Monday, 19 July 2021

Beyond The Door

The Chi Sei Girls

Beyond The Door
aka Chi Sei?
aka The Devil Within Her

Italy 1974
Directed by Ovidio G. Assonitis
and Robert Barrett
Arrow Blu Ray Zone B

Warning: Some spoilerage ensues!

I bought this one in an Arrow sale at the urging of my friend @cultofcinema. He knows me well enough to know that if he recommends me something slightly off kilter which is shot in an interesting manner, chances are I’ll like it. And I have to say, this one is absolutely brilliant in that it’s got some nice cinematography and it’s completely bug nuts crazy! So he gets a gold star for this one.

The film starts off with a black screen and a voice over narrative addressing the audience, which immediately made me think of the Edward Van Sloan opening or closing warnings on Universal’s original Dracula (this scene now sadly lost from that production) and Frankenstein. Turns out the guy speaking to us is the devil, inviting the audience to watch the proceedings and reminding us to look out, the person sitting next to us watching the film could be him. As the voice over continues for a bit, the screen pans onto loads of lighted candles in the darkness and, after more camera movement, we come across main protagonist/partial antagonist Jessica (played by Juliet Mills... as in sister of Hayley and daughter of John... so a lady from a very distinguished acting family).

Jessica is standing in a darkened room with her eyes closed. As the camera zooms in on her she opens her eyes and we see what she is looking at... a naked lady spread-eagled in a pentagram whose features suddenly turn into someone very much like Richard Johnson before changing back to the girl. She runs out on the ceremony. As it happens, Richard Johnson was actually standing next to her, looking on. He plays Dmitri and, as he leaves the scene, he talks with the devil in his head, who causes him to crash his car off a cliff to his demise. However, the devil keeps his spirit alive in partial physical form for ten years, so he can bring the future 'Satan’s spawn' into the world when Jessica is carrying it. It’s a bit confusing to be honest but, then the titles start and we’ve jumped ten years.

And the titles are brilliant. Crosscutting between Juliet and her two obnoxious, foul mouthed children as they go grocery shopping and scenes of her husband in a recording studio, as he records the music which is the soundtrack to these credits. Twice he stops the music and it cuts back to him in the studio before the credits continue... and that’s nicely done, with his last stop coordinating with a stop light signal as Jessica drives her car. Her husband, Robert, is played by writer/director/actor Gabriele Lavia, who I best remember for his appearances in three Dario Argento movies, especially as the irritating young musician who is friends with David Hemming’s character in Profondo Rosso (aka Deep Red, reviewed here)... you know, the one who it turns out isn’t the killer after all.

And from here on the film plays out as a complete, post-modern patchwork quilt of movies such as The Exorcist, The Omen, Rosemary's Baby, poltergeist movies, haunted doll movies... pretty much any supernaturally themed movie trope they could think of is shoved in here and, in spite of this, the movie still is thoroughly entertaining... as Juliet’s mysterious new pregnancy sees her becoming increasingly hostile and irritated until she reaches the ‘full on Linda Blair’ stage of demonic possession and Dimitri forces himself on the family, much to the chagrin of the family doctor.

So we have objects and people thrown around rooms like many a poltergeist themed movie. We have dolls walking around on their own. We have a demonically influenced truck which nearly runs over Robert, like in an Omen film. And talking of The Omen, one of the kids is obviously not quite right, which is confirmed in a twist ending where he’s revealed to have Midwych Cuckoo-like glowy eyes... which I won’t say anything about here... partially because I don’t want to spoil it for you but mostly because it makes absolutely no sense within the context of the rest of the movie and contradicts everything we’ve seen throughout the film. And then there are so many shades of The Exorcist, starting off quite subtly when Jessica starts vomiting blood, in a wonderful bathroom set which has white walls and red bathroom fittings (I guess the sink doesn’t show up the blood, at least). But I figured something must be up with her when she starts occasionally talking in a gravelly man’s voice, which sounds like a low rent version of Mercedes McCambridge. And then there’s that time when, in her sleep, her eyes both open but her left eye looks straight ahead while her right eyes looks around all over the place like she’s some kind of ultra distressed Ben Turpin... this is a charmingly unsettling scene, I might add. Or that moment when she stands up from the bed and starts floating across to the other side of the room. Of course, the 180 degree headspin moment is a dead give away as to how things are going with her. Yes, it’s not long before she’s vomiting green slime from her mouth and flicking it around at people while attacking them with her mind powers. It’s all in here.

All this and some lovely shot set ups too. Asides from Richard Johnson suddenly popping up in mirrors etc we have a scene where he’s watching Gabriele Lavia in a restaurant. Johnson’s on the inside, watching through the big glass doors and Lavia is on a balcony table. When he sees Johnson we cut to a shot of Johnson to the window in the right of the screen and the strong reflection of Lavia watching him back in the left of the screen. Cool stuff. Alas, not all of the best shots made it into the picture, it turns out... 

When I watched the trailer, after my friend recommended it to me, the absolutely amazing shot which sold the film to me was one where Lavia is walking in long shot towards the camera in a street in San Francisco (the exteriors were all shot by one director there while the interiors were shot by the other director in Rome... don’t ask me why). He is walking in the right hand quarter of the screen and the shot is split, clearly delineated by the lampposts and street signs which create a vertical to partition him off from the rest of the street. Then, at the end of the shot, as he approaches the vicinity of the camera view, he moves into the left of the frame to grab a newspaper. It’s wonderful but, alas, in the film itself, only the last little bit of the shot, where he crosses into the left, remains in the film. Which is a shame so, watch the trailer if you get a chance, it’s a fantastic piece of cinematography and frame design absent from the final cut.

The films also totally ‘brings the crazy’... as if all the demonic, supernatural tropes colliding wasn’t enough for you. There’s a scene where Robert takes a walk and a street guitarist starts playing the soundtrack of him walking, in a strange moment where the diegetic and non-diegetic exist simultaneously. Then, as the song Roberto’s Theme (which I’d already heard on the wonderful Easy Tempo Volume 4 compilation album) plays out as his soundtrack, various street musicians follow him and get in his face with their flutes and so on, harassing him with their cool and mellow vibes in about as threatening a manner as you can imagine a musician could and still play their instrument. It’s just totally bizarre and almost worth a watch just for that scene alone.

There are some nice referential nods too. I mean, goodness knows why, when her two children are sent away, their poster of choice on the walls is Andy Warhol’s soup can painting but, when they pack their bags they get tins of Campbell’s Pea Soup from the drawers... um, strange behaviour for children but a nice literal reference to The Exorcist at least. Warner Brothers must have thought so too because they sued the company for copying their film and got ‘an undisclosed sum’ for their trouble. Perhaps they could see the box office take because... and I really wasn’t expecting this... the film was a huge success in Italy and made a load of money. Indeed, Mario Bava’s Shock was also marketed as Beyond The Door II on occasion to get people in, even though it’s not an actual sequel (although I can see some thematic commonalities) and there was even a Beyond The Door III, which was similarly unconnected, from what I can make out.

And that’s me done on this one. Beyond The Door is a totally bonkers movie which I will try and foist upon my most unsuspecting friends when I get a chance. I’m really grateful for the recommendation on this one and I thought everything about it was just a little bit odd, off kilter or plain daft... which is a recipe for an interesting cinematic dish in my opinion. I'll definitely be watching this one again at some point... preferably when I can get the opportunity to inflict it on others.

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