Wednesday, February 24, 2021

How the Hell Was Won: DEMONOID (1981), CRUISE INTO TERROR (1978)


INTRO: THE ORIGIN OF SATANIC PANIC

Blame it on the foundation-rattling popularity of The Exorcist and Rosemary's Baby if you want, but the 70s was occult down to its bones, wilding out adults and children alike (if we were too young to see them in the theaters, we caught them edited on TV). The devil was--all through the 70s--kid-friendly; he carried a current of underground electric jouissance that connected our elementary school playground gossip chakras in a unified field of ouija boards, vividly recounted movie plots, slumber party telekinesis and deep dish absorption of TVMs like Dark Secret of Harvest Home, Crowhaven Farm, Horror at 37,000 Feet and the discussed in this issue, Cruise into TerrorThe uncanny magnetism of the neighborhood covens often depicted in these films acted as a sort of tribal mask obscuring the mysteries of adulthood, which lax (in hindsight?) parental guidelines enabled us to often witness firsthand, even with inflexible bedtimes preventing us from seeing them to the end (denied closure, we'd lie in bed and dream the endings, and lurid and dark those endings were, way more lurid and far darker than the chaste denouements rattled off for us by a half-asleep mom the next morning). 

I forgot to mention the preponderance--as holy children's writs---of scary 70s paperbacks. These were so important because if you saw a movie either on TV or the big screen and you loved it, you had to accept the fact you might never see it again. The only way to 'own' it would be to buy the novel or soundtrack album (or the bubblegum cards). The child of the 80s could have his mind blown by the 'horror' aisle at the video rental store, but for the kid of the 70s, it was the supermarket checkout paperback rack that promised the 'real' scares. We'd stand, hypnotized, by the beguilingly cryptic occult covers, that underground jouissance current snaking right into us, while mom blithely shopped.

That all changed in the 80s, of course, when we could rent stuff far too gruesome or sexual to have ever even graced out TVs before; But today... now... these final days, for some of us, The Car,  Beyond the Doorand The Devil's Rain and The Legacy, and their relatively gentle shocks, abide. 

Oh yeah, and....these two...

DEMONOID 
(1981)- Wr./Dir. Alfredo Zacarias
*** / Prime Image - A+

It might technically be from 1981 but if you melted down a 70s shelf full of occult paperbacks, doused the result up in a mix of R-rated nudity and gore, then shellacked the result in a TVM patina, Demonoid would be the result., Here we have at all, packed into a 92 minute thrill ride: a severed hand racing around, possessing one person after another; crazy train/car chases involving possessed victims; subliminal flash cuts of the severed hand's accompanying demon, its clawed hand raised with a mighty sword; dazzling fashion juxtapositions (such as mixing hardhat and high heels); absurdist dialogue ("You either cut off my hand, or I'll kill you!"); Stuart Whitman as a priest doubting his faith (replete with half-hearted oft-vanishing Irish accent), and a whole TV mini-series worth of crazy twists and ridiculous contrivances welded into 92 nonstop minutes full of  ABC Friday Night Movie-esque innocence that makes the moments of nudity and goofy gore all the more startling by contrast.

But best of all, for bad movie lovers like me, are the plethora of talented actors trying to be convincing wrestling with a rubber hand. No one beats this hand, apparently, as its demonic aura affixes quickly to whomever it gloms onto, making its next host instantly both evil and inexplicably driven to sever their own hand and, if possible, offer it to Samantha Eggar on a silver tray. It was her who discovered the original hand, you see (first seen in the prologue severed from a topless hottie by the Mexican Inquisition, and buried) deep in her husband's Mexican silver mine. The hand belongs to her. Do you hear? It crawls up her leg while she's sleeping and tries to initiate a ménage à trois with her drunk miner husband Mark (Roy Jensen). It possesses him as consolation and soon he's dead and leaping from his grave after Haji (Faster Pussycat, Kill Kill) sets him on fire for winning on 24 consecutive tosses at a Las Vegas craps tables. He cuts his hand off by slamming it on the car door of the cop called to investigate. Inspired, the cop immediately drives off in a hurry to go make a plastic surgeon cut off his hand, at gunpoint - no anesthetic, while forcing Eggar to watch. 

The movie has barely begun and we're already in such fucked-up awesome territory one finds oneself longing to smash their hand in the doorjamb.

Devoted readers know I'm a fan of evil mummy hand movies, especially Hammer's 1973 gem  Blood from the Mummy's Tomb (the best of the many adaptations of Bram Stoker's 1903 novella "Jewel of the Seven Stars"). This is kind of a Mexican-Spanish Inquisition riff on the same, with the tomb discovered accidentally and the hand being far busier. The giddy flavors of De Palma's The Fury are here too, coupled to some of the spiritual tropes of The Exorcist. It's got it all. 

Dopey Stuart as the priest can't believe any of it --even God's holy power seems beyond his belief system, just like old Father Karras ("how can I be of service when I have such personal doubts?" he actually says) To differentiate, instead of running track like Karras, Stuart works out at the local boxing gym. As the hand makes its rounds, its chosen hosts get so frisky--even after being burned down to their skeletons--that you can't help but applaud the reckless high-wire idiocy of it all, reserving eye rolls only for the half-assed soul searching of Whitman's continuously wrong-headed padre (does he really think a security detail --a pair of cops in their car outside her apartment---are going to protect her from a disembodied hand? ("What are they gonna do?" quips Eggar, "arrest it?"). 

Eggar is perfect in the role. Smart as a whip and never totally scared, only horrified. When she widens her round Irish eye in horror, which is often, they shine right through the spiderweb spiral ironwork (top) from which she watches Stu blow-torch his hand while staring at her in an impressively unwavering, shadowy leer (below), it's as if great and terrible acting meters merge in the gas tanks of some tailspinning biplane and somehow keep it aloft for whole minutes after it should have crashed. Richard Gillis' uneven score at times evokes the ominously advancing synths of John Carpenter; at other times it's fairly generic TV cop show suspense, but if you love good-bad 70s TV movies, all the sublimer for it, covering many abrupt tonal shifts and sublimely meshing with the nice cinematography, the shocking gore, and the environs of the different victims. The hand! It calls for us! As Sgt. Leo says, "In the name of evil, you and I must obey." 

------speaking of evil-confronting 70s priests, check out:

CRUISE INTO TERROR
(1978) Dir. Bruce Kessler
ABC TV movie - **1/2    

Here's a Friday Night TV movie nearly every kid remembers from the tumultuous year of 1978 on ABC. I think I just got braces on or wisdom teeth out or had a throat infection or something as I have a memory of excruciating pain and lovely pain killers in alternating currents, which elegantly gelled with Cruise's narcotizing mix of what was by-then the well-trod formula of cushy Love Boat drama (sunny poolside bathing beauties, sunny Caribbean scenery, adultish situations amongst a guest list of has-beens and TV actors) and 70s touchstones like the Bermuda triangle, satanic possession, and Poseidon Adventure-style disaster movies. The main reason however that we all remember it is that the monster is a  child-size breathing Egyptian sarcophagus, brought on board after a deep dive in the middle of the ocean.  A truly original, nonsensical idea, probably born from some writer dropping acid at the "Treasures of Tutankhamun" exhibit which was then all the rage. Add an ominous synth version of "Dies Irae" as the theme (predating Wendy Carlos' version in The Shining by two years) and you have a memorable night in. 

Memorable, but I'd forgotten the title for years. I had to wait for Google to catch up enough that I could at last find it just using the search words "small breathing sarcophagus on a boat 70s TVM. " It was worth the wait, though I wish there was a Warner Archive DVR or some such thing the way there was/is for Bermuda Depths or Horror at 37,000 Feet (the film incidentally fits between them in terms of watchability), if for no other reason than the scenery, and attractive women gamboling to and fro on deck.) It would be great eye candy, as relaxing as a lazy hammock Sunday. It's still worth seeing, even all muddy and smudged, but only as long as you have that nostalgic twang for its era. 

So Robert "Charles Townsend" Forsythe is a hieroglyph-reading missionary priest on a cruise with his sexually frustrated, lingerie-wearing wife (Lee Meriwether). Noted archeologist Ray Milland is on the ship, headed for sunny Mexico to prove his thesis there's an Egyptian tomb there. A physicist, assorted babes, and first mate Dirk Benedict (Starbuck on Battlestar Galactica) so climb aboard / they're expecting youooh...ooh.

No, there's no Love Boat elements here, more like the opposite, though there is some bed-hopping (Starbuck is very busy) and sunny days spent scuba diving in beguiling bathing suits. But what is the strange curse hanging over the ship, causing accidents and freak encounters, some fatal? One of the near misses is a harrowing encounter between three lovely snorkelers and a "vicious" (actually a harmless small blue) shark (any self-respecting child of the post-Jaws late-70s scoffed at the tourist's overreaction to this harmless specimen' for by 1978 we were all shark experts). Then, the ship breaks down and leaves them anchored in the middle of the ocean, conveniently right over the spot where archeologist Ray Milland needs to dive for his missing Egyptian tomb, thanks to a handsome physicist named Matt Lazarus (Frank Converse) recalculating Ray's figures and tells him the tomb he's looking for is actually sunk below the waves, "two degrees off our present course!" Captain Andrews (Hugh O'Brien) can't say no since they're stuck there anyway, and now everyone wants to dive for the treasure and be rich! Freak storms and accidents abound. but hey, let's go diving!

Ripe for some Love Boat style ship corridor of shame cabin-creeping, the guest roster includes several cabins full of foxy ladies and hot-to-trot wives whose husbands are either frigid (Forsythe's priest) or too focused on work (Christopher George's wheeler/dealer stock broker).  Lynda Day George (Christopher's real wife and fake wife here), Stella Stevens, Lee Meriwether, Jo Ann Harris, Hilarie Thompson are all hot and bucking at the seams  Looks like Starbuck has to step in again with more late nights working as--in the code used by him and the captain--"the 'entertainment committee.'

If you're a fan of 70s bad films you know the 'disparate slice of humanity forced to work together to survive' plot line was almost inescapable thanks to the popularity of Airport, Poseidon Adventure and 1977's Day of the Animals. Also unique to the decade: handsome, virile men can rebuff the sultry come-ons of foxy ladies without judging them one way another; players like Dirk Benedict's first mate aren't depicted as sleazes in need of canceling so much as guys doing their manly duty to please the perfectly acceptable and natural desires of the female passengers. If, in our current climate, you think that can't possibly be true, catch an episode of Love Boat, where the crew are all basically allowed and encouraged by the captain to bed down with the guest stars -- it's practically part of the job! That should give you an inkling of how sex-positive we all were in the 70s. The national obsession with right-wing prudery had momentarily abated and mainstream America had what Alexander D'Arcy's gigolo piano teacher in 1937's Awful Truth call "a continental mind." 

That's one reason  70s TV movies are so fascinating, and remain so-- their sexually liberated prime time zeitgeist. 

The acting by and large though, isn't the best. As reverend Mather, Forsythe struggles just as much with seeming like a prude as he does with seeming to understand hieroglyphics.  Reading an engraved tablet dredged up from below ("It's a serpent-headed bird!") or recounting the fate of those sorry and/or dead archeologists who opened Tut's tomb and woke the "curse of the pharaohs," his demands that the passengers not "mar that tomb!" can't help but draw laugh. Just like a buzzkill censorious reverend of the pre-code era, Mather seems determined to steer this vessel as far away from interesting and titillating as he can get it. On the other hand, at least he's not also having a crisis of faith like Whitman in Demonoid or sulking and making shitty remarks like the mighty Shat in 37.000 Feet). Keenly aware of his limits as an actor, Forsythe never tries to hide himself in a 'performance' -- to his immense credit.

And anyway, his priest is soon proven right. No sooner has the baby sarcophagus come on board than the cast is going full greedy savage arguing over where to sell the booty and how to split it, the evil spirit growing in strength the more bad vibes it sows. First its ruby eyes start to glow, then the whole sarcophagus breathes. We never even see it open! What is inside it? We never find out.  Its ruby eyes flash and cause sudden storms when someone tries to damage it, spooking everyone not under its malevolent sway. As more and more of the cast become sensually liberated agents of evil, the film gets funnier and freer. When Thomson snaps at her mousy friend Debbie (Jo-Ann Harris) for being too scared to even shoot a flare gun up in the air, Judy snaps! Finally and forever, full of devilish brio saying basically "stop following me around!" It's supposed to be the effect of the ancient evil at work (as in Exorcist) but it feels more like the effect of good, liberating shrooms. 

So does a sudden contempt for weakness and morality and unreserved attraction to earthly delight and fiery power make one evil, or just cool? Countering Forsythe's bland gospel is Milland ("I do not believe in biblical fantasies!"). and the captain (Hugh O'Brien) who tries to explain all the deaths and storms and ship failures as coincidence. Though that gets harder and harder as the freak events accumulate, there's no arguing with a closed-minded skeptic, and sometimes that's a good thing: "There is a devil --it's in here, all of us, note the captain. "His name is greed, fear and all of the ugly things we can never face." So deep, bro. He even has a fancy poem to send us all to bed in a cautionary mood:

There is a devil, there is no doubt,
but is he trying to get in us
or trying to get out?
Gee dad, why can't it be both? 

The 70s will all end soon enough, the age of Pisces gone deep to Davy Jones', where it began- splattered like a glass goblet on the sidewalk outside the Dakota. (1).

But was the evil of libidinal freedom vanquished, or was the good of libidinal freedom stifled? 



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Some Other Good Occult Movies of the 70s:
1. The first Dakota death-- Terry Gionoffrio in Rosemary's Baby in 1968 (a fiction dictated by reality) to Lennon in 1980 (reality dictated by fiction) - in each case a metatextual rupture - the devil's favorite kind, before 80s Satanic panic hysteria effectively drove him underground, back under the rug of our collective unconscious, the covens replaced by a sea of slashers, just as the paperbacks were replaced by video rentals
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