Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

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. While mom shopped we'd stand hypnotized by the beguilingly cryptic occult covers, that underground jouissance current snaking right into us.

That all changed in the 80s, of course, when we could at last own these films, as well as 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, abide. 

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

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

DEMONOID might technically be from 1981 but if you melted down a 70s shelf full of occult paperbacks, then wrapped the result up in a mix of R-rated nudity and gore + PG-rated TV movie covering, Demonoid would be what was left. 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 Eggar's mixing hardhat and high heels); absurd lines and misguided hamminess; Stuart Whitman's half-hearted oft-vanishing Irish accent as the priest doubting his faith; a whole TV mini-series worth of crazy twists and ridiculous contrivances welded into 92 nonstop minutes full of a familiar prime-time ABC TV movie innocence that makes the moments of nudity and goofy gore all the more startling.

But best of all, for bad movie lovers like me: talented actors trying to be convincing wrestling with a rubber hand. No one beats this hand; its demonic aura affixes to the next victim, now 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--last affixed to a Mexican Inquisition-era topless hottie-- 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 for a consolation and soon he's 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, then the cop 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 to join the party.

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 those adaptions, with the tomb discovered accidentally and the hand being far busier. It's its own thing, baby - and it zips fast. The giddy flavors of De Palma's Fury are here coupled to some of the spiritual tropes of The Exorcist, It's got it all. 

Dopey Stuart can't believe any of it, even God's holy power seems beyond his belief system. Will he, like old Father Karras ("how can I be of service when I have such personal doubts?" he actually says this during his opening prayers - I mean c'mon! And instead of running track like Karras, Stuart works out at the local boxing gym), make the ultimate sacrifice? Who cares? As the hand makes its rounds, its chosen hosts get so frisky and loco, even after being burned down 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 watches as the priest blow-torches off his evil hand while staring at her in an impressively unwavering, shadowy leer (above) 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. When she widens them in horror, which is often, her eyes become almost perfect circles, so bright they shine right through the spiderweb spiral ironwork (top) from which she watches Stu blow-torch his hand while staring at her in shadowy, inscrutable Satanic gravitas. Richard Gillis' uneven score at times evokes the ominously advancing synths of Carpenter; at other times it's fairly generic TV suspense-ville, but if you love good-bad 70s TV movies, but 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. 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 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 great pain and pain killers swirling in my brain in alternating currents, which elegantly gels with its sexy mood. There's also the reason we all remember it, for it has a unique spin on the mummy: here we never see a mummy or a ghost of a mummy; we see instead a child-size breathing Egyptian sarcophagus... possessing a sexy passenger list on a sexy cruise to Mexico. y make no sense, but it's a truly original, nonsensical idea, probably born from some writer dropping acid at the "Treasures of Tutankhamun" exhibit which was then all the rage. Whatever the origin story, I knew I could at last see the film again even though I'd forgotten the title and everything else about it, just by googling the words "breathing sarcophagus." See? We all remember.

Still, I was too giddy and/or sick to remember if I liked it at the time (probably not) but it turns out this is a cute little gem worth rediscovering for those with the fondness. Would there was a Warner Archive DVR or some such thing the way there was/is for Bermuda Depths or Terror 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. 

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) are aboard as well, and they're expecting you... ooh...ooh.

No Love Boat this, though there is some bed-hopping (Starbuck is very busy) and sunny days scuba diving in beguiling bathing suits. What is the strange curse hanging over the ship, causing accidents and freak encounters, some fatal (amongst other 70s occult crazes was a fascination with the Bermuda Triangle). One of the near misses is a harrowing encounter between three lovely snorkelers and a "vicious" (small, blue) shark (any self-respecting child of the post-Jaws late-70s scoffed at the tourist's overreaction to this harmless specimen'). 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 to a dive when the ship stalls out over the exact spot. Everyone wants to dive for the treasure and be rich! Freak storms and accidents abound. 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). The others are mostly single: Stella Stevens, Lee Meriwether, Jo Ann Harris, Hilarie Thompson. Lynda Day George (with Christopher--her real-life husband). They're both still hot and bucking at the seams (George's crack about "I can still look at the menu" when the other bikinis pass by is the kind of passive veiled crack that makes a couple's single friends roll their eyes and snort like impatient stallions). Looks like Starbuck has to step in again!

If you're a fan of 70s bad films you know the 'disparate slice of humanity forced to work together plotline was almost inescapable thanks to the popularity of Airport, Poseidon Adventure and 1977's Day of the Animals. And you know it's he 70s when 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 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!-- and you have 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-- the openly sexually liberated prime time zeitgeist. 

As reverend Mather, Forsythe struggles just as much with seeming like a prude as he does with seeming to understand hieroglyphics (this was, after all, "Charlie").  When he reads an engraved tablet dredged up from below and exclaims"It's a serpent-headed bird!" or--reminding them of the fate of those sorry and/or dead archeologists who opened Tut's tomb and woke the "curse of the pharaohs"--demands the passengers not "mar that tomb!" can't help but draw laugh. Just like a buzzkill censorious reverend of the pre-code era, he 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' -- he knows his limits. 

And anyway, his priest is soon proven right. No sooner has the 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 it 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 injure 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 ("I'm scared, Judy!"). A flare gun for god's sake, if you'll pardon the expression. Of course 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!") The captain (Hugh O'Brien) tries to explain all the deaths and storms and ship failures as coincidence, though it gets harder and harder as the freak events accumulate. 

Still, there's no arguing with a skeptic, and sometimes that's a good thing: "There is a devil --it's in here, all of us --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? As a Pisces, I'm comfortable with that kind of ambiguity.

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 (the first attempt at impregnation, inside a fiction that manifest in culture as a televisual reality) to Lennon in 1980 (in a reality dictated by fiction) - in each case a metatextual rupture - the devil's favorite kind, though the early 80s Satanic panic hysteria effectively drove him underground by then, 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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