepy doll close-ups, a lot of it doesn't make sense. Like if Carpenter's original Halloween cut away from the climactic upstairs hallway moment when Michael sits back up after being stabbed, to the sheriff and Loomis driving around, and then when we next check back in, Michael's already left, and the kids are back to watching TV.

BUT- that's part of what makes the best Italian exploitation so wondrous. 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, and amusing at the same time. Sure, Beyond the Door is a blatant Exorcist rip-off full of more Francisco scenery than Vertigo, 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 their own wrist. 

Best of all, it's 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). 

Whip it frenziedly to froth and you have a very strange piece of junk, worth a visit when your standards have dropped well past the red line. Maybe it helps to have been a kid in the 70s. Our dread was off and running and what nameless evil was in that room. Devil movies were everywhere, every commercial break was packed with the occult. 

It was followed by several name-only sequels, including Mario Bava's last film/son Lamberto's first, Shock! Also on Prime and recommended. Then, in 1989 Assonitis, gave us the very strange and recommended Amok Train, which was then billed as Beyond the Door 3.  

(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: 

(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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