Wednesday, February 24, 2021

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


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 but legitimately powerful; 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 Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, 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 many of these films to the end (denied closure, I'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 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, the ones accessible to us if only we could understand them, the language just a hair out of reach (I learned to read and write basically reading and studying Peter Benchley's Jaws, which is a far dirtier novel than you'd think, replete with an affair between Mrs. Brody and the Richard Dreyfuss character--I underlined all the bad words). We'd stand, hypnotized, by the beguilingly cryptic occult covers, that underground jouissance current snaking right into us, while mom blithely shopped.What an encouragement to learn to read, asap! 

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; novelizations died away for the most part. But today... now... these final days, for some of us, The Car,  Beyond the Doorand The Devil's Rain and The Legacy, and their comparatively gentle shocks, abide, luring us back through the door of nostalgia and into the tactile, safe pre-CGI world that seems so much more dangerous for being so much less overtly threatening. 

(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; a black cop arresting a rich white lady on a trumped up charge then driving her to the plastic surgeon; crazy train/car chases involving possessed victims all eager to cut off their own hands; subliminal flash cuts of the severed hand's accompanying demon; 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 Catholic 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 scenes of talented actors trying to be convincing while 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. She "set it free" when she accidentally opened a passage to an ancient devil altar in her husband's mine. I love that Eggar just 'knows' it's her husband Mark (Roy Jensen) who was burned beyond recognition in a fire (with Haji of (Faster Pussycat, Kill Kill fame) and then burst out of his fresh grave because he's possessed by an ancient demon's free-range hand. Eggar seems surprised though, when the priest doesn't believe her right off but she proudly assures him: "I'm not leaving until I destroy the hand!" This is all in the first night. Burnt Mark cuts his hand off via the car door of the cop called to investigate, who immediately drives off and the next day punches up Whitman the next day in a "friendly" sparring match before arresting Eggar and forcing her to watch him force a plastic surgeon at gunpoint to cut off his hand --with no anesthesia. It just keeps going and going, until an on the run plastic surgeon falls off a moving train and the hand decides to jump ship by forcing his wrist under the wheels to cut itself loose, then hitching a ride by grabbing the axle of the passing train. 

The movie has barely begun and we're already in such fucked-up awesome territory we can scarcely believe it. Helped no doubt by the pace set by no-nonsense Eggar, who skips about three reels of denial and slow build-up by just realizing right off the weird situation and getting on with it.

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 story, but with the tomb discovered accidentally and the hand being far busier and more or a central player. 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. And don't forget the Oliver Stone movie The Hand (also 1981) with Michael Caine. People must have thought hand movies would be "in." 

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 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 of sub-Herrmann strings, but it's perfect for the times and mood in which it works (i.e. 70s TV movie on 80s drugs), covering many abrupt tonal shifts and sublimely meshing with the nice cinematography, the sporadically shocking gore, bad actor handiwork (!),  and the environs of the different victims.  So fear not, and take a ride down the left-handed path.... to terror! 

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

(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 the then relatively hip 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 oral pain and lovely pain killers in alternating currents, which elegantly gelled with Cruise's narcotizing mix of cushy Love Boat drama (sunny poolside bathing beauties, sunny Caribbean scenery, mature sexual situations amongst a guest list of has-beens and TV actors) and 70s occult obsessions (Bermuda triangle, satanic possession), and King Tut (The "Treasures of Tutankhamun" exhibit was making the rounds of US museums and really dominating pop culture of the moment, leading to Steve Martin's big hit). All anyone remembers now is the amazing child-size breathing Egyptian sarcophagus. That's the kind of surreal WTF image that sticks with you and--incidentally--brought my whole family into gales of laughter.  Clearly some writer/producer had dropped acid at the exhibit and stared at Tut's sarcophagus a little too long. Whatever the reason - it's odd, and odd is good, 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 with the family, on drugs and oral discomfort.

Memorable, but I'd forgotten the title for years. I had to wait for Google to build its search engine up to the point that I could at last find it just using the search words "small breathing sarcophagus on a boat 70s TVM." (I'd been doing that on my Classic Horror chat boards since the mid-90s, to no avail.) 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, underwater treasure hunting, and attractive women gamboling to and fro on deck. It would be great eye candy for a lazy Sunday. It's still worth seeing, even all muddy and smudged, but only as long as you have that nostalgic twang for its era. 

The cast are.... familiar and pleasant, if unmemorable. Robert "Charles Townsend" Forsythe is the hieroglyph-reading missionary priest on a cruise with his sexually frustrated, lingerie-wearing wife (Lee Meriwether). Noted archeologist Ray Milland is headed for sunny Mexico to prove his theory that there's an Egyptian tomb there. There is a handsome and mysterious physicist named Matt Lazarus (Frank Converse), and first mate Dirk Benedict (Starbuck on Battlestar Galactica). The captain thinks the boat will have problems, but is told it will ship out without him, so, all aboard / they're expecting youooh.

Yes, 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" shark (actually a harmless 'blue', which any self-respecting child of the late-70s knew, for reasons I'm sure you can intuit). 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 'Matt Lazarus' recalculating Ray's figures. 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. It's not like they're in the Bermuda triangle or anything.

Oh and I almost forgot --ripe for some Love Boat style ship corridor crawl 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) to give out. There are more than enough to go around: Lynda Day George (Christopher's real and fake life wife), Stella Stevens, Lee Meriwether, Jo Ann Harris, Hilarie Thompson. All hot and bucking at the seams, looks like the Dirk has to step in again with more late nights working as--in the code used by him and the captain--"the 'entertainment committee.' 

That's one reason  70s TV movies are so fascinating, and remain so-- their sexually liberated prime time zeitgeist. This was a time handsome, virile men could rebuff the sultry come-ons of foxy ladies without judging them one way another. And 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 kind of adult sex-positive maturity can't possibly be true during prime time, catch any episode of Love Boat, where the crew are all basically  by expected to bed down with the guest stars -- it's practically part of the job. Mainstream America had what Alexander D'Arcy's gigolo piano teacher in 1937's Awful Truth call "a continental mind." AIDS would end that party rather abruptly, but for now - it was the prime time equivalent of 'pre-code.'

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 ("It's a serpent-headed bird!"), 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 any buzzkill censorious reverend of the Somerset Maugham 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' --which is to his credit, if not advantage.

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. It's never opened. 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, 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. 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 malice vanquished, or was the good of libidinal freedom stifled? 


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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